New Paradigms Forum Proliferation Issues and Much More …


Transformative Leadership in Arms Control and Nonproliferation


This is the text of a Hudson Institute publication available from the Hudson website.

The Obama Administration may face great pressure quickly to adopt all the policy prescriptions of arms control and disarmament community activists who imagine he will be the answer to all their prayers. It should resist this pressure, however and undertake its own bottom-up review of strategic and arms control policy. If taken seriously in light of Obama’s cam paign promises, such a review would entail struggling with thorny significant challenges in the arena of disarmament policy. He should not be unwilling to question his most fundamental assumptions in this review.

The Obama Administration takes office faced with important choices about where to take United States strategic policy and how to handle grave nuclear proliferation threats.There will be great pressure upon the Administration to announce the full sweep of its policies very quickly.It may thus be tempting for the new team simply to adopt a laundry list of agenda priorities handed it by arms control and disarmament community activists who imagine that President Obama will answer their every prayer.The new Administration should resist this temptation, however.The world will forgive President Obama a bit of reflective delay; it should not forgive substantively poor choices on these matters.

Strategic Policy & Disarmament

The first thing the Obama Administration should do is undertake a thoroughgoing review of U.S. strategic policy.The new President said sympathetic things on the campaign trail about making the abolition of nuclear weapons a priority. On one level this was not news, for the Bush Administration repeatedly reaffirmed the United States’ enduring commitment to the goal of disarmament as articulated in the Preamble and Article VI of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, and continued America’s post-Cold War program of dramatic and often unilateral nuclear disarmament steps.

Perhaps Senator Obama meant merely that he wished to continue longstanding U.S. policy in this regard.But the arms control and disarmament community will demand more from President Obama. Before he says yes, he should do what his predecessor did upon entering the White House in 2001: review U.S. strategic policy and articulate a broad vision of where the United States should be going, and why.

The Bush reappraisal, exemplified by the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) of 2001, was the first really thoroughgoing effort to reassess the needs and direction of U.S. strategic planning since the end of the Cold War.So far, it remains the only one, for the Clinton Administration showed far less critical thinking in this regard.

For the arms control and disarmament communities, the end of the Cold War and the advent of a complex new era of proliferation threats—threats that have been accelerating even as (or conceivably, in part, because) steps undertaken by the main nuclear powers have brought global nuclear weapons stocks down to levels unseen since the 1950s—has occasioned shockingly little re-thinking of priorities or prescriptions.

Accordingly, if he is to live up to his campaign’s promises that he will be a “transformative” leader for an America determined to move beyond the ugly divisions of yesterday, President Obama should do a thorough new posture review of his own.

And he should not be shy about questioning established conventional thinking and policy prescriptions: not merely the Bush Administration’s structural assumptions and priorities (as one assumes he will), but also those of the arms control and disarmament activists who currently seem to expect the new President’s uncritical deference.

Such a review is of particular importance because despite the outgoing Administration’s efforts to bring order to things, the nuclear weapons policy of the United States has been one in which capabilities and missions are increasingly at a mismatch.The Bush Administration articulated a coherent view of nuclear policy in a world in which proliferation threats have replaced bipolar U.S.-Russian nuclear competition as the focus of strategic planning.In this new world, the order of the day for U.S. planners was to develop improved non-nuclear strategic capabilities, reduce our nuclear forces, deploy defenses effective against “entry-level” nuclear arsenals in the hands of proliferator regimes, and undertake a vigorous approach to nonproliferation and counterproliferation designed to make the proliferation and/or use of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) exceedingly unattractive and unrewarding. But any would-be “Bush Revolution” in strategic policy was only partly accomplished, in part thanks to Congressional opposition. We have therefore been left stranded between paradigms, and a serious review is needed.

What a serious Obama strategic reassessment would add to or subtract from the Bush agenda, of course, is hard to predict. The real questions facing the Obama Administration are fundamental, for the only serious way to make policy—and to be genuinely “transformational,” is to build approaches upon a clear and realistic strategic vision of a more secure America and a more stable and peaceful world.

Arms control agreements and disarmament measures ought to be merely tools in the service of such a vision, rather than ends in themselves.They are tools to be employed where, and only where, they advance these objectives. From President Obama’s review, and any such broader vision he is able to articulate, should flow his policy platform.

One of the most basic questions for the new Administration will be how serious the new President is about getting to “zero.”Talking about abolishing nuclear weapons is easy.Unless he contemplates a unilateral American elimination, however—something that would be problematic in its own right—President Obama will have to grapple with some extremely challenging problems.

If he is serious about “zero,” for instance, he will have to figure out how safely to traverse the terrain between today’s strategic environment and a nuclear weapons-free world.This terrain could be a very dangerous wilderness, for reductions of the U.S. and Russian arsenals would gradually make all other nuclear weapons possessors into their numerical peers and would create out of the comparatively simple bilateral deterrent dynamic during the Cold War a bafflingly complex environment of overlapping and mutually-interfering multi-player relationships.Such relationships, moreover, would be overlaid upon vastly more unstable political, cultural, geographic, and ideological fault lines than policymakers had to manage between Washington and Moscow during the Cold War.Exactly how stable such a world would actually be is anyone’s guess, except that there is a very good chance it will be very worrying indeed.

Furthermore, because getting so many players to “zero” would be so daunting a project—and the timing of such an achievement so uncertain—the United States would have to plan against the possibility that it would take a very long time.This could mean developing a force posture specifically tailored for the maintenance of a credible deterrent over many years at very low warhead numbers. It is by no means a given that our current forces could do this well.They were, after all, designed for a strategic environment that no longer exists, and what provides deterrence and stability at a level of 10,000 warheads in a bipolar trans-continental standoff will not necessarily provide either of these benefits at 1,000 or fewer warheads and in a world of multiple nuclear numerical peers jockeying for position against each other and potentially capable of shifting alliance combinations. (As U.S. numbers come down, by the way, the possibility of unfavorable alliance combinations of numerical near-peers would itself prove to be a formidable challenge for American strategic planners, and a potential obstacle to further reductions.)

It would be a happy coincidence indeed if inhabiting such a low-warhead environment for the many years it could take until “zero” might be achieved required no more than that we retain a miniature version of our Cold War nuclear force posture and nuclear doctrine.It is more likely, however, that in order to help ensure stability in a low-warhead environment—e.g., on the way to “zero”—we would discover a need for a different approach: a different mix of forces; perhaps different or in some fashion improved or modified delivery systems; and conceivably even different warheads.

The issue of warheads points to a peculiar problem.If by precluding new warhead development, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) made it more difficult to adapt our nuclear force posture to the needs of a very-low-warhead period of indefinite duration, the treaty would make it harder to reach the very world we would need to inhabit, safely and securely, en route to a nuclear “zero.”At present, the United States is the only nuclear weapons possessor that is not modernizing its nuclear forces in some fashion, presumably in part out of deference to the sensibilities of the arms control community.We should be wary, however, lest such deference perversely make it harder to keep reducing.

Furthermore, if President Obama is serious about “zero,” he will also have to figure out how to keep the world there, even though the very success of disarmament would vastly increase the incentive for countries to develop nuclear weapons by dangling in front of them the possibility, through regime “breakout,” of becoming the planet’s sole nuclear weapons possessor.This presents interesting paradoxes.

Given the heightened incentives for “breakout” that disarmament would itself create, a serious vision for disarmament would have to consider how to build deterrence into a disarmed world—such as, for instance, the idea of “countervailing reconstitution” (i.e., retaining the capability quickly to rebuild a nuclear arsenal in the face of another country’s cheating) suggested by the Bush Administration in 2007.

In light of their potential utility in blunting the initial impact of one country’s violation of a nuclear abolition agreement, moreover, it would be hard to imagine a stable weapons-free world that did not contain widespread and effective ballistic missile and other defenses.

Moreover, since it would be hard to imagine that a world facing the “breakout” incentives that disarmament would create would be sustainable at “zero” if the ability to produce fissile material usable in nuclear weapons were much more widely distributed than it is today, a serious disarmament vision may require a very hard-nosed approach to stopping the spread of uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing (a.k.a. “ENR”) technology.

Yet all three of these things are today anathema to the very arms control and dis- armament activists who today most hope that President Obama will lead the world toward “zero.”The first is a repudiation of the cherished disarmament ideal of “irreversibility,” the second would effectively endorse the Bush enthusiasm for missile defense and withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, and the third is a vindication of the United States’ controversial emphasis since 2004 upon barring the further spread of ENR.As these issues suggest, however, if the objective of abolition is to be taken seriously, a serious nuclear policy review may have to reassess elements of the arms control and disarmament agenda that in practical terms could tend to work against the broader vision of abolition.

Finally, because of the extraordinary uncertainties surrounding the world’s movement toward nuclear weapons abolition, any credible strategic review focusing upon disarmament would have to contemplate a fallback plan. It would have to consider how the United States can best live and operate, for the indefinite future, in a world in which nuclear weapons continue to exist.A review should be willing to evaluate the full range of possible nuclear futures, and it should be alive to the possibility that a world in which at least some weapons continue to exist might be more stable, secure, and sustainable than a weapons-free world with enormous “breakout” incentives and widely-distributed weapons-production capabilities (e.g., nuclear fuel-cycle technology).

President Obama must remember that the goal is not disarmament per se, but rather a more secure America and a safer and more stable global security environment.To the extent that disarmament contributes to this goal, it is a worthy objective. But in the event that “zero” proves either unworkable or unwise—or perhaps merely in the event that we cannot get there because others do not find the prospect as congenial as we might—we should not forget to have a fallback plan.We should not pretend that it is a foregone conclusion that every imaginable world containing at least some nuclear weapons must be more dangerous than every imaginable world without them. The United States’ approach to disarmament policy should flow from its security policy, not the other way around.  A wise and transformational leader would understand this, and would fix his eyes upon achieving the goal of security and stability, whether such achievement involves retaining nuclear weapons or eliminating them.


It should go without saying that any broad strategic vision of disarmament will be no more than a cruel joke unless the international community is able to prevent further nuclear weapons proliferation. More importantly, continued nuclear weapons proliferation risks profoundly destabilizing already-perilous regions of the world, increases the risk of nuclear warfare, and makes it more likely that terrorists will acquire nuclear weapons technology.

As it was for President Bush, nuclear weapons proliferation will present for President Obama a defining challenge of his leadership in the national security arena.  It is likely that he will have no choice but to pursue nonproliferation—and indeed counterproliferation—with great focus and energy.In this regard, the Obama Administration will need to use all the tools it can, and the architects of Washington’s new nonproliferation policy would be foolish to reject wholesale the various innovations pioneered by the Bush Administration. The tone and atmospherics of an Obama Administration will no doubt change from the Bush years.  The basic substance of American policy, however, neither should nor likely will change very much: proliferation is a profound challenge to U.S. security interests and must be resisted with great vigor.

That said, the ugly truth is that the United States is not winning today’s struggle against proliferation. Efforts during President Bush’s first term to change proliferators’ cost-benefit calculations through pressure collapsed under the timorousness of our erstwhile allies and—especially in light of the ongoing trauma of the Iraq War—the difficulty of presenting a credible “last resort” threat to the troublesome regimes we most needed to influence. The Bush Administration’s second-term conversion to a more traditional multilateralism and negotiation, however,has fared no better.

Today, Iran reportedly has enough low-enriched uranium (LEU) to make a nuclear weapon in very short order with help from the centrifuges it built in full view of the international community.  Moreover, North Korea’s nuclear weapons defiance continues while Pyongyang awaits what it assumes will be further negotiating concessions from President Obama.  Meanwhile, Russia and China demonstrate their ongoing non-commitment to nonproliferation—and one of the structural weaknesses of multilateralism—by sheltering these regimes from further Security Council measures, while some of the very Europeans trying to elicit an Iranian enrichment “suspension” continue to support Tehran as major trading partners.

Sadly, it is perhaps time for the United States to begin overtly planning for how to live—and to preserve as much as possible of a superpower’s political and military freedom of action—in a world in which more regimes such as Iran and North Korea acquire nuclear weapons.  Such planning is presumably to some extent underway already, but in private.What may be needed now is for such work to emerge into public view, and for America to build a declaratory policy and deterrent strategy around it.  President Obama may thus need to decide how we intend to secure U.S. national interests—and how we ensure that American military power remains capable of continuing to underwrite global security—in a world in which nonproliferation efforts have failed to prevent the spread of nuclear weaponry to regimes such as Iran and North Korea.

While in no way lessening our commitment to nonproliferation or conceding victory to any proliferator, it is time for the admixture of an explicit and overt aspect of proliferation preparedness in global security strategy—not simply for the United States, but for our friends and allies as well.  Indeed, this may be one of the few remaining chances we have to prevent a dramatic acceleration of proliferation in the first place. The capabilities that would serve this purpose would also help make the emergence of such a grim world less likely in the first place, by minimizing the strategic benefits the proliferators hope to gain from developing nuclear weapons (e.g., in terms of their anticipated ability to deter us) and thereby making proliferation less attractive.By preparing for proliferation, in other words, we may actually be able to make it less likely, even while we make ourselves more able to cope with it if our nonproliferation efforts fail—which of course they might.

Such an approach would combine what the United States has already been trying to do in fighting proliferation with new elements.The new (or at least newly overt) elements of a strategy of proliferation preparedness would revolve around developing capabilities to maximize the United States’ ability to retain a superpower’s freedom of action in a proliferated world.Far from capitulating to proliferators’ desire to deter us, however, this approach would aim to preserve our room to maneuver as much as possible, notwithstanding efforts by such regimes to acquire WMD-based deterrent advantages. It would seek, in other words, to keep U.S. conventional military might as usable as possible in a more proliferated world.

This would be an “asymmetric” strategy, for in the same sense that proliferators may seek in part to use WMD asymmetrically in the face of U.S. conventional military power, so indeed would non-nuclear U.S. capabilities be tailored specifically to the task of making WMD seem less attractive by making our non-nuclear power less “deterrable” by small-scale, “entry-level” WMD capabilities.  This might include any number of measures, including most obviously ballistic missile defenses and defenses against other forms of WMD delivery, which should be aggressively pursued both for the homeland and in a form deployable overseas to protect U.S. bases and expeditionary forces, allies, friends, and (in effect) bystanders in time of conflict.  In order to make themselves a “hard target” for a would-be proliferators, U.S. forces should also improve their ability to: conduct expeditionary combat operations in a chemical, biological, radiological, and/or nuclear (CBRN) environment; locate, secure, and neutralize WMD technology and materials in the field; and deploy robust consequence management capabilities to assist both with containing CBRN events and in helping regional allies prepare themselves for potential WMD attacks.

We might even need to resurrect the idea of civil defense—which in the face of small-scale proliferator threats would by no means be as gloomily pointless an exercise as civil defense efforts were perceived to be during the Cold War in the face of potential multi-megaton Soviet strategic bombardment. To some extent, the threat of WMD terrorism has already driven our domestic first-responders and consequence management infrastructure a good way down this road. We should make a virtue out of this necessity, and scale our preparedness efforts with potential attack from proliferator states in mind.

Coupled with a clear public diplomacy strategy, such steps would aim to persuade would-be proliferators that even if they were to succeed in acquiring WMD, this would do them less and less good.By ourselves thus openly “thinking the unthinkable” about potential conflicts in a proliferated world, we might hope both to make such a world less likely and to mitigate somewhat the consequences in the event that it arrives nonetheless.


An agenda that includes a serious commitment both to the possibility of a nuclear “zero” and to this sort of forward-leaning proliferation preparedness strategy would be a bold and transformational program indeed.  It might, in fact, be too bold.  It would certainly be easier, require less mental and programmatic effort, cost less money, and entail fewer political risks for the new President simply to adopt the longstanding agenda of the arms control and disarmament communities wholesale.Such an approach could be done, in effect, on conceptual “auto-pilot”: submit the CTBT for ratification; pretend that a Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty can and must be effectively verifiable; abandon ballistic missile defenses (BMD) in Europe and slow down BMD at home just as Iran gets enough uranium for a nuclear weapon and is testing new ballistic missiles; and ostentatiously emphasize diplomatic flexibility even though it has brought the Bush Administration no success with Iran and North Korea during its multilateralist second term.

The uncritical adoption of the conventional wisdom of the arms control and disarmament communities would thus be quite easy, but would be wrong.  America, and humanity, deserve better from United States strategic policy.

This returns us to where we began: with the importance of the Obama Administration undertaking a bottom-up review of its strategic policy.  Fresh thinking is necessary, and alone can provide the sort of foundation upon which new approaches can be built, and from which genuinely innovative and constructive policies will flow.  It is time for the Left to catch up with the Right in trying to come to grips with the twenty-first century.  Genuinely transformative and visionary leadership requires nothing less.

-- Christopher Ford


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