New Paradigms Forum Proliferation Issues and Much More …


Same Planet, Different Worlds? The U.S. Nuclear Consensus and the Diplomatic Conventional Wisdom


Below is the written version of remarks Ford gave on October 21, 2009, to a Congressional workshop, sponsored by Hudson Institute, on the report of the Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States.

Good morning, and thank you for the chance to be part of this briefing.  I haven’t had a chance to return to the Hill very often since I stopped being a Senate committee staffer myself, so it’s a special pleasure to be here.

The Strategic Posture Review Commission has made an important contribution to ongoing debates in U.S. policy circles about the role and future of nuclear weaponry.  For better or worse, however, Americans are not the only ones who have opinions about what American nuclear policy should be.  Accordingly, I thought it would be useful today to discuss the Commission’s findings through the lens of how they resemble, or differ from, the conclusions of many of my former diplomatic counterparts in multilateral fora such as the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) review process and the U.N. Conference on Disarmament (CD) in Geneva.

I.      A Tale of Two Perspectives

I have sometimes heard the Commission Report (“the Report”) criticized, in U.S. policy circles, both for allegedly reaching only a vague and soggy lowest-common-denominator consensus on most points and for its largely partisan division over the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).  I think such criticisms are unfair, however, and I throw my lot in with those observers who think the Commissioners did a very good job in wrestling with enormously complex and contentious issues.  To my eye, the most interesting thing about the Report is actually its degree of clarity and the relative robustness of its conclusions.

The Commission’s mandate was to discover and articulate such consensus positions as could be had on issues relating to America’s strategic posture – including the appropriate role for nuclear weapons, arms control initiatives, and nonproliferation programs.  On almost all issues, it did so.  It is true that on one or two points the Commissioners could not agree upon consensus language.  Given ongoing divisions in the U.S. policy community, it is also hardly surprising that agreed phrasings on other points are sometimes less direct and emphatic, in one respect or another, than most Commissioners would probably have written individually.  Perhaps this is why veterans of America’s domestic wars over nuclear policy apparently sometimes find the Report a bit frustrating.

From the perspective of someone who has spent a lot of time engaged in international debates over nonproliferation, arms control, and disarmament in NPT meetings and at the CD, however, the most striking thing about the Report is how strong and clear it is – and how greatly it diverges from much of the conventional wisdom of the diplomatic community that deals with these issues beyond our borders.  What has intrigued me most is the degree to which the Report does appear to represent a consensus position with the U.S. policy community, and the degree to which this consensus looks quite unlike the views of most of my former diplomatic counterparts in such multilateral institutions.

II.       Nuclear Disarmament

Most obviously, in such fora, the United States is endlessly urged to dismiss nuclear weapons as fundamentally illegitimate and militarily useless, to move emphatically and quickly toward their abolition, and in these respects not just to make better progress but also to lead the way – taking a vanguard role, even in advance of movement by others, in order to set the moral and political example that we are told will be necessary to catalyze global success.  Yet one hears essentially nothing like this from the bipartisan U.S. policy consensus set forth in the Report.

To be sure, the Report does urge continuing reductions, both in the number of U.S. nuclear weapons and in our reliance upon them, and it recommends reaffirmation of our commitment to the disarmament goals articulated in Article VI of the NPT.  Nevertheless, it also emphasizes that nuclear weapons are not going away any time soon, and sounds rather skeptical that this will ever be possible.  Until any such abolition, moreover, the Report stresses the importance of preserving nuclear deterrence, including our use of nuclear capabilities to provide security to friends and allies.  The Commissioners clearly view nuclear weapons as having a continuing and entirely legitimate role in supporting “a very broad set of [U.S.] objectives” – including “discourag[ing] unwelcome competition while encouraging strategic cooperation” and contributing to general “assurance” goals vis-à-vis allies – that apparently go beyond simply deterring strategic nuclear attack.

The Report uses strong language on these points, and such phrasing reflects a deep conceptual divergence from the conventional wisdom of much of the foreign arms control community.  In multilateral fora, disarmament is usually approached as a sort of box-checking exercise, in which assessment of progress toward the goal is reduced to a crudely mechanical question of how far the international community has been able to work its way down a pre-established laundry list of enumerated arms conventions or other international agreements that most participants believe are essential.  I do not mean to suggest that there is anything intrinsically wrong with such instruments, of course, and I wish to emphasize, for the record, that treaty instruments can be powerfully constructive means of controlling risks to international peace and security.  All the same, it has long surprised and disappointed me that there is such little interest, in multilateral circles, in doing more than mandating desired outcomes as a matter of treaty law.  The idea that achieving disarmament also involves struggling with deep and complicated questions of the world’s security and political relationships receives shockingly little attention.

When U.S. diplomats – and none more than myself – tried very hard in NPT meetings and at the CD in 2007 and 2008 to encourage broad debate on the issue of what global conditions would be necessary in order to make “zero” a feasible and compelling policy choice for today’s weapons possessors, for example, the silence was deafening.  Almost literally without exception, this was not a dialogue anyone wished to have.  Talk of the need to create certain “conditions” was interpreted to mean that the U.S. wanted to impose “preconditions,” setting up some future potential escape route from disarmament commitments.  Such implicit questioning of the axiomatic imperative of prompt nuclear weapons abolition was anathema.  (Furthermore, when French officials had the audacity to point out that the NPT itself envisions nuclear disarmament only in the context of “general and complete disarmament,” howls of anger arose at what was seen as France’s insistence that it would not abandon its force de frappe until the world’s last steak knife were being pounded into a spoon.)  In multilateral fora, talk of the substantive complexity of the disarmament challenge is frequently interpreted as a dangerous distraction from the moral inevitability of the items on the legal laundry list, and indeed as opposition to the principle of disarmament itself.

The Report suffers from no such squeamishness about admitting the difficulty of the challenge, however, and the Commissioners’ understanding of the difficulty of disarmament underlies their distinctly cautious, even skeptical, approach to the goal of nuclear weapons abolition.  The Report calls forthrightly for work to “create the conditions that might enable nuclear disarmament in the context of general and complete disarmament.”  It also observes somewhat pointedly that “the conditions that might make the elimination of nuclear weapons possible are not present today, and establishing such conditions would require a fundamental transformation of the world political order.”  The Commissioners offer no assessment of the likelihood of such a “fundamental transformation,” or of the timetable on which we might expect it, but even to make this point suggests that, at the very least, they anticipate nothing soon.  The Report stresses that we must retain nuclear weapons until such time as these conditions do exist.

In fact, according to the Report, the United States should not even lead the way alone.  Our nuclear forces must not be permitted to become “inferior” to those of any other nuclear power, and we should “retain a large enough force of nuclear weapons” that China will not be “tempted to try to reach a posture of strategic equivalency with the United States or strategic supremacy in the Asian theater.”  (The point of final U.S. weapon elimination, moreover, should be only at the point when this occurs “globally.”)  Perhaps such phrasing seems laconically commonsensical in the context of domestic U.S. nuclear policy debate, but it is powerfully candid stuff in the context of multilateral arms control diplomacy.  The Report has been assailed from the arms control left for its “deeply disappointing failure of imagination,” but my guess is that the disarmament advocacy community ignores the Commission’s hard-headed skepticism at its peril.

III.       Nuclear Force Modernization

Nor does the Report just thus endorse the continued utility, and indeed the importance, of nuclear weaponry for the foreseeable future.  It also speaks approvingly of U.S. nuclear “modernization.”  On one level, this is hardly surprising, and perhaps shouldn’t be particularly controversial in multilateral circles.  After all, one doesn’t hear disarmament advocates complaining much about the ongoing modernization of strategic delivery systems by both Russia and China, nor even about revelations – contained in this very Report, in fact – that Russia seems to be (and China may be) conducting secret low-level nuclear tests as part of an ongoing campaign of new nuclear weapons development.  The issue specifically of American modernization, however, is hugely incendiary in multilateral circles.  We may be the only nuclear weapons possessor on the planet not to be undertaking some such modernization, but any suggestion that we should join the others in this regard elicits angry diplomatic fireworks.

Yet the Report speaks quite openly about the need to preserve the right to modernize our nuclear forces.  Indeed, it indicates that some such work is necessary to ensure the continued validity of our deterrent – that is, to maintain its “credibility” as well as to ensure the safety, security, and controllability of U.S. nuclear forces.  The Commissioners seem to believe that our nuclear force mix cannot simply be fixed in place and merely miniaturized or expanded over time according to how threatening the world seems.  Instead, as long as we have any nuclear weapons, a credible force posture must be tailored to the changing threat environment on an ongoing basis.  As the Report puts it, “[t]he United States should adapt its strategic posture to the evolving requirements of deterrence, extended deterrence, and assurance.”

To this end, the Report recommends what it calls “modernization within limits.”  It does not endorse a return to underground nuclear testing, any further production of fissile material for nuclear weapons, or even the development of nuclear weapons with new military characteristics.  To the contrary, it urges the continuation of such restrictions on modernization.  Within these limits, however, modernization is declared to be essential – not least to preserving the nonproliferation benefits of the extended nuclear deterrence we provide to our friends and allies (i.e., preventing them from deciding to pursue nuclear weapons themselves).

The Report doesn’t spell out all of what the need for ongoing “modernization” might mean.  Nevertheless, it clearly envisions that we should handle continuing – and apparently accumulating – worries about warhead reliability through the refurbishment of existing devices and perhaps even the development of new weapons, provided that no new military capabilities are added.  (The Commissioners recommend that we keep two warhead types available for each delivery system, as a hedge against the discovery of problems in any one design as its materials and components age.)  The Report also calls for continued improvements in our nuclear weapons development and production complex, endorsing the Department of Energy’s existing plans in this respect, and noting that these efforts deserve more funding.

Delivery system modernization – of the sort that all other weapons possessors are undertaking – is not really discussed, but the Commissioners do not seem opposed to it.  Indeed, they complain that the productive infrastructure that supports our various land- and sea-based ballistic missiles, together constituting two-thirds of our strategic Triad, is not currently being maintained, and they would clearly like to see more being done in this regard.  The Report also notes that U.S. forces should be structured so as to limit our anticipated damage from an attacker if war does begin, which means not just pursuing defenses but also ensuring our ability to attack enemy forces that have not been launched.  Our delivery systems should evolve over time, it would appear, along with the anticipated target set.

IV.       Divergent Perspectives

Even without getting into the Commissioners’ emphasis upon preserving U.S. flexibility with respect to developing missile defenses and non-nuclear strategic strike capabilities – or the Commissioners’ acknowledgment that some of the disarmament “steps” endorsed in the Final Document of the 2000 NPT Review Conference are “outdated” – it is remarkable the degree to which the bipartisan U.S. policy consensus represented in the Report sounds very little like the nuclear policy views one usually hears in multilateral fora.  Even in the Age of Obama, the U.S. policy consensus on nuclear weapons diverges in critical ways from what much of the international community of arms control diplomats wishes to see from us.  We inhabit the same planet, but it appears that we exist in different worlds.

I would venture to suggest, moreover, that this fundamental divergence in paradigm-level assumptions – in deep views about the role of nuclear weapons in the world and the political and security dynamics that surround such weaponry – is a broader one.  It is not just a question of a mismatch between the conventional wisdom of a dovish international arms control community and hawkish American policymakers, but in fact of a wide divergence between that conventional wisdom and the policymaking center of gravity in essentially all nuclear weapons possessing states.  America, in other words, is no outlier.

With the exception of Russia – whose officials trumpet the centrality of nuclear weapons to their military planning, openly contemplate nuclear responses to purely conventional attacks, and have recently publicly reserved the option of “preventative” nuclear strikes – the positions of other admitted or presumed nuclear weapons possessors on these issues are not loudly offered in public.  Nevertheless, one can infer much from their actions.  Russia and China, for instance, are modernizing steadily; India and China are deploying an entire new class of ballistic missile submarine; a new class of French submarines is already in service; Russia and possibly China are developing new nuclear weapons, perhaps in part through the use of secret low-yield tests; China, India, and Pakistan are increasing the size of their arsenals; North Korea has just tested another nuclear device, as well as lots of missiles; and Israel is rumored to be developing a submarine-launched cruise missile capability.  Even the ostentatiously pro-disarmament British are starting to build a new class of submarine to fire Trident ballistic missiles that may end up being topped with new British warheads.

Every weapons possessor, in fact, also seems in some fashion to hold out the possibility of using nuclear weapons in response to non-nuclear attack – at the very least with regard to attacks using biological or chemical weapons, but in most cases also including overwhelming attack with entirely conventional munitions.  In making this observation, furthermore, I do not even exclude China, where official comments and doctrinal writings apparently make Beijing’s vaunted nuclear “no first use” policy sound decidedly “conditional,” and hold open the possibility of nuclear use in response to conventional attacks.

The perspectives of nuclear weapons possessors and the perspectives of the diplomatic community that deals with arms control issues are therefore strikingly out of step with each other.  For purposes of my comments here today, there is no need to put normative value on this divergence.  One could, of course, interpret things in various ways.  Perhaps the weapons possessors are dangerously out of touch with the reality of what is needed to ensure the future of humanity through rapid nuclear disarmament.  Alternatively, it may be that the conventional wisdom of the arms control diplomats is hopelessly naïve, and incapable of sustaining serious movement even toward its own goals without a massive injection of skeptical realism and weapons-state common sense.   Whatever the conclusion, I think it is important to emphasize the fact that such divergences exist – for they will surely have significance for our foreign policymaking in the months and years ahead.

V.        Nonproliferation: Still Room for Convergence

But I don’t want to leave you with the impression that the field of nuclear weapons policy is characterized by nothing but divergence.  Significantly, the Report’s conclusions also suggest that there are important areas of very promising potential agreement – if not perhaps universally, then at least with a great many international partners.  I am not sure that the international community will eagerly embrace the Commissioners’ sensible recommendation that support for international nuclear energy cooperation be accompanied by policies to limit access to uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing technology “to the maximum extent possible.”  That aid, however, there are many areas where constructive convergences of interest indeed seem likely.

The Report, for example, recommends strengthening the international community’s ability – and in particular that of the U.N. Security Council – to handle NPT noncompliance, correctly identifying compliance enforcement as the regime’s Achilles heel.  (The failure of nonproliferation compliance enforcement, I would add, is probably also the greatest single threat to the international disarmament agenda – as even the Obama Administration seems to recognize.)  The Commissioners also recommend a vigorous program to strengthen the nonproliferation regime in advance of the 2015 NPT Review Conference, and urge more support for innovative cooperative efforts such as the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) to interdict WMD-related shipments and the Global Initiative to Combat WMD Terrorism.  The Report applauds the Security Council’s decision, in Resolution 1540, to require that all countries secure WMD-related materials against terrorist exploitation, and it urges the United States to take the lead in encouraging and assisting other countries’ implementation of Resolution 1540.

Additionally, the Commissioners voice their support for the prompt achievement of a Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty (FMCT), noting – in phrasing that bridges differences between the Obama Administration and its predecessor – that we should “explore” the possibility of having an FMCT with strong verification mechanisms.  The Report also calls for vigorous U.S. research and development work on improved methods and technologies for verifying compliance with arms control, nonproliferation, and disarmament agreements.  And it takes a strong position in favor of a robust program rapidly to secure fissile materials worldwide against the threat of nuclear terrorism – that is, it urges the effective globalization of the Cooperative Threat Reduction programs undertaken for years in the countries of the Former Soviet Union, as President Obama and the recent U.N. Security Council Resolution 1887 have also endorsed.

On all of these issues, I think there is considerable overlap between the Report’s conclusions and the views of many of our multilateral partners.  This overlap is not complete, but it is considerable.  Accordingly, I think one very obvious conclusion from the Report is that expanding partnerships and securing improved international cooperation in these areas of nonproliferation policy should clearly be a major diplomatic priority.

-- Christopher Ford


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