New Paradigms Forum Proliferation Issues and Much More …


After the Security Summit and the RevCon: What Next?


This is the written version of remarks presented on April 29, 2010, to the Congressional Nuclear Security Caucus on Capitol Hill.

Good afternoon, and thank you to the Congressional Nuclear Security Caucus – and especially Representatives Jeff Fortenberry and Adam Schiff – for inviting me.

The first few months of 2010 seem indeed to be a sort of “nuclear spring,” with all manner of important items on the national dance card: a long-awaited and much-delayed new strategic arms treaty with Russia, a similarly awaited and delayed Obama Administration Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), the Nuclear Security Summit (NSS), and – coming up next week – the latest Review Conference (RevCon) for the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT).  There has been much activity, a great many headlines, and plenty of work for commentators like me.  The bigger question, however, is where all this is taking us.

I don’t want to take too much of your time before getting to questions and discussion – which is always more fun than just talking – but I’d like to say a few words about where we should perhaps be aiming U.S. policy after the dust settles this spring, particularly with respect to controlling nuclear materials and coping with challenges to the nonproliferation regime.

I.          Nuclear Security

My own take on the enormous Nuclear Security Summit (NSS) held in Washington earlier this month is that it represented a decent effort to move forward on securing vulnerable nuclear materials and reducing the risk of nuclear terrorism – an agenda item that is important to U.S. and global security, and which has been a high priority for U.S. administrations for many years.  I was not overawed by the Summit either in theory or in execution, however.  I would myself have preferred to see our diplomats spend their time twisting arms around the world to elicit concrete contributions to the U.S.-led campaign to secure vulnerable materials worldwide, rather than burning so much increasingly scarce U.S. political capital on a flashy publicity event in Washington – at the end of which delegations simply return home after making more vague promises that they’ll do better in handling these matters essentially on their own.

The NSS, however – and the follow-up meeting in South Korea that seems now to be being planned – may yet catalyze not only improvements in countries’ own performance, but better cooperation with longstanding and ongoing U.S. efforts.  I hope so, and the event may well end up being judged a substantive success in addition to merely a high-profile media splash.

In terms of next steps, however, I would make a few suggestions.  First, while we should wring what cooperation we can out of countries’ agreement upon the general “work plan” agreed at the Summit, we should not forget to hold foreign leaders’ feet to the fire with regard to the commitments they had already undertaken, and indeed the legal obligations to which they were already subject, when it comes to preventing non-state actors from gaining access to nuclear weapons capabilities.

To ensure that the high-level political goings-on of the NSS don’t suck all the oxygen out of the international political environment and distract from other, better-established initiatives, for example, the United States should redouble efforts to build support for, and ensure implementation of, the statement of principles of the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism (GICNT) – which already has a membership of at least 77 countries.  GICNT focuses on concrete operational-level cooperation, and its principles form a work program ranging from information-sharing to physical protection, and from law enforcement and regulatory authorities to nuclear forensics.

We should also step up our work to ensure full implementation of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1540, and for helping those who need assistance in meeting its strictures.  Resolution 1540 is far more than an airy political commitment: it imposes a binding legal obligation on all U.N. member states to take specific steps in to prevent non-state actors from acquiring weapons of mass destruction (WMD) technology.  It requires all states to adopt and enforce laws to prohibit such activity, establish effective internal and export controls to prevent WMD proliferation, secure relevant items in transport or storage, augment border controls and law enforcement, sensors, end-user controls, and appropriate penalties for violations of export control rules.  In theory, countries report their progress in implementation of these requirements to the United Nations; in theory, wealthier and more experienced countries are working to help others overcome difficulties in this implementation.  We should do more to ensure that this theory is turned into effective practice.

Whether or not much more progress is made on these fronts, however – or simply whether and how countries implement the new set of political promises made at the Summit – will likely hinge less upon anything that happened under the klieg lights here in Washington than upon whether the Obama Administration is willing and able to devote sufficient political capital to keeping the pressure on for results in the months and years ahead.  I hope that officials in Washington will still remain committed to this nuclear security agenda when the glare of media attention has faded and it is time to buckle down for the painstaking, time-consuming, and difficult work of eliciting foreign commitments of resources and attention amidst many competing priorities.

Congress can help in this respect.  Through the Cooperative Threat Reduction program and other such initiatives, Congress has provided billions of dollars over the years for nuclear control work overseas – initially in the former Soviet Union, and subsequently expanding increasingly onto a global stage.  These U.S.-funded efforts have mainly been undertaken by U.S. experts.  Especially in a time of ruinous federal deficits at home, however, it will be hard to keep doing all this alone.  But if all those heads of state are willing to proclaim the importance of combating what President Obama’s NPR called “today’s most immediate and extreme danger,” they ought to be able to start pulling their weight and helping us bear the burden in this vital endeavor.  If the Obama Administration is serious about securing all vulnerable nuclear material everywhere in just three or four years, we’ll need real support – and not just political promises – from lots of partners.  As the institution that may be asked to provide whatever money other countries do not, Congress has an incentive to keep after the White House to ensure proper post-Summit follow-through with foreign partners.

Second, I would urge officials in Washington not to forget that although the consequences of a terrorist nuclear weapons attack would be more horrific, the likelihood of a terrorist attack using a radiological dispersal device (RDD) is probably far greater.  Such so-called “dirty bombs” are a very real threat, and one should not underestimate their ability to kill people and to sow large-scale panic, crippling and depopulating urban areas.  Dirty bombs were apparently deliberately left off the NSS agenda, but if one really wishes to prevent terrorist nuclear threats, ignoring RDDs is hard to justify.  As the Administration comes to Congress for more money and legal authority to pursue nuclear materials controls – as it must if the current effort is to be at all serious – legislators will have a chance to address the White House’s apparent lack of concern about dirty bombs.

Third, I think Congress can play an important role in goading U.S. officials to help address another problem: the proliferation of dual-use nuclear technology, particularly the means to produce fissile material that could be used in nuclear weapons.  This challenge is in some ways, the Achilles Heel of the nuclear materials control agenda.  It is vital to secure vulnerable material and technology from exploitation by terrorists, but unless we can somehow address the ever-increasing quantities of material out there, and control the spread of the ability to make still more, the Summit’s agenda of controlling vulnerable material could prove an endless, losing battle.

One comparatively easy way in which Congress could start helping cope with this issue is to articulate clear positions about what the NPT does – and does not – actually mean.  It is widely asserted that Article IV of the Treaty gives every country the legal “right” to develop any nuclear technology it wants, irrespective of proliferation risk.  (Iran even claims that Article IV makes nuclear export controls illegal, a violation of countries’ “inalienable right” to nuclear technology development.)

This interpretation, if accepted, would open the door to the unchecked spread of fissile material production capabilities, with every country that wants them thus securing for itself a position as a “virtual” nuclear weapons state just a quick sprint away from weaponization. Yet neither the U.S. Government nor any other otherwise nonproliferation-minded government has to date articulated a clear rebuttal of the pernicious interpretations being advanced by Iran and its apologists.  I saw a Reuters piece this morning indicating that Iran’s President Ahmadinejad intends to attend next month’s NPT RevCon in part precisely to propagandize in support of this notion, but we still stay silent.

At a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing last week, several members on both sides of the aisle spoke out strongly about this important issue of Article IV interpretation.  Congress seems to be ahead of the Obama Administration in focusing upon this point, and I would urge you to keep up this lead – and to use the legislative “bully pulpit” to help do the job the Executive Branch still refuses to do in establishing a clear rebutting counter-narrative to Iran’s Article IV pitch.

II.          The NPT

Let me wrap up by speculating a bit about what may need to come after the NPT RevCon – especially if that meeting fails to demonstrate any particular likelihood of real progress in addressing the grave crisis of nonproliferation noncompliance facing the regime on account of the nuclear provocations of North Korea and (especially) Iran.

Let’s play devil’s advocate, and assume for the sake of argument both that Defense Secretary Gates is right that the Obama Administration lacks a viable plan to deal with Iranian nuclear developments and that Iran’s current leaders will follow the North Korean playbook and proceed into weaponization without being stopped or replaced.  By developing nuclear weapons, Iran would make itself the focus of unfavorable international attention – and perhaps even finally the kind of “crippling” pressures the Obama Administration has so far impotently promised.

But let me emphasize that the game at that point would not just be about Iran.  Addressing the specific Iranian threat would be critical, but it would be only half the battle.  The other half would be trying to salvage the battered framework of an NPT regime that Iranian weapons development would leave in its wake.  Congress, I think, would have an important role to play in ensuring that our policymakers don’t focus upon the immediate Iranian crisis at hand at the expense of the bigger picture.

In this regard, as I have said elsewhere, we must remember that the proliferation-deterring messages we direct at the future are not just something to send in anticipation of proliferation to a problem state.  They no less important – and conceivably are even more so – should the international community fail to prevent proliferation in some particular case.  Let’s take Iran as an example: if it manages to get nuclear weapons, in addition to addressing its threat directly, we must work terribly hard to limit the moral hazard problems that Tehran’s example would create.  We cannot afford for other would-be proliferators to come to see Iran as a success story – a regime that “immunized” itself against the most dramatic forms of outside pressure and laid the groundwork for its own regional hegemony by breaking every law in the book and defying a powerless international community in developing nuclear weapons.  To send such message of success would be to consign the NPT to oblivion.

But the NPT does not have to collapse if Iran gets nuclear weapons.  It may have a chance to survive, and still to contribute powerfully to global security, if we can make sure that Iran’s example teaches others a different lesson.  Even if Iran acquires nuclear weapons – or perhaps especially then – the Iranian example must, on the whole, be made to appear a record of failure: a series of brutishly imbecilic choices by a regime which may have gained nuclear weapons, but that was able to do so only at the cost of devastating economic marginalization, pariah-state political and cultural isolation, the provocation of countervailing military relationships among its alarmed neighbors (and between them and outside powers), and potentially more.  From the perspective of deterring future proliferation, the most important time to prove that the development of nuclear weapons will be prohibitively unattractive is right after a country has shown that such development is possible notwithstanding our best efforts to forestall it.  Otherwise, Iran’s example will be a beacon to others, proclaiming: “Look, it can be done, and painlessly!”

So how could we make nuclear weapons development unattractive to others even if Iran has blazed a path to getting them from within the NPT?  One way is to create conditions in which such weapons will not well serve the purposes for which such regimes probably seek them – namely, for strutting self-importantly on the world stage, intimidating their neighbors, and deterring outside military intervention the threat of which might otherwise have helped hold extreme misbehavior in check.  If we can vitiate or at least attenuate the proliferators’ anticipated gains from possession, we may be able to persuade them that such minimal gains will not be worth the costs attendant to taking this step.

To this end, Congress should give thought to how to ensure that the U.S. military is properly trained and equipped to fight and prevail in asymmetric conflicts against distant opponents that possess “entry-level” nuclear arsenals.  The idea is to make nuclear weapons development more unattractive for future would-be proliferators by enhancing our ability to cope – in non-nuclear ways – with the specifically nuclear threats with which they intend to confront us.  By lessening the degree to which our operations would be “deterrable” by small nuclear arsenals, we might thus help attenuate the strategic advantage that proliferators may hope to gain.  This might be done by:

•     Improving both our own and our allies’ defenses against proliferators’ anticipated means of nuclear weapon delivery, on both a strategic and a regional level;

•     Improving our ability to conduct expeditionary military operations in a radiological environment;

•     Honing our ability to conduct precision strikes on short notice, and at global range, on the basis of superlative real-time targeting intelligence;

•     Building consequence management capabilities to better prepare our forces – as well as allied governments and deployed expeditionary forces – for the horrors of a nuclear detonation in the field; and

•     Augmenting our own ability to cope with domestic nuclear consequence management.

Through such means, we might hope to undercut the proliferators’ ability to count upon our being frightened off by an entry-level nuclear arsenal, thus making the pursuit of such a capability both more pointless and more dangerous for rogue regimes – and nonproliferation compliance therefore both more attractive and more common.  For proliferators that have already acquired nuclear weapons, such improved capabilities will help us continue to keep potential aggression in check, denying them the full measure of nuclear-empowered “immunity” that they may seek.  For proliferators that have not yet crossed the line into weaponization, moreover, such measures would make proliferation all the riskier – and thus hopefully all the less attractive.

This is a fairly hard-nosed vision of proliferation deterrence, designed to help slow and ideally halt the spread of capabilities in an environment in which high-minded proclamations, universal treaty obligations, appeals to shared values, and well-meaning diplomacy have proven inadequate.  It is not a particularly “diplomatic” vision, nor the sort of thing of which it is considered good manners to speak, especially on the eve of a big multilateral conference.  At some point, however, it may become a vision to which we will need increasingly to repair in order to provide a realpolitik foundation for continuing multilateral diplomatic engagement.

-- Christopher Ford


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