New Paradigms Forum Proliferation Issues and Much More …


Tomorrow’s Disarmament Debates


These remarks were presented to a side event at the 2010 Review Conference of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons at the United Nations on May 18, 2010, organized by Hudson Institute (which was an accredited NGO at the Conference).  The subject for discussion was “Whither Nuclear Weapons?”

"The States concluding this Treaty, … [d]esir[e] to further the easing of international tension and the strengthening of trust between States in order to facilitate the cessation of the manufacture of nuclear weapons, the liquidation of all their existing stockpiles, and the elimination from national arsenals of nuclear weapons and the means of their delivery pursuant to a Treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control …."

– from the Preamble, Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons(July 1, 1968; entered into force March 5, 1970)

Embracing the ideology that the NPT consists of “three pillars” – nonproliferation, disarmament, and peaceful uses – all of which must be “balanced” and thus implicitly traded off one against the other, U.S. diplomats have come to the Review Conference hoping to help turn the political tide against proliferation by adopting a more ostentatious and forward-leaning disarmament posture.  The idea is that improved nonproliferation cooperation can in effect be purchased by showing more disarmament “credibility.”

This is not an idea entirely of their own invention, for U.S. officials have been told this for years by many foreign counterparts.  This theory is now, however, official U.S. policy. The new, more restrictive nuclear declaratory policy articulated in the Obama Administration’s 2010 Nuclear Posture Review, for instance, was a concession to foreign sensibilities expressly described as having been “intended … to persuade non-nuclear weapon states … adopt effective measures to strengthen the non-proliferation regime.”

I.            The Commoditization of Nonproliferation

It is not clear that such concessions will have the intended result.  Even assuming that the currency of disarmament “progress” can purchase meaningful nonproliferation cooperation in the first place, it may not serve the cause of nonproliferation to condone the effective creation of a marketplace for nonproliferation cooperation.  During the NPT’s negotiation, it was frequently observed that stopping the spread of nuclear weapons was in the security interest of all States Party, perhaps the non-weapons states most of all.  The Treaty itself, to judge from the language in its Preamble about the risk that proliferation will lead to nuclear war and invoking U.N. General Assembly resolutions “on the prevention of wider dissemination of nuclear weapons,” was built upon this foundation.

Unfortunately, this understanding of shared interest has long since faded.  Under today’s dominant “three pillars” theory, too much emphasis on nonproliferation will “unbalance” the Treaty.  We are now told that one can only expect nonproliferation to be pursued vigorously if commensurately great (“balanced”) attention is given to eliminating the nuclear arsenals of the NPT nuclear weapons states, and to spreading dual-use civilian nuclear power technology more widely around the world.

The Obama Administration’s approach of transforming cooperation against proliferation into a saleable commodity that must be “bought” from others, however, may create perverse incentives.  If nonproliferation is commoditized, its price would presumably rise as proliferation progresses – that is, as countries that desire help against proliferation become increasingly desperate for it.  A time of multiple proliferation crises, like today, is a seller’s market, with potential cooperators against proliferation having an incentive to hold out as long as possible without cooperating in order to ensure that any steps they do take command the highest possible “price.”  Commoditization creates incentives to constrain supply by not cooperating quickly, or very well; it encourages rent-seeking foot-dragging by those from whom assistance is needed in the fight against nuclear weapons proliferation.

Worse still, the longer nonproliferation compliance enforcement is delayed, the more dramatic and costly are the measures that would be needed to persuade a proliferator government to change course.  Cooperation in implementing draconian measures applied late in the game would naturally command a higher price than cooperation in the milder measures that might have been effective if adopted earlier.  These intertwined dynamics thus seem ideally suited to help ensure that nonproliferation cooperation is both extremely costly – in terms of the concessions that will be required to “pay” for it – and worryingly likely to be ineffective at whatever levels of cooperative effort do ultimately end up being “purchased.”  This, it must be said, is an unlikely recipe for nonproliferation success.

So far, there are few signs that the new U.S. approach is affecting other countries’ willingness to support vigorous nonproliferation, or their belief that sufficient disarmament progress is now being made.  In the first week of the 2010 NPT Review Conference, the NAM issued a statement expressing disappointment with the new Russo-American strategic arms treaty (“New START”) – which it described as being “below the international community’s expectations” – and insisting upon the implementation of a notably unrealistic an anachronistic disarmament plan of action that includes calls for adherence to non-existent or defunct treaties. It was implementing this agenda, the NAM made clear, that was really “crucial to the credibility of the Treaty.”  Furthermore, I am told that just this morning, the NAM cut to ribbons a draft statement in the Review Conference’s Main Committee II that dealt with nonproliferation and nuclear safeguards, utterly rejecting even elementary measures of nonproliferation prudence such as tying nuclear technology assistance to a recipient’s acceptance of state-of-the-art safeguards under the IAEA Additional Protocol.

II.            Doing the Credibility Shuffle

In some sense, this pattern ought by now to be familiar.  The debate over U.S. disarmament “credibility” has long had a sort of “whack-a-mole” quality, in which what it is proclaimed that we must do in order to demonstrate credibility shifts as rapidly as we actually accomplish what was previously demanded.  Real disarmament “credibility,” it would appear, is always almost being achieved – but just as consistently always requires just a little bit more.

It is understandable, of course, that since the disarmament community ardently desires “zero,” one should not expect any situation short of abolition to be fundamentally “acceptable” in the sense that disarmament advocates would at that point sit back and pronounce themselves entirely satisfied.  But that is not the point in present-day debates.  The issue is not at what point the disarmers believe disarmament movement should stop, but rather whether and when they will be willing to admit that we have made a start down that road sufficient that they will, in return – in this era of regrettably commoditized cooperation – finally be willing to take a serious stand against proliferation.  What is striking today, however, is the degree to which no disarmament steps seem to be enough to elicit a corresponding seriousness about actually enforcing nonproliferation obligations.

Some might conclude that the moving-goalposts quality of current debates bespeaks the disarmament community’s fundamental unseriousness about the disarmament goal that is supposedly its transcendent priority.  Perhaps, however, I should say only “about the nuclear disarmament goal,” for keen observers of recent debates may sense that there is actually a bigger game afoot – and that the disarmers are not, in some sense, all that inconsistent and capricious after all.

The protean quality of disarmament “credibility” advocacy and the shifting sands of disarmament debates since the end of the Cold War are interesting for what they reveal of the ultimate objectives and conceptual frameworks of the participants.  Defenders of the advocacy side of these debates would surely contend that their fidelity has been always and exclusively to the idea of a nuclear “zero.”  The moving target of much of the argumentation employed along the way, however, is no less elegantly and consistently explained by positing that the objective is always to oppose whatever it happens to be that the United States is believed to be doing or contemplating.

Indeed, the contours of contemporary disarmament debates are arguably better explained in these terms than by a consistent opposition to nuclear weapons.  It has long seemed odd to observers expecting principled anti-nuclearism from the disarmament community, after all, to see China’s ongoing nuclear build-up addressed with kid gloves where it is mentioned at all, longstanding Russian and Chinese modernization work scarcely mentioned in the same breath as the dreaded evils of possible or proposed American modernization, and Russia’s nuclear-happy military doctrine and continued possession of thousands of non-strategic weapons mentioned only grudgingly or in passing along the way to lambasting U.S. deployments of a handful of ageing bombs on NATO soil.

I don’t mean to suggest that contemporary disarmament advocacy boils down to no more than a crude and stereotyped anti-Americanism.  The consistently anti-American undercurrent in modern disarmament debates is far more interesting, philosophically profound, and subtle than that.  A clue to the deeper contours of this undercurrent may be found in where debates seem currently to be shifting in response to the Obama Administration’s efforts to win the disarmament community’s goodwill and support by moving faster and more ostentatiously toward some future nuclear “zero.”

III.             Nuclear Disarmament and Non-Nuclear Asymmetry

More and more, nuclear disarmament debates are not just about nuclear weapons.  Instead, one hears calls forother types of military technology – or rather, other types of actual or potential American armament – to be swept into the disarmament discourse, so that “nuclear disarmament” debates revolve increasingly around issues U.S. military capability per se.

The most obvious illustration of this may be seen at the formal, intergovernmental level.  For years, debates on a Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty (FMCT) at the U.N. Conference on Disarmament (CD) in Geneva were stalled on account of Chinese and Russian efforts to link that issue with their proposals for a treaty to ban the deployment of non-nuclear weapons in space.  (Deploying nuclear weapons in space, of course, is already illegal under the Outer Space Treaty.)  These proposals were, and remain, crassly hypocritical, for their focus is upon the kind ofin-space deployments that Beijing and Moscow worry that the United States might someday make, while their draft treaty would carefully continue to permit the terrestrially-based anti-satellite weaponry that both China and Russia already possess – weapons, tellingly, that are designed to deny America access to the military “force-multiplier” effects it derives from its predominance in space-based reconnaissance and communications.  The wide support apparently given to these disingenuous Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space (PAROS) proposals illustrates how nuclear issues are today being closely linked to restricting America’s non-nuclear muscle.  It was only possible to arrive at a CD work plan for FMCT negotiations after the Obama Administration caved in and agreed to have PAROS “discussions.”

More recently, the final negotiation of the “New START” strategic arms agreement with Russia was held up for months in the face of Moscow’s demands that Washington agree to restrictions on non-nuclear ballistic missile defense (BMD) capabilities, and upon the development of conventionally-armed “prompt global strike” (PGS) technologies.  The resulting treaty contains ambiguous language on BMD, but the Russians seem to interpret this phrasing so strongly that one wonders whether there was, among the negotiators, any “meeting of minds” on this issue at all.  Whatever its formal legal import, however, New START’s language about BMD is clearly designed, at the very least, to impose political restrictions on missile defense by suggesting in official treaty text that anything beyond “current” ballistic missile deployments may be destabilizing and could give Moscow legitimate grounds to abandon all strategic arms control.  The counting rules of the new treaty also impose direct limits upon the only PGS technology that appears feasible in the near term – that is, mounting conventional, precision-guided payloads on existing missile boosters – because it requires that ballistic missiles allocated for PGS missions must be traded off on a one-for-one basis against the shrinking American nuclear force.  New START too, therefore, reflects the notion that nuclear reductions depend as some level upon restricting the most sophisticated non-nuclear U.S. capabilities.

Indeed, one hears it increasingly said – and not implausibly, as I myself observed last year at the NPT Preparatory Committee meeting – that nuclear “zero” will not be achievable in the face of present-day imbalances in conventional military power because weapons possessors not having the luxury of being able to fall back on formidable non-nuclear capabilities will likely prove reluctant to abandon their nuclear weapons in a world of conventional military asymmetry.  Rather than seeing this as a potentially insurmountable “Catch-22” problem for the entire disarmament project, however – a conceptual trap in which what makes some parties more willing to disarm makes others less so – the disarmament community seems simply to be redirecting its fire at U.S. military strength across the board.

We should expect, therefore, that BMD and PGS capabilities will prove to be just the tip of the iceberg: the whole edifice of America’s global power-projection capabilities, including the sophisticated global intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance systems that facilitate the employment of its diverse military tools, seems increasingly to be seen as a fundamental obstacle to disarmament that must be eliminated.  The political and moral energy of nuclear disarmament is coming to be applied to the goal of evening out conventional military power.  And it is here where the disarmament community finds its clearest common cause with the nuclear weapons proliferators and their apologists: the emerging priority is to defang the muscular hyperpower along allthe major axes of its present-day superiority.  Indeed, through this prism, the disarmers, the proliferators, the “zero”-neuralgic other NPT nuclear weapons states, and even hawks within the U.S. policy community find analytical common ground: all are coming to agree that the real game here is not about nuclear weapons per se, but is instead more reminiscent of an 18th-century storyline from Jonathan Swift.  It is about the Lilliputians ganging up to tie down Gulliver.

IV.            Competing Paradigms of Order

Not surprisingly, however, Gulliver and the Lilliputians have different ideas of how the world works, and should work.  In a sense, as present-day disarmament debates shift from a focus specifically upon nuclear weaponry to a broader focus upon full-spectrum military asymmetry, the disarmament discourse is characterized by competition between two conceptual paradigms that are quite incompatible even when their respective adherents seem to agree upon the importance of nuclear disarmament.

Let’s explore this a bit.  Even as it seeks to pander to the conventional wisdom of the disarmament movement by attempting to purchase nonproliferation cooperation with concessions on disarmament, the Obama Administration seems to have embraced – as did the Bush Administration before it, though far less emphatically and flamboyantly – a vision of nuclear reductions and potential future disarmament profoundly at odds with much of the conceptual framework that underpins this conventional wisdom.  Fundamentally, to the extent that there can be said to be a vision of disarmament progress prevalent among U.S. policymaking elites, it is one thatassumes and values military asymmetries favoring the United States.

It is not merely that the Obama Administration sees the development of improved nuclear weapons production capabilities as being essential to American reductions, as part of a strategy of substituting potential weapons foractual ones as America’s strategic “hedge” against future problems.   It is in fact that non-nuclear U.S. militaryadvantages are embraced as a way to facilitate reducing, or perhaps even replacing, U.S. reliance upon nuclear weapons: developing PGS or other technologies to supplant nuclear weapons in some missions previously thought to require them; improving BMD against proliferation threats; and relying upon robust conventional power-projection capabilities to maintain the solidity of trans-oceanic alliances that have traditionally relied in part upon forward-deployed U.S. nuclear weapons.  No one in today’s White House would admit as much, of course, but this agenda – spelled out with some candor in the new 2010 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) – owes as much to the doctrinal vision of President Bush’s 2001 NPR as it does to the ideology of the nuclear abolition movement.

At issue is a real clash between conceptual paradigms about the nature of the global security environment and how best to maintain international peace and security within it.  On the one hand, there is a paradigm that one might call “peer-group multilateralism.”  It is an ethic of collective action among equals in which countries come together through multilateral (and preferably global and universal) institutions in order to address common challenges.  This is a profoundly democratic vision, at least with respect to relations between countries.  (Actualdemocracy for real populations of human beings is an entirely different question, alas.)  In it, no one has any particular special privileges, and no one suffers “discrimination” except when misbehavior brings upon miscreants the wrath of the international community – expressed, of course, through formal and collective means.  This multilateralist and quasi-democratic paradigm is reflected, for instance, in the consensus negotiation procedures of the CD, and in the one-country-one-vote formula of the U.N. General Assembly.  Even where bodies are structured so as to permit slightly more effective decision-making through smaller size, these principles may yet be seen in provisions for rotating states through seats on the IAEA Board of Governors or in the non-permanent ranks of the U.N. Security Council.

In this paradigm, asymmetry of power is philosophically offensive.  To prevent or undermine such asymmetry, majoritarian procedures – if not indeed consensus rules – are designed and expected to impede traditional “power politics” and to enable all to participate more or less equally in decision outcomes.  Action against common threats is understood as a collective movement both expressing and predicated upon international solidarity, and upon all countries’ shared and axiomatically coequal role in preserving peace and security.  By the same token, action not pursued with such a collective or at least majoritarian imprimatur is improper action.  In a sense, therefore, the multilateral process is felt to create outcome legitimacy.

On the other end of this conceptual continuum lies a paradigm that one might call the “predominant actor model.”  By this account – the essential features of which are evident in the thinking of multiple U.S. administrations, transcending party identification – multilateral institutions operating on the basis of formal equality among near-peers provide an important but sometimes an inadequate means of addressing challenges to international peace and security.  It is not necessarily that such institutions fall always or entirely down on the job, but that they are ill-equipped to handle, on their own, the full panoply of international threats that might arise (e.g., on account of collective action problems, the high capital costs and high returns to experience in global power-projection capabilities, or psycho-political dynamics of risk-aversion or anti-militarist fashion).

According to this second model, the security system needs a predominant actor capable of shouldering disproportionate burdens and leading the community’s reaction to pressing challenges, and around whom serious systemic responses to some of the gravest challenges can crystallize – particularly, though not exclusively, where the employment of military force is at issue.  In effect, this model presumes that international security is to some extent a public good that will be, in economic terms, under-produced, to the detriment of all, if a predominant actor does not sometimes take the reins.  In contrast to “peer-group multilateralism,” outcome legitimacy is, in this model, basically process-exogenous, in that certain steps are assumed to be necessary for the preservation of global order and other critical values of the system, and there is nothing intrinsically wrong with the strongest player stepping in to ensure that these steps are taken.  (Indeed, if other actors seem unable to do what is needed, it would be wrong for the predominant power not to intervene.)  Other states’ actual consentto such initiative is desirable, but secondary; the key point is that what is needed actually gets done.

The United States tends to see itself as playing this predominant role, with its military power and capabilities underpinning the stability of the present global order and system of economic relations.  Having inherited from Britain the baton of securing global sea lanes vital to international commerce – and having added to this a broad modern array of global security responsibilities, ranging from providing the power-projection “muscle” behind humanitarian intervention to fighting nuclear weapons proliferation, and from providing security reassurances to far-flung allies to countering access-denial strategies in outer space – Washington sees itself as having a vital role in the international system precisely on account of its disproportionate military power.

One model thus sees military asymmetry as profoundly subversive of global peace and security, and ultimately regards its erosion as being a requirement for the full success of nuclear disarmament.  The other model regards a degree of asymmetry, at least in the right hands, as being essential to global order irrespective of whether or not nuclear weapons exist – and perhaps even especially valuable in preparing to confront the challenges of some hypothetical future in which major conflicts can no longer be “deterred” by nuclear weapons because such devices have been eliminated.

V.            The Interpenetration of Disarmament, Power, and Conflict

This description of the two models, of course, just a heuristic, and I do not mean to suggest that the world faces a crisp, binary choice between starkly-opposed “multilateralist” and “predominant actor” models.  But describing these counterpoised paradigms offers a valuable window into contemporary geopolitical debates.  In particular, it offers insight into what may be the future of disarmament discourse, because it is probably correct – as an analytical matter – to argue that the question of nuclear weapons cannot be disentangled from issues of asymmetry across all axes of military power, and indeed from deep issues of international insecurity and conflict on many fronts.

There is thus an irony in the anti-nuclear multilateralists’ shift of focus from specifically nuclear weapons issues to a more open critique of the predominance of United States military power per se, for this conceptual pirouette may be bringing the disarmers around to positions that they themselves would surely have dismissed as militarist nuclear weapons state hypocrisy not long ago.

I once heard a French diplomat outrage disarmament advocates by pointing out that the Treaty’s Preamble describes nuclear disarmament as something to be achieved “pursuant to” a treaty on general and complete disarmament – that is, as something that one should perhaps not expect to see prior to general disarmament.  Furthermore, he pointed out, the Preamble expressly describes the “easing of international tension and strengthening of trust between States” as being necessary in order “to facilitate” disarmament.  Again, the implication of this sequencing was profound: an easing of tension is a prerequisite for disarmament.   Hence the outrage, for he was taken to be saying that nuclear disarmament was impossible prior to the achievement of world peace and total disarmament – that is to say, perhaps never.

But here’s the irony.  While I don’t think he was actually saying “Jamais!” my French colleague really wasmaking a valuable point that is reflected in the Preamble – and that seems increasingly to be being embraced bytoday’s disarmament community in its developing critique of global military-technological asymmetries across the board.  Both he and they are right that nuclear weapons issues indeed cannot be entirely separated from questions of military asymmetry, nor indeed from broader issues of international tension and conflict.  In a weird way, therefore, present-day disarmers increasingly concerned about such things as PGS, so-called “space weapons,” and global power-projection might seem now to agree that the conceptual sequencing suggested by the Preamble has some validity after all: one cannot intelligibly imagine a nuclear “zero” without dramatic progress in easing tension and strengthening trust, nor separately from the achievement of some sort of radical and asymmetry-erosive “general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.”

But let us remember the disarmament outrage that greeted those French comments.  As disarmament advocacy turns increasingly to critiquing imbalances of non-nuclear military capability as obstacles to nuclear abolition, it risks adopting a philosophical position for itself that effectively precludes disarmament.  If nuclear disarmament requires the smoothing-out of the world’s uneven distribution of conventional military capabilities, one should not – to put it generously – hold one’s breath for abolition.

Fundamentally, it is not clear that either of the multilateralist or the predominantist visions of global security is particularly conducive to disarmament.  The former requires utopian conditions for success that might strike many observers as absurdly unlikely, while the latter – even when it aspires to deep nuclear arms reductions or abolition – is predicated upon a manifestly unequal global distribution of muscle that at least begs the question as to whether the most insecure or malevolent of other players would be content with non-nuclear status.

VI.           Conclusion: A Challenge for the Movement

If disarmament activists’ success in eliciting ambitious talk of “Global Zero” indeed results in a highlighting of broader non-nuclear issues of power and tension in the world that need to be managed or resolved, that is presumably a good thing: such challenges are quite real, and it is better to discuss than ignore them.  This very candor, however, could yet herald awkward and interesting times for the movement, for disarmament activists would seem increasingly to face a choice between three paths, none of which they are likely to find particularly salutary.  They could continue to embrace their own emerging vision of global military equality, but with the result that the hallowed goal of nuclear abolition is pushed off into the unimaginably distant future.  Alternatively, they could choose simply to act out a crude and reflexive anti-Americanism uninformed by any principled vision of global security at all.  (In such terms, the problem with American power would just be that it is American; there would be no need to concern oneself with broader issues or implications.)  Or they could temper or abandon their broad critique of American non-nuclear power and focus more narrowly, as of old, upon reducing and ultimately eliminating nuclear weapons.  It may now be harder than ever to avoid making a choice.

Whatever the disarmament movement ends up doing, however, no one serious about disarmament itself can afford to ignore its entanglement with broader dynamics of military power and international conflict, tension, and trust.  Highlighting the interpenetration of these issues is not some crypto-militarist plot to escape disarmament responsibilities by pointing out the unintelligibility of “zero” absent dramatic transformations in some of the most basic ways the international community presently works.  It is an insight to which the disarmers seem themselves increasingly to be turning, one on which observers from across the political spectrum can perhaps come to agree, and one which should elicit from us a newfound commitment to long-term efforts to resolve conflicts, increase strategic transparency, strengthen trust, and catalyze new ways of thinking – in the hope that someday something not unlike “zero” might actually turn out to be possible.

Indeed, it may be that this is the best lesson of all for the disarmers, for it points to a fourth potential choice.  Insight into the interpenetration of nuclear disarmament and broader global problems of armament and transnational conflict does not call us to an easy policy program, nor one likely to produce satisfyingly quick returns.  It does, however, point us toward an agenda that is perhaps more likely to bear fruit.  It suggests the need for a path that aims gradually to reduce reliance upon nuclear weapons, yet without fetishizing them as objects either of desire or aversion.  (Either sort of attachment seems likely to prolong, rather than end, such weapons’ salience in global politics.)  It calls for us seek out – and prepare ourselves to take advantage of – opportunities to nudge the world toward a future environment in which it would no longer be necessary for defense and security establishments to exist in such tense counterpoise.  And yet it suggests that we should stilluse all available deterrent and realpolitik tools, including the services of preponderant actors if their good offices should be needed, to preserve a stable and secure global order – and to hedge against unforeseen challenges – until such a new and transformed environment has emerged.

None of that is likely to be easy, but it is hardly impossible either.  Perhaps, in the end, my French colleague will have the last laugh: it may be that the NPT Preamble got things right after all.  By no means, however, does this have to be the death knell for disarmament.

-- Christopher Ford


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