New Paradigms Forum Proliferation Issues and Much More …


Nuclear Weapons and their Role in the Security Environment


Below is the text upon which Dr. Ford based his remarks on November 14-15, 2011, at the University of Georgia, the Georgia Institute of Technology, and Kennesaw State University – on a trip organized by the Partnership for a Secure America and the Stanley Foundation. (Former National Nuclear Security Administration Deputy Administrator for Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation William Tobey also participated in these discussions, offering remarks on nuclear materials security and the prevention of nuclear terrorism.)

Hello, everyone.  It’s a pleasure to have the chance to chat with you today, and I’m grateful to the Partnership for a Secure America and the Stanley Foundation, as well as our gracious hosts here at the university, for making this outreach program possible.

As I was thinking about what to say to you today, I decided it might be useful to go back to “first principles” in order to lay the groundwork for our discussions.  Before one can think too usefully about where nuclear weaponry is going as the 21st century progresses, I think one needs to understand something about the role they play today – and about how we got to where we are now.

It is, for instance, commonly said today that the only role for nuclear weaponry is to deter the use of other nuclear weaponry.  To be able to grapple seriously with present-day nuclear weapons policy issues, however, I think one needs to understand how much that isn’t true.  And the same could probably be said about other supposed simple verities that might be invoked to guide policy choices about what deters whom, how countries behave (or don’t behave) with nuclear weaponry, and so forth.

Nuclear weapons play complex roles in today’s world, and roles that differ, to some extent, from one possessor or aspirant to the next.  In whichever direction one might want to take nuclear policy, one has to start by first getting one’s mind around this varied and sometimes confusing landscape.

I.          An American Perspective, Then and Now

So let’s begin with the United States, since it’s our own country and it was both the first to get into the nuclear weapons business and the first – and only – country so far to actually use them in war.  America’s motives for developing atomic weaponry were not simple, but they aren’t too hard to understand.  We began the Manhattan Project in desperate years of a desperate war against enemy empires that seemed bent upon world conquest.  To some extent, it was important that we “get there first,” because there was some reason to believe at the time that both Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan knew such weapons to be possible and were exploring the possibility.

To a great extent, however, the U.S. motive didn’t revolve around the possibility of others getting nuclear weapons.  We were in a terrible and costly war, and we wanted every advantage we could get.  Ultimately, after it had presumably become pretty clear that neither Germany nor Japan had much (or any) chance of beating us to the nuclear punch – the former having already surrendered and the latter having been reduced to a battered and beleaguered state – the program continued nonetheless as a way to close out history’s most bloody conflict as rapidly and advantageously as possible.

There was, during the period of American monopoly after the war, a fascinating U.S. flirtation with abolition – or rather, more specifically, with the idea of relinquishing atomic weaponry to an international organization that would take over all weapons-facilitating nuclear technology and research in order to ensure that no nation could have bombs of its own.  This effort, spelled out in the U.S. “Baruch Plan” and actually endorsed by majorities in the newborn United Nations, collapsed in the face of Soviet Bloc opposition.  Moscow wanted to break the American monopoly not by setting up an international control system but by building its own nuclear weapons, and after 1949, the Cold War arms race was on.

But that arms race, of course, is now over.  Why are these devices still around?  To some extent, it may be that existing possessors retain them because they cannot figure out how to eliminate them without making the world a worse place and their own security interests more precarious.

From a specifically U.S. perspective, I’d imagine there would be much to applaud in a sudden and successful abolition of nuclear weaponry.  The preeminent conventional military power on the planet might indeed be tempted to accept the elimination of what many regard as the only tools that can convincingly deter an opponent possessing just such overwhelming conventional force.  After all, that was why we ourselves placed such emphasis upon nuclear weaponry during much of the Cold War: we regarded it as being critical to our deterrence of aggression by  numerically-superior Warsaw Pact forces in Central Europe.  Today, we enjoy conventional superiority vis-à-vis any imaginable adversary.  So why not support abolition?

This is perhaps the reasoning behind at least some prominent Americans’ support for disarmament – though of course you won’t be surprised to hear that just such U.S. alacrity probably makes some other players resolutely opposed to the idea of “zero.”  Either way, however, such an analysis oversimplifies unhelpfully.  One cannot, of course, use a magic spell to make nuclear weapons disappear instantaneously, and if abolition is ever to occur, it certainly won’t do so quickly.  But how certain are Americans that we would be as happy with the balance of conventional forces in a nuclear-weapons-free world in the late 21st Century as we imagine that we would be if it happened tomorrow?

Another challenge is that even if such devices could be eliminated, it might be very difficult even for a wealthy, conventionally-dominant hyperpower to ensure stability in the resulting international security environment.  Unless you believe that nuclear weapons have played no role in precluding general war between the great powers for the last several decades, and unless you believe that they have played no role in preventing nuclear proliferation, it stands to reason that the difficulty of maintaining stability and security in a world of “nuclear zero” – using only conventional tools – might be rather higher than today.  Are we confident that we, or others, would be able or willing to do all that might be necessary in this regard, especially if disarmament itself increased other countries’ interest in developing nuclear weapons by holding out the prospect that “breakout” from a “zero” regime could give them at least a temporary nuclear monopoly?

II.         Extended Deterrence: “Nukes to Prevent Nukes”

You may have noticed that I snuck an important concept into those last comments: I spoke of the potential role of nuclear weapons in preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons.  This is a byproduct of the fact that nuclear weapons are commonly regarded as having at least some role in providing “extended deterrence” to the allies of a possessor state.  It leads to the arguably paradoxical conclusion that under some circumstances, the existence of nuclear weapons is an important tool with which to help ensure against the development of more such weapons.

During the Cold War, a number of countries started down the road to nuclear weapons development, but were persuaded to change course in large part on the strength of implicit or explicit U.S. commitments to the security of their countries or their region in the face of the presumed predatory intentions of the Soviet Bloc or other Communist powers.  This dissuasion came as a result of security commitments that, while not revolving exclusively around specifically nuclear deterrence, were nonetheless underpinned in the last resort by the continued existence and “usability” of a U.S. nuclear arsenal.  This was important for nonproliferation, and for stability more generally, in both Europe and in East Asia.  These dynamics may even be seen in the role that NATO planning for wartime nuclear weapons sharing played in keeping Germany – and perhaps other NATO allies – from going down the road of independent weapons development.

While nuclear weaponry certainly has less salience in American strategic planning today than it did during the Cold War, this “extended deterrence” dynamic remains alive and well.  We have friends and allies around the world, especially in East Asia, who face what they consider to be at least potentially serious long-term military threats, threats they might be unable to deter on their own using purely conventional tools.  America’s security relationships with them, which are still underpinned at the last resort by our nuclear weapons, still play a role in reassuring these allies – who otherwise might be tempted to “go nuclear” in order to safeguard their security interests independently.

Not for nothing, for instance, did U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice fly immediately to Tokyo to reassured Japanese leaders of our continued commitment to their security after North Korea conducted its first nuclear weapons test in 2006.  And not for nothing did the Japanese thereafter publicly re-disavow any interest in nuclear weaponry, explicitly citing as the basis for their disinterest the fact that Japan’s strong American alliance made this unnecessary.  Japan, and to a lesser extent South Korea, could quite easily “go nuclear” if they felt this necessary in the face of regional threats.  That they do not today want nuclear weapons has at least something to do with the fact that we keep ours.

I’m not saying that the existence of U.S. nuclear weapons and our provision of “extended” nuclear deterrence is the only thing that has kept such allies from going down the nuclear road themselves.  In fact, I’d imagine that the strength of our conventional military power – and the perceived weight of Washington’s political will and moral courage in remaining committed to our alliance relationships and to protecting the security and political autonomy of democratic regional allies – is a more important factor.  Nevertheless, our general security guarantees are indeed built in part upon a nuclear foundation.

This may have important implications as we ponder the future of nuclear weaponry.  Could we achieve the necessary degree of adversary deterrence and ally reassurance without such tools?  Maybe.  But it’s very hard to be sure of that, and few leaders in Washington have a stomach for gambling on such important matters.  Nor, of course, is it guaranteed that we would have the money and willpower to do this successfully even if we were willing to try.  What would it take to do what is necessary to meet such requirements with purely conventional arms?  Can we afford it?  Would we be willing to?

If nuclear weapons presently contribute anything to our alliance relationships, Washington would presumably need to make up for its loss with more robust conventional deployments and more credible reassurances of alliance fortitude and long-term political staying power.  It is not entirely clear that present-day America is well positioned to step up such overseas expenses and commitments in proportion to some possible future nuclear draw-down.  (At the moment, we seem to be worried enough about ensuring the adequacy of our commitments in the Asia-Pacific region even with a nuclear “backstop.”  How much more effort and expense would disarmament require us to contemplate?)

III.       Deterring Conventional Conflict

Because America’s Cold War allies feared not only nuclear but also conventional attack – which it was similarly the job of our deterrent policy to prevent – the phenomenon of “extended [nuclear] deterrence” also provides an analytical window into another dynamic, to which I’ve already alluded: the fact that nuclear weapons have historically had important roles in deterring conventional attack.  This notion may not resonate much in the United States today, for we have the good fortune to be uniquely powerful in non-nuclear terms.  History suggests, however, that deterring non-nuclear power has long been a very important “driver” for interest in nuclear capabilities.

From a U.S., British, and French perspective, for instance, great emphasis on nuclear weaponry (and the possibility of nuclear first use) was felt necessary during the Cold War in order to deter numerically-superior Warsaw Pact forces.  It is widely believed – surely accurately – that nuclear weapons played an important role after 1945 in stabilizing Europe after centuries of conflict, and in making general war between the great powers seem hideously unattractive.  This is not to say that modern Europe would necessarily again collapse into conflict if nuclear weapons disappeared, of course, but it points to the potentially crucial role such devices can have in forestalling large-scale conventional conflict between possessors.

And Europe is hardly the only example of states viewing nuclear capabilities as a potential deterrent to conventional attack.  The state of Israel, which has long been said to have nuclear weaponry, has for decades needed to deter the numerically-superior forces of the surrounding (and usually hostile) Arab states.  Pakistan aims to deter numerically-superior Indian forces, while India itself focused more intently upon nuclear weapons development in the wake of China’s invasion in 1962.  Apartheid-era South Africa, moreover, developed its program not out of fear of anyone else’s nuclear weaponry, but in response to what it felt was a “total onslaught” of Communist-led black nationalist insurgency sweeping south across Africa.

Today, Russia seems still to feel itself weak and dysfunctional in conventional arms, potentially overmatched by NATO technology and Chinese numbers, and it prizes nuclear weaponry as a counterbalancing factor.  North Korea cites U.S. military deployments in South Korea and Japan as one of the reasons it says it cannot give up its nuclear weapons.  And the aspiring proliferators in Tehran frequently invoke the specter of U.S. and Israeli attack – with conventional, not nuclear weapons – in their all-but-explicit justifications for nuclear weapons development.

Life might be simpler if nuclear weapons only deterred other nuclear weapons, in other words, but countries in the real world don’t often seem to see things that way.  Even the International Court of Justice, when providing a non-binding advisory opinion in 1996 on the legality of nuclear weapons use, felt compelled explicitly to hold open a role for nuclear weapons in response to an overwhelming assault that threatened the existence of a state.

IV.        Nuclear “Cross-Deterrence” of Other WMD

To complicate things further, there is also at least some possibility that nuclear weapons can help deter the use of other, but non-nuclear, forms of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) – a phenomenon I call “cross-deterrence.”  Such cross-deterrence between different forms of WMD isn’t talked about too much today, but historically it has had at least some importance.

When the United States, for instance, abandoned its biological weapons (BW) work under the Nixon Administration, it was confidently proclaimed that one of the reasons we could do this safely – even in the face of fears of continuing BW work by the Soviets and others – was that our nuclear arsenal could still be used to deter BW use against us.  In fact, this idea is apparently still a part of U.S. strategic planning, as one can see from the Obama Administration’s 2010 Nuclear Posture Review, which still explicitly reserved the option to make “any adjustment [in U.S. declaratory policy regarding nuclear weapons use] … that may be warranted” by biological weapons threats from non-nuclear weapons states compliant with their nonproliferation obligations.  It also explicitly declared that nuclear weapons remained available as a potential response to either conventional or chemical or biological weapons attack by “states that possess nuclear weapons and states not in compliance with their nuclear non-proliferation obligations.”

Nor is “cross-deterrence” just an American idea.  Syria, for instance, has long been thought to maintain a CW stockpile as at least a partial “cross-deterrent” answer to Israeli nuclear capabilities.  The Islamic Republic of Iran’s nuclear program, moreover, is felt to have begun in the mid-1980s not as a response to U.S. or presumed Israeli nuclear weaponry (or even these countries’ conventional military power), but rather in reaction to Iraq’s use of chemical weaponry against Iran during the Iran-Iraq War.  Cross-deterrence may be a comparatively minor component of countries’ thinking about nuclear strategy, but it isn’t a trivial issue.

V.         Nuclear Weapons and National Identity

So far, I’ve been talking of nuclear weapons’ role in the world through a relatively “realist” game-theoretical perspective of force posture and deterrent calculations.  But there’s another angle that also must be understood if we are to comprehend nuclear weaponry’s entanglement with the international environment: the ways in which weapons possession can become wrapped up – for better or worse – with countries’ and governments’ sense of identity, role, and mission in the world.

There has been some very interesting scholarship on the complicated ways in which nuclear weaponry has played into national identity politics in South Asia, both in Pakistan and in India.  George Perkovich’s seminal book on India’s nuclear weapons program, for instance, stresses this factor, seeing intriguing identity dynamics – factors such as post-colonialist insecurity, a sense of developing-world and disarmament leadership, or even Brahminical self-assertion against white scientific elites in the former imperial core – as having powerfully shaped how India’s program developed in the sometimes idiosyncratic ways that it did.  But Perkovich is today not alone, and a number of other scholars have written interesting things on the “identity politics” angle of nuclear proliferation and the South Asian nuclear balance.

Russia is another interesting example, for my impression is that powerful issues of identity – and not just steely-eyed realpolitik calculations of conventional military weakness – are involved in Moscow’s continuing infatuation with nuclear weaponry.  Modern Russia in the era of Vladimir Putin seems to feel quite insecure in today’s world, nostalgic about its “lost” days of presumed Soviet glory and importance, in addition to being nervous about the still weak state of Russia’s conventional armed forces, its unbalanced, undiversified, and corrupt economy, its brittle political order, and its grim demographic prospects.

One of the few things about which Moscow seems able to feel proud is its formidable nuclear arsenal – which has become, for many Russians, the symbolic coinage of their country’s continued status and worth as a great power in a world in which both the United States and China utterly outclass Russia in essentially every other meaningful respect.  The resulting “identity function” of nuclear weaponry in Russia’s sense of position and role in the world is, I suspect, a powerful factor that one cannot dismiss if one wants really to understand the place of nuclear weapons in today’s world – let alone to approach future strategic arms control questions with an informed eye.

And these are hardly the only cases.  France has, of course, for years seized upon its nuclear force de frappe as one of the few remaining symbols of that country’s great power status and role.  Iran seems to have a growing fixation upon nuclear technology – and, implicitly, weapons capabilities – as a litmus test of its self-conceived role as an emergent great power with ambiguously neo-Safavid regional ambitions.  Moreover, North Korea today constantly seeks to parlay its nuclear weaponry into status and political acceptance not just as a legitimate state but as one in some sense “equal” to the nuclear-possessing great powers.

These dynamics certainly don’t make the challenges of global nuclear strategy or nonproliferation any easier to handle, but we dismiss such “identity” factors at our peril.  At least in some instances, they are likely to be very important to nonproliferation, arms control, and nuclear weapons strategy, by helping shape such things as: (1) whether and how countries seek nuclear weaponry; (2) what proliferators might be expected to do once acquiring it; (3) how existing possessors will approach the question of arms reductions; and (4) how the requirements of “deterrence” might differ from one possessor to the next.

VI.        Conclusion

I’d be happy to discuss more specific questions in our discussion period, but as I wrap up, let me flag a couple of points here at a very high level of generality.  Because of the deep ways in which nuclear weapons are entangled with national policies and behavior in a very complex international security environment, one should be suspicious of anyone who purports to offer simple answers with respect to what we should do in order to handle the challenges of nuclear weapons policymaking.  Any serious attempt at such policymaking needs to be able to stand up to serious questioning about how it proposes to manage – much less to cut through – the security and policy challenges presented by these nuclear entanglements.

One can perhaps be really certain of few things in this environment, but among these is the likelihood that simple approaches – whether they aim for a rapid “nuclear zero,” a crudely muscular pax Americana, or a supposedly peaceful environment of universal deterrence through universal proliferation – are inadequate ones.  Whether we like it or not, actual or potential nuclear weapons capabilities are likely to be important factors in global politics and strategy for the foreseeable future.  Decades after the end of the Cold War, it may not be very fashionable to study the arcane arts of nuclear weapons strategy and try to adapt them to 21st-century conditions, but it is essential nonetheless.

Thank you.   I look forward to your questions.

-- Christopher Ford

About Dr. Ford

Dr. Christopher Ford served from January 2018 until January 2021 as the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation. For the last 15 months of this period, he additionally performed the duties of the Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security. Before this service at the State Department, he served as Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for WMD and Counterproliferation on the U.S. National Security Council staff, and before that as Chief Legislative Counsel for the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Chief Investigative Counsel for the Senate Banking Committee, Republican Chief Counsel for the Senate Appropriations Committee, Senior Fellow at Hudson Institute, U.S. Special Representative for Nuclear Nonproliferation, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, Minority Counsel and then General Counsel to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, and Staff Director of the Senate's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. A graduate of Harvard (summa cum laude), Oxford (as a Rhodes Scholar), and the Yale Law School, Dr. Ford was also ordained by Roshi Joan Halifax of the Upaya Zen Center as a lay chaplain in a lineage of Soto Zen Buddhism. He was a jujutsu student of the late Grandmaster Dong Jin Kim of the Jigo Tensin Ryu lineage, and is a member of Dai Nippon Butoku Kai with Sandan (3rd degree black belt) rank. Dr. Ford served from 1994 until 2011 as an intelligence officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve, and is a member of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Chatham House, and the Council on Foreign Relations. In September 2017, he was promoted by Queen Elizabeth II of England to the rank of Commander in the Most Venerable Order of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem. Dr. Ford is the author of the books "China Looks at the West: Identity, Global Ambitions, and the Future of Sino-American Relations" (2015), "The Mind of Empire: China's History and Modern Foreign Relations" (2010), and "The Admirals' Advantage: U.S. Navy Operational Intelligence in World War II and the Cold War" (2005). He also co-edited "Rethinking the Law of Armed Conflict in an Age of Terrorism" (2012). For a list of his publications, see The views he expresses on this website are entirely his own, and do not necessarily reflect those of anyone else, in or out of government.
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