New Paradigms Forum Proliferation Issues and Much More …


Nuclear Weapons and the Future of U.S. Policy


The following text provided the basis for remarks Dr. Ford delivered on May 8, 2012, to a national security dialogue event at the Capitol Hill Club in Washington, D.C. sponsored by the British American Security Information Council (BASIC), in association with the Hudson Institute, on “Nuclear Deterrence: Who Needs Nuclear Weapons and Why?

Good morning everyone, and welcome to this dialogue.  Let me start by thanking Paul Ingram and Anne Penketh of BASIC for sponsoring this event – and Peter Huessy of the American Foreign Policy Council for arranging this pleasant venue.  Thanks also to the Stimson Center’s Barry Blechman for pinch-hitting on such short notice as my counterpart speaker; we’re glad you could participate.  Anyway, I’m grateful for the  chance to participate, and am looking forward to our discussions this morning.

I.          Nuclear Weapons and their Role

I was asked to say a few words on what role nuclear weapons play in modern-day U.S. policy – and, by the way, about who needs nuclear weapons anyway?  Well, if you ask me, it’s probably not a coincidence that we’re having this discussion in Washington, D.C. – nor that it is being sponsored by an NGO based in the United Kingdom – because of all the world’s nuclear weapons possessor states, these are the only two in which the issue of abolition seems to be being taken at all seriously by national leaders.  No other possessor talks in those terms, and indeed until relatively recently neither Washington nor London did so either, and it is useful to ask why.

I’d submit that the reason for this relative unconcern with nuclear weapons is the dominant status of U.S. non-nuclear military power.  We have this dominance, and the British basically piggyback upon it by being by far our closest nuclear weapons state friend.  One may wonder, however, how long the historical circumstances will last in which we will feel so relatively free to ponder the possibility of abolition.  I might dispute whether a nuclear “zero” is such a good idea even from a present-day American perspective, but even if it is, how long should we bank on this comfortable military dominance lasting?  Might we not at some point acquire a more “normal” weapons possessor’s perspective?

As for those other possessors who don’t enjoy the benefits of being a military “hyperpower,” why do they still think nuclear weapons are important?  It is frequently said in the disarmament community that the only purpose of nuclear weapons is to deter the use of other nuclear weapons.  (This is the “sole purpose” position that the Obama Administration considered, but which it declined to adopt in its 2010 Nuclear Posture Review – promising instead merely to try to “work to establish conditions under which such a policy could be safely adopted.”)  This view is an important foundation for the disarmament vision, because it implies that nuclear weapons basically cancel each other out, and that since they are otherwise useless they can safely be banished all in one fell swoop – almost as if one were subtracting the same term from both sides of an equation, leaving its equilibrium unaffected.

But this “sole purpose” idea is simply false.  Over the decades in which nuclear weapons have been in existence, countries have sought and have retained nuclear weaponry for various reasons, but in probably no case has there been a country that has felt them useful exclusively to deter someone else’s use of them.

Most possessors, for instance, seem to feel that nuclear weapons help deter the use of non-nuclear force in a general war.  During the Cold War, for instance, perhaps the primary role for U.S., NATO, and even French nuclear weaponry was in deterring non-nuclear attack from Warsaw Pact forces that enjoyed numerical superiority in Europe.  The idea of deterring non-nuclear attack seems to have played a very important role in many countries’ nuclear vision.  Think about Pakistan eying India’s conventional military might across an insecure border, for instance, Israel worrying about its hostile and populous Arab neighbors, India pressing forward with weapon development after having experienced a Chinese invasion in 1962, South Africa developing weapons when it feared a supposedly Soviet-led “onslaught” of revolutionary predation in post-colonial Africa, modern Russian invocations of the bogeyman of NATO “encirclement” to justify nuclear weapons modernization, or modern-day rogue regimes pushing ahead with their nuclear programs while claiming to fear forcible regime change.  Even current U.S. planners – in all of our conventional muscularity – regard our nuclear arsenal as being important for deterring conventional conflicts in which smaller non-nuclear allies might be threatened by stronger powers that also happen to be armed with nuclear weapons.

Issues of pride and “nuclear identity politics,” I suspect, also play a role in many cases – not least those of Russia, France, North Korea, and the would-be possessor state of Iran.  In George Perkovich’s account, such “identity” issues were also very important in the Indo-Pakistani context.  And what about deterring the use of other forms of weapons of mass destruction?  Even the ostensibly disarmament-friendly Obama Administration, after all, has remained unwilling entirely to forswear the threat or use of nuclear weaponry in response to chemical or biological weapons threats.

Whatever the mix – and I’m willing to believe that the country-by-country answers are quite complicated, vary considerably, and change over time as well – it is preposterous to suggest that the “sole purpose” of nuclear weaponry is to deter the use of nuclear weaponry.  (It’s not even clear to me that this is today its main purpose for many possessors, much less the only one for anybody.)  There is surely no single answer to what role nuclear weapons play.  They are entangled in the strategic and political relationships of this world in very complicated ways, and things cannot easily be unwound, if indeed they can be at all.  We need to remember this whenever we are told that this Gordian Knot can be untied just by pulling on any single thread.

But what role do nuclear weapons play for the contemporary United States?  I actually think we’re a bit confused about this at the moment.  President Obama seems to be of two minds.  On the one hand, he seems to have abolitionist instincts, and a desire to maintain the kind of reputation for visionary “transformative” change his administration has so conspicuously squandered in every other facet of its public policymaking.  On the other hand, he has been Chief Executive for some time now, and is no fool; his nuclear policy practice has so far been much more cautious – more alive, one might say, to the realities and challenges of great power leadership in a pretty ugly and uncertain world – than his rhetoric would lead one to expect.

So although Obama himself has suggested that he may feel more “flexibility” to indulge his instincts if reelected, we have – so far, at least – ended up with a very modest but conceptually troubled nuclear agenda. We have a “Bush Lite” nuclear program wrapped in a utopian gauze of pro-disarmament imagery.  To my eye, of course, things could certainly be a lot worse, and indeed they might have been.  But no one appears to be too happy with this odd and sometimes dissonant compromise, not least because its constituent elements seem to be in some sense at war with each other.  (Nor is it that clear that the current U.S. approach is in fact a chosen one at all, since its contours might well be less the result of a coherent policy vision than merely the contingent residuum of internal policy battles, compromise, confusion, and impasse.)  At any rate, there certainly seems to be little prospect of resolving current divisions in the Washington policy community over the feasibility and desirability of complete nuclear disarmament.

Other deep disagreements vex our nuclear policy, too.  How low, for example, can we safely bring our numbers and still preserve nuclear deterrence?  Should we retain “counterforce” targeting of potential adversary military targets, or go back to older city-threatening ideas of “countervalue” planning?  (Countervalue would require a much smaller force, but it raises moral and legal questions because the mass slaughter of civilian populations would become the objective of our targeting policy rather than just a tragic and unfortunate side-effect.  And of course there always remain troubling theoretical disagreements over just what deters whom anyway.)  This choice represents a philosophical watershed, which may arise sooner rather than later because U.S. officials are presently engaged in what is said to be a comprehensive review of what our “minimum” necessary nuclear force can be.

Another point of dispute concerns the relationship between the strategic nuclear balance and ballistic missile defense (BMD).  Russia – and perhaps China, if we ever succeed in involving them in a formalized strategic nuclear relationship – have increasingly taken positions suggesting that irrespective of how grave the Iranian, North Korean, or other missile threats actually become, Washington may have to choose between negotiated numerical arms control as it has traditionally been conceived and continued BMD development.  And so perhaps we may, though our policy community seems as yet intellectually and psychologically unready to grapple with this choice.

Nevertheless, I want to suggest that things aren’t all bad, at least where short-term nuclear policy is concerned, for there still seems to remain a chance of common ground between “hawks” and “doves” when it comes to U.S. nuclear weapons policy, at least for a little while.  To my knowledge, no serious disarmament proponent thinks abolition is possible in the short term; most think it will take quite a long time even if we do work much more resolutely toward that goal.  It follows from this that, however, that by anybody’s account, nuclear weapons will remain in many countries’ arsenals for a long while yet.  If this is so, however, I’d argue that there should be room for at least a short-term agreement between the birds of order Falconiformes and those of order Columbiformes.

Divisions are likely to remain over the ultimate goal of “zero.”  But since we will need to maintain a robust nuclear force for many years even if abolition is our goal – and we will definitely need to do so, essentially forever, if “zero” is unfeasible or undesirable – there are important things on which we ought to be able to agree in the short term.

Our nuclear forces are ageing, consisting in the U.S. exclusively of “legacy” systems that we built to Cold War needs.  Indeed, until recently we were the only nuclear weapons state that wasn’t modernizing either its warheads or delivery systems (or both) – and our current efforts finally to take such steps are still worryingly tentative, and face peril on almost a daily basis in White House budget requests and here on Capitol Hill.  Unless abolition is really imminent – which essentially no one thinks it to be – there is a great deal that needs to be done if this system is to be kept viable even if “zero” is our ultimate goal.

Regardless of what one thinks of abolition, therefore, there should be room for bipartisan agreement on modernizing our nuclear weapons complex so that we can continue to maintain, service, and rely upon what weapons we retain.  There should be room for agreement on life extension programs (LEPs) for our ageing weapons designs, as well as on the importance of incorporating the best possible safety, security, and reliability technologies into our nuclear weapons.  Similarly, we know we will need replacements for some of our delivery systems, for our current ones cannot possibly remain viable long enough for “zero” to become remotely feasible before these systems reach obsolescence if indeed it ever does.

It may seem odd to say that disarmament advocates thus share with nuclear hawks an interest in pushing ahead with such work, but I believe this is true.  Maintaining a safe, secure, and reliable nuclear force until we reach agreement either on “zero” or on an indefinite “nonzero” is an interest common to both sides.  Since such agreement may be some ways off, why not work together on getting our nuclear deterrent to that point in good working order?

II.        Controlling Instability

I’ve also been asked to say something about arms control, so let me suggest that it isn’t very likely that we’ll see much more by way of traditional numerically-focused arms control for some time.  This doesn’t worry me much, however, because I don’t think such arms control is really what we really need right now anyway.

There are several reasons why I think little is likely by way of strategic negotiating with Moscow in the near future, and little chance of any serious follow-on to the so-called “New START” agreement.  In that deal, after all, the Obama Administration cherry-picked the only things that were fairly easy to achieve, and even then it seems to have been harder both to negotiate and (especially) to ratify than the White House expected.  The treaty’s cuts were small on the U.S. side, and nonexistent on the Russian.  Indeed, somewhat awkwardly, Moscow is presently building up to “New START” levels even as we work to come down to them – and its ambition was very modest.  (As a rule of thumb for Washington politics, you know an agreement accomplishes little when those who oppose it focus more upon its preambular language than upon its substantive content.)

The chances of a follow-on agreement, I think, are dim, for without dramatic concessions one way or the other, the two sides have largely unbridgeable differences over American BMD and “prompt global strike” technology, as well as over Russia’s great numerical advantage in non-strategic nuclear weaponry (NSNW).  Even if those issues can be worked through, moreover, uncertainty about third-parties will grow if U.S. and Russian numbers are significantly reduced.  Already, uncertainty about China’s trajectory – about how far its ongoing nuclear build-up will go, for instance, and the degree to which it may be positioned for a “sprint to parity” in the face of Russo-American cuts – is emerging as a brake upon the possibilities for bilateral arms control with Russia.

So I’m not holding my breath for a new treaty, or at least for one that does anything serious.  As I said, however, that’s alright with me, for I don’t think that kind of arms control is too important right now.  This is not to say that arms control as traditionally conceived cannot contribute to U.S. national security and to international peace and security; merely that we don’t need it much right now. Whether or not two countries engage in arms racing behavior, it seems to me, is a function more of their specific geopolitical relationship at the time than it is of what sort of international treaty regime is in place between them.

Frankly, I don’t think arms control in the traditional sense is all that necessary between Washington and Moscow.  Things certainly aren’t as relaxed as they seemed for the previous arms control treaty – the Moscow Agreement of 2002, which actually just codified cuts that each side had already decided to make unilaterally – but I don’t see either Russia or the United States being particularly interested in a Cold War-style race these days, even if they don’t get along very well on issues such as BMD.  Arms control or not, the relationship doesn’t seem likely to get out of hand in a fundamentally dangerous way.

Where some form of arms control would be useful, however, is in the realm of transparency and confidence-building measures (T/CBMs), especially vis-à-vis China – and I’d love to see some kind of new approach worked out on a trilateral or broader basis.  I’ve talked about this possibility with Chinese officials, both when I was at the State Department and subsequently, and Beijing has so far resisted the idea for fear that “transparency” means something like “tell us where all your missiles and warheads are located so we can target them.”  (This sort of openness is something that Chinese leaders are unsurprisingly disinterested.)

As I see it, however, T/CBMs don’t have to be so crude.  Indeed, the history of the U.S. strategic relationship with the USSR and with Russia suggests that there is a rich vein of practice and precedent – having to do with information-sharing, interactions on doctrinal and conceptual issues, technical inspection visits, and approaches to crisis-management and strategic communication – that could productively be mined in order to help prevent future Sino-American (and perhaps Sino-Russian) problems and to smooth and regularize the countries’ strategic relations.  You don’t have to have numerical arms control in order to have these things, nor does having them require the conveyance of vulnerability-increasing locational and operational data.  I like to think that there is much that can yet be done in this regard, whether or not there’s any chance of a follow-on Russo-American treaty on system numbers.  Indeed, such broader work on T/CBMs is probably much more useful than simply taking yet another swing at a numerical treaty with the Russians.

III.       Disarmament and Nonproliferation

I’ve spoken and written a lot on the relationship between disarmament and nonproliferation, and I suspect I’ve become something of a professional killjoy in this regard.  To summarize my thinking quickly here, my bottom line is that they are not nearly as connected as one often hears it alleged.

When I was doing nonproliferation diplomacy for the State Department some years ago, I heard it said constantly that if only the United States demonstrated more seriousness about disarmament, others would finally flock to support our nonproliferation policies.  The reasoning was that even though rogue regimes like Iran and North Korea probably wouldn’t change their own policies one whit in response to a U.S. effort to “set a good example” on nuclear disarmament, third parties surely would.  The nonproliferation regime’s division between nuclear weapons-possessing “haves” and non-weapons-state “have nots” was profoundly unfair, it was said, and this unfairness sharply limited many other states’ willingness to cooperate with our nonproliferation policies.  If we took more emphatic steps to disarm, therefore, our nonproliferation policy would be much more successful.

Well, as they say, that was then and this it now.  Notwithstanding President Obama’s April 2009 disarmament rhetoric in Prague, his Nobel Peace Prize, and his conclusion of a START follow-on agreement with Moscow, there has been no discernible nonproliferation groundswell.  The countries that prioritize nonproliferation today are the same ones that prioritized it well-nigh a decade ago, and we have won no conspicuous converts to the nonproliferation cause.  Those who care in any serious way about nonproliferation seem to do so today for the same reasons for which most countries have always taken nonproliferation seriously when they have done so – that is, out of concern for what the world (or their region) would actually be like were a particular country to acquire “The Bomb” – rather than as a result of how quickly or slowly we ourselves seem to be disarming.  (And who can forget that the arguments for how nonproliferation cooperation would be forthcoming “if only” we were finally to take disarmament seriously have been loudest during the very post-Cold War period in which we dismantled 80 percent of our previous nuclear arsenal?  What does it actually take to get credit for progress on disarmament, anyway?)  Meanwhile, the rogue regimes against whom we have for so long sought to mobilize international opposition have now developed larger and more advanced nuclear and missile programs than ever.

Indeed, to the extent that we have managed to win support for more sanctions pressures against Iran and North Korea – sanctions that do not appear to have changed their mind, by the way – we owe this to these rogues’ own provocations.  One can credit Qom, defiance of the IAEA, and production of highly-enriched uranium for today’s somewhat tougher Iran sanctions; and one can credit tougher North Korea sanctions to that country’s nuclear and missile tests, acts of cross-border aggression, and revelations about a longstanding uranium enrichment program.  One cannot, however, plausibly credit U.S. disarmament “credibility.”  In fact, to the degree that we can boast today of tougher United Nations sanctions on Iran and North Korea, we owe this to how willing Moscow and Beijing have been to support such measures at the Security Council.  Since neither of those countries really like the idea of “zero” in the first place – which they fear might leave them unable to deter our conventional military power – we can be confident that the still painfully limited willingness of Russian and Chinese officials to support sanctions owes nothing to our willingness to talk up nuclear abolition.

In truth, countries’ willingness to cooperate against proliferation seems to depend on many other factors much more important than whether or not we make a big show of having a friendly or a skeptical attitude toward nuclear “zero.”  If anything, I wonder whether we might have made things worse by making disarmament so much of a focus of international political attention.  Our reservoir of “spendable” diplomatic and political capital, after all, is finite.  Have we missed nonproliferation opportunities by spending so much time and energy raising disarmament expectations?  (Even if you believe there is a solid linkage between disarmament “credibility” and nonproliferation cooperation, moreover, what happens if – or when – it becomes clear that we will fall short of most of the soaring expectations that we have helped raise?)

One sometimes suspects, in fact, that the whole disarmament-for-nonproliferation gambit has been something of a bait-and-switch game by many of our diplomatic interlocutors.  It increasingly appears to have been an excuse, rather than a reason, for nonproliferation non-cooperation, and real cooperation has receded before us as we have tried to advance toward it.  In any event, we have yet to get anything of significance for our troubles.

IV.       Conclusion

Let me wrap up with some more thoughts about an agenda capable of bringing the two poles of this argument together, at least for a time.  To begin with, we should all approach these issues with intellectual humility.  It is not crystal clear what deters whom, and precisely why.  The role of nuclear weapons in today’s world is complex and multifaceted, and their entanglement with so many aspects of international politics and security affairs ensures that it is very difficult to say anything with great assurance – especially when we are talking about future security environments many years hence.  This is no less true for my friends the hawks than for my intellectual sparring partners among the doves, and I lament that debates over nuclear weapons have become so “theologized” over the years.

The founder of Hudson Institute – the seminal nuclear strategist and futurologist Herman Kahn – once offered some advice for dealing with uncertainty and unpredictability in the public policy arena, and I think we can learn from it.  Kahn advocated what he termed the “agnostic use of information and concepts,” by which he meant that policymakers should be aware that it is possible that even their most basic assumptions might be wrong, and that they should factor this possibility into their planning.  In particular, Kahn suggested that we choose policies and forms of organization in part on the basis of their ability to cope with what he termed “‘off-design’ situations.” This was a way of hedging in the face of uncertainty, encouraging the adoption of approaches capable of degrading well if their animating assumptions turn out to be faulty, or if some unanticipated contingency arises.

To my eye, this isn’t bad advice for a nuclear planner – and it should chasten the “theologians” on both sides of today’s disarmament debates.  I’m attracted to strategies of nuclear complex, warhead, and delivery system modernization in conjunction with efforts to explore the possibility of additional reductions and to build multilateral transparency and confidence-building relationships, and I’m attracted to it precisely because such an approach attempts to hedge in both directions.

  • By seeking to reduce the numbers of weapons as far as we can consistent with the decidedly important role that nuclear weapons still play in our (and other countries’) security planning, this approach aims to reduce the dangers if deterrence fails, to limit the risks of theft or misuse, and to remain alive to the distant possibility that a very different way of ensuring security affairs might one day be possible.
  • At the same time, it eschews the gamble of aiming for abolition, and aims to maintain a robust infrastructure capable both of maintaining a viable, if smaller, force into the indefinite future, and of quickly and reliably reconstituting a larger force if things go awry in the strategic environment.
  • It would approach missile defenses in a similar vein, rejecting the idea of prohibiting or significantly restricting them while yet entertaining no illusions about being able reliably to protect against the most major assaults.  Defensive systems would themselves be a sort of hedge, aspiring to provide real protection against more modest attacks from any axis, in order to make nuclear missilery less attractive to would-be proliferators, to reduce rogue regimes’ ability to threaten us and our friends, and to do what we can to limit the carnage if other calculations should prove mistaken. (Nor would I forsake ongoing defensive research and development of all sorts, for this, too, represents a tool for coping with uncertainty – not only in the negative sense of hedging  against future problems, but also in the positive sense of remaining open to future possibilities that would be conducive to safeguarding our interests and creating a safer and more stable world.)
  • And all the while, this approach would seek to improve transparency confidence-building relationships among key nuclear possessors in order to limit the destabilizing impact of uncertainty, and to smooth and regularize strategic relationships as much as possible – whatever the ultimate direction of our policy turns out to be.

This isn’t strictly a “hawk” agenda, nor certainly is it one likely to make “doves” feel very comfortable.  It partakes, however, of a real strategic vision – deriving from clearly-articulable principles rather than from merely indecision or politico-bureaucratic compromise – and it attempts to provide at least some answer to the strategic challenges and opportunities of our time.  More importantly, I think such an approach simply makes good sense, and that it is something on which would be worthwhile to spend a good deal of time, effort, and money, even in the fiscally constrained circumstances of present-day Washington.

Thanks for listening.  I look forward to our discussion.

-- Christopher Ford

About Dr. Ford

Dr. Christopher Ford took office in January 2018 as the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation. In October 2019, he was delegated the authorities and responsibilities of the Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security. Previously, 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, nor those of the U.S. Government.
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