New Paradigms Forum Proliferation Issues and Much More …


Colloquy: Anne Harrington & Chris Ford on “Nuclear Weapons as a Currency of Power”


This essay comes to NPF from Dr. Anne I. Harrington, who is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, where she is working on her book manuscript, Nuclear Philosophy. Prior to moving to Monterey, she held a Stanton Nuclear Security Fellowship at Stanford's Center for International Security and Cooperation.  Dr. Ford adds a few thoughts of his own at the end.  We hope readers enjoy the colloquy.


By Dr. Anne I. Harrington

Why are nuclear weapons powerful? The answer seems so obvious that most experts in the field of nuclear security do not pose the question. Instead, analyses open with archetypical statements about the “destructive power” of nuclear weapons, or with a passing reference to their role as a symbol of power and prestige. In other words, there is a presumption that nuclear weapons are powerful because they are explosive and that simply having access to the possibility of that destructive force is enough to confer an elevated status upon the possessor.

In contrast to this conventional wisdom, I argue that nuclear weapons derive their power from the fact that they are both scarce and durable. The material used to create a nuclear warhead is scarce and durable by nature. It is difficult to produce, but once in existence degrades so slowly that its lifecycle challenges the limits of human comprehension.

The practices of deterrence and nonproliferation accentuate these natural qualities. Deterrence—a military strategy that discourages attack through the threat of retaliation—accentuates durability. An effective nuclear deterrent requires an arsenal of reliable warheads always available and securely stored. Rather than being produced for the purpose of using them on the battlefield, these weapons are produced in order to prevent their use. Nonproliferation enhances the natural scarcity of nuclear weapons. It is a diplomatic strategy codified in international law that regulates access to nuclear technology and limits their legitimate possession.

Their explosive yield makes nuclear weapons destructive, but they are powerful because of the confidence that exists in the institutionalized practices that link their capacity for destruction to rational political ends. Without deterrence and nonproliferation, the fact that states have produced tens of thousands of nuclear warheads that could destroy the earth many times over—in the name of making themselves more (rather than less) secure—begins to appear strange to the point of becoming absurd.

Taken together, deterrence and nonproliferation transform nuclear weapons from an instrument of force into a currency of power. They create is a system in which states are able to trade on the possession of nuclear weapons (or threat thereof) in order to achieve ends not achievable through force alone.

Identifying nuclear weapons as a currency of power offers an academic explanation for why a world free of nuclear weapons is both possible and desirable. Creating a theory to compete with deterrence theory is an essential aspect of building support for nuclear abolition among academics and policy experts. The ridged adherence to deterrence theory is a major stumbling block to envisioning a world free of nuclear weapons. Deterrence equates nuclear weapons with power, as if power were something that you could store up—the same way countries store their nuclear weapons. Therefore, ridding the world of nuclear weapons is tantamount to eliminating power, a goal that is both logically impossible and undesirable. Deterrence theory envisions a world in which “nuclear breakout” is inevitable, as if disarmament were a process of repressing power, and it would only be a matter of time until the nuclear jack-in-the-box springs back out taking us by surprise.

In contrast, a theory of nuclear weapons as a currency of power locates the power of the weapons in the institutions dedicated to reducing nuclear dangers. Although the physical presence of the weapons was necessary for confidence in those institutions to seed and grow, as the institutions become more robust, the weapons themselves become less essential. Therefore, break-out events will be less likely and easier to anticipate than deterrence theory would have us believe. Right now states have every incentive to pursue nuclear weapons as a bargaining chip on which they trade for security, recognition, and various kinds of aid in international arms control and nonproliferation negotiations. If this interpretation is correct, break-out will look less like a race and more like a poker game in which the stakes are raised progressively in rounds as states approach institutional barriers and threaten to cross them one by one—eventually bringing us back into a world of nuclear deterrence much like the one we live in today.

From this theory of nuclear weapons as a currency of power, it is possible to deduce policy relevant implications, many of which are quite similar to the steps already outlined by the Nuclear Security Project:

  • Maintaining confidence in the U.S. pledge to disarm stems further nuclear proliferation by motivating states to participate in a common project.
  • Deepening an inspections regime for verification of compliance based on multi-lateral and bilateral agreements.
  • U.S. ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty should be the next policy priority, followed by a Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty and a Nuclear Fuel Bank. These steps are far more important than further reductions in U.S. and Russian nuclear stockpiles.
  • Building popular support for a world free of nuclear weapons creates political momentum.
  • This campaign should point not only to future catastrophic costs, but also highlight past and future costs (i.e. nuclear testing turned the U.S. into the “most nuclear-bombed nation on earth.”)
  • Investing in the National Labs maintains confidence in the U.S. deterrent capability.
  • Funding should be forward focused on projects that push the limits of human technological capabilities. In particular, mastering simulation technologies is essential. Continued confidence in the U.S. mastery of nuclear knowledge as the arsenal is de-alerted allows storage of warheads to become what backs the currency, rather than the currency itself.

The goal of these policies is to keep the power of nuclear weapons while reducing nuclear danger by building on the success of nuclear deterrence. We’ve run the risk of nuclear accident or attack from weapons on hair-trigger alert for more than half a century. Now it is time to take a different kind of risk by walking back our dependence on nuclear weapons, and building on the institutional foundations of deterrence, arms control and nonproliferation to create a firmer footing for the future.

-- Anne Harrington


NPF thanks Anne Harrington for her essay offering what might be called an “economic” theory and critique of nuclear weapons possession.  Hers is an ambitious exposition, and one that may offer a useful way to think about nuclear weaponry.  I disagree, however, with her conclusion that this analytical framework provides a coherent argument for disarmament.  If anything, I would argue that her logic points to why the dream of complete nuclear disarmament is likely to be a mirage.

Harrington’s argument posits that “nuclear weapons derive their power from the fact that they are both scarce and durable.”  She argues that military strategies that stress deterrence – and nonproliferation policies that limit access to nuclear tools – are designed to perpetuate the power of weapons possession by “accentuat[ing]” this durability and scarcity.  (Deterrence furthers durability by trying to ensure that weapons remain in existence but are not used, while nonproliferation serves scarcity by keeping the number of players to a minimum.)  This is the foundation of her argument, which depicts nuclear weapons not as weapons per se but as “a currency of power,” on the possession of which states trade “in order to achieve ends not achievable through force alone.”

Harrington says that this analysis points us to “why a world free of nuclear weapons is both possible and desirable.”  Buying into conventional notions of deterrence, she contends, tends toward the conclusion that complete nuclear disarmament is impossible, for this would be “tantamount to eliminating power [itself], a goal that is both logically impossible and undesirable.”  In contrast, however, she claims that her “theory of nuclear weapons as a currency of power locates the power of the weapons in the institutions dedicated to reducing nuclear dangers” rather than in the weapons themselves.

Harrington’s essay is not, to my eye, entirely clear on this point, but the key idea seems to be that since the social conventions of non-use and nonproliferation are what makes nuclear weaponry valuable to possessor states – namely, by ensuring durability and scarcity – the dangers of nuclear “break-out events” occurring as disarmament proceeds would actually be lower than the traditional game-theoretical view predicts.  Possessors, in other words, have a power-maximization interest in progressive disarmament and in not undertaking “break-out,” because the value of nuclear weapons as a “currency of power” increases with smaller numbers.

From this conclusion, Harrington says that a number of disarmament-friendly policy recommendations follow, not least the need to encourage nonproliferation by “[m]aintaining confidence in the U.S. pledge to disarm,” and to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).  (Harrington’s comment that “[b]uilding popular support for a world free of nuclear weapons creates political momentum,” by the way, is a tautology rather than a policy recommendation, but her belief in the desirability of such momentum is clear enough.)

Although I was initially attracted to her “durability and scarcity” idea as an intriguing way to think about these problems, however, unless I have misunderstood something important in Harrington’s argument, it fails to support her conclusions.

First, her argument seems to consider only the situation of nuclear weapons possessors such as the United States.  She contents, in effect, that as scarcity increases and durability is maintained, the “currency of power” value of nuclear weapons might be augmented, rather than undercut, by nonproliferation institutions and by disarmament progress toward the asymptote of “zero.”   I’m not sure how far this gets us.

For one thing, it isn’t clear that this really follows, for while the power-value of nuclear weapons for any particular possessor would increase with their scarcity in the hands of other players – that is, by keeping the circle of weapons-holders as small as possible – it is less obvious that it is in a possessor’s interest for its own holdings to shrink.  If you can deter someone else more effectively with a larger arsenal than with a smaller one, then it follows that from the perspective of any given possessor, Harrington’s value of “durability” is not necessarily best served by one’s own reductions – just those of others.

Harrington may be making a mistake in effectively focusing upon the value to possessors of any single nuclear weapon, rather than upon the value of their arsenal as a whole.  The power-maximization goal of any particular player is presumably not necessarily to ensure that each of its weapons has as much value as possible, but rather to maximize the aggregated power-value under his control.  The marginal value of one player’s single nuclear weapon would presumably be much higher than that of any individual weapon in another country’s arsenal of several thousand devices, for example, but it’s hard to see that the single-weapon-holder is better off than his better-armed rival from a power-maximization perspective.  Indeed, in such circumstances, having a single weapon might even entail negative “currency” value, because that rival would face powerful incentives to strike preemptively in order to destroy that sole weapon and thus guarantee his own “countervalue” survival in any conflict.  (Giving your adversary the incentive to destroy one’s only weapon in a first strike certainly undercuts its durability, and while such preemption might increase the “scarcity” of nuclear weapons in the world as a whole, that would be small consolation to the player who loses it in such an attack.)

More damagingly still, from the perspective of non­-possessors, Harrington’s “currency” theory of nuclear weaponry doesn’t seem to do much to make “zero” seem like a stable end state.  As disarmament progresses – at least before abolition, anyway – weapons scarcity within the global system would indeed increase, of course, and the power-value of nuclear weapons would indeed in some sense increase also.  But while this may give possessors a stake in nonproliferation, it may cut precisely in the opposite direction for non-possessors.  For them, the increasing value of the marginal weapon creates incentives for proliferation.

As possessor states divest themselves of their weapons, the value of becoming even an “entry-level” new player in this system increases – ensuring that nonproliferation institutions must work ever harder as “zero” approaches, and that they must work essentially perfectly at the asymptote of abolition.  This is not a new insight, for analysts have worried for years about the proliferation incentives that are created by nuclear disarmament’s very progress, but it is no less problematic a dynamic for being well understood.  At the point of “zero,” after all, every player with the technical ability to produce nuclear weapons would face at least some incentive, especially in a crisis, to take advantage of “break-out” and become, even if only temporarily, a nuclear monopolist.

As Thomas Schelling and others have observed, such situations may also create augmented incentives to use nuclear weapons – an idea that fits only awkwardly with the pro-disarmament thrust of Harrington’s scarcity and durability logic.  At “zero,” the power value of the first few nuclear weapons produced by a monopolist may lie most in detonating them in order to preclude another state from developing its own production capability.  (If I can use a golden egg from my goose to kill your goose before it can start laying such eggs for you, I maximize the power-value of any eggs I retain or that my goose can subsequently produce.  Nothing economically irrational there.)

And I don’t see how Harrington’s analysis gets us beyond this problem.  If anything, her logic highlights how much more difficult nonproliferation is likely to be as disarmament proceeds, and how even more hugely challenging it would be at “zero” – when scarcity is at its theoretical maximum and the ability to deter others with new or reconstituted devices also maximizes “durability” in the sense that Harrington uses the term (and hence the value of building weapons).

Hers doesn’t seem, in other words, to be an argument that takes us beyond traditional deterrence theory.  Rather, it seems to underscore the conceptual incoherence of “nuclear zero” when viewed through a game-theoretical prism, and it reinforces conventional understandings that possessors have an interest both in keeping entry barriers high for others and in retaining a goodly number of weapons for themselves.

As for the policy recommendations that she alleges follow from her argument, many of them would seem to collapse with the failure of her broader disarmament logic.  Disarmament doesn’t support nonproliferation but increases proliferation incentives, especially at “zero” itself, both giving non-weapons states more of an interest in getting into the game and giving existing possessors greater incentives to fear getting out of it.

Not all of Harrington’s recommendations collapse with her pro-disarmament argumentation, however.  I see nothing in her economic logic, for instance, that would make it in advisable to create a nuclear fuel bank, though it might make non-weapons state players more reluctant than she would like actually to forego fissile material production in return for fuel supplies from such a repository.  And I have myself argued the critical value of “[i]nvesting in the National Labs” in order to ensure “[c]ontinued confidence in the U.S. mastery of nuclear knowledge” and “maintain[] confidence in the U.S. deterrent capability.”

Harrington’s “theory of nuclear weapon as a currency of power” may give us an interesting additional way to understand the difficulties of disarmament, but to my eye it does not actually help identify a path to abolition.

-- Christopher Ford


I am very grateful to Chris Ford for his feedback. As always, he demonstrated his ability to move effortlessly between different levels of analysis, not only focusing on details of day-to-day of policy relevant analysis, but also manipulating and defending the theoretical principles on which he bases his policy recommendations.

Ford is correct that the main point of reconceptualizing nuclear weapons as a currency of power is to argue that nuclear break-out events would be less likely than traditional game-theoretic arguments would suggest, and that the social conventions of non-use and nonproliferation are a key component of why that is the case. As he states, I am arguing that possessors have a power-maximization interest in progressive disarmament and in not undertaking break-out. However, that argument is not based only on the idea that “the value nuclear weapons increases with smaller numbers.”

What I am arguing is that possessor states not only have an interest in moving toward low numbers. They have an interest in moving into a post-nuclear power economy. Therefore, moves towards low numbers must be made in conjunction with building confidence in the international institutions supported by advances in safeguard and verification technologies. These institutions and technologies will fill the power void left by nuclear weapons in much the same way that paper currency backed by the U.S. government filled the void left by transitioning away from the gold standard. This new power economy would be based on the international regulation of all nuclear materials and supported by deterrence practices based on virtual arsenals and high strategic impact, low violence strategies for the employment of military force.

The puzzle as I see it is why nuclear possessor states are still willing to assume the costs and risks associated with creating and maintaining nuclear weapons, while they are not willing to countenance any of the risks associated with relying on international institutions to regulate access to nuclear materials.

Widening our conceptual lens to understand of how deterrence and nonproliferation work together to transform nuclear weapons into a currency of power, gives us a better perspective on how to take into account the current costs of maintaining nuclear warheads that are obscured by the narrow focus of deterrence theory (which only gives us a way to look at potential future costs of a nuclear attack). One of the interesting aspects of the way currencies work is that individuals relate to them as if they were absolutely costless to produce and reproduce (think of how you relate to a dollar bill), although they know very well that work is being done to maintain the appearance that currency is timeless. This is because individuals value currencies primarily for their “exchange value” (or in the case of nuclear weapons “threat value”) as opposed to their “use value.” As long as you can maintain confidence in your “exchange” or “threat” value the actual object that you use to facilitate the exchange can take many different forms. The less costly the currency is to produce and maintain, the better.

Nuclear possessor states have an interest in reducing the costs of producing and maintaining their ‘currency of power.’ During the Cold War there were few opportunities to collect information on the current financial, social and environmental costs of nuclear weapons due to the prevailing culture of US national security.  Today the U.S. had the dubious distinction of being the most nuclear-bombed nation on earth and the risks associated with that environmental contamination are poorly understood. There are also the potential costs associated with accidents, the threat that a nuclear warhead will fall into the hands of a non-state terrorist group, and of course the risk that nuclear deterrence will fail.

Shouldering the costs of producing and maintaining nuclear weapons made sense during an era when international institutions were incipient and international conflicts were routinely settled through the use of large-scale military force.  At the time, deterrence was nothing but an untested theory. There was no model for “cold war” competition, or the kind of peaceful power transition that marked its end. The United States and the Soviet Union had not gone through the process of demonstrating the full potential of the new nuclear technology through its testing and development. The only way to build confidence in deterrence was through producing and maintaining nuclear weapons.

In contrast, today nuclear deterrence is taken-for-granted as the cornerstone of U.S. national security policy. Moreover, the U.S. has already begun the process of walking back the need to physically interact with the explosive properties of the weapons in order to maintain confidence in the power of their deterrent, instead utilizing advances in simulation technologies to certify the reliability of its nuclear warheads. These technological advances in simulation technologies, in turn support the deepening of the nonproliferation regime by enabling possessor states to remain in compliance with the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

Currently, there is no theoretical paradigm that competes with deterrence theory to help us envision a condition of strategic stability based on a different configuration of violence, force and power. Building a theory of nuclear weapons as a currency of power is a defense of deterrence without nuclear weapons. It is an attempt to build on the success of nuclear deterrence and nonproliferation to work towards a theoretical foundation for “a world free of nuclear weapons.” In conclusion, I am grateful for the invitation to post to NPF and for the opportunity to benefit from feedback.

(Just a note of clarification: The idea that “[b]uilding popular support for a world free of nuclear weapons creates political momentum,” is a tautology that assumes that popular support and political momentum are the same thing. To clarify, I am positing that there is a distinction between grass roots, populist support for a position, and the momentum that an idea can take on within elite policy circles that turns it into a “realistic” policy initiative. In a representative democracy these two things are only indirectly related. This was obviously not clear in my original statement.)

-- Anne Harrington


I agree that “there is no theoretical paradigm that competes with deterrence theory to help us envision a condition of strategic stability based on a different configuration of violence, force and power.”  For the reasons outlined in my response above, however, I don’t see that “[b]uilding a theory of nuclear weapons as a currency of power” gets us there either.

I think we’ve probably given readers plenty to chew on for now, but I would like to take issue with the idea that nuclear material access-controls and nuclear weapons possession itself may be substituted one for the other “in much the same way that paper currency backed by the U.S. government filled the void left by transitioning away from the gold standard.”  This analogy is probably a poor one for several reasons, but one of them is that both paper currency and gold currency have an all but completely socially-constructed value.  After all, as a substance, gold is pretty and uncommon, but you cannot feasibly eat it, wear it, or use it to warm yourself in the winter, protect yourself from the sun, or make useful tools.  We tend to think that gold is radically different than paper money, but it really isn’t.  It just feels more substantial.

(Anyway, even the “gold standard” didn’t really entail transacting in gold, which people haven’t done for a very long time.  It just meant that, in theory, one could swap a greenback on demand for what was declared to be its “equivalent” in gold.  The government kept a stock of that metal stashed away, with which it would theoretically honor any such claim.  So trading on the basis of the seeming certainty of gold just meant that you both were willing to accept the social convention that a certain quantity of that metal was equivalent to what you wanted to buy and that you were sufficiently willing to honor the government’s promise regarding certain slips of paper that you didn’t bother to go get your gold first.  At any rate, no medium of exchange was involved that had any intrinsic value or in itself enabled one actually to do anything: our paper currency wasn’t backed up by hammers, horses, hairbrushes, or anything else with inherent use value.)

The difference between actual nuclear weapons and potential nuclear weapons – let alone between access controls and weapons possession – is qualitatively different than that between gold and paper currency, because their “value” is not wholly socially-constructed.  Nuclear weapons can really do something: they can make a shockingly huge explosion that can kill lots of people and/or destroy just about any man-made target you like.  This is why whatever use they have as a “currency of power” is not based solely on their being scarce and durable.  (They may be scarce, and they may be durable, but they are also an exceedingly powerful tool.)

International institutions designed to control access to nuclear materials thus cannot do all of what nuclear weapons can do.  Such institutions may help you keep another party from developing nuclear weapons that it might use against you, which is certainly something of value.  But they cannot be used to attack him, nor can they be used to deter or defeat his non-nuclear attack.  For this reason, they are not cleanly “exchangeable” for nuclear weaponry.  (Nor, in fact, are “virtual” nuclear weapons, which are scarcely more freely substitutable for real ones at the asymptote of zero than is a pistol for a hillock full of iron ore.  One might be able, with time and effort, to transform the latter into the former, but if I currently have one of those goods and you have the other, it is quite clear who would win a conflict between us.)

One can probably trade off the capability to build weapons against weapons-in-being to some extent short of zero, and indeed this notion has been a part of post-Cold War U.S. policy for some time. (We don’t do a very good job at this, mind you, for we are under-funding the very nuclear infrastructure that we need for such R&D and productive-capacity hedging.  But that’s the theory, anyway.)  This logic, however, collapses near the asymptote of abolition, for the break-out incentives and crisis-instability risks at nuclear “zero” derive from the enormous difference it makes if I can turn my ore into a firearm before you can, or if I’ve managed to keep a pistol hidden in my closet while you went unsuspectingly back to the “ore standard.”  The problem, in other words, is precisely that these “currencies of power” don’t have the same exchange or threat value.

Consequently, I myself don’t think it’s quite so puzzling that “nuclear possessor states are still willing to assume the costs and risks associated with creating and maintaining nuclear weapons, while they are not willing to countenance any of the risks associated with relying on international institutions to regulate access to nuclear materials.”

(By the way, it is also worth noting for the record that nuclear possessors are indeed willing to take risks in relying on international institutions to regulate access to nuclear materials, and have done so every day for decades, for this is precisely what occurs with our collective reliance upon the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and the International Atomic Energy Agency to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons development.  Given that nuclear weapons are not the only weapons in the world, and that states in the international system differ enormously in their size and strength, I doubt that all current possessors would be too happy with “zero” even if the world’s access-control institutions worked flawlessly.  Given that these mechanisms do their job so imperfectly, however, non-disarmament by the possessor states is all the easier to understand.)

But I think that’s more than enough for now.  As I understand Anne may be relocating soon to the Washington, D.C. office of the Center for Nonproliferation Studies, I look forward to continuing these discussions in person, over coffee or some other appropriate beverage.  I hope readers have enjoyed this colloquy.

-- 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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