New Paradigms Forum Proliferation Issues and Much More …


Disarmament and Nonproliferation in the Next Four Years


Below is an edited version of the text upon which Dr. Ford based his remarks on November 28, 2012, to the “Workshop on Nuclear Forces and Nonproliferation” at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

Good afternoon, everyone, and thanks to the Wilson Center and to the Los Alamos National Laboratory for inviting me to this event.  I’d like to say a few words first about disarmament, and then about the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) review process and the nonproliferation regime.

I.          Disarmament: Obama’s Choice

One of the things that nuclear policy boffins outside government are obviously wondering these days is where the disarmament agenda will go over the next four years.  With President Barack Obama having just been re-elected, we will presumably see a renewed push from at least some in the international disarmament community to get the United States to make good on the disarmament-friendly rhetoric of the beginning of Obama’s first term.  (Perhaps, for instance, they will urge the president retroactively actually to earn the apparently anticipatory Nobel Peace Prize he was given in 2009 in large part on the strength of such posturing.)  And indeed there is surely at least some chance that the president – having now been effectively immunized from accountability to the American electorate and having already signaled to the Russians his expectation of having greater “flexibility” in a second term – will oblige such entreaties by rededicating himself to “global zero.”

I have heard Obama Administration officials disclaim any interest in unilateral U.S. reductions, and they claim to be laying the groundwork for a follow-on accord to the Russo-American “New START” agreement of 2010.  Given the various obstacles that stand in the way of negotiating a new treaty with Moscow, and given how hard it was to ratify even the supremely modest provisions of New START, it is far from clear that such plans are realistic.  (A deal might be more feasible if Russia came to see things differently when New START is about to expire and Moscow faces the prospect of having no arms control framework in place the United States, but by that point Obama will have already left office.)  So one should perhaps take present disavowals of unilateral reductions with a grain of salt.  Two or three years from now, one might imagine unilateralism looking rather more attractive to an increasingly desperate, “legacy”-seeking administration faced with the prospect of accomplishing “nothing” on disarmament during Obama’s entire second term.

In that context, one might expect the White House to explore unilateral moves – perhaps claiming to be modeled on the Presidential Nuclear Initiatives (PNIs) of 1991 – that would attempt to evade Congressional accountability.  At any rate, whether unilateral or otherwise, some new push to reinvigorate the dream of “zero” is certainly possible.  Such a push would not, however, be very wise.  Ironically, I suspect that such a drive would probably not consolidate but in fact taint President Obama’s nuclear legacy, and indeed the cause of disarmament more broadly.

This irony comes from the fact that it has become clear over the past four years that there is indeed much good work that can be done in forging and implementing a bipartisan U.S. consensus on nuclear weapons policy, at least in the medium term.  Specifically, while hawks and doves within the U.S. policy community may yet disagree on the ultimate destination (i.e., over the merits of “zero” versus a future of indefinitely-prolonged nuclear deterrence), there is room for broad agreement on what to do for quite some time yet.  Even in his signature April 2009 disarmament speech in Prague, President Obama said that he does not expect nuclear weapons to disappear in his lifetime.  Until they do, however – if they do – it is essential that we have a sound deterrent.

Accordingly, for so long as we retain any nuclear weapons, deterrence and crisis stability require that they be safe, secure, reliable, credibly usable, survivable, and as well-tailored to their potential missions as possible.  We will also need to ensure that our weapons infrastructure is capable of being genuinely responsive to future threats, not least because keeping state-of-the-art weapon design capabilities and a robust production capacity is a critical hedge against future uncertainty without which we would likely need to keep in existence a larger nuclear arsenal.   Such requirements do not lessen with reductions in our nuclear arsenal, and may even increase.  The fewer weapons we possess, the more important it is that those we keep are optimized for modern needs in all these respects, and the more important it is that we maintain the ability to reverse course if we need to.  Such qualitative improvements, therefore, are essential to any serious thinking about numerical reductions – especially in an environment in which others are modernizing and/or enlarging and/or acquiring new nuclear arsenals.

If taken seriously, a dovish “reductions” agenda thus overlaps with a more hawkish “deterrence” agenda in many important respects, at least for quite a few years.  If hawks and disarmers can agree to disagree about the long-term future, in other words, they can work together on many shorter-term matters.  The specific scope of such a consensus has yet to be articulated in detail, but I’d imagine that a remarkable amount of agreement can be found on at many key elements relating to: delivery system modernization (including means of non-strategic delivery); warhead safety, security, and reliability improvements; command and control survivability; ensuring the maintenance of a nuclear infrastructure with state-of-the-art physical and human capital; optimally tailoring our nuclear forces to their anticipated missions so as to be able to reduce them to the lowest possible number; and effective measures to prevent further proliferation of nuclear weaponry and steps (e.g., augmented defenses) to mitigate the damage from non-proliferation failures.

As I’ll get to in a minute with respect to the NPT review process, of course, not all “consensus” is valuable and constructive.  This incipient domestic nuclear consensus, however, is clearly both of those things, for it represents a real measure of agreement on substantive policy issues, rather than a papering over of disagreement through the careful use of airy platitudes.  Accordingly, this consensus can provide a useful way forward in making real-world decisions.

Some of the broad outlines of a domestic nuclear consensus – at least on issues other than the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) – were suggested in the 2009 report of the Strategic Posture Review Commission, but there is much still to be done in fleshing out the programmatic details of a bipartisan agenda.  It will also be difficult to preserve and advance the elements of the consensus agenda in an environment of fiscal austerity, for the kinds of qualitative improvements required even by a reductions agenda can certainly be expensive.  Indeed, some of the promises of support for modernization that were made in connection with ratification of the New START agreement have already unraveled, so there is already much work to do in keeping the emergent consensus from falling apart.

So there are certainly challenges.  I submit, however, that this is an endeavor about which we should actually be quite excited.  Washington isn’t precisely overflowing with bipartisan consensus these days, and I think we should seize this one with both hands.

President Obama thus has a great opportunity here.  He originally ran for president as a bipartisan bridge-builder, but in his first term governed as a partisan enthusiast.  Perhaps now, having run a relentlessly negative and divisive partisan re-election campaign, he will be able similarly to betray expectations by governing as the bridge-builder he claimed to be in 2008.  Nuclear policy is one arena in which the ground seems fertile for just such statesmanship during the next four years.  Stripped of their “zero”-focused packaging, in fact, many of the concrete details of Obama nuclear policy so far have been surprisingly pragmatic, and would be consistent with such an approach: it would not be hard to move forward in a bipartisan way.

But here’s the problem.  If President Obama comes to adopt a “true believer” agenda and decides that now is the time finally to indulge the full-throated disarmament program he worked so hard to encourage the world to expect from him, he could blow this bipartisan consensus to smithereens, making nuclear policy a near-permanent locus of rancor and division both at home and abroad – not to mention the source potentially dangerous pendulum swings in the policy community – in the years ahead.

There are any number of ways President Obama could sabotage his own legacy in this respect, ranging from ill-considered pseudo-PNI unilateralisms to picking a big CTBT fight in the Senate.  A more subtle (but still effective) way to damage the consensus, however, would be to continue to indulge what is now widely understood to have been a fantasy: the idea that we can finally win serious international support for nonproliferation by ostentatiously committing ourselves to “global zero.”

I’ve banged that drum here before, so I won’t harp on the point now.  It’s worth noting, however, that the “credibility thesis” approach of disarmament-engendered nonproliferation cooperation is predicated upon the United States’ assumed responsibility for leading the way to nuclear weapons abolition – a presupposition antithetical to the “agreeing-to-disagree-about-zero” nuclear policy consensus that I advocate.  One can truly cement one’s legacy by developing and leading a bipartisan American nuclear agenda, or one can run around the world earning praise from foreign bien-pensants by proclaiming the imminent dawning of disarmament.  But one cannot, I think, do both.  President Obama faces this choice in his second term.

II.         Nonproliferation

On the subject of nonproliferation, the last four years unfortunately shows how shallow it is to search for “success” as defined by a consensus Final Document at an NPT Review Conference (RevCon).  The United States did indeed get the document it wanted, but none of the energy spent conciliating foreign interlocutors and playing to lowest-common-denominator diplomatic sensibilities seems to have had any meaningful impact in slowing or stopping proliferation or making the nonproliferation regime seem any more viable than before.  Indeed, the one substantive “win” proclaimed at the 2010 RevCon – plans for a much-vaunted meeting that was supposed to help solve the problem of nuclear weapons in the Middle East – has recently collapsed because, to no one’s real surprise, “states in the region have not reached agreement on acceptable conditions for a conference.”   Mere process, it would seem, isn’t such a good substitute for substance after all.

As we face the next four years, it seems to me that U.S. diplomats will need to put more energy and effort into defending nonproliferation on its own terms, making clear how nonproliferation is in the interest of all responsible states whatever happens with regard to “zero.”  This was true at the NPT’s signing in 1968, and it remains true today, but years of disarmament posturing have obscured this critical point.  Perhaps worse, U.S. rhetoric implicitly conceding that nonproliferation cooperation is and should be conditioned upon disarmament progress has reinforced the fallacious (but persistent) argument that the world’s continuing failure to reach “zero” actually justifies contempt for nonproliferation norms by Iran and others.  We need to get out of the business of validating such madness.

Now, I don’t mean to suggest that there is anything intrinsically wrong with yearning for nuclear disarmament as an ultimate goal.  In the way it is addressed in the Preamble and Article VI of the NPT – that is, as an aspiration for the world’s eventual progress, and a destination one might hope someday to achieve through the easing of international tension and the strengthening of trust between States – disarmament is not objectionable.  The aspirational nature of the NPT’s disarmament provisions may be distressing to modern advocates, but it was clearly understood at the outset – as evidenced, for instance, by the 1969 memo prepared by the National Security Council staff explaining to Henry Kissinger that the Preamble and Article VI were “essentially hortatory.”  On such terms – which weren’t rewritten, as some have claimed, by the seemingly implied promises of Clinton Administration diplomacy in 1995 – disarmament has been endorsed by every U.S. president since 1968.

I have no problem talking of disarmament an inherently unworthy eventual goal, provided that we are willing to be honest about several things: (a) the difficulty and distantness of “zero,” if indeed it ever arrives at all; (b) the need to preserve a robust nuclear security posture during such period as nuclear weapons continue to exist, which could be a very long time indeed; and (c) the fact that it is more important to work on easing tensions and strengthening trust than on the Sisyphean labor of trying to bring about significant and lasting arms reductions without having first made such political progress.

Indeed, during my tenure as U.S. Special Representative for Nuclear Nonproliferation in 2006-08, I went to considerable trouble – beginning with the 2007 NPT Preparatory Committee meeting – to take the goal of disarmament seriously and to engage realistically with foreign interlocutors about it in hopes of identifying and discussing the challenges that the world would need to overcome in trying to get to such a destination.   We weren’t so naïve as to promise disarmament, since it was far from clear to us that such an objective would prove either wise or achievable.  Nevertheless, we voiced interest in the idea, and we sought serious dialogue about it in hopes of having a more realistic, sensible, and perhaps productive discussion with our foreign critics.

[NPF editor's note: Some of the materials prepared as part of this U.S. engagement effort with the disarmament community in 2007-08 are now available on NPF, and may be found by clicking here, here, here, or here.]

It didn’t work, however, and we quickly discovered that serious dialogue about the challenges of creating a world in which “zero” was realistically imaginable was of little interest to most disarmament enthusiasts on the NPT diplomatic circuit.  Nor was the United States given any credit for the enormous progress in nuclear demobilization and dismantlement it had achieved since the end of the Cold War.  And there was no discernible “payoff” in diplomatic support for sensible nonproliferation policies, though of course we had been repeatedly promised that if only we showed more disarmament credibility, this would naturally follow.

The lesson we learned didn’t stop the Obama Administration from doubling down on the point by promising U.S.-led disarmament, however, and this has had pernicious effects.  Promises of eventual disarmament are poor things with which to entangle and condition nonproliferation policy in the present day, for the nonproliferation regime is in a grim state that cannot be cured by airy promises about the distant future.  Indeed, as I noted earlier, Obama-era disarmament rhetoric may actually have harmed U.S. nonproliferation diplomacy by implicitly validating the idea that proliferation is justified if NPT nuclear weapons states “betray” their end of some supposed bargain by not reaching “zero.”

Preventing the continued erosion of the nonproliferation regime requires seriousness about nonproliferation for its own sake, and it is high time our diplomats defended it on these terms.

The biggest dangers to the viability of the NPT regime derive from the ongoing nuclear crises in North Korea and in Iran: examples of actual or impending nuclear weapons proliferation – that is, precisely what the Treaty was designed to prevent – that the regime has been dangerously ineffective in confronting.  Problems such as Iran, however, are ones that cannot be addressed in consensus Final Documents precisely because such texts are lowest-common-denominator products that shun honesty and clarity where it might offend anyone liable to raise an objection.  Focusing on consensus and diplomatic process, in other words, all but guarantees that the review process will fail to contribute to meeting the regime’s gravest challenges.

Indeed, the only conceptual and substantive “progress” being made in connection with the NPT process these days is actually retrograde motion – with Iran and its friends staking out progressively clearer and more emphatic positions claiming that all NPT non-nuclear-weapons states have a right to any “peaceful” but proliferation-sensitive technology they want, irrespective of whether it can be adequately safeguarded and regardless of their record of nonproliferation compliance.  Indeed, at the end of August 2012, the Non-Aligned Movement – meeting in Tehran, of course – issued a declaration unanimously supporting Iran’s nuclear claims in just these regards.  What have U.S. diplomats said to rebut this discourse?  Essentially nothing: we have all but surrendered this intellectual terrain to Iran and its apologists.

These two developments tell the observer a great deal about the real health of the NPT, for its biggest problems are either studiously not being addressed in the review process, or they are addressed only on terms both inimical to nonproliferation and unchallenged by our diplomats.  This shows the need for a more forward-leaning and less timorous American NPT agenda.  If we do not spend more time over the next four years defending the nonproliferation regime as such, we may find that there is little of it left for our next president to inherit.

And so we have my twofold challenge to U.S. officials during Barack Obama’s second term.  First, I submit that President Obama should eschew divisive and unworkable “true believer” disarmament enthusiasms, opting instead to lead a bipartisan nuclear policy consensus based on “agreeing to disagree” about “zero” while working to accomplish what both hawks and serious doves should agree are important near-term steps to bring our force posture and infrastructure into the 21st Century and seeking such reductions as would be consistent with present-day conditions irrespective of whether we ever reach abolition.  Second, the president should refocus our diplomatic efforts upon preserving and advancing the nonproliferation regime on its own terms, and upon reclaiming the legal and intellectual terrain that we have hitherto so foolishly ceded to nonproliferation’s enemies.

Thanks for listening.

-- 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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