New Paradigms Forum Proliferation Issues and Much More …


Responding to the “Ban”


Below are remarks Dr. Ford delivered in his official capacity -- as Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for WMD and Counterproliferation at the U.S. National Security Council -- on August 22, 2017, at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, D.C.

Good morning, everyone.  It is always a pleasure to come to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and I’m very happy for the chance to talk to you.  I would like to thank George Perkovich, Toby Dalton, and the entire team here at Carnegie for being such gracious hosts for this event – and to thank all of you for coming.

As many of you know, I serve as Special Assistant to the President and run the Weapons of Mass Destruction and Counterproliferation Directorate at the U.S. National Security Council.  I’m sure you can all understand the critical importance of the issues within my portfolio to U.S. national security.  As I have previously noted in other fora, my team and I are leading policy reviews of various arms control and disarmament-related regimes and approaches.  The purpose of these reviews is to ensure that U.S. policy in these areas does as much as it can to protect and advance U.S. national security interests.  We are reviewing past policies inherited from multiple administrations and questioning received wisdoms in order to ensure that our approaches are grounded as much as possible in clear understandings of U.S. interests and administration priorities.

In some areas, our policies are likely to differ from what was done before, but in others there will likely be much continuity.  Many of our reviews are still underway, but it is gradually becoming possible to say more about some matters.

To that end, I would like to spend a few minutes today speaking for the Administration on an issue related to nuclear disarmament, in particular, the treaty negotiated at the United Nations to “ban” nuclear weapons.  As President Trump has said in the past, ideally he would like to be able to get rid of nuclear weapons: in a perfect world, they would not exist.  Unfortunately, however, he also understands that we do not live in that perfect world – at least not yet, at any rate.

The United States is committed, and is indeed bound by treaty, to pursue negotiations on effective measures for nuclear disarmament that make such a world more likely.  We have no obligation to pursue negotiations on ineffective measures, however, and in fact probably have a moral duty to oppose measures which would make that potential future less likely by making the world of today less secure and less stable.

This is what concerns us about the proposed “ban” – which, whatever its arguable good intentions, certainly is not an effective measure relating to disarmament and is indeed very likely to be notably counterproductive.  If anything, in fact, it is hard to imagine an effort that would be better calculated to discredit the disarmament community by demonstrating to nuclear weapons possessors – and to any state that in any way relies upon nuclear weapons for its national security – that advocates of the “ban” are fundamentally unserious about addressing the real challenges of maintaining peace and security in a complicated and dangerous world, and about trying to make that world a genuinely safer place.

No Nuclear Reductions but Increased International Instability

As many of you know, neither the United States nor any other state possessing nuclear weapons participated in the “ban” Treaty negotiations, and no such state will join such a Treaty.  This simple fact leads one to the inexorable conclusion that the “ban” Treaty will not actually accomplish its stated purposed – to “ban” nuclear weapons – because it will not actually eliminate a single nuclear weapon.

What the “ban” treaty may do is make the world a more dangerous and unstable place by seeking to delegitimize the “extended deterrence” alliance relationships that the United States has with its allies in Europe and in the Asia-Pacific – relationships which for decades have contributed to international peace and security by deterring aggression by expansionist powers.  Considering the threats that the United States, its extended deterrence allies and security partners face right now, it would be extraordinarily foolish and dangerous to undercut these deterrent relationships.  If it harmed those extended deterrence relationships, the “ban” would actually work against international peace and security, making conflict and aggression more likely, degrading existing security relationships, and thus actually undermining stability and increasing the risk of escalation and nuclear conflict.

It is important to keep in mind that the “ban” attempts simultaneously to bar any assistance to or involvement with any activity prohibited by the treaty and to make any involvement in nuclear weapons relationships an activity prohibited by the treaty.  As a result, some might seek to interpret the “ban” to make it unlawful for any State Party to the “ban” to engage in any security relationship with a country that relies in part upon nuclear weapons for its own security.  States Party to the “ban” might also be pressured to suppress any involvement by their nationals or businesses in commercial relationships with any entities involved in such relationships. This could cut off dozens or hundreds of countries from essential security relationships they presently enjoy with any nuclear weapons possessors or any state in Europe or East Asia otherwise involved in “extended deterrence” relationships, upending much of today’s international security environment.

Make Disarmament More Unlikely

Proponents of the nuclear weapons “ban” seek to create a world in which nuclear weapons no longer exist.  What “ban” proponents must realize, however, is that this treaty not only will not accomplish its purpose – the banning of nuclear weapons – it is also likely to make nuclear disarmament less, not more, likely.  The nuclear disarmament policies of the Obama Administration, as stated in his 2009 speech in Prague, played to and encouraged unrealistic expectations for nuclear disarmament, as well as setting the stage for equally unjustified frustrations when such wildly unrealistic expectations were not met.  The “ban” effort grows out of, and exacerbates, these dynamics, and will undoubtedly poison relationships between its advocates and the many countries that sincerely seek a better world but also either have nuclear weapons themselves or otherwise rely upon them for protection against potential aggression in the world in which we currently live. Meanwhile, it encourages a pernicious false equivalency between those states with nuclear weapons who seek to upend the global order, none of which are representative democracies, and the United States and our Allies – who for decades have successfully used nuclear deterrence to prevent war between the great powers, forestall forcible territorial revision in Europe and Asia, and preserve global stability.

As a result, the new treaty may, ironically, make nuclear disarmament less likely than ever.   But this is not only true in terms of broad geopolitical effect, for the proposed treaty bakes some actual impediments to disarmament into its actual text.  Its Article 1 provisions, for example, would actually prohibit a nuclear weapons possessor that joined the treaty from assisting with the safe and effective removal and dismantlement of another country’s nuclear weapons.  Even if the ban effort otherwise made sense, this seems a needless, self-imposed obstacle to actually bringing about the global dismantlement the text purportedly wishes to see occur.

Disarmament and Nonproliferation Would be Unverifiable

Any responsible effort to rid the world of nuclear weapons must address the challenges with verifying their elimination.  The United States has long recognized the importance of verification measures and continues to support efforts, such as the International Partnership for Nuclear Disarmament Verification, to tackle this problem.  The “ban” treaty, on the other hand, seems remarkably unserious about disarmament verification, for it leaves all significant disarmament verification issues to be determined later.  The idea that the ban treaty might provide a framework for verifying the dismantlement of a state’s nuclear program is wishful, and indeed simply magical, thinking.

Furthermore, on the crucial issue of nonproliferation verification, the “ban” actually enshrines a significant step backwards by endorsing a system that has been understood for the last two decades as being entirely inadequate to the task of keeping a non-nuclear weapon state from diverting peaceful nuclear technology to prohibited purposes.

Under the new treaty, the baseline requirement for states to comply with their nonproliferation verification obligations is a so-called INFCIRC/153 comprehensive safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).  Such agreements require countries to declare all their nuclear materials and authorize IAEA inspectors to verify that such materials are not diverted, but as our experience with Iraq showed us more than 20 years ago, they are not a sufficient tool to address a government that is seeking to hide a nuclear program. It is therefore appalling that negotiators did not see fit to also require adherence to an Additional Protocol. This astonishing choice strikes a blow against the existing verification standard.

The “ban” thus contains no system at all for verifying actual nuclear disarmament – a point that goes back to my earlier observation that the treaty is entirely unserious about real disarmament – and is a step backwards on the related critical issue of verifying nondiversion. This approach is doomed to ineffectiveness, particularly were these weak verification procedures applied to sophisticated former possessors of nuclear weaponry with long and deep experience in nuclear weapons design, development, production, and maintenance.  The “ban” approach, in fact, is the same approach that all but invited some states to cheat with regard to clandestine nuclear weapons programs.

The drafters of the “ban” were either unaware of that their text suffered from these crushing problems, or they knew it and just didn’t care.  In neither case, however, does the effort seem a very serious one; it’s hard to see how anyone who truly cared about these issues could support it.

Legal Implications

Those countries participating in the negotiation of the “ban” treaty text achieved their goal of producing a text as quickly as possible.  But in doing so, they also seem to have provided an example of the phenomenon described in the saying, “If you want it bad, you get it bad.”  The treaty seems to fall on its face in its avowed purpose of seeking to create or foster a new norm of non-possession, and indeed its drafting seems likely to have some potentially perverse and very problematic consequences for States Party to the treaty.

Fundamentally, the “ban” treaty would not impose any new legal obligation upon non-participating nuclear weapons possessors or their allies.  Moreover, the “ban” would have no impact upon customary international law.  If anything, in fact, rather than creating or solidifying such a norm, the treaty process makes clear that there is no customary international legal norm against nuclear weapons possession.

To begin with, the states whose practice and opinio juris matter for purposes of forming new norms of customary international law related to the possession of nuclear weapons do not actually support the “ban”, do not believe there is any legal norm of non-possession, and have consistently and repeatedly voiced their opposition to any such legal rule.

Moreover, the “ban” treaty itself demonstrates that there is no legal norm of non-possession of nuclear weapons, and its very text contradicts the idea that nuclear weapons possession is per se unlawful.  The “ban” contemplates that countries may join it while still possessing nuclear weapons, or while having such weapons stationed in their territory.  They would only have to eliminate such things pursuant to deadlines that are not set in the treaty itself and that would have to be determined by a meeting of States Party subsequent to their accession to the treaty.  Countries with nuclear weapons can in theory remain in the treaty, therefore, for some period of time of indefinite duration that cannot be known beforehand, assuming that it is indeed set at all.  Plainly, this does not support any belief in the per se impermissibility or unlawfulness of possession.  Moreover, the “ban” treaty also expressly contemplates that it may not, in fact, be the final instrument on nuclear disarmament, since States Party are expected to consider “further measures for nuclear disarmament” in the future.  This also seems incompatible with the existence of any norm of non-possession.

I should also point out another remarkable problem in the structure of the treaty that hasn’t drawn the attention it deserves.  The text of the “ban” treaty seems to impose a grave, and potentially fatal, legal burden upon any State Party that is attacked by a more powerful state and decides it may need to acquire nuclear weapons – or rely upon the weapons of another state – for its own self-preservation.  Under the terms of the “ban”, a country can withdraw from the treaty only if “extraordinary events … have jeopardized the supreme interests of its country.”  If an aggressor attacks that country during the 12 month period before such withdrawal becomes effective, however, the country will be prohibited from withdrawing for so long as such a conflict continues.  Because withdrawal can only occur in the face of “extraordinary events” that are “related to the subject matter of the Treaty,” it is not even clear that withdrawal would be permitted if a State Party were not attacked with nuclear weapons.  It might, for instance, be required to suffer unlimited attack by overwhelming conventional military force without any recourse to withdrawal.  According to the text of the “ban”, no reservations are to be permitted to any article of the treaty – including to the remarkable withdrawal restrictions.  These withdrawal provisions therefore sound almost like they would require national suicide for any small power attacked with nuclear weapons or with overwhelming conventional military force.  It is very hard to see how it would be in the national security interest of any state to agree to any such rules.

Damage to the Global Nonproliferation Regime

Finally, as a firm believer in the global nonproliferation regime, let me stress what a terrible idea the “ban” treaty is likely to be from a nonproliferation perspective.  Longstanding U.S. policy has sought, through a variety of bilateral and multilateral mechanisms, to strengthen the nuclear nonproliferation regime.  The “ban” treaty, on the other hand, is likely to harm the effective operation of the global nonproliferation regime by increasingly entangling and preoccupying vital nonproliferation institutions – e.g., the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) review process and the International Atomic Energy Agency – in sterile but contentious debates and disputes over disarmament policy, making it harder for them to do the job the international community needs them to do in preventing nuclear proliferation.

As previously mentioned, the “ban” treaty is likely to undermine the effectiveness of IAEA nuclear safeguards worldwide, because it endorses and relies on a safeguards model from 1972 that the IAEA and the rest of the international community have known since the 1990s is dangerously inadequate for purposes of preventing illicit nuclear activity.  This is likely to undermine longstanding IAEA efforts to move nuclear safeguards best practices to the model of the IAEA “Additional Protocol” of 1997, and thus have the net impact of making global nuclear safeguards weaker and less effective.

The “ban” treaty is also likely to damage the global nonproliferation regime by undermining the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) that forms a cornerstone of that regime.  ability of States to advance nonproliferation through the NPT review process.  In addition to the fundamental legal differences between the treaties – not least of which is the inadequate verification standard I already described that contrasts unfavorably with the evolving standard of the NPT, politically and diplomatically, the “ban” is likely to create what is in effect a competitor regime to the NPT, and one that would be far less effective in controlling and reducing nuclear dangers.  Whether by impeding the effective functioning of the NPT regime or even by enticing defections from the NPT system the “ban” may undermine global nonproliferation norms and institutions in favor of an ineffective and dysfunctional alternative.

Why any real supporter of disarmament would countenance anything likely to have such a damaging effect upon the nonproliferation regime is beyond me.  Whatever other conditions would also have to obtain in order to make nuclear disarmament a feasible policy option for any present or future weapons possessor, it is hard to imagine you could ever persuade a possessor to give up nuclear tools without rock-solid assurances that other countries will not be able to develop them – that is, without rock-solid confidence in the nonproliferation regime.  If the “ban” damages the nonproliferation regime as I fear it is very likely to do, therefore, this is yet another way in which the new treaty represents a spectacular “own goal” for the disarmament movement.

The Bottom Line

For all of the above reasons, it is hard to imagine a diplomatic and legal effort that would be better calculated to discredit the disarmament community by demonstrating – to nuclear weapons possessors, to any state that in any way relies upon nuclear weapons for its national security, and to any thoughtful observer of this process – that advocates of the “ban” are fundamentally unserious about addressing the real challenges of maintaining peace and security in a complicated and dangerous world, and of trying to make that world a genuinely safer place.

I don’t imagine I’ll have convinced all of you that this is the case, but I do hope I’ve been able to shine a little more critical light on the “ban” effort and its myriad problems.  I’m sorry to have to offer such a long litany of complaints, but I do believe treaty deserves them.  If its proponents really wished to reduce nuclear dangers and make the actual odds of a peacefully disarmed world at least somewhat better, there are surely far better things they could have done.  This treaty is likely to make things worse.

Thanks again for inviting me.

-- 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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