New Paradigms Forum Proliferation Issues and Much More …


Advancing American Security through Arms Control and Nonproliferation: A Look at the First 11 months of the Trump Administration


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 November 30, 2017, at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.

Good morning to everyone, and let me say that it is a pleasure to return to the Los Alamos National Laboratory’s annual workshop on nuclear forces and nonproliferation.  Thanks to Joe Pilat for the kind introduction, and thanks also to the Woodrow Wilson Center for its gracious hospitality.

To kick things off today – and to help frame some of the discussion that follows – I thought it might be useful to survey some of the changes that we have already made in relevant areas of U.S. policy during the first year (or thereabouts) of the Trump Administration.

There are some key topics, of course, about which I won’t be able to say very much today – though they are probably very much on the mind of everyone here.  On January 27, at the very beginning of his administration, the President directed the preparation of a new Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), in order “to ensure that the United States’ nuclear deterrent is modern, robust, flexible, resilient, ready, and appropriately tailored to deter 21st-century threats and reassure our allies.”  Concurrently, a new Ballistic Missile Defense Review (BMDR) is also underway.

These reviews are still in progress, and they are not too very far from completion.  Because they have not yet been completed, however, I will not say more about them now, except that I think you’ll find them to be thoughtful and prudent responses to today’s worsening strategic environment that are animated both by the need to ensure deterrence – including the “extended deterrence” that is essential to U.S. alliance relationships and to preventing proliferation – and by the importance of being able to adapt to evolving threats in a troubled and unpredictable world.

Instead of talking about those reviews, I’d like to highlight some other relevant innovations by our new Administration, at least as I see them from my perch as the head of the NSC’s Weapons of Mass Destruction and Counterproliferation Directorate.

Arms Control

Let me start with arms control with Russia, about which I am proud to say that we in the new team are proving ourselves tougher-minded and more rigorous than our predecessors – who sometimes seemed far too much like the apocryphally ineffective British “Bobby” of legend who deals with fleeing suspects with cries of “Stop, or else I shall say ‘Stop’ again!

Russia has been violating the Open Skies Treaty for years, but the previous administration was never willing to let the dreaded “V-word” pass their lips, and the Russians rebuffed every U.S. attempt to engage them diplomatically about correcting the problem.  The new administration, by contrast, has made a long-overdue formal finding of violation, and is undertaking a limited set of carefully calibrated response measures in an attempt to persuade Russia to return to compliance.

Similarly, though it was eventually willing – and for very good reasons – to find Russia in violation of the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, the previous administration also declined to take concrete steps to give Russia real incentives to return to compliance.  As a result, not surprisingly, Russia did not return to compliance.  Indeed, Moscow was presumably delighted to be able build the illegal missiles it wants, and thus pursue asymmetric advantage against the United States and its allies, while Washington continued carefully to observe the Treaty’s requirements.  Sneering at American finger-wagging over the issue, the Russians never even officially admitted the existence of the missile in question, despite the General Director of the Russian arms company Novator himself having noted the Russian designator of the non-compliant missile during a public statement last March celebrating the accomplishments of Russia’s Kapustin Yar test range.  (That Russian designator, by the way, is “9M729” – something which I think I am saying in public today for the first time.)

By contrast to our predecessors, the new administration decided that the INF status quo we inherited was unacceptable, and that we must make unavailable to the Russians the option of continuing to see us constrained while they remain free to do as they wish.  The United States is now determined, at long last, to give Russia concrete reasons to change course – to finally come back into compliance – and we hope that it will do so, because we remain committed to the INF Treaty.  The Russians now need to choose whether they share our steadfast desire to preserve the Treaty, or whether they will continue on their current path, which leads to the Treaty’s collapse.  They no longer have the option of having their cake and eating it, too.

We are taking these steps precisely because we are serious about arms control.  As we see things, it is to be no friend of arms control if one is not willing to enforce its strictures.  If you really care about arms control, after all – about protecting the integrity of agreements that can contribute to peace and security and help preserve strategic stability in the face of dangerous and destabilizing arms race pressures – you cannot just stand by when the other side flouts its obligations.  If it doesn’t matter to you whether an arms control agreement actually binds its signatories, it is either a worthless agreement or you have no business pretending that you care about arms control in the first place.  And if you don’t mind that an agreement binds you but not your adversary, something even more serious is wrong.

And so – out of our commitment to the integrity of the arms control enterprise, and in hope of keeping alive the possibility of constructive agreements in the future – we are now returning compliance enforcement to U.S. arms control policy.  It is easy to say that “violations must be punished” and “words must mean something” when countries sign themselves up to solemn, legally-binding treaty obligations, but it has apparently sometimes proven more difficult to mean it.  I am here to tell you that the United States now means it.

Strategic Stability

Lest you think that our newly tough-minded approach to Russian arms control issues is purely confrontational, however, let me reassure you that we are also acutely mindful of the need for nuclear-armed adversaries to build and maintain channels of sober communication through which to try to address issues of strategic stability between them, in order to prevent their relationship from suffering a catastrophic breakdown.  Such communications, in fact, are important not just despite problems in the underlying U.S.-Russian relationship – of which, of course, there are many – but precisely because of them.  For this reason, I am proud that we have restarted Russo-American strategic stability talks, the first installment of which occurred on September 12 in Helsinki.

We are also in the final months before New START’s limits on deployed warheads and strategic delivery systems take effect on February 5, 2018.  Happily, the United States has already reached its own limits – back in August, in fact – and Russia also is on track to do so by Treaty deadline.  New START remains a valuable tool for ensuring transparency and predictability between the United States and Russia, locking in numbers of deployed strategic nuclear weapons through 2021.  We hope that after the February deadline is met, and the NPR and BMDR are complete, we can begin to assess whether or not extending New START for an additional five years – as provided for in the Treaty – to 2026, is in our national security interest.


When it comes to nonproliferation, I am pleased to say that the new administration has continued a long, bipartisan tradition of taking nonproliferation very seriously.  Because we want our contributions to the success of the global nonproliferation regime to be as effective as possible, and mindful of the importance of judging our efforts by outcome rather than simply output – that is by results in making the American people safer and the world a more secure place, rather than just by how many meetings we attend or lowest-common-denominator consensus statements we join – we are presently in a process of reviewing our approaches to a range of issues in the nonproliferation arena.

But let no one doubt our commitment to nonproliferation.  Even before his election, President Trump was extremely clear about the importance of preventing WMD proliferation.  He has declared that proliferation is a huge threat to U.S. national security, as well as to international peace and stability.  Nuclear proliferation is, he said, “the single greatest threat that this country has,” “the biggest problem the world has,” and indeed “maybe the biggest issue of our time.”  To make clear that his attention has not flagged and he fully realizes the dangers presented by terrorist interest in WMD tools, moreover, the President also last August – in his announcement of the South Asia strategy – reiterated his determination to “prevent nuclear weapons and materials from coming into the hands of terrorists and being used against us, or anywhere in the world.”

Building upon this understanding, his administration has not only, as it were, “talked the talk,” but also “walked the walk.”  The atrocity of the Syrian regime’s nerve agent attack upon civilians at Khan Shaykun last April 4, for instance, so moved and appalled the President that he immediately chose to lay down a potent marker against WMD use by using Tomahawk missiles against the airbase from which that barbarous assault had been mounted.

Let me also note that we are committed, to this end, to supporting the international mechanisms that promote transparency and accountability in controlling WMD threats.  Despite persistent efforts by Russia and some of its more disreputable allies to undermine such institutions, we have been working – at the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in the Hague, at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna, and at the United Nations itself with the Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) that has confirmed the use of chemical weapons on multiple occasions – to protect and advance the norms, institutions, and practices through which the international community tries to address the grave WMD proliferation challenges of our time.

The global nonproliferation regime is under unprecedented stress today, thanks not just to the ill will of proliferators and their enablers, but also to the failure of prior U.S. administrations and the international community, over the years, to come to grips with proliferation threats faster than the proliferators themselves have been able to advance their programs.  International acceptance of fissile material production in Iran and the world’s failure to address North Korean nuclear and missile threats much more quickly and forthrightly, for instance – coupled with ongoing efforts by the disarmament community to undermine and delegitimize the “extended deterrence” the United States extends to its allies, and which has for decades been a powerful nonproliferation tool – have thrown the nonproliferation regime into a slow-motion existential crisis that it is not yet clear the regime will survive.   It is a cardinal plank of U.S. foreign and national security policy, however, to do everything possible to ensure that it does.


Accordingly, when it comes to the more proactive ways we support nonproliferation by impeding the progress of proliferator WMD or missile programs that present threats to U.S. national security, we are also working hard to step up the U.S. game.  In support of the President’s “maximum pressure” strategy of imposing unprecedented costs upon North Korea through a campaign of unilateral and multilateral sanctions, for instance, U.S. counterproliferation work is underway to use diplomatic, financial, law enforcement, and other tools to cut off the revenue streams that sustain Pyongyang’s ballistic missile and nuclear programs.

Thanks to some strong new U.N. Security Council sanctions we have led the way in adopting, we are gradually choking off many of those revenue streams.  We are working with international partners on many fronts: to cut off North Korea’s revenue from arms, coal, and other critical exports; to degrade its ability to access the international financial system; to disrupt its air and maritime networks; to cut back its diplomatic representation and thereby prevent illicit revenues associated with smuggling through diplomatic channels; and to prevent Pyongyang both from accessing commodities that support its threat programs and from exporting dangerous technologies to other rogue regimes.

This new, more vigorous approach to counterproliferation is even starting to have some results with China, as our diplomatic efforts have finally gotten Beijing to begin to reduce its traditional role as an enabler for North Korea’s destabilizing WMD and missile programs.  Unfortunately, China is still nowhere near where it needs to be in terms of putting pressure on Pyongyang, and has not yet taken all the steps it needs to take in order to keep the situation on the Korean Peninsula from spiraling out of control.  But it may be that Beijing has finally begun to realize that the only hope for stability on the Peninsula lies with persuading the Kim regime to choose a different path – and thus with pressuring North Korea as never before.

It remains to be seen whether the international campaign to pressure North Korea will be able to put enough pressure on that regime, and quickly enough, to elicit a real change of course before things risk falling apart.  In keeping with the President’s direction to exert “maximum pressure” upon Pyongyang, however, the present international campaign has already brought unprecedentedly great pressures to bear, and the United States is proudly in the lead.


On Iran nuclear issues, the President has given us clear direction, which is framed in the context of a broad Iran strategy pursuant to which the United States aims to use its own instruments of national power and work with its international partners to rein in the full range of threats that Iran presents to its neighbors, to its region, and to international peace and security.  The United States has not pulled out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal, but the President has directed his administration to work with Congress and our diplomatic partners to find a better way to address the long-term proliferation challenges presented by Iran, and to deny it any pathway to nuclear weapons.

The President has singled out three key priorities in this respect:

  • First, for so long as the JCPOA remains in force, Iran must be held strictly to account, so that the agreement is interpreted strictly and enforced vigorously.  We hope and expect that the IAEA will use all of the verification and monitoring authorities available to it under the JCPOA, the Additional Protocol, and Iran’s safeguards agreement – and that Iran will not deny the IAEA the ability to do anything that these authorities permit.
  • Second, Iran must not be permitted to develop intercontinental-range ballistic missiles (ICBMs).  The North Korean example makes clear how dangerous and destabilizing the development of such missiles can be, and we are determined to prevent this from occurring.
  • Third, an answer must be found to the JCPOA’s “sunset clause” problem – that is, the fact that the deal’s limits on the size of Iran’s nuclear program will eventually evaporate, leaving it free to build production capabilities that would dangerously shorten the “breakout time” in which Iran could produce enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon.

The President has directed us to work to find solutions to these problems.  Part of this solution may come from working with Congress to help fix flaws in the oversight scheme of the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act (INARA) of 2015 – such as by using sanctions penalties to help create enduring incentives for Iran not to develop ICBMs, or nuclear capabilities that would result in dangerous reductions in “breakout time.”  Part of the solution may also come from diligent work with international partners, and ideally with Iran itself, to set in place long-term assurances that it will never have a viable pathway to nuclear weapons.

As we work to ensure that the Iranian proliferation challenge is better and more enduringly addressed by the time the President leaves office than it was before his election, moreover, we aim to do this in the context of a broader Iran strategy.  The nuclear issue is a vital part of our overall approach to Iran, but it is only one part of an integrated strategy for working to meet the full range of Iranian threats.  We hope that Congress and our diplomatic partners will respond to our efforts to work with them on this, for it is surely only through such cooperation that it will be possible to see constructive progress.

Nuclear Disarmament

The new administration has also led the way in responding to the challenges presented by the so-called nuclear weapons “Ban Treaty,” which was negotiated last summer.  The culmination of a years-long effort by disarmament activists, the “Ban” was in part the unintended side-effect of the previous U.S. administration’s approach to disarmament rhetoric – which created frictions within U.S. alliance relationships, inflamed disarmament-related political fights within allied political systems, and encouraged unrealistic expectations that both fueled the “Ban” effort and maximized its potential to damage the global nonproliferation regime.

In response to this new challenge, we are determined to not further encourage the “Ban” agenda, and have been very clear to our diplomatic partners about the “Ban’s” potential impact in hurting the nonproliferation regime, in damaging the U.S. alliance relationships that have helped keep the peace for many decades, and in making the eventual achievement of actual disarmament less, rather than more, likely.  We are also working to point out the “Ban’s” obvious legal ineffectiveness – for it will neither eliminate any nuclear weapons nor contribute to any customary international legal norm against nuclear weapons possession – and we have drawn attention to its potentially perverse and debilitating practical consequences for many States Party to the “Ban.”

At the same time, we have staked out new ground in favor of a more realistic and honest approach to disarmament: one that seeks to fulfil our obligations under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) in ways that focus less upon crude and unrealistic numerical approaches that ignore conditions in the security environment than upon seeking new initiatives to help improve geopolitical conditions in ways that may eventually make real disarmament feasible.  This new approach – which tries to address disarmament as a real-world policy problem, rather than just as an opportunity for virtue-signaling – is entirely consistent with the NPT, the Preamble of which expressly envisions easing tensions and strengthening trust among states “in order to facilitate disarmament.”  Such a conditions-focused approach is also probably the only way to have any meaningful chance of making real progress on this issue in today’s world.

Civil-Nuclear Cooperation

In another new administration initiative, we are setting aside our predecessors’ ambivalence about nuclear power in order to promote U.S. job growth and economic competitiveness, and to promote nonproliferation, by encouraging civil nuclear cooperation arrangements worldwide.  In this area, it is clear, promoting American competitiveness and promoting nonproliferation are powerfully synergistic, because every time the U.S. nuclear industry makes a sale overseas it has to do so through a so-called “123 agreement,” the terms of which always include important nonproliferation protections – among them, requirements for facilities and materials security, as well as a prohibition upon enrichment or reprocessing of U.S.-origin materials without U.S. consent.

Without 123 agreements in place, however, there can be no benefits of either kind, and indeed the global nonproliferation regime would be worse off – and U.S. economic competitiveness harmed – because we would be ceding the world’s expanding international civil nuclear markets to foreign competitors who do not insist upon the nonproliferation protections we do.  It is thus a priority for the administration to promote civil nuclear cooperation with the strongest nonproliferation protections we can get, consistent with the ongoing President’s Civil Nuclear Review.


Anyway, that’s my quick tour of the Trump Administration’s first year of WMD-related policy.  As I hope you’ll agree, the new administration has been working hard to bring a new resolve and focus to this arena, and I hope you’ll find our approaches to be as vigorous, prudent, and far-sighted as we are endeavoring to make them.

Thank you.  I look forward to your questions.

-- 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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