New Paradigms Forum Proliferation Issues and Much More …


Nonproliferation in the Post-Cold War Era


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 December 11, 2017, at Wilton Park, United Kingdom.

Good evening, and thank you for inviting me.  It is always a delight to be here at Wilton Park, and probably never more so than for your famous winter nonproliferation conference – which so many people seem affectionately to know as your annual “Nukes at Christmas” event.  It has been some years since I have attended this conference, but I see the faces of many old friends around the table here today, and I am very happy to be back.

As we get things going for this important conference, I am pleased to be able to have the chance to speak with you about how I see present-day nonproliferation issues from my perspective as having run the Weapons of Mass Destruction and Counterproliferation Directorate at the U.S. National Security Council for the first year of the new U.S. Administration.

Unfortunately, the topic at hand – the modern challenges of nonproliferation – is far less pleasant than the atmosphere at this bucolic country-house venue, for the international community faces formidable challenges.  These challenges are especially worrisome because, of these three related fields of nonproliferation, arms control, and disarmament, it is clearly nonproliferation that forms the foundational discipline – that is, the one upon which progress in the other two depends.

Arms control can help manage competitive nuclear arms race dynamics and preserve strategic stability, after all, but this promise depends heavily upon being able to bound the number of weapons possessors in the “game” – that is, those amongst whom arms control might be able to help control the most destabilizing of competitive dynamics – and it would be hard to imagine any kind of successful arms control regime succeeding if new “players” kept emerging into the competitive space of nuclear weapons possession.  Even more dramatically, of course, there can hardly be a future for nuclear disarmament – that is, for persuading existing possessors to relinquish their nuclear weapons – unless such possessors can rely upon robust nonproliferation protections to assure them, ahead of time, that others will not acquire such weapons after they themselves have given them up.  So, at the end of the day, everything depends upon nonproliferation.

And that’s the problem, because 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 international community’s failure to come to grips with proliferation threats faster than the proliferators themselves have been able to advance their programs.  The slow-motion proliferation crisis that has been building steam for many years is a potentially existential one for the nonproliferation regime.

Today, the regime we have all spent decades building faces grave challenges – and not just from the unresolved misbehavior of the proliferators themselves.  It also faces growing challenges from the follow-on incentives that unaddressed proliferation increasingly creates for other states either to follow suit directly or, at the very least, to “hedge” their bets by developing dual-use capabilities that would make them into “virtual” weapons states merely one crisis, or a neighbor’s regional provocation, away from weaponization “breakout.”

I think it’s worth reviewing how we got here.  As one can see from perusing some of the declassified U.S. National Intelligence Estimates from the early 1960s, it was expected earlier in the nuclear age that massive proliferation was all but inevitable – leading to potentially dozens of countries having nuclear weapons by the end of the 20th Century.  Despite these expectations, however, the international community had a remarkable degree of success in forestalling this cascade of weaponization.

Thankfully, as it turned out, the Cold War superpowers perceived themselves to have a shared strategic interest in nonproliferation.  And, despite the many other problems in their relationship, therefore, the great powers were able to cooperate successfully to this end – as well as gradually to make progress on arms control measures such as the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty.  It was U.S.-Soviet cooperation, for instance, that made possible the drafting of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) – the base text of which was co-drafted by the nuclear superpowers – and it was the superpowers’ alliance blocs that helped facilitate keeping many of their alliance partners from developing nuclear weapons of their own.  Indeed, the strength of U.S. “extended nuclear deterrence” and security assurances proved to be indispensable nonproliferation tools by helping persuade several Western countries to abandon clandestine nuclear weapons work that they had initially begun in fear of Communist invasion during the Cold War era.  The NATO concept of “nuclear sharing” also contributed powerfully to nonproliferation, by offering U.S. allies a way to increase the deterrence-producing certainty of nuclear responses to Soviet aggression but without having recourse to additional indigenous weaponization, and without actually involving any peacetime passage of control over nuclear weapons to a non-weapon state in violation of Article I of the NPT.

For the most part, the emergent nonproliferation regime of the Cold War era worked.  After the NPT came into force in 1970, it eventually gained the adherence of almost every country in the world, no NPT State Party developed nuclear weapons, and indeed no additional country anywhere developed nuclear explosive devices before the end of the Cold War except for India’s so-called “peaceful nuclear explosion” of 1974 and the secret development of a handful of uranium gravity bombs by South Africa’s apartheid regime.  By the time the superpower standoff eased and the Cold War ended in 1991, the long-predicted cascade of proliferation had not occurred and, in fact – in a dramatic step forward for nuclear disarmament – the waning of the Cold War made possible significant reductions in global nuclear weapons numbers, both unilaterally through the so-called Presidential Nuclear Initiatives (PNIs), and on a bilateral, negotiated basis, with first the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty of 1987 and the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) of 1991.

Unfortunately, however, the post-Cold War era has not gone so well for the nonproliferation regime.  The period did have some initial successes – specifically, the dismantlement of the South African weapons program and the decision by Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan to return the Soviet-era nuclear weapons that had been stranded on their soil by the collapse of the USSR.  Iraq’s progress toward a nuclear weapon was also stopped by the Gulf War of 1991.  On the whole, therefore, the new era started off fairly well, from a nonproliferation perspective.

Soon, however, the post-Cold War era saw troubling new developments – ones with which, in many cases, the global nonproliferation regime is still struggling.  India and Pakistan, for instance, both tested nuclear weapons openly, and launched into their own dangerous arms race in South Asia.  The international proliferation network established by Pakistani scientist A.Q. Khan also proliferated nuclear weapons designs and material production capabilities around the globe, helping fuel clandestine nuclear weapons programs in Libya and Iran, while also contributing to North Korea’s illicit development of uranium enrichment for its own weapons uses.  Syria tried to build a plutonium production reactor with help from North Korea, and though this effort was fortunately stopped by force in 2007 – and Libya’s program was negotiated away in 2003-04 – Pyongyang left the NPT in 2003 after having been caught cheating on the 1994 “Agreed Framework” deal, and has been busily working to develop a formidable suite of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles ever since.

Iran, meanwhile, has still never admitted the clandestine nuclear weapons program in which it engaged for years, even while having the international community, with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), legitimize the fissile material production capabilities it acquired in secret as part of its effort to develop such weapons.  Today, Iran’s development of production capabilities that would permit it to hover on the brink of rapid nuclear weapons production has been constrained and delayed, but only temporarily.  Even on its present course, Iran will – in another decade or so – be well positioned to “break out” into weaponization with dangerous rapidity, building upon what it learned from its past illegal weapons work, supplying its weapons engineers with fissile material produced quickly from the enrichment infrastructure the JCPOA will by then have permitted it to build to great size and capacity, and putting the resulting weapons product atop ballistic missiles that Tehran continues to develop with great eagerness and increasing sophistication.

In the post-Cold War era, the international community has shown itself able to rally in facing a proliferation threat, and able to impose sometimes very significant pressures upon a malefactor in order to encourage it to change course.  What the international community is less good at doing, however, is putting enough pressure on a determined proliferator fast enough to make a decisive difference.

With Iran, and especially with North Korea, the international community has imposed responsive pressures.  However, by the time each set of pressures really begins to pinch, the development of the threat has progressed past the point at which that degree of pressure is effective.  In the post-Cold War era, in other words, the most determined of the proliferators have generally been able to move faster in developing their threat programs than the nations of the world have been able to overcome their multilateral collective action problems in order to respond effectively to the challenge.  We have, collectively, consistently found ourselves behind the curve when it matters most – able eventually to do much, but unable to do enough, quickly enough, to turn things around.

This failure has today thrown the nonproliferation regime into a slow-motion existential crisis that it is not yet clear the regime will survive.  It is not just that Iran, and particularly North Korea, have been so successful in creating “facts on the ground” before the international community has overcome its disagreements and its timidity to respond effectively.  It is also that the proliferators’ very success in these endeavors, as many of us have long warned, is now putting palpable pressure upon other countries to begin their own moves along the continuum of capability that can eventually lead to nuclear weaponization.

This is precisely the problem that was foreseen by the drafters of the NPT, who fashioned the nonproliferation core of that Treaty out of two mutually-reinforcing elements: (1) a commitment by existing possessors not to share the ability to make nuclear weapons; and (2) a commitment by non-possessors not to try to develop their own nuclear weapons.  It is in this second element – that is, the reciprocal exchange of non-weaponization assurances by all non-possessor States Party to the NPT pursuant to Article II – that lies the key to the enormous security benefits that the Treaty has provided to non-nuclear weapon states for nearly as long as I have been alive: the security of not having one’s regional neighbor or rival develop nuclear weapons.

Today, however, the security provided to non-weapons states by this reciprocal exchange of non-weaponization assurances is the element of the Treaty the the most under threat.  Iran’s gradual emergence as a “virtual” weapon state and North Korea’s shockingly belligerent weaponization are bad enough in their own right, but they also create destabilizing action/reaction dynamics with other regional players, putting ever greater pressure on the interlocking architecture of reciprocal Article II reassurances, and raising the possibility that this architecture will break down.

So this is the challenge that we face: to what degree – and how – can we bring things back under control and put the regime once again on an even keel?  It’s hardly a given that we can actually do this, but if we can, the path to recovery clearly has to begin with redoubling our efforts against the proliferators themselves.  This means, for instance, finally putting the kind of pressures on North Korea that might at long last have the desired effect of convincing the Kim dynasty that nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles bring not security but rather ongoing cost, pain, and risk of the regime’s destruction – as well as convincing it that the path to the security, and indeed the survival that the regime seeks, lies through negotiating a verified rollback of those destabilizing threats.  And it means doing something to address the long-term nuclear proliferation challenges that the Iran nuclear deal did not meet.

Beyond these essential moves against the proliferators, we need to do more to restore faith in the efficacy of U.S. security assurances, including the conventional and nuclear “extended deterrence” we provide to key allies, in the face of proliferator threats, in order to reduce the pressures that the international community’s failure to address these problems has placed upon other regional states to begin exploring “virtual” weapons state status for themselves – or worse.

And we need to do more to bolster the other norms and institutions of the global nonproliferation regime.  This must include protecting them against the erosion of prohibition norms in other weapons of mass destruction arenas – such as that caused by the Syrian regime’s continued use of chemical weapons, and the ongoing steps being taken by Bashar al-Assad’s Russian enablers to undermine institutions of transparency and accountability in the form of the Joint Investigative Mechanism and the Fact-Finding Mission of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.  We also need to protect the potential of negotiated solutions to contribute to international peace and security in the future, by rescuing the arms control enterprise from the shadow cast upon it by Russia’s violation of the INF Treaty and erosion of conventional arms control in Europe, and deal with the pressures placed on smaller regional states by Russia’s decision to reintroduce territorial aggression as an element in European geopolitics.  We also need to encourage other possessor states – such as India and Pakistan – to begin to develop approaches to arms control amongst themselves.

Additionally, we need to support the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in its work to monitor compliance with nuclear safeguards around the world – and especially in Iran – to ensure that it has not just the resources but also all the authorities it needs in order to do its job.  This includes ensuring the universal applicability of the IAEA’s “Additional Protocol” and “Modified Code 3.1,” which we have now all known for decades are essential in order to help safeguard against the existence of undeclared nuclear activities – and it includes shutting down the dangerous efforts by Iran and its Russian allies to discredit and delegitimize the IAEA’s full range of verification authorities under the JCPOA.  And we need to prevent the institutional and political bleeding that may be caused by the advent of the so-called nuclear weapons “Ban Treaty” as it undermines nonproliferation institutions and the solidarity we need to show in such matters in order to save the nonproliferation regime from collapse.

Finally, if and where we cannot forestall proliferation or roll it back where it has taken root despite the international community’s best efforts, we must be prepared – all of us together – to deter aggression by new proliferator states, contain their hegemonic ambitions, deny them the military advantages they seek through the acquisition of nuclear weaponry, and subject them to an ongoing international regime of pain and pressure to send the clear message that unlawful proliferation – and the highly corrosive use of the nonproliferation regime as a cover and a shield for nuclear weapons ambitions – is unacceptable, and incompatible with wishing to occupy a responsible place in the international system.

With robust and enduring counterproliferation efforts, moreover, we must ensure that adversary nuclear programs evolve and mature as slowly and expensively as possible, and that proliferators do not pass their illicitly-acquired weapons knowledge and capabilities on to others.  And we must be, of course, prepared in extremis to defend ourselves and our allies in any way that may be required in the event that efforts to deter proliferator aggression fail.  We need to see these challenges, in other words, not just as an agenda for the participants in and institutions of the global nonproliferation regime itself, but as a clarion call for full-spectrum security policymaking by all responsible states in the international community.

So I think this, then, is the challenge of our generation.  And that is why I am especially glad to have the chance to speak with you – and indeed to learn from you as we together explore how the fractious and disputatious international community can do a better job of addressing these challenges in the years ahead than we have managed to do in the years behind.

Thank you for listening.  I look forward to your questions and comments, and to hearing from other participants about how we can meet these challenges together.

-- 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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