New Paradigms Forum Proliferation Issues and Much More …


Remarks at the American Academy for Strategic Education


Below are remarks that Assistant Secretary Ford delivered to the American Academy of Strategic Education in Washington, D.C., on June 12, 2019. They can also be found here, on the website of the U.S. State Department's Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation.

Thanks for the chance to speak with you today, and to Jackie Deal for her kind introduction.  I would like to talk a bit today about how we in the State Department’s International Security and Nonproliferation (ISN) Bureau view our role and our mission in the nonproliferation arena.  I know that you in your program here spend a great deal of time thinking about important issues of great power competition– particularly vis-à-vis China – so I thought it might be particularly interesting to share some thoughts on how we at State view nonproliferation policy in that context.

Fighting the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and delivery systems, of course, is a central tenet of U.S. foreign and national security policy.  The National Security Strategy (NSS) announced in 2018, for instance, identifies defending against WMD threats as the first component of the first “pillar” of United States policy that it describes:  protecting the American people, the American homeland, and the American way of life.  Building on decades of initiatives, the NSS makes clear, it is our objective to “secure, eliminate, and prevent the spread of WMD and related materials, their delivery systems, technologies, and knowledge.”

And indeed, this enduring commitment to fighting proliferation should surprise no one, for it has been a centerpiece of U.S. policy for many years, across administrations of widely varying political hues, and it enjoys enduring bipartisan support in Congress.  The importance of keeping WMD capabilities out of the hands of rogue regimes and non-state actors such as terrorists is as profound as it is intuitively obvious.

It may be, however, that people still generally think too little about the place and role of nonproliferation in the broader context of national security.  With your indulgence, therefore, I would like to unpack this issue a little bit here today.

I. Against Nonproliferation Despair

Whether with respect to WMD, delivery systems, or advanced conventional weapons capabilities, the obvious benefit of nonproliferation is in preventing the development of threats to our own security and to international peace and security.  The twist here, however, is what to make of the fact that much of the time – and, historically speaking, most of the time – the nonproliferation business has been less about absolutely precluding proliferation than about merely slowing the rate at which threats develop.

Particularly with regard to tools as potentially powerful as nuclear weapons, therefore, I sometimes worry that the casual observer will conclude that nonproliferation policy has at its core something akin to a form of existential despair.  After all, while it’s certainly a good thing that the global nonproliferation regime has helped prevent the “snowballing” cascade of weapons proliferation that was once expected, the number of new weapons possessors since the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) entered into force almost half a century ago is not zero – and only with great difficulty will it shrink any time soon.

The pessimist might perhaps conclude that nonproliferation is therefore only about slowing down the inevitable.  For my part, however, I think such a pessimistic conclusion would be wrong, and would miss some important aspects of how nonproliferation fits into the broader policy picture.

First of all, of course, “slowing down the inevitable” is far from a bad thing.  No one faults the medical profession, for instance, for its success in prolonging human lives and increasing our quality of life just because doctors cannot cure mortality.  Whether one is referring to debilitating sickness and death or to nuclear weapons proliferation, it is clearly good to delay the onset of bad things.  Even if it were true, therefore, that all we could ever do is slow WMD proliferation, it would still be hugely valuable to keep the number of nuclear weapons possessors as small as possible – as illustrated by the proliferation challenges already presented by malign regimes such as North Korea and Iran – and to postpone for as long as possible the day when nuclear weapons get in the hands of non-state actors.

But there’s much more to nonproliferation than just delaying things anyway.  Nonproliferation is also about buying time for other policy approaches to bear fruit, postponing the onset of potentially unmanageable threats in order to give us a better opportunity to address them before (or at least when) they mature.  Nonproliferation policy is thus not just about delaying catastrophe, but also about playing for time in which other policies and dynamics can successfully be brought to bear.  Properly understood, these dynamics situate nonproliferation within a broader policy context, and they situate nonproliferation specialists as a part of a broader policy and strategy team that is dedicated not only to winning time in which to act but also to collectively answering the pregnant question:  “Time for what?”

This is – to offer an example that we frequently use in the context of NPT diplomacy – why nonproliferation and disarmament are so structurally intertwined.  We constantly point out the degree to which the true structure of the NPT reflects the fact that the disarmament enterprise rests, logically and inevitably, upon a foundation of nonproliferation assurances.  After all, it is impossible to imagine that existing possessors of nuclear weapons would be willing to relinquish them were it not possible to rely upon the global nonproliferation regime to prevent new players from filling the resulting vacuum.

A sound nonproliferation regime, with a full panoply of rules, norms, and well-honed best practices for controlling WMD, is not sufficient to enable disarmament progress, of course, but it is clearly necessary.  It keeps the problem from getting more unmanageable during whatever period of time will be needed before the world figures out how – in the words of the NPT Preamble – “to ease tension and strengthen trust between states in order to facilitate disarmament.”  By setting a baseline for future progress, the seemingly “negative” work of enforcing nonproliferation norms in order to impede the spread of nuclear weapons capabilities thus provides a powerful contribution to the positive agenda of disarmament.

II. Static Versus Dynamic Success

This helps illustrate a broader point.  Nonproliferation – that is, slowing or stopping the spread of threat capabilities – can help keep the problem set within the bounds of what could perhaps be handled by other means.  One could look at this either statically or dynamically.

In static terms, if you “buy time,” you might be able to use that time to “solve” some underlying problem in a one-time, definitive way.  In the nonproliferation context, that might consist of something like slowing the rate at which a proliferator’s weapons programs advance until other dynamics act to solve the underlying problem of proliferation “demand.”  This is, in a sense, what happened with ancien régimeSouth Africa – which, in part, one hopes, thanks to some degree of global concern and vigilance about the prospect of an “Apartheid Bomb” – had only managed to build a handful of nuclear weapons and had failed to develop long-range missiles before internal dynamics of regime change overcame the white minority government of F.W. de Klerk and South Africa’s weapons program was dismantled before it could fall into the hands of the African National Congress.

Alternatively, the fierce remedies of war could be used to end a program that nonproliferation policies have failed entirely to prevent – as appears generally to have been the case with Saddam Hussein’s nuclear weapons program in 1991.  In a sense, the South African and Iraqi examples both represent “static,” one-time solutions to a proliferation problem.

It may be, moreover, that such a one-time solution set can sometimes be generated within the nonproliferation enterprise itself.  This is, after all, exactly what the United States aims to achieve with North Korea through the agreed elimination of its illicit weapons programs.  In the process we are coming to call “negotiated threat elimination,” nonproliferation experts can apply their experience with and knowledge of foreign threat systems – not to mention their diplomatic skills – to planning and implementing the dismantlement of foreign WMD, delivery system, or advanced conventional weapon systems in a more or less “permissive,” negotiated context.

This arena of threat elimination work is an important priority for my bureau at the State Department – the Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation – which has experience in such things going back to the dismantlement of missiles in countries of the Former Soviet Union in the 1990s, the negotiated removal of WMD programs from Libya in 2004, so-called “disablement” activity at North Korea’s Yongbyon complex in 2007-09, and the destruction of Syria’s declared chemical weapons in 2013-14.  Today, our experts provide technical support for U.S. negotiations with North Korea over denuclearization, so that we are prepared to implement denuclearization if and when Pyongyang proves willing to fulfill its promises.

On this basis, we are working to institutionalize and regularize threat elimination as a continuing locus of expertise within the nonproliferation community – a regular professional specialization, if you will – rather than just an undertaking to which nonproliferation experts rush in an ad hoc way, largely from scratch, every time a new opportunity arises.  With luck, we will be able to apply this expertise not just in implementing a denuclearization agreement with North Korea, but also perhaps in connection with the kind of comprehensive and enduring negotiated solution with Iran that the President and Secretary Pompeo have outlined as our diplomatic objective in Iran.  So that, then, is another approach to answering proliferation problems with one-time, “static” solutions.

But that’s not the only way to think about meeting the challenges presented by adversary threat systems.  If a single comprehensive solution is not available, an alternative might be to try to institutionalize the continuing “buying of time,” in part through nonproliferation-type technology controls, in order to help yourself keep one step ahead of an adversary on an ongoing basis.  And this is, I think, a key to understanding the role of nonproliferation policy in a competitive strategy context.

III. Nonproliferation in Competitive Strategy

Success against missile proliferation, for example, need not always just mean preventing any spread of missile capabilities, which is almost by definition a losing game – given the passage of enough time – unless you can provide some kind of static, “end the cycle” answer to the otherwise continuing problem of proliferation pressures and opportunities.  From the perspective of national policy, success might alternatively consist of keeping an adversary’s missile capabilities to whatever level could still be handled by your own improving missile defenses – or to a scale against which your own evolving military capacities might still hope to be able to prevail if deterrence failed.  This illustrates how success can perhaps be found in a dynamic rather than just a static equilibrium, especially where adversarial relationships persist over time.

And this is where nonproliferation connects most closely to the realm of great power competition – a U.S. national security challenge of the first order, which is expressly called out both by the National Security Strategy and by the National Defense Strategy as a crucial aspect of the contemporary international environment.  When we act to restrict the transfer of military-facilitating resources or sensitive technologies to strategic competitors such as China or Russia – as we have begun to do using new tools such as the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) in the case of Russia, or by raising awareness among global partners of the risks of sensitive trade with China – we need not pretend that we will (or can) “prevent” them from using any advanced technology to augment their military power in potentially significant ways.  It is surely impossible entirely to preclude a reasonably advanced and technologically sophisticated state gaining some such advantage if it really wants to, but the steps we are taking can still hamper their progress — and that, as we’ll see, can be very important over the course of an ongoing competition.

To some degree, this is “back to the future” for U.S. nonproliferation efforts.  During the Cold War, the United States sought to address the threat posed by the Soviet Union through traditional arms control and disarmament measures as well as through nonproliferation measures.  The Coordinating Committee for Multilateral Export Controls (CoCom) was set up to restrict trade with the Eastern Bloc, for both economic and national security reasons.  In part, it aimed at preventing Western technology from being used to develop weapons that would threaten those same Western Countries.  No one had any illusions that the Soviet Union, its allies, and China would not continue developing their defense industrial bases as fast as they could.  Nevertheless, we wanted to ensure that such military development did not profit from key Western equipment and technology, and that such work would be as slow and difficult as possible.

With the end of the Cold War and the shift away from a bipolar world, CoCom’s raison d’etre faded, and it was replaced with the Wassenaar Arrangement, which focuses on nonproliferation export controls over equipment and technology with military applications.  The Wassenaar Arrangement is not targeted at any particular country; in fact, its membership includes many of the countries that were targeted by CoCom.  Wassenaar is intended to contribute to regional and international security and stability by preventing destabilizing accumulations of conventional arms, and limiting their accessibility to irresponsible recipients such as terrorist organizations.  However, the re-emergence of great power competition means that we also need to resume addressing the potential threat posed by global competitors like Russia and China; this doesn’t necessarily mean a return to something like CoCom, but we are no longer in the benign great power environment many hoped to see after the end of the Cold War, and we need to keep reassessing our policy responses as threats evolve.

Nor is nonproliferation in a competitive strategy exclusively about preventing Russia and China from acquiring more advanced technologies themselves.  It is also about combatting the continued proliferation from China to countries that happen – surely not entirely by coincidence, and notwithstanding Beijing’s claims to take nonproliferation seriously – to be rivals or thorns in the side of China’s adversaries.

The problem of proliferation from China to Iran, North Korea, and other countries is as unfortunate and destabilizing as it is well documented even in public literature.  Multiple such countries gain from the fact that Chinese foreign policy priorities benefit from the proliferation of missile and nuclear technology to Beijing’s foreign policy partners.  It is likely no coincidence that China’s main proliferation recipient countries play critical roles undermining the foreign policy and national security interests of key Chinese strategic competitors – specifically, the United States and India.

Chinese tolerance of proliferation presents a grave challenge to international peace and security.  This makes upholding global nonproliferation norms and standards not only critical in their own right – that is, in helping slow the flow of sensitive technology and materials to countries of concern – but also critical to the success of our competitive strategy vis-à-vis China itself.

Nevertheless, from a competitive strategy standpoint, entirely precluding China and its proliferation-assisted de facto strategic proxies from acquiring any sensitive technology and materials does not need to be the only objective.  There need be no “just delaying the inevitable” existential despair here!  After all, we are a very advanced and technologically sophisticated state ourselves, and one that has no intention of standing still in this new competitive era.  We do not necessarily need to keep our competitors from making any progress in the development of threat capabilities such as advanced conventional weaponry; we merely need to slow their rate of progress so that they cannot outpace our own, thereby developing and exploiting a qualitative edge against us.  In this context – again, one that is dynamic rather than simply static – nonproliferation can be a powerful contributor to overall success irrespective of whether it is possible entirely to “prevent” an adversary’s acquisition of any given capability.

IV. Nonproliferation Controls in History

In some ways, leaders have understood this for thousands of years, though they might not have articulated it in these terms.  In the first half of the first millennium B.C.E., for instance, the Assyrian Empire benefited from its ability to employ iron weaponry – which had some significant advantages over bronze, as the Assyrians seem to have learned years before as vassals to the Hittite Empire, whose smiths had helped pioneer ironworking.  The Assyrians themselves, however, had no iron mines, and for a time during the earlier half of the eighth century B.C.E., Assyria was denied access to the mining centers on the southern coast of the Black Sea and in the Transcaucasus in a protracted rivalry with the state of Urartu, which controlled the important copper and iron mines in modern-day Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan.  From Urartu’s perspective, you might say, it was important – as a matter of nonproliferation policy – to ensure that national security export controls impeded Assyria’s ability to acquire the materials needed for strategic success in early Iron Age warfare.

Nor, however Urartu may have conceived of the problem, was this kind of thing a unique insight.  In ancient China – where sources a thousand years ago describe the crossbow as “the strongest weapon of China, and what the four kinds of barbarians most fear” – prohibitions upon the export of such weapons and related technologies to barbarian territories outside Chinese control date at least from the Han Dynasty.  Later, Chinese Emperors also tried to keep secret the means of producing gunpowder – correctly seeing it as a source of competitive military advantage – and prohibited its export to the Korean kingdom of Joseon, on national security grounds.

In neither case did these Chinese efforts succeed in the absolutist sense, for leakage did gradually occur, but such controls may have played a role in permitting China to prolong its run of regional supremacy.  In time, of course, Western gunboats and Industrial Revolution technology in turn allowed the British and other Europeans to eclipse Qing Dynasty military power in the 19th Century – setting off a countervailing Chinese scramble for technologically-facilitated global military power that continues to this day, and which it is a key objective of our own national security export controls to impede.  This history, however, underlines the potential role that technology access, or lack thereof, can play in geopolitical competition.

Among Westerners themselves, the first Norse explorer to try to settle what the Vikings called Vinland, in North America, prohibited his men from trading their metal swords and spears with the local natives Norsemen dismissively termed Skraelings.  With hindsight, this must have seemed particularly wise, inasmuch as Skraeling hostility eventually proved intractable enough to prompt abandonment of the settlement even without the locals having steel weapons or chainmail – suggesting that by maintaining the gradient of military technology, these Viking nonproliferation controls may have helped Vinland last longer than would otherwise have been the case.  Meanwhile, ironically, the Vikings themselves faced export control prohibitions in Europe at roughly the same time, as the Frankish Empire sought to stop acquisition of high-quality Rhenish steel blades by Vikings who might use them to raid Europe’s northern coasts.

History offers many such examples.  Many years later, during the American Civil War, the rebellious Confederate states sought to make up for their disadvantages against the U.S. Navy by secretly acquiring ironclad warships built in England – most prominently the CSS Alabama, CSS Florida, and CSS Shenandoah – with the result that interdicting these clandestine British arms transfers and ensuring enforcement of more robust British export controls became major diplomatic priorities for the Lincoln Administration.

In time, with U.S. demobilization after the end of the Civil War, Washington itself faced the problem of potential overmatch in naval technology as its naval forces stagnated or regressed while other parts of the world advanced.  Indeed, in 1882, we set up the Office of Naval Intelligence – where I myself had the honor of working as a Navy officer many years later – in part specifically to help the United States acquire modern naval technology after U.S. observers of Latin American wars of the 1870s realized how far our navy had fallen behind even third-rate powers of that period.  Thankfully for the United States, I suppose, the rest of the world apparently did not have robust nonproliferation controls in place at the time, and within a generation or so the state-of-the-art vessels of President Theodore Roosevelt’s so-called “Great White Fleet” were able to make a proud global tour after prevailing handily over the Spanish in 1898 – helping set our country up for its own era of global prominence.

I have, of course, cherry-picked these illustrations from a long historical record.  I think they help make the point, however, that the nonproliferation and technology control business is not simply about keeping dangerous tools out of the hands of terrorists and rogue regimes, but also an important tool of strategy vis-à-vis great power competitors.

It is certainly the case that nonproliferation can provide what one might call “unequivocal” or “absolute” goods.  In the nuclear weapons arena, for example, no responsible person would want to see such weapons in the hands of terrorists or murderously bellicose Third World dictators — at all, ever.  Similarly, it is also clear that limiting the number of nuclear weapons possessors correlates directly with reducing the risk of nuclear war through some breakdown of deterrence, and that broader international aspirations to nuclear disarmament also depend upon a foundation of nonproliferation assurances.

Especially in an era in which military effectiveness depends so critically upon the acquisition and retention of technological advantage, however, nonproliferation can also provide “relative” goods.  Specifically, it can provide realpolitik benefits to national strategy through its contributions to competitive posture in slowing an adversary’s rate of military-technological advance relative to one’s own.

Each of these types of nonproliferation value is of critical importance to the United States today, for we face both rogue regime and terrorist proliferation threats and an accelerating threat from what the National Security Strategy terms “the revisionist powers of China and Russia”: countries that seek, in the words of the National Defense Strategy, “to shape a world consistent with their authoritarian model – gaining veto authority over other nations’ economic, diplomatic, and security decisions.”  In this latter respect, nonproliferation policies and nonproliferation experts can help erode our competitors’ influence, impede or slow their acquisition of threat capabilities, deny effective capabilities to their allies and proxies, and buy time in which our competitive strengths (or perhaps our adversaries’ own systemic weaknesses) can bear fruit.

V. Conclusion

As we see it at the ISN Bureau, these two aspects of nonproliferation value – which I think of as the “unequivocal” or “absolute,” on the one hand, and the “relative” or “competitive” on the other – are each of critical importance in the contemporary security environment.  We are devoted to succeeding at both.  Our work aims to further the common objectives of the international community – keeping the world’s most formidable weapons out of the world’s most irresponsible hands, reducing the risk of nuclear war or other WMD use, and trying to build a foundation for eventual disarmament – as well as to advance the United States’ own particular competitive interests (and those of our allies) vis-à-vis great power challengers.  Both aspects of nonproliferation draw upon the same set of technical skills and experience, and we are organizing ourselves to maximize our ability to leverage our talents in each area.

This focus upon specific “hard-power” security threats and the advancement of U.S. competitive strategy against geopolitical adversaries may not be the kind of thing the average person always expects to hear from the U.S. State Department in this day and age.  After all, we are an institution that put very different sorts of issues at the symbolic and psychological heart of the U.S. diplomatic enterprise in the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR) of 2010.  But this is not 2010, and we are not that Administration.  The global security situation is deteriorating today, and the National Security Strategy is very clear about the concrete threats the American people face, not just from WMD-seeking terrorists and rogue regimes, but also from great power competitors.

We are working very hard to meet these challenges, and we are proud of our contributions to U.S. national security.

Thank you 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. 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 here are entirely his own, and do not necessarily reflect those of anyone else in the U.S. Government.
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