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The Politics of Arms Control: Getting Beyond Post-Cold War Pathologies and Finding Security in a Competitive Environment


Below appear the remarks Assistant Secretary Ford delivered at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in London, UK, on February 11, 2020.  They may also be found on the website of the State Department's Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation.

Good day, everyone, and thank you for the opportunity to talk to you.  I have spoken before on multiple occasions about the challenges created for U.S. foreign and national security policy by the widespread assumption, a generation ago, that the West’s triumph in the Cold War meant that we no longer needed to worry about great power competition.  This assumption led to us acquiring some notably bad habits and making some notably poor choices.

Victory in our long and ideologized competition with Soviet Communism was followed by a great collective sigh of relief, characterized by a new “infatuation with the illusion that we inhabited an enduringly benign security environment.”  This infatuation, moreover, was closely linked to the belief — held by many Western thought leaders at the time — that the forces of globalization and neoliberal economic development would inevitably lift all mankind into a peacefully homogenized and cosmopolitan future in which borders and sovereign national jurisdictions had lost much of their traditional importance while a generalized middle-class prosperity brought about the convergence of all modes of governance along liberal, democratic lines.  For a time, at least, all this actually seemed to be true.

From today’s vantage point three decades later, however, it seems clear that such post-Cold War assumptions helped make the United States and its Western allies complacent, encouraging us to ignore or optimistically downplay strategic competition — to our detriment — at a time when states who have now become our near-peer competitors did not.  It also helps explain the United States’ otherwise surprising devotion not merely to avoiding competitive postures vis-à-vis the growing power of the People’s Republic of China, but also, as my colleague Assistant Secretary David Stilwell recently recounted, to actually embracing and facilitating Beijing’s emergence as a 21st Century competitor.

But post-Cold War assumptions of strategic benignity did not merely result in the atrophy of Western planning processes and habits of mind needed for effectively engaging in strategic competition, but that we are only now struggling to recreate.  They also helped spur the development of distinctive subcultures within the policy community devoted to developing and promoting agendas shaped by assumptions shaped by that period.  In parts of the arms control and disarmament community, this helped lead to the growth of a peculiar approach that — however well suited it may or may not have been to the initial post-Cold War environment of Western, neoliberal triumphalism — has become profoundly maladaptive in the power-competitive geopolitics of the present day.

So what I’d like to do today is speak a bit about this pathology, along the way to describing how we’re trying to overcome it and make arms control once again into a tool of cutting-edge relevance in meeting the security challenges of today’s world.  To be sure, what I will describe about the flawed assumptions and cognitive biases of the post-Cold War arms control weltanschauung may not be entirely true of any single given individual, non-governmental organization (NGO), or faction within the arms control policy community; to accuse any given person of being wholly in the thrall of such concepts might be unfair.  Nor should these criticisms of the modern ideology of the arms control Left necessarily be taken to imply that there are no problems on the ideologized, anti-arms control Right.

Nevertheless, as I describe these dynamics as a characteristic type of problem, I think you’ll be able to see both how common such assumptions and approaches really are in certain circles, particularly among Western and often specifically European civil society organizations and some diplomats.  I also hope you’ll be able to see how important it is to overcome these attitudes if we are to build a successful future for arms control in the contemporary security environment.

I. Explaining the Inexplicable

So how specifically do such attitudes create problems today?  Well, the post-Cold War assumption that great power competition was only a problem of the past helped lead to the entrenchment of a distinctive policy community subculture focused upon the performative and symbolic aspects of arms control discourse — and largely within the Western community — at the expense of more traditional emphases upon security dynamics.  Recognizing this development is important, for it can help explain the otherwise inexplicable.

A. Loss of Focus Upon Security

It can, for instance, help explain how so much of the Western arms control community would seem to have lost its way — from a security perspective — in recent debates over the demise of the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty.  Anyone who goes to arms control and nonproliferation conferences with any regularity will by now be painfully familiar with the degree to which it is essentially axiomatic in some circles that INF’s collapse supposedly demonstrates that the United States is “walking away from” or “dismantling” arms control.

It is remarkably uncommon, however, to hear anyone acknowledge why the United States withdrew from the INF Treaty — namely, the fact that Russia violated that agreement for the better part of a decade, steadfastly resisting all diplomatic entreaties to come back into compliance and using it to constrain U.S. and NATO capabilities while secretly and illegally flight-testing, producing, and fielding ground-launched INF-range nuclear missiles.  In parts of the arms control and disarmament community, there seems to be a palpable and visceral sense of offense against the United States for having the temerity to determine Russia to be in material breach and then withdraw under those circumstances, and little sense of concern about the Russian violations that led to this result.

Nor are such postures restricted merely to dim bulbs or apologists inclined to credit the shifting and mutually-contradictory propaganda narratives advanced by Russian officials and their proxies over the last few years in efforts to deny or dismiss Moscow’s violation.  Even among otherwise thoughtful observers who acknowledge Russian cheating, I am frequently confronted with counterparts who lament that Washington did not remain in the INF Treaty anyway.  When asked what more the United States could possibly have done to get Russia to return to compliance — after more than 30 compliance diplomacy engagements with senior Russian officials across two successive U.S. presidential administrations since 2013, as well as recourse to the INF Treaty’ Special Verification Commission (SVC) under both the Obama and Trump administrations set up precisely in order to deal with such questions — such interlocutors invariably have no response other than vague hand-wavings about how we should have “continued diplomacy” nonetheless.

One might make the same observation, moreover, about the remarkable degree to which the arms control and disarmament community is gravely worried about the possibility that the United States might be reevaluating its commitment to the Open Skies Treaty, while apparently not much concerned by chronic Russian violations of that agreement — or about the way in which Moscow has systematically violated and ignored the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty and its selective implementation of the transparency and confidence-building measures of the Vienna Document.  Or about how the disarmament community insists upon fidelity to all past Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference (RevCon) final documents irrespective of how divorced their substantive content has become from reality.  (Remember, for instance, that the “Thirteen Practical Steps” articulated in the 2000 RevCon Final Document call for ratification of the START II strategic arms agreement, negotiation of START III, fidelity to the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, and implementation of the Trilateral Initiative — all 1990s-era agenda items long since overtaken by events, and none of which even exist today.)

So what is one to make of this?  From a security perspective, such attitudes could scarcely seem anything other than some admixture of stupidity and insanity.  For such interlocutors — and I can assure you that I have quite a few of them — it is literally more important for the United States to remain officially committed to an arms control agreement than it is for that treaty actually to constrain Russian behavior at all and to serve broader U.S., allied, and partner security interests.  For such interlocutors, effectively endorsing a growing and destabilizing asymmetry in nuclear posture is actually preferable to officially admitting that an agreement has failed.  Through the prism of security, one could be forgiven for thinking all this no more than a sort of madness.

B. Means and Ends

Yet here’s where one should perhaps slow down a little bit an unpack things.  While I share the security hawks’ horror at such arguments, I’ve become convinced that they are not insane.  Indeed, I think they can be understood as the result of a peculiar but fairly coherent and by now well-established post-Cold War arms control mindset.  I believe that mindset is fundamentally misguided and is becoming increasingly dangerous, and that it must therefore be confronted and rebuffed at every opportunity.  Yet it does have its own logic — however perverse — and we would do well to understand it.

The key to this understanding is realizing that such views represent an arms control subculture still caught in the assumptions of the initial post-Cold War period, and for which security, as traditionally conceived, is no longer the principal focus of concern.  Through this prism, arms control is not primarily about managing the challenges of competition as countries array dangerous tools against each other.  Instead, it is seen as being about achieving nuclear disarmament — with this objective itself being conceived, in turn, as revolving around merely whether the world can muster enough “political will” to get the job done, rather than around the challenge of managing thorny security challenges.  In this worldview, arms control is not necessarily a means to the end of improved security, but rather has become an end unto itself as a component of the creation and maintenance of a disarmament-focused political community.

The earnest desire to achieve disarmament has, in some instances, led to a willingness to embrace questionable assumptions, e.g., that if the United States leads by example in the field of disarmament, then our strategic competitors will — rather than simply being delighted at our short-sightedness — follow us toward disarmament.   Most broadly, these dynamics have, in certain circles, led to a devaluing or even deliberate dismissal of security, as traditionally conceived, as a factor in arms control- and disarmament-related policy.

In this worldview, bringing about disarmament was not fundamentally seen as requiring the alleviation of security concerns — perhaps in part because the most fundamental problems of geopolitics had already been (or would be) solved by the teleological progress of liberal globalization, but in large part simply because radical cuts in nuclear arsenals were assumed to be good for everyone’s security per se, irrespective of the circumstances.  From this perspective, nuclear disarmament always and inevitably created rather than required security.  In terms of defining an agenda, therefore, one could sidestep the messy business of having to worry about what would happen in a world without nuclear deterrence, or about otherwise trying to manage, ameliorate, or overcome competitive geopolitics.  Such an approach also sidesteps the awkward question of what competitive politics might look like after disarmament – that is, in the absence of nuclear deterrence, such as in potentially leaving the door open to general war among the great powers, or perhaps creating dynamics that would prompt a return to nuclear weaponization.

Instead of trying to address such security questions with the seriousness they deserve, the task became one simply of eliciting the necessary “political will” to overcome whatever discreditably retrograde residual viewpoints and attitudes still stood in the way of progress.  This conceptual shift transformed arms control discourse psychologically, changing it from a security-focused enterprise to one that revolved around creating, maintaining, and expanding the community of those having — or at least expressing — correct views.  Arms control became an arena, in other words, for ideological identity politics and agendas of narrative control.

To be sure, some of these attitudes were surely in existence in the disarmament community before the end of the Cold War — in particular, that disdain for security concerns along the road to and after disarmament that grows out of the a priori assumption that there is no scenario in which a nuclear weapons-free world is not better for everyone than any imaginable world with any nuclear weapons in it.  The post-Cold War era, however, gave this mindset new salience and helped it move more into the arms control mainstream, as neoliberal triumphalism eroded concern for the potential results of other states’ great power competitive strategies and as the arms control bureaucracy shifted into negotiating the dismantlement of nuclear weapons made unnecessary by the waning of Cold War tensions.

C. Arms and Identity

Accordingly, for some portions of the policy community in the post-Cold War era, arms control became less a question of reducing risk than one of sociopolitical community-building and performative politics.  This insight allows one to make at least some sense out of the otherwise inexplicable reactions I have heard to contemporary problems with Russian arms control cheating.  Let’s explore this a bit.

To the degree that arms control is not about managing competitive dynamics and clashing security interests but rather about constituting and expressing community through fidelity to an ideal of progress, the order of the day becomes an identity politics of virtue signaling, progressive solidarity, and consciousness-raising against retrograde mindsets.  This puts a premium upon self-image and self-identity, with subjective assertions of commitment and faith being at least as important as such mundane things as security conditions.  (After all, objective circumstances are necessarily contingent, whereas symbolic and expressive acts purport to offer a window into the interiority of true desires and intentions — which is really what the new politics of arms control is about.)

In this rendering, arms control policy thus performs at least as much of a social function as it does a security function: it is perhaps first and foremost about promoting and defending a particular conception of politico-ideological community.  Commitment to an ideal of arms control is one of the indicia of membership in a progressive global community that demands performative acts of solidarity and is thus preoccupied by the boundary-maintenance chore of creating symbolic distance from those with incorrect attitudes — attitudes such as the idea that geopolitics has something to do with power and with competition.

Such distancing may also help assuage Western liberal guilt rooted in fashionable fixations upon the historical sins of our own culture, upon Europe’s imperialist past, and upon the United States’ invention and first use of nuclear weaponry.  In this context, it is perhaps felt necessary that Westerners, in particular, show special fidelity to the ideal as a way of atoning for past sins.  Through the prism of ideational solidarity and community-building, such political and psychological imperatives may seem more weighty than what other, non-Western countries may actually be doing — even if that includes violating arms control agreements and building up nuclear arsenals.  Members of the community must not only embrace a correct vision of the future, but must also repudiate former versions of the collective Western self in a self-criticism ritual that reaffirms the validity and primacy of the current self.

This rootedness of modern liberal arms control discourse in a particular notion of community and sense of self is why this narrative of teleological disarmament progress — one grounded in the need to demonstrate sufficient faith in the ideal and zeal in its pursuit — is so tenaciously defended, why there is so little concern with non-Western countries’ violation of arms control agreements, and why developments that signal or symbolize the frailty of this conception tend to elicit such vehement reactions.  Ultimately, this game is neither about security policy nor even about fact: it is about identity.  Indeed, if one posits that some activists have drifted into what the author John Judis termed – in recounting his own experiences with the radical Left in American politics in the 1960s – as an “ascen[t] into the realm of fantasy and visible sainthood,” it may even be that disarmament narratives serve identity functions better precisely to the degree that they are uncoupled from debatable facts.

D. Making Sense of Things

So why do I spend so much time in forensic dissection of the modern arms control narrative?   I do it because I want to understand what’s going on — and because if you can see these dynamics in play under the surface of contemporary arms control debates, much about the modern disarmament and arms control community becomes clearer.

These attitudes help explain why the achievement and preservation of arms control and disarmament agreements is felt to be so important per se, irrespective of such agreements’ actual impact upon security.  Indeed, traditional notions of “security” cannot even be admitted as a litmus test for arms control in the first place, since accepting that thesis could be seen as repudiating the post-Cold War conceit of strategic benignity or as questioning the received wisdom that disarmament is always good, regardless of the circumstances.

If anything, from the perspective of an idealistic subculture that prizes performative acts of ideological solidarity, it may even be an especially valuable and effective form of virtue-signaling to cling to an agreement when it isn’t working.  If the objective is to signal one’s wholehearted commitment to the ideal, what could showcase such unquestioning fidelity better than insisting upon sticking with agreements when doing so undermines your security?

So there is actually a perverse logic here — a logic that explains why so many arms control figures would have preferred the United States remain committed to and constrained by the INF Treaty completely irrespective of Russian cheating.  It also explains why I was once told by then-United Nations High Representative for Disarmament Affairs Sergio Duarte that the nuclear superpowers deserve no credit for the massive reductions in their arsenals that occurred after the Cold War ended.  The social politics of modern arms control mean that one only deserves real credit for disarming when one still needs the arms!

This social logic is why so many contemporary civil society and diplomatic interlocutors are more concerned about whether the countries of the West express and signal their devotion to arms control and disarmament than about whatever it is that other big nuclear weapons states such as Russia and China are actually doing in concrete terms.  If anything, if the real objective is to elicit ongoing performative acts of commitment within a presumed Western liberal community, Western leaders are perhaps more to be distrusted than leaders  in the Kremlin or in the Chinese Communist Party’s leadership compound in Zhongnanhai.  To the degree that arms control plays a social rather than a security function, purported betrayal within the community may sting more sharply — and strike more at the modern arms controller’s sense of self — than differences with those who were never within the fold to begin with.  Western, intra-communal heterodoxy represents more of a threat to the beleaguered post-Cold War narrative of identitarian virtue and community than the actual nuclear choices made by authoritarian leaders.

This logic is presumably also why certain Western NGOs promoting the Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) seem so unconcerned about the actual implications of their methods — and specifically, about the degree to which their civil-society mobilization campaigns create disarmament pressure on free, democratic societies, while having no impact upon the sort of authoritarian nuclear powers that feel free to murder dissidents and human rights journalists or to imprison entire ethnic minorities in concentration camps for religious and political reprogramming.  From a security perspective, this asymmetry of civil society impact is surely dangerous, for it makes disarmament NGOs into the de facto tools of the nuclear-armed dictatorships — who must surely be delighted by the prospect of the democracies disarming themselves in a fit of antinuclear righteousness.  Nevertheless, from a virtue-signaling, nuclear identity politics perspective, this unconcern has its own perverse internal logic, since the thing that matters most in that context is whether Western leaders recite the catechism.

II. A Better Way

So that’s how I think “nuclear identity politics” can help explain much that would otherwise, from a security perspective, simply seem unhinged.  But merely to explain, of course, is hardly to endorse — and I don’t.  But I don’t want just to explain these dynamics; I want to transcend them.  I want to replace them with a discourse much more likely to be relevant to current conditions, more likely to improve real-world outcomes, and much less desperately maladaptive in the contemporary geopolitical environment of great power competition.

So what are we doing about it?  Well, for one thing, we in the U.S. Government are engaging with this mindset head-on.  It should be increasingly clear that this arms control pathology is a completely inappropriate and even dangerous answer to the problems of international peace and security in today’s complex and challenging world, and we’re not shy about pointing this out.  But rather than simply criticize that mindset, we are working to find — and to demonstrate — a better way forward.

For one thing, we are working with a broad array of international partners to build a new and more constructive disarmament dialogue under the aegis of our Creating an Environment for Nuclear Disarmament (CEND) initiative.  CEND aspires to restructure global disarmament discourse around the things that the disarmament community really needs to accomplish if mankind is actually to find a path to a world without nuclear weapons — that is, to focus upon ameliorating the conditions in the global security environment that lead some non-possessors to wish to acquire such weapons and possessors to feel they need to retain them, upon developing the institutions that would be needed to achieve and sustain elimination, and upon ways to reduce risks and manage competitive tensions until that day arrives.  We are, in other words, building a much more honest and realistic disarmament discourse, one that puts security back at the center of attention, because without addressing such challenges disarmament will always remain out of reach.

We are also working to demonstrate how hard-nosed attentiveness to security concerns and to the challenges of geopolitical competition are perfectly compatible with — and indeed, ultimately essentialto — successful arms control.  In fact, we are pursuing new arms control agreements even as we speak, in our search for a trilateral arms control framework that will involve both Russia and China, and that can help forestall the new arms race that today seems to be brewing as a result of those countries’ ongoing buildup of their nuclear forces.

But this needs to be arms control for adults.  It needs to be cognizant of, rather than blithely unconcerned with, the complexities and risks involved in approaching such matters in the geopolitical environment.  It needs to be comfortable getting by without the absolutist performative moralism one sometimes sees among those who lack “the self-awareness we need to have as fallible humans trying to make tough decisions on the basis of uncertain information and unpredictable outcomes.”

In modeling such a serious approach, we think it needs to be clear, among other things, that we seek arms control only where and to the degree that it contributes to our security, and to that of our allies and partners.  We also believe that arms control must verifiably constrain its parties.  Arms control is, for us, a means to the end of improved security; we are not interested in it for virtue-signaling or performative political expression.  And where arms control does not contribute to security — such as where our counterparties refuse to comply with their obligations — we have made very clear that we are willing to walk away from failed agreements.  Far from being hostile to arms control, this is a demonstration of how to take arms control seriously as a real-world policy tool: we seek good agreements and shun bad ones.  Such an approach based on security interests rather than identity politics is likely to be more sustainable over time, not to mention much wiser and more effective in practice.

This approach may not make us many friends in the arms control sub-community that centers around nuclear identity politics.  I submit, however, that it represents not only a clear-eyed approach to today’s international security challenges but also perhaps the only way that actual arms control is likely to survive in — and contribute to ameliorating — the conditions of today’s world.

If what you want or need is progressive internationalist virtue-signaling, we’re not your team.  But if you hope for a more secure and stable international security environment that avoids a new arms race, I hope you’ll support our effort to bring a practical, security-minded realism to fruition in the arms control arena.

Thank you.

-- 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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