New Paradigms Forum Proliferation Issues and Much More …


A Nuclear Deterrence Colloquy: Steven Leeper and Chris Ford


The following colloquy took place via e-mail over the summer of 2010.  In response to Dr. Ford’s New Paradigms Forum posting on June 22 (“Nonproliferation in Strategic Asia”), Steven Leeper – chair of the Hiroshima Peace Culture Foundation in Japan – wrote to pose Ford several questions about nuclear weapons and international security.  These questions initiated an exchange of  views, which Ford and Leeper agree might be interesting and thought-provoking for NPF readers.  Accordingly, it is reproduced here below.

Steven Leeper was born in the United States in 1947, obtained a Master’s Degree in clinical psychology from West Georgia University in the U.S., worked as English instructor at Hiroshima YMCA, served as Co-President of Transnet Ltd. (a consulting, translation and interpretation business) and then Overseas Liaison Advisor for Molten Corporation, served as the U.S. Representative for Mayors for Peace, and then as an Expert Advisor for the Hiroshima Peace Culture Foundation (HPCF).  He took office as HPCF chairman on April 23, 2007.

A former senior State Department official, Christopher Ford writes and manages this website.  A brief biography appears at the bottom of this page.

A word of warning to the reader: this colloquy is quite long.  Hopefully, however, it is worth your patience.


Dear Mr. Ford,

… I am as repelled by your views as [anyone], but I admire your effort to start a dialogue across such a large gap.  We need to do this. In addition, I have very little contact with people who think the way you do, so I am genuinely interested in what you have to say.

Because your comments are based on assumptions of animosity and struggle for dominance that I don’t share, responding will be like trying to talk to someone on a different planet. Nevertheless, I intend to analyze your text carefully and respectfully, then respond in detail in the next few days, but for now I would like to ask you some questions.

First, do you believe that the international community is justified in forcefully keeping nuclear weapons out of the hands of other nations while allowing the nuclear weapon states to keep them indefinitely?  In other words, if a nation decides it has had enough of the non-proliferation regime, drops out of the treaty, and begins to build its own nuclear weapons, do you believe the international community should respond with harsh sanctions or even pre-emptive bombing?  Also, would your answer be different depending on which country it is?  That is, if Iran or Venezuela is developing nuclear weapons, should the international community react differently than if it is Japan or Germany or Luxembourg?  What about the Vatican?

Second, do you believe that US nuclear weapons are the only or even the main weapons that keep China or Russia from attacking us or one or more of our allies, oil fields or diamond mines?  In other words, are they just waiting for us to let our nuclear guard down and if we do, they will strike? In this connection, do you think the US would or should strike if we see they have let their guard down?  If we were to achieve nuclear primacy, for example, should we launch a first strike and eliminate these pesky threats to US dominance once and for all?

Third, do you believe that it is right and possible for the US at 4 percent of the world’s population to continue to use 20 to 30 percent of the world’s oil and generate 20 to 30 percent of its pollution?  Or should we be working through dialogue and negotiation to equalize the use of oil and other resources around the world?  In this connection, if the US has to accept a lower standard of living in order to allow Africa to have a higher standard of living, do you think we should?  Or is your priority to maintain the American way of life for Americans regardless of what happens in Africa?  And in this connection, do you believe the US and Europe have any causal responsibility for the poverty and suffering in Africa or is that basically their fault?

Fourth, do you believe that having plenty of nuclear weapons makes us safe from those who want to bring the US and the whole global system down?  And, do you think it is possible to keep nuclear weapons out of the hands of those people indefinitely?  Do you believe we can prevent proliferation by military means?  And if nuclear weapons do spread, do you think we can keep them from being used?  How long?

Fourth and a half, if Israel or the US were to bomb Iran to keep it from getting nuclear weapons, do you think that would lead to a major war in the Middle East and possibly the use of nuclear weapons to open up the Straits of Hormuz?  Or would Iran accept a bombing in good spirits like Syria did?

Fifth, which would be worse, for the whole world to be dominated by Russians, Chinese, communists, Muslims, Arabs and/or eco terrorists or for all human beings on Earth to die as a result of nuclear winter, radiation and/or environmental catastrophe?  In this connection, have you ever believed it would be better to be dead than red?

Sixth, do you believe the oceans are acidifying, losing oxygen and dying?  Or, do you think there are other environmental problems that are serious threats to human life on Earth?  And if so, do you think we can save the oceans or solve those other problems while fighting for dominance and threatening each other with nuclear weapons?  Do you believe our environmental problems require any fundamental change in international relations?  What sort of change?

Seventh, do you believe that every organization can have only one boss and, therefore, world peace can only come when the U.S. or NATO and a coalition of the willing has achieved complete dominance and is able to establish global law and order, permanently preventing the emergence of a rival?  Or, if you do not believe the US can or should achieve world dominance, do you believe a highly competitive multi-polar world can achieve sustainable peace and prosperity based on nuclear deterrence?  If so, and if U.S. security depends on nuclear weapons, shouldn’t all nations have at least 160 warheads (this is what the UK says is absolutely a minimum)?  Why not?

Finally, do you believe the US is managing a global empire?  If not, what do you think is the purpose of our 700 to 1,000 military bases around the world?  Or, If you do believe we are an empire, do you doubt that said empire is in decline?  Do you doubt that we are moving toward a multi-polar world that will necessarily weaken US economic control and lessen the wealth gap between the U.S. and the rest of the world?  Or, do you think the US should use its military might to make sure this doesn’t happen?  And in this connection, do you really believe that US “defense spending is quite flat these days?” Do you think we need to spend more? What percent of our disposable income would be about right?

In re-reading these questions, I see I haven’t been in complete control of my anger, but this is due to the high-tension gap between us.  I am trying to think I have been playful and teasing, but not disrespectful or malicious.  I am typing all of this with a smile, and these are actually the questions that emerged for me as I read your text. I hope and believe it will help me understand you better to hear your answers.


-- Steve Leeper


Dear Steve:

I’m pleased to add you to the New Paradigms Forum (NPF) distribution list.  Thank you, in particular, for your questions and commentary.  This is a great opportunity for a colloquy, and I’m looking forward to seeing where it goes.  Let me try to address your questions, at least briefly and tentatively.  (Such things probably cannot be dealt with adequately merely in an e-mail, but let’s at least get a discussion going!)

Before I get to your first question, however, let me say that I was startled to see you describe my comments as being based on “assumptions of animosity and struggle for dominance.”  For whatever it’s worth, I don’t see things that way myself.

If I assumed universal ill will and a struggle for dominance, I think my policy prescriptions and approaches would be quite different than they are.  There would be none of the diplomatic and public engagement and outreach I tried to do when in government, and to which I have dedicated NPF.  There would be a lot more clamoring for things that I don’t presently clamor for, and a lot less willingness to take arms control agreements and other international instruments seriously.  And I presumably wouldn’t bother trying to explain my perspectives to you, or anyone else for that matter.

If I had to characterize my basic assumptions, I would say instead merely that they include the need to be alive to the possibility of animosity.  This is very different from assuming it; the possibility of something is not the same thing as its actuality.  (As an analogy, I like to wear a seat belt when I drive because I am alive to the possibility of an accident.  If I assumed I would be in a wreck, however, I wouldn’t drive at all – or perhaps I’d insist upon driving a very different sort of vehicle, and in a very different way.  By the same token, if I assumed I wouldn’t be in an accident, I wouldn’t bother with a belt and would probably drive a lot more recklessly.)

So too, I like to think that my approaches to nuclear and other security issues are careful, without being either paranoid or naïve.  In matters atomic, in fact, such prudence may be the only attitude with which we can sensibly face the future.  Both paranoia and naïveté contain the seeds of nuclear disaster, the former tending to provoke conflict through rapid escalatory dynamics and the latter tending to elicit conflict as long as there remains even a single other player in the system who does not share one’s own benign passivity.

With both Aristotle and the Buddha, therefore, I like to think that there exists some kind of Middle Way that provides the key to progress.  In international politics, I tend to think that such a way requires both an optimistic desire for engagement and a healthy dollop of no-nonsense muscularity and strategic hedging.  (One might say that there is a rebuttable presumption that dialogue is the best way to engage, but also that rebuttable presumptions can be rebutted – and one should not forget to be prepared for such a possibility.)  One without the other seems highly unwise.  My instinct is that there is no way to get the world to where we wish it to be unless we start with our feet in the mud where it presently is.

I would also say that my basic assumptions include uncertainty - that is, I am skeptical of our ability to foresee the implications of present-day choices and to ensure that outcomes closely and reliably match our desires.  This tends to attract me to “muddling-through” approaches, to strategic hedging, to a modest incrementalism, and to strategies that have some hope of surviving the collapse of their animating assumptions. I have an instinctive suspicion of grand, sweeping policy programs of transformative change, and this is no less true with regard to disarmament than in any other arena.

To say this is in no way to dismiss the possibility of achieving beautiful change, of course.  It is merely to acknowledge that we are fallible, and that we are notoriously bad at anticipating distant consequences.  I yearn and work for the good, yet I also know how the road to Hell is paved.  Optimism and hope for better things is the engine of progress, one might say, without which we perhaps cannot move forward at all, but it is also deadly foolishness to drive a car without brakes or steering – especially if we cannot see too clearly down the road ahead of us.  We have to manage the tension between the urgency of getting quickly to our goal and the dangers entailed, in such circumstances, by haste.  Nor, in our fallibility, can we afford entirely to forget the possibility that the destination may not be quite what we anticipated, or that the road we choose may not in fact lead there.  Policymakers should always strive to do better, but must not forget that the world is as complex as our analytical and executive capabilities are finite.

These are very abstract notions, of course, but, I am glad for the chance to sketch them, however tentatively.  I suspect they look little like the cartoonish a priori assumptions about malevolence and danger that you suspect in me.


Anyway, in your first question, you ask my views about forcibly keeping nuclear weapons out of the hands of newcomers “while allowing the nuclear weapon states to keep them indefinitely.”

The easy, stock answer to this question is the one that reflects – at least in theory – the policies of the NPT nuclear weapons states (NWS) and the vision embodied in the Preamble and Article VI of the Treaty.  This answer is that the idea is not that NWS possession will continue forever, but rather that it will be possible at some point to achieve nuclear disarmament.  Through this prism, nonproliferation compliance is absolutely essential – indeed, the sine qua non of progress – but ultimately constitutes no more than a waystation on the road to some future “zero.”  (Let’s leave for another day the question of what conditions would have to obtain for such a point to be reached.  All claim, at least, to support the ultimate goal.)  And this, I think, remains a pretty good answer.

A more interesting exploration of the issues raised by your question, however, would ask what should happen if one or more of today’s nuclear weapons possessors were to reject this conventional-wisdom vision of a hypothetical future world of nuclear weapons abolition.  If there were not at least some prospect of zero, does nonproliferation lose any of its moral and policy-prescriptive salience?

I would argue in the negative.  Even if it were clear that we cannot get to “zero,” I believe that nonproliferation compliance would still be essential, and that it would still be necessary to work to keep nuclear weapons out of the hands of newcomers – perhaps even by force in some cases.

One might infer from your question that this is merely a binary issue.  Your query seems to suggest that no one should have such weapons, or else there is no legitimate argument against everyone having them.  I reject such a dichotomy, and don’t think that it would be a legitimate answer to the potential collapse of efforts to reach “zero” to posit that everyone should thereupon be allowed The Bomb.  Even if some countries were to aim to retain nuclear weapons forever, I think it would still be important to work to prevent others from having them, very important to prevent some others from getting them, and critical to prevent everyone from having them.

It would be a mistake to tie our conclusions in such regards to some principle of “fairness” or symmetry abstracted infinitely away from the world in which we actually live.  The name of the game here is not to demonstrate the elegant logic of our organizational scheme, but rather to manage a complicated world in ways that preserve peace, security, and human freedoms as best we can.   We get no points for conceptual beauty if the world we have crafted is a violent and disordered one.

So we should be honest: it surely would matter who has what.  You ask about a contrast between nuclear proliferation in, say, Venezuela and Luxembourg.  Well, for my part, I very much want neither – but if forced to choose between the two, I definitely pick Luxembourg.  (And I bet you would too.)  These details matter.

Nor, I suppose, am I willing to say - as some in the NPT community do – that there could be no imaginable circumstances in which it would be illegitimate for a country to withdraw from the Treaty and begin building nuclear weapons.  Such circumstances would surely have to be quite extreme, but I cannot say that they could not exist.  Even the International Court of Justice, in all the anti-nuclear enthusiasm of its – I think – juridically problematic 1996 advisory opinion on nuclear weaponry, was not willing absolutely to rule out the possibility of legitimate use, such as in extreme circumstances of self-defense where the very survival of a state is at stake.  And if such devices are conceivably legitimate to use, it is hard to say that they are per se illegitimate to acquire.  (The NPT itself basically acknowledges this: it has a withdrawal clause for cases in which “extraordinary events ... have jeopardized the supreme interest” of a State Party.  The fact that North Korea has shown this clause to be subject to abuse does not erase the insight behind it.)  This is another way in which context matters.


Notwithstanding the suggestion that seems to be lurking behind your second question, I do not think that nuclear weapons are the “only” or even “the main” reason that China or Russia presently refrain from attacking the United States or its allies.  Nor do I see any reason to consider a preemptive U.S. nuclear strike on either of them, or upon any other nuclear player.  I am actually a bit startled that it’s necessary to say all this, since I don’t know anyone in the “hawkish” wing of the U.S. policy community who actually would take the positions you seem concerned that I might hold.  Since it apparently is necessary to state these points more clearly, however, I’m happy at least for the chance to do so.  You appear to have little contact with or knowledge of those who do not share your views, and tend yourself to assume the worst.  Perhaps our dialogue can help fix that.

But your question is interesting in its own right, for there is a sense in which it circles back on the subject of your initial comments about assumptions of animosity.  Perhaps a case could be made for an out-of-the-blue first strike if one assumed an adversary to possess some kind of innate, ineradicable, inalterable hostility such that its most fervent desire were one’s own destruction.  At the very least, perceiving this kind of almost mindless hatred – a sort of “rabid dog” essentialism of the sort one sees in zombie movies, where one’s opponents will keep attacking at every opportunity until killed – would certainly seem to preclude any sort of modus vivendi.  And who knows?  It might also be taken to justify preemptive destruction at the first available opportunity if it were not possible to incarcerate or permanently wall off one’s adversaries en masse.

Thankfully, however, neither governments nor peoples usually act in that way, so the question never really arises.  Rather than behaving like extras in Dawn of the Dead, leaders of countries generally conceive themselves and their states to have specific interests, and they tend to act in ways that they think advance these interests – which includes recognizing a need not to act in ways that tend to imperil those interests.  Since self-conceived interests never seem to revolve exclusively around destroying someone else, this leaves conceptual ground in which there is a chance for non-annihilative interactions to take place.  This doesn’t get us entirely out of the theoretical woods, of course, for it matters greatly what a country’s interests are felt to be, and how they are pursued.  (Again, detail matters!)  But assuming such an “interest” paradigm does pretty much remove us from the realm of zombie movie hypotheticals.

That doesn’t mean that things can always work out peaceably, of course. Some gaps between constellations of perceived interests cannot be closed, and not simply because one has not tried hard enough.  Until something changes between parties feeling themselves to have irreconcilable differences, it will be necessary to maintain a tense and perhaps merely provisional peace in which there is no reconciliation – or even, in extremis, to fight.  Unless one is willing a priori to rule out the possibility that such situations could ever occur, and I do not, prudence counsels at least some degree of preparation for “irreconcilability” scenarios.

This, then, is an argument suggesting the need for concepts of deterrence and military preparedness in national security decision-making, even for those earnestly committed to achieving as much as possible with peaceable, diplomatic methods.  But it is in no way an argument revolving around an assumed hostility, nor does it oblige preemptive destruction.  What the “right” answer turns out to be will depend upon circumstances; these are essentially empirical questions, and do not lend themselves well to treatment by logical or theoretical templates.

Since I don’t see any evidence that Russian or Chinese interests are conceived and pursued in ways that might tend to make those governments seem like the kind of mindlessly carnivorous adversary that might have to be addressed with zombie-movie remedies - and since I don’t know anyone who claims to see such evidence – I am far more sanguine about our continued coexistence than you seem to imply.  I see no sign that we would not be able to get by quite adequately through an ongoing commitment to cooperative relations across a wide range of issue areas, coupled with a posture of generalized military preparedness and continued support for our friends and allies.


Energy issues aren’t my forte, so I hope you’ll forgive only a quick and halting response to this one.  As a general matter, I’m less concerned with issues of equality in distribution per se than in the situation that faces people on the ground in the lives they lead.  Resource consumption is certainly unequally distributed around the world – as, for that matter, is resource endowment.  To some extent this is unavoidable, and to some extent it may be desirable.  (Trade, after all, can be powerfully enriching to human communities, but it depends on different bundles of goods and capabilities being differentially available in such a way as to be amenable to exchange.)  By the same token, inequalities can sometimes be very problematic, especially at extremes.

I’m not any more fond of categorical answers here than in any other area, and I’m not willing to concede an intrinsic value to “equaliz[ing] the use of oil and other resources around the world.”  Details matter.  The best I’ll give you on this question, therefore, is something like “it depends.”  History suggests that enrichment through consumption of resources need not be a zero-sum game, in which one player’s gain is inherently offset by another’s equal and corresponding loss.  Sometimes it doubtless is, in which case one party’s prosperity can entail significant social justice costs, and can give rise to an argument for compensation or some form of “equalization.”  But not always.  A rising tide can lift all boats, and I’d rather have human societies be unequal in their relative degree of prosperity than equal in their misery.  It’s our job as a society to figure out when inequality is salutary and when it isn’t, and to act accordingly.  To assume either answer a priori is to do an injustice, either by condoning hurtful inequality or by foreclosing the possibility of real benefit to all.

I don’t know enough about energy issues to be able to argue a strong position on whether it is actually necessary to mandate the kind of zero-sum-assuming tradeoffs you suggest.  (Having spent enough time in Africa to have seen a number of post-colonial governments in action, however, I do not agree with the suggestion you offer that “the poverty and suffering in Africa” is “basically the[] fault” of the United States and Europe.  There seems to be lots of blame to go around, and African leaders themselves appear to have made more than their fair share of disastrously foolish and/or viciously exploitative policy choices.  To blame the continent’s ills today on Northern fossil fuel consumption seems exceedingly simplistic, to say the least.)


I certainly wouldn’t agree with the statement that “having plenty of nuclear weapons makes us safe from those who want to bring the U.S. and the whole global system down.”  Nor do I know anyone who would say this, or precisely why you felt it necessary to solicit my view of such a straw-man contention.

Nuclear weapons seem on balance to have played some role in helping stabilize the strategic relationship between the major powers since the Second World War, and in helping forestall nuclear weapons proliferation to U.S. allies threatened by aggressive global or regional adversaries.  No one I know, however, has ever claimed for such devices any kind of magical, “silver bullet” power against all security threats, much less specifically against nonstate actors.  (State sponsors of such actors, of course, may be subject to more traditional deterrent approaches, but that’s another story.)

Do I believe that “we can prevent proliferation by military means”?  If you mean exclusively by military means – or indeed solely through the use of any single type of tool – my answer is “no.”  But that’s very different from saying that military means cannot be useful in broader efforts to prevent or reverse proliferation; I think they can.  Fighting proliferation is a complex challenge that demands a mix of tools, and military action – or the implicit or explicit threat of it – is one of the tools that can sometimes be useful.  (Iraq’s nuclear weapons program, for instance, was dismantled by force in 1991, and Libya’s program negotiated away in 2003 for fear of Tripoli suffering a similar fate as the second Iraq war began.  Similarly, Syria lacks a North Korean-built plutonium-production reactor today because of an Israeli air strike in 2007.  These are not bad outcomes.)  Military remedies are certainly not always either possible or advisable, by a long shot.  On occasion, however, they are both, and we should not foreclose the possibility of such action when this is the case.

(I would also urge you to remember that fighting proliferation by “military means” can include providing muscular reassurances to friends who might otherwise be tempted to invest in nuclear weaponry to help them deter a powerful potential adversary.  Because of Washington’s steadfastness in providing both nuclear and non-nuclear alliance reassurance to its allies, there are fewer nuclear weapons possessors in NATO and in East Asia today than would otherwise be the case.  “Military means” can sometimes contribute both to nonproliferation and to the more general prevention of conflict.)

Do I think it’s essential to keep nuclear weapons out of the hands of terrorists?  Absolutely.  Do I think we can do so indefinitely?  I don’t know, and I certainly support working very hard to mitigate the risk of them coming into possession of such technology.  This includes such things as: doing more to control vulnerable nuclear materials worldwide; stopping the spread of fissile material production capabilities; minimizing the rate at which new materials are produced and keeping any such production that does occur to the least proliferation-sensitive forms; and reducing arsenals of existing weapons to the absolute minimum possible consistent with peace and security.  In answer to your further query, I am not entirely confident that we can keep nuclear weapons from being used if they spread further, which is one of the most powerful reasons I know for insisting upon strict nonproliferation compliance.


You ask whether I think a military strike on Iran’s nuclear weapons program would lead to a general war in the Middle East and the use of nuclear weapons to open the Straits of Hormuz.  In response, of course, it’s hard to predict what would happen.  It is clearly possible that a strike could precipitate a broader war, but the more important question isn’t possibility but likelihood.  Lots of things, both good and bad, are possible.  Fewer are likely, nor equally so, and this is hardly irrelevant when weighing one’s options.  (I suspect you would agree that it is also possible that Iran would do nothing in response to an attack, much as Syria did in 2007.  The more important question is how likely Tehran’s passivity would be, especially when weighed against the likelihood – and the potential impact – of other responses.)

As I see it, the merits or demerits of a strike on Iran depend on a complex mix of factors, including: (a) the degree to which the attacker can find and destroy key sites, and indeed how broad a set of targets within Iran is attacked; (b) the extent to which such attacks would delay or prevent Iran’s eventual development of nuclear weapons and/or help bring about regime change; (c) what hopes there are of taking advantage of any strike-induced delay in weaponization in order to provide a more lasting resolution of the problem through some other means; (d) what actions Iran is believed likely to take in response to an attack; and (e) the diplomatic and political costs or benefits in the Muslim world and elsewhere of such a policy (including the degree to which relevant opinion-leaders privately or publicly support the move).  Assessing how these things balance probably requires more information than you or I presently have, and will vary further depending upon the immediate circumstances (e.g., how Iran’s provocative behavior and direction is viewed by other key players in the international community before the attack occurs, what prevailing perceptions are of the alternatives available, and who undertakes and/or collaborates in the assault).

My sense is that the question of whether or not to launch a military strike is a much more closely balanced one than one would think from listening to media pundits that make it sound like lunacy.  It’s hard to miss Iran’s ongoing regional bellicosity and apparent dreams of restoring its ancient regional hegemony, and hard not to be concerned by the increasing radicalism, support for international terrorist groups, and internal oppression of the ruling Pasdaran/clerical clique in Tehran.  Military action could be very costly in a number of ways, but one should not make the logical error of comparing those costs to the present status quo: the relevant comparison is instead with what we anticipate things would be like with a nuclear-armed Iran empowered and emboldened in its region for many years to come.  Especially watching other regional countries now starting to prepare themselves for their own nuclear weapons options, some kind of military action might at some point seem a lesser evil.  (I’m not even getting into the question of Israeli threat perceptions, moreover, which are even more acute on these points, and not without some reason.)  This is a difficult call – and no “slam dunk,” to quote George Tenet’s infamous phrasing about Iraq – but neither choice, I think, would bespeak insanity.

(For what it’s worth, however, I see no meaningful likelihood of U.S. nuclear weapons being used in such a move against Iran – whether to “open up the Straits of Hormuz” or otherwise.  Thankfully, we still retain powerful enough non-nuclear military capabilities that we aren’t likely to be driven to such choices.  Anyway, I don’t know what you mean by “opening up” the Straits, or how nuclear weapons could be useful in that regard even if we were willing to use them.)


I’m not sure what to make of this question.  You want me to posit a choice between being ruled by “Russians, Chinese, communists, Muslims, Arabs and/or eco terrorists”?  And to weigh this choice somehow against species extinction?  I don’t know on what basis such a question would be intelligible, much less answerable.  (Do you think these are choices that actually face us?)  It sounds like you’re fishing for a way to draw me out on “better dead than red” or “better red than dead” preferences, but those are bumper stickers, not policy choices or real options that face anyone.  Life’s too short to bother people on this distribution list with empty musings.  (Perhaps over a few drinks late at night, just for grins, but not now and not here.)


I wish I were knowledgeable enough to discuss the state of oceanic acidity, but I’m not.  More fundamentally, I am also not sure the degree to which we will need some kind of “fundamental change in international relations” in order to address environmental challenges – or whether, if such a change is possible, how we are to bring it about.  I’m not alone in not knowing such things, however: nobody else seems to either.

History indeed suggests that over the long term, patterns of international relations are not fixed in stone.  Dramatic changes – phase transformations, if you will – can and do come about from time to time.  There isn’t much precedent for deliberately planning such a thing in advance, however, nor much reason to think we have the foggiest idea how to do so.

I yearn as much as anyone for some great, sweeping transformation that will enable us to solve the biggest problems we face and live in a far better world.  But such hopes don’t absolve us of the responsibility for engaging with the world as it is today, either: our challenge is to work for better things while not being (dare I say it) stupid in how we deal with things in the here and now.  This is a difficult balance, but simply declaring the bankruptcy of the status quo and wishing for something different only gets one so far.

My guess is that we need to be, in some dynamic admixture, both ambitious and prudent, both operationally optimistic and cautious.  We must have and pursue dreams, yet without allowing ourselves to become a stereotypical “dreamer” who is lost – and may even be imperiled – in the practical and immediate contingencies of the here-and-now.  I see no magic recipe for how to manage the tension between transformative hopes and ongoing practical responsibilities: it is a theme on which we cannot avoid having to improvise as we go along.  And I am suspicious of your apparent taste for clear, absolute answers.


Do I believe that world peace is achievable only if NATO attains absolute global domination?  Of course not.  (Once again, what a strange question.  Did you really think that I felt that?)

On the future of nuclear weapons, I hope that it will be possible at some point to transcend most of the specifically nuclear applications of deterrence.  Some form of nuclear deterrence seems likely remain with us as long as anyone possesses any nuclear materials or knowledge of nuclear physics, however, insofar as building weapons will remain in some sense a technical option as long as these conditions pertain.  Until lions really do lie down with lambs and become thoroughgoing vegetarians, as it were, possession of such an option – even in attenuated form – will not be irrelevant in international relations, and we will have to consider the proto-deterrence relationships this will entail.  But I think we can do more to reduce the salience of nuclear weaponry in global affairs, and perhaps conceivably reach some kind of functional “zero.”

That said, it might just be – and this is basically an empirical rather than a theoretically- or theologically-soluble question – that “zero” won’t work.  At the very least, “zero” may take a long time, in part precisely because it may require dramatic global changes to obviate the perceived need of some countries in some circumstances to invest in such capabilities.  (Does any serious person believe abolition to be imminent or easy?)

In either event, we’ll likely be stuck for some considerable period of time with having to live in a world containing nuclear weapons.  During this period, it will remain our job to do what we can to ensure that the world does achieve something akin to what you call “sustainable peace and prosperity” in a system that involves at least some nuclear deterrence.  This task does not lend itself by policymaking by simple certainties, but I don’t think it is impossible.  In any event, there isn’t much choice at present but to make a go of it.

(By the way, the British determination that 160 nuclear warheads is the minimum consistent with security – and here I’d caution you that those are operationally deployed warheads, since London’s overall total is actually 225, according to its Foreign Secretary – is of course a British determination, based upon the circumstances in which the United Kingdom finds itself and the interests it feels it necessary to safeguard.  It is hardly some grand claim that every country in any circumstances needs 160.  Hopefully most countries need far fewer than that – to wit, none – and clearly some feel that they need more.  Nor, of course, does one know what number Britain would feel itself to need if it were not a close military ally of the strongest militarily power on the planet; absent the U.S. alliance, London’s optimal figure might be rather higher.  At any rate, this is another way in which details matter enormously, and in which our problems resist categorical solutions.)


On this question, let me quarrel a bit with your phrasing.  “Empire” is a (deliberately) loaded word that usually connotes both control of far-flung territories and some degree of self-aggrandizingly exploitative policy.  The mere fact of U.S. bases overseas, whatever the actual number turns out to be, demonstrates neither of these things.  Cooperative military relationships, including actual alliances, with sovereign governments who retain the alternative of disinviting those whom they have invited in – and who occasionally demonstrate the reality of this option by exercising it – don’t fit well with historical conceptions of “empire” in anyone’s usage.  There may be political fun to be had in using such poetic license to criticize America’s security relationships, but there isn’t much analytical value.

A better way to conceive of U.S. security relationships, I would think, is to regard them as helping to provide some important international public goods in the realm of global security.  Freedom of navigation and the general security of trans-oceanic trade routes has been maintained for hundreds of years by a single, dominant navy.  (For most of that time that navy wasn’t ours.  It was the Royal Navy – whose warships, in what one might describe as the “Proliferation Security Initiative” of its day, also took it upon themselves to suppress the international traffic in slaves.)  This is an illustration of how preponderant military power can sometimes produce significant collective benefit.

Today, U.S. power provides some analogous public goods in the international security environment – that is, things which neither other individual players nor collective processes (thanks to “the tragedy of the commons”) are always able to provide, but which serve the interests of the international community as a whole.  In economic terms, such goods are likely to be “underproduced” if a sufficiently powerful player does not shoulder greatly disproportionate responsibility directly.  In addition to enforcing freedom of oceanic navigation, one might put in this category enforcing freedom of access to space, as well as leading the world’s fight against radicalized mass-murdering brands of Islamist extremism, and conducting the occasional nonproliferation intervention.  (Within living memory, the list of U.S.-provided public goods also included defeating militarist Japan [and to a lesser but still very great extent Nazi Germany] and providing the military backbone which underpinned global security against Joseph Stalin and his heirs.)  Are these things also in America’s interest?  Of course.  But one does not need to contend that provision of a public good is done out of purely altruistic motives for it to be a public good nonetheless.  It is enough that such things redound indeed to the general good, and that they are duly produced.

I do not argue that such a global security architecture is necessarily the best way to organize things – i.e., that no other way could possibly improve upon it – nor that such a predominant military role is never subject to abuse.  I merely point out that this is indeed how things have worked for some time, and suggest that they have not worked too terribly badly.

This, in turn, raises interesting questions about the impact of America’s possible decline as the military hyperpower.  If there is anything to the “public good” theory, and if indeed relative U.S. military power is waning, it would behoove the international community to figure out an alternative way of handling these challenges.  The world may need one, and unless people can figure out a pretty robust alternative capable of producing such public goods in the security realm, many of those whose politics have led them to wish for America’s demise as the preeminent global military force since the end of the Cold War may come to regret our passing.

I’m not entirely convinced of such a U.S. decline, by the way.  It has been forecast before.  Remember all the fashionable U.S. declinism of the 1970s, upon the rise of global multipolarity, economic stagflation, the emergence of the oil cartel, the Carter-era zeitgeist of American malaise, and the U.S. military’s post-Vietnam demoralization and dysfunction?  The succeeding few decades didn’t look much like what was expected, however, with an American military resurgence in the 1980s under Ronald Reagan, the emergence of de facto American strategic monopolarity after the Soviets’ collapse, a period of piecemeal U.S. military interventions on more or less humanitarian grounds, and then the global activity of the post-9/11 “war on terrorism.”  Perhaps this time is really the one in which some kind of eclipse or permanent global retrenchment will come to pass.  (After all, nothing lasts forever.)  Nevertheless, the world sometimes has a way of making fun of our expectations.  America’s sun might indeed finally be setting ... but then again, who really knows?


I’ve now spent a lot more time on these questions than I intended.  I said I would briefly try to answer them, and brevity has obviously eluded me – even though I feel like I’ve just started to scratch the surface of some issues.  It’s clearly time to wrap up this message, but I’d like to continue to pursue these topics further with you, for I prize the chance for dialogue.

Indeed, I would now like to turn your questions around.  How would you yourself answer the same queries you sent to me?  I would be very interested in identifying any common ground, and sharpening our mutual understanding of points of basic divergence.  Please write back.

All my best,

-- Chris


Dear Chris,

Again, thank you for spending the time and energy you did answering my questions. As a result, I do feel I understand you much better. I can see that you are genuinely working to achieve a better world in which we can all be safe and happy, so our differences lie mostly in how to get there and, to some extent, what such a world would look like plus maybe who is in it.  So, rather than answering my own questions, let me get right into exploring our differences. That way, we can find out relatively quickly where we are in irreconcilable conflict and the exact reason we will have to fight to the death (joke).

I guess the gulf between us shows up best in the fifth question, the one you declined to answer—the better dead than red question. Although our differences are deep and broad, this might be the essence of our problem with respect to nuclear weapons. Let’s see what happens here.

First, I was not suggesting that being taken over by the Chinese or being extinguished are the only choices we have. I was offering you these two choices and asking which you would prefer. If I had asked which do you prefer, vanilla or chocolate, would you have declined to answer because there exist more than those two choices? I doubt it. Something irritated you about being asked to choose between those alternatives.

There was a time when wars were fought by warriors who, despite the raping and pillaging and the subsequent levying of taxes by the winner, were fairly irrelevant to people like me, who were content to retreat to the mountains when the dominance-seekers appeared. Some kings were kinder and others were crueler. Some charged higher taxes. Some were more enthusiastic patrons of art or science, but their continual excitement over who had the larger kingdom was not a threat to humanity as a whole. Today it is.

Your use of the word “deterrence” implies an existential threat to me and to human life on this planet. Your willingness to defend the interests of the United States at the cost of violent, and even nuclear, conflict with Russia or the Chinese means to me that you would, indeed, rather die and take us all down with you than allow the Chinese to march into San Francisco. Although you declined to answer the question directly, you did express clearly in your other answers your intent to use force when necessary. You will use it to protect American interests, if necessary. You will use it to keep “newcomers” from getting nuclear weapons, if necessary. And you are glad the International Court of Justice left that loophole in its advisory opinion such that you can feel free to use nuclear weapons if the survival of the state is at stake.

You are thinking like a warrior. Although violent, cutthroat competition has always been exciting to some and grotesque to others, it was broadly acceptable when it was only or even mostly warriors gambling with their own lives. Unfortunately, your willingness to use nuclear weapons means that you are willing to risk the death of millions or billions or even the extinction of the entire human race in the defense of your power, privilege, oil, wealth, freedom, democracy or whatever. I am not. I would much rather pay my taxes to China than kill my children.

I am painfully aware that it will be a long time before human beings graduate from the culture of violence that seems to thrill us so much today. However, unless we at least accept and promote nuclear nonviolence, I fear we will not have time to evolve to higher states of consciousness.

The primary benefit of eliminating nuclear weapons is what it will do for our collective consciousness. If we agree to cooperate to that extent for our collective survival, we open the door to other, more difficult and subtle forms of necessary cooperation. From a warrior’s point of view, it may appear that nuclear weapons should be the last weapon we eliminate. I know warriors right here in Hiroshima who think that we have to first become peaceful, then we can get rid of nukes. If that is true, however, the chances of eliminating nuclear weapons in time to save ourselves are slim.

I don’t argue for the elimination of nuclear weapons because I am not alive to the possibility of cruelty and violence. I do so, in part, because we could be on the verge of a paroxysm of violence that will make WWII look like a fistfight. The US is losing its grip. How you can question that is beyond me. The US has neither the economic power nor the moral authority to rule the world, and the more funds we waste on war and defense, the more we hasten our demise. As you might expect, I welcome the passing of the US Empire, but the end of empires is typically associated with a time of violence. At the end of the British Empire and the age of overt colonization, we suffered through World Wars I and II.

Meanwhile, we are nearing the end of a century of cheap oil. Just as the power structures are loosening, we are entering a time of extremely intense competition for dwindling resources. And, we are at the end of an economic cycle. The rich are too rich. The poor are too poor, and the middle are too few. The gap between rich and poor in the US is worse than it was in 1929. And the gap is even worse in China, India and much of the rest of the world. Overall, the top 1% have more wealth than the bottom 60%. This is not sustainable. In 2008 during the food bubble, there were food riots in 30 countries, including Iceland. People will only suffer so much before they start rioting and bringing the system down. When they do, it will be in everyone’s interest for them not to have nuclear weapons.

And then there’s the environment. The ocean is, in fact, dying. It is becoming acidic. Coral reefs all over the planet are shrinking. Fish populations are plunging. Now, with the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, I’ve heard we might see this process increase rapidly in the Atlantic. The oxygen in our atmosphere is decreasing as we deoxygenate our oceans and kill rain forests at a record pace. All we have to do is keep living the way we are living now and we will make this planet unlivable.

So there are really two factors demanding that we graduate from the culture of war to a new culture of peace. One is our violence itself, especially the potential for nuclear violence. The other is environmental deterioration. Both of these factors demand that we grow out of our selfish greed, childish rages, and brute pursuit of dominance. We have to learn to identify and solve problems in a way that satisfies all parties involved and the demands of natural law. But whether we solve our problems peacefully or return to another dark age of war and violence, we have no need of nuclear weapons. If we go with violence, we have a strong need not to have them.

Deterrence has always implied a potentially fatal crime against humanity, but today it is a thoroughly obsolete and irrelevant concept. When you speak of deterrence, you are assuming fairly equal competing organisms, like the Soviet Union and the United States. Or even North Korea and the United States. But even the CIA has long reported that the US is extremely unlikely to be attacked by missiles and planes. The nukes will be delivered in ships or trucks or built onsite because the US is threatened not by another death-fearing organism but by systemic viruses and bacteria, and those viruses are about to get nuclear weapons.

Nuclear weapons have thus far been controlled by the elite—the rich and powerful of the planet. The elite don’t want to bring the whole system down, which is why nuclear weapons have not been used in combat in 65 years. (They are used in negotiations every day, but that is a different story.) However, the number and power of the viruses and bacteria that do want to bring the whole system down are increasing rapidly. When they get nuclear weapons, they will not be deterred. They will die to use them, and they have no fear of retaliation because that will help to bring the system down. You cannot deter people like that. The only hope is to find all the nuclear weapons and destroy them, and make sure that all fissile material is below weapons grade. This is the key. No one can enrich uranium or purify plutonium in their garage.

Whether or not we are able to solve our problems peacefully, we do not want anyone using nukes. But the best thing about nukes is that the very process of agreeing to eliminate them will change the dominant consciousness of human society and greatly improve our chances of peace. This change in consciousness is the real prize, not the lack of nukes. Even without nukes, we have plenty of other ways to make this planet unlivable. But the process of dealing with nukes will bring other forms of planet-threatening conflict to the surface in all their grotesque absurdity.

Don’t tell my employer or colleagues, but I don’t actually think we need to get rid of nukes. All we need is to keep them from being used for five to ten years. By that time, the human family will realize that we are living with a knife against our collective throat. When that becomes inescapably obvious, we will stop electing Neanderthal dominance-seekers and start electing highly advanced peacemakers with the ability to identify problems and work collaboratively to solve them. Our overriding goal will be to keep Spaceship Earth fit for human habitation, and that will not be easy. When we really see how close we are to environmental disaster, we will have no time for war and petty dominance struggles. Anyone who is obviously competing for wealth or glory, placing personal or sub-group gain over the common good, will be laughed or thrown out of the room. We will have interest only in leaders who are serving the human family as a whole.

As a warrior, you need an enemy. Thus, the idea of working for the Earth as a whole may appear ridiculously idealistic, but I’m sure you don’t consider it unrealistic for all the trillions of cells in your body to be getting enough nutrition, and for all your joints and organs to be carrying out their assigned functions. You call that condition “health,” and when you don’t have it, you go to the hospital or do whatever you need to do to get it back. Peace is social health, and when the health of the planet becomes our top priority, which it will in the not-too-distant-future, the old habits of selfish competition will be sloughed off. This will not happen over night, but it will happen or we humans will be irradiated and sloughed off by Earth as the cancer that we have become.

Of all the problems confronting us on this planet, nuclear weapons are the easiest. If we cannot even agree to eliminate this totally unnecessary and easily eliminated threat to our survival, how will we cooperate enough to solve the other far more subtle problems we face? The Chinese are not our enemies. Nor are the Iranians or the North Koreans or any of the other bogeymen the war culture clings to. Our only real enemies are dominance-seekers and warriors who think winning is more important than solving problems to the satisfaction of all parties. Those enemies are everywhere. They still dominate this planet, but their status is gradually declining from hero to barbaric criminal. As that happens, there is likely to be a period (right about now) when they are more dangerous than ever. This is why I am eager to take from them the toys with which they can wipe us all out in an afternoon. Or, failing that, creating a political climate that stigmatizes even further the use of those toys.

One of the few points of agreement in the debates between Bush and Kerry and later Obama was that a nuclear attack is the greatest threat to the US. So how do we deal with that threat? Use force to keep them away from newcomers?

In 1946 Truman asked Oppenheimer how long it would be before the Russians got the bomb. Oppenheimer said he had no idea. Truman said, “I do. They’ll never get it. We’ll see to that.” They had it in three years. It will not be possible to control nukes by force.

We are standing at a crossroads. Either we get rid of all nuclear weapons, including US weapons, or they will spread uncontrolled around the planet, which has already started to happen. A strong, convincing move toward eliminating them would make us all quite a lot safer than we are now.  If we continue to rely on them for security and negotiating power, everyone will want them. They will become the must-have status symbol of a first-rate nation. They will spread, and they will eventually fall into the hands of folks who will use them. If we want to control them, it will have to be by agreement, and we might as well get started now while we still basically know where they are.

Well, I’m out of time and I think I’ve written about enough anyway. Looking forward to your response.

-- Steve


Dear Steve:

Thanks for writing back.  It’s a pleasure to hear from you, and to offer NPF readers an example of a sort of dialogue that is all too rare on these subjects.  Too often, I think, people approach issues of nuclear weapons and disarmament from a perspective one can really only call theological – a mindset that tends to work against real dialogue because it pits evil heresy against Revealed Truth.  (And why would an exponent of the latter ever really listen to what he took to be the former?)  Mind you, I’m not sure you and I are going to agree on a policy program anytime soon, but it’s delightful to have this colloquy.

I would have been interested in your responses to the questions you demanded I answer, but your essay in reply to my comments was eloquent and thought-provoking.  I don’t subscribe to the essentialism implicit in your dichotomy between the “warrior” psychology you describe me as having, and the enlightened peacemaker’s consciousness that the reader must presume you claim for yourself.  I reject the sort of morally Manichean taxonomy you suggest in dividing the world starkly between aggressive “dominance-seekers” – including, apparently, me, a “warrior” – and those transformed, higher selves who agree with you.  Regardless of where you and I fall ourselves, I do not think the complexities of violence are reducible to such simplicity, and I hold explicitly open the possibility that force may be morally and prudently used for good – or to prevent worse evil.

You argue that the only “enemies” are “the dominance-seekers and warriors who think winning is more important than solving problems to the satisfaction of all parties.”  It is apparently your assumption that it is always possible to resolve situations “to the satisfaction of all parties.”  It has been my experience, however, that not everyone defines their interests in ways that make this true.  Positive-sum outcomes are indeed marvelous – and I’m more than willing to believe that people are often insufficiently zealous in seeking them out – but not every conflict of interest works out that way.

Nor, I think, is it tenable simply to declare that any interests defined in a way that preclude positive-sum outcomes are by definition irrational or false.  (I am perhaps less willing than you are to tell those who disagree with me what their true interests are: I may find their understanding flawed, but there is little profit in just declaring away what participants feel to be a deep conflict.  If one or both parties cannot be persuaded out of this degree of disagreement, a problem is functionally irreconcilable, whatever one may believe about the two sides’ relative merits.)  Interests, it seems to me, can sometimes clash in zero-sum ways, and if the stakes are felt to be high enough this raises the possibility of violence and war.

I don’t disagree with you that international peace and security faces challenges from armed “dominance-seekers,” but you are singularly quiet about how one is to deal with such a threat when it comes along.  Ideally, of course, the dominance-seeker will be won over to the cause of peaceable cooperation by sincere dialogue and the virtues of positive-sum compromise, shamed into agreeableness by the moral weight of international disapproval, or simply enlightened and transformed by moral example.  If one thinks that such a happy outcome can always be achieved if only we are sincere enough in its pursuit, it presumably follows that there is no legitimate place for violence in international relations.  If one is not entirely confident of this, however, one either agrees to the demands of the inveterate dominance-seeker or one returns to the thicket of instrumental violence and just war theory.

You yourself seem to think that the hard-core dominance-seeker can be expected to stand down only when deprived of the tools (“toys”) that make his vicious self-aggrandizement possible.  You say you want to “take” those toys from him, but do you really mean this, and are you potentially willing to risk people dying in order that certain particularly nasty toys not get used?  (If so, you and I are perhaps not so far apart on nonproliferation preemption after all.)

These issues of violence in statecraft are broad ones, but they are of course quite relevant to issues of nuclear deterrence – and even to your persistent inquiries about the relative value of being “Red or dead.”  As a general matter, I think it is sometimes both moral and necessary to assume or impose risks of harm in service of a greater good.  The use of conventional force in self-defense is perhaps the paradigmatic “easy” case of this: I see nothing to begrudge, for instance, in using military means to stop an invading army, shatter a terrorist infrastructure bent upon mass murder, or otherwise forestall a great threat.  I also have no problem, in principle, with using force in the defense of others (e.g., to protect an ally or halt a genocide).  And if the actual use of force in such circumstances is morally acceptable – and perhaps even required of those who are capable of such a response – then it hardly seems problematic to threaten it in hopes of preventing such ugly circumstances from arising.  This is the world of just war theory, and perforce of deterrence.

(This understanding, by the way, also belies your assumption that a “warrior” cares above all else about “winning.”  I can speak only anecdotally, but I know many more warriors more devoted to defending things they hold dear than to any sort of “winning” in and of itself.  Indeed, to them, successfully to defend such things is to win.  Theirs is less the psychology of the medieval tournament ground or the stadium than it is an instrumentally-violent ethic of mission accomplishment.)

The crucial question for present purposes, of course, is whether this just war paradigm makes any sense in the peculiar world of nuclear weaponry – in which arsenals of a certain size begin to raise questions about the ability of anyone to survive actually making good on deterrent threats by launching their weapons.  You clearly believe that it does not.  I am less convinced.

As I see it, the answer to this question depends upon what one is actually talking about – that is, upon policy and programmatic details rather than grand points of principle.  One polar case in which I think nuclear deterrence doesn’t make sense is suggested by the Dr. Strangelove example of a fully automatic “Doomsday Device” that would immediately and inevitably destroy the planet if a nuclear weapon were detonated anywhere.  (Interestingly, Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 cinematic gag was based upon a real thought experiment by the nuclear strategist Herman Kahn, the founder of my own Hudson Institute, who quite properly rejected the idea.)  Would such a device deter any nuclear weapons use by rational people?  Quite possibly.  But given any possibility of accidental (or deranged) nuclear detonation, such a Device would represent a fool’s bargain indeed – as indeed it turned out to be in the film.  The Doomsday Device represents a bad choice in part because it stakes everything upon the prevention of one type of nuclear use (rational and deliberate) and entirely ignores another (accidental or insane).  Threatening a literal doomsday on such terms would indeed be madness.

At the other end of the spectrum, however, might be the case of a country threatened by more powerful surrounding states bent upon destroying it and its population.  I do not think it would be immoral for such a county to threaten nuclear use against its opponents in order to forestall them carrying out any such plans for its extinction – nor perhaps even, in extremis, actually to use nuclear weapons against them.  In this polar case, use does not imply global doomsday, nor even necessarily a response that is in a moral or legal sense disproportionate to the wrong that it seeks to prevent or halt.  (This may be why the ICJ left just such a scenario open in its 1996 advisory opinion on the legality of nuclear weaponry.)

Most examples in the real world, of course, fall in between such boundary hypotheticals, but my point is that these things are indeed best understood as points on a continuum: this is not a matter for absolute, per se judgments.  The most important question in struggling with such middle cases is perhaps whether any risk of global doomsday is ever worth taking in order to prevent very great wrongs.  Your answer may be a flat “no,” in which case the analysis is pretty simple – although even there, I suppose one would still have to know something about the scale on which nuclear use actually would threaten humanity’s survival.  (At the sub-doomsday level, the moral implications of use are surely more complicated even from your perspective, since the relative heinousness of various tools would become important.  It is not entirely obvious to me, for instance, that repeatedly firebombing Tokyo and other Japanese cities was “better” than nuking Hiroshima – and it was certainly more costly in human lives.  Nor would I deem it too bad a deal if one could have traded the conventional bloodshed of the Second World War’s entire European theater for an ahistorical nuclear explosion in Berlin in 1939.  Nuclear weapons seem most problematically “special” only insofar as they raise the specter of global catastrophe.)

For my part, I do not feel it immoral to take some risks in hopes of forestalling terrible wrongs.  In order to grapple with this, however, one needs to be willing to grapple with the notion of relative risks – and they certainly can’t be too big.  This is why I approve of reducing our dependence upon nuclear weaponry, cutting arsenals to the minimum level and type consistent with such specifically nuclear deterrence as we cannot yet do without, working to reduce accident risks, preventing proliferation, improving consequence management, and augmenting defenses against accidental or rogue nuclear delivery.

Your “Red versus dead” question irks me not because I think most people would not choose living under, say, China’s dictatorship to seeing all of humanity instantly incinerated, but because this seems so obviously a false choice – and one designed to support policy prescriptions predicated upon this very falseness.  The lesson it suggests is that one should essentially always accede to the demands of the inveterate “dominance-seeker,” particularly if he is armed with nuclear weapons.  (Declaring that no risk of “dead” is ever acceptable may thus increase the likelihood that one will indeed have to suffer great wrongs short of being killed.)  Since I don’t believe such a bald choice confronts us, or anyone, I don’t see any point in wasting time on it – and good reason not to.

Is there any way to transcend nuclear deterrence?  You argue that “[t]he only hope is to find all the nuclear weapons and destroy them, and make sure that all fissile material is below weapons grade.”  Even if you could do that – and I fear you greatly underestimate the difficulty of doing this in any verifiable way and of enforcing compliance with disarmament rules even if one could, while you overestimate the difficulty of secretly producing or otherwise acquiring fissile materials – I do not think we can entirely escape a world in which the international security environment is at least partly shaped by some form of nuclear deterrence.

As long as basic nuclear knowledge remains and any fissile materials exist or can be made – which is surely to say pretty much forever – the world will still have to struggle with nuclear deterrence to the extent that those with such knowledge and materials will retain at least a potential nuclear weapons capability.  A country that is technically able to manufacture nuclear weapons, even if not lawfully or immediately, is clearly not in the same situation as one that lacks this capability, and there isn’t much getting around this awkward fact.  Even if the world can eliminate all nuclear weapons, I do not see how it can avoid some entanglement with the proto-deterrence that comes with having a “latent” or “virtual” nuclear weapons capability.

If there is some hope of making nuclear deterrence basically irrelevant in a functional sense, therefore – that is, to move into a world in which even such nuclear “latency” does not actually matter much in international affairs – the answer probably lies not in technical or institutional arrangements but rather in deep cultural or psychological developments.  Indeed, you seem at one point to agree with this, arguing that it may not actually be necessary actually to eliminate nuclear weapons if we can  keep them from being used for a while longer, during which time the “human family will realize that we are living with a knife against our collective throat” and electorates will opt to replace “Neanderthal dominance-seekers” with “highly advanced peacemakers.”  Without getting into your intriguing faith in the ability of such democratic methods to replace leaders in the world’s various non-democracies, I would agree with you that it would take some kind of transformation in “our collective consciousness” if we are to “graduate from the culture of violence” in which we are so lamentably rooted today.

I wonder, however, whether you might in some sense have gotten things backwards.  You contend elsewhere in your comments that you see the “primary benefit” of eliminating nuclear weapons as being in “what it will do to our collective consciousness.”  The idea here seems to be that eliminating the technology – assuming, of course, that it is possible to do this – will eliminate the desire for it.  I tend to think that such a formula puts the cart before the horse, and that, instead, we would be better advised to work the issue from the other direction: doing what we can to escape the perceived need for nuclear weapons, after which only the “merely technical” challenge of elimination would presumably remain.  (In this regard, your earlier implicit point about simply not using nuclear weapons for a while longer, and waiting for people to realize their purported uselessness and dangerousness, was thus perhaps a sounder strategy.)

Over the long term, technology control sounds like a losing game – or at least one that cannot achieve or reliably sustain “zero” – as long as a desire or perceived need remains for nuclear weapons capabilities, and I think that we might need to have some kind of change in “collective consciousness” in order to get to real and lasting elimination in the first place.  In this respect, perhaps the disarmament community has erred by focusing so much upon nuclear weapons in and of themselves.  As the drafters of the NPT Preamble seem to have understood when suggesting that “easing of international tension and the strengthening of trust between States” would be needed “in order to facilitate” nuclear disarmament, the most important challenge would seem to lie in the issue of security writ large rather than in the specific programmatics of nuclear disarmament per se.

For so long as nuclear weapons cannot be disinvented and basic physics knowledge wholly forgotten, addressing nuclear disarmament primarily as a “weapons” issue thus misses the mark.  The Cold War, after all, did not end because of nuclear arms reductions: deep cuts were only really possible as a result of the waning of U.S.-Soviet geopolitical tensions.  Arms control can play an important role in helping one manage a strategic military rivalry and reduce some of the risks attendant thereto, but talking of great reductions – let alone “zero” – requires a discourse that must reach far beyond just the weapons themselves.  Security (or insecurity) is structural; specific weapons are largely epiphenomenal.

We ignore this lesson at our peril, for I agree with you that it will indeed be “a long time until we graduate from the culture of violence” – which presumably includes progressing past the security problematiques which vex present-day disarmament discussions.  During this period, we’ll not be able to avoid some entanglement in the kind of violence-wise policymaking that you deride as being based upon “Neanderthal” or “warrior” principles.  By the same token, failing to understand and work through the knots presented by such security dilemmas may effectively preclude their transcendence.

All in all, I think, one cannot “speak” disarmament coherently unless one can first “speak” security – and this one cannot do if one disdains and denies the legitimacy of that discourse.   Your dichotomy of retrograde “warrior” versus advanced “peacemaker,” is, therefore, a false one.  The best hope for disarmament, I suspect, lies in working with, learning from, and perhaps even being one of the “warriors.”

Once again, thanks for writing back, Steve.  Let us see what NPF readers have to say in response to all our musings!


-- Chris


Dear Chris,

I have just read your civilized and serious response. I continue to be grateful for your willingness to let me see how you think, which helps me get clearer about what I think.

I can see that your post starts with me and ends with you. I am happy to let it go at that, but I have a little time before my next plane so I would like to throw a few more coals on the fire. I leave it to you whether to add this to the post, with or without a reply from you.

I don’t have time to go through point by point, but it seems we have a few fundamental differences in the way we view or deal with the world. I want to clarify and suggest ways to address those, but I also want to comment on what appear to be misunderstandings.

Before I get to the fundamental conflicts, I think we have a minor logic problem. Just as you refused to answer my “better dead than red” question because you felt I was offering only two possibilities, you are now accusing me of a Manichean taxonomy. I am not saying that we are all either warriors or peacemakers, nor am I saying that any of us is entirely one or the other. I am using the two categories as we often use liberal and conservative or black and white or even male and female. These are helpful distinctions to make, but not valid if we ignore the gray areas in between. I think there is some peacemaker in you or you would not even bother working on this with me. And there is some warrior in me or I would not be defending my positions on your website.

Now I need to say something about the positive sum outcomes and definitions of interest. You are quite right that parties in conflict often define their interests in ways that preclude positive sum outcomes, but I am not even thinking about defining someone else’s interests for them. I am merely insisting that even when parties do define their interests in mutually exclusive terms, destructive violence (war) cannot be an acceptable, legitimate method of conflict resolution. By rejecting violence, we do not redefine the interests. We merely assert that our collective interest in maintaining a habitable planet trumps all sub-group interests. Thus, conflicting parties are welcome to engage in all sorts of nonviolent competition, including litigation or strikes or whatever, but they are not allowed to turn to violence.

We have sort of done this in the US in male-female relations, or are moving in that direction. It used to be quite acceptable for men to beat women to make them obey. The issues were whether the beating was too harsh or properly justified by the actions of the woman. These days, men are not allowed to use violence against women, no matter what the provocation. Even if she sleeps with your best friend, you are not allowed to hit her, much less kill her.

Similarly, Georgia, Alabama and Florida have a terrible problem with water. In fact, Georgia could conceivably cut off all water to eastern Alabama and northern Florida, and was tempted to do so when Atlanta was down to its last 90 days of water a couple years ago. Water is a life or death issue, but no one was even thinking of these states going to war over this. It had to be resolved in some other way. This is what I mean by peace culture – the prior rejection of violence.

To take this part of our conversation further, I suspect we need you to offer a concrete example of irreconcilable interests that you believe would justify violence. Then we can see whether or not I can come up with a way to resolve the conflict without violence. However, here we encounter a basic conflict between us that will be difficult to resolve.

I know it seems impossible to you that all conflict can be resolved in a positive sum way. I believe that, with sufficient effort on all sides, it can. I am not sure at this point how to prove this or even take it any further, but I assure you that my belief is based not on some theological or philosophical article of faith but on twenty years as a family therapist and management consultant. My job was to help people in conflict resolve those conflicts without destroying their families or their companies. I can say with absolute certainty that most clients come in believing that the conflict cannot be resolved. In fact, they do not want to resolve the conflict. They want me (the consultant) to arbitrate or provide an objective means of deciding that one is right and the other is wrong. Nevertheless, in 80 percent of cases, the conflicts are resolved to the satisfaction of both parties. In the other 20 percent of cases, the conflicts are not resolved, but that is not because they cannot be. It is because one party or the other stops trying, electing instead to divorce or quit the company or at least quit the conflict resolution process.

Here you will say, “See? That is when war or self-defense becomes necessary.”  I say, “Nope, that is where a firm commitment to nonviolence and peaceful resolution of conflict is necessary.”  In fact, this is precisely why our commitment to nonviolence must be absolute.  He who strikes the first blow must be, ipso facto, wrong in the eyes of the world. If we legitimate the violent resolution of conflict in any case whatsoever, we have no way to prevent the cycles of violence that inevitably start with some terrible injustice and escalate to the mutual atrocity of war.

You say I am singularly quiet about how to deal with a real threat, injustice or someone who turns to violence, but I did say I would rather pay taxes to China than kill my children. I also said that I am a pacifist.  That means I might run.  I might hide.  I might fast.  I might allow myself to be thrown in jail.  I might allow myself to be tortured or killed, but I would not kill.  As a warrior (mostly), such talk is anathema to you. You believe it is better to kill than be killed.  I believe it is better to die than kill because nonviolence is the only way to improve the world.

We have been trying to improve the world by fighting violently for justice for tens of thousands of years, and we have only brought ourselves to the point of self-annihilation. I say it is time to try something else.

I recognize that warriors are still dominant in our society, so I am not expecting you to go along with my pacifism.  However, I do harbor the fantasy that you might come to understand the need for nuclear nonviolence.  That is, even if attacked by a nuclear weapon, we cannot, must not, respond in kind.  This beginner’s level of nonviolence is forced on us by our desire to keep living on this planet.

You say, “For my part, I do not feel it immoral to take some risks in hopes of forestalling terrible wrongs.”  I suspect that implicit here is your assumption that a nuclear war is just “some risk.”  I am a bit unsure if you mean that 1) you do not believe such a war would be all that bad (a threat to civilization at least, if not to human life on the Earth), or 2) you think having nuclear weapons and using them as a deterrent is just “some risk” because it probably won’t happen.  But then you said, “(Declaring that no risk of “dead” is ever acceptable may thus increase the likelihood that one will indeed have to suffer great wrongs short of being killed.)  Since I don’t believe such a bald choice confronts us, or anyone, I don’t see any point in wasting time on it – and good reason not to.”  You said this after dispensing with my “red than dead” question by saying, “…this seems so obviously a false choice….”  Taken together, these statements seem to me to indicate that you do not think nuclear weapons really represent an existential threat to human life on Earth.

I, on the other hand, really do believe 1) that nuclear weapons are on the verge of spinning out of control and will be used if not abolished and 2) that as few as ten large nukes on ten large metropolitan areas would cause nuclear darkening, which would kill billions through famine and billions more through the battles for physical survival that would inevitably follow.  I can conceive several scenarios through which such battles could actually make the planet unlivable (just a few nukes would destroy our ozone layer, which would kill plankton, further deoxygenating the oceans), but to resolve this, we could study together what the actual risk is. I can share with you my sources. You can share with me your sources, and we can try to objectively determine which are more reasonable. In other words, we could engage in an open-minded search for the truth.

In the meantime, the precautionary principle would seem to favor me pretty heavily. I am far from the only person who thinks the risks associated with hurling nuclear weapons are too horrible to contemplate.  In fact, I am in the vast majority in this regard, so you will at least, I hope, accept it as a legitimate concern.  If so, then one technique of peaceful conflict resolution involves evaluating the consequences of being wrong.  In this case, if I am wrong, we live unnecessarily under a cruel and unjust Chinese dictatorship (or submit to some other terrible injustice). If you are wrong, we all die.

In any case, I still think the “dead versus red” issue points to an essential difference between us.  There is nothing the Chinese or anyone else could do that would tempt me to think that the proper way to deal with them is to use nuclear weapons.  You, apparently, think that under some circumstances the use of nuclear weapons would be the correct course of action, even if it might kill us all.  I guess this just brings us back to the need to analyze carefully and together the possible scenarios.

One other point of fact that we could examine together is the issue of whether or not someone could secretly build a nuclear weapon. According to the IAEA officials I talked to, once we find and downgrade all fissile material, it would be impossible for anyone to enrich uranium or purify (extract and reprocess) plutonium without the international community knowing about it (assuming we have a global agreement that IAEA inspectors can go anywhere anytime to check out suspicious activity). Creating weapons-grade fissile materials involves dirty and difficult processes that cannot be done without huge facilities and the release of telltale radiation we can see from space. Thus, unlike chemical and biological weapons, nuclear weapons would be relatively easy to control.

Obviously, this is not a decisive issue to me because even if someone builds a bomb in a mountain somewhere, I would oppose building a similar weapon. Even if a madman creates a bomb and threatens to blow up Washington DC, and even if he succeeds, I would oppose a nuclear response. However, I would like to know (and have you know) the truth about this. If I am right, the technical feasibility issue is solved. If I am wrong, I would like to know it.

Then there is the question of which comes first, a change in consciousness or getting rid of nuclear weapons. To put it briefly, this will be a dialectic. It will take a change of consciousness to get rid of them, but doing so will propel us much further down the right road. My point was that the change in consciousness is more important than the weapons. Ultimately, we have to abandon the dominance paradigm and graduate to the partnership paradigm if we hope to survive. This is where I started talking about the environment because that is the other factor demanding that we outgrow cutthroat competition. I just don’t see how we will keep the oceans alive without cooperating to do so.

Overall, it seems to me that we (humanity) are floating down Niagara River. I believe I hear the thunderous sound of a serious waterfall ahead so I am saying, “We have to get out of this river and right now.”  You are not hearing the falls, so you are saying, “No, let’s stay on this river that has carried us so nicely for so long.” The biggest difference between us, I fear, is that if I (and those who agree with me) begin paddling the ship to shore without your agreement, you are willing to kill us to maintain your control of the ship and its course. I would go over the falls and die rather than kill you.

However, pushing this analogy a little further, let me take this opportunity to announce that I am about to jump ship and start swimming to shore. By this I mean I will soon quit my job and start building my own bubblecraft in which I hope to glide safely to shore even as you go over the falls. I will not be doing this as a survivalist determined to save my own skin. I will be doing it as a demonstration project. Millions of people know we are in danger but see no choice. I want them to know that there actually is an alternative. If enough of us see the danger and start building our own bubbles, I believe, or maybe hope, we can save the whole ship. How I will build this bubble and how our bubbles will save the ship are topics that lie beyond the scope of this email. I am running out of battery in an airport that does not accept my two-prong plug, but I hope we can carry on the debate, perhaps with the help of other NPF readers.

Have at,

-- Steve


Dear Steve:

Thanks for clarifying that both your “dead/red” and “warrior/peacemaker” dichotomies were just heuristics – and that you agree that the real world has many gray areas in between.  It is such gray areas that interest me most.

With regard to the definition of national interests, your analogy with male/female relations – offered with an eye to delegitimating any use of force – is interesting, but I think you err in your assumption that anyone who makes war is inescapably morally analogous to a spouse-abuser.  One of the recurring points in my comments here has been to urge you to remember that force can sometimes serve moral purposes.  In the framework you suggest, I do not think it would necessarily be wrong for a woman to use force to protect herself from battery, or for a police officer to intervene forcibly to halt such abuse.  “Warrior” capabilities can serve peace too, which is why I do not share your a priori “rejection of violence.”  Circumstances matter, and it can sometimes be morally wrong not to use force if one has the capability thereby to prevent great wrongs.  Power entails responsibilities, and they are not always those of mere “soft power.”

I understand that there is great courage in your willingness to die rather than kill, under any circumstances, but things get more complicated when the welfare of others is involved.  There are things I would fight – and perhaps kill – to protect: my daughter’s life, my country’s freedom, human survival, and so forth.  The capability to prevent terrible things gives birth to some responsibility not to sit on one’s hands when confronting them.

This responsibility also complicates your dictum that “[h]e who strikes the first blow must be, ipso facto, wrong in the eyes of the world.”  I am not prepared always to rule out striking a “first blow” in the face of a sufficient threat: in some cases, post-attack response – assuming that you believe defensive violence is appropriate even then, which is far from clear in your comments – is insufficient.

Like many issues of applied ethics, I think the use of force is somewhat resistant to the kind of bright-line rules with which you seem to think we must comply.  Details matter, and it is part of being a moral agent that we have to make tough calls.  (Otherwise we would be just rule-following automatons.)  I am suspicious of anyone’s claim to absolutist, circumstance-independent clarity.

Conceptual frameworks for evaluating the use of force, of course, do not always apply straightforwardly to nuclear deterrence, at least where participants in nuclear relationships possess the ability to cause harm massively disproportionate to the issues over which they might otherwise be inclined to fight.  Such nuclear questions, for example, are complicated by deep issues of risk manipulation.  When and to what extent, if ever, is it justifiable to accept or impose some risk of an appalling wrong in order to forestall a different (but less appalling) one?  This is the longstanding stuff of disarmament and nuclear policy debates.

But I think we’ve given NPF readers plenty to think about.  Let’s see what they think.


-- Chris

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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