New Paradigms Forum Proliferation Issues and Much More …


International Cooperation against WMD Proliferation


This is the written version of remarks Dr. Ford delivered in Madrid, Spain, on November 8, 2010, to the “International Conference on Science and International Security: Addressing the Challenges of WMD Proliferation and Terrorism” sponsored by Spain’s Institute of Nuclear Fusion (DENIM) and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in the United States.

I’d like to begin by thanking our gracious Spanish hosts and the organizers of this important conference, especially the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, for their kind invitation to participate, and for their support.

To the extent that weapons of mass destruction (WMD) proliferation receives much media attention these days, it is almost exclusively in the nuclear arena, with headlines being largely monopolized by the provocation du jour out of Iran or Pyongyang, and with what the international community is – or isn’t – doing in response.  Far fewer people seem to pay much attention to the duller but yet still terribly important day-to-day work of the various institutions and processes that have been developed to help keep WMD proliferation challenges of all sorts from reaching crisis proportions in the first place – things such as the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism (GICNT), or U.N. Security Council Resolution 1540.

This is not just because such issues are rarely thought of as “sexy” journalistic copy.  In part, it is because these topics are genuinely hard to cover.  Some successes cannot be spoken of publicly on account of various partners’ political sensitivities, or due to the fact that identifying something as a PSI operation would reveal an intelligence penetration that had tipped authorities off to the presence of problematic cargo.  Similarly, progress in securing insecure nuclear materials may have to go unheralded because it is sometimes embarrassing for governments to admit that their materials were ever insecure.

In cases in which foreign cooperation is needed to make progress possible, moreover, partners sometimes prefer not to be seen as having needed help to solve their problems.   Indeed, in some areas, progress largely consists of unexciting and difficult-to-substantiate successes in not having more bad things happen.  When an export control regime has disallowed a problematic transfer, or the existence of an interdiction program has deterred a proliferation-facilitating shipment, there may be almost nothing to report – and that’s precisely the point.  These counter-proliferation tools, one might say, are in the business of increasing the number of dogs that do not bark.

Furthermore, even when the conditions are most propitious and the tasks most clear and pressing, “success” can be slow in developing.  There was an obvious need for dramatic work, for instance, in securing dangerously vulnerable nuclear materials in the Former Soviet Union, but the Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) work of the Nunn-Lugar program has taken nearly two decades – and is still not quite finished.  Nor is “victory” in such endeavors something one can simply proclaim before relaxing: nuclear materials have to remain secure, possessors have to learn to get by without foreign aid, and any new materials created or acquired in the future need themselves to be secured – and kept that way.

As a result, it can be hard for outsiders to assess how well specific tools are working.  I certainly don’t hold this opacity against public officials who are trying to persuade us that they’re doing a great job in addressing proliferation threats.  For the reason’s I’ve outlined, success often is – and should be – hidden.  Sometimes, in fact, efforts to demonstrate one’s care and concern for such matters can be counterproductive.  (I do not think it was terribly wise, for instance, for U.S. officials to leak information to the press in 2009 about secret collaborative nuclear materials and perhaps weapons security work allegedly going on in Pakistan.  If such work was indeed underway – as it reportedly also had been for several years under the previous administration – there are good reasons for it to be done discreetly.  Leak-facilitated self-promotion by a new team in Washington probably did the effort little good.)

I.          An Enduring Toolkit

A.          PSI

With these caveats about the uncertainty of outsider knowledge, therefore, let me say at least that I am pleased that the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) has survived the transition in U.S. administrations, and that work is apparently still underway to expand country participation.  To date, there are some 98 countries participating in PSI, and more are coming on board – notwithstanding some problems in getting a few important players, especially in East Asia, to agree to participate.  This year, as I understand it, Colombia endorsed the PSI Statement of Interdiction Principles, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines concluded a SBA.  All this is good.

I had been worried about PSI.  President Obama’s comment about it in his April 2009 Prague speech sounded supportive, but I worried about what he meant when he suggested “institutionalizing” it.  Since PSI is interesting and valuable to a great extent precisely because it is not institutionalized in the way that so many international efforts tend to become over time, this concerned me: his comment seemed like a proposal to rob PSI of its valuable ad hoc, improvisational flexibility.  Thankfully, I have seen no suggestion that any such “institutionalization” is underway.  It is difficult from where I sit to see the degree to which Prague’s rhetorical commitment to PSI is matched by energy and ongoing attention, but I am glad it remains in our counter-proliferation toolbox.

B.          GICNT

Some similar things could be said about GICNT.   The Initiative seems to be continuing to attract support, with Mexico, Vietnam, the Philippines, Singapore, Argentina, and Thailand coming aboard in June 2010.  It is less clear to outsiders what effect such participation is having in changing “facts on the ground” in how countries organize themselves and cooperate in reducing nuclear terrorism risks, however.  Nor is it clear to what degree U.S. diplomatic energy and muscle is still being applied to promoting this initiative that began at the head-of-state level between Presidents George Bush and and Vladimir Putin.

C.          UNSCR 1540

It is my understanding that Pakistan has been talking of new legislation on biological weapons-related activities, Bosnia and Herzegovina have launched a new implementation program against chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) terrorism, and Thailand has started to model its approaches to nuclear material controls on European Union rules.  Such developments presumably owe something to the existence of Resolution 1540, and to diplomatic efforts to promote compliance.

Much of what one I’ve heard in recent years about Resolution 1540, however, has as much to do with why more isnt happening than about good things that are.  A number of governments have resisted doing much to comply with 1540, arguing that they lack the capability to do so.  I’m sure some of this is legitimate, for countries’ ability to undertake and enforce sometimes-complicated legal and regulatory changes do vary, and some underdeveloped states presumably do need some help in “capacity building.”  I’m also confident, however, that some such claims are less legitimate: opportunistic attempts to elicit further foreign aid donations, or simply an excuse for indifference.  Some governments seem to resent UNSR 1540 as annoying “legislation” by a U.N. body dominated by its wealthy and nuclear-armed permanent members, and may need little prompting to drag their feet.

In theory, Resolution 1540 – or rather, the committee set up to collect information about how countries are doing in complying with their obligations under the Resolution – could serve as a useful “bully pulpit” for compliance-promotion, encouraging a sort of “race to the top” in global best practices and putting on the spot those who fail to measure up.  For all one can tell from the media, however, the Resolution 1540 effort has lost its focus and fizzle.  I’d be interested to hear from other panelists what the United States and others are doing to keep its promise alive.

D.          G-8 Global Partnership

The G-8 Global Partnership – which in 2002 saw some $20 billion pledged by what eventually amounted to 23 partners, with some $18 billion apparently having been delivered to date – has done good work, and I applaud the Obama Administration’s continuation of this effort.  It’s also good to see work now being done, in the wake of the Muskoka Summit, to expand Global Partnership work beyond the Former Soviet Union.

II.          A Few Complaints

One new thing that has occurred is the Nuclear Security Summit (NSS) last spring.  Last spring’s huge meeting did manage to draw attention to the importance of properly securing nuclear materials, and I hope this attention will both be sustained over time and lead to real changes in behavior and “facts on the ground.”  Nevertheless, let me offer some constructive criticism.

A.          Unrealistic Deadline

First, the “four year” deadline set by the NSS – a timeframe based upon a similar four-year pledge made by President Obama in April 2009, and thus in a sense already a year behind schedule when reissued – seems almost impossibly optimistic even on its own terms.  I’m willing to believe that nuclear materials security in the Former Soviet Union was in pretty bad shape, but the Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) effort there has so far cost many billions of dollars and has been underway for the better part of two decades.  How is it possible to secure “all” the rest of the insecure nuclear material in the world in four years?

Nor does the very idea of a deadline make that much sense in the first place.  As I’ve noted, this isn’t a context in which one just puts up fences and declares victory: materials need to stay properly stored, institutions need to track and manage them safely and accountably for the indefinite future, and new materials are coming into existence all the time anyway.  A more serious policy program would admit that the challenge is not about meeting some deadline but rather about inviting governments around the world into a new and ongoing collective endeavor that will essentially never end for so long as nuclear materials remain in the world.

If anything, therefore, the politically-pleasing “four years” mantra may actually be dangerous.  The deadline may breed disillusioned frustration when the deadline is not met – as it probably will not be if absent some watering-down of security standards – and even if all then-existing materials are at some point declared “secure,” it seems likely thereupon to encourage disengagement from these tasks just when everyone needs to be keeping their noses to the grindstone.  (As we are learning in Afghanistan, political deadlines are not always helpful in struggling with stubborn problems.)

B.          Cooperative Materials Security

My second complaint is that while the NSS evoked something of the spirit of CTR, it aspired to none of CTR’s concrete and programmatic reality.  In essence, attending governments were encouraged to make vague promises of better behavior, and will merely come back later to recount what they will no doubt describe as good progress.  This is not nothing, but it at best no more than a pale echo of the efforts and successes of CTR.

An effort really worthy of last spring’s huge convocation of heads of state and government, and more genuinely building upon CTR’s admirable legacy, would have been to pass the hat at the Washington summit in order to collect pledges of financial and in-kind contributions to a new multilateral cooperative effort to secure “loose” nuclear material everywhere in a kind of globalization of CTR.  Unfortunately, the Summit never got beyond a ritualized exchange of political commitments.

Nevertheless, I’m certainly glad to hear so much talk of global CTR from people here today – not least Senator Lugar himself, who this morning outlined current efforts to upgrade CTR on a truly global basis, building on legislative authorizations to this effect achieved beginning in 2003, and shifting the program more from its traditional mission of destroying WMD-related systems to an important new mission of nonproliferation engagement and capacity-building.  In light of efforts to extend the G-8 Global Partnership beyond the FSU, and now that the U.S. Secretary of Defense has been given authority to accept foreign funds for global CTR work. perhaps here’s something on which to spend some of that money.

C.          Fissile Materials Production

My third complaint has to do with a subject that was very carefully avoided at the NSS, and on which we seem still to be losing ground: the spread of fissile material production capabilities in the form of uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing (ENR) technology.

Too little effort is being made in stopping the spread of ENR.  President Bush had grand ambitions, which he outlined in 2004, of essentially halting or even banning the spread of ENR to any country that did not already have it.  Negotiated multilateral attempts to impose such restrictions, however, foundered on the rocks of opposition from a number of governments – some fetishizing presumed ENR “rights” as a matter of principle, some wishing to be free to pursue hypothesized fissile material production profits, and some clearly intending to reserve for themselves a future nuclear weapons “option” facilitated by indigenous enrichment and/or reprocessing.  The Bush Administration largely backed off, ending up with a proposal merely to continue to spread ENR capabilities on a sort of “black box” basis, and the Obama team seems so far to be skittish about the issue.

At present, U.S. officials are having no luck getting other countries to emulate the “no-ENR” pledge made in the Bush Administration’s U.S. nuclear cooperation “123 Agreement” with the United Arab Emirates.  Jordan and Vietnam seem likely to be given U.S. cooperation deals without any such restriction, and the Obama Administration has in effect been reduced to trying to explain away the UAE agreement as a unique case driven by “our special concerns about Iran and the genuine threat of a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.”  (Perhaps someone should remind them that Jordan is also in the Middle East.)  Saudi Arabia, by the way, has recently announced that it intends to develop a uranium enrichment capability.  Either way you look at it, we seem not to be faring very well in our struggle against the proliferation of weapons-facilitating ENR capabilities.

Nor is the Obama Administration helping our nonproliferation case by giving federal energy loan guarantees and other assistance to foreign companies whose governments refuse to apply the kind of nonproliferation standards we have at least tried to insist upon in our 123 Agreements.  I understand, for example, that the U.S. Department of Energy has just agreed to a $2 billion loan guarantee for a French firm to build a uranium enrichment plant in Idaho, and is apparently contemplating further such assistance for others.  I have no problem with enrichment in Idaho, but it does seem a bit odd for the U.S. taxpayer to help subsidize the nuclear industries of countries that disdain asking from their own non-nuclear-weapons-state partners the kind of conditions we went to such trouble – and for such good reasons – to ask from the UAE.

For my money, the enormous diplomatic energy spent on cajoling dozens of heads of state and government to come to the Summit could have been better spent on reinvigorating efforts to crack the nut of ENR proliferation and in pressing others to approach nuclear supply with more exacting nonproliferation standards.

III.          Conclusion

I don’t want to overplay these criticisms, for nonproliferation is one of the areas in which I don’t have that many complaints about current U.S. policy.  All in all, as illustrated by the continuing commitment to innovations such as PSI, Resolution 1540, and GICNT, nonproliferation policy has shown more continuity over time across administrations than discontinuity.  Most of current nonproliferation policy is clearly bipartisan and is built upon enduring U.S. interests: administrations are always on the lookout for innovative new tools, but the basic thrust of policy remains, to its credit, relatively constant.

This is my way of asking you to keep my complaints in perspective.  America has a special leadership role to play, and while we may not always play it as well or as hard as we should, support for the enduring nonproliferation agenda serves international peace and security just as much as it does our own national security.  These are, therefore, not specifically partisan or idiosyncratic presidential priorities, nor even American priorities, but indeed truly global ones.  And they certainly deserve our continuing support.

Thank you.

-- Christopher Ford

About Dr. Ford

Dr. Christopher Ford served from January 2018 until January 2021 as the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation. For the last 15 months of this period, he additionally performed the duties of the Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security. Before this service at the State Department, he served as Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for WMD and Counterproliferation on the U.S. National Security Council staff, and before that as Chief Legislative Counsel for the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Chief Investigative Counsel for the Senate Banking Committee, Republican Chief Counsel for the Senate Appropriations Committee, Senior Fellow at Hudson Institute, U.S. Special Representative for Nuclear Nonproliferation, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, Minority Counsel and then General Counsel to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, and Staff Director of the Senate's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. A graduate of Harvard (summa cum laude), Oxford (as a Rhodes Scholar), and the Yale Law School, Dr. Ford was also ordained by Roshi Joan Halifax of the Upaya Zen Center as a lay chaplain in a lineage of Soto Zen Buddhism. He was a jujutsu student of the late Grandmaster Dong Jin Kim of the Jigo Tensin Ryu lineage, and is a member of Dai Nippon Butoku Kai with Sandan (3rd degree black belt) rank. Dr. Ford served from 1994 until 2011 as an intelligence officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve, and is a member of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Chatham House, and the Council on Foreign Relations. In September 2017, he was promoted by Queen Elizabeth II of England to the rank of Commander in the Most Venerable Order of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem. Dr. Ford is the author of the books "China Looks at the West: Identity, Global Ambitions, and the Future of Sino-American Relations" (2015), "The Mind of Empire: China's History and Modern Foreign Relations" (2010), and "The Admirals' Advantage: U.S. Navy Operational Intelligence in World War II and the Cold War" (2005). He also co-edited "Rethinking the Law of Armed Conflict in an Age of Terrorism" (2012). For a list of his publications, see The views he expresses on this website are entirely his own, and do not necessarily reflect those of anyone else, in or out of government.
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