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A Nonproliferation and Disarmament Colloquy: Wellen and Ford


In response to Chris Ford’s October 29 posting on this website (“Disarmament versus Nonproliferation?”), nonproliferation and arms control blogger Russ Wellen – who often appears on the Scholars and Rogues and Focal Points blogs – wrote NPF to offer the following response, which has also appeared on Focal Points.  Dr. Ford’s reply to Wellen also follows below.

“Are Nonproliferation and Disarmament,

Once Joined at the Hip, Headed for Divorce?”

by Russ Wellen

In the words of the old Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen song, as made famous by Frank Sinatra, nonproliferation and disarmament, like love and marriage, “go together like a horse and carriage.”  Nonproliferation – preventing states that don’t currently possess nuclear weapons [from getting them] – works in tandem with disarmament – states with nuclear weapons divesting themselves of same.  “You can’t have one without the other.”  Right?

After all – continuing with the musical metaphor – that’s how the refrain goes in that old strain of a treaty, the NPT (nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty). Let’s all sing the sixth stanza (a.k.a., article) together:

“Each of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.”

(Actually, it would probably require a good rapper to do it justice.)

Yet many maintain that Article VI does not, in fact, commit nuclear-weapons states to a long-term divestment of those weapons.  Christopher Ford of the Hudson Institute outlined this position as well as anybody in a Nonproliferation Review article that he wrote shortly after he left the Bush administration as its lead negotiator on the NPT.  Negotiations toward that end in themselves, he wrote, are sufficient for a state to be in compliance with Article VI.  In the years since, such as in a recent piece for his website, New Paradigms Forum, titled “Disarmament Versus Nonproliferation? he’s written about how nonproliferation doesn’t necessarily follow in the wake of disarmament.

For those who are believers in what I call the “credibility thesis” – that is, the idea that a lack of progress in demonstrating disarmament “credibility” is the main “missing ingredient” that has helped ensure that the post-Cold War world has seen so little progress in preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons – this must have been a disheartening year. . . . as I have outlined elsewhere, our disarmament push seems to have won us no real progress.

Before we address if and why it was a “disheartening year,” we’ll note that the “elsewhere” Ford outlined our lack of nonproliferation progress is yet another piece he wrote titled Nuclear Disarmament, Nonproliferation, and the “Credibility Thesis.” It reads, in part:

First, [the credibility thesis] explicitly assumes that the commitment of the NWS [nuclear weapons states] to the ideal of disarmament lacks credibility, and implicitly assumes that the United States is both the most important locus of the problem and the key to its resolution. Second, it assumes that if this disarmament “credibility gap” is closed, it will be possible to meet today’s proliferation threats much more effectively and with a much wider base of diplomatic support. [But the] postulated “catalytic effect” of disarmament progress in support of nonproliferation policy is usually described as being an indirect effect, and rightly so. With good reason, few people seriously argue that countries such as Iran and North Korea seek nuclear weapons simply because the United States or other NWS possess such devices themselves, and that proliferators’ interest in such devices would accordingly diminish if only the United States reduced its arsenal further. It is sometimes alleged in disarmament circles that NWS possession of nuclear weapons, merely by making them “legitimate,” encourages proliferation.

In the recent New Paradigms Forum piece, he wonders . . .

Where, one might ask, is the credibility-derived “payoff” in nonproliferation cooperation for U.S. progress and leadership in this field to date? And what reason do we have to believe, in its absence, that such a payoff will materialize in the future?

This usage of the term “credibility” is almost unique to Ford.  The only other instance we found was by Joseph Gerson of the American Friends Service Committee, who, last spring, referred to a credibility gap between President Obama’s disarmament vows and his actions. To put it another way, Gerson doesn’t seem to believe that the United States is showing sufficient disarmament leadership, or setting a strong enough example, in following the letter of the law of Article VI, to convince states desirous of nuclear weapons that their covetousness is misplaced. He represents the view of not only much of the disarmament community, but the Non-Aligned Movement (an organization of states not aligned with major power blocs).

Ford acknowledges those agents in the recent article.

There will surely be those who will argue that the credibility thesis has yet truly to be tested — that is, who will chalk up the world’s failure to unite in solving all these problems to our failure to do more, and more quickly, in moving toward “zero.” A global united front in support of vigorous nonproliferation would really have materialized, it will be said, if we had only done more to disarm.

It must be acknowledged that not only does Ford understand disarmament advocates like few other conservatives, but, odds are, his judgment is sound when he asserts that whether or not we disarm has no bearing whatsoever on the plans of states that hope to acquire or develop nuclear weapons. Still, it behooves us to look at the issue from the vantage point of a small nation, to which 50 nuclear weapons is the stuff of daydreams. The 1,500 to which new START binds Russia and the United States (if ratified by the Senate, which looks less and less likely since the elections) still constitutes an arsenal unimaginable in its immensity.

Furthermore, to the “street” in those nations, the idea that not only can’t you have nuclear weapons when others do, but that the nation with the most nukes is leading the call to deprive you of any, not only violates your sense of fair play at its most fundamental level, but is capable of inducing outright cognitive dissonance. In addition, while, deep down, the nation’s statesmen likely share those sentiments, they may also feel that the reading of Article VI alluded to above is, at worst, counterintuitive; at best, legalistic.

That kind of hairsplitting scarcely becomes a superpower-slash-world leader in disarmament. Besides, as Jonathan Schell says, the most dangerous illusion is that “we can hold on to nuclear weapons while at the same time stopping their proliferation to other countries. That is an absolutely unworkable proposition. It just cannot happen in the real world.”

What’s more, attempting to enforce nonproliferation while you still retain 1,500 weapons plus for your personal deterrence is yet another reminder to a small nation of its second-class citizenship as a state. After all, prestige might even be the better part of nuclear aspiration. (Note to nuclear-weapons states: when it comes to throwing small states off the nuclear scent, sharing research in such cutting-edge areas as nanotechnology might, when combined with disarmament, work synergistic wonders.)

On top of everything else we’ve come up with an ingenious force multiplier for our hypocrisy — the $80 billion Obama has committed to nuclear modernization over the next decade to win Republican Senate votes to ratify START.  We vastly underestimate Tehran if we think this is lost on the mullahs.  In fact, they can be forgiven for perceiving new START as a smoke screen (however thin) for what really is more of a strategic retrenchment in our commitment to nuclear weapons than a rejection of them.  Nothing says we’re into nuclear weapons for the long haul better than watered-down treaties and the compromises we make to secure them.

Still, there’s no denying the legitimacy of the conservative argument that the urgency of nonproliferation precludes waiting around for substantive disarmament which, if it’s actually happening, seems to be unfolding over a timetable spanning generations.  But proliferation, with nuclear Big Brother – the International Atomic Energy Agency – looking over the shoulder of states like Iran, while the nuclear black market is a shadow of what it once was, is proceeding at a glacial pace as well.  One reason that the American public is skeptical that Iran isn’t close to developing nuclear weapons is that it can’t understand what’s taking a large state so long to get up to speed on a 60-year old technology.

Of course, nonproliferation can be enforced much more quickly than disarmament can be generated – by attacking the offending state.  But the military road to absolute nonproliferation is closed, in the case of Iran, for instance, because social norms on the part of the United States prevent it from mounting a massive enough attack (read: high civilian casualties) to keep Iran’s nuclear program from rising from the ashes – and, this time, unfettered by international constraints it would now disdain.  Thus disarmament moves not much more slowly than nonproliferation.

Whether or not disarmament discourages proliferation is immaterial – it’s our only recourse. Besides, does anybody think the time will come when small states will actually pass the United States on the up nuclear escalator while it’s on the down escalator to disarmament?  The United States would push the emergency shut-off button to disarmament in a heartbeat.

In the end, what the chorus of the Cahn-Van Heusen song reminds us about love and marriage can also be applied to nonproliferation and disarmament: “Try, try, try to separate them, it’s an illusion.”

-- Russ Wellen


Russ Wellen is a thoughtful and attentive reader, and his view of the inseparability of nonproliferation and disarmament is widely shared.  To make sure my position is understood, however, let me make three clarifications.

First, just for the record, let me make clear that my position on Article VI of the NPT is that while the text of that article clearly requires that we try in good faith to bring about disarmament through negotiations, it does not impose any concrete disarmament obligations (e.g., that such negotiations actually succeed, or that any unilateral steps be taken).  During the negotiation of the NPT, repeated attempts were made to insert just such concrete requirements into the Treaty, but they all failed to win adoption.  One might bemoan this, of course, but one cannot deny it.

There is today a widespread political expectation that the nuclear weapons states need to do more on disarmament, but it is a mistake to read this as a legal requirement.  I do not defend disarmament inaction, and indeed there has not been disarmament inaction.  (The United States, for instance, has so far decommissioned four weapons out of every five it had at the end of the Cold War, and we even run our civilian nuclear power plants partly on uranium downblended from Soviet nuclear weapons.)  My point about Article VI was merely that we confuse the issue by pretending that this is a legal and not simply a policy challenge.  It is understandably tempting for disarmament advocates to deploy the argumentative weight of “legal” obligations in support of their agenda, but this isn’t very good lawyering.

Second, I’d caution the reader not to be too dismissive of President Obama’s nuclear weapons infrastructure modernization plan, which Russ contemptuously describes as “an ingenious force multiplier for our hypocrisy.”  I am not – shall we say – the most practiced or comfortable defender of the Obama Administration’s agenda, but it bears emphasis that if there is a feasible road toward a global nuclear “zero,” our travel down that path needs to include sensible nuclear weapons stewardship during the period prior to abolition.  And even according to the optimists, this might be quite a while.  (As Obama noted in his Prague speech in April 2009, abolition is not likely to take place in his lifetime – and he’s not an old geezer, either.)  Until then, we have a responsibility not to be foolish in weapons management.

For so long as we retain nuclear weapons and rely to any extent upon them for strategic deterrence, for instance, we need to make sure such devices remain safe and reliable.  Unless Russ wants us to resume underground nuclear testing – and to a great extent even then – this will entail maintaining quite a robust and well-funded weapons laboratory infrastructure for years to come.  Having a weapons complex capable of producing new weapons should the threat environment “go south,” as the saying goes, is also important to disarmament progress, for such productive capacity will allow us to reduce stockpile numbers by shifting from strategic “hedging” based upon warheads-in-being – on the shelf, as it were, in our reserve stockpile – to hedging based merely upon potential warheads.  (This process is already underway, as we pointed out during the Bush Administration, and which Obama officials emphasize frequently today.)  In fact, a failure to fund the laboratory infrastructure needed for these various purposes might well impede U.S. reductions, not to mention ratification of future treaties.

It’s certainly somewhat counterintuitive that U.S. weapons complex modernization is a key to moving forward more quickly and sustainably on disarmament – but it is true nonetheless.  This is why so many “hawks” and “doves” in the U.S. policy community tend to support Obama’s modernization plans, with the former being distinguished merely by concern that the president’s plan provides insufficient funding.  The idea of modernization – which has its origins in President Clinton’s support for the U.S. weapons labs in the name of “stockpile stewardship” and in connection with negotiating the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty – is well-nigh a bipartisan consensus in mainstream political Washington.

Third, and for present purposes most importantly, let me stress that I actually do not think disarmament and nonproliferation are unrelated.  It’s just that precisely how they are related is extremely important.

I would be the first to argue, for instance, that disarmament and nonproliferation are indeed linked in one specific sense: in that a failure to stop the spread of nuclear weapons capabilities would destroy whatever hope there may otherwise have been for nuclear disarmament.  It is inconceivable that anyone would (or should) take disarmament seriously if the international community cannot demonstrate its ability to stop nuclear weaponry from spreading.  (If we cannot stop today’s hemorrhaging, there’s no point in worrying about tomorrow’s recovery program.)  So “linkage,” at least in this sense, is quite real: unchecked proliferation is a showstopper for complete disarmament.

I am more skeptical, however, about linkage in the other direction: the oft-expressed idea that our failure to contain proliferation is due to a failure to demonstrate more of a commitment to rapid disarmament – and that if such a commitment were to appear, we would finally be able to bring today’s proliferation challenges under control. This variety of linkage may have been plausible at some point, but it doesn’t seem to be supported by the evidence, despite earnest U.S. (and other) efforts to operationalize it.  Despite the vast reductions in U.S. and Russian arsenals since the end of the Cold War, and despite the recent Nobel Prize-winning U.S. enthusiasm for disarmament, the proliferation situation is worsening, not improving.

I worry about Russ’ lack of concern over disarmament’s inability to discourage proliferation.  He says this failure is “immaterial.”  I find this hard to credit, however, because as I have noted, if proliferation cannot be stopped, one can be quite sure that we will never see the complete disarmament for which Russ so earnestly hopes.

Perhaps Russ means to suggest that the United States should abandon nuclear weapons even if other states continue to acquire them, but I think that position would be difficult to defend – especially over the longer term, when we cannot ensure that we will continue to enjoy today’s pronounced superiority in conventional arms.  At any rate, such a position would speak only to the issue of whether and to what degree we should engage in unilateral reductions: by definition, to speak of such a world would entail the abandonment of ambitions for nuclear weapons abolition.

Alternatively, perhaps Russ means that disarmament’s failure to support nonproliferation is “immaterial” in the sense that there may be some way to stop proliferation by other means, even though continuing disarmament has no effect upon proliferation dynamics.  I certainly hope that there is some such way, for we shall need it.

-- 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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