New Paradigms Forum Proliferation Issues and Much More …


A Survey of the Nuclear Weapons Landscape


Below appears the text of remarks Dr. Ford delivered on April 12 and 13, 2011, to the Phoenix Committee on Foreign Relations in Phoenix, Arizona, and the Tucson Committee on Foreign Relations in Tucson, Arizona.  His trip was part of an outreach program organized by the Partnership for a Secure America with the generous support of the Stanley Foundation.

It’s a delight to be in Arizona again – a state where I had the pleasure of living for a few years not long ago – and to be able to talk with you here as part of this terrific project by the Partnership for a Secure America (PSA) to bring critical issues in our foreign policy and security discourse “outside the Beltway” to the rest of this great country.  In order to help get our discussions going, let me offer a quick tour d’horizon of the current landscape of nuclear weapons policy as I see it, and then pose what might be a somewhat provocative question to ponder.

The future role of nuclear weapons in U.S. defense policy is much debated.  It’s probably safe to say that at present, they probably play less of a role than at almost any time since their invention.  This, however, is not necessarily the same thing as saying that they play no real role, or that they can be dispensed with.  Those questions are much contested, and thoughtful people can, and do, have different views.

In a sense, we’re lucky here in the United States that we can even have a discussion about whether or not nuclear weapons should play a role in our future.  For the moment, at least, the United States enjoys tremendous, unprecedented, and unequaled military power in the non-nuclear realm.  This enables us to rely relatively little on nuclear weaponry, and we certainly do not at present face or fear the sort of conventional threats that we did during the Cold War.

But few, if any, other actual or presumed nuclear weapons possessors enjoy the luxury of feeling comfortable having such a debate.  Pakistan fears India’s conventional military might, and feels a need to balance New Delhi’s nuclear weapons; India continues in its nuclear rivalry with Pakistan as well as eying the power of a rising China with unease.  Russia claims to fear us, clearly does fear China, and feels nuclear weaponry to be essential to its status in an era in which its conventional forces scare only regional powers.  China seems to view its growing arsenal of nuclear weapons as an important part of its strategy vis-à-vis the United States and Russia, and refuses to discuss getting involved in arms control or disarmament negotiations.  France regards its force de frappe as essential to its great power status, tiny Israel still faces a host of hostile and upheaval-prone neighbors, and even North Korea at least claims to feel a need for nuclear weapons to “deter” the United States, Japan, and South Korea.

Of all the world’s possessors, in fact, only Britain and the United States – both close allies and both thus able directly or indirectly to enjoy the benefits of America’s superiority in conventional arms – seem even remotely interested in, or able coherently to discuss, “zero.”  And even they still feel it necessary to modernize their delivery systems and production infrastructures: even at their most optimistic, both London and Washington are clearly planning on nuclear weapons being around for a long time yet.  Meanwhile, U.S. allies – especially in East Asia – rely upon our “nuclear umbrella” in alliance relationships that help enable them to face regional threats without entertaining nuclear thoughts themselves.  Nuclear deterrence, it would appear, isn’t going anywhere any time soon.

But that, of course, is still only part of the story.  It has been possible to make extraordinary reductions in U.S. and Russian arsenals since the end of the Cold War.  Today, or instance, the United States has taken out of service four out of every five nuclear weapons it had in 1991.  The two sides have also scrapped thousands of delivery systems.

In light of these huge cuts, and of the great expectations raised by President Obama in his April 2009 speech in Prague holding out the promise of “a world free of nuclear weapons,” it is certainly reasonable to ask how much further we can go.  But here let us remember how deeply rooted nuclear weapons remain in their possessors’ national security strategies – including in our own.  Shorn of its abolitionist rhetoric, in fact, the Obama Administration’s nuclear weapons policy is actually not dramatically different from that of the Bush Administration, which also spoke of abolition as a desirable goal – if, however, a distant and not unquestionably achievable one.

Despite controversies over its limits on long-range conventional strike capabilities and its implications for missile defense, the recently-ratified “New START” agreement mandates only very modest reductions – numbers, by the way, which are strikingly consistent with what Defense Secretary Gates discussed when he worked for George W. Bush.  We remain committed to a strong nuclear deterrent, developing a next-generation missile submarine, building a new strategic bomber, and modernizing our nuclear weapons complex.  The administration’s parameters for modernizing nuclear warheads even closely track the Bush-era “reliable replacement warhead” program.  And we have promised not unilaterally to end our small deployment of weapons in Europe in support of NATO.

So far, in fact, the biggest differences in nuclear policy have been largely rhetorical.  The Obama Administration has modified U.S. declaratory policy on the potential use of nuclear weapons, but it’s not clear the degree to which anyone actually believes the restraints promised by mere declaratory policies anyway.  The White House does again strongly support the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, but Senate ratification is unlikely, and the treaty’s entry into force even more so.  (That, after all, would also require ratification by China, India, Pakistan, North Korea, and Iran, to name a few.  So don’t hold your breath.)  Washington has adopted a different position on a Fissile Materials Cutoff Treaty, but that too has proven a fairly costless concession, given that this effort remains stalled, as it has been since 1995.

On the whole, therefore, U.S. nuclear atmospherics have changed rather more than U.S nuclear policy.  To critics on the Right and the Left, this is infuriating.  The Right sees a dangerous penchant for disarmament naiveté that could imperil our security at any moment.  The Left feels betrayed in a “bait and switch” game, with disarmament rhetoric having masked “Bush Lite” policies.  For my part, I’m pleased that for whatever reason, we’ve ended up with such continuity.  The stakes are too high for nuclear weapons policy to bounce back and forth between ideological positions every few years.  Notwithstanding the enthusiasms of Prague, the broad continuity over the years testifies to the fact that in its most basic contours, our nuclear weapons policy is built on deep underlying interests.

Whether one chalks up the current, remarkably pragmatic U.S. course to a smoke-and-mirrors con or to pragmatic on-the-job-learning by the Obama team, however, the really hard choices about nuclear weapons policy still remain ahead of us.

The “New START” agreement illustrates this point.  It represented little more than a “trimming of the fat” in our strategic arsenal, and it carefully avoided coming to grips with the really demanding issues that one would need to address in order to reduce numbers much further – issues such as the future of our nuclear “Triad,” what to do about “extended” deterrence for our allies, and the basic philosophy of “counterforce” (striking military assets) versus “countervalue” (striking population centers) targeting, which is challenged by shrinking numbers.

Nor is it just a question of Americans simply figuring out what we want on our own.  Already, China’s continuing nuclear build-up – and Russian and Chinese nuclear modernization – have emerged as brakes upon how far Washington will feel comfortable reducing its arsenal.  U.S. officials have said that if they are to cut much further, they need assurances from China that it would not take advantage of this by “sprinting to parity.”  Beijing, however, refuses to offer such assurances, and indeed spurns the very idea of arms control discussions until just such parity has been achieved.

It is also hard to imagine a new treaty with Russia that does not somehow address Moscow’s enormous numerical advantage in non-strategic nuclear weaponry.  But the Kremlin seems as attached to such systems as ever, and is likely to negotiate seriously, if at all, only in return for concessions it is unlikely we would accept.

And then there is the problem of nonproliferation – another area in which there is more continuity than change in U.S. policy.  Unfortunately, we are still making little progress in slowing or reversing the proliferation of nuclear weaponry.  Iran continues unchecked along its nuclear trajectory, while North Korea has conducted a second nuclear test and revealed a longstanding uranium-based program it has undertaken in parallel to plutonium work.  Syria continues to stonewall International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) efforts to investigate the reactor Syria built with North Korean help – though fortunately this facility was destroyed by Israel in 2007.

No additional progress has been made in controlling the spread of fuel-cycle technologies enabling their possessors to produce fissile materials for nuclear weapons, and many countries continue to resist adopting improved nonproliferation safeguards in the form of the IAEA Additional Protocol.  The international community’s record in enforcing compliance with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and other nonproliferation obligations remains pretty dismal, and this factor alone could prove a disarmament “showstopper.”   After all, if we cannot prevent the emergence of new nuclear “players,” how can we expect existing possessors to give their weapons up – or how could we ensure that abolition, even if it occurs, doesn’t turn out to be just a pause along the road to new arms races?

Clearly, then, the “next step” for the so-called “Prague agenda” will be vastly more challenging than the already unexpectedly difficult “New START” agreement, if indeed such a further step is possible at all.  Some observers, in fact, suspect that the present disarmament agenda will simply collapse.  So here’s my question for you to ponder: has the Cold War model of bilateral and numerically-focused arms control finally run its course?  Does traditional arms control need to give way to a new era focusing more upon improved transparency and confidence-building relationships as a prerequisite for any potential further cuts?

It seems to me a fair question, for there is logic in the critique.  Arms competitions, I like to point out, are essentially derivative of problems in underlying political and strategic relationships – and they cannot in most cases be meaningfully addressed without attending to those deeper dynamics.  (As President Reagan reportedly once put it, we don’t have hostility because we have arms; we have arms because we have hostility.)  All too often, however, arms control goes at things backwards, assuming that if particular capabilities can be controlled, the underlying relationships will themselves heal.

As we finish trimming the fat and increasingly come to confront deeper conceptual and philosophical issues of strategic deterrence, we may need to give up our numerical obsessions in favor of an approach that more directly faces the fundamental challenges of bilateral, regional, and global insecurity – and the many ways in which nuclear weapons has become entangled in politics, policy, and identity around the world.  That’s certainly a lot harder than just crunching numbers for a new treaty, but the time when disarmament could be regarded as being principally about numbers may be past.

-- 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.
Comments (0) Trackbacks (0)

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

Trackbacks are disabled.

NPF Pages

Recent Additions to NPF

NPF Discussion Pages

Calendar of NPF Postings

January 2021
« Dec    

NPF Archives (by month)