New Paradigms Forum Proliferation Issues and Much More …


Nonproliferation Multilateralism and its Discontents


The text below was the basis for remarks presented by Dr. Ford to a conference in Berlin on July 7-8, 2011, sponsored by the Christian-Albrechts-Universitat zu Kiel and the Instituto Affari Internazionali.  The meeting took place at the office of the Permanent Representative in Berlin of the Land of Schleswig-Holstein.

Good morning, everyone.  Let me begin by thanking our gracious hosts – the University of Kiel, and the IAI in Rome – for inviting me.  It’s a pleasure to be back in Berlin, and to have the chance to participate. I hope you’ll allow me to offer my own perspective on multilateralism, as a sometime practitioner and now a policy specialist in the United States.

I.          The False Dichotomy of “Unilateralism” and “Multilateralism”

The last decade has certainly seen more than its share of arguments over multilateralism.  Too often, however, such debates have revolved around crude stereotypes and argumentative straw men erected on the basis of cartoon caricature depictions of the supposed polar alternatives of “unilateralism” and “multilateralism.”

In fact, in the nonproliferation world as it is actually lived, there have been few examples of either absolute “unilateralism” or absolute “multilateralism.”  In the real world, most attempts to address proliferation challenges have fallen in the middle portions of the continuum between the purely “uni” and the purely “multi.”  Israel’s air strikes in 1981 and 2007 against the nuclear reactor projects of regional adversaries, or the imposition of U.S. sanctions against Iran long before the U.N. Security Council got involved, are among the rare examples of pure unilateralism.  (Even the reported “StuxNet” computer worm attack against Iran’s enrichment facility at Natanz was supposedly a bilateral effort by Israel and the United States.)  At the same time, while the Conference on Disarmament is impeccably multilateral, its breadth is paralyzing, and if negotiations resume, the outcome will likely be determined by a small subset of members.

Stereotypes aside, almost all nonproliferation work is “multilateral” to some degree or another.  Put another way, it is also to some extent “unilateral,” in that it relies upon the efforts of key players or groups of players when it wants to get anything done. This dynamic of working back and forth across the continuum, or combining elements from different points upon it, can be seen in the biggest cases of the last decade or so.

II.          Some Examples

An multilateral weapons of mass destruction (WMD) inspection and sanctions regime mandated by the U.N. Security Council was in place for years in Iraq, but it was also backed up – when Saddam threw the inspectors out in 1998, for instance – by U.S. (and British) airpower.  The invasion of 2003, moreover, was undertaken not “unilaterally” but famously by a “coalition of the willing,” though most of the 46 nations supporting the operation did not, in truth, contribute much to its execution.

Interestingly, during the last decade of international efforts to address the North Korean nuclear challenge, it has been the DPRK’s objective to persuade the United States to work things “unilaterally” – that is, by means of a deal struck directly between the Washington and Pyongyang.  After the discovery of the North’s uranium weapons program and the DPRK’s subsequent withdrawal from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), however, Washington insisted upon a multilateral approach.

The notably multilateral International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) addressed the DPRK issue in 2003, referring the matter to the U.N. Security Council.  After the Council found itself paralyzed, the United States pursued a regional multilateralism in the form of the Six-Party Talks.  In turn, after continuing North Korean provocations and weapons development collapsed those talks, the venue shifted back to a broader forum, with the advent of stronger sanctions from the Security Council.

None of these efforts have been conspicuous by their success in stopping DPRK proliferation, of course, but the international community has indeed shown great flexibility in varying the mix of “lateralisms” it has tried to apply.  Indeed, some of the measures most effective in pressuring North Korea have been what one might call “multilateralized unilateralism” – such as the use of national sanctions, individually applied but informally coordinated, supported to some extent by Security Council legitimation, and backed up by the often-collaborative work of national militaries, police forces, and intelligence services to interdict proliferation-related transshipments.

Iran has also been a mixed case, with nonproliferation responses ranging from individual national sanctions – and, allegedly, “bilateralist” cyber-attacks – to more broadly multilateral approaches undertaken through the IAEA and the Security Council.  With Iran, it was the Americans who insisted upon working through these formal international institutions.  Ironically, it was the Germans, British, and French who undercut this very broadly multilateralist effort when, in an example of what might be called European “unilateralism,” they cut a side deal with Iran that deliberately delayed Council consideration for some years.  More recently, negotiations with Iran have been led by a group of six countries – alternatively called the “P5+1” or “EU3+3” – but Iran’s rejection of these overtures brought the matter to New York after all, and has led to sanctions.

In 2003-04, the United States and the United Kingdom worked closely together on the verification and elimination program that dismantled Libya’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs, but this was a cooperative effort – and indeed one undertaken as a trilateral project, in collaboration with the Libyans themselves.  It was also an effort predicated upon the signals then being sent by the invasion of Iraq, for it was no coincidence that the secret negotiations that led to the Libyan relinquishment of WMD began in March 2003, on the eve of the Iraq War.  (As Muammar Qaddafi himself explained it a year later, it had seemed clear to him at that point that “if you built a nuclear bomb you would get in big trouble.”)

Broader and less country-specific international nonproliferation steps have also employed various complicated “lateralisms.”  The Security Council has, for instance, required all states to take specified measures against the proliferation of WMD, their means of delivery, and related materials.  The Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) is not a formal organization with a fixed membership at all, but is rather an informal network of like-minded states seeking to better coordinate the exercise of national power and authorities.  Last year, a highly multilateral “Nuclear Security Summit” was held in Washington to encourage governments to improve individual efforts at securing fissile materials.  Meanwhile, diplomats have worked to persuade counterparts to impose more national sanctions against Iran.

And these are just some of the latest innovations.  Older organizations and approaches also play important roles.  The Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) operates as something of a suppliers’ cartel, limiting the spread of weapons-facilitating technologies by urging members to abide by transfer restrictions keyed to a “trigger list” of dangerous items.  The Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) is another multilateral effort to articulate and encourage compliance with a set of best practices.  Individual national programs have also existed to address aspects of the proliferation threat, such as the impressive work done by the so-called Nunn-Lugar (a.k.a. Cooperative Threat Reduction) program for securing fissile materials in the former Soviet Union – a foundation upon which the more multilateral Global Initiative seeks to expand elsewhere.

Clearly, therefore, the nonproliferation world defies simplistic polarities between “unilateral” and “multilateral.”  The politicized stereotype of “unilateral” versus “multilateral” is a conceptual straightjacket that impedes constructive thinking about policy possibilities.  The key to nonproliferation policy is what mix of measures to employ – taking advantage of the strengths of multiple approaches by using them to overlap and reinforce each other, and not being afraid to innovate.  These choices are not mutually exclusive, and it is not an intrinsic betrayal of some imagined multilateral ideal to employ more restrictive – or even unilateral – measures toward critical goals.

III.          “Effective Multilateralism”?

What I’m really arguing for is an approach that looks to effectiveness as its guiding star, and avoids getting hung up on the politics of whether something is labeled as “uni” or “multi.”  There is nothing any more intrinsically problematic about unilateralism than there is about multilateralism; neither is an objective in itself, and both are simply tools with which to advance the broader policy goal of nonproliferation.

One might be tempted to call such an approach one of seeking “effective multilateralism,” but I dislike that phrasing for two reasons.  (I know the phrase is used in the title of this conference, but I mean no disrespect here.  I cannot speak much to its usage here in Germany, and refer now only to what I think I’ve seen in Washington.)   First, it seems to imply the impropriety of unilateral measures – whereas in the real world individual national steps can powerfully contribute to nonproliferation when used wisely.  So although it tips its hat to effectiveness, I think the catch phrase “effective multilateralism” begins on the wrong foot, by trying to lock us into a mistaken and constricting intellectual framework.

I also dislike the phrase because it has become a politicized mantra in some modern usage, being used not so much to describe a policy keyed to real effectiveness but as a marketing tool for selling policies predicated upon a nervousness or embarrassment about showing leadership.  Multilateralism has shifted from being seen as “just” a policy choice directed toward broader goals to being an end in itself.  It seems to have become an article of faith in the current U.S. administration, for instance, that fidelity to the prefix “multi” is of such importance that actual nonproliferation leadership – which apparently feels a bit too pushy and “uni” for contemporary sensibilities – is to be avoided.

In the words of one Obama Administration official, Washington is now fixated on the oxymoronic idea of “leading from behind.”  As two of my Hudson Institute colleagues have recently pointed out, this approach builds upon the writings of people who subsequently became senior administration advisors.  The idea is that the United States should “lead through self-restraint,” and that the key to foreign policy success is a sort of apologetic self-abnegation.  It assumes that we ourselves are perhaps the most important obstacle to progress in the world, and that all will be well if we simply acknowledge this and ask forgiveness.  Anything that smacks of self-assertiveness, or a claim to any role above and beyond those played by other states, is part of the problem.

On a good day, such approaches are largely just a rhetorical gloss – the proverbial spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down, sprinkled for public consumption over policy choices arrived at for more conventional reasons, of problem-solving effectiveness.  On a bad day, however, such approaches amount to an almost narcissistic conceit, coupled with magical thinking, that expects the world miraculously to achieve a more secure and harmonious order as we bask in the post-confessional glow that comes from taking its sins upon our own shoulders and obtaining its forgiveness.  (As you can see, by the way, this is only a pseudo-humility, for its self-absorbed assumption is still that we hold the key to solving the world’s problems.  It’s still all about us.)

IV.          Nonproliferation and the Ideology of “Multi”

Now, this is not the place to explore the breadth of the foreign policy issues these ideas raise, but they bear on nonproliferation quite directly.  Where there has remained hard-nosed continuity in U.S. policy from previous administrations, this continuity seems to have been felt embarrassing, and has had to be hidden behind smokescreens of politically correct and self-abasing rhetoric.  And even where support for specific policy positions remained unchanged, the quality of forward-leaning leadership seems itself to have become suspect.  Today, what passes for leadership is too often to continue some aspects of past approaches only quietly or even surreptitiously, while investing our real political capital in displays of non-leadership.

Where once a U.S. president might have been proud to press his counterparts into undertaking a new effort actually to do challenging things together against proliferation threats, for example, the most important new initiative of late has been a showy summit in Washington at which participants were simply exhorted to go back home, do better on their own at securing fissile materials, and come back in a couple of years to talk about it.

Another signal success is said to be in getting agreement on a Final Document at the 2010 NPT Review Conference (RevCon).  But simply getting an agreement, rather than its substance or its impact, was the objective of U.S. diplomats, and the congeniality of that meeting is boasted of still – being attributed to American mea culpas on nuclear disarmament and promises to move ever more quickly toward “zero.”  These, we were told, constituted the magic ingredient that will turn the proliferation tide.  (Ironically, by the way, we were expected here, at least, to lead boldly from the front.)

If it were clear that all this masochisto-messianic posturing had actually helped curb proliferation threats, I suppose one could at least make an argument for it on problem-solving grounds. Unfortunately, however we do not seem to have gotten much nonproliferation progress for all our leadership-abjuring, multilateralist enthusiasms – not to mention our willingness to make concrete changes in our nuclear force posture.

In the NPT RevCon itself, we were indeed praised for our self-criticism exercise on disarmament, and others were happy to join us as we urged ourselves to do more to make up for past perfidies.  Participants did not seem to think it so important, however, to say anything about the Iranian proliferation challenge – the shadow of which hung over the event all the while.  What has recently been done multilaterally on Iran, moreover, we owe to the Iranians themselves, whose provocations outraged many countries, and essentially embarrassed Russia and China into withholding their Security Council vetoes.  (Moscow and Beijing, at any rate, are unlikely to have been swayed by U.S. praise for a world in which they would have no more nuclear weapons.)  And even with these new sanctions, Iran seems today quite unfazed, and now even triumphalist about its program’s allegedly irreversible advancement.  From a problem-solving perspective, we seem no nearer nonproliferation success than before.

V.          Nonproliferation, Multilateralism, and Leadership

So why do I harp on these points to an audience of Europeans?  Because I would urge you, in pondering the lessons of “effective multilateralism,” to focus only on the “effective” part and not let the ideology of “multi” entrap Europe, too, in a political philosophy of leadership abstention.

History suggests that whatever one’s preferred policy choices along the continuum of “lateralisms,” essentially nothing happens unless someone is willing to lead.  Nonproliferation efforts do not emerge spontaneously from quantum fluctuations in our international environment.  Such things are always the result of choices by a many countries – and, significantly, hard work by a few critical players.

The distribution of this work can obviously vary.  On occasion, nonproliferation is usefully advanced by the development and articulation of norms.  A more “multilateral” sort of multilateralism can sometimes work well for these purposes.  Even in such efforts, of course, very little happens without a few key players taking the reins, but nonproliferation norms usually seem more authoritative and persuasive to the degree that they are the product of broad deliberations by a great many participants.  It is also often easier to get big crowds of players to agree on things at the relatively abstract level at which general norm-articulation or rule-creation frequently occurs.

But more is needed, and such standards are really only useful to the extent that they change behavior.  When it comes to the challenge of getting players to follow nonproliferation norms, heavily “multi” multilateralisms have a checkered track record.  Massively multiplayer institutionalized approaches face collective-action problems in undertaking the concrete conceptual, diplomatic, economic, and (occasionally) military heavy lifting of compliance assessment and enforcement.  Doing things is harder than saying things – and when nonproliferation effectiveness actually requires countries to shoulder burdens, bear costs, and take risks, people suddenly discover that the right person to do the hard work is someone else, or that they aren’t so sure there’s really a violation after all, or that it’s important to give “less provocative” approaches more time to work.

And here is where fear of leadership, and exaggerated deference to the “multi” in multilateralism, can lead to trouble, because when it comes to such heavy lifting, if someone doesn’t take the bit in their teeth to ensure that something gets done, nothing will.  Approaches that tie responses too tightly to massively multiplayer consensus and find forward-leaning leadership to be distasteful tend to do too little, and to do so too late.

In this respect, alas, history will probably remember Iran as an illustrative case. Perhaps more pressure, earlier, might have helped.  After all, some U.S. intelligence officials believe that Iran halted weaponization work in mid-2003 when pressure was building at the IAEA to take Iran’s safeguards violations to the Security Council.  One shouldn’t exaggerate this, of course, because it’s also true the most important aspects of Iran’s nuclear weapons effort – the development of fissile material production capabilities – continued apace, and because by most accounts weaponization work has long since resumed.  But the episode suggests that Iran is not impervious to pressure, and that in 2003, at least, there may have been some opportunity to elicit further change by turning up the heat.

As it turned out, however, the multilateral institutions of the IAEA Board and the Security Council have proven unable to put pressures upon Iran sufficient to elicit the desired change at the time each set of pressures was applied.  Consensus-building for such measures is slow, and it has had to chase a moving target.  At each juncture, what might have worked at that time was not yet politically saleable, and what was saleable proved insufficient.

For responsive collective action in the face of emerging threats, one needs to be able to rely upon a smaller group of more interested, more like-minded, and more motivated players.  If this is “multilateralism,” it is a peculiar kind – perhaps one might think of it as a cross-breeding of the “uni” and “multi” archetypes, trying to partake of the perceived legitimacy of broad-based efforts as much as possible, but with the responsiveness that is usually possible only when actions are led by a few.

VI.          Europe the Future of Nonproliferation Leadership

And that’s why I’m beating this drum before this mostly European audience.  Effective nonproliferation requires leadership, and this requires leaders.  Washington presently seems disenchanted with leadership, though I think and hope that this can be changed.  But Europe, too, has a role to play.  When they act together, the countries of the European Union (EU) can be a formidable force – at least in economic and diplomatic terms.  Yet actually playing a major role requires being able to act decisively.

One worry for the future, in the context of this conference, is thus whether the EU may increasingly be precluding itself from making effective contributions to nonproliferation in the “heavy-lifting” arena of responsive action.  To be sure, EU member governments still retain a good deal of individual freedom of action in some regards – and indeed much EU policy still seems to be made at the initiative of two or three big players, who drag the others along – but this flexibility may be diminishing.

When I was in government, I would occasionally sigh to European counterparts about how difficult it was to get policy documents cleared through the U.S. interagency, fretting not just about delays but the vapid, lowest-common-denominator positions that can result.  My European friends would laugh at this, however, saying I should be thankful I didn’t have to get things through the EU clearance process.

I fear that the more success the EU has in requiring a common “European” position, the more it will internally replicate the collective-action problems that have plagued other broadly-based and institutionalized multilateralisms.  This would be a double shame, first because it would be a missed opportunity for EU to contribute to effective nonproliferation as a leader, and second, because rigid coordination would preclude the contributions that some members could make individually.

My vision for effective nonproliferation is neither multilateral nor unilateral.  It is of an admixture of measures along the continuum between “uni” and “multi,” at varying degrees of institutional formality, and improvisationally adjusted as circumstances demand.  Achieving and maintaining an effective mix, however, is a leadership challenge requiring a small number of like-minded players with sufficient stature, weight, and will to lead.  It would be tragic if we failed to shake off ideological fixations that make such leadership suspect – or if Europe were institutionally to hardwire itself into a posture that precludes that kind of role anyway.

-- 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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