New Paradigms Forum Proliferation Issues and Much More …


A 2012 Voter’s Guide to Nonproliferation and Arms Control Issues


Below is the text upon which Dr. Ford based his remarks on October 28, 2011, to a meeting organized  in London – at Portcullis House, at Westminster, on the Parliamentary Estate – by Republicans Abroad UK.

Good afternoon.  It’s a pleasure to be back in London, and to have the chance to offer you, as requested, a quick voter’s tour d’horizon of arms control and nonproliferation, one year out from the 2012 U.S. presidential elections.  I spend most of my time in the public policy hothouse of “inside the Beltway” D.C., so I don’t know how the political currents are running amongst U.S. voters living abroad like many of you here today, but let me offer my own introduction to these issues and their place in the current U.S. political landscape.

I.          Nonproliferation

On the whole, nonproliferation is relatively non-controversial, in part because there’s been so much continuity between the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama.  One might even say that many nonproliferation matters have turned out to be not partisan but American issues, on which more has remained the same across multiple administrations than has changed.

President Obama may have taken office hoping to tame rogue regimes with a smile and some sweet talk.  After famously “extending an open hand” of dialogue to troublemakers such as Iran, however – and having that hand equally famously bitten by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and others, who seem to have taken this for weakness – the president has been relatively tough on Tehran, certainly more so than one might have expected.

For the most part, therefore, Iran is not a starkly partisan issue.  Republicans are generally still more hawkish on the subject – more likely to advocate sterner measures, to embrace a “regime change” strategy or using force to forestall Iran from completing its drive towards nuclear weapons – but on the whole partisan divisions are not dramatic.

The most important election issue related to Iran, I would argue, is not so much over the desirability of pressuring the regime in Tehran but anxiety over the poor choices that will be available to whomever wins the White House.  The next president may have some grim choices to make, either opting somehow to “live with” a nuclear-armed Iran or to take much more drastic action against it.  Voters thus face not so much a partisan choice but a personal one: whom do they want in the Oval Office when the president has to face such a choice?

For its part, North Korea seems now entirely to rule out the one negotiating objective that it is Washington’s aim above all to achieve – the elimination of Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons programs – and there is little hope for progress.  There is some partisan divide on North Korea, with Republicans again more inclined to be open about regime change strategies and the need for more contingency planning for regime collapse there, while Democrats seem mostly just to want the issue to sit quietly in a corner and not create problems in an election year.  (This was an all but explicit aim, for instance, of the predictably inconclusive talks held earlier this week between U.S. and North Korean representatives in Geneva.)  But both American political parties seem to be drifting into a kind of consensus that North Korea needs to be further isolated and pressured until such time as it falls apart or makes a strategic change of course.

The Obama Administration makes much of the Nuclear Security Summit it hosted in Washington in 2010 in hopes of improving nuclear materials security.  (A follow-up summit will be held in Seoul next spring.)  On the whole, while the White House greatly oversells the Summit, there is not that much for Republicans to complain about – unmerited policy grandstanding being only a minor infraction in Washington – and the Obama administration is largely continuing Bush-era policies.

The Obama Administration also likes to cite its progress in “turning around” the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) review process, and indeed there is some real partisan division in the U.S. policy community on this.  The White House claims that its enthusiasm for nuclear disarmament has been the key to success in nonproliferation diplomacy.  Unless we work ostentatiously for “zero,” the argument goes, we won’t get others to cooperate on nonproliferation ... and they claim this is working.

Republicans don’t think it is, in fact, working, however, for there hasn’t actually been anything more than rhetorical progress coming out of the NPT process.   We are no closer to resolving the world’s nuclear crises, and such tougher steps as have been taken outside the NPT arena (e.g., Iran sanctions) we owe principally to the opportunities provided by those rogue regimes’ own provocations (e.g., Iran being discovered building a secret new enrichment facility, rejecting research reactor fuel supply deals, and pushing ahead to produce highly-enriched uranium).  Merely getting consensus on conference documents, after all, isn’t the same thing as actually making the world safer, and Republicans tend to feel that Obama – as they predicted he would – has mistaken process for substance, confusing agreement on texts with actually persuading countries to shoulder greater burdens in standing up to proliferation.  Worse, Obama is felt to have purchased agreement on NPT meeting documents not just by avoiding any effort to deal with critical but controversial issues in such texts (e.g., Iran), but also by raising nuclear disarmament expectations that it will be impossible (or unwise) for the United States to fulfill.  To be sure, the arcana of NPT issues aren’t really good fodder for U.S presidential debates one way or the other, but there is some partisan split here.

II.         Nuclear Weapons

It is on nuclear weapons issues that we start to see more dramatic partisan divergences.  The Obama Administration is very proud of its “New START” agreement with Russia.  In truth, however, the dirty secret of “New START” is how little it does.  Though the Senate ratification debate was rancorous, Republicans mostly focused not upon the Treaty’s force limits but upon ancillary issues such as its potential impact upon ballistic missile defense (BMD).  (More on BMD in a moment.)  On the whole, moreover, Republicans were divided on New START, with main-line establishment foreign policy grandees generally supporting it, and conservative firebrands opposing.  A more ambitious treaty would have had more enemies.

To stereotype their general approaches for illustrative purposes, in my experience, Democrats tend to be more uncritically supportive of arms control agreements, seeing them as a sort of litmus test of international virtue, sometimes irrespective of what they actually say.  Republicans, on the other hand, tend to be more skeptical, worrying that negotiators’ eagerness to get a deal may lead them to undermine important U.S. interests or at least make undue concessions.  Some Republicans, in return, are alleged by Democrats to oppose all arms control.  (My account here of these respective positions is a caricature, of course, but it isn’t utterly fantastical – and it should give a bit of a flavor for the debates that occur on the subject.)

One issue that may be important in 2012 is where strategic arms control should go next.  In part because “New START” did so little, there seems to be eagerness in arms control-friendly Democratic circles to do something significant with the next treaty beyond simply having one.  But this is easier said than done, and precisely to the degree that follow-on talks seek to go deeper than more “New START”-style minimalism, partisan issues could arise over: (1) how deep to go, and the desirability of “zero”; (2) what to do about Russian demands for limits on U.S. missile defense; (3) what do to about huge Russian advantages in shorter-range weaponry; (4) whether and how to involve other players such as China; and (5) whether we can agree upon the wholesale revision of U.S. nuclear deterrent strategy, targeting (e.g., aiming at military targets [“counterforce”] versus civilian populations [“countervalue”]), and force posture (e.g., whether or not to maintain our longstanding nuclear “Triad”) that deeper cuts might require.

But there is already one potential “next treaty” already lurking out there: the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) signed by President Bill Clinton but rejected by the Senate in 1999.  It has never been “unsigned,” and the Obama Administration has promised to try to re-introduce CTBT for ratification at some point.  On this treaty, there are some sharp partisan lines in the United States.

The Senate rejected CTBT principally on the basis of concerns about the ability of other countries to cheat without being detected, as well as worries about whether the United States could maintain its nuclear stockpile indefinitely without testing.  Proponents argue that international verification – in the form of the CBTBT Organization, based in Vienna – has been improved since then, and that it is still in our interest to slow other countries’ proliferation progress even if detection isn’t perfect.  They also say that U.S. investments in “stockpile stewardship” permit adequate arsenal maintenance without testing.

Opponents of the Treaty, however – and Republicans vastly predominate in this regard – worry that Russia and perhaps even China have already engaged in undetected testing that would be unlawful under CTBT, raising the risk of U.S. “strategic surprise.”  (No one talks publicly about the details of such allegations, but there was an intriguing passing reference to this issue in the publicly-releatsed report of the Strategic Posture Review Commission in 2009.)  They also point to reports highlighting the difficulty of maintaining the technical competence for sophisticated weapons work without testing, stressing that Washington has found itself saddled with complex and finicky “legacy” warheads not designed to remain reliable indefinitely under such conditions.  (Many Republicans have supported the development of improved U.S. warheads with just such long-term test-free reliability in mind, but Democrats have generally opposed this, regarding “new nuclear weapons” with something of the horror with which a Brahmin presumably regards a hamburger.  Thus does the politics of Barack Obama’s disarmament agenda undermine its own substance.)

Republican critics of CTBT also note that even if we ratify, it is unlikely that CTBT will ever enter into force, because ratification is also needed from China, India, Pakistan, Israel, Iran, and North Korea.  Why agree to potentially problematic limits on our strategic flexibility, they ask, in the name of a treaty that will never come into force anyway?  CTBT would clearly be an uglier fight than “New START,” and it might perhaps be rejected – a loss which might well, this time, be fatal.  Well aware of these problems, the Obama Administration seem to have tried to fudge the issue, claiming credit on the Left for planning to introduce CTBT as soon as the White House has “done its homework” to ensure successful ratification, while quite possibly privately anticipating that no such time will actually ever come.

Another issue that might surface in campaign debates is complete nuclear disarmament, about which Republicans are much more skeptical than Democrats, though Obama himself seems to be to the left of most of the U.S. policy community.  To be sure, Obama has qualified his support for “zero” in various ways, and beneath its awkwardly pro-disarmament rhetorical trappings, his 2010 Nuclear Posture Review is a document with more substantive continuities with previous policy than radical lurches toward disarmament.  This seems to have led to much consternation among the more breathless disarmament partisans of the Left, who seem unable to decide whether he is a serious disarmer trying valiantly to push “zero” through a reluctant military-industrial complex, or whether he has simply sold them a bill of goods in a cynical “bait-and-switch” game for their political support.

Nevertheless, the issue of “zero” is emotive, and could indeed inflame election-year passions.  Such disarmament steps as Obama has taken – and the sometimes ridiculously high, Nobel-Peace-Prize-eliciting expectations he deliberately raised on this front back when he seemed to believe his own campaign hype that he would be a “transformational” president – have not gone down well with many Republicans, especially in the conservative wing of the party.  (In this respect, Obama may have done himself no favors, having by now angered both sides in the ongoing debate over “zero.”)  One can expect Republicans to describe Obama’s “Prague agenda” as naïve and unfeasible, and perhaps actually dangerous.  At the very least, they will argue, it is a most unwise expenditure of political capital on a distant and uncertain goal when more urgent global security challenges loom.  One should also expect to see close Republican scrutiny of how resolutely President Obama lives up to his promises to Senate Republicans during the “New START” ratification debate to strongly support modernization of the U.S. nuclear weapons complex.

And we should not forget missile defense – which has been a powerful traditional “wedge” issue for Republicans for decades.  Democrats have for years tended to feel that too much focus upon defenses could be destabilizing, while Republicans have tended to think it irresponsible not to build increasingly robust defenses.  As hopes faded over the years for achieving the impenetrable shield apparently envisioned by President Reagan, however, both parties converged to some extent upon the compromise of pursuing BMD to protect against smaller-scale attacks from a rogue proliferator such as Iran or North Korea.

As a result, there is not today a simple dichotomy between pro-BMD Republicans and anti-defense Democrats.  The Obama Administration did pull the plug on Bush’s plans to build an interceptor site in Europe, but still claims to be pursuing its own approach that will see the deployment of anti-missile interceptors aboard U.S. Navy vessels.  Many Republicans grumble about this for various reasons – e.g., its longer timeline, and the improbability of having enough vessels available to provide more than episodic coverage, especially as the Navy budget contracts – but the BMD debate is a more complex and less heated one than before.

Nevertheless, things can still get hot – as seen in the “New START” controversy over language in that Treaty’s Preamble that was put in as a sop to Russian antipathy to U.S. BMD deployments.  Especially if the United States continues to have no success in achieving North Korean denuclearization and in curbing the Iranian drive toward nuclear weaponry, one should expect BMD issues to remain a significant focus of attention.  BMD politics is also sure to affect any future strategic treaty with Russia, because Moscow seems certain to demand restrictions on American deployments.

III.       Outer Space and Cyberspace

In outer space, Russia and China have for years been trying to persuade countries to endorse a lopsided proposal of theirs to restrict weapons based in outer space.  So far, the United States has quite properly resisted this, in part because the Russo-Chinese plan is designed to preclude potential U.S. deployments while leaving unaffected the terrestrially based anti-space weaponry that both Moscow and Beijing have developed in order to threaten our space assets.  The Obama space policy builds in an evolutionary way upon Bush policy, with the result that so far, space is not much of a partisan issue.  The current space issue is whether the United States should endorse a European-drafted “Code of Conduct,” but no decision has been reached and I doubt space will be an issue of any significance in the 2012 campaign.

The Russians and Chinese also propose “arms control” in cyberspace, but so far Washington is unreceptive.  This is also as it should be, I think, for while cyber threats are very real, they are not much susceptible to traditional arms control-style remedies – not least because any prohibitions are likely to be quite unverifiable.  China and Russia also seek to address a different problem than we do, prizing cyber “arms control” in part in order to legitimate their efforts to restrict the substantive content that flows through national networks – that is, as a tool for censorship and political control.  Republicans think the White House is right to stand clear of such proposals, with the result that cyberspace presents few U.S. partisan issues right now.

IV.        Conclusion

So that’s my lineup.  This suite of arms control, nonproliferation, disarmament, space, and cyber issues are very complex ones, and many of the things that excite us hard-core policy wonks don’t lend themselves too well to campaign-level controversy or partisan division.  In this arena, however, the Obama Administration’s positions are quite clear: he has a three-year record to run on – and for his opponents to run against.

Of the contenders for the Republican nomination, however, much less can be said, for most of them do not seem to have focused much upon foreign policy and national security issues.  My check of candidate websites this morning revealed that only Mitt Romney presently has anything resembling a serious foreign policy and national security position paper posted online.  (In fact, he has two: a shorter version that is still several pages long, and also a long “White Paper” that goes into more detail.)

In these documents, Romney generally follows the Republican themes I have outlined here.  His campaign derides President Obama’s disarmament enthusiasm as “utopian,” sniffs at the White House’s showy “reset” of Russian relations as a “gimmick,” and talks of retaining (but not necessarily actually using) a “military option” vis-à-vis Iran (including by maintaining a larger U.S. carrier battlegroup presence in the region) and of increasing pressure on the regime in Tehran by imposing another round of sanctions and supporting Iran’s pro-democratic opposition, at least rhetorically.

Romney decries the Obama Administration’s scaling back of Bush-era BMD planning, but would be willing to stick to the current White House timeline for such capabilities with the option of returning to President Bush’s European deployment plan if Iran’s missile developments accelerate.  Romney also pledges to resist Russian plans to limit U.S. BMD.  On North Korea, he promises to “make it unequivocally clear to Pyongyang that continued advancement of its nuclear program and any aggression will be punished instead of rewarded,” and to step up enforcement against North Korea of the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) established by President Bush.  Unspecifically, but potentially significantly, Romney also pledges to “review the implementation of the New START treaty and other decisions by the Obama administration regarding America’s nuclear posture and arms-control policies to determine whether they serve the best interests and national security of the United States.”

It is not clear the precise extent to which such positions distinguish Romney from his Republican rivals, except of course in specificity and detail, for I searched in vain for detailed position papers on foreign policy and national security issues on the websites of the Herman Cain, Rick Perry, and Michele Bachman campaigns.  (The closest they seemed to get, on my perusal, was a comment by Bachman that President Obama “has taken his eye off the ball when it comes to the true threat in the Middle East: a potentially nuclear-armed Iran.”)  Especially given the prominence of economic issues in the campaign so far, it is perhaps not surprising that arms control-related issues have played such a small role in the contest for the Republican nomination.  Whoever gets the Republican nod, however, will naturally work to sharpen differences with President Obama.  And if a Republican wins, of course, he or she will actually have to have a foreign and national security policy ....

With that in mind, I would re-emphasize for your attention the areas where the most significant partisan divides seem to exist: (a) the “Prague agenda” of complete nuclear disarmament and the related question of possible deep future arms cuts; (b) CTBT ratification; and (c) ballistic missile defense.

I would also emphasize the importance of the personal issue of who you, as voters, want as your commander-in-chief if North Korea engages in some horrible new round of provocations, or when Washington decides it can no longer avoid making a choice between war with Iran and “living with” a nuclear-empowered Islamic revolutionary theocracy in the Persian Gulf.  This is not necessarily a partisan issue in itself, but one cannot deny that the stakes are very high indeed.

-- Christopher Ford

NPF Pages

Recent Additions to NPF

NPF Discussion Pages

Calendar of NPF Postings

January 2021
« Dec    

NPF Archives (by month)