New Paradigms Forum Proliferation Issues and Much More …


U.S. Strength and Alliance Relationships: The World’s Most Successful Nonproliferation Tools?


Below are the remarks Assistant Secretary Ford delivered on April 18, 2019, to an event at the Capitol Hill Club sponsored by the Mitchell Institute. They may also be found on the website of the U.S. State Department's Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation.

Good morning, ladies and gentlemen, and thank you, Peter, for your kind introduction.

In my line of work, I speak frequently about the importance of the global nonproliferation regime, and about the security benefits that institutions such as the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) provide to all States Party – and indeed, especially to the non-nuclear weapon states, insofar as the nonproliferation regime helps keep their regional neighbors and rivals from acquiring nuclear weapons. I also emphasize that it is the foundation of nonproliferation commitments and of standards for nuclear safety and security practices provided by that regime that makes worldwide sharing the benefits of peaceful nuclear technology possible and helps create the possibility of moving further toward nuclear disarmament. In my corner of the State Department, we work continually to maintain and improve the nonproliferation norms, institutions, and practices that help make all this possible.

Nevertheless, I’d like to speak today about another critical aspect of the global nonproliferation regime, albeit one that isn’t frequently talked as such. I refer to the United States’ alliance relationships, and to the deterrence and reassurance dynamics that result from our maintenance of a strong conventional and nuclear military posture.

To be sure, U.S. officials frequently refer to the impact our global “extended deterrence” relationships have had over the decades in helping prevent nuclear weapons proliferation. One hears this less, though, from foreign officials, and people don’t usually talk of U.S. military power and alliance relationships as being part of the global nonproliferation regime itself.

But I would submit that this aspect of the nonproliferation regime is exceedingly important, and should be discussed more widely. I’d like to dwell on this theme a little bit today, to you here at this breakfast, for I believe that no serious understanding of the global nonproliferation regime can ignore the importance and the impact of U.S. power as a nonproliferation tool. In fact, U.S. power is perhaps the world’s most successful nonproliferation tool – and we should not let ourselves forget this.

I. Forestalling an Anticipated Cascade of Proliferation

Students of Cold War nuclear history will know that highly classified U.S. intelligence estimates of proliferation potential in the 1950s and 1960s highlighted the danger that many countries would develop nuclear weapons. A number of National Intelligence Estimates (NIEs) from the period have been declassified and publicly released, and you can find them on line fairly easily.

If you do, you’ll see an amazing number of places identified during those years as likely to acquire the ability to develop such weapons – and perhaps indeed increasingly likely to choose to do so as others progressively weaponized. NIEs from that era, for instance, discuss the possibility of weaponization in Australia, Belgium, Canada, China, Czechoslovakia, France, East Germany, West Germany, India, Indonesia, Israel, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Japan, Pakistan, Poland, South Africa, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, and the United Arab Republic (that is, present-day Egypt and Syria).

Thank goodness, nothing nearly so dramatic as that potential cascade of proliferation actually occurred, though of course a small number of countries did eventually end up weaponizing. Commentators are quite right to give much credit for this to the NPT – which entered into force half a century ago next year – and to the institutions built up around and in relation to that treaty. And they do deserve much credit for forestalling the proliferation catastrophe that was initially feared.

But it is not the NPT alone that deserves credit. To give further credit where it is due, the Soviet Union actually helped, by policing its allies during the Cold War to prevent them from developing independent nuclear weapons capabilities. Of course, one might have wished that Moscow had been less willing to support and encourage China’s nuclear weapons program in the 1950s – but at least Nikita Khrushchev eventually thought better of this before fulfilling his previous promise to give Beijing a prototype nuclear weapon just before Mao Zedong began starving millions of his subjects to death during the so-called “Great Leap Forward.” On the whole, however, the Soviets quite properly recognized their own interest – and a common global interest – in preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and Moscow was for the most part willing to act on this understanding, not least in cooperating with the United States in jointly drafting the NPT.

One might also wish that modern China and Russia took nonproliferation more seriously today. Beijing’s continued willingness to permit Chinese serial proliferators, such as Li Fangwei (also known as Karl Lee) to engage in transfers to Iran’s ballistic missile program – and Moscow’s current diplomatic assault upon global institutions for WMD control and accountability at the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the United Nations, and the International Atomic Energy Agency – are nothing short of shameful. Whatever the reasons for this behavior – whether it is mere laxity in support of nonproliferation norms or deliberate efforts to appease their clients and counter U.S. influence – I think history will not treat them kindly for undermining the U.S.-led world order that has kept the peace and ensured prosperity since the Second World War. But Soviet power, at least, does deserve some credit for helping forestall the cascade of proliferation of which those early U.S. NIEs warned.

That said, however, it is worth stressing the great – and, ultimately, much more important – degree to which United States alliances and military posture, both conventional and nuclear, played a pivotal role in preventing the worst of what the Central Intelligence Agency worried in a 1966 NIE could be a cascade of “snowballing” of proliferation. Remembering the potency of U.S. global power as a nonproliferation tool is important not just so that we can really understand this history, but also because U.S. power is still a potent nonproliferation tool in ways that it would be unwise, or perhaps tragic, for present-day policymakers and the public to forget or to dismiss.

II. United States Power as a Nonproliferation Instrument

If you think back over the list I just read of the governments the 1950s and 1960s NIEs identified as potential future proliferators, I think it will be hard not to be struck by the extent to which many of them ended up being covered in various formal or informal ways under the so-called “nuclear umbrella” of U.S. “extended deterrence” during the Cold War, and thereafter. For quite a few countries, U.S. security relationships were critical factors in persuading them that, notwithstanding their growing degree of technological sophistication and access to the requisite materials, nuclear weaponization was unnecessary and needlessly risky.

As a serving U.S. government official, I have to be careful about what I say in this regard, but these issues have been discussed and documented in the academic literature for some years – so I would encourage you to consult such works to fill in any gaps that I may have to leave here today. But it is notably clear now not only that quite a few countries were forestalled from beginning to explore indigenous weaponization as a result of U.S. security guarantees, but also that a combination of U.S. security assurances and diplomatic pressure not to weaponize led a number of countries actually to abandon nuclear weapons programs that were already underway. Nonproliferation norms do not enforce themselves, and it is important to remember the critical role that U.S. power and diplomacy played in preventing the number of nuclear weapons possessors in the world today from being considerably higher.

U.S. military posture helped forestall certain countries’ weaponization choices in various ways. NATO’s so-called “nuclear burden sharing” that entails the forward deployment of U.S. non-strategic nuclear weapons to Europe as a component of NATO’s nuclear deterrent, for instance, was designed to enhance deterrence by confronting the Soviets with a higher likelihood of nuclear response to any territorial aggression against NATO, even if Moscow’s intercontinental assets were somehow to deter an American strategic response because this might lead to retaliation against U.S. cities. But this arrangement also had the clear purpose of promoting nonproliferation, inasmuch as it helped persuade NATO allies that their security needs could and would be met without the need for indigenous nuclear weaponization, despite persistent threats from Moscow. NATO’s ultimate choice of this nuclear policy, in other words, augmented both deterrence and nonproliferation – in both cases, thankfully, quite successfully.

Tellingly, Moscow, itself recognized and accepted this enormous nonproliferation benefit from NATO’s nuclear policy, despite efforts by the current Russian regime to pretend otherwise. This can clearly be seen in now-declassified NATO and U.S. documents, such as the records from the U.S.-Soviet working group on negotiating the language that ultimately became Article I of the NPT.

Specifically, a September 1966 memorandum from that working group memorializes the Soviet delegation’s abandonment of its previous insistence upon language that would not only have prohibited the transfer to any non-nuclear weapon state of nuclear weapons themselves or control over them (as the NPT currently does), but also would have prevented consultation and planning for contingencies. This is why the NPT’s Article I has never presented any legal bar to NATO’s nuclear policy. One can attribute the 1966 Soviet concession in large part to Moscow’s grudging appreciation that NATO’s approach was key to dissuading NATO countries such as West Germany from pursuing weaponization of their own – as well as of the fact that the alternative to having NATO nuclear sharing blessed by Article I was something Moscow liked even less, namely, the then proposed “Multilateral Nuclear Force.”

But the nonproliferation benefit of U.S. military power and security policy was not limited to NATO members alone. Elsewhere in Western Europe outside NATO, U.S. security assurances helped lead to the abandonment of exploratory nuclear weapons programs in multiple additional countries. In East Asia, too, at least two governments abandoned their nuclear weapons programs as a result of a combination of U.S. pressure and U.S. military reassurances.

These various proliferation “dogs that didn’t bark” – if you’ll permit me to borrow from the Sherlock Holmes tale The Hound of the Baskervilles – are a critical aspect of our collective nonproliferation history. The nuclear weapons programs that didn’t happen, or that stopped, as a result of U.S. power and diplomatic engagement in deterring aggression and dissuading weaponization are today thankfully invisible. However, they are a huge part of the story of how the global nonproliferation regime managed to prevent the parade of proliferation problems about which so many U.S. NIEs worried so grimly in the 1950s and 1960s.

III. Conclusion

I believe this is an important lesson for us to remember here at today’s breakfast as we explore trends in and implications of developments in nuclear posture and policy among the various possessor states in this modern, 21st century context. Many of the most challenging aspects of the nuclear world today relate to the re-emergence and resurgence of great power competition, and its various manifestations in nuclear postures. Some of these dynamics are new, for we are all clearly in a very different strategic place in 2019 than U.S. leaders had hoped and expected to be as they looked forward at the nuclear future during the initial post-Cold War period.

But as we Americans work to cope with this novelty, and to re-learn how to devise and implement a sober and effective competitive strategy against aggressive Great Power rivals, we must also not forget the past. In particular, I would urge you to remember the ways in which our own conventional and nuclear military power has historically served not merely our own security interests, but also the broader interests of international peace and security by helping forestall the proliferation of mankind’s most dangerous weapons and thus greatly reducing the risk of nuclear conflict.

Critically, this impact is not purely historical, for such dynamics continue to operate in today’s world. As we contemplate how best to meet our national security needs and keep the peace, therefore, I urge you to keep these lessons in mind. The 2018 Nuclear Posture Review was quite clear in this regard. A strong U.S. nuclear posture not only defends our allies against conventional and nuclear threats, but also helps allies forgo the need to develop their own nuclear arsenals. We are resolutely dedicated to ensuring that the United States’ strength in the world remains unquestioned and that this might continues to be used both to protect the lives and interests of the American people and to reduce proliferation dangers worldwide.

Thank you.

-- Christopher Ford

NPF Pages

Recent Additions to NPF

NPF Discussion Pages

Calendar of NPF Postings

January 2021
« Dec    

NPF Archives (by month)