New Paradigms Forum Proliferation Issues and Much More …


Twenty-One Principles for the 21st Century

The U.S. political landscape is nothing if not in flux right now, with a new balance of electoral power in Congress and a presidential election next year.  While U.S. politics generally remain both sharply polarized and focused upon domestic and economic issues, the time will soon come when American leaders and would-be leaders alike will have to offer a broader account of their foreign policy and security vision than they have had to for some time.  Understandably, but unfortunately, there will likely be a strong temptation, when this time comes, to take the “laundry list” approach, focusing upon specific crises and challenges at the expense of thinking systematically about the broader issues and themes involved.

This is no less true for nonproliferation, arms control, and disarmament (NACD) matters than for other issues.  There, to the extent that broader ideas are articulated at all, the pressures of the electoral and policy-competitive process may tend to encourage simple formulae – e.g., “movement toward nuclear disarmament is imperative” or “all restrictions on U.S. capabilities are bad” – that do a disservice to the complexities involved.

But what if the debates in modern Washington offered a chance to go back to first principles? At the important national and international crossroads that 2012 will represent, Americans – and all those affected for better or worse by the exercise or non-exercise of American power elsewhere in the world – deserve more than reflexive adherence to long-established conventional wisdoms wrapped up in formulaic answers to present-day “hot button” policy questions.

When it comes to NACD issues, what would such first principles look like?  In the hopes of getting some discussion going with NPF readers, this posting offers some musings on where a dialogue might begin, and could provide the starting point for an better-grounded agenda of specific NACD policy items that could help reshape the national and international debate.  Many readers will not agree with some of this, and some readers will likely agree with very little of it.  As a jumping off point for discussion about where to take these issues in the years ahead, however, they seem a good place to start.  As always, NPF invites reader feedback.  Please send it to me at

I.          Nuclear Weaponry

  • Nuclear weapons are not intrinsically evil or even objectionable, though their effects are terrifying and a general nuclear exchange would have catastrophic consequences.  Nuclear weapons can be possessed in ways compatible with broadly-accepted conceptions of morality, particularly in connection self-defense and the defense of threatened partners.  For this reason, they are tools direct possession of or indirect (a.k.a. “extended”) reliance upon which many countries – including the United States and its allies in NATO and in the Far East – have at various points felt to be important to their security.
  • Depending upon the circumstances, nuclear weapons can help deter the use of other nuclear weapons, deter conventional aggression, deter the use of other tools of mass destruction, and in extreme cases actually be viable weapons of war – not simply as weapons that might actually be used but also by potentially providing a measure of intraconflict deterrence should “baseline” deterrence fail.  (Nuclear weapons do not always serve such interests, of course.  In many circumstances, as noted below, their possession may be profoundly destabilizing and dangerous.  The point here is that details matter, and such devices are not intrinsically incompatible with peace and security.)  Their development or possession may be prohibited to certain parties by international agreements (e.g., the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons), and their use in certain circumstances by lawful possessors may be unlawful (e.g., when not in conformity with generally-accepted principles of the law of armed conflict), but neither possession nor use is inherently unlawful.
  • Because of their destructiveness, however, nuclear weapons “raise the stakes” for crisis stability between possessors, increase the costs of weapons-release by mistake or accident, and by their very existence make it more likely than otherwise that terrorists, criminals, lunatics, or other irresponsible parties will acquire the ability to detonate a nuclear device.
  • Clearly, therefore, nuclear weapons should not be possessed in numbers any greater than necessary – though how many weapons exist is often less important to security and stability than the types of system employed, the postures in which weapons are held, the safety and security procedures that are followed by weapons possessors, and the ways in which possessors behave in connection with or as a result of their possession.  If the numbers of nuclear weapons can be brought to zero in a way that is stable and sustainable, and serves the interest of national and international security, achieving this result must be a very high policy priority.
  • Given the overall objective of maintaining and improving national and international security, however – and given that security and stability are influenced by many factors other than simply the number of nuclear weapons in existence – it may be necessary to accept outcomes involving the continued possession of some nuclear weapons by some parties, whether or not the distribution of such capabilities is “fair” or popular.  The nature of the “ideal” outcome, or indeed whether there actually exists a single “end-state” at all, is not a matter of a priori rectitude but rather of pragmatically optimizing how the security environment functions in practice in light of whatever circumstances prevail at a given period in time.
  • It is difficult to imagine circumstances in which it would be feasible or sustainable entirely to abolish all nuclear weapons, and it is not a given that such a step would even be desirable, but such an outcome is not beyond conception.  Nevertheless, achieving abolition would require a dramatic and unprecedented coincident realignment of interests, perceptions, priorities, values, and understandings by all major participants in the international system – a change that should not be expected to occur in the near to medium term, if ever.  (It is conceivable that one or more individual possessors might be persuaded or induced to accept their own disarmament in the foreseeable future, but very unlikely that such decisions would be taken more generally.  Nor, because of the shameful weakness of nonproliferation compliance enforcement in today’s world, does it seem likely that the international community will be able to ensure that no new possessors will appear.)  Even then, moreover, it is by no means clear that nuclear deterrence would actually disappear as long as nuclear technology and materials remain in the world, for their retention would ensure the persistence of “virtual” arsenals and make new weapons development (or reconstitution) always, at some level, a possibility.  At any rate, abolition – if it is to occur at all – is far off.  As a result, any possessor not yet willing to accept its own unilateral disarmament will have no option but to struggle with the challenges of nuclear weapons maintenance, safety, security, and reliability for many years to come.
  • Because of the need to maintain deterrence – and serve the interests of stability and security – in however long a period might remain before any possible future achievement of nuclear weapons abolition, there is nothing inherently inconsistent between support for the goal of disarmament and taking steps to ensure the long-term safety, security, and reliability of nuclear weapons, as well as the scientific and technical competence, robustness, and resilience of a possessor’s nuclear weapons research and development infrastructure.  Because of the importance of system type and operational characteristics to nuclear stability and security, moreover, there is nothing inherently inconsistent between support for the goal of disarmament and the development of “new” nuclear weapons or weapons with new capabilities or characteristics – provided that such changes affect stability and security in positive ways (e.g., by matching force capabilities more closely to deterrent needs in order to minimize the number of weapons possessed, or by reducing reliance upon weapons, systems, or postures that are more destabilizing than feasible alternatives).
  • Wherever and whenever there is nuclear weapons possession, it is vital that such devices, and any associated delivery systems, be kept safe and secure against accidental or unauthorized launch or detonation, and against theft by or other loss of control to terrorists, criminals, lunatics, or other irresponsible parties.  Fissile materials and sensitive technologies associated with nuclear weapons development or utilization – including dual-use technologies – must also be kept safe and secure, and from spreading in ways inconsistent with peace and security.  Preventing nuclear accidents and loss of control must be a very high policy priority.
  • In general, it is better to deter the threat or use of a nuclear weapon by being able to defend against it (e.g., to defeat, evade, or otherwise prevent the effectiveness of an attack) than merely by threatening mass butchery in response.  Nevertheless, whether with regard to missile defenses, hardened and deeply-buried targets, or other issues, the relationship between offense and defense is complex and highly resistant to axiomatic, per se answers.   (The interplay between offense/defense questions and various potential nuclear targeting strategies – e.g., “counterforce,” “countervalue,” or counter-leadership – is also extremely complex.)  Active defenses can often contribute powerfully to deterrence and crisis stability, but they do not invariably do so.  Details matter, and careful consideration should be given to the particular characteristics of any given deterrence relationship.  For this same reason, however, one should exercise great caution before trying to codify the particulars of any specific offense/defense balance, for what makes sense in one set of strategic circumstances will not necessarily make sense in another, or for long.
  • Because of the unpredictability of future security environments and the complicated feedback loops involved in strategic policymaking in an ever-changing world, planners should pay close attention to the development of “hedging” strategies in approaching the future.  Hedging can help policymakers be better prepared for this unpredictability, in the face of which strategies likely to perform merely adequately in the face of a broad landscape of alternative futures can be preferable to ones offering “optimal” "outcomes only in a very narrow range of postulated circumstances, and performing poorly in other eventualities.  As illustrated by the challenges presented by the ongoing global proliferation of “virtual” nuclear weapons programs (as noted below), strategic “hedges” are not invariably stabilizing in the nuclear context.  Nevertheless, the shrewd use of “hedging” strategies can help contribute to security and stability where they allow a greater range of flexibility in how participants in the security environment seek to ensure their security and otherwise advance or protect core interests.  Different means of pursuing such objectives can affect security and stability in different ways, and “hedging” strategies can sometimes allow parties to de-emphasize destabilizing approaches in favor of more salutary ones.

II.        Arms Control

  • Arms control measures – numerical restrictions, behavioral rules, and transparency and confidence-building measures – are important tools by which countries seek to advance their individual and collective security, and seek to advance the interests of international peace and security.  They can be quite valuable in this regard.  Such measures have no intrinsic value, however, apart from their contribution to such ends: they should be pursued with vigor and assiduousness when they are likely to serve these interests, but not otherwise. Given that no government possesses infinite political capital, diplomatic attention, and other resources, moreover, the pursuit of arms control and related objectives must also be weighed against the anticipated benefits to national and international security that could be had by devoting that time and effort to other tasks.  Arms control done poorly or unwisely can be worse than arms control done not at all, and even if it is done intelligently, it not invariably the best thing upon which to spend finite policymaker “capital.”  Wisdom lies in knowing when to engage in such pursuits, and when to hold back.
  • The fundamental challenge of arms control is to increase security, not necessarily to restrict or prohibit any particular military or technological capabilities.  (This distinguishes it from disarmament, which tends to prioritize the abolition of particular capabilities per se, though often on the basis of a belief that such elimination will provide security or other benefits.)  As a general rule, controlling or mitigating the escalation potential inherent in hostile or volatile relationships is more important, and more likely to be effective, than attempting only to control military capabilities the possession or deployment of which can be a manifestation of such problematic relationships.  Addressing elements of the security problematiques facing national governments, if this can be done, is almost invariably a better way to improve security than simply trying to restrict their tools.  As illustrated by the development of arms control measures between the United States and the Soviet Union, capability control can indeed sometimes help reduce risks and mitigate the dangers inherent in problematic relationships, but significant and lasting improvements are likely to come only with change in the nature of these relationships themselves.
  • Verification is a vital element of all arms control efforts, but cannot be understood simplistically or reflexively.  As a general matter, the more verifiability, the better – though high degrees of verifiability are certainly not always possible.  The ability to detect violations is very important, for unless timely warning of such problems can be had in time for effective responses to be undertaken, there is little point in attempting “verification” at all.  (It is generally useful to increase the sum total of information available about a potential adversary, but while such collection can contribute to verification, it is by no means the same thing.)  As important as detection is the element of response: if verification is important, appropriate consequences for cheating must follow therefrom.  Nevertheless, verification can almost never be entirely assured: some degree of risk-balancing is inherent in the process.   Not all types or degrees of violation are equally important or destabilizing to an arms control-moderated relationship, and wise leaders may sometimes have to trade values off against each other (e.g., whether or not certain provisions are “good enough,” or whether no deal is better than a weak one).  It is also appropriate for verification analyses to incorporate considerations of a treaty partner’s incentives (e.g., what reason there may be for it to want to cheat) and track record of compliance with such agreements.   Depending upon the circumstances, this may make effective verifiability notably harder, or easier, to achieve.
  • In some circumstances, a relationship of extreme hostility or instability may actually preclude constructive arms control, which is really only possible or useful in relationships that are neither too benign nor too fraught with tension.  At neither end of the continuum is arms control particularly helpful: for benign relationships, it is unnecessary and may even create tensions by encouraging needlessly zero-sum approaches to security, while in situations of extreme hostility, it may be too difficult to make restrictions trustworthy and stabilizing.

III.       Nonproliferation

  • Though it can make a great difference who possesses nuclear weapons – because the circumstances of such possession, including each possessor’s behavior and deployment choices, do shape its impact upon security – it is clearly the case that in general, the more nuclear weapons possessors there are in the world, the more dangerous and unpredictable it is likely to be.  The injection of nuclear arms into ongoing regional or global security disputes – or the injection of new participants into pre-existing relationships – can be enormously destabilizing, and there is little reason for confidence that theories of deterrent balance, crisis stability, and containment rooted in the peculiar circumstances and history or bipolar game-theoretical dynamics of the Cold War era will translate easily (or at all) into multi-player nuclear dynamics in an ever more proliferated world.  Even if deterrence is effective, moreover, its impact is probabilistic rather than absolute, and greater numbers of possessors increase the odds of a failure.  As a rule of thumb, therefore, preventing the further spread of nuclear weapons must be a very high priority for both U.S. national security and international peace and security.
  • Where nuclear weapons proliferation challenges national and international security, it must be met with rapid and vigorous responses – ideally by the rest of the international community as a whole, but at the very least by as powerful a coalition of like-minded powers as can be mobilized.  If others are unwilling to act, a “unilateral” response is better than no response.  (By the same token, effective action by a narrower coalition is generally better than ineffective action by a commendably broad one.)  There is no “one-size-fits-all” response to proliferation: the right mixture of “hard” and “soft” remedies for any given situation cannot be known a priori.  The latter are preferable, but should not be pursued at the expense of making nonproliferation ineffective; “hard” or even specifically military remedies are not per se objectionable and should be used where necessary.  In general, nonproliferation is best served by maintaining (and employing) a broad repertoire of complementary and mutually-reinforcing policy tools, across the spectrum of “hardness” and with varying degrees of institutional formality and operational flexibility.
  • It is important to remember that particular proliferation cases must not be approached “in a vacuum,” as it were – that is, without considering the impact that case-specific decisions will have upon broader proliferation dynamics.  It is unlikely to be a good policy choice, for instance, to pursue a “solution” to one crisis that is likely in practice to make other crises more likely or more severe.   Even if it “solves” the crisis du jour, for instance, “purchasing” good proliferator behavior by providing benefits beyond what would have been available had it not engaged in proliferation in the first place may be only a Pyrrhic victory, for it will tend to encourage similar misbehavior by others.  Conceivably, in fact, it might even be better to see a proliferator succeed in obtaining nuclear weapons under circumstances which make such a path seem wholly unattractive to others, than to bribe that country’s momentary forbearance in ways that will entice others into such proliferation gamesmanship.  It may to some degree be necessary to strike a balance between case-specific imperatives and the needs of the nonproliferation regime as a whole, and it is also true that the nonproliferation regime cannot afford to become brittle in a changing world.  One must not forget, however, that broader nonproliferation “messaging” is a factor that matters enormously over the longer term, and should not be ignored.
  • Nonproliferation policy should pay appropriate attention to reducing proliferators’ perceived incentives to acquire nuclear weaponry.  One important way to do this, for instance, can be to take steps that would help deny a would-be proliferator the benefits it might otherwise hope to gain from acquiring nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction.  The development of robust missile defenses by a would-be proliferator’s potential adversaries, for instance, can help make proliferation seem less attractive to it – and can help reduce the costs should a successful proliferator ever decide to use nuclear weapons – by reducing that proliferator’s ability to count upon his weapons actually reaching their targets.  (Similarly, improved passive defenses can reduce the likely costliness of attacks that do penetrate.)  Proliferation incentives may also be reduced by strategies of non-nuclear counter-deterrence – that is, to the extent that interested other powers maintain military capabilities (including expeditionary forces) sufficiently sophisticated and numerous as to undercut a proliferator’s hope that having nuclear weapons would invariably “immunize” it against attack.
  • Where perceived security concerns underlying a proliferator’s pursuit of nuclear capabilities can be met without concessions or commitments that undermine national or international security – as could be the case, however, if unqualified security assurances of regime survival were given to a government committed to aggression or regional destabilization – it also may be appropriate and valuable to take steps to allay such concerns through various sorts of guarantees or steps designed to defuse threat perceptions.  It is precisely because nuclear weapons can sometimes provide very real benefits to their possessors – and not just in deterring the use of other nuclear weapons – that consideration should be given to whether possession can be made to feel less “necessary.”
  • Controlling the spread of potentially proliferation-facilitating nuclear technologies and materials – especially the capability to produce fissile material usable in nuclear weapons – is a vital and inescapable part of sound nonproliferation policy.  Merely preventing countries from actual nuclear weaponization at any particular point in time is a poor solution if they manage to acquire the capability to take this step at their whim, and on short notice, in the future.  A world of widely proliferated weapons potential – that is, a world in which numerous additional countries have acquired the position of “virtual” nuclear weapons states – is a world much more unstable and dangerous than ours today.  In such a world, every major war would in some sense be a potential nuclear war, and already-problematic issues of conflict resolution and crisis stability would be additionally freighted with dangers of overt or covert nuclear mobilization.  Serious nonproliferation policy must thus address itself resolutely to issues of controlling – or rolling back – the spread of sensitive, dual-use and potentially weapons-facilitating nuclear technology and materials.  Such a sound and serious policy would not be problematic under international law, and is in any event essential to the preservation of peace and security.
  • Nonproliferation, arms control, and disarmament issues are closely related, though it is important to understand how.  Solid nonproliferation assurances, for instance, are a sine qua non of disarmament success, for it is impossible to imagine achieving or sustaining an abolition regime unless one can reliably prevent the emergence of new nuclear weapons possessors.  The nonproliferation regime’s track record in preventing proliferation, therefore, will inescapably color assessments of the feasibility of disarmament even if disarmament were felt otherwise to be desirable.  Arms control and disarmament are also related to nonproliferation in the sense that such measures take place within a broader security context; accordingly, attention must be given to this context lest well-intentioned measures have unwanted consequences (e.g., if ill-considered arms control or disarmament steps by major powers end up increasing non-nuclear allies’ incentives to develop their own weapons, or make “entry-level” proliferator arsenals more attractive).  As we have seen elsewhere in the principles set forth in this list, the mantra remains: details matter.

IV.       Conclusion

The principles suggested in this brief outline are in some cases little more than NACD-specific articulations of common sense.  In other cases, they may variously depart from or reinforce the conventional wisdom of policy discourses either of the political Right or the political Left, perhaps contentiously.  In most cases, however, they tend to emphasize the contingency of the “right answer” in the NACD context – and the resistance of this arena to simple, reflexive, or “one-size-fits-all” template policy recipes.

Such contextuality is not always likely to be welcomed in a field sometimes approached as a domain of a priori policy certainties – nuclear policy theologies, if you will – but our policy discourse is likely to be richer and more useful if we can acknowledge this contingency at the level of basic principles.  If we can, we can then better begin to apply such principles to the challenges of defining specific items for a NACD policy agenda to help make the world a safer place, and our country more secure in it.

Reader feedback is encouraged!

-- Christopher Ford


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