Arms Control Wonk ArmsControlWonk


Stanislav Petrov’s story is about to be featured in a new movie, The Man Who Saved the World. This title suggests more than the usual artistic license, but if license weren’t granted when dealing with the Apocalypse, then where would the film industry be? My own choice for the hero’s mantle would be Vasili Arkhipov, whose veto prevented the launch of a nuclear weapon on board a Soviet sub being depth charged during the height of the Cuban missile crisis.

Both men illuminate the weaknesses of nuclear deterrence theory, when alertness and vigilance can paradoxically lead to error. Yes, we want those in charge of nuclear weapons to be on the top of their game. But when alert levels are raised during a severe crisis, the likelihood of unintended accidents and human or mechanical error increases.

Most of the literature on deterrence theory misses this central point because it assumes mutual, rational assessment of gain and loss. One problem with the rational-actor model is that adversaries might not be on the same page as to whether whether the use of nuclear weapons makes sense. Usually, when this is a close call, the “rational” actors hardly know each other. The rational actor model excludes the human factor, when deciders and implementers are operating under extreme duress. It also doesn’t account for mechanical failure. If instead of presuming rational actors, deterrence theory were predicated on Murphy’s Law, there would be many fewer nuclear weapons in our midst.

Aspiring wonks: If you think the recent past has been a mess — what with the Kremlin’s behavior in Ukraine, its provocative and dangerous actions at sea and in the air, and the shoot-down of a civilian airliner — all of this pales in comparison to 1983, aka The Year of Living Dangerously.

In 1983, President Reagan announced his “Star Wars” initiative, NATO deployed medium-range missiles in Europe, the Kremlin walked out of arms-reduction talks, a trigger-happy Soviet air defense commander shot down a South Korean passenger airliner, the U.S. Navy and Air Force carried out provocative feints toward Soviet territory, and paranoid Politburo figures with backgrounds in intelligence thought the United States was preparing for a surprise attack.

Petrov gained belated recognition for his decision on the night of September 26, 1983. As the commanding officer on the night shift, he was faced with the choice of notifying superiors of indications of the opening salvo of a U.S. surprise attack, or not doing so, assuming a technical malfunction. Petrov did not go by the book, as he chose not to assume the worst. David Hoffman tells this tale in his prologue to The Dead Hand.

Mark Kramer has also investigated this Cold War episode and believes it to be overdrawn. Arkipov’s story — think of Das Boot meets Seven Days in May – makes for more sustained and higher drama. Calling all screenwriters!


The Washington-based Republican Party has reverted to isolationist tendencies that are  harmful to U.S. national security. This variant of isolationism is very different than the kind the Grand Old Party practiced during the years between the First and Second World War, but it has the same practical effect of distancing the United States from its international partners. Back in the 1920s and 1930s, senior figures in the Republican Party sought to keep the United States away from Europe’s troubles by opposing military preparedness measures. Now, many Republican Senators and Representatives are all for beefing up defense spending and inserting U.S. forces into trouble spots – while eschewing the value of diplomacy. This instinct has been highlighted on the Iran deal. Military options and diplomacy are both needed for hard cases. Favoring the former while disparaging the latter constitutes a new form of isolationism, creating growing distances between Washington and most of America’s friends and allies who value diplomatic settlements over kinetic options.

Skepticism with foreign engagement has a long and distinguished pedigree, dating back to George Washington’s 1796 Farewell Address, which still resonates strongly today regarding U.S. ties to Israel. Washington warned that,

“a passionate attachment of one nation for another produces a variety of evils. Sympathy for the favorite nation, facilitating the illusion of an imaginary common interest in cases where no real common interest exists, and infusing into one the enmities of the other, betrays the former into a participation in the quarrels and wars of the latter without adequate inducement or justification. It leads also to concessions to the favorite nation of privileges denied to others, which is apt doubly to injure the nation making the concessions by unnecessarily parting with what ought to have been retained, and by exciting jealousy, ill will, and a deposition to retaliate in the parties from whom equal privileges are withheld.”

Washington’s advice against entangling alliances made some sense for a new Republic 220 years ago, although his successors found foreign help as useful as General Washington did when dealing with more powerful states. Once the United States became a world power at the turn of the next century, isolationism ceased to serve U.S. national-security interests. But this was a hard sell after the carnage of the First World War as Germany and Japan prepared for war in the 1930s.

In 1940, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt recruited two internationally-minded Republicans – Henry L. Stimson and Frank Knox – to serve as his Secretaries of War and the Navy. Part of their job descriptions was to help persuade Republicans on Capitol Hill to slough off their isolationist tendencies and to prepare the country for the likelihood of war in Europe and the Pacific. A crucial test came in 1941, with the need to renew the 1940 Selective Training and Service Act. The original Act limited tours of duty for new recruits to twelve months. The Congress also prohibited draftees from serving outside of the Western Hemisphere, with the exception of U.S. possessions abroad.

Geoffrey Wilson of Ploughshares helped me with research on how FDR and his allies on Capitol Hill barely won the battle to extend the draft by a single vote in the House of Representatives. Capitol Hill was then a bulwark of Republican isolationism, led by Senators Robert A. Taft of Ohio, Gerald Nye of North Dakota, and Hiram Johnson of California. Republican isolationists drew strength from some Democrats, religious and labor leaders, and Progressives who wanted to remain focused on domestic needs.

In Congressional debate over extending the draft, one of the arguments used by Senator Taft and others was that forced enlistment was “anti-democratic:”

“I deny that it has anything to do with democracy… It is far more typical of totalitarian nations than of democratic nations. The theory behind it leads directly to totalitarianism. It is absolutely opposed to the principles of individual liberty which have always been considered a part of American democracy… In this moment of excitement and hysteria, do not break down the fundamental principles of the American Republic. Do not overestimate the emergency and sink all the principles we love in the slough of totalitarian defense.”

On August 12th, less than four months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to extend the draft. The tally was 210-209 when House Speaker Sam Rayburn banged his gavel to end the voting before latecomers and vote-switchers could reverse this result.

After the Second World War, isolationism was defeated as soundly as Germany and Japan. Republicans joined Democrats in building institutions for U.S. international engagement. When the Cold War descended on a divided Europe, the formation of purposefully entangling alliances received bipartisan support. The advent of the Bomb also prompted more domestic cohesion than division. Agreements with “the Communist menace” to contain nuclear testing and the arms race also began with bipartisan support. Only eight Republicans voted against the 1963 Limited Test Ban Treaty negotiated in the Kennedy administration; only one Conservative Republican Senator voted against the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.

Beginning in the 1970s, this bipartisan coalition frayed badly. The Clinton Administration’s efforts to secure the Senate’s consent to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty were rejected. The ABM Treaty lasted three decades before the George W. Bush Administration announced U.S. withdrawal. Arms reduction treaties gained bipartisan support during the Reagan and Bush Administrations, but these lopsided votes reflected the Soviet Union’s decline and dissolution. Republican disaffection returned when Vladimir Putin moved to regain lost ground. A national consensus following the 9/11 attacks on U.S. soil was quickly dissipated, unlike the domestic response to Pearl Harbor. The end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union made it easier for the United States to intervene in Afghanistan and Iraq; when these wars proved unworthy of the immense sacrifices made, domestic divisions grew. Most Republicans on Capitol Hill believed that better outcomes could be secured with greater investments in the use of force, while most Democrats became wary of risking even more U.S. blood and treasure. Meanwhile, redistricting, gerrymandering, and unlimited campaign cash produced a record number of one-party districts and record levels of partisanship.

Foreign and national security policy is hamstrung by partisanship, which is why President Obama has opted for executive agreements and other workarounds, like the Iran deal. His successors will, too. Conventional wisdom holds that a Republican President will return the GOP back to its moorings of diplomatic engagement and deal-making, but I have my doubts. Not one Republican Senator was ready to support the Iran deal and majorities of the Republican caucus in the House and Senate are implacably opposed to agreements that constrain U.S. nuclear capabilities. A future Republican President will therefore be beholden to Democratic support – if he or she wants to negotiate agreements with bad actors and can recruit senior officials who are so inclined. This won’t be easy: Those waiting in line for Cabinet positions and to become under- and assistant secretaries in a future Republican administration have built their careers fighting U.S. deal-making. There is no Paul Nitze, Brent Scowcroft, or George Shultz waiting in the wings.

The Washington D.C.-based Republican Party has lost its way, just as it did in the 1920s and 1930s. Most, but not all, Republicans on Capitol Hill are instinctively against diplomatic engagement in hard cases, and are inclined to rely on military force to improve outcomes. Without the preference for diplomacy over force, U.S. leadership is not sustainable. An unbalanced approach that denigrates deal-making separates the United States from almost all of its friends and allies – just like the old-fashioned kind of isolationism Republicans practiced between the First and Second World Wars.


Which camp – pro or con — is most guilty of wishful thinking about the Iran deal? Supporters who argue they have secured verifiable, significant reductions in Iran’s ability to make nuclear weapons? Or opponents who argue that a “better deal” can be negotiated after rejecting this one?

For opponents to avoid being guilty of wishful thinking, existing sanctions must remain in place after killing the deal, until a new administration tries to do better. Since the Obama Administration won’t be negotiating better terms, the current sanctions regime must hold as long as it takes for a new administration to resume negotiations. Also, the next American president must be able to convince all of Washington’s negotiating partners to support better provisions than those rejected by the Congress. Plus, “tougher” sanctions must remain in place on all of Iran’s significant trading partners for as many years as it takes Tehran to cry “uncle.” All of these hopeful assumptions rest on the next president’s ability, moral standing, and political backing — domestically and internationally — to negotiate a better deal.

Supporters argue that the deal doesn’t rely on trust; it relies on intrusive monitoring provisions, included at suspect sites, where timelines for access are short enough to prevent “break out” or “sneak out” from key limitations. Tehran may well abide by its obligations, which is at least as plausible a reason for accepting them as for its intention to violate them. But if Tehran accepted these provisions because it intends to cheat, President Obama and his successors will know about Iranian noncompliance in time to take remedial action – including military strikes, if needed. Sending U.S. pilots and other forces into harm’s way will, however, be a last resort. This option will remain in place after the terms of this deal lapse. As for Iran’s misbehavior in the region, the Obama Administration is taking many steps to shore up friends, especially Israel and the Gulf states, with military assistance. Subsequent administrations will do so, as well. Rather than engaging in wishful thinking, supporters of the deal make sound arguments that they have put in place prudent hedges against worst cases. Critics don’t argue with this hedging strategy; instead, they express doubt in presidential resolve.

Now let’s examine the underlying assumptions behind the push for a “better” deal. Will existing sanctions hold between the time this deal is torpedoed by the Congress and the advent of the next administration? Realistically speaking, sanctions will fray because the Congress will be in no position to hold the line against every other trading partner of Iran, all of whom support this deal. Will America’s negotiating partners agree on tougher constraints? All of them are telling the Congress that this is fantasy. Will the next U.S. president have the standing to negotiate better terms, the way that Ronald Reagan was able to secure deeper cuts in nuclear forces than the strategic arms limitations that Jimmy Carter negotiated?

Ronald Reagan got a better deal because he wanted deeper cuts, if not the total elimination of nuclear weapons in both the United States and the Soviet Union. In the Iran deal, the United States (and Israel) accept no nuclear constraints; all of the limitations are on Tehran. Besides, Ronald Reagan won’t win the next election. The next American president will have to operate in the same severely partisan circumstances as President Obama – except that he or she will have less standing because Republicans in Congress have sided with a hard-line government in Israel against every other state that supports this deal. An America that is diplomatically isolated will be in no position to negotiate a “better” deal.

Realistically speaking, the probability of sanctions eroding if Congress torpedoes this deal is greater than the prospect of tougher sanctions. Tehran has been willing to accept significant, long-term constraints on its enrichment program in return for the lifting of some sanctions. It won’t cry “uncle” as sanctions erode.

Sinking this deal is far more likely to result in no deal than a better deal. If Congress rejects this deal, if sanctions erode, and if Iran increases its enrichment capabilities – as opponents fully expect — an American president is left with basically two options. One option is to refrain from using military force. President Obama chose this option in Syria after Bashir al-Assad’s regime used Sarin against his own population. But President Obama secured the removal and demilitarization of nerve agents from Syria in return for not using force. An American president would not have the option of doing nothing if Iran blows by constraints that are not in force because the Congress has rejected this deal. Only the second option remains: to initiate another war in the Middle East to prevent another country from acquiring nuclear weapons.

Although backers of a “better” deal rarely say so, their fallback plan is the same as that of the deal’s supporters – the use of force. But there is a huge difference between making war against a country that violates the terms on an international agreement not to make nuclear weapons, and making war after rejecting an agreement could have avoided war in the first place. Nothing will weaken America’s standing in the world or exhaust its armed forces and treasury more than fighting a second, unnecessary war in the Middle East to prevent a state from acquiring nuclear weapons.

This deal provides an opportunity to prevent worst cases, while being prepared for them. Torpedoing this deal increases the odds of worst cases. This deal is not based on wishful thinking: it is based on close monitoring and international support, backed up by U.S. military power. Those who expect that a better deal will result from killing this one on Capitol Hill win the contest for wishful thinking.

Note to readers: A shorter version of this essay appeared in the September 3rd issue of Defense One.


The Stimson Center and the Carnegie Endowment published a 20,000-word essay on Pakistan’s nuclear program and diplomatic ambitions last week. My co-author Toby Dalton and I did not write this assessment to cause harm to Pakistan. We support Pakistan’s quest to be viewed as a normal state that possesses nuclear weapons, and we support Pakistan’s desire to gain entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group. We also agree with Pakistan’s view that the entry of new members that possess nuclear weapons ought to be criteria-based. Where we disagree with the Government of Pakistan – as well as the Government of India – is on the criteria to be met by new members.

It’s striking to us how little media coverage there is of the nuclear competition between Pakistan and India, compared to the nuclear programs of North Korea and Iran. We pay attention when firing across the DMZ on the Korean peninsula occurs for a day or two – and rightly so. Firing across the Kashmir divide now occurs every week. The trend line is up, which is worrisome.

We pay a great deal of attention about the possibility of Iran accumulating enough weapon-grade fissile material to build a bomb within a year or seven months – ten or fifteen years from now. In contrast, Pakistan has the capacity to manufacture around twenty warheads annually. This number, based on unclassified sources, could be somewhat less or more.

For the last seven years, there have been no concerted, sustained efforts by leaders in India and Pakistan to improve bilateral relations – not since the Lashkar-e-Toiba sent young recruits by boat to kill people in Mumbai. High-level diplomacy is dead in the water. A one-topic agenda for talks – terrorism – is bound to fail, as was evident by the recent disruption of a scheduled meeting between the national security advisers. All of the warning lights on the subcontinent are now blinking yellow. We are one major terror attack by the LeT or a like-minded group away from another nuclear-tinged crisis.

The nuclear competition on the subcontinent is very unusual. Pakistan faces grave economic and social challenges. It is deeply engaged in a military campaign along the Afghan border. And it is out-competing India, a country whose economy is about nine times larger, on several important nuclear weapon-related metrics. Pakistan appears to be producing annually around four times as much fissile material dedicated for weapon purposes as India. Pakistan has four plutonium production reactors in operation; India has one. Another might begin construction in perhaps two years. India appears to be producing around five warheads annually, compared to Pakistan’s 20. After a late start, Pakistan has caught up with India’s stockpile of nuclear weapons, and now appears to have exceeded it.

This differential will grow in the near-term unless New Delhi decides to sacrifice electricity for warheads. Pakistan has, in effect, decided to make this trade-off by investing in four plutonium production reactors instead of power plants. India’s leaders have so far been unwilling to accept this trade-off.

India is nonetheless competing, and competing seriously – albeit far below its capabilities. Like Pakistan, it has flight-tested many new nuclear-weapon-capable delivery vehicles. New Delhi has two big-ticket items – a new class of nuclear-powered submarines and a longer-range missile. Both are geared toward China, although the submarine will initially carry short-range missiles until longer-range ones are available.

India’s leaders might decide to pick up the pace of their end of the competition, but for now, they appear to remain committed to their stated nuclear doctrine of credible, minimum deterrence. We see no evidence that India is engaged in a nuclear arms race. Political leaders of both major parties view nuclear weapons as political, not militarily useful, instruments.

Pakistan’s military leaders view nuclear weapons differently. They take nuclear requirements very seriously, and they think hard about the use of nuclear weapons in the event deterrence fails. Since the U.S.-India civil nuclear agreement, which opens significant pathways for New Delhi to increase future fissile material production, Rawalpindi has adopted a nuclear posture of “full-spectrum” deterrence, which suggests greater requirements for nuclear weapons, including short-range missiles and perhaps other kinds of tactical nuclear weapons, as well as longer-range systems.

The stewards of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal have told us for many years that they are almost within sight of meeting their nuclear weapon requirements. But they continue to block negotiations on a fissile material cut-off treaty, and they have invested significant sums in plutonium production reactors of recent vintage. Kahuta continues to enrich uranium. We see no evidence, as yet, that Pakistan’s nuclear requirements are tailing off.

Arms competitions feed off of asymmetries, and the asymmetries in the Pakistan-India competition are extremely marked. India has to deal with two nuclear-armed neighbors; Pakistan plans against one. This asymmetry negates nuclear arms control as practiced during the Cold War. India has far greater potential to out-compete Pakistan, especially on fissile material for weapons, which is why Rawalpindi appears to be manufacturing more new warheads than any other country. Pakistan looks at India’s stocks of reactor-grade material, its breeder program, and it’s highly-enriched uranium program for naval nuclear propulsion, and sees bomb-making potential – even as it is out-producing India on fissile material dedicated for weapons by approximately four-to-one.

Pakistan is not now a normal state with nuclear weapons. It’s not normal for a state with a weak economy and pressing domestic needs to produce perhaps 20 warheads annually. Members of NSG, with the exception of China, are unlikely to view Pakistan’s quest for membership favorably under these circumstances. Even Beijing is likely to be unhappy with the pace of Pakistan’s new warhead production, which reportedly outpaces its own. China appears to have stopped producing fissile material dedicated for weapons before joining the NSG.

Toby and I argue that Pakistan will not be able to duplicate India’s path toward nuclear normalcy as it has neither the market nor the geopolitical clout that gained India the NSG’s stamp of approval on a civil-nuclear deal. Only China will sell power reactors to Pakistan on generous, concessionary terms.

To our way of thinking, only nuclear-weapon-related initiatives offer a chance for Pakistan’s quest to gain entry into the nuclear mainstream. We suggest five initiatives for consideration: pulling back from full-spectrum deterrence, especially requirements for short-range systems that raise significant concerns for nuclear safety and security and that can foil a homeland, conventional defense by Pakistan’s Army; reconsidering Pakistan’s veto on FMCT negotiations and fissile material requirements; separating civilian from military nuclear facilities; and signing the CTBT – but not ratifying it – before India. We suggest that a CTBT signature be accompanied by a statement that, in the event India tests, Pakistan would exercise the Treaty’s supreme national interest clause and resume testing, as well.

All of these steps would be extremely hard for Pakistan’s military and political leaders to accept – none more so than a CTBT signature without waiting for India. They would mark a significant departure from Pakistan’s long-standing policies and penchant for transactional bargaining. Pakistan will not, however, gain anything in trade because Pakistan is not amenable to trade: Requirements are set by Rawalpindi; unless Rawalpindi reassesses its requirements, our suggestions will fall on deaf ears. No political leader in Pakistan can make these decisions without the public support of Pakistan’s military leaders.

So why might our suggestions receive a thoughtful hearing? Why might some of them even be adopted over time? Because they would serve Pakistan’s national, social and economic security interests. Because more nuclear weapons do not translate into stronger deterrence. Because they would advance Pakistan’s quest to be viewed as a normal state possessing nuclear weapons. And they would change views of Pakistan, energize its diplomacy, and facilitate Pakistan’s entry into the NSG, while setting the criteria for India’s membership.


Reading Jalaladdin Rumi is a diversionary summer-vacation tactic to keep at arm’s length Congressional debate over the Iran deal, where arguments that are demonstrably weak are immune from rebuttal. Rumi knew a thing or two about the human condition – and ways to rise above it. So why not consult this Sufi mystic, born in Afghanistan in 1207, subsequently residing mostly in Anatolia, for counsel?

There are good reasons to be in favor of this deal and to be wary of it. But these reasons fail to explain why so few of America’s elected representatives will cross party lines to vote on an issue of this magnitude. No one has offered a feasible diplomatic plan to negotiate a “better” deal. And the military plans on offer involve short-term holding actions, immediate costs as well as long-term, negative consequences. Even so, the partisan divide is nearly impermeable.

When President John F. Kennedy lobbied the Senate to consent to ratify a treaty banning atmospheric nuclear testing in 1963, only eight Republican Senators voted in opposition. In contrast, President Barack Obama will face nearly a united Republican front against an agreement that is designed to constrain Iran’s ability to make a nuclear weapon for the next fifteen years.

The reasons for this vast shift over half a century in the Republican Party’s views toward nuclear arms control warrant a subsequent post and a dissertation or two. For now, what’s worth noting that the GOP’s opposition has extended beyond strategic arms reduction to a generalized hostility toward diplomacy as a mechanism to reduce proliferation dangers. If the Iran deal is rejected or undermined on partisan grounds, it’s hard to envision how other non-proliferation diplomatic initiatives – think of North Korea, at the outset – could pass muster on Capitol Hill. The intensity of opposition to the Iran deal is so great within Republican ranks that some are already taking aim at funding for the International Atomic Energy Agency, which will be responsible for monitoring the Iran deal.

So what counsel would a Sufi master have to offer when one of the two major parties in America has gone so off-kilter?

Here’s a sampler, courtesy of the translation and interpretation of Coleman Barks:

“Look how the caravan of civilization has been ambushed…

“The hard rain and wind
are ways the cloud has to take care of us.
Be patient…

“Ignore those that make you fearful
and sad, that degrade you
back toward disease and death…

“Constant, slow movement teaches us to keep working
like a small creek that stays clear
that doesn’t stagnate, but finds a way
through numerous details, deliberately…

“Mind does its fine-tuning hair-splitting,
But no craft or art begins
or can continue without a master
giving wisdom into it…

“Listen when I am out of control,
But don’t put anything breakable in my way…

“Your old life was a frantic running from silence.

“Your words are guesswork.
He speaks from experience.
There’s a huge difference.”

To read one who speaks from experience, I recommend Brent Scowcroft’s op-ed in the August 21st edition of the Washington Post.


One way to try to have an influence on South Asia’s nuclear future is to mentor rising talent. Thanks to the Stimson Center’s funders — the Carnegie Corporation, the MacArthur Foundation and the NNSA — we do workshops with this cohort, we’re planning our first open, online course on regional nuclear issues, and my colleague, Julia Thompson, has been overseeing a website, South Asian Voices, to foster civil discourse between Indian and Pakistani bloggers. They own the content; Stimson controls the server and filters out noise pollution. We also offer fellowships for outstanding bloggers so that they can work alongside each other as they get acquainted with Washington. Why should they only be familiar with dysfunction back home?

[Oh, snap! -Ed.]

I recently came across an old email trying to explain why Stimson has chosen this strategy to a colleague at Pakistan’s Strategic Plans Division at Joint Staff Headquarters in Rawalpindi. The SPD used to send Visiting Fellows to Stimson, but have stopped, for reasons that are unclear to me. I am reproducing my email below, verbatim.

Let me explain my teaching methods, and then I’ll circle back again to why Stimson is focusing on younger analysts for our programming initiatives.

I taught for ten years at the University of Virginia, which is close to where I live in Central Virginia. The student body of this school is rather privileged and conservative-leaning. I would occasionally find in my seminars the children of very high-ranking officials who were undermining or dismantling the treaties I had worked to construct. This was a challenge to my teaching philosophy. But I held to my philosophy, which is: do not teach people WHAT to think. Teach them HOW to think analytically. Learning doesn’t happen when you tell people what to think — memorization happens.

I have followed this philosophy with Visiting Fellows, as well. I challenge assumptions, I ask provocative questions, I ask for pros and cons, I ask for a rank ordering of pros and cons, etc. This is what I do as a teacher and a mentor. I tried to do this with you when you were at Stimson. This is how one grows intellectually, and how one’s students grow intellectually. You have the opportunity to help your students grow in this way, too.

Now, I wear an additional hat as co-founder of Stimson. I’ve worked on South Asia and traveled to the region for twenty years, and people ask me for my views. They expect me to have views. Foundations who give Stimson funding expect recommendations along with analysis. I wear this hat when giving talks outside the classroom, when writing op-eds, and in meetings with senior officials and military officers. But even while wearing this hat, I try my best not to lecture and not to be didactic. I try to make my case in ways that encourage a fresh look. I also try to listen more than I talk. I advise each new crop of Stimson interns, just as I used to advise my students, that you can’t learn while talking.

There are very few Visiting Fellowship opportunities in the US for Pakistanis. This is regrettable, but the truth of the matter is that there are precious few positions in our field for American citizens, as well. When given the choice between someone from Pakistan who has already had this opportunity and someone who hasn’t, to me, the choice is clear. My responsibility as a mentor is to widen the circle.

Now, I expect that many of the new people who are given this opportunity from Pakistan will think more like you than like me. As I’ve said, it’s not my job as a mentor to tell them what to think. It’s Stimson’s job to give every one of them a memorable educational experience, to challenge their assumptions, to have opportunities to learn and to meet with people that are unavailable to them in Pakistan, and to prod them to think analytically.

You seem to have survived this experience. They will, too.

Best wishes,


As numbers-based arms control wanes, norms become even more important. Norms can be clarified in Codes of Conduct or established by customary practice. The most important norm in our field is the non-use of nuclear weapons in combat.

Few expected this norm to exist after atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki – let alone to last for 70 years. As Nina Tannenwald has written in The Nuclear Taboo: The United States and the Non-Use of Nuclear Weapons Since 1945 (2007) “It is rare for a weapon found to be useful on one occasion to remain unused in the next.” And yet, this was the case during the Cuban Missile Crisis, as well as during the Korean, Vietnam, and Kargil wars. So far, the Bomb’s vast destructive powers have been confined by popular demand, wise decision-making, and divine intervention. Some would argue that deterrence also deserves credit for non-use, even though it has failed often enough. There’s some truth to this assertion, but nuclear weapons are more of a hindrance than a help in severe confrontations.

To my way of thinking, we’ve made it to the 70th anniversary of battlefield non-use in large measure because of the mental image we humans collectively hold of the mushroom cloud. Everything in the body of work that we call arms control is built on this collective fear — and the foundational norm that national leaders have adopted because of it.

The image of the mushroom cloud is so evocative that testing as well as battlefield use has been stigmatized, first in the atmosphere and later, after three decades of diplomatic effort, in all environments. The norm against testing, as with the norm against battlefield use, grows stronger with every passing year, even without the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty’s entry into force. Only one state in the 21st century disregards this norm, and even North Korea doesn’t dare test in the atmosphere. Still, as long as the Bomb exists, in numbers that defy logic other than the open-ended extrapolation of deterrence theory, the specter of the mushroom cloud hangs over us.

Everything we seek as well as everything that has been accomplished in nonproliferation, arms control, and disarmament hinges on this foundational norm. We might call this norm “No Third Use,” or “No Next Use,” or “No First Use.” They all amount to the same thing. The Humanitarian Pledge movement and getting to zero nuclear weapons both depend on No Third, No Next, and No First Use. Phased, time-bound reductions in strategic arsenals can be stopped in their tracks by the reappearance of a mushroom cloud. Regional security, the Non-Proliferation Treaty regime, and escalation control depend, above all, on No Third, No Next, and No First Use. So why isn’t there more focus on extending this norm in the most probable locales for norm-breaking? Why do we instead place so much effort on end states rather than on near-term circumstances that could trigger third, next, and first use?

My hunch is that the answer lies in part on an understandable human impulse to find mental refuge from the daunting list of problems that besiege us. We can find more refuge in thinking about end states than in working on hard problems of the here and now. Current events are unrelievedly troubling, with the exception of an Iran deal that the Republican Party is up in arms against. The perils of nuclear proliferation, safety, and security remain great. Vladimir Putin is a hard case. China is flexing its muscles at sea and in space. The brash, untested young leader of North Korea is a wild card. We focus on the possibility that Iran could have enough fissile material for one bomb fifteen years from now rather than the 20 warheads or so that Pakistan is producing annually. Then there’s an Indian government that will not engage Pakistan except on its own terms, ISIS, Ukraine, and a hard-right government in Israel that has embraced dead-end policies.

Faced with these real world messes, many resort to an excess of “shoulds,” freely advising those in the trenches on what “must” be done, immediately. Do this; do that. Sign up. Adhere to a timetable. Demonstrate leadership and political will. We all do this from time to time; some do it more than others. There is mental relief in dealing with complex problems by proposing neat and simple “shoulds.” These policy prescriptions amount to an effortless exercise in abstraction.

Almost everybody who works on reducing nuclear dangers or deterring nuclear war finds refuge in abstract reasoning. The nuclear deterrence business is built atop constructs that are as otherworldly as a world without nuclear weapons accomplished on a fixed timetable. Most of us cannot deal with the horrors of nuclear war except through mental abstraction.

There are notable exceptions. The hibakusha — survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki — reject abstract reasoning. So, too, do those in the trenches who are too busy for “shoulds,” including the unsung heroes who safeguarded massive stockpiles of warheads and fissile material after the Soviet Union dissolved and the IAEA inspectors who will be monitoring Iran’s nuclear capabilities.

Abstract reasoning and war planning go out the window if the foundational norm of non-use is broken and a third mushroom cloud appears on a battlefield. Then everyone will become mired in detail, scrambling, if there is time, to prevent a fourth. All it takes is one mushroom cloud to defeat abstract reasoning.

How might states react to a third use? George Quester’s conclusion in Nuclear First Strike: The Consequences of a Broken Taboo, (2005), was that it depends on context – ranging from mostly bad to unremittingly awful.

Let’s assume the appearance of just one more mushroom cloud. This might conceivably be a chastening experience, hastening reconciliation, non-proliferation, arms control, reduced stockpiles and improved nuclear safety and security. But think of the conditions that are required for any of these positive outcomes. A singular mushroom cloud would have to be the result on an accident, inadvertence, or unauthorized use. Or possibly a singular detonation would be purposeful, intended to signal an adversary to stop advancing. The singular mushroom cloud would have to have limited yield. It would need to be detonated on one’s own territory or at sea. Forensics and clarification would have to be accomplished quickly. Third parties would try to intervene, but likely at a distance, fearing prospective nuclear exchanges. And above all, escalation would have to be controlled.

These highly constrained and unique circumstances might possibly generate positive results. Positive outcomes would have to be quite significant to compensate for the breaking of the foundational norm upon which all arms control and nuclear threat reduction efforts rest. Now contemplate how many “ifs” are involved in realizing positive outcomes. Then multiply these “ifs” by the number of mushroom clouds. The Cuban Missile Crisis led to a positive outcome — the ban on atmospheric nuclear testing — because by the grace of God and wise decision-making, this crisis did not produce a mushroom cloud.

The most consequential norm of the Atomic Age is now 70 years old. Everything rides on its continuation.


The European Union’s International Code of Conduct for responsible space-faring nations got mugged on the Lower East Side during the week of July 27th. The crime, which went unreported, occurred at the United Nations. The ringleaders were Russia and China, who lined up support from Brazil, India, and South Africa (the BRICS), as well as the Non-Aligned Movement. Critics of the EU’s handiwork got what they wanted in New York: At the end of the conclave, the EU conceded the need to pursue “negotiations within the framework of the United Nations through a mandate of the General Assembly.”

This could have been an important moment for the UN. It’s not every day that diplomats have the opportunity to write benchmark rules of the road for a global commons. But Moscow, Beijing, and their NAM supporters were in no hurry to do so. Their opposition was anticipated due to longstanding concerns that the EU drafting process wasn’t inclusive enough.

On this issue, critics were exactly right. The EU was trying to spare the International Code the fate of the Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty, now languishing for almost two decades in the purgatory of the Conference of Disarmament, where the UN’s consensus rule applies.

The good news – for glass-half-full readers of ACW – is that there is now a clear consensus on the utility of an International Code of Conduct for outer space – an important shift from just a few years ago. The bad news is that there is no consensus on its scope or on a few key provisions. The arguments on offer against the International Code at the UN didn’t need to be persuasive, since their purpose was delay. And it could take a very long while for the UN to negotiate an International Code nearly as good as EU’s draft.

Russia and China argued at the UN that an International Code ought to confine itself to ‘peaceful’ uses of outer space, while expressing deep concerns about an arms race in space. Some NAM states, led by Brazil, reinforced this double-speak by suggesting that the Code be negotiated in the UN’s Committee for the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, whose mandate does not include military space-related issues.

Russia, China and some NAM states also expressed grave reservations about the International Code’s language reaffirming every country’s inherent national or collective right to self-defense. While this right is enshrined in the UN Charter, critics warned that its reaffirmation in this context would open a backdoor to the weaponization of space.

Capabilities for ASAT warfare have long existed but have not resulted in destroying or disabling another country’s satellites, even during the roughest patches during the Cold War. Why such uncommon restraint during the entirety of the Space Age? Because Moscow and Washington insisted on the right of self-defense and because they knew that warfare in space would not be confined to space.

The haphazard and inadvertent weaponization of space in the form of lethal debris is already far advanced. This clear and present danger received little sense of urgency from the assembled delegates. Instead, critics focused on purposeful, rather than unguided and indiscriminate anti-satellite weapons.

It was déjà vu all over again at the UN. The arguments used against the EU’s International Code reprised the old Soviet diplomatic playbook back when the the Nixon Administration demonstrated an interest in deploying ballistic missile defenses and again during the Reagan Administration’s pursuit of SDI. Moscow always tries to place constraints on U.S. military space programs through public diplomacy and negotiations. This time around, Moscow has Beijing’s company, as well as a good many NAM states.

Concerns over demonstrated space-warfare capabilities are entirely justified. As easily predicted, the Pentagon is in the process of clarifying that if Beijing and Moscow want to play with fire in space, it will be able to compete and compete effectively. But Washington is also willing to accept rules of the road for responsible space-faring nations that include transparency, confidence-building, and consultative measures. So far, Beijing and Moscow are not on board. Whether or not they join an International Code of Conduct, military space capabilities will advance. During this competition, it will be better for all major powers to accept rules of the road.

Russia’s and China’s preference has been a Treaty on Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space and of the Threat or Use of Force against Outer Space Objects (PPWT). This proposed Treaty, which lacks verification provisions and which does not address ground-based ASAT testing, is widely recognized as a hollow exercise in public diplomacy.

The UN conclave clarified that the playing ground has shifted away from the PPWT to an International Code. If Moscow and Beijing seek to meld the PPWT into negotiations on an International Code, diplomats getting paid by the hour have a bright future.

Military space programs are non-negotiable. The EU’s International Code does, however, include norms against how these capabilities shall be exercised: All states are enjoined not to engage in harmful interference, to respect the security, safety and integrity of space objects, as well as to refrain from actions that damage or destroy space objects. These norms, if respected, could put an end to “hit-to-kill” ASAT tests and provide other benchmarks for satellite protection.

The EU’s International Code notes three exceptions where damage and destruction of space objects could be justified: if human life or health is at risk, if deemed necessary in order to reduce space debris, and the aforementioned right of individual or collective self-defense. If states remain at loggerheads over this provision, a UN negotiating process can leave these essential norms stranded, waiting for the last passenger on the bus.

So, what to do in the face of delaying tactics? My suggestion is for supporters of the International Code drafted by the EU with help from outsiders to go ahead and informally set up an ad hoc body to begin implementing it — without prejudice to whatever might be negotiated in a UN channel operating under rules of consensus. If an even better International Code can be negotiated by consensus, that would be most welcome.

The argument for operating on two parallel tracks – ad hoc implementation of the EU’s International Code and ad hoc negotiation in a UN channel – is forthright: space deserves protective norms, and these norms will not be advanced by waiting for stragglers. There will always be stragglers, as is evident by the 16-year wait for China to sign up to the Outer Space Treaty. Stragglers that offer disingenuous arguments for not signing up to an International Code and that have very active space-warfare programs bear close scrutiny.

Ad hoc implementation of the International Code drafted by the EU could proceed in complete transparency, with open doors. Any country that wishes to observe or to engage in one or another activity called for by the International Code, such as workshops and consultations, would be free to do so. If, however, states that do not support the EU’s International Code act in ways to defeat its objectives and purposes, then Code-abiding states would be entirely free to take compensatory actions.

Over time, implementation of the International Code drafted by the EU will look better and better in comparison to an endless, fractious UN negotiation.


How much has the Republican Party on Capitol Hill lost its equilibrium? Just hear the histrionics about the Iran deal — a deal which has the unanimous support of the UN Security Council and every U.S. ally and friend around the world save one: the Government of Israel. A deal that prevents Iran from producing nuclear weapons for 10-15 years and perhaps much longer. And a deal that has no support among Republican leaders on Capitol Hill.

Instead, these leaders are in lock-step with Party insurgents. They’ve signed up rather than be overrun. Even the thoughtful Republican Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, has brought a harsh, new demeanor to these hearings.

Most Republicans will vote to torpedo the deal and can be expected to try repeatedly to block its implementation. Far too few are reserving judgment, engaging in fact-finding, genuinely hearing people out and weighing down-side risks. For all but seven Republican senators (now six, with Corker’s declaration at the outset of the hearings), certainty has come quickly. Very decent and highly capable people in the Obama Administration have tried their best to prevent Iran from getting the Bomb and the United States from fighting another unnecessary, preventive war in the Middle East. In return for their efforts they received invective. Denunciations flowed. Pithy, cutting quotes were at the ready. The auto-da-fé was teed up and the grandstand wasn’t disappointed.

The Kellogg-Briand Pact has gotten a pass. Naysayers, including Charles Krauthammer, are certain that this is the worst agreement ever negotiated. Krauthammer & Co. were equally certain about the need for a preventive war to rid Saddam Hussein of his weapons of mass destruction. Republican newcomers to Capitol Hill who weren’t present and voting for that historic mistake are leading the charge against the Iran deal. One is Freshman Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas, who has the brains (Harvard, Harvard Law) and combat experience (Afghanistan) to be wary of asking U.S. military forces to fight another preventive war in the Middle East.

Instead, Cotton rounded up all but the aforementioned seven Republican colleagues to send an open letter to the Mullahs seeking common cause to nix the deal. This is what passes for leadership these days in the Party whose Presidents forged strategic arms limitation agreements with the Soviet Union, broke the back of the superpower arms race, and opened doors to “Red” China.

Opponents of the deal, taking their cues from Benjamin Netanyahu, say that a “no” vote is not a vote for war. It’s a vote for a better deal. Right. And when a better deal is not forthcoming, when sanctions unravel, and when Tehran carries out activities that are banned by this agreement, then what? The choices are war or a climbdown – just as with Saddam Hussein.

Barack Obama was first elected president on a platform to bridge domestic divides. No longer. Partisanship is worse now than at any other time in U.S. history – even as U.S. forces remain in harm’s way. Is it any wonder why Obama chose to seal this deal as a political compact rather than a treaty? By going this route, and by announcing up front his intention to veto Congressional resolutions of disapproval, he has made reflexive Republican opposition to this deal easier. But had he not done so, would there have been more reflection and less reflexive opposition? Would there have been more serious contemplation about the costs of rejection? Or handing Netanyahu a veto over U.S. national security policy in the Middle East? I seriously doubt it.


A “free” vote on Capitol Hill is one without negative consequences. Republicans and Democrats can line up with party activists and showboat without risk because they will be unsuccessful. Hard decisions can be sidestepped and political posturing is easy when negative consequences are blocked by the U.S. Constitution’s separation of powers.

Republicans have proven to the party faithful their sincere opposition to Obamacare by voting against it over fifty times. They were free votes because opponents couldn’t override a Presidential veto. When conservative activists turned to the Courts, Chief Justice John Roberts bailed out Republicans from earning the wrath of millions of Americans left without coverage, facing steep and sudden rate increases. By voting against Obamacare and failing to kill it, Republicans can blame rate increases and public dissatisfaction with health care on the Democrats.

Democrats on Capitol Hill demonstrated their sincere opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact by voting against fast-tracking it, to the satisfaction of the energized, populist wing of their party. These votes didn’t entail the loss of export-related jobs to high hourly-wage countries because the White House was subsequently (and predictably) able to cobble together enough pro-trade Democrats to join most Republicans in reversing course.

Partisan divides on Capitol Hill have become the norm. The rest of the world can look on with bemusement at divisions over Obamacare and other domestic policy issues. But when partisan divides occur on national security issues, America’s friends are not amused and adversaries look for ways to take advantage. The debate on the Iran deal now taking shape is emblematic of what ails Washington. Opposition to the Iran deal, mostly along partisan lines, is sincerely held, but the issue here isn’t sincerity; it’s the herd instinct and the absence of better alternatives.

Voting in favor of an arms limitation agreement with an adversary is hard – even when, as in this case, the arms limitations are completely one-sided in Washington’s favor. Voting to demonstrate distrust of Iran is easy. It’s politically safe to oppose the lifting of sanctions and providing Tehran with a “windfall” as sanctions are lifted. The Revolutionary Guards and other retrogrades can be counted on to act reprehensibly – witness the incarceration of Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian – even if Tehran abides by the terms of the agreement. If Iran cheats at the margins or in significant ways, then “nay” votes will look even better. If, alternatively, the deal goes surprisingly well, voters will have forgotten this roll call ten years from now. (Extra credit goes to ACW readers who remember which Democrats voted against authorizing the George H.W. Bush administration’s spectacularly successful military campaign against Saddam Hussein.)

Votes against the Iran deal may be principled and cunning, but they aren’t free – even if those opposed to the deal fail to override a Presidential veto. They are not like votes on Obamacare and the Trans-Pacific Partnership. They have great consequence. As I wrote in an op-ed published by the Los Angeles Times, nothing would diminish U.S. global leadership, destabilize the Middle East, further exhaust American military forces, and weaken the U.S. Treasury more than the one-two punch of a war to rid Saddam of fictional WMD followed by undermining an agreement that effectively limits Iran’s all-too-real nuclear capabilities.

Republicans, with a few notable exceptions, are nonetheless herding and gearing up to oppose this deal. If they fail to override a Presidential veto, expect a long campaign to place roadblocks against implementation. Also count on a perpetual campaign to declare Iran in violation of ambiguous provisions. And count on efforts to re-institute sanctions lifted by Executive Order. Opponents can vote repeatedly against the deal without taking responsibility for its demise – unless they succeed.

If Tehran cheats egregiously and repeatedly, the deal’s failure and its consequences are on Tehran. If this deal unravels because hard-core opponents on Capitol Hill lay minefields blocking implementation, Tehran will be the principal beneficiary. If Republicans and Democrats aren’t on the same page for retaining some sanctions and lifting others, the world’s focus will be on Washington, not Tehran.

The United States will be the big loser if a Republican Presidential candidate wins in 2016 and follows through on his campaign pledge to walk away from the deal. In this event, don’t count on a unified front by the P5+1. Don’t count on tougher sanctions. Do count on Tehran to re-litigate its concessions – or to blow past them. Also count on proliferation concerns growing. They are manageable with this agreement and worse without it.

The skeptics have spent many months critiquing the Obama Administration. They will continue to do so for the next 60 days.This is the agreement we’ve got, and it’s surprisingly good. Implementation will be challenging, even if all parties are acting in good faith, not just because these constraints are entirely new and complicated, but because irreconcilables in Iran and the United States will favor its demise.