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The best definition of the “action-reaction” syndrome was provided by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara during a deeply conflicted speech before United Press International editors and publishers on September 18, 1967. McNamara used this occasion to rail against the nuclear arms race while endorsing a limited ballistic missile defense, ostensibly against China. [Aspiring wonks: to understand why McNamara would deliver a speech undermining his recommended course of action, check out Mort Halperin’s essay, “The Decision to Deploy the ABM: Bureaucratic and Domestic Politics in the Johnson Administration” in the October 1972 issue of World Politics.]

Here are the key passages:

There is a kind of mad momentum intrinsic to the development of all new nuclear weaponry. If a weapon system works – and works well – there is strong pressure from many directions to procure and deploy the weapon out of all proportion to the prudent level required…

What is essential to understand here is that the Soviet Union and the United States mutually influence one another’s strategic plans.

Whatever be their intentions, whatever be our intentions, actions – or even realistically potential actions – on either side relating to the build-up of nuclear forces, be they either offensive or defensive weapons, necessarily trigger reactions on the other side.

It is precisely this action-reaction phenomenon that fuels an arms race.

McNamara didn’t hold these views when he began his long stint at the Pentagon. Here’s a partial transcript of a private conversation with President John F. Kennedy on December 5, 1962:

McNamara: I think that there are many uncertainties in all of these estimates [of nuclear requirements]. And I would say that my recommendation to you on our strategic forces is to take that requirement and double it and buy it. Because I don’t believe we can, under any circumstances, run the risk of having too few here. So I, in my own mind, I just say, ‘Well, we ought to buy twice what any reasonable person would say is required for strategic forces.’ I think that’s money well spent.

Kennedy: Will it deter?

McNamara: It’s both – it’s principally to deter. And it’s also to give ourselves the confidence that we have that deterrent power…

McNamara became worn down by many cares, including his inability to dampen the Air Force’s, Navy’s and Army’s postulated requirements for nuclear weapons. Arms controllers shared his concerns about the action-reaction syndrome, which lent impetus to campaigns against MIRVs and ballistic missile defense deployments. As MIT’s George Rathjens, who served on defense science panels, wrote in Scientific American in 1969, “Reduction in uncertainty about adversarial intentions and capabilities is a sine qua non to curtailing the arms race.” Rathjens wanted to “somehow break… the action-reaction chains that seem to drive the arms race.” After retiring from active service, some prominent military officers joined this chorus. In 1974, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Maxwell D. Taylor wrote in Foreign Affairs, “Any increase in any kind of strategic weapon stimulates the Soviets to emulation and fuels the arms race.”

No-one stumped harder against the action-reaction syndrome than Paul Warnke, who would become President Jimmy Carter’s Director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency and SALT II negotiator. Warnke wrote that,

“The risk is … that we spend too much and build too much and end up with not greater but less true national security. The acquisition of unnecessary strategic systems to gain bargaining strength in negotiations with the Soviet Union will mean only a comparable response from the other side and a conversion of the arms limitation talks into a spur to the arms race rather than a medium for reciprocal restraint.”

Deterrence strategists were greatly alarmed by Warnke’s dual appointments and chafed at McNamara’s formulation. Albert Wohlstetter thundered that the action-reaction syndrome was a “portentous tautology” in a 1974 Foreign Policy essay. Warnke’s rebuttal didn’t help his confirmation when Foreign Policy’s editors, borrowing his phraseology, titled the essay “Apes on a Treadmill.” Harold Brown, President Carter’s Secretary of Defense and a supporter of strategic arms control, held a sadder and wiser view: “When we build up, the Soviets build up; when we slow down, the Soviets build up.”

The action-reaction syndrome was a staple of the superpower nuclear competition. It was especially pronounced when MIRV and BMD technologies were maturing in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and later when new types of intermediate-range missiles made their appearance in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Asymmetries in force structure and different time lines for the roll out of new capabilities ensured compensatory steps.

Washington and Moscow weren’t always in lockstep, but they always competed. Even caustic critics like Wohlstetter acknowledged this. His complaint, widely shared by arms control skeptics, was that the United States wasn’t competing strenuously enough.


Norms are standards of proper or acceptable behavior. They establish expectations and clarify misbehavior, thereby helping to isolate, limit, and sanction bad behavior. Without norms, there are no norm-breakers. They can be codified in treaties and other legal instruments, or they can be less formal, such as those embedded in international codes of conduct. When less-formal norms become customary international practice, they gain standing in international law.

Norms can be particularly helpful when they encourage transparency, because transparency measures can lead to important negotiating breakthroughs. Extraordinary treaties that drastically reduced nuclear forces between the United States and the Soviet Union were enabled by a slightly regarded, multilateral agreement in 1983 in which the Kremlin permitted foreign observers to attend conventional military exercises.

Not everyone will sign up to norms right away, and there will always be outliers. Even so, norms can discourage unwanted behavior, even by holdouts — but not for die-hard outliers. The speed and effectiveness of norm building depends on the attitudes and actions of major powers, not outliers. The most reluctant major power is usually China.

Norms relating to nuclear weapons have been well established. The most important norm since 1945 has been against the use of mushroom clouds on battlefields. Another important norm has been against atmospheric nuclear testing. The superpowers stopped doing this 1963; China didn’t sign up to this norm until 1980. The cessation of underground nuclear tests is becoming a norm, even though the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty hasn’t entered into force. The Soviet Union stopped testing underground in 1989, followed by the United States and Great Britain in 1992, then France and China in 1996. India and Pakistan haven’t signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and tested in 1998, but not since. That leaves only one outlier — North Korea.

The 1967 Outer Space Treaty began to codify norms, such as the obligation not to place weapons of mass destruction in this domain. The Outer Space Treaty also gained important adherents over time. France didn’t sign up until 1970, West Germany in 1971, India in 1982, and China in 1983.

The Outer Space Treaty predated and didn’t tackle problems of debris, harmful interference and traffic management in this domain. For space to be sustainable for military, intelligence, commercial, scientific and exploratory purposes, norms governing debris, harmful interference and traffic management will have to be established or strengthened.

Some in the United States assume that U.S. adversaries will disregard norms and that rules of the road for space will hamstring U.S. responses. Their preference for freedom of action is understandable, but paradoxically at odds with U.S. national security and commercial interests in space. A free-for-all in space would impair everything the United States has gained and stands to gain in this domain. Freedom of action to engage in certain types of bad behavior — such as anti-satellite (ASAT) tests that generate long-lasting, lethal space debris — can ruin space for everyone.

Because norms can’t be taken for granted, the United States has to have insurance policies against those who behave irresponsibly in space. No spacefaring nation has more retaliatory options to choose from than the United States — and not just in space. The ability to retaliate helps to deter norm breakers. The denial of gain by norm breakers also helps to deter. Having resilient capabilities for space operations is therefore essential.

There are three ways to proceed to set norms in space:

  • An ambitious treaty that seeks to prevent the placement of weapons and the threat or use of force in outer space.
  • A narrow treaty banning the worst and most verifiable kinds of ASAT tests — those that generate long-lasting, mutating debris clouds.
  • A norm-setting international code of conduct.


The second and third options are not mutually exclusive.

Russia and China have proposed the first approach, offering a revised treaty draft in June. This initiative does not address the needs of norm building relating to debris, harmful interference and space traffic management. Nor does it address ground-based ASAT capabilities or inherently ambiguous technologies that can be used for military as well as peaceful purposes. A space weapon in their draft treaty is defined in the eye of the observer, and there are no verification provisions.

The Russian and Chinese draft treaty is not a serious diplomatic initiative; it’s a dodge. China has the world’s most active, unacknowledged ASAT testing program and is allergic to transparency measures; Russia is playing catch-up in space.

The second option — a ban on “hit-to-kill” ASAT tests that generate long-lasting debris — would be useful and verifiable. While any steps that prevent new debris fields would be welcome, this initiative focuses on only one norm and could take a long time to negotiate. Russia and China will likely seek to merge their draft treaty with an ASAT test ban in order to buy time while they move forward with ASAT programs under the guise of missile defense testing. The U.S. Senate’s consent to ratification of a narrow ASAT treaty may not be forthcoming.

The third option is, by far, the best. The European Union has been drafting an international code of conduct that sets strong norms relating to debris and harmful interference. The former would address hit-to-kill ASAT tests that generate long-lasting debris. The draft International Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities sets up consultative and information-sharing mechanisms that can pave the way for traffic management-related practices and norms. The EU has consulted broadly with other states, and will unveil a new version of a draft international code in the coming months. The United States and other spacefaring nations are supportive of the EU’s handiwork, but there will be important stragglers.

Beijing and Moscow have agreed in principle to the notion of an international code, but both are reluctant to sign up to this one. New Delhi has no substantive problems with the EU’s draft code and has a history of responsible behavior in space — but India has difficulty joining codes of conduct. Brazil and some other nonaligned states prefer the startup of negotiations on an ambitious treaty.

What to do? Capitals can choose to take concrete steps to create and strengthen norms for responsible spacefaring nations, or wait for stragglers. Two stragglers are crucial — Russia and China. They are likely to sign up, but not right away. Will moving forward with a code of conduct for space quicken their adherence, or retard it?

In my view, the longer responsible spacefaring nations wait to define norms, the more harm will be done to the space environment. Beijing and Moscow will join the code just as they joined the ban on nuclear testing — after meeting minimum military requirements and after being embarrassed by not being part of an emerging consensus.

I recommend the following course of action: It’s time to call the roll on the international code of conduct for space this fall at the United Nations, followed by a signing ceremony. Begin regular consultations and information sharing, as the code calls for, inviting non-signatories to lend a hand with the build-out. All major construction projects relating to space now proceed in stages. It’s crucial to get the design right at the front end, and the EU’s diplomatic initiative does this admirably well.

It’s time to get to work. Norm setting against dangerous military practices in space will not be helped by waiting for stragglers. The United States plans to adhere to the code of conduct’s provisions whether or not China and Russia sign up. A signing ceremony will hasten the day when they join.

Note to readers: This essay appeared in the September 8, 2014 issue of Space News.


Arms control has boom-and-bust cycles. We’re now going through very tough times. They remind me of the Carter administration. As Yogi Berra has said, it feels like déjà vu all over again – only Obama’s challenges are more severe. This time, instead of a sclerotic Kremlin leadership bungling into Afghanistan – the graveyard of great power follies – Obama faces a brazen Kremlin leader who seeks to upend the post-Cold War order on NATO’s doorstep.

In tough times, it’s good to remember this timeline: eight years after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev signed the INF Treaty. I don’t expect another reversal of this magnitude in my lifetime, but I do expect U.S.-Russian relations to stabilize eventually. The challenge now is to respond effectively to adversity, to reassure friends and allies, to minimize losses, and to position ourselves for future gains.

President Carter was as committed to reducing nuclear dangers as President Obama. In both cases, their ambitions were whittled down by domestic constraints and a deteriorating international environment. In my view, Carter was more ambitious than Obama. This is what he said about a world without nuclear weapons in his inaugural address:

The world is still engaged in a massive armaments race designed to ensure continuing equivalent strength among potential adversaries. We pledge perseverance and wisdom in our efforts to limit the world’s armaments to those necessary for each nation’s own domestic safety. And we will move this year a step toward our ultimate goal–the elimination of all nuclear weapons from this Earth. We urge all other people to join us, for success can mean life instead of death.

Carter tried to cap the strategic arms race, sought to negotiate a comprehensive test ban and pursued arms control in space. Obama has offered only passing references to ratifying the CTBT and contracted out an international code of conduct for space to the European Union.

Obama spoke eloquently about a world without nuclear weapons in Prague, with the appropriate caveats. He then focused on securing a verifiable regime for deeper strategic arms reductions. Carter convinced the Senate to consent to the ratification of the Panama Canal treaties and was then stymied on SALT II. Obama managed ratification of New START, after which he was caught between the rock of Vladimir Putin and the hard place of Senate Republicans.

Both Presidents were confronted with the Kremlin’s use of force across international borders. Carter began the program of covert assistance to the “mujahedeen,” which was ramped up considerably during the Reagan administration. Obama is now contemplating what more is needed to help the Government of Ukraine.

Obama’s strategic instincts are to clean up inherited messes, to not swing for the fences in complex circumstances, to settle for singles and doubles, and above all, to avoid stupid, costly mistakes. Obama’s caution abroad — with the exception of a risky decision to employ Special Forces in Pakistan to hunt down Osama bin Laden — is understandable after a presidency of painfully excessive reactions. But an excess of caution when negative events snowball turns virtue into liability. Obama is now faced with hard choices as his batting average drops.

According to William Manchester, President John F. Kennedy sent 400 Green Berets to South Vietnam after telling his inner circle, “We have a problem making our power credible and Vietnam looks like the place.” Obama now has to decide how to make U.S. power credible in Ukraine and elsewhere around Russia’s periphery, as well as in the Middle East, without making a mistake like JFK’s.

Of those who now question Obama’s steel, the most important are Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping. Just as Nikita Khrushchev took the measure of JFK at Vienna in 1961 and discerned a President who could be pushed around, Putin seems to have concluded that the door is open to carving out a protectorate for Russian-speaking people, real and imagined, in southeastern Ukraine. In my view, Ukraine deserves more help than tougher sanctions to counter Putin’s moves. Xi Jinping will be watching this high-stakes contest to figure out his next steps in the South and East China seas. China, like Russia and the United States, is also ramping up its military capabilities in space.

Arms control always rides in the back seat of geopolitics. A strenuous response to Putin’s adventurism will have negative repercussions on arms control for the near term. The absence of a strenuous response will have negative repercussions over the long haul. Successful outcomes depend on cooperation among major powers and U.S. leadership which, in turn, depends on bipartisan support and a willingness to take risks. Leadership without followership leads nowhere; followership is coaxed by leveraging others to make stabilizing choices and dissuading them from dangerous ones. The Obama administration has not had the benefit of bipartisan support and hasn’t done well in leveraging desired outcomes.

Large geopolitical challenges are but the leading edge of systemic weaknesses in the nuclear order. U.S. leadership at the 2015 NPT Review Conference has been harmed because Senate Republicans, in their obduracy in all things hinting of arms control, have yet to confirm the U.S. Ambassador. Avoiding further damage depends on enough stakeholders having the wisdom not to rock a boat that is leaking. The process of strategic arms reduction will probably be stalled for longer than advocates care to admit, and the pursuit of abolition at a time when major powers are either at loggerheads or testing each other becomes surrealistic.

Other regional crucibles are heating up. The young leader of North Korea is ambitious and seems to be disregarding Beijing’s messages. A nuclear deal with Iran could be losing ground to patchwork fixes. The prelims are underway for another nuclear-tinged crisis on the subcontinent, even as Pakistan’s civilian government faces extraordinary challenges. Secretary of State John Kerry has his hands full and Obama is without persuasive emissaries to deal with new crises.

Under these circumstances, preserving as much as possible of the arms control infrastructure becomes a sound baseline strategy. I’ve written previously about moving forward with provisional application of the CTBT’s monitoring regime while awaiting entry into force. Time can be well spent trying to forge norms with China for responsible behavior in space and at sea. And as President Obama shores up Ukraine and reassures friends and allies, he would be wise to bring new firefighters aboard who have standing on both sides of the aisle.


Our nuclear future would take a significant turn for the worse if Beijing and New Delhi begin to mimic Cold War thinking about the utility of nuclear weapons. So far, they haven’t. New Delhi waited 24 years in between nuclear tests, and Beijing took about as long to begin sea trials of second-generation ballistic missile-carrying submarines. Both have issued “No First Use” declarations, focused on economic metrics of national influence, and generally dealt with nuclear deterrence in ways that are hard for Washington and Moscow to comprehend. Their parallel nuclear postures are all the more remarkable because they have fought a limited war over a longstanding border dispute. Can the uncommon strategic constraint of these two rising powers continue? Important tests lie ahead, like those facing Washington and Moscow in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

One test will be whether China, and then India decide to place multiple warheads atop their new long-range ballistic missiles. Given the small number of nuclear powered SSBNs China plans to build, the small number of ballistic missiles they can carry, and concerns about the effectiveness of U.S. anti-submarine warfare capabilities, it would not be surprising if Beijing moved toward multiple maneuverable or independently-targetable warheads at sea. And if at sea, then perhaps on land. With more warheads, plus improved guidance capabilities, counterforce options could become more interesting. A second test is whether China and India will go beyond technology demonstrations toward limited ballistic missile defense deployments.

China and India appear to be in no hurry to resolve their border dispute, with the occasional Chinese patrol setting up camp on the Indian side of their disputed border. Overlapping interests could produce friction elsewhere, particularly at sea. Competitive sparks would not be new. At every crucial juncture in the past – after their border war in 1962, after China tested atomic and hydrogen bombs in 1964 and 1967, after New Delhi acquired nuclear weapon capabilities in the late 1980s, and in 1998, when it tested these devices – India and China adopted a level of forbearance that would have been inconceivable to U.S. and Soviet strategic planners. The Asian way has been different: so far, Beijing and New Delhi have managed to steer clear of the Bomb’s siren song, sung in the key of prompt counterforce capabilities.

Nuclear restraint between Asia’s rising powers will be tested in the coming decade. How much of the “Asian way” can be sustained with advancing warhead designs and ballistic missile defense technologies? How much will Beijing and New Delhi gear up the pace of their nuclear competition, with spill-over effects on Pakistan? An accelerated competition between China and India would also reinforce the reluctance of Moscow and Washington to further reduce their nuclear forces.

Much is riding on the resilience of Beijing’s and New Delhi’s uncommon strategic restraint.


Original Caption: “Professor Bernard Brodie conducting a class.” September 1946. Walter Sanders, photographer.

It’s been awhile since I’ve steered aspiring wonks and ACW readers to the virtues of reading Bernard Brodie’s first take about the Bomb. Brodie made some incorrect predictions, but on the whole, nobody was more prescient about the nuclear future, and no-one wrote more gracefully about nuclear dilemmas. Brodie used the word “deter” before it became common parlance. Check out his essays in in The Absolute Weapon (1946), from which these quotes are taken:

“Most of those who have held the public ear on the subject of the atomic bomb have been content to assume that war and obliteration are now completely synonymous, and that modern man must therefore be obsolete or fully ripe for the millennium… But in view of man’s historically-tested resistance to dramatic changes in behavior, especially in a benign direction, one may be pardoned for wishing to examine the various possibilities inherent in the situation before taking one of them for granted.”

“Men have in fact been converted to religion at the point of the sword, but the process generally required actual use of the sword against recalcitrant individuals. The atomic bomb does not lend itself to that kind of discriminate use.”

“If the atomic bomb can be used without fear of substantial retaliation in kind, it will clearly encourage aggression. So much the more reason, therefore, to take all possible steps to assure… that the aggressor who uses the bomb will have it used against him… Thus, the first and most vital step in any American security program for the age of atomic bombs is to take measures to guarantee to ourselves in case of attack the possibility of retaliation in kind.”

“The bomb may act as a powerful deterrent to direct aggression against great powers without preventing the political crises out of which wars generally develop.”

“There is no reason to suppose that a nation which has made reasonable preparations for war with atomic bombs would inevitably be in a mood to surrender after suffering the first blow.”

“A nation which is well girded for its own defense as is reasonably possible is not a tempting target to an aggressor. Such a nation is therefore better able to pursue actively that progressive improvement in world affairs by which alone it finds its true security.”


Gray-haired readers of ACW will remember when the acronym RSVP was treaty-related. During the first term of the Reagan administration, arms-control opponents compiled a long list of the Kremlin’s treaty violations and circumventions, real or imagined. They then commissioned studies on how to respond. RSVP became shorthand for Responding to Soviet Violations Policy.

The question arises once again after the Obama administration’s finding that the Kremlin has violated the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty. There has been no shortage of suggestions how to respond.

Let’s start with the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page:

One apt response would be to withdraw from New Start. Russia was already below the limits in this treaty on strategic nuclear weapons and launchers, obliging only the U.S. to reduce its stockpiles. The White House should also restore the ground-based missile-defense interceptors that it abandoned in 2009 in a misguided attempt to appease the Kremlin.

The Reagan administration didn’t take this advice. Rather than junking the unratified SALT II Treaty, it abided by Treaty limits until in a position to breach them.

Friend of ACW and year-end contest judge Tom Nichols, writing in the National Interest, has a different idea:

The West should emphasize what the Russians fear most: NATO’s considerable conventional edge. Washington should accelerate the halting steps we’ve taken since the invasion of Ukraine and the seizure of Crimea, and work with our NATO partners to build up stronger conventional forces in Europe. If the Russians are keeping nuclear arms as insurance against losing a conventional war, it’s only because they still think they have some kind of a shot a conventional fight in the first place. We can close that loophole, and must, soon.

James Acton of the Carnegie Endowment — in the same publication — would tighten this aperture significantly:

The United States is currently developing a new cruise-missile detection system known as JLENS, which consists of tethered airships carrying radars. Although it may sound oddly old-fashioned, it’s a clever idea because airships can be based at a high altitude for prolonged periods and can monitor large areas on a full-time basis. Plans to test this system in Maryland are currently in jeopardy because the House of Representatives is seeking to reduce its funding significantly. This presents the Obama administration with an opportunity. Washington should now announce revamped plans to conduct the JLENS test in the territory of an Eastern European ally if Russia does not take corrective actions in, say, six months.

Steven Pifer of Brookings has called for diplomatic initiatives as well as the following:

The Pentagon could consider devoting a small budget to a feasibility study on possible new U.S. intermediate-range missiles. Given budget pressures and the current lack of a defined priority military requirement, there would be little sense in proceeding to develop or acquire such missiles. However, the prospect of a future Pershing III or advanced ground-launched cruise missile might get Russia’s attention and remind Moscow of the value of the INF Treaty.

Last but certainly not least, ACW Founding Father Jeffrey Lewis, in this instance at Foreign Policy, has offered the following:

This is a political challenge that requires a political response. NATO must assure its new members that Russia’s nuclear forces will not deter Western Europe from meeting its security commitments to the former Warsaw Pact states now sheltering under the North Atlantic Alliance… If this is a political problem more than a military one, NATO must ensure its response will strengthen the political cohesion of the alliance, not break it apart.

Here are my suggestions, for what they’re worth: First, the Senate could usefully underline its concerns over Russian noncompliance by confirming Frank Rose to be Assistant Secretary of State for Verification and Compliance. He was nominated for this post by President Obama more than a year ago. By refusing to act on his nomination, Senate Republicans leave themselves in the awkward position of arguing that Russian noncompliance matters greatly, but not so much as to help the administration prosecute this case.

Second, exiting the Treaty doesn’t make sense, for reasons that many have already stated. If Putin wants to go first, let him burn a few more bridges to Europe. We have no good reason to precede him. Nor do I think it’s wise to respond in kind to Russian violations. New land-based, intermediate-range, ground-launched missile programs will be costly to build, take time to deploy, and offer Moscow wedge-splitting opportunities with respect to forward basing. Why go there?

In my view, narrow technical rejoinders won’t get the job done, either. As Jeffrey has argued, Russia’s INF violation poses a political challenge, not a technical or military one. If the flight-testing of an INF-prohibited system — and subsequent deployments – is about leveraging Russia’s neighbors and NATO partners, the most useful U.S. counters would reassure those under pressure. U.S. nuclear-related responses will not be reassuring. Other options will have more military and political utility.

Therefore, I suggest the following guidelines for suitable rejoinders, in addition to diplomatic efforts to reinforce INF Treaty provisions:

  1. Steps that reaffirm U.S. commitments to friends and allies.
  2. Steps that do not further undermine the objects and purposes of a treaty Washington would like Moscow to stop disrespecting.
  3. Steps that would not be very hard politically, financially, and technically to implement.
  4. Steps that Washington could make a point of implementing right away.
  5. Steps that could be adjusted, upwards and downwards, depending on Putin’s subsequent moves. If he decides to continue to undermine the INF Treaty’s objects and purposes by flight-testing and then deploying INF-prohibited weapon systems, the United States could continue to ramp up rejoinders. If he shifts course in a positive direction, Washington could dial back.

And what might these rejoinders be? Ramping up steps that the Obama administration has already begun, including port visits by U.S. Naval vessels, some equipped with sea-launched cruise missiles; visits by U.S. Air Force planes, including those equipped with air-launched cruise missiles; increasing the tempo and size of combined military exercises; increasing the scope, size and tempo of U.S. training missions; cooperating with friends and allies on Open Skies cooperative aerial monitoring flights; and accelerating plans for forward-based missile defenses. Existing plans could be expanded if Putin continues on his present course.


This summer, I’ve been thinking and writing about the delusional, aspirational notion of deterrence stability between antagonistic nuclear-armed states. For the short form of my argument, see my essay in Dawn. The long form will be part of a second collection of essays on deterrence stability and escalation control to be published by the Stimson Center.

Deterrence stability between nuclear-armed states works just fine when they have nothing to fight about. When, on the other hand, states acquire nuclear weapons because of serious friction, the quest for deterrence stability is chimerical. Conceptualizers of deterrence stability predicated that the mutual acquisition of secure, second-strike capabilities would be the precondition of success. The United States and Soviet Union met this requirement early on – and kept going. The more they competed, the less secure they felt, regardless of overkill capabilities.

I think there’s still a reasonable chance that India and China will avoid repeating on a smaller scale the mistakes made by the United States and the Soviet Union. If, however, these two rising powers embrace MIRVs and counterforce targeting, negative ramifications will spread well beyond southern Asia. More on this in another post.

At present, the clearest manifestation of the chimerical pursuit of deterrence stability is between Pakistan and India. Both are in the process of achieving secure, second strike capabilities – if they haven’t already gotten there – but their competition isn’t winding down.

Writing projects are an occasion to let my fingers to do the walking through old 4X6 cards in shoeboxes to find quotes stashed away and long forgotten. Younger wonks: The reference here is to the “Yellow Pages” — a fat book of alphabetical business listings on flimsy yellow paper. Mad Men encouraged us to use this relic of the Analog Age with a long-running advertising campaign to let our fingers do the walking until we found the right page. We also let our fingers do the walking looking for books in card catalogues at the library.

Here’s a sampling of dusty quotes on 4×6 cards on the nuclear competition on the subcontinent:

“You can proclaim to the whole world without hesitation that I am beyond repair. I regard the employment of the atomic bomb for the wholesale destruction of men, women and children as the most diabolical use of science.” — Mahatma Gandhi in Harijan, July 7, 1946.

“We must protect our integrity, but our missiles must not be targeted against the people of India, with whom Pakistan has no enmity. Our culture and our traditions demand that we refrain from making cities and civil population as targets. We must only aim at nuclear installations and military installations, if at all that eventually is thrust on Pakistan.” – editorial in The Muslim (Pakistan), June 1, 1998.

“For India to initiate a nuclear attack in the subcontinent would be a betrayal of the human spirit.” — Raja Ramanna, a key figure in India’s nuclear weapons program, cited by K. Subrahmanyam in the Economic Times, May 26, 1993

“More is unnecessary if less is enough.” – General K. Sundarji, one of the founding fathers of India’s nuclear posture

“India will not engage in any arms race. We shall not, therefore, pursue an open-ended program.” – Jaswant Singh, then India’s Minister of External Affairs, December, 1999.

“If the safety and security of the nation require deployment of conventional and non-conventional weapons on the border, the Government will not hesitate to do so.” – Salman Khursheed, then India’s Minister of State for External Affairs, September, 1994.

“India may be a billion-plus nation with six times Pakistan’s GNP, but in the prevalent nuclear environment, such superiority is meaningless. Therefore, the Indian leadership should face reality and accept Pakistan as an equal.” — Lt. Gen. Javed Nasir, former Director General of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence, in The News, September 7, 2000.

“Our deterrence strategy is defensive. We have no design to go and attack the enemy. But if we are attacked we are going to be offensive in defending ourselves.” – Pervez Musharraf, then President and Chief of Army Staff, at the commissioning of an Agosta-class submarine, December, 2003.


Pakistan is ramping up fissile material production capabilities for military purposes while vetoing a fissile material cut-off treaty negotiation at the Conference on Disarmament. India is also increasing production capacity, but the FMCT’s problems extend well beyond these two states. Non-aligned members at the CD believe a cut-off treaty isn’t ambitious enough, and it’s hard to gin up much enthusiasm from Russia and China.

There is, however, some forward movement. Useful discussions have begun in March in a newly-convened Group of Governmental Experts chaired by Canada. India has a seat at this table. Pakistan, which voted against the establishment of the GGE, is not among its 25 members. Pakistan has now felt obliged to engage more substantively on these issues in parallel, informal discussions at the CD. For the first time ever, two diplomatic channels are wrestling with the challenges of dealing with fissile material production for weapons.

Pakistan has long held the view that existing stocks should be covered under a treaty – hence its use of the acronym FMT, as opposed to FMCT, to broaden the agreement’s scope. Pakistan’s veteran Ambassador to the CD, Zamir Akram, argues for an expanded scope “because of the asymmetry existing in our region – that has been compounded by the discriminatory civil nuclear cooperation agreements and NSG waivers.” The object of Pakistan’s nuclear diplomacy is to constrain India’s nuclear capabilities without placing any constraints on its existing stocks. Failing this unlikely outcome, Rawalpindi has sought, so far successfully, to compete effectively with Indian nuclear weapon capabilities.

The utility of serious discussions on fissile material was demonstrated at the CD on June 5th, when Ambassador Akram clarified Pakistan’s stance regarding how to deal with existing stocks:

“We propose that this weaponized fissile material may not be touched by the treaty, and be dealt with in the future Convention on Nuclear Disarmament.

“[Regarding] fissile material that has not been weaponized as yet, but set aside either for new warheads or for the replacement and refurbishment of existing warheads, [including] irradiated fuel and reactor-grade separated plutonium produced from any unsafeguarded reactor – military or otherwise, [w]e propose that this non-weaponized fissile material should be brought under the verification coverage of the treaty and placed under safeguards to ensure its non-diversion for nuclear weapons manufacturing. The transfer of this material to safeguarded civil and non-proscribed military use may be permitted… A second option would be to reduce this sub-category of fissile materials to the lowest possible levels necessary for the safe maintenance of nuclear arsenals through mutual and balanced reductions on a regional or global basis.

…Material assigned for nuclear weapons including the fissile material released from retired warheads and those in the dismantlement queue, including such material that is already in waste disposal sites… should also be brought under safeguards in accordance with the principle of irreversibility to preclude its re-weaponization. Its transfer to safeguarded civil and non-proscribed military use would be permitted.

“…[As for] fissile material not assigned for nuclear weapons [e.g.,] material designated for civil purposes; excess material for military purposes; and material for non-proscribed military activities like naval propulsion etc., we propose that each of these three sub-categories of fissile material should be brought under safeguards – both the future and past production – to ensure their exclusive use for non-prohibited purposes only. Leaving the past production of these types of material outside of safeguards would provide a potential source for thousands of nuclear weapons.

These are useful distinctions that can be discussed in detail, but none of the other states possessing nuclear weapons will accept Pakistan’s positions that fence off its own previous production while capturing the stocks of others or incentivizing the weaponization of existing stocks. Pakistan cannot hold its own against an economic powerhouse like India if New Delhi decides to crank up fissile material production for military purposes. So why would Pakistan insist on provisions that would only extend the timeline for an FMCT during which it could fall increasingly behind India?

One possible reason is that Pakistan’s nuclear stewards feel relatively comfortable about the nuclear competition, at least in the near-term. When Pakistan feels more concerned about its relative position, or when it feels it has sufficient stocks, it will change its stance on the FMCT. Another possibility is that Pakistan truly believes its worst case scenario, in which India’s eight unsafeguarded nuclear power plants are applied to bomb-making instead of electricity and that India’s fast-breeder reactors will somehow operate far more efficiently than those in the United States, Russia, Japan, France, Germany and the United Kingdom.

There are now diplomatic fora to unpack and discuss these assumptions, including Pakistan’s worst case, which is completely over the top. In the meantime, progress will remain slow while Pakistan and India gear up their bomb-making capacity.


Fellow ACW readers, can you recall a time when the world seemed more inflamed and disordered? Governed spaces are shrinking. Wild men lay waste. The dogs of war have been unleashed and peaceful settlements seem more distant than ever. “World Wars” and “splendid little wars” are historical phenomena. The twenty-first century has given us a profusion of messy wars with indeterminate endings. The biggest of the lot, in Afghanistan and Iraq, are likely to produce unending sorrows, setting a template that has spread widely.

Another Israeli offensive in Gaza has resulted in more than 550 killed so far – reportedly 75 per cent of them noncombatants — along with 25 Israeli soldiers and two Israeli civilians. Sunnis are slaughtering Shia, and vice versa, across the Fertile Crescent. Iraq is a cauldron, Syria a slaughterhouse. A new Caliphate led by Osama bin Laden’s faithful has expelled Christians from Mosul and is at the gates of Baghdad. Vladimir Putin has annexed Crimea. His thuggish surrogates in eastern Ukraine have been trained in the black arts of operating air defense batteries that can shoot down passenger jets. Deranged leaders of Boko Haram in Nigeria have seized young girls from schools, holding them for ransom. Iran’s religious supremo has publicly declared a future requirement for centrifuges capable of producing 190,000 separative work units. Once-promising negotiations for an Iranian nuclear deal now look cloudy. If a deal can still be struck, many on Capitol Hill will gear up to foil it.

Not all the news in bad. There has not been a flash point in the East or South China Sea over Beijing’s quest for energy security. Pakistan’s armed forces are engaged in a campaign to reclaim national authority along the Afghan border. Relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan are in decent shape. Pakistan and India are getting along passably well.

But here’s the rub: The good news is perishable. The bad news will be with us for a long time.


A friend and I have an ongoing debate about the reasons for the plague of partisan rancor now afflicting Washington in general and arms control in particular. For my friend, the passage of the Affordable Care Act (aka “Obamacare”) was the Rubicon. Before Obamacare, he points out that important domestic legislation received bipartisan support. These numbers back up his argument:

Social Security Act of 1935
60 Democrats yes; 16 Republicans yes
1 Democrats no; 5 Republicans no
284 Democrats yes; 81 Republicans yes
15 Democrats no; 15 Republicans no

Civil Rights Act of 1964
46 Democrats yes; 27 Republicans yes
21 Democrats no; 6 Republicans no
152 Democrats yes; 138 Republicans yes
96 Democrats no; 34 Republicans no

Affordable Care Act
58 Democrats yes; 2 Independents yes; 0 Republicans yes
0 Democrats no; 39 Republicans no
219 Democrats yes; 0 Republicans yes
34 Democrats no; 178 Republicans no

After the White House and the Democratic leadership on Capitol Hill rammed through Obamacare, my friend believes that Republican Members of Congress resolved not to work with President Obama. In my view, the absence of bipartisanship predates the battles over health care, reflecting quarter-century-long trends within the Republican Party and deepening divisions within the country at large.

Here’s my reasoning: Trends toward assured incumbency, reinforced by two decades of redistricting and gerrymandering prior to Obamacare, have led to sharper partisanship. When seats are assured to one party or the other, the locus of competition shifts from general elections to primaries, and cross-over voting on Capitol Hill becomes rarer. Bipartisan votes were a regular occurrence on motherhood-and-apple-pie issues. They are now restricted to apple pie. The “do nothing” Congress that Harry S Truman used as a foil to win the presidency in 1948 passed 906 bills. Compare that with what passes for legislating at present.

Much political commentary dwells on the defeat of Tea Party candidates as an indicator of the supremacy of Main Street Republicanism, even though every serious challenge from the Right – regardless of the outcome — reinforces the Tea Party agenda on Capitol Hill. The most dramatic Tea Party upset win — the defeat of Minority Leader Eric Cantor, who was traveling the country playing out ambitions to become Speaker instead of stumping his district — was attributed to his openness to immigration reform legislation. Immigration legislation is now dead for the foreseeable future. An analysis in the New York Times of genial, low-key Senator Thad Cochran’s narrow Senate primary victory over a Tea Party challenger in Mississippi offered a cautionary note to Republicans: “It is no longer enough to quietly represent your constituents. You have to join the partisan fray.”

This kind of partisanship doesn’t stop at the water’s edge. The internationally-minded wing of the Republican Party in the Senate has been decimated since the George H.W. Bush administration negotiated two strategic arms reduction treaties with Russia. Its remaining spokespersons, John McCain and Lindsey Graham, lost their standing by championing wars prosecuted by the George W. Bush administration that were poorly conceived and badly executed.

If the reluctant Jeb Bush declines to run for President in 2016, the current crop of Republican contenders will be headlined by (1) Ted Cruz, whose principal achievements in the Senate to date are temporarily closing down the government and blocking ratification of a Treaty recognizing the rights of the disabled; (2) Rand Paul, the Republican analog to George McGovern; and (3) Marco Rubio, whose impact on the Senate has been felt mostly by placing holds on the Obama administration’s nominees. What they have in common, besides opposition to arms-control treaties as an infringement of U.S. sovereignty and military capabilities, is the resolute pursuit of deficit reduction at a time of declining U.S. influence in the world.

The biggest Democratic makeover during the past quarter-century was when Bill Clinton moved his Party toward the center. The Republican Party’s biggest makeover has been to move away from the political center. Self-professed Reagan Republicans like Cruz actually have little in common with Reagan’s record of legislation in Sacramento and Washington. One example: Reagan wanted to eliminate nuclear weapons. Republicans on Capitol Hill now want to stop dismantling empty missile silos.

When did the Republican Party lose its moorings? Barack Obama’s presidency and his pursuit of the Affordable Care Act were certainly accentuating factors, but the shift away from the legacies of Presidents Eisenhower, Nixon, Ford, Reagan and George H.W. Bush started earlier.

In retrospect, the pivot point might have been George H.W. Bush’s defeat by Bill Clinton in 1992. Four years later, Fox News was launched, broadcasting its daily dose of fear and loathing. Then came the Clinton impeachment circus in 1998. What clearer indicator can there be of going off-kilter than to elevate a sexual indiscretion to the level of impeachment proceedings? Whitewater has been followed by Benghazi, with stops in between during every news cycle. There’s more to come, as Hillary gears up for another presidential run.

What does all this mean for arms control? The first rule of pursuing treaty ratification is to avoid partisanship. Democrats in the Oval Office will have a harder time doing this than Republicans, but it’s unclear when the next Republican President will be sworn in, since the Republican Party has adopted political agendas that work far better in safe Congressional districts than nationally. Meanwhile, Republicans on Capitol Hill are chipping away at the treaties Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush once championed. What mainstream Republicans used to consider agreements that advanced U.S. national security are now considered infringements on America’s freedom of action.