Arms Control Wonk ArmsControlWonk


Aspiring wonks: The Stimson Center’s South Asia program is now accepting internship applications for Spring/Winter 2015. This internship is most suitable for a Junior or Senior in College looking for a semester in DC to get to know the city and to hone skills in nonproliferation and South Asian regional studies.

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A standard hawkish critique of the practice of arms control and the pursuit of nuclear disarmament is that treaties pave the way to perdition. It’s senseless, in this view, to seek to override divergent national interests and political cultures. Arms control and reduction initiatives are not only doomed to fail, but also weaken America’s ability to respond once failure is evident, lulling the nation into weakness, a false sense of security and unpreparedness.

Take, for example, the critique of President Ronald Reagan when he was contemplating strategic arms reduction treaties with the Kremlin, Norman Podhoretz argued that such accords, like the naval treaties of the 1920s and 1930s, would result in “cutbacks by the democratic side and increases on the totalitarian side.”

The problem with treaties wasn’t limited to their effects on the United States, since they would also lull U.S. friends and allies into passivity and defeatism. Here’s Edward Teller’s testimony during the Limited Test Ban Treaty hearings:

I can easily imagine a situation where our allies find it by far the best measure to sign the treaty while fully realizing now or later that the treaty makes it more difficult for us to render assistance to them.

Lewis Strauss, J. Robert Oppenheimer’s nemesis at the Atomic Energy Commission, also argued against the Senate’s consent to ratify the LTBT along these lines:

Because civilized man abhors war, he is attracted by any apparently reasonable proposal that is labeled ‘peace.’ Too often, however, and too late, a pact hailed by a hopeful majority as signalizing ‘peace in our time’ actually turns out to be a first step on the path to disaster.

Robert Strausz-Hupé, who advocated policies to free Eastern Europe from Soviet domination in A Forward Strategy for America (1961), testified against the LTBT this way:

One of the greatest dangers arising from the treaty, therefore, is the psychological atmosphere which it has generated: the notion that we are now somehow moving, step by step, into a new period of détente.

Responding to Senate critics of the atmospheric test ban treaty, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Maxwell Taylor responded that,

The most serious reservations of the Joint Chiefs of Staff … are more directly linked with the fear of a euphoria in the West which will eventually reduce our vigilance and the willingness of our country and our allies to expand continued effort on our collective security.

To guard against this sense of euphoria, the Chiefs recommended, and the Senate demanded, a series of “safeguards” that resulted in more than 700 underground tests. Not even the Non-Proliferation Treaty was exempt from this critique. Strausz-Hupé argued that the NPT, “if ratified, will nail down the lid on the coffin of NATO.”

Here’s how Henry Kissinger rebutted these arguments at a White House briefing to build Congressional support for the SALT I accords:

The deepest question we ask is not whether we can trust the Soviets, but whether we can trust ourselves. Some have expressed concern about the [SALT] agreements not because they object to their terms, but because they are afraid of the euphoria these agreements might produce.

But surely we cannot be asked to maintain unavoidable tension just to carry out programs which our national survival should dictate in any event. We must not develop a national psychology by which we can act only on the basis of what we are against and not on what we are for.

Despite these numerous false alarms, sentiment against nuclear arms control and reduction treaties hasn’t changed all that much since the Limited Test Ban Treaty and the Non-Proliferation Treaty – but tactics have. With no treaty ratification votes in the offing, critics have turned instead to stifle prospects for arms control in the future. Tactics now include blocking the modernization of monitoring regimes, opposing full funding for treaty implementation, and delaying the confirmation of individuals charged with pursuing negotiating initiatives and revitalizing the State Department’s personnel recruitment efforts. At this rate, the Obama administration will leave office in poorer shape to reduce identified excess in nuclear force structure than when it arrived.

President Barack Obama talks with Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India during their bilateral meeting in the Oval Office, Sept. 30, 2014. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

President Barack Obama talks with Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India during their bilateral meeting in the Oval Office, Sept. 30, 2014. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

The recent trips to the United States by Prime Ministers Nawaz Sharif and Narendra Modi provide ample evidence of India’s and Pakistan’s divergent trajectories. Nawaz arrived with no fanfare, a known commodity in familiar trouble back home. He delivered a lackluster speech at the U.N. General Assembly notable only for dwelling on Kashmir, which has always been a harmful issue for Pakistan. Nawaz met with Vice President Biden in New York along with a few foreign leaders (at their request), and then left for home, where he faces unrelenting political opposition.

Modi arrived in New York as an ambitious, contentious, and intriguing figure with an electoral mandate to revive India’s fortunes. He spoke proudly in Hindi, promised much with few specifics, and met with a rapturous crowd of Indian-Americans at Madison Square Garden. Then on to the White House, long meetings with President Obama, and a fancy dinner during which the guest of honor fasted.

Love him or hate him, Modi is a charismatic leader who has everyone’s attention. Pakistan has previously been led by a charismatic leader, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who disappointed badly. Nawaz does not need charisma – he needs to rouse himself to lead, or step aside to let his most capable Party members do their best to reverse the country’s decline. If he is incapable of both, Pakistan could find itself with another charismatic figure unable to govern effectively. One of Nawaz’s primary tormentors has withdrawn his parliamentarians rather than offering new legislative initiatives. The other calls for a revolution.

Modi offers hope to his electorate and to the Indian diaspora. Nawaz’s record does not engender hope. Modi and Obama signed off on a vision statement. Nawaz has always lacked vision. He builds motorways, but to his credit, he is doing more to improve power generation than the previous, lackluster civilian government. The U.S.-India joint statement was suffused with promises. U.S.-Pakistan relations can do without lofty promises, since the past is littered with them. It will suffice if both Pakistan and the United States can work in tandem through the difficult security dilemmas they have co-created.

Dynastic politics aren’t limited to South Asia, as is evident by the Clintons and the Bushes. But dynastic politics have had extremely punishing effects on the subcontinent, hollowing out major political parties and saddling Pakistan and India with ill-functioning governments. Democratic elections do not offer opportunities for new starts when the two primary choices are both family-run political enterprises. While Pakistan struggles with this dilemma, India enjoys the promise of renewal because one of its two national parties is not beholden to a dynastic franchise.

Modi’s government, by all appearances, is a one-man show. Other performances of this kind on the subcontinent have not ended well. Some leaders with electoral mandates fail for lack of ambition, as Nawaz is now doing. Others fail by overreaching badly enough for political rivals to recover. In Modi’s case, there will be dynamism whether he succeeds or fails.

Divergent trajectories on the subcontinent have significant ramifications for the nuclear competition and for the Kashmir dispute. As Pakistan falls increasingly behind India, it increases reliance on nuclear weapons to shore up shortcomings. This is an understandable but questionable strategy, since nuclear weapons cost money without providing usable military capability.

The dangers inherent in any nuclear competition can be mitigated, however, if stockpiles are well secured, if crises are avoided, and if disputes are being amicably resolved. The stewards of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal are serious, competent, and numerous — as was the case in the former Soviet Union. Despite its military might and large nuclear stockpile, the Soviet Union collapsed because of poor governance, internal strains and economic failure. At the end of the day, nuclear security is only as strong as the society and the economy that nuclear weapons are meant to defend.

Nor are their signs of the amicable resolution of grievances on the subcontinent. Just the opposite is true, as is evident by heavy firing along the Kashmir divide. Divergent national trajectories may make reconciliation between India and Pakistan harder. Modi’s government has sent out mixed signals about wanting to engage Pakistan, but showed little sense of urgency in resuming bilateral talks, and pulled the plug prior on a meeting of the two Foreign Secretaries because of haggling over Kashmir. There was no private meeting and not even a handshake on the periphery of the UN General Assembly, where Nawaz dusted off proposals for a plebiscite to resolve the Kashmir dispute.

Not surprisingly, firing across the Kashmir divide accompanied diplomatic jockeying over the Foreign Secretaries meeting and greatly intensified after the UN speeches. Pakistan has prided itself as a bulwark against Indian hegemony. Its national security policies have rested on the assumptions that India cannot become a major power without addressing Pakistan’s grievances, and that New Delhi is dependent on Pakistan’s help to gain access to Central Asian markets. Both assumptions are increasingly suspect. Well before Modi’s election, Indian strategic thinking was gravitating toward a strategy of indifference toward Pakistan and betting on markets in East Asia rather than Central Asia.

Pakistan’s strategic analysts still seem to be operating under their old assumptions. Munir Akram, an accomplished diplomat whose last posting was as Pakistan’s Ambassador to the United Nations, offered this familiar refrain in a recent op-ed:

The most proximate impediment to India’s quest for Great Power status remains Pakistan. So long as Pakistan does not accept India’s regional pre-eminence, other South Asian states will also resist Indian diktat. India cannot feel free to play a great global power role so long as it is strategically tied down in South Asia by Pakistan.

The instruments employed to “tie down” India in  South Asia have done more harm to Pakistan than to India. Pakistan’s standing and economic prospects have been greatly diminished by keeping Kashmir on the boil and by not clamping down on groups that carry out dramatic acts of violence in Indian cities.

India and Pakistan have a common interest in de-escalating the violence across the Kashmir divide. But more troubles lie ahead unless New Delhi places a higher priority in engaging Pakistan. Being left increasing behind India is bad enough for Pakistan’s national security decision makers; an Indian posture of indifference adds insult to injury. It might take a Nobel Prize ceremony and the intercession of a teenager to put relations back on an even keel, at least temporarily.


The Selfie Generation doesn’t do arms control. Its cause célèbre is the environment. This grandparent can relate. I am excited and grateful to see how much youthful energy is now directed toward healing our planet’s wounds. I am also very jealous. My cause célèbre has faded. Fewer and fewer people focus on reducing nuclear dangers. Street marches are now about climate change.

Graphic stories of environmental disasters rooted in long-term disregard for carbon emissions, air pollution, and the degradation of water quality are with us every week. A study by the National Climactic Data Center and National Center for Atmospheric Research estimates that the frequency of “billion dollar storms” increases at a rate of roughly five per cent a year, which seems understated. A 2013 report by the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that a rise in temperature of two degrees Celsius will cost up to two per cent of the world’s income by 2050. This UN panel also estimated that the combined cost of crop losses, rising sea levels, higher temperatures and fresh water shortages could amount to between $70 and $100 billion a year. These estimates also appear understated: According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, the insurance industry estimated that climate-related disasters in the United States in 2012 alone resulted in more than $139 billion in damages. The cumulative costs of clean-up after a decade of super storms, droughts, and battered shorelines remind me of the estimated cost consequences for limited nuclear wars back in the 1980s.

The United Nations devotes a special summit to raise environmental consciousness and accelerate corrective measures. Back in my day, there were special UN sessions on disarmament. President Obama has made protection of the environment a key priority during the remainder of his second term, while prospects for another strategic arms reduction treaty and the entry into force of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty recede further into the future. Young talent entering the work force is now focused on environmental causes, while 48 per cent of the civil servants working on arms control in the State Department near retirement age.

On Capitol Hill, champions of arms control issues are dwindling. Non-governmental organizations could also benefit from a new wave of energy. During tough times, it’s always a good strategy to invest in rising talent — otherwise, the future could be more daunting than the present. Unfortunately, major foundations continue to leave the field, and a new generation of techno-philanthropists is drawn to causes where investments can yield quantifiable progress. When political conditions permit, quantifiable progress in reducing nuclear stockpiles and deployed forces is certainly possible, but the most important successes in reducing nuclear dangers are often measured by non-events.

The comparison between the number of environmental studies departments and courses now offered at the college level and in graduate schools with arms control-related courses would be striking. But there’s no need to do the math: the conclusions are obvious. Can those still interested in reducing nuclear dangers poach off the energy of the environmental movement? I doubt it. Those with a sense of mission are not easily diverted, and besides, opportunities to work on arms control and non-proliferation are increasingly scarce. Will it take another big scare or a nuclear catastrophe to rejuvenate the field?


For those seeking relief from the news coming out of Syria, Iraq, and Libya, I highly recommend watching The Wind and the Lion, a 1975 flick by John Milius. Sean Connery, at the peak of his powers, plays Mulai Ahmed er Raisuli, an untamed tribal of the Rif, who spirits away a miscast Candice Bergen and her two children. Connery is such a powerful screen presence that he plays the part of a Berber brigand with a Scottish brogue, and all is forgiven. He goes up against another force of nature, President Teddy Roosevelt, played brilliantly by Brian Keith. TR is beginning to feel his age while America is growing into its powers. Acting out of a mix of chivalry and geopolitical opportunity, he sends U.S. expeditionary forces to release the American captives. The fabulous John Huston plays Secretary of State John Hay as a wise and weary man who knows the limits of his persuasive powers when dealing with TR.

Raisuli roams as free as the wind; TR roars like a lion. Each admires what the other enjoys. TR feels confined in the White House; Raisuli has too few muskets and tribesmen to go up against the U.S. Marines. Candice Bergen’s disgust with her captor slowly turns to fascination and attraction, as we fully expect. The movie ends with everyone feeling wistful along with the triumph of the martial American spirit in a strange and distant land.

Hollywood can’t make a movie like this now because audiences are sadder and wiser. Movies about post-9/11 U.S. military campaigns are shaded in darkness and brutality. Even America’s apex heroic moment – settling scores with Osama bin Laden – is depicted in Zero Dark Thirty as an unfair fight enabled by torture. Desert windstorms have become lethal and unpredictable. The lion is a wounded, foreign presence. Those looking for diversion at the movies have moved on to computer-generated images and Marvel superheroes.


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.”