Disarmament and Nonproliferation: Which Is the Cart, Which Is the Horse?

Recently, Dr. Christopher Ford of the Hudson Institute wrote a post, the title of which expressing a conflict, hitherto unnoticed by most: Disarmament Versus Nonproliferation. It begins:

For those who are believers in what I call the “credibility thesis” — that is, the idea that a lack of progress in demonstrating disarmament “credibility” is the main “missing ingredient” that has helped ensure that the post-Cold War world has seen so little progress in preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons — this must have been a disheartening year. To hear its adherents tell the story over the years, bringing great numbers of countries together in a strong united front against proliferation only awaited a long-overdue commitment by the nuclear weapons states, and above all, the United States, to move more rapidly to abolish nuclear weapons. [It doesn't look much like we're turning too much of a corner as a result of our disarmament-friendly rhetoric.

I responded in a post titled Are Nonproliferation and Disarmam, which beginsent, Once Joined at the Hip, Headed for Divorce?:

In the words of the old Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen song, as made famous by Frank Sinatra, nonproliferation and disarmament, like love and marriage, "go together like a horse and carriage." Nonproliferation -- preventing states that don't currently possess nuclear weapons -- works in tandem with disarmament -- states with nuclear weapons divesting themselves of same. "You can't have one without the other." Right?

After all -- continuing with the musical metaphor -- that's how the refrain goes in that old strain of a treaty, the NPT (nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty). Let's all sing the sixth stanza (aka, article) together: "Each of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control." (Actually, it would probably require a good rapper to do it justice.)

Yet many maintain that Article VI does not, in fact, commit nuclear-weapons states to a long-term divestment of those weapons. Christopher Ford of the Hudson Institute outlined this position as well as anybody in a Nonproliferation Review article that he wrote shortly after he left the Bush administration as its lead negotiator on the NPT. Negotiations toward that end in themselves, he wrote, are sufficient for a state to be in compliance with Article VI.

Chris Ford responded to my article with A Nonproliferation and Disarmament Colloquy on his website New Paradigms Forum:

Russ Wellen is a thoughtful and attentive reader, and his view of the inseparability of nonproliferation and disarmament is widely shared. To make sure my position is understood, however, let me make three clarifications.

First, just for the record, let me make clear that my position on Article VI of the NPT is that while the text of that article clearly requires that we try in good faith to bring about disarmament through negotiations, it does not impose any concrete disarmament obligations (e.g., that such negotiations actually succeed, or that any unilateral steps be taken). During the negotiation of the NPT, repeated attempts were made to insert just such concrete requirements into the Treaty, but they all failed to win adoption. One might bemoan this, of course, but one cannot deny it.

There is today a widespread political expectation that the nuclear weapons states need to do more on disarmament, but it is a mistake to read this as a legal requirement. I do not defend disarmament inaction, and indeed there has not been disarmament inaction. (The United States, for instance, has so far decommissioned four weapons out of every five it had at the end of the Cold War, and we even run our civilian nuclear power plants partly on uranium downblended from Soviet nuclear weapons.) My point about Article VI was merely that we confuse the issue by pretending that this is a legal and not simply a policy challenge. It is understandably tempting for disarmament advocates to deploy the argumentative weight of "legal" obligations in support of their agenda, but this isn't very good lawyering.

Second, I'd caution the reader not to be too dismissive of President Obama's nuclear weapons infrastructure modernization plan, which Russ contemptuously describes as "an ingenious force multiplier for our hypocrisy." I am not -- shall we say -- the most practiced or comfortable defender of the Obama Administration's agenda, but it bears emphasis that if there is a feasible road toward a global nuclear "zero," our travel down that path needs to include sensible nuclear weapons stewardship during the period prior to abolition. And even according to the optimists, this might be quite a while. (As Obama noted in his Prague speech in April 2009, abolition is not likely to take place in his lifetime -- and he's not an old geezer, either.) Until then, we have a responsibility not to be foolish in weapons management.

For so long as we retain nuclear weapons and rely to any extent upon them for strategic deterrence, for instance, we need to make sure such devices remain safe and reliable. Unless Russ wants us to resume underground nuclear testing -- and to a great extent even then -- this will entail maintaining quite a robust and well-funded weapons laboratory infrastructure for years to come. Having a weapons complex capable of producing new weapons should the threat environment "go south," as the saying goes, is also important to disarmament progress, for such productive capacity will allow us to reduce stockpile numbers by shifting from strategic "hedging" based upon warheads-in-being -- on the shelf, as it were, in our reserve stockpile -- to hedging based merely upon potential warheads. (This process is already underway, as we pointed out during the Bush Administration, and which Obama officials emphasize frequently today.) In fact, a failure to fund the laboratory infrastructure needed for these various purposes might well impede U.S. reductions, not to mention ratification of future treaties.

It's certainly somewhat counterintuitive that U.S. weapons complex modernization is a key to moving forward more quickly and sustainably on disarmament -- but it is true nonetheless. This is why so many "hawks" and "doves" in the U.S. policy community tend to support Obama's modernization plans, with the former being distinguished merely by concern that the president's plan provides insufficient funding. The idea of modernization -- which has its origins in President Clinton's support for the U.S. weapons labs in the name of "stockpile stewardship" and in connection with negotiating the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty -- is well-nigh a bipartisan consensus in mainstream political Washington.

Third, and for present purposes most importantly, let me stress that I actually do not think disarmament and nonproliferation are unrelated. It's just that precisely how they are related is extremely important.

I would be the first to argue, for instance, that disarmament and nonproliferation are indeed linked in one specific sense: in that a failure to stop the spread of nuclear weapons capabilities would destroy whatever hope there may otherwise have been for nuclear disarmament. It is inconceivable that anyone would (or should) take disarmament seriously if the international community cannot demonstrate its ability to stop nuclear weaponry from spreading. (If we cannot stop today's hemorrhaging, there's no point in worrying about tomorrow's recovery program.) So "linkage," at least in this sense, is quite real: unchecked proliferation is a showstopper for complete disarmament.

I am more skeptical, however, about linkage in the other direction: the oft-expressed idea that our failure to contain proliferation is due to a failure to demonstrate more of a commitment to rapid disarmament -- and that if such a commitment were to appear, we would finally be able to bring today's proliferation challenges under control. This variety of linkage may have been plausible at some point, but it doesn't seem to be supported by the evidence, despite earnest U.S. (and other) efforts to operationalize it. Despite the vast reductions in U.S. and Russian arsenals since the end of the Cold War, and despite the recent Nobel Prize-winning U.S. enthusiasm for disarmament, the proliferation situation is worsening, not improving.

I worry about Russ' lack of concern over disarmament's inability to discourage proliferation. He says this failure is "immaterial." I find this hard to credit, however, because as I have noted, if proliferation cannot be stopped, one can be quite sure that we will never see the complete disarmament for which Russ so earnestly hopes.

Perhaps Russ means to suggest that the United States should abandon nuclear weapons even if other states continue to acquire them, but I think that position would be difficult to defend -- especially over the longer term, when we cannot ensure that we will continue to enjoy today's pronounced superiority in conventional arms. At any rate, such a position would speak only to the issue of whether and to what degree we should engage in unilateral reductions: by definition, to speak of such a world would entail the abandonment of ambitions for nuclear weapons abolition.

Alternatively, perhaps Russ means that disarmament's failure to support nonproliferation is "immaterial" in the sense that there may be some way to stop proliferation by other means, even though continuing disarmament has no effect upon proliferation dynamics. I certainly hope that there is some such way, for we shall need it.

Russ Wellen responds:

As usual, Chris, with his experience with U.S. nuclear weapons policy and his knowledge of its history, provides me with material to which I'd never before been exposed. For example, he writes (emphasis added):

It's certainly somewhat counterintuitive that U.S. weapons complex modernization is a key to moving forward more quickly and sustainably on disarmament -- but it is true nonetheless. [And before that] Having a weapons complex capable of producing new weapons should the threat environment go south, as the saying goes, is also important to disarmament progress, for such productive capacity will allow us to reduce stockpile numbers by shifting from strategic hedging based upon warheads-in-being on the shelf, as it were, in our reserve stockpile to hedging based merely upon potential warheads. . . . In fact, a failure to fund the laboratory infrastructure needed for these various purposes might well impede U.S. reductions, not to mention ratification of future treaties.

It hadn’t occurred to me that funding the laboratory infrastructure and maintaining productive capacity might be critical steps to “hedging based merely upon potential warheads.” Though the outcome would be a disarmament milestone, personally I’m constitutionally incapable of supporting the process, but concede it might work. Another example:

I would be the first to argue, for instance, that disarmament and nonproliferation are indeed linked in one specific sense: in that a failure to stop the spread of nuclear weapons capabilities would destroy whatever hope there may otherwise have been for nuclear disarmament. It is inconceivable that anyone would (or should) take disarmament seriously if the international community cannot demonstrate its ability to stop nuclear weaponry from spreading. . . . unchecked proliferation is a showstopper for complete disarmament.

Most who prefer nonproliferation as the lead dog to disarmament instead of disarmament itself tend to ignore the elemental concerns — “It’s just not fair” — of states that aspire to develop nuclear-weapons programs. The unstated assumption seems to be: “We’re rational and you’re not.” Chris, however, acknowledges the concerns of other states (presumably including the nuclear-aspirational). But he holds that among them is: “It is inconceivable that anyone would (or should) take disarmament seriously if the international community cannot demonstrate its ability to stop nuclear weaponry from spreading.”

In the future, I will need to account for these ideas in order to continue to make the case for disarmament Again, thanks for bringing them to our attention, Chris.