Although Senator Jesse Helms has taken credit for abolishing ACDA, Secretaries of State Warren Christopher and Madeleine Albright were both anxious to integrate the agency into the State Department. So when the opportunity arose to fold ACDA into State as part of the deal to get a Senate vote on the Chemical Weapons Convention, it was an easy sacrifice that the administration could claim was part of the "reinvention of government."
President Kennedy created ACDA to provide presidents with arms control options as alternatives to the nuclear arms race and to provide an institutional base for the negotiation and implementation of agreements. While recognizing the pre-eminence of the secretary of state in dealing with foreign countries, Kennedy rejected the option of locating the new agency within the State Department because it was dominated by a foreign service bureaucracy more concerned with bilateral relations with other nations than alternative security strategies. As a compromise, ACDA was established as an independent agency reporting to both the president and the secretary of state.
The new agency quickly demonstrated the wisdom of Kennedy's decision. During the Johnson administration, ACDA's persistence in negotiating the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), despite frequent State Department reservations, made it possible for Johnson to direct the completion of the NPT over the objections of major NATO allies. During the Nixon regime, an independent ACDA headed a strong interagency team that negotiated the ABM Treaty and SALT I with the Soviet Union despite a less-than-enthusiastic Defense Department and an apathetic State Department. During the Carter administration, a strong ACDA made it possible to pursue Carter's ambitious arms control agenda, which would have succeeded but for the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
ACDA's effectiveness has always been dependent on the president's interest in arms control and its own leadership. During the Reagan years, the agency's directors were as often opponents as advocates of arms control. During the Bush administration, Secretary of State James Baker and a small group of senior officials made considerable progress on agreements and parallel unilateral initiatives with the Soviet Union. Today, however, the arms control agenda has become too complex both in designing initiatives and implementing agreements to be handled without a strong institutional base.
During the Clinton administration, ACDA has been systematically marginalized by failure to fill its senior positions and excluding it from key policy meetings. Nevertheless, the agency took the lead in delivering a consensus approval for the indefinite extension of the NPT and the successful negotiation of the Comprehensive Test Ban (CTB) Treaty, the Clinton administration's only major arms control initiative.
Fortuitously, the current top State Department officials are knowledgeable and supportive of arms control, but this will normally not be the case. Under the present stewardship, State has reacted pragmatically and generally wisely to difficult challenges, such as the North Korean nuclear program and the situation in South Asia following the Indian and Pakistani nuclear tests, successfully balancing nuclear non-proliferation with other foreign policy objectives. However, in advocating NATO expansion, with likely eventual inclusion of the Baltic states, the same officials produced a predictably strong Russian reaction, jeopardizing deep reductions in the Russian nuclear arsenal.
The transfer of ACDA, lock, stock and barrel to the State Department has stifled even whimpers from the departing staff. How long this arrangement will survive remains to be seen. The new office will provide attractive posts for foreign service personnel, and the question remains whether it will retain the institutional memory and technical expertise necessary for effective policy formulation.
As ACDA fades into history, those who inherit its responsibilities must not forget why it was created. The State Department will have to inform the president on arms control opportunities, even if they raise foreign policy problems, and of the possible negative impacts of proposed foreign policy actions, such as NATO expansion, on arms control objectives. And the National Security Council staff will have a greater responsibility to make certain the president receives a balanced assessment of arms control issues and options. Only time will tell whether Kennedy was right in believing this arrangement would inadequately serve U.S. security interests.