I salute the Arms Control Association … for its keen vision of the goals ahead and for its many efforts to identify and to promote practical measures that are so vitally needed to achieve them. -

– Amb. Nobuyasu Abe
Former UN Undersecretary General for Disarmament Affairs
January 28, 2004
Strategic Policy

Pressing the Nuclear Reset Button

Daryl G. Kimball

The Cold War ended nearly two decades ago, but U.S. and Russian leaders have missed opportunities to implement agreements that would have achieved deeper, irreversible cuts in their nuclear and missile stockpiles. As a result, their nuclear weapons doctrines and capabilities remain largely unchanged, and mutual suspicions linger.

Beginning with their inaugural meeting April 1, Presidents Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev have the opportunity to reset the U.S.-Russian relationship with the negotiation of a new and far-reaching nuclear arms reduction treaty before the year’s end. If a new treaty is not concluded and the 1991 START is allowed to expire as scheduled on Dec. 5, there will effectively be no limits on the two country’s still bloated nuclear stockpiles.

START helped end the Cold War by slashing each country’s strategic warhead deployment capability from about 10,000 to less than 6,000 and limiting each country to no more than 1,600 strategic delivery systems. START still provides far-reaching inspections and data exchanges without which neither side can confidently predict the size and location of the other’s nuclear forces. Although the 2002 Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty calls for a lower number of deployed strategic weapons-no more than 2,200 each by Dec. 2012-it expires the same day the treaty limits take effect and provides no additional verification provisions.

The loss of START would add another dangerous irritant to already strained U.S.-Russian relations, which is why Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov agreed last month that a START follow-on agreement is a priority for both sides. But they should aim to do more than simply extend the 18-year-old START or modestly trim the size of their deployed arsenals because current U.S. and Russian nuclear capabilities are so very much out of step with present-day realities.

According to their 2009 START declarations, the United States has 550 land-based ICBMs, 432 sea-based missiles on 14 submarines, and 216 bombers, which together can deliver 5,576 warheads. Russia possesses 469 nuclear-armed land-based ICBMs, 268 sea-based missiles on eight submarines, and 79 nuclear-capable bombers, which together can deliver 3,909 warheads.*

In practice, not all of these systems are “operationally deployed,” and many missiles and bombers carry less than a full complement of warheads. As a result, the United States is believed to deploy at least 2,200 strategic nuclear warheads, with a comparable number of warheads in reserve. The exact number of deployed Russian strategic warheads is not available but is believed to be between 2,000-3,000. In addition, Russia has at least 2,000 additional nonstrategic nuclear bombs available for use and another 8,000 in reserve or awaiting dismantlement. The United States has several hundred nonstrategic nuclear bombs for possible “battlefield” use.

Such massive nuclear arsenals are more of a liability than an asset because they breed mistrust and worst-case assumptions among other states. By maintaining many of them ready for quick launch to deter a surprise attack by the other, they also perpetuate the risk of war by miscalculation. Given that no other country possesses more than 300 nuclear warheads and that nuclear weapons do not serve any practical role in dealing with non-nuclear adversaries or terrorists, deep reductions to 1,000 total warheads each are possible and prudent.

To do so, each side must be bold and willing to adjust earlier positions. Russia should be willing to support more intrusive warhead monitoring and verification approaches, defer its missile modernization programs, and agree to data exchanges on nonstrategic nuclear weapons, which remain unregulated by any treaty.

For its part, the United States should retire a significant portion of its strategic delivery systems as well as agree to verifiable limits on the number of warheads that may be loaded on any given delivery system. If Washington pursues plans to convert a few strategic missiles to carry conventional warheads, the two sides should simply agree to count them as nuclear warheads to avoid verification hurdles.

The START follow-on agreement should also mandate a streamlined system of START-style data exchanges and on-site inspections, plus warhead monitoring techniques that could give each side sufficient confidence that neither side is skirting the treaty.

Dramatically deeper U.S.-Russian reductions would also allow Obama to fulfill a campaign pledge before his first term ends: “Initiating a high-level dialogue among all the declared nuclear-weapon states on how to...move toward meaningful reductions and the eventual elimination of all nuclear weapons.”

Neither side should allow the contentious issue of possible U.S. missile interceptors in eastern Europe to impede progress toward deeper offensive nuclear reductions. It is clear that the system is still unproven, would have a very limited capability against Russian missiles, and is years away from possible deployment. This allows time for Moscow and Washington to find cooperative approaches to counter Iran’s potential missile threat and possibly agree to limits on the overall number of strategic interceptors.

Restarting the U.S.-Russian nuclear arms control process could dramatically reduce the overall number of nuclear weapons, improve global cooperation to help meet other nuclear threats, and help repair frayed U.S.-Russian relations. The time to begin is now.

*Revised April 1, 2009 to reflect 2009 START declarations rather than 2008 figures.

The Cold War ended nearly two decades ago, but U.S. and Russian leaders have missed opportunities to implement agreements that would have achieved deeper, irreversible cuts in their nuclear and missile stockpiles. As a result, their nuclear weapons doctrines and capabilities remain largely unchanged, and mutual suspicions linger.

Beginning with their inaugural meeting April 1, Presidents Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev have the opportunity to reset the U.S.-Russian relationship with the negotiation of a new and far-reaching nuclear arms reduction treaty before the year’s end. If a new treaty is not concluded and the 1991 START is allowed to expire as scheduled on Dec. 5, there will effectively be no limits on the two country’s still bloated nuclear stockpiles. (Continue)

Time for a Systematic Analysis: U.S. Nuclear Weapons and Nuclear Proliferation

Christopher F. Chyba

The 2008 National Defense Authorization Act requires the next secretary of defense, in consultation with the secretaries of energy and state, to conduct a comprehensive review of the nuclear weapons posture of the United States.

The review must consider the role of nuclear forces in U.S. military strategy; requirements and objectives for deterrence; the relationship among nuclear deterrence, targeting strategy, and arms control objectives; the role of missile defense and conventional strike weapons; the levels and composition of nuclear delivery systems; the required nuclear weapons complex; and the active and inactive nuclear weapons stockpile, including plans for replacing or modifying warheads.[1]

The legislation does not explicitly call for the review to study what impact changes in the U.S. nuclear posture would have on nuclear weapons proliferation, although the reference to "arms control objectives" might be taken to encompass this. Yet, the incoming Obama administration will make its nuclear weapons decisions in the face of an array of diverging and sometimes contradictory assertions about this impact. Rather than merely selecting among these assertions, the new administration should conduct a comprehensive analysis and explicitly build it into nuclear weapons policymaking across the board. Core nuclear weapons decisions must rank among the incoming president's top priorities, despite an extremely crowded security and economics agenda. The nuclear posture review itself must be driven by the White House if it is to achieve consensus for the president's objectives.[2]

Diverging Assertions

In January 2007, former Secretaries of State George Shultz and Henry Kissinger, former Secretary of Defense William Perry, and former Senator Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) advocated nuclear weapons abolition in a Wall Street Journal editorial and asserted that a "solid consensus for reversing reliance on nuclear weapons globally" would be a "vital contribution to preventing their proliferation into potentially dangerous hands."[3] In their 2008 follow-on editorial, these authors added that "[t]he accelerated spread of nuclear weapons, nuclear know-how and nuclear material has brought us to a nuclear tipping point." Preventing this, they asserted, requires a clear statement of the ultimate goal of nuclear disarmament: "Without the vision of moving toward zero, we will not find the essential cooperation required to stop our downward spiral."[4]

Speaking at the American Academy in Berlin in June 2008, Nunn put the point more directly: "[W]e believe [that, with a U.S. commitment to disarmament,] it would become more likely that many more nations will join us in a firm approach to stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons and materials and prevent catastrophic terrorism.... We cannot take these steps without the cooperation of other nations. We cannot get the cooperation of other nations without the vision and hope of a world that will someday end these weapons as a threat to mankind."[5] Others have argued that a vision for nuclear disarmament may influence future decisions by countries considering nuclear weapons development [6] or may help ensure that countries such as Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Germany, Japan, South Africa, and Sweden do not reconsider their decisions to forgo or give up nuclear weapons programs.[7]

Despite this, skeptics have been quick to insist that disarmament advocates have failed to establish a causal connection between the pursuit of disarmament and the prevention of nuclear weapons proliferation. In November 2007, The Wall Street Journal published a reply by former Defense Secretary Harold Brown and former Deputy Defense Secretary John Deutch titled "The Nuclear Disarmament Fantasy," in which the authors declared that "[a] nation that wishes to acquire nuclear weapons believes these weapons will improve its security. The declaration by the U.S. that it will move to eliminate nuclear weapons in a distant future will have no direct effect on changing this calculus. Indeed, nothing that the U.S. does to its nuclear posture will directly influence such a nation's (let alone a terrorist group's) calculus." Such steps, they assert, would also not "convince North Korea, Iran, India, Pakistan or Israel to give up their nuclear weapons programs." [8]

Brown and Deutch are hardly alone. A 2004 report to Congress by the secretaries of state, defense, and energy argued that "rogue state proliferation...marches forward independently of the U.S. nuclear program" and that "North Korea and Iran appear to seek [weapons of mass destruction (WMD)] in response to their own perceived security needs, in part, to deter the United States from taking steps to protect itself and allies in each of these regions. In this regard, their incentives to acquire WMD may be shaped more by U.S. advanced conventional weapons capabilities and our demonstrated will to employ them to great effect."[9]

Former Bush administration Assistant Secretary of State for Arms Control Stephen Rademaker agrees that U.S. nuclear weapons policy is irrelevant to Iranian or North Korean nuclear decision-making, which he argues is driven by hunger for power and prestige. Nevertheless, he asserts, "[s]o long as there is one nuclear weapon remaining in the U.S. inventory, [arms control activists] will point to this as the root cause of nuclear proliferation."[10]

A group of 11 members of the Bush administration's International Security Advisory Board (ISAB) to the Department of State have argued that a key role of U.S. nuclear weapons policy is to help prevent nuclear proliferation by providing a "nuclear umbrella" to countries-31, by the authors' count-that might otherwise be tempted to develop their own nuclear weapons.[11] Similarly, the full ISAB claims that "[t]here is clear evidence in diplomatic channels that U.S. assurances to include the nuclear umbrella have been, and continue to be, the single most important reason many allies have forsworn nuclear weapons."[12] If this were the most salient nonproliferation role for U.S. nuclear weapons, careless moves toward disarmament might in fact drive proliferation rather than curtail it.

A Comprehensive Analysis

Even this small sampling of U.S. writings on the connection between U.S. nuclear weapons policy and nuclear proliferation reveals a host of diverging assertions. A systematic analysis remains to be formulated, but it is not difficult at least to frame such an analysis. Any upcoming revision of U.S. nuclear weapons policy should incorporate, as an intrinsic part of a nuclear policy and posture review, such an analysis of probable and possible impacts on the nonproliferation regime. This is not, of course, the same as saying that international impacts of U.S. policy should determine U.S. nuclear weapons policy. Still, it would be foolhardy and self-defeating not to try to understand and account for connections between U.S. decisions and the nuclear nonproliferation regime.

It may seem odd even to suggest that such an analysis is necessary. After all, an explicit connection is made between disarmament and nonproliferation in Article VI of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). Article VI pledges all parties to the treaty and therefore the nuclear-weapon states in particular to pursue nuclear disarmament.[13] This is commonly viewed as representing one of three bargains contained in the treaty; in this case, the Article II pledge of the treaty's non-nuclear-weapon states not to acquire nuclear weapons is matched by the Article VI promise of the nuclear-weapon states for their eventual elimination.[14]

This connection between disarmament and nonproliferation was strongly reaffirmed as a condition of the 1995 indefinite extension of the NPT and expanded in the "13 practical steps" toward implementing Article VI agreed to at the 2000 NPT Review Conference. Certain commitments, including a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and the proposed fissile material cutoff treaty (FMCT), were made in 1995 by the nuclear-weapon states as part of a package to obtain the NPT's indefinite extension, so it is difficult not to see fulfilling this bargain as important to the ongoing health of the NPT. Indeed, Jayantha Dhanapala, president of the 1995 NPT Review and Extension Conference, has written that "[t]he extension of the NPT was achieved largely because the long-stalled [CTBT], generally seen as the litmus test of nuclear disarmament, was close to adoption."[15] Asked in a private survey what steps nuclear-weapon states could best take to demonstrate their commitment to disarmament, diplomats from 16 non-nuclear-weapon states prioritized the CTBT and FMCT, followed by further nuclear stockpile reductions.[16]

Apparently there has been little direct connection between U.S. nuclear weapons policy and decisions taken by Iran or North Korea to move toward or away from nuclear weapons. If anything, the historical evidence is for an anti-correlation because these countries vigorously pursued their programs during the same period that the United States substantially cut the size of its nuclear arsenal and pursued little nuclear modernization. During this same period, however, countries such as Argentina and Brazil moved away from nuclear weapons programs. An analysis of nearly 20 cases of nuclear reversal since 1945 identifies a range of factors that have been important in U.S. efforts to achieve the reversal of nuclear weapons aspirations, including the creation of a norm against proliferation and the U.S. exercise of restraint in its own nuclear strategy.[17]

Certain U.S. allies could plausibly be pushed toward proliferation if they became sufficiently worried about the medium-term credibility of U.S. security assurances. There is also the argument, presented in the leaked portions of the Bush administration's 2001 Nuclear Posture Review and its 2002 National Security Strategy, that various military capabilities, including nuclear weapons capabilities, might dissuade certain countries either from choosing to proliferate or from attempting to match the United States in symmetric capabilities. Claims about the influence of U.S. nuclear weapons on different countries' proliferation decisions point in many directions at once.

Time to Disaggregate

Clearer thinking about the proliferation-relevant effects of U.S. nuclear weapons policy would be helped by disaggregating categories of countries that may be influenced by U.S. decisions. In doing so, we may find that some steps toward nuclear reductions bring with them pressures both against and for nuclear proliferation, depending on the different countries being considered. At the least, we need to understand this landscape for the purpose of risk analysis for any proposed steps. More expansively, the United States needs a comprehensive strategy that seeks to maximize nonproliferation effects and to minimize any proliferation drivers of its nuclear weapons policy. It may be necessary to supplement particular steps taken to reduce the salience of nuclear weapons in U.S. foreign policy-steps taken, at least in part, to counter proliferation-with accompanying efforts to offset any resulting pressure toward proliferation.

A conceptual first step is to divide states into four categories. Of course, in the end, countries will need to be addressed on an individual basis. A Brazilian diplomat recently remarked that "[t]here are no clean quid pro quos because nuclear-weapon states and non-nuclear-weapon states can't be organized into blocs."[18] Nevertheless, even the simple typology of four categories of states demonstrates the need to look across a range of states and their relationships to the nonproliferation regime, rather than exclusively emphasizing any one category.

In particular, when assessing the proliferation effects of changes in U.S. nuclear weapons policy, it will be useful to consider the impact on the following four categories of states: (1) the current nuclear powers; (2) determined proliferators; (3) nations relying on U.S. security assurances; and (4) other non-nuclear-weapon states. We should also consider two cross-cutting categories: states that have previously suspended nuclear weapons programs but are technically capable of reversing this decision; and the nuclear supplier states.

Current Nuclear Powers

It will be necessary to assess the role of U.S. nuclear weapons and use doctrine, including the role of U.S. ballistic missile defense programs, on the "vertical" proliferation and nuclear doctrines of the other nuclear powers, including the other four NPT-recognized nuclear-weapon states (China, France, Russia, and the United Kingdom) as well as India, Israel, and Pakistan. This is a vast topic. Specific important issues would include the interaction between U.S. nuclear policy and Chinese strategic plans, the ongoing evolution of the U.S.-Russian strategic relationship, and the influence that U.S. nuclear use doctrine may have on other countries' doctrinal choices.

Beyond issues of vertical proliferation lies the extent to which U.S. nuclear weapons policy influences other nuclear powers' decisions regarding "horizontal" proliferation, decisions that range from the establishment and enforcement of their own physical protection and export control regimes to their participation in multilateral initiatives and processes and their willingness to support particular actions, such as sanctions against countries that appear to be in pursuit of nuclear weapons. To date, advances in physical protection and export controls among the nuclear powers apparently have been somewhat insulated from issues of nuclear weapons posture.

Determined Proliferators

A determined proliferator is a country that appears to be making a serious effort toward nuclear weapons or nuclear weapons capability. "Determined" is not meant to be synonymous with "inevitable" or even "implacable." The country's policy may prove to be reversible, as was the case for Libya.

There is something close to a consensus among U.S. commentators that states such as Iran or North Korea are not strongly directly affected in their pursuit of nuclear weapons options by the details of U.S. nuclear weapons policy. This undermines some hopes for dissuasion, for example as expressed in the 2001 Nuclear Posture Review, which reportedly stated that U.S. military forces, including nuclear forces, would be used to "dissuade adversaries from undertaking military programs or operations that could threaten U.S. interests or those of allies and friends."[19] Evidently, neither Iran nor North Korea were dissuaded from their nuclear programs by U.S. nuclear capabilities, although fears of U.S. military action may have played a role in the Clinton administration winning North Korean support for the 1994 Agreed Framework and in driving the programmatic and geographical diversity of Iran's nuclear initiatives. Libya's long and complicated decision to renounce its WMD programs seems to have been influenced by fear of U.S. military capabilities, although there is little evidence that U.S. nuclear weapons specifically played an important role. [20]

The United States has repeatedly demonstrated its willingness to use its conventional forces as a coercive or even regime-changing tool. Famously, after the end of the Persian Gulf War in 1991, India's chief of army staff was quoted saying that the lesson of the war was "[d]on't fight the Americans without nuclear weapons." [21] Indeed, there is a commonly expressed U.S. view inside and outside the Bush administration that overwhelming U.S. conventional capabilities have provided a stronger driver for nuclear proliferation than nuclear weapons. [22]

The remaining question is the extent to which countries that are already nuclear powers or that are pursuing nuclear weapons or a nuclear weapons option can be influenced indirectly by the overall strength of the nonproliferation regime and in particular by actions initiated or supported by non-nuclear-weapon states-parties to the NPT.

Assured Nations

A key disagreement in U.S. thinking about the nonproliferation regime is whether the regime is more threatened by a failure of U.S. leadership with respect to NPT Article VI obligations or by a failure of U.S. assurance policy, i.e., the confidence that regional friends and allies have in U.S. security commitments and ultimately the U.S. nuclear umbrella. The U.S. nuclear deterrent assurance provides an important reason why Japan has not pursued its own nuclear weapons capability, even while its stockpile of plutonium provides it with a hedge. [23] The ISAB "is convinced that a lessening of the U.S. nuclear umbrella could very well trigger a [nuclear proliferation] cascade in East Asia and the Middle East."[24] A survey undertaken in 2006 by Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC) for the Defense Threat Reduction Agency concluded that U.S. extended nuclear deterrence was less critical now to many countries that relied on U.S. security assurances during the Cold War, but that extended deterrence was still seen as "essential to security" by Australia, Japan, Turkey, and new NATO members. [25] Were just one power nudged toward a nuclear weapons acquisition decision by changes in U.S. nuclear weapons policy, that would be a risk sufficient to merit serious concern and mitigating steps.

Other Non-Nuclear-Weapon States

The vast majority of non-nuclear-weapon states that are signatories to the NPT are not under specific U.S. security assurances and are also unlikely to pursue nuclear weapons on their own. They nevertheless may play a crucial role in the overall health of the nonproliferation regime, whether through the vigor with which they adopt and implement UN Security Council Resolution 1540, requiring all countries to implement improvements in the control of WMD-related technologies; their willingness to adopt versions of the International Atomic Energy Agency's (IAEA) 1997 Model Additional Protocol for expanded nuclear inspections and monitoring; or their willingness to support sanctions or other steps against determined proliferators and thus influence those and other countries' decisions.

There has been too little empirical work dedicated to understanding what role U.S. nuclear weapons policy actually plays in these states' nonproliferation decisions. Disentangling rhetoric from reality and being conscious of how discovered answers to this question may depend on the preferences of the analyst asking the question or on the bureaucratic institution the non-nuclear-weapon-state official represents, may prove especially challenging. For example, foreign ministry officials might be more likely to blame pursuit of nuclear weapons on U.S. nuclear weapons policy and Article VI failings, whereas individuals working on the technical program within an energy or defense ministry might be motivated by quite different drivers.

A subset of these countries is especially influential and demands the greatest study. Within the New Agenda Coalition, these include Egypt and South Africa. [26] South Africa, for example, is estimated to hold more than 300 kilograms of weapons-grade highly enriched uranium (HEU) in storage at Pelindaba, under IAEA monitoring. [27] Because it has built and then dismantled half a dozen nuclear weapons, it must be considered a latent nuclear power. It cautioned in 2005 that although proliferation concerns may require improved controls on peaceful nuclear energy, the NPT is "not an à la carte menu from which states parties may choose their preferences" and that "[t]here is a growing concern that while demands are being made for non-nuclear-weapon states to agree to new measures in the name of non-proliferation, concrete actions towards nuclear disarmament are neglected."[28] Its representative on the IAEA Board of Governors repeated this formulation in 2006 in the context of global efforts to reduce civilian use and availability of HEU, a fundamental nonproliferation objective.[29]

A recent advisory commission to the IAEA, chaired by former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo and including members from 17 other countries, concluded that "progress toward disarmament, or the lack of it, will deeply affect the success of the IAEA's nonproliferation mission" and warned that many non-nuclear-weapon states are reluctant to implement the 1997 Model Additional Protocol, phase out HEU, or enter into multilateral fuel-cycle arrangements without further progress on nuclear disarmament. [30] Diplomats of U.S. allies, including Australia, Canada, Germany, and Japan, have "resoundingly" stated in anonymous interviews that progress in disarmament measures, taken to include the CTBT and FMCT, would make it easier for them to work for progress on nonproliferation with the developing countries represented by the Nonaligned Movement. [31] The same message was concluded from a broader survey of written material complemented with individual and group discussions conducted by SAIC. [32] Note that Australian and Japanese officials have also indicated the importance of the U.S. extended deterrent. This either illustrates different views co-existing within a government's bureaucracies or shows that these countries view at least some important steps in nuclear disarmament as compatible with maintaining a credible extended deterrent.

In addition to the four categories of states just considered, cross-cutting categories should be considered. One such category is the list of nuclear-capable states, either those nearly 50 states that have the industrial and engineering capacity to pursue nuclear weapons [33] or that subset that once pursued nuclear weapons but subsequently reversed direction. [34] Outside the determined proliferators category, assuming that nuclear transfer can be prevented, these states are those of most direct concern when considering the effects of U.S. nuclear weapons policy on proliferation decisions. Similarly, the nuclear supplier states are of great interest with respect to the role of U.S. nuclear weapons policy on decisions to proliferate relevant technology. Increasingly, states that are not traditional suppliers (recalling the Malaysian company Scomi Precision Engineering's role in the A.Q. Khan nuclear smuggling network, for example) may be important as well. [35]


There is a clear and powerful diplomatic connection, embodied in NPT Article VI and in that treaty's indefinite extension, between U.S. and other permanent Security Council members' nuclear weapons policy and nuclear nonproliferation. The Article VI connection, however, only captures part of the story. With respect to certain states, U.S. moves toward nuclear disarmament may have little influence on proliferation objectives or, in some cases, might even provide pressure toward proliferation. This does not mean that substantial reductions in U.S. nuclear weapons or other steps, such as CTBT ratification, consistent with Article VI should not be pursued. The existing evidence is that these steps would advance U.S. nonproliferation objectives with non-nuclear-weapon states, although some, such as CTBT ratification, are viewed as long overdue and are unlikely to lead directly to further movement on nonproliferation by the non-nuclear-weapon states. [36] Rather, it means that as the United States does so, it should be clear about what it hopes to achieve, be clear about what such steps will not achieve, and pay close attention to the mitigation of any proliferation risks.

The Bush administration's nuclear posture gave the impression overseas of having expanded the potential circumstances under which and the countries against whom nuclear weapons might be used. [37] This posture clearly carries its own proliferation risks, by alienating potential partners in the struggle against proliferation within the NPT framework and signaling to all the ongoing salience of nuclear weapons in foreign policy. National security objectives of the new U.S. administration should include mitigating these risks as part of a careful overall change in nuclear posture. A framework for the systematic analysis of proliferation consequences should be part of a comprehensive strategy that seeks to maximize nonproliferation effects and minimize any proliferation drivers of U.S. nuclear weapons policy.

Christopher F. Chyba is a professor of astrophysics and international affairs at Princeton University and served on the National Security Council staff in the first Clinton administration. With Ambassador George Bunn, he is editor of U.S. Nuclear Weapons Policy: Confronting Today's Threats (2006). An earlier version of this paper was presented at a Stanley Foundation discussion on July 31, 2008.




1. National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2008, Pub. L. No. 110-181, Sec. 1070, 122 Stat. 3, 327 (2008).
2. Janne E. Nolan, An Elusive Consensus: Nuclear Weapons and American Security After the Cold War (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 1999).
3. George P. Shultz, William J. Perry, Henry A. Kissinger, and Sam Nunn, “A World Free of Nuclear Weapons,” The Wall Street Journal, January 4, 2007, p. A15.
4. George P. Shultz, William J. Perry, Henry A. Kissinger, and Sam Nunn, “Toward a Nuclear-Free World,” The Wall Street Journal, January 15, 2008, p. A13.
5. Sam Nunn, “The Race Between Cooperation and Catastrophe” (speech, American Academy, Berlin, June 12, 2008), p. 2.
6. Sidney Drell and James Goodby, “The Reality: A Goal of a World Without Nuclear Weapons Is Essential,” The Washington Quarterly, Vol. 31, No. 3 (Summer 2008), p. 30.
7. George Perkovich et al., Universal Compliance: A Strategy for Nuclear Security (Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment, 2005), p. 150.
8. Harold Brown and John Deutch, “The Nuclear Disarmament Fantasy,” The Wall Street Journal, November 19, 2007, p. 9.
9. “An Assessment of the Impact of Repeal of the Prohibition on Low Yield Warhead Development on the Ability of the United States to Achieve Its Nonproliferation Objectives,” March 2004 (report submitted to Congress in response to the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2004) (hereinafter PLYWD report).
10. Stephen Rademaker, “Blame America First,” The Wall Street Journal, May 7, 2007, p. 15.
11. Kathleen Bailey et al., “White Paper on the Necessity of the U.S. Nuclear Deterrent,” August 15, 2007.
12. International Security Advisory Board (ISAB), “Report on Discouraging a Cascade of Nuclear Weapons States,” October 19, 2007, p. 23.
13. China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States are the nuclear-weapon states recognized by the treaty. All other parties are non-nuclear-weapon states under the treaty. Only four countries (India, Israel, North Korea, and Pakistan) are not parties to the treaty. Article VI of the NPT reads, in full, “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.”
14. The NPT’s three bargains are often described to be (1) a bargain between the non-nuclear-weapon states and the nuclear-weapon states that the former will not acquire nuclear weapons (Article II) but the latter will ultimately give them up (Article VI); (2) a bargain between the non-nuclear-weapon states and the nuclear-weapon states that the former will not acquire nuclear weapons and will submit to safeguards and verification to ensure that that is so (Article III), but nevertheless retain an “inalienable right...to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes” and “have the right to participate in, the fullest possible exchange of equipment, materials and scientific and technological information for the peaceful uses of nuclear energy” (Article IV); and (3) an implicit bargain among the non-nuclear-weapon states themselves that each will forgo nuclear weapons, provided the others do so. This last understanding alleviates the “prisoner’s dilemma” that each non-nuclear-weapon state faces in deciding to forgo a powerful military technology.
15. Jayantha Dhanapala, “Fulfill and Strengthen the Bargain,” Arms Control Today, June 2008, pp. 14-16.
16. Deepti Choubey, “Are New Nuclear Bargains Attainable?” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, October 2008, pp. 15-17.
17. Ariel E. Levite, “Never Say Never Again: Nuclear Reversal Revisited,” International Security, Vol. 27, No. 3 (Winter 2002/03), pp. 59-88.
18. Choubey, “Are New Nuclear Bargains Attainable?” p. 3.
19. “Nuclear Posture Review [leaked excerpts],” January 8, 2002, www.globalsecurity.org/wmd/library/policy/dod/npr.htm.
20. For a discussion of the drivers for the Libyan decision, see Bruce W. Jentleson and Christopher A. Whytock, “Who ‘Won’ Libya? The Force-Diplomacy Debate and Its Implications for Theory and Policy,” International Security, Vol. 30, No. 3 (Winter 2005/06), pp. 47-86.
21. Patrick J. Garrity, “Why the Gulf War Still Matters: Foreign Perspectives on the War and the Future of International Security,” Center for National Security Studies, July 1993, p. xiv.
22. See, e.g., Kurt M. Campbell and Robert J. Einhorn, “Avoiding the Tipping Point: Concluding Observations,” in The Nuclear Tipping Point, ed. Kurt M. Campbell, Robert J. Einhorn, and Mitchell B. Reiss (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2004), p. 323. See also PLYWD report.
23. Kurt M. Campbell and Tsuyoshi Sunohara, “Japan: Thinking the Unthinkable,” in The Nuclear Tipping Point, ed. Kurt M. Campbell, Robert J. Einhorn, and Mitchell B. Reiss (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2004), p. 236; Hajime Izumi and Katsuhisa Furukawa, “Not Going Nuclear: Japan’s Response to North Korea’s Nuclear Test,” Arms Control Today, June 2007, pp. 6-11.
24. ISAB, “Report on Discouraging a Cascade of Nuclear Weapons States,” p. 23.
25. Lewis A. Dunn et al., “Foreign Perspectives on U.S. Nuclear Policy and Posture: Insights, Issues and Implications,” DTRA01-03-D-0017, TI-18-05-21, December 12, 2006.
26. The New Agenda Coalition comprises Brazil, Egypt, Ireland, Mexico, New Zealand, South Africa, and Sweden. This group of middle-power countries is credited with driving the 13 steps agreement at the 2000 NPT Review Conference.
27. David Albright, Frans Berkhout, and William Walker, Plutonium and Highly Enriched Uranium 1996: World Inventories, Capabilities and Policies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), p. 391.
28. “Statement by the Republic of South Africa on the Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Energy (Main Committee III), New York, 2-17 May 2005,” www.dfa.gov.za/docs/speeches/2005/mint0822a.htm.
29. Abdul Minty, “South African Perspectives on Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU)” (statement, International Symposium on Highly Enriched Uranium, Oslo, June 19-20, 2006), www.nrpa.no/symposium/documents/Minty%20HEU%20Oslo%20June%202006.pdf.
30. “Reinforcing the Global Nuclear Order for Peace and Prosperity: The Role of the IAEA to 2020 and Beyond,” May 2008, pp. 15-16, www.iaea.org/NewsCenter/News/PDF/2020report0508.pdf.
31. Choubey, “Are New Nuclear Bargains Attainable?” pp. 17-18.
32. Dunn et al., “Foreign Perspectives on U.S. Nuclear Policy and Posture.”
33. See Jacques E.C. Hymans, The Psychology of Nuclear Proliferation: Identity, Emotions, and Foreign Policy (Cambridge: CUP, 2006), p. 4. For a discussion of the criteria comprising “nuclear-capable,” see Stephen M. Meyer, The Dynamics of Nuclear Proliferation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), app. B.
34. Levite, “Never Say Never Again.”
35. Chaim Braun and Christopher F. Chyba, “Proliferation Rings: New Challenges to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Regime,” International Security, Vol. 29, No. 3 (Fall 2004), pp. 5-49.
36. Choubey, “Are New Nuclear Bargains Attainable?”
37. See Dunn et al., “Foreign Perspectives on U.S. Nuclear Policy and Posture.”



The 2008 National Defense Authorization Act requires the next secretary of defense, in consultation with the secretaries of energy and state, to conduct a comprehensive review of the nuclear weapons posture of the United States. (Continue)

After the Reliable Replacement Warhead: What's Next for the U.S. Nuclear Arsenal?

Jeffrey Lewis

The Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) as envisioned by the Bush administration is effectively dead. This past fall, for the second year in a row, the Democratic Congress zeroed out funding for the RRW program despite Bush administration claims that extending the life of the current warhead types in the U.S. nuclear stockpile would, at some distant point in the future, lead to a sharp uptick in aging-related defects.

Lawmakers refused to appropriate $10 million intended “to enable maturation of the design,” to resolve questions about certification, and to document past work.[1] As a candidate, President-elect Barack Obama told Arms Control Today in answers to written questions that he “will not authorize the development of new nuclear weapons and related capabilities.”[2]

This might seem like the end of the story. After all, independent assessments have concluded that the United States today has a stronger basis for confidence in its stockpile of nuclear weapons than at any time in history. Officials at the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) have stated that any aging-related concerns with the country’s nuclear stockpile are not expected to emerge for decades, if then. The United States spends billions a year on stockpile stewardship activities, including extensive surveillance and testing of components.

Yet, President Obama will have to articulate a strategy for sustaining the safety, security, and reliability of the stockpile that is capable of commanding bipartisan support. Such a strategy will be essential to supporting other goals articulated in the campaign, including further strategic arms reductions with Russia and working with the Senate to secure the ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) “at the earliest practical date.”

The Origins and Problems of RRW

Despite the high level of confidence in the stockpile today, a pessimist might be concerned about maintaining that confidence indefinitely without the Cold War practice of designing, yield testing, and manufacturing new nuclear weapons designs on a continuous basis. These concerns prompted Congress in 2004 to create the RRW program to “improve the reliability, longevity and certifiability of existing weapons and their components.”

In response to this congressional guidance regarding existing weapons and their components, the NNSA proposed the activities that we now associate with the RRW program: a multiyear effort to introduce a series of new warhead designs into the U.S. stockpile, beginning with the WR1, that would be optimized for high-performance margins, incorporate modern and enhanced security features, and be easier to manufacture, while allowing the NNSA to modernize the nuclear weapons complex.

This conception significantly exceeded the scope and purpose of the original congressional language.[3] In doing so, it introduced unappealing technical and political risks, as well as significant additional costs. Although the stated purpose of the program was to reduce the need for nuclear explosive testing, independent reviews could not assure that the NNSA would be able to certify WR1 without such tests. Furthermore, although administration officials claimed that a more reliable warhead would allow a significant reduction in stockpiled nuclear weapons, the perception that the United States was building a “new” nuclear weapon for the first time since the end of the Cold War overshadowed the administration’s announcement that it would reduce the stockpile to levels not seen since the Eisenhower administration. In response, Congress gave the RRW program a cold reception, culminating in the denial of funding for the program in each of the past two years.

Despite Obama’s stated views and congressional opposition, RRW advocates are likely to renew their efforts to move forward with WR1 either under the name of the RRW program or some other guise. Indeed, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates recently described the long-term outlook for the stockpile as “bleak,” warning that “the information on which we base our annual certification of stockpile grows increasingly dated and incomplete.”[4]

Rather than simply renewing efforts to fund the specific WR1 design, the Obama administration should instead implement a comprehensive strategy to address, in an orderly fashion, the broad questions raised in debates about the RRW program. A systematic investigation would have at least three major elements:

• A comprehensive review of U.S. nuclear weapons strategy, culminating in presidential decisions about the purpose and size of the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile through 2016.

• An independent assessment of the past 15 years of the Stockpile Stewardship Program (SSP), including whether the United States could maintain the stockpile following ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).

• An expanded stockpile stewardship program (Stockpile Stewardship Plus) that would investigate, should current Life Extension Programs (LEPs) prove infeasible or undesirable, alternatives to certify the entire arsenal for the foreseeable future. The expanded program would consider the full spectrum of stewardship options from LEPs that are even more conservative than those in the present program to the new designs with new pits envisioned under the RRW program.

These efforts would put future administrations in a sound place to make technically informed judgments about the most cost-effective and appropriate way to maintain the stockpile within a political context that commands broad, bipartisan support.

What Kind of Nuclear Arsenal?

Clearly, the first question that needs to be answered focuses on the role of nuclear weapons today and the numbers and types of arms that are needed for this purpose. Nuclear weapons are increasingly weapons of last resort. In today’s world, it is difficult to imagine nuclear weapons serving any role other than to deter attacks using nuclear weapons against the United States and other nations. This may not be U.S. declaratory policy, but deterring nuclear attacks is the only mission for nuclear weapons capable of commanding bipartisan support in Congress.

The administration, however, failed to grasp how the declining role of nuclear weapons would shape the reception to WR1. In fact, administration officials failed to offer a coherent rationale for the U.S. nuclear arsenal and the role of the RRW program within it. Representative Pete Visclosky (D-Ind.), chairman of the House Appropriations energy and water subcommittee, decried what he said was a “vacuum” in administration thinking. “There was no new strategy behind it. There was no plan for what the weapons were to be used for, how many there were to be, or how they were to be made,” Visclosky said.[5] The administration also ignored efforts by Congress to communicate that old arguments were now falling on deaf ears.

In the absence of a consensus on the role of nuclear weapons, Congress settled for second best, mandating that any nuclear weapons have the same “military characteristics” as the ones they replace.

In response, the administration chose a design for the RRW with the same yield for the weapon but that subsequently altered other aspects of the warhead. Perversely, in relaxing “Cold War design constraints,” the Department of Energy appears to have proposed a warhead that would be significantly more capable against hard targets such as Russian missile silos than the warhead it would replace. (See sidebar) The administration ended up seeming to contradict not only congressional guidance but its own assertions that Russia is no longer an adversary and the United States does not target Russia as though it were a smaller version of the Soviet Union.

Reducing yield requirements might allow designers to improve reliability, surety, and ease of manufacture. Moreover, sacrificing some yield might have allowed the U.S. Navy to reuse existing MK4 aeroshells, saving as much as several hundred million dollars.[6] Yet, there is no evidence that the NNSA seriously considered relaxing the yield requirement beyond a few percentage points or thought more broadly about the purpose of the weapons. Instead, by focusing on replicating the existing yield of the W76, the Bush administration opened the United States to criticism that it is improving the U.S. arsenal. Even if U.S. officials and lawmakers understand that a better hard-target kill capability was not the Bush administration’s intention, other countries can easily make calculations similar to those outlined here and reach more cynical conclusions about U.S. motives.

Time for an Independent Assessment of the SSP

The Clinton administration created the SSP in 1993 as a science-based effort to sustain the stockpile without the continuous process of designing, testing, and building new nuclear warheads. The approach was to use computational and diagnostic tools to replace the role of nuclear testing. The scientific understanding of nuclear explosions and tools developed under the SSP underpin both the current LEPs as well as the prospect of certifying a new design, such as the WR1, without nuclear testing. Despite the central importance of the SSP, neither the Bush administration nor Congress has commissioned a comprehensive, independent assessment of the program by a group such as the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) or JASON.[7]

A full and complete understanding of the SSP after its first 15 years is necessary to inform policy judgments about how best to maintain the stockpile in the coming years. It is worth noting how much has changed since the Clinton administration proposed the SSP (then called Science-Based Stockpile Stewardship) in 1993. For example, in 1993 and again in 1999 when the Clinton administration sought ratification of the CTBT, the directors of the national laboratories worried that the administration was counting on unrealistic advances in computing power to model nuclear explosions. Since then, as figure 1 (available in the print edition of ACT) illustrates, computing speed has increased by several orders of magnitude, vastly exceeding the 100 teraflop performance goal that the Energy Department established as necessary for stockpile stewardship.[8] Livermore’s Bruce Goodwin, whose back-of-the-envelope calculation helped set the 100 teraflop standard in 1995, recently reflected on how ambitious that goal once seemed. “I remember handing my answer in, thinking that they would kick me out of the room because it was insane at the time,” Goodwin told Nathan Hodge and Sharon Weinberger.[9] Los Alamos’ new computer, RoadRunner, is an order of magnitude faster. The national laboratories are now in a position to answer some of the questions they raised in the 1999 debate over CTBT ratification.

Congress should seek a comprehensive review of “Stockpile Stewardship at 15,” perhaps by an independent body such as the NAS or JASON, to inform discussions about the RRW program (and the CTBT). Any review should pay particular attention to two questions: Has overall confidence in the stockpile and the scientific basis for that judgment increased, decreased, or stayed the same after 15 years of the SSP? Can the United States maintain the safety and reliability of its stockpile in the absence of nuclear testing?

The NAS’ “Technical Issues Relating to Ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty” concluded in 2002 that “confidence in the reliability of the stockpile is better justified technically today than it was” when the United States stopped testing in 1992.[10] This is an important fact, that despite aging weapons and a moratorium on testing, the basis for our confidence has improved over time.

Confidence should be distinguished from reliability.[11] The United States has never used yield testing to establish the reliability of nuclear weapons to any level of statistical confidence. Doing so would have required a cost-prohibitive number of nuclear tests. The laboratories have also never assigned a single numerical value to the reliability of weapons. Nuclear explosions remain too complex to model in their entirety. Instead, the United States has always relied on the judgment of experts to establish confidence in the fundamental soundness of the design and manufacturing processes used to make these weapons.

These experts have used the SSP to answer a number of questions, particularly how plutonium in the primary stage behaves during a nuclear explosion—the most worrisome of aging-related defects. Recent peer-reviewed studies have suggested that plutonium pits have lifetimes of at least 85-100 years.[12] As a result, the United States has as good or better confidence in the longevity of its thermonuclear primaries than it did in 1992. Similarly, the national laboratories have used the SSP to demonstrate that cast and wrought pits perform equivalently in current nuclear weapons designs. This finding in 2007 allowed the United States after an 18-year gap to re-establish the ability to make new, or “remanufactured,” pits using cast pits.[13]

Although some officials have expressed concern that some of the weapons in the current nuclear stockpile were designed with “thin” margins, the national laboratories have made significant progress in recent years in improving the understanding of performance margins. The NNSA has instituted a program for “quantification of margins and uncertainties” (QMU) associated with key events during a nuclear explosion. During activities for the now-canceled W80 Life Extension Program, Livermore reported greater confidence in the performance of the 20-year-old weapon based on the results of QMU analysis.

When the Senate failed to ratify the CTBT in 1999, many senators explained that the SSP needed to be given more time to demonstrate that the United States could maintain the enduring stockpile warheads without testing. A decade later, it is time to answer that question definitively. The NAS also concluded in 2002 that “[t]he United States has the technical capabilities to maintain confidence in the safety and reliability of its existing nuclear-weapon stockpile under the CTBT, provided that adequate resources are made available to the Department of Energy (DOE) nuclear-weapon complex and are properly focused on this task.”

Any comprehensive review of the SSP should consider the question of the reliability of the nuclear arsenal as a whole in the permanent absence of nuclear testing, i.e., under the CTBT, separately from the question of whether the WR1 can be certified without nuclear testing. Some have sought to establish an artificial linkage between the CTBT and the RRW program because both depend on the continuing success of the SSP. Yet, the question of whether the SSP is succeeding overall in its fundamental goals is a different question from whether the knowledge gained should be implemented in the form of life-extending existing warhead designs or fabricating new designs. We have time, perhaps more than a decade, to settle on the best strategy for maintaining the stockpile. On the other hand, the technical community is now in a position to make technical judgments about whether the SSP has made and will continue to make yield testing unnecessary for the maintenance of the stockpile into the foreseeable future.

“Stockpile Stewardship-Plus”

The United States currently has an active stockpile of approximately 5,000 nuclear weapons based on eight designs (the W62 will be retired by the end of 2009). All of these designs entered the stockpile before the end of underground nuclear testing in 1992.

The United States successfully completed an LEP for the W87 in 2004 and is currently conducting LEPs for two more nuclear weapons types. The W76, the warhead that is expected to account for perhaps 40 percent of the deployed force in the future, is undergoing an LEP that will extend its service life by at least 20 years.

Overall, the current LEPs appear to be working quite well. These programs involved changes to the warheads of varying extent. The LEP for the W87 was designated as an ALT, or alteration, because it did not involve significant changes to the operational characteristics of the warhead. The changes to the W76 are expected to be somewhat more extensive and will result in a different Mod, the W76-1.

The potentially negative effect of the accumulation of small changes to warheads during an LEP, however, is a plausible if somewhat esoteric concern. In some cases, materials are no longer manufactured or tacit knowledge has been lost. In other cases, materials are incompatible with worker health and environmental standards.

Under the SSP, the risk of such an accumulation is addressed through “change-control discipline,” an effort to minimize to the greatest extent possible, as well as document, any change to the warhead, including the remanufacture of any components. Some efforts at replication may be simply too costly, dirty, or unsafe. In extreme cases, replication of archaic materials may be impractical. The W76 life extension effort illustrates the challenges in remanufacturing exotic, hazardous materials. The LEP was delayed for several months due to problems in reconstituting the ability to manufacture FOGBANK, a classified material used in the interstage of the W76, W78, and W80 warheads.

So far, the U.S. nuclear weapons complex has been able to reconstitute exotic manufacturing capabilities, including those to make plutonium pits and process FOGBANK. The SSP and the LEP process are stronger for having faced and overcome these challenges.

The RRW program is a philosophically distinct approach to stewardship than the LEP because the RRW program would forgo change-control discipline in search of larger design margins. The WR1, for example, was redesigned to do without FOGBANK. Although these approaches are fundamentally different in philosophy, the reality is that policymakers have many choices along a continuum running from efforts to replicate weapons exactly as they entered the stockpile to entirely new designs that have never been tested.

The current LEP and the WR1 fall along this continuum. The national laboratories should maintain the ability to perform work along a significant portion of this continuum, if only to diversify our options in the event that legacy warheads cannot be remanufactured sufficiently close to original specifications to permit certification. There is no need, however, to conduct this research by building a new design such as the WR1 at this time. Most of the challenging and important tasks currently proposed under the RRW program could be conducted as science campaigns in support of the current life extension process. This was the approach recommended by Congress, which directed the NNSA in the fiscal year 2008 energy and water appropriations legislation to establish an Advanced Certification Campaign to address concerns raised by JASON’s review of the WR1 design.

This Advanced Certification Campaign is a template for what might be termed “Stockpile Stewardship-Plus.” Along with similar campaigns for enhanced surety and ease of manufacture, Stockpile Stewardship-Plus would provide policymakers alternative options within the context of the current LEPs to address unanticipated technical problems, as well as those that might develop over decades. As a last resort, they could support a completely new design, either new pits or canned subassemblies, but this would not be the typical or primary contribution of an expanded SSP. After all, the goal of the RRW program was to increase confidence, surety, and ease of manufacture across the stockpile as a whole. Adding a single new warhead design with those features does not address the legacy systems that will remain in the stockpile for years into the future.

One example of where the SSP might support careful deviations from change-control discipline is the anticipated B61 Mod 3/4/10 LEP planned for 2010-2012. The B61 is the oldest design in the stockpile. It is also extraordinarily complicated. Each B61 has more than 6,000 parts in 1,800 subassemblies that were manufactured by 570 suppliers and nine primary contractors. Remanufacturing the B61 to original specifications is probably infeasible. One option that falls between current LEPs and the RRW program, proposed in a joint study by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Physical Society, and the Center for Strategic and International Studies, is the extensive reuse of components from dismantled warhead types to extend the lifetime of those warheads that remain in the stockpile.[14]

Most of the B61 components lie outside of the nuclear explosive package and are therefore available for extensive testing and modification. The NNSA has also examined the feasibility of reusing pits in an LEP for the B61 3/4/10 LEP. One option might be to make use of the 200 or so W84 pits that remain in the strategic reserve. The W84 and W85 warheads were based on the B61 family, and recycled W85 pits have already been used in the B61-10. The W84 primary is reported to include a modern mechanical safing and arming device.

In this way, much of the excellent and creative technical work done in support of the RRW program can find its way into the important task of sustaining our legacy stockpile. It would also leave open the option, in extraordinary circumstances, of designing and manufacturing a completely new weapon. Such a step should be undertaken as a last resort, only if confidence in a particular type of legacy warhead that is critical to U.S. nuclear requirements were unacceptable and a replacement warhead design could be certified without testing. Other concerns, such as enhanced safety measures and ease of manufacturing, are not sufficient to justify the political and technical risks associated with manufacturing a new warhead.


Over more than 60 years of U.S. nuclear weapons policy, statements about the purpose of our nuclear forces have tended to lag behind the technical, bureaucratic, and political developments. Statements of purpose have provided a post hoc justification for the forces we have, rather than a prescription for the forces we need. Yet, the demise of the RRW program, in the face of technical and political concerns, suggests that the next president will have to embed any decision about sustaining the stockpile in an updated and forward-looking vision of the future role of nuclear weapons in U.S. security policy.


The RRW: Replacing or Improving the U.S. Arsenal?

Jeffrey Lewis

The Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) program’s WR1 design was intended to replace, not improve, the W76 , one of two warheads that arm the U.S. D-5 submarine-launched ballistic missile and that will make up a significant portion, perhaps 40 percent, of the strategic nuclear weapons deployed by the United States once reductions under the 2002 Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty are completed in 2012.

The W76 has a yield of approximately 100 kilotons, five times the size of the bomb that destroyed Nagasaki. The W76 entered the stockpile in 1979 at a time when the United States was increasing its military capabilities in response to the perception that the Soviet Union was seeking a capability to fight and win a nuclear war. It was meant to fix a perceived gap in the U.S. arsenal: Through the 1970s, the U.S. submarine force had little or no hard-target capability against Soviet missile silos. The relatively small and inaccurate warhead for the Poseidon was unable to hold Soviet hard targets at risk (see table 1 in the print edition of ACT).

Administration officials sold the WR1 as part of an effort to “relax” Cold War design constraints that placed a premium on keeping warheads light so many of them could be placed on a single missile. Yet by making the warhead heavier—it will have the same aerodynamic characteristics as the W88/MK5—the WR1 will also be more accurate than the W76/MK4. Military officials have testified that the WR1 will be slightly more accurate than the W76/MK4 to compensate for a small loss in yield. This is not surprising. A heavier warhead in the right packaging might have a higher ballistic coefficient, much as a rock drops straight down while a leaf drifts in the wind.

Initial calculations suggest that the heavier, more accurate WR1 may have a significantly greater capability against hard targets. As one can see in figure 1, I calculate that the W76 has a 43 percent chance (“single shot probability of kill”) of destroying a target capable of withstanding up to 5,000 pounds per square inch (psi). In contrast, the WR1 would have a 55 percent chance of destroying the same target, roughly equivalent to placing a 160 kiloton warhead in the less accurate MK4 re-entry vehicle. In other words, the effect of replacing the W76 with the WR1 for a 5,000 psi target is the same as increasing the yield of the W76 by 60 percent. By the same calculation, had the National Nuclear Security Administration lowered the yield of WR1 to 60 kilotons, it would still have performed equivalently to the W76 against 5,000 psi targets. These comparisons are illustrated by the “hypothetical warheads” in Table 1 (available in the print edition).

To be clear, increasing military capabilities was not the intent of the RRW program. The ability to destroy a 5,000 psi target is not the only measure of capability, and there are more efficient means to increase the hard-target kill capability, including improved fuses that are being integrated as part of the W76 Life Extension Program. Still, the result is unfortunate.


U.S. Nuclear Weapons Designations

The United States uses the “mark-mod-alt” convention to identify nuclear weapons systems in its stockpile.

Mark (MK). The United States numbers nuclear weapons in a single, sequential series with a designation in the form of MKn (the MK is usually written as Wn or Bn, with W for “warhead” and B for “bomb”). The Nuclear Weapons Council assigns each number, n, sequentially by date of entry into Phase 2A of the nuclear weapons development cycle. Thus the B83 gravity bomb entered Phase 2A before the W88 missile warhead. The Nuclear Weapons Council apparently intended to restart this sequence with the first nuclear-weapon design selected from the RRW program, designating it WR1.

Modifications (Mod). Normally, changes in components that result in changes to operational characteristics, safety or control features, or technical procedures are designated with a Mod number, which the Nuclear Weapons Council also assigns sequentially. For example, Los Alamos repackaged existing B61 Mod 7 gravity bombs into an earth-penetrating steel case designed by Sandia, resulting in the designation B61 Mod 11. The first component set of a new MK is designated Mod 0, although the Mod 0 designation is usually omitted to avoid confusion if no other modifications exist.

Alterations (ALT). If changes in components do not result in changes to operational characteristics and the differences are transparent to military units and other users, the changes are designated as an ALT. For example, the development of new spin rocket motors for the B61 results in ALTs numbered 356, 358, and 359.




Jeffrey Lewis is director of the Nuclear Strategy and Nonproliferation Initiative at the New America Foundation and publisher of the blog, ArmsControlWonk.com.


1. The Bush administration also requested $23.3 million for supporting work by the U.S. Navy. The House and Senate defense authorization bills provide no funding for RRW work in this account, and the final bill provided no money for work at the Department of Energy either.
2.Arms Control Today 2008 Presidential Q&A: Democratic Nominee Barack Obama,” September 24, 2008, www.armscontrol.org/system/files/20080924_ACT_PresidentialQA_Obama_Sept08.pdf.
3. The House Appropriations energy and water subcommittee explained its decision in 2007 to zero out funding by noting that the “RRW program the [Department of Defense] and NNSA have pursued at the direction of Congress goes far beyond the scope and purpose of the original congressional language and intent.”
4. Robert Gates, speech to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, October 28, 2008.
5. “Statement of Chairman Peter J. Visclosky, Subcommittee Markup: Fiscal Year 2009 Energy and Water Development Appropriations Act,” June 17, 2008, www.house.gov/list/press/in01_visclosky/pr080617.html.
6. Elaine M. Grossman, “New Warhead Might Require New Shells, Navy Says,” Global Security Newswire, November 1, 2007.
7. JASON is an independent scientific advisory group that conducts studies on science and technology issues relating to national defense for the U.S. government.
8. For a version of this chart with a logarithmic y axis, see http://www.armscontrolwonk.com/1912/roadrunner.
9. Nathan Hodge and Sharon Weinberger, “A Nuclear Family Rivalry,” Slate, July 13, 2005, www.slate.com/id/2122382/entry/2122493/.
10. National Academy of Sciences, “Technical Issues Related to the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty,” 2002.
11. Robert W. Nelson, “If It Ain’t Broke: The Already Reliable U.S. Nuclear Arsenal,” Arms Control Today, April 2006, pp. 18-24.
12. See Jeffrey Lewis, “3 Studies Show Pu Pits Age Well,” ArmsControlWonk, November 29, 2006, www.armscontrolwonk.com/1307/3-studies-show-pu-pits-age-well.
13. Until the closure of Rocky Flats in 1989, U.S. pits were machined.
14. American Physical Society, American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Nuclear Weapons in 21st Century U.S. National Security (forthcoming).



The Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) as envisioned by the Bush administration is effectively dead. This past fall, for the second year in a row, the Democratic Congress zeroed out funding for the RRW program despite Bush administration claims that extending the life of the current warhead types in the U.S. nuclear stockpile would, at some distant point in the future, lead to a sharp uptick in aging-related defects. (Continue)

Strategic Collapse: The Failure of the Bush Nuclear Doctrine

Joseph Cirincione

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in September that the Bush administration will leave the proliferation “situation…in far better shape than we found it.”[1] If only this were true. Instead, Bush officials leave office like financiers fleeing busted Wall Street banks, with precious assets squandered on risky ventures, once-solid institutions crumbling, surpluses turned into gaping deficits, and a string of problems mismanaged into crises that threaten to bring down a decades-old global regime.

Nearly every proliferation problem President George W. Bush inherited has grown worse with his stewardship. Every member of the “axis of evil” is more dangerous than they were in 2001. Iraq did not have a nuclear weapons program before the war and does not now, but the unnecessary war destabilized the region and increased the risks of nuclear terrorism, while Iran and North Korea advanced further on their nuclear programs in the past five years than they had in the previous ten. With Osama bin Laden entrenched in an unstable, nuclear-armed Pakistan and protected by a new Pakistani Taliban, he is closer to a nuclear bomb than ever before. Thousands of Russian warheads remain ready to launch on minutes notice even as U.S.-Russian tensions rise. A nuclear arms race continues unabated in South Asia. More countries seek the technologies necessary for weapons, and fewer nations trust the word of the United States. The interlocking network of treaties, controls, and security agreements known collectively as the nonproliferation regime is closer to collapse now than ever in its history, as proliferation drivers increase and barriers weaken.
Failure of economic regimes threatens global depression; failure of the nonproliferation regime threatens global catastrophe. It must be addressed with at least the vigor devoted to financial concerns. If the new administration is to design an adequate rescue plan, it must understand what went wrong over the past eight years.

Failures of Doctrine

There was nothing inevitable about the current dire predicament. Like the financial crisis, deeply flawed policies created the proliferation crisis. It was not a matter of good ideas poorly implemented; these were terrible ideas from the start.

Neoconservative institutes had spent years developing radical alternatives to the existing security policies. These policies heavily influenced the new Bush administration, in many cases when experts from these institutes were appointed to key positions. John Bolton, who served as undersecretary of state for arms control and international security in Bush’s first term, had summarized his contempt for arms control as a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in 1999. The Clinton administration, Bolton wrote, suffered from a “fascination with arms control agreements as a substitute for real nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction.”[2] National security adviser Stephen Hadley’s special assistant, Michael Allen, said, “We’re like ‘Arms control, what’s that?’… I often hear about arms control from the old-timers, but it’s so different now.… Most of the times it’s isolate, how can we isolate a country even more?”[3]

Gary Schmitt, at the neoconservative Project for the New American Century, explained, “Conservatives don’t like arms control agreements for the simple reason that they rarely, if ever, increase U.S. security.… The real issue here, and the underlying question, is whether the decades-long effort to control the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and the means to deliver them through arms control treaties has in fact worked.” He contended that it was no longer “plausible to argue that our overall security was best served by a web of parchment accords, and not our own military capabilities.”[4]

Although many neoconservatives assumed high government positions in the new administration,[5] it was not until the attacks of September 11, 2001, that they were able to profoundly change the course of U.S. proliferation policy. In the wake of the attacks, their views overwhelmed the pragmatist views of Secretary of State Colin Powell and others who supported existing treaties, favored continuing the negotiated elimination of programs in North Korea and other states, and saw U.S. global leadership as part of traditional great-power relations. Rather than the realism prescribed by Rice in her 2000 Foreign Affairs article outlining the purported policy Bush would follow, the administration ended up supporting the concept of a “benevolent empire ”[6] championed by neoconservative thinker Robert Kagan in his 1998 Foreign Policy article.[7]

Hegemony trumped realism. Pragmatists denounced or suppressed their former convictions for a new order built on three interrelated principles, developed by neoconservatives but now known collectively as the Bush doctrine.

First, the United States would favor direct military action over diplomacy and containment. Bush explained why: “Deterrence—the promise of massive retaliation against nations—means nothing against shadowy terrorist networks with no nation or citizens to defend. Containment is not possible when unbalanced dictators with weapons of mass destruction can deliver those weapons on missiles or secretly provide them to terrorist allies.”[8]

Second, the United States would take these military actions before actual threats developed. As Bush argued, “Some have said we must not act until the threat is imminent. Since when have terrorists and tyrants announced their intentions, politely putting us on notice before they strike? If this threat is permitted to fully and suddenly emerge, all actions, all words, and all recriminations would come too late.”[9]

Third, the administration pivoted from terrorist groups to nation-states, linking the September 11 attackers directly to regimes officials believed hostile to U.S. interests. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz proclaimed, “[I]t’s going to be a broad campaign; it’s not going to end quickly. One of those objectives is the [a]l Qaeda network. The second objective is state support for terrorism, and a third is this larger connection between states that support terrorism and states that develop weapons of mass destruction.”[10]

The new, action-oriented approach was detailed in two key documents: “The National Security Strategy of the United States of America,” released in September 2002, and the “National Strategy to Combat Weapons of Mass Destruction,” released in December 2002. The latter called it “a fundamental change from the past.”[11] The Nuclear Posture Review, made public in early 2002, reflected these ideas, detailing expanded missions for nuclear weapons including against underground bunkers, mobile targets, and many conventional military situations, requiring thousands of nuclear weapons in the U.S. arsenal. “A broader array of capability is needed,” said Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, summarizing the new posture, “to dissuade states from undertaking political, military, or technical courses of action that would threaten U.S. and allied security.”[12]

In this view, nuclear proliferation was part of a larger, global struggle. The threats today were different than during the Cold War and greater, Bush officials argued. The primary threat came from a small number of outlaw states that had no regard for international norms and were determined to acquire nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons. Whereas previous presidents sought the elimination of these weapons through treaties, Bush focused on the nexus of these states, weapons, and terrorists. Bush changed the focus from “what” to “who.” The new strategy sought the elimination of regimes rather than weapons, believing the United States could determine which countries were responsible enough to have nuclear weapons and which ones were not. U.S. power, not multilateral treaties, would enforce this judgment.

The strategy seemed to succeed at first. The war in Afghanistan was fast and cheap. Even though U.S. forces failed to capture bin Laden, al Qaeda was in disarray and the Taliban routed from power. Flush with victory, Bush announced the U.S. withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in December 2001 with none of the immediate consequences opponents had predicted, as Russia resigned itself, reluctantly, to its abrogation. The administration and the Republican Congress swiftly increased funding for anti-missile programs and the entire defense budget. Anti-missile program funding increased from $4 billion in fiscal year 2000 to more than $9 billion by fiscal year 2004; overall military spending spiked from $280 billion to $380 billion over the same period, not including the price of the wars. (These trends would continue with the defense budget for fiscal year 2009 at $542.5 billion while wars in Iraq and Afghanistan cost an additional $12 billion per month.)[13]

The administration cowed congressional Democrats more concerned with political positioning than policy into approving military action against Iraq and defied traditional patterns by gaining Republican seats in the 2002 congressional elections, taking control of the Senate (and increasing their margins in 2004). In 2003, Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney bulldozed skeptics in their drive for war with Iraq, cheered by the media and a small army of Washington experts warning of “gathering storms,” “mushroom clouds,” and the catastrophic consequences of any delay to invasion. Inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency and the UN Special Commission on Iraq found no evidence of any weapons or weapons program in the months they were allowed to search, but administration officials mocked their work and asserted there was “no doubt” the weapons existed. Inspectors estimated that they could have certified the absence of any weapons with just a few more weeks of investigation.

The initial phase of the Iraq war appeared to accomplish the mission and began paying dividends. In April 2003, Iran, which had cooperated in the overthrow of the Taliban and welcomed the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, quietly offered to talk with the United States about its nuclear program, its support for Palestinian groups, and its relationship with Israel. Bush officials rejected the offer and instead began talking of campaigns to overthrow regimes in Iran, Syria, and even North Korea.[14]

In December, in the most significant proliferation success of the Bush administration, Libya agreed to give up its nuclear, chemical, and long-range missile programs. Although the presence of 250,000 U.S. troops in the region undoubtedly played a role, the victory became possible only when the administration departed from its strategy of forcing a change in regimes and sought instead a change in a regime’s behavior. The combination of years of sanctions, threats of force, and credible assurances of security won Libya’s reversal. Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi went from being the poster child for rogue-state leaders to a man Bush called a “model” that others should follow.

Information Libya provided, along with information from Iranian officials after the disclosure of their secret enrichment program, led to the public exposure of the Abdul Qadeer Khan nuclear black market, another success story although a partial one, as explained below.

Finally, in April 2004, Bush officials won passage of UN Security Council Resolution 1540, requiring all nations to take greater legal and diplomatic efforts to block proliferation, a major step forward and one that, again, relied on diplomacy and existing international institutions rather than ad hoc coalitions and forced regime change. Administration officials also were able to ignore the 2005 nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference, sending only low-ranking officials and rebuffing efforts to get a compromise agreement without apparent consequences.
The new strategy, however, could not hold. By 2005 it was clear that their plans were falling apart.

Ten Policy Failures of the Administration

The most consequential failure of the Bush doctrine was the invasion of Iraq. The war was the first implementation of the counterproliferation strategy and justified almost exclusively by the claim that Hussein had or soon could have nuclear weapons that he would give to terrorists to attack the United States. Bush told the nation on the eve of war, “The danger is clear: using chemical, biological or, one day, nuclear weapons, obtained with the help of Iraq, the terrorists could fulfill their stated ambitions and kill thousands or hundreds of thousands.” Bush dismissed entreaties from U.S. allies to delay the war. “No nation can possibly claim that Iraq has disarmed,” he said. “We are now acting because the risks of inactions would be far greater.” In passing, at the end of his remarks, the president spoke of his desire to advance democracy, liberty, and peace in the region.[15]

By 2005, government and independent reviews had proven false each of the prewar claims. Iraq did not have nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons, save for a few obsolete chemical weapons shells; programs for producing such weapons; or plans to restart these programs shut down in the early 1990s by UN inspectors. None of the key findings in the U.S. National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq were accurate, with the exception of the finding that Hussein was highly unlikely to transfer any weapons to terrorist groups. U.S. and British officials went far beyond the intelligence findings in their public statements.

As Americans realized the war was not necessary and saw the mounting war casualties and costs, they turned decisively against the war and for withdrawal.[16] International opinion of the United States plummeted even faster to historic lows. A 2005 Pew Study found that when the publics of 16 nations were asked to give favorability ratings of five major leading nations—China, France, Germany, Japan, and the United States—the United States “fared the worst of the group. In just six of the 16 countries surveyed does the United States attract a favorability rating” of 50 percent or higher.[17] Not surprisingly, the United States drew the most negative responses from countries in the Middle East, including U.S. allies Jordan and Turkey.

The failure of the war and of the analysts and officials who championed it has been well documented elsewhere, although few have had their careers harmed by having been so catastrophically wrong. The damage the Bush doctrine caused to other areas of U.S. national security has been less well examined.

In addition to the massive failure in Iraq, there were 10 key failures of the administration’s policies against proliferation:

1. The danger of nuclear terrorism has increased. The turn from Afghanistan to Iraq allowed al Qaeda and the Taliban to regroup in nuclear-armed Pakistan and counterattack in Afghanistan. U.S. intelligence officials concluded in February 2005 Senate testimony that U.S. policy in the Middle East has fueled anti-U.S. feeling and that the Iraq war has provided jihadists with new recruits who “will leave Iraq experienced in and focused on acts of urban terrorism.”[18] After the Iraq invasion, the number of terrorist attacks rose globally, and al Qaeda grew in influence and adherents.[19] Nuclear sites around the world, not just in Pakistan, remain vulnerable to terrorist attack, theft, or diversion. The amount of nuclear material secured in the two years after September 11, 2001, was at best equal to the amount secured in the two years before that date. [20] Brian Finlay of the Henry L. Stimson Center noted, “Top-line nonproliferation funding has remained largely static since 2005, increasing only marginally from $1.25 billion…to $1.4 billion” during fiscal years 2005-2007. [21] In 2008 a report from former September 11 commission chairmen Lee Hamilton and Thomas Kean gave the administration a “C” on its nuclear efforts. [22]

2. Iran’s nuclear program accelerated. Iran went from nuclear research and experiments to the ability to produce industrial quantities of enriched uranium and from a few test machines to 4,000 working centrifuges. The United States failed to develop a coherent plan for stopping the program. Most of the construction and development of Iranian nuclear facilities occurred after 2000, including the opening of plants to produce uranium gas, the first successful operation of a centrifuge cascade to enrich uranium, and the construction of a vast facility to house more than 50,000 centrifuges. The administration stood aside and even thwarted European efforts to negotiate an end to the program, refusing until this year even to meet with senior Iranian officials about the program. Former Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns now says, “I served as the Bush administration’s point person on Iran for three years but was never permitted to meet an Iranian.” [23] The United States has also failed to contain Iran’s regional ambitions. Senator Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) says, “America’s refusal to recognize Iran’s status as a legitimate power does not decrease Iran’s influence, but rather increases it.”[24] In response to U.S. failures, five former secretaries of state and two former national security advisers have urged U.S. officials to engage in direct negotiations with Iran at very senior levels. [25]

3. North Korea detonated a nuclear bomb and expanded its weapons program. Pyongyang went from enough material for perhaps two weapons to enough for up to 12. Since 2002, North Korea ended the freeze on its plutonium program, claimed to have reprocessed the plutonium into weapons, withdrew from the NPT, and detonated a nuclear device. North Korea may have also traded nuclear technology to Syria and continued transfers of missile technology to Syria as well as Pakistan and Iran. The inability of the administration to organize a consistent approach to North Korea caused the process to collapse repeatedly, and the internal struggles jeopardized vital national security interests. By September 2008, the “pragmatists” appeared to have prevailed over the hard-liners opposed to negotiations and resuscitated a process for a verifiable end to the Korean nuclear program.

4. Nuclear technologies useable for weapons programs proliferated around the world. More nations declared their intentions to develop the ability to enrich uranium for nuclear reactor fuel, the same technologies that can be used to enrich uranium for nuclear bombs. U.S. proposals to curtail these technologies failed to win any significant support. In February 2004, Bush called for current nuclear exporters to provide nuclear fuel at reasonable costs for countries that renounce enrichment and reprocessing. He also urged members of the Nuclear Suppliers Group to cease sales of reprocessing and enrichment equipment to nations without functioning programs. [26] The plan drew little support, follow-up was ineffective, and efforts to dissuade nations from pursuing nuclear enrichment programs have failed. Brazil has continued its enrichment programs, [27] and other nations considering engaging in enrichment activities include Argentina, Australia, Canada, South Africa, South Korea, and Ukraine. Further, more than a dozen Middle East nations have expressed interest in pursuing nuclear energy and research programs, including Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Libya, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates. [28] If these programs proceed, can additional enrichment programs be far behind?

5. Thousands of Cold War nuclear weapons remain poised for attack. The process of negotiating additional verifiable reductions in U.S. and Russian arsenals ended as the administration concluded a toothless treaty without verification provisions or limits on launchers (the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty) and then shut down the negotiation processes supported by every U.S. president since Harry Truman. [29] The administration’s desire to expand NATO by bringing Georgia and Ukraine into the alliance, coupled with plans to deploy strategic missile interceptors and a radar in Poland and the Czech Republic, aggravated Russian concerns over U.S. intentions. The Russian-Georgian conflict has brought U.S.-Russian relations to their worst point since before the collapse of the Soviet Union. The failure to better manage Russian relations predates this administration and is aggravated in no small part by Russian policies. There was no coherent plan, however, for addressing the danger from the almost 1,300 Russian nuclear warheads poised for attack within 15 minutes, even as the deterioration of its radars and surveillance satellites introduces grave doubts about the reliability of its early-warning system. Former Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) warns, “It’s insane for us, 16 years after the Cold War, to think of the Russian president having four or five minutes to make a decision about whether what may be a false warning requires a response before he loses his retaliatory force.”[30]

6. The currency of nuclear weapons increased in value. The administration’s nuclear doctrine and its proposals for new nuclear weapons encouraged the view among other nations that nuclear weapons could substitute for conventional weapons. As Stephen Hadley signaled before becoming national security adviser, “It is often an unstated premise in the current debate that if nuclear weapons are needed at all, they are needed only to deter the nuclear weapons of others. I am not sure this unstated premise is true.” [31] Hadley developed his ideas further as a participant in the National Institute for Public Policy’s January 2001 report “Rationale and Requirements for U.S. Nuclear Forces and Arms Control.” [32] The group called for a more “flexible” nuclear deterrent against a wide range of targets. Accordingly, the Nuclear Posture Review delivered to Congress in December 2001 advocated developing new nuclear weapons capabilities for use against non-nuclear targets, including chemical and biological weapons stockpiles, underground bunkers, mobile targets, and states without nuclear weapons, such as Iran, Iraq, Libya, Syria, and others. Congress refused to fund these new weapons, but Russia and France mirrored the U.S. logic in policies justifying use of nuclear weapons against conventional threats.[33]

7. The nonproliferation regime moved closer to catastrophic collapse. The 2005 NPT Review Conference ended acrimoniously, failing to act on the consensus of the majority of states for stronger nonproliferation and disarmament efforts or to adopt any of the dozens of useful suggestions proposed by many of the nations present. As other nations concluded that the United States had no intention of fulfilling its NPT-related disarmament obligations, including ratifying the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty or moving decisively toward nuclear disarmament, they balked at shouldering additional anti-proliferation burdens. In 2004 a high-level advisory panel whose members included Brent Scowcroft, President George H.W. Bush’s national security adviser, warned the UN secretary-general, “We are approaching a point at which the erosion of the non-proliferation regime could become irreversible and result in a cascade of proliferation.” [34]

8. The U.S.-India deal blew a hole through the barriers to the spread of nuclear weapons. Bush’s July 2005 decision to reverse U.S. policy toward India and begin selling sensitive nuclear technology and fuel seems to reward India’s nuclear proliferation. By providing India with supplies of uranium, the deal will allow the country to accelerate its production of nuclear weapons, a capability Pakistan will be quick to mirror. The action is a de facto recognition of India as a nuclear-weapon state, with all the rights and privileges reserved for those states that have joined the NPT, yet without the same obligations, raising concerns that states such as Pakistan and Israel might follow. Indeed, Pakistan has already demanded a similar deal with the United States, [35] and China reportedly has agreed to sell Pakistan two nuclear reactors. The deal will make it even more difficult to enforce existing rules with states such as Iran and North Korea and convince other states to accept tougher nonproliferation standards. Representative Ed Markey (D-Mass.) said, “There are many ways to deepen U.S.-India ties without damaging the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.” [36]

9. Nuclear smuggling networks remained active.
Although the Abdul Qadeer Khan nuclear black market was disrupted in 2004, failure to do so earlier allowed Iran, Libya, and possibly North Korea to acquire key components for nuclear weapons production (first detected under the Clinton administration, who also did not shut it down). The failure to get more cooperation from Pakistan, which used the network for its own nuclear imports, made it difficult to determine if the network had been shut down completely or simply gone further underground. European intelligence reports indicate that illicit nuclear sales continue to thrive in the region. [37]

10. Anti-missile programs failed to fulfill their promise. From 2000 to 2007, the United States spent almost $60 billion on anti-missile systems without realizing any substantial increase in military capability. These systems were to have been a core part of the administration’s plan to prevent proliferation. The ground-based strategic anti-missile system under construction in Alaska, however, is widely regarded as ineffective. [38] If current plans, including construction of a U.S. anti-missile system in Europe, are implemented, spending from fiscal years 2009 to 2013 on all anti-missile programs would balloon an additional $62.3 billion. The rush to deploy an ineffective technology against a nonexistent long-range Iranian missile threat has aggravated relations with Russia, a nation key to any effective plan to contain and engage Iran, while passing up a Russian offer of radar bases near Iran that could help counter the existing threat of Iran’s short- and medium-range missiles.

Repairing the Damage

There is now a broad recognition of the failure of the Bush approach, if not yet agreement on all the specifics. Council of Foreign Relations President Richard Haass summed up the problem with the administration’s attraction to regime change as a solution to proliferation: “It is not hard to fathom why: regime change is less distasteful than diplomacy and less dangerous than living with new nuclear states. There is only one problem: it is highly unlikely to have the desired effect soon enough.” [39]

Burns argues, “The next president needs to act more creatively and boldly to defend our interests by revalidating diplomacy as a key weapon in our national arsenal and rebuilding our understaffed and underfunded diplomatic corps.” Rather than defaulting to the idea of using U.S. military force against Iran or other nations, Burns says, “dialogue and discussion, talking and listening, are the smarter ways to defend our country, end crises and sometimes even sow the seeds of an ultimate peace.”[40]

It is more than just a turn to diplomacy; the nation needs a new course of action. The collapse of the Bush doctrine is a chance for the new administration to change U.S. nuclear policy fundamentally toward one that “would take into account the limited present-day need for a nuclear arsenal as well as the military and political dangers associated with maintaining a massive stockpile,” as Manhattan Project veteran Wolfgang Panofsky wrote just before his death. “Given that the risks posed by nuclear weapons far outweigh their benefits in today’s world, the United States should lead a worldwide campaign to de-emphasize their role in international relations.” [41]

A growing majority of U.S. national security experts across the political spectrum now embrace this view. So do both presidential candidates. Senator Barack Obama (D-Ill.) said, “It’s time to send a clear message: America seeks a world with no nuclear weapons.”[42] Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) pledged, “[T]he United States should lead a global effort at nuclear disarmament.”[43] A number of high-level and grass-roots efforts are underway that will encourage and help the new president to implement this vision.

Brookings Institution expert Ivo Daalder and former Assistant Secretary of Defense Jan Lodal in their seminal article, “The Logic of Zero,” argue that “[g]iven this remarkable bipartisan consensus, the next president will have an opportunity to make the elimination of all nuclear weapons the organizing principle of U.S. nuclear policy.”[44] They and other experts groups have developed concrete plans for practical steps toward elimination that promise to be far more effective than the failed policies of the past eight years.

Will the new president heed their advice? The struggle within a new administration is just beginning between the “transformationalists” who seek a new vision to transform U.S. nuclear policy and the “incrementalists” who would focus on gradual steps using the techniques of previous years. The president must choose, for the policy window now open will not last long. Delay and indecision could cost him the chance to bring about the visionary change he promised in his campaign and the relief from the nuclear dangers the world so urgently needs. ACT

Joseph Cirincione is president of Ploughshares Fund. He is author of Bomb Scare: The History and Future of Nuclear Weapons (2007). Previously, he served as senior vice president for national security and international policy at the Center for American Progress and as director for nonproliferation at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Cirincione worked for nine years in the U.S. House of Representatives as a professional staff member of the Committee on Armed Services and the Committee on Government Operations.


1. Glenn Kessler, “Rice: U.S. Has Aided in Nuclear Regulation,” The Washington Post, September 8, 2008, p. A13. See “Remarks With Moroccan Foreign Minister Fassi Fihri,” September 7, 2008, www.state.gov/secretary/rm/2008/09/109233.htm (press conference with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice).
2. John Bolton, “A Legacy of Betrayal,” Washington Times, May 12, 1999.
3. Dafna Linzer, “The NSC’s Sesame Street Generation,” The Washington Post, March 12, 2006.
4. Gary Schmitt, “Memorandum to Opinion Leaders,” Project for a New American Century, December 13, 2001.
5. Elliot Abrams, special assistant to the president and senior director on the National Security Council for Near East and North African affairs (2002-2005) and deputy national security adviser (2005-present); John Bolton, undersecretary of state for arms control and international security (2001-2005) and U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations (2005); Richard Perle, Defense Policy Board chairman (2001-2003); Donald Rumsfeld, secretary of defense (2001-2006); Paul Wolfowitz, deputy secretary of defense (2001-2005) and State Department International Security Advisory Board chairman (2008-present).
6. Condoleezza Rice, “Campaign 2000: Promoting the National Interest,” Foreign Affairs, January/February 2000.
7. Robert Kagan, “The Benevolent Empire,” Foreign Policy, June 1998.
8. Office of the Press Secretary, The White House, “President Bush Delivers Graduation Speech at West Point,” June 1, 2002.
9. Office of the Press Secretary, The White House, “President Bush Delivers ‘State of the Union,’” January 28, 2003.
10. Paul Wolfowitz, “Campaign Against Terror,” Frontline, PBS, April 22, 2002.
11. “National Strategy to Combat Weapons of Mass Destruction,” 2002, p. 1.
12. Department of Defense, “Nuclear Posture Review,” December 31, 2001.
13. The Congressional Research Service calculates that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan had cost $859 billion by mid-2008. The Congressional Budget Office estimates the wars would eventually cost $2.4 trillion. See Amy Belasco, “Cost of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Other Global War on Terror Operations since 9/11,” CRS Report for Congress, July 14, 2008; Peter Orszag, “Estimated Costs of U.S. Operation in Iraq and Afghanistan and of Other Activities Related to the War on Terrorism,” Statement Before the House Committee on the Budget, October 24, 2007. See also Center for Arms Control and Non-proliferation, “Analysis of House-Senate Agreement on FY2009 Defense Authorization Bill,” September 24, 2008.
14. See David Sanger, “Aftereffects: Nuclear Standoff,” The New York Times, April 21, 2003, p. A15.
15. Office of the Press Secretary, The White House, “President Says Saddam Hussein Must Leave Iraq Within 48 Hours,” March 17, 2003.
16. Jeffrey M. Jones “Opposition to Iraq War Reaches New High,” Gallup Inc., April 24, 2008.
17. “U.S. Image Up Slightly, but Still Negative: American Character Gets Mixed Reviews,” Pew Research Center, June 23, 2005.
18. Porter Goss, “DCI’s Global Intelligence Challenges Briefing,” Testimony Before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, February 16, 2005. See Vice Admiral Lowell E. Jacoby, “Current and Projected National Security Threats to the United States,” Testimony Before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, February 16, 2005.
19. In 2002 the number of “significant” international terrorist incidents was 136; in 2003 it was 175; and in 2004, it was 651. See U.S. Department of State, “Patterns of Global Terrorism 2002”; U.S. Department of State, “Patterns of Global Terrorism 2003.” See also National Counterterrorism Center, “A Chronology of Significant International Terrorism for 2004,” April 27, 2008.
20. Matthew Bunn and Anthony Weir, “Securing the Bomb 2005: The New Global Imperatives,” May 2005, pp. 30-32. See National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), “NNSA Expands Nuclear Security Cooperation With Russia,” October 2005 (fact sheet).
21. Brian Finlay, “Nuclear Terrorism: U.S. Policies to Reduce the Threat of Nuclear Terror,” Partnership for a Secure America, September 2008.
22. Lee Hamilton and Thomas Kean, “WMD Report Card: Evaluating U.S. Policies to Prevent Nuclear, Chemical & Biological Terrorism Since 2005,” Partnership for a Secure America, September 2008, p. 3.
23. Nicholas Burns, “We Should Talk to Our Enemies,” Newsweek, October 25, 2008.
24. Chuck Hagel and Peter Kaminsky, America: Our Next Chapter, Tough Questions, Straight Answers (New York: Harper Collins Press, 2008), p. 93.
25. Former Secretaries of State Madeleine Albright, James Baker, Warren Christopher, Henry Kissinger, and Colin Powell said they favored talking to Iran as part of a strategy to stop Tehran’s development of a nuclear weapons program during a forum hosted by The George Washington University on September 15, 2008. Former national security advisers Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft also praised engagement at a July 2008 event at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
26. Office of the Press Secretary, The White House, “President Announces New Measures to Counter the Threat of WMD,” February 11, 2004.
27. Steve Kingstone, “Brazil Joins World’s Nuclear Club,” BBC News, May 6, 2006. See Leonor Tomero, “The Future of GNEP: The International Partners,” Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, July 31, 2008.
28. Sharon Squassoni, “Risks and Realities: The New Nuclear Energy Revival,” Arms Control Today, May 2007.
29. Presidents Bush and Vladimir Putin signed the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT) in June 2002. Now, for the first time since the negotiated threat reduction process began with SALT in the early 1970s, there are no plans for additional agreements. Under SORT, both sides are required to reduce their deployed strategic nuclear weapons to between 1,700 and 2,200 by the end of 2012. Under the proposed START III, negotiated by Presidents Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin in 1997, each side would have drawn down to similar numbers of deployed strategic nuclear weapons by 2007, five years earlier than envisioned under SORT. START III would also have provided a framework for discussions on reductions in tactical nuclear weapons and dismantlement of warheads. See Joseph Cirincione, Jon Wolfsthal, and Miriam Rajkumar, Deadly Arsenals (Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2005), pp. 204-205, 209-211. See Hans Kristensen and Robert Norris, “Nuclear Notebook: U.S. Nuclear Forces, 2008,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, March/April 2008, pp. 50-53.
30. “A World Free of Nuclear Weapons: An Interview With Nuclear Threat Initiative Co-Chairman Sam Nunn,” Arms Control Today, March 2008, p. 6.
31. Stephen Hadley, “Policy Consideration in Using Nuclear Weapons,” Duke Journal of Comparative and International Law, Vol. 8, No. 23 (Fall 1997), p. 23.
32. Several of the participants were appointed to senior positions on nuclear policy in the administration, including Linton Brooks, Stephen Cambone, and Robert Joseph. See Keith Payne et al., “Rationale and Requirements for U.S. Nuclear Forces and Arms Control,” National Institute for Public Policy, January 2001.
33. Department of Defense, “Nuclear Posture Review.”
34. Kofi Annan, “A More Secure World: Our Shared Responsibility,” December 1, 2004, p. 3.
35. “Pakistan Demands U.S. Nuclear Deal,” BBC News, October 2, 2008.
36. Josh Loewenstein, “House Set to Approve Version of U.S.-India Deal With Added Oversight,” CongressNow, September 25, 2008.
37. Ian Cobain and Ian Traynor, “Intelligence Report Claims Nuclear Market Thriving.” The Guardian, January 4, 2006, p. 6.
38. In April 2008, former Pentagon Director of Operational Test and Evaluation Philip Coyle told the House Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs that “[t]he [anti-missile system being deployed in Europe] still has no demonstrated effectiveness to defend the U.S., let alone Europe, against enemy attack under realistic operational conditions.” Lisbeth Gronlund, a senior scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists, commented at the same hearing that “the United States is no closer today to being able to effectively defend against long-range ballistic missiles than it was 25 years ago.”
39. Richard Haass “Regime Change and Its Limits,” Foreign Affairs, July/August 2005.
40. Burns, “We Should Talk to Our Enemies.”
41. Wolfgang Panofky, “Nuclear Insecurity,” Foreign Affairs, September/October 2007.
42. Barack Obama, “A New Strategy for a New World,” Washington, D.C., July 15, 2008.
43. “Remarks by John McCain to the Los Angeles World Affairs Council,” March 26, 2008, www.johnmccain.com/Informing/News/Speeches/872473dd-9ccb-4ab4-9d0d-ec54f0e7a497.htm.
44. Ivo Daalder and Jan Lodal, “The Logic of Zero,” Foreign Affairs, November/December 2008, p. 81.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in September that the Bush administration will leave the proliferation “situation…in far better shape than we found it.” If only this were true. Instead, Bush officials leave office like financiers fleeing busted Wall Street banks, with precious assets squandered on risky ventures, once-solid institutions crumbling, surpluses turned into gaping deficits, and a string of problems mismanaged into crises that threaten to bring down a decades-old global regime. (Continue)

A New Paradigm: Shattering Obsolete Thinking on Arms Control and Nonproliferation

Christopher A. Ford

Challenging conventional thinking is rarely popular, even or perhaps especially when it is most needed. So it has been with the Bush administration’s approach to arms control and nonproliferation issues. Determined to develop new approaches in arms control, nonproliferation, and strategic policy to deal with the new realities of a post-Cold War era, the administration found itself under fire from those determined to uphold traditional and often outmoded ways of thinking about these matters. Many of its critics doubtless now look forward to the Bush administration’s departure.

Nevertheless, it seems clear that the administration’s nonproliferation innovations are likely to remain valuable components of the next president’s toolkit no matter who wins this year’s election. Moreover, the Bush administration’s efforts to move arms control and strategic policy emphatically into new territory, focused on 21st-century threats and opportunities rather than reflexively pursuing older agendas, will likely stand the test of time better than its critics can today imagine.

Reconceiving a Post-Cold War World

Early in the administration, its willingness to rethink the conventional wisdom of the arms control community, particularly that community’s reliance on the concept of mutually assured destruction (MAD) and fear of missile defenses, led to dramatic and controversial results: withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty; agreement with Russia on the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT, aka the Moscow Treaty); and firm moves away from Russia-centric strategic planning. There is irony, of course, in the fact that it took a hawkish Republican administration finally to make the U.S. government as uncomfortable with the balance-of-terror policies of MAD as the arms control left and the disarmament community had been since the 1950s.

In a 21st-century context in which the United States no longer engaged in a strategic face-off against a rival geopolitical bloc devoted to world domination, U.S. officials felt it possible and desirable to build the U.S. strategic posture increasingly on a mix of growing defensive and reduced offensive capabilities, instead of forswearing strategic defenses and relying fatalistically on the restraint presumed to be generated by the prospect of utter nuclear catastrophe. U.S. officials no longer saw the potential for existential threats to the United States solely through a bipolar prism, and they wished to pursue the potential for a convergence of interests with their former rival and to deal more forthrightly with the emerging threats. There might be little immediate chance to evolve to a fully post-nuclear-weapon relationship, but U.S.-Russian strategic relations could nonetheless become much more “normal.” This normal future, it was felt, should include strategic missile defenses and a growing reorientation of each nuclear superpower’s strategic focus toward threats that did not come from the other.

Significantly, this focus on defenses did not mean that the administration expected to bulletproof itself against Russian nuclear attack, for even in the context of post-Cold War force reductions, reliable defenses always seemed highly improbable against the kinds of assault that Russia could mount. Rather, it meant that Washington had decided to end its monomaniacal strategic policy focus on a single superpower adversary. Especially for an administration staffed by senior officials painfully aware of the potential spread of ballistic missiles capable of delivering weapons of mass destruction (WMD)—a threat emphasized, for instance, in the 1998 report of a commission headed by future Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld[1]—it was important to improve the U.S. defensive posture. It was a testament to the end of the Cold War nuclear arms race that strategic relations with Moscow were no longer the driver for U.S. policy and that officials in Washington now made fighting such proliferation threats the centerpiece of their strategic approach. Defenses against relatively small-scale missile threats thus rapidly emerged as a cornerstone of administration policy.

The Bush administration also brought into office a profound skepticism about traditional arms control negotiations, which officials tended to feel were anachronisms predicated on a tense and competitive Cold War stalemate that no longer existed. In a 21st-century context, they felt, the “usual” sort of negotiations with Russia might actually have counterproductive effects, such as by encouraging a more adversarial relationship than strategic circumstances actually warranted and by giving each side incentives not to reduce strategic forces except as a result of rigid, slow, and painfully negotiated quid pro quo bargaining. Instead, in keeping with its appreciation of the end of the nuclear arms race, the administration embraced the idea of unilateral reductions to a level as low as possible consistent with enduring national security and alliance commitments. Because Russia at the time also wished, for its own reasons, to reduce its forces further, it was possible for the administration to codify parallel U.S. and Russian reductions in the Moscow Treaty.

In addition to Moscow Treaty cuts in deployed warheads and to delivery system reductions prescribed by the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I) signed by President George H.W. Bush, the Bush administration moved rapidly ahead with further unilateral reductions in the U.S. arsenal. Many tons of fissile material have been removed from U.S. weapons programs, and the United States has been implementing a program of actual warhead dismantlement that has in fact been greatly accelerated since President George W. Bush’s decision in 2004 to cut the size of the overall U.S. stockpile nearly in half by 2012. [2] Indeed, with the United States having met this milestone remarkably early in only 2007, Bush decided to reduce warhead numbers still further, by an additional 15 percent from what had been planned for 2012. When these additional dismantlements have been completed, the U.S. nuclear arsenal will be less than one-quarter of its size at the end of the Cold War and at its smallest size since the Eisenhower administration.[3]

In keeping with its nontraditional approach to arms control and informed by the insight that the key to continued progress is ensuring mutual understanding of the degree to which post-Cold War U.S.-Russian relations are not based on nuclear weapons competition, the Bush administration has also been pursuing the establishment of a legally binding transparency and confidence-building regime with Russia to replace START when that treaty expires in 2009.[4]

The movement of U.S. thinking into emphatically post-Cold War territory has not been without its problems. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates apparently recently felt it necessary, for instance, to remove the top leadership of the Air Force after a couple of embarrassing incidents of incompetence and inattention suggested that the military needed to be reminded to take its traditional nuclear weapons responsibilities more seriously.[5] On the whole, however, the Bush administration deserves credit for a dramatic shift away from late-20th-century nuclear arms competition and a wholesale reorientation of strategic policy into a post-arms race world. The United States had not been pursuing a competitive nuclear policy with Russia since the end of the Cold War, but until the Bush administration, U.S. strategic policy had continued along lines familiar since before the collapse of the Soviet Union: for example, the pursuit of reductions principally through traditional arms control negotiations such as START II and III, coupled with an emphasis on maintaining a fundamentally defenseless nuclear posture pursuant to the ABM Treaty. There is thus a sad irony in the criticism Bush policy elicited from an arms control community that now seemed unable to take “yes” for an answer when faced with a U.S. president interested not only in moving Russia off center stage as the focus of strategic threat planning and making the two powers’ mutual homicide pact increasingly a thing of the past, but also in moving unilaterally in that direction.[6]

Nonproliferation Innovation

In place of a focus on strategic competition with Russia, the administration increasingly emphasized the need to meet emerging proliferation threats, moving proliferation issues to the center of U.S. strategic policy. Moreover, the Bush team was quite flexible and indeed innovative in its focus on nonproliferation. It employed subtle and secret trilateral diplomacy to arrange Libya’s abandonment of its WMD programs and used the global forum of the UN Security Council to establish new worldwide benchmarks for nonproliferation rectitude with the passage of Resolution 1540. It worked through the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to press Iran to comply with its nonproliferation obligations after Tehran’s secret nuclear effort was publicly revealed in August 2002. After that multilateral effort was undermined by European unilateralism in late 2003, when three European foreign ministers cut a concessionary side deal with Iran,[7] Washington worked hard to keep the issue of Iranian nuclear defiance moving forward in the IAEA and then the Security Council. Although the North Korean nuclear situation deteriorated sharply as a result of a confrontation over the U.S. discovery of evidence of a clandestine uranium-enrichment program,[8] the Bush administration has shown dogged determination, although not particularly impressive results, in seeking to resolve things through a novel regional forum, the six-party process, created for the purpose.

The administration also did not show any fetishistic attachment to formal instruments or “official” multilateral fora for their own sake. Rather, matters were addressed from the perspective of how the United States could contribute on as many fronts as possible to the nonproliferation regime, a term that the Bush administration interpreted in the broadest sense, comprising not simply a collection of formal institutions and treaties, but rather the aggregated panoply of practices and policies followed by the various members of the international community in order to reduce proliferation threats.[9] The U.S.-founded Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), for instance, was quite an informal institution, technically nothing more than a shifting, ad hoc group of countries generally subscribing to a set of broad nonproliferation principles and willing to cooperate to varying degrees in interdicting shipments that might contribute to WMD programs around the world. Yet, its quiet successes, most of which cannot be discussed openly because they involve discreet and sensitive cooperation by international partners, often entirely within one country’s domestic jurisdiction, are no less real for the PSI’s protean informality. Resolution 1540, in turn, focuses not on international behavior at all, but rather aims to set common rules for how countries should order their own laws and practices in order to prevent WMD proliferation.

These various efforts were to reinforce, rather than replace, more conventional nonproliferation institutions and mechanisms such as the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). The administration may perhaps be faulted for its occasional coldness toward multilateral instruments such as the NPT review process and the Conference on Disarmament (CD), however understandable such sentiment was in light of the hyperbolic anti-American rhetoric and sometimes surreally insular debates there. Nevertheless, this failure was largely remedied in the Bush administration’s later years, as ways were found to engage constructively with foreign counterparts in these fora without sacrificing substance or principle, and in a fashion intended to contribute to helping the conventional wisdom of the arms control community catch up with modern realities. At the CD, moreover, the administration has mounted a sustained push for a draft fissile material cutoff treaty (FMCT), a long-standing priority of the arms control community, even if many of its members are uncomfortable with the U.S. conclusion that no achievable FMCT could really be verified. In the course of this effort, it has become increasingly evident, even to critics of U.S. policy, that blame for the CD’s continuing dysfunction cannot be laid at Washington’s door.[10]

One of the reasons that Bush administration strategic and arms control policy proved so controversial with arms controllers was precisely the mismatch between traditional assumptions prioritizing the management of competitive U.S.-Russian dynamics and the administration’s movement into a new paradigm. The administration, for instance, was keen to develop improved ballistic missile defenses; articulated a general use-of-force doctrine against WMD threats that left open the option of pre-emption; deflected calls for negative security assurances [11] and regional nuclear-weapon-free-zone protocols out of concern for the ways in which they might, if in fact believed or followed, undercut U.S. deterrence of WMD use by rogue regimes; pursued the development of a non-nuclear payload for submarine-launched ballistic missiles in order to provide a rapid global strike capability against fleeting or time-sensitive targets, such as mobile missiles or terrorist cell meetings; and at one point considered the development of nuclear weapons optimized for defeating deep underground facilities of the sort beloved by proliferators worried about U.S. precision-guided conventional munitions. Such efforts made good sense from a thoroughly post-Cold War perspective of prioritizing proliferation threats, but they were poorly explained to the public, Congress, and foreign governments; set teeth on edge in the arms control community; and alarmed those who still saw strategic policy through the prism of competitive dynamics vis-à-vis Russia.[12]

All this, along with the administration’s disinterest in resubmitting for ratification the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) rejected by the Senate 13 months prior to Bush’s inauguration, its effort to develop a “reliable replacement warhead” (RRW), and its program to modernize some aspects of (while in fact reducing in size) the U.S. nuclear weapons development complex, led to widespread if fatuous accusations that Washington wished to wage some kind of new arms race by seeking strategic superiority vis-à-vis Russia and China. In fact, if test-ban verification concerns could be overcome, the RRW program might conceivably open the door to U.S. ratification of the CTBT by undercutting worries that the U.S. arsenal could not reliably be maintained over time without at least the option of underground testing.[13] This point, however, was lost in critics’ reflexive alarm at the taboo issue of developing “new” nuclear weapons. Similarly, the fact that infrastructure “transformation” was necessary in order to bring U.S. warhead levels even lower by eliminating the need to hedge against possible future threats by maintaining warheads in existence in excess of current needs, and that such transformation would also greatly shrink the size of the U.S. infrastructure was ignored or felt irrelevant. For too many critics, particularly those in diplomatic fora, not departing from the conventional wisdom was a higher priority than adapting to 21st-century circumstances or apparently even than laying a realistic foundation for further reductions.

Indeed, administration officials in 2007 publicly raised the idea that a “countervailing reconstitution” capability rooted in the development of a highly “responsive” nuclear weapons infrastructure might help provide a foundation for the eventual achievement of nuclear disarmament.[14] The retention of such a capability by today’s NPT nuclear-weapon states might help make far more feasible their ultimate decision to go to “zero” because, especially when coupled with robust global defenses against potential WMD delivery systems, it would provide them with some insurance against attempted breakout from a disarmament regime by some other party. Otherwise, the requirements for verification inerrancy and compliance enforcement reliability would have to be far more stringent, making the achievement of zero even more difficult and unlikely.

Many critics appear to have hoped and anticipated that, being foreclosed by treaties halting qualitative and quantitative weapon modernization, the nuclear-weapon states would idly sit by while their nuclear stockpiles atrophied. These hopes proved illusory, however, for possessor states will hardly agree to eliminate these weapons before they believe the global security environment allows them to do so without imperiling their vital interests. Attachment to those vain hopes, however, seems to have blinded many critics to ways in which nuclear arsenal reductions and, conceivably, something very much like zero might be achieved in ways consistent with nuclear-weapon states’ perceived security interests. The Bush administration deserves but is seldom given credit for advancing this discourse and encouraging greater seriousness and realism in such debates.

Disarmament Issues

U.S. administrations of all political stripes have received generally poor reviews from much of the arms control community on nuclear disarmament. Although the Bush administration has received more criticism than its predecessor for some of the reasons suggested above, in truth probably no U.S. administration has felt disarmament to be a particularly realistic possibility, at least not since Western enthusiasm for international control of all “dangerous” aspects of nuclear energy began to sour during the early Eisenhower administration in the face of Soviet intransigence and a growing recognition of the challenges of verifying a ban on nuclear weapons.[15]

If anything, the Bush administration has been unusually honest and forthright about the issue. Especially during the past two years, U.S. officials have spoken plainly about Washington’s continued commitment to the disarmament goals embodied in Article VI and the preamble to the NPT and about how very difficult it would be to achieve these goals. Furthermore, they have not minced words about the importance of what historian E. H. Carr might have called “the factor of power” in nuclear disarmament planning: the need to approach discussions with an eye to whether it can be made an attractive and sustainable policy choice for real-world decision-makers.

After all, would-be proliferators are not likely to forgo pursuing the strategic coup of acquiring nuclear weaponry in a disarmed world, and current possessors will not eschew rearmament if this occurs, just because a treaty has been signed and some moral high ground seized. Serious disarmament debates thus need to figure out how to structure all participants’ balance of interests and incentives so that disarmament is sustainable. As one seminal nuclear strategist put it decades ago, “It is the hallmark of the amateur and dilettante that he has almost no interest in how to get to his particular utopia.”[16]

Disarmament is a job that requires more realism than idealism, and the famously idealistic disarmament community has responded only slowly to calls for a more level-headed debate. [17] I am by no means a disinterested observer, but in my view, the Bush administration was far more intellectually agile and open-minded in these regards than its critics. It is difficult to predict what will come of today’s bubbling disarmament debates, but if anything ever is to be possible, it will presumably only come about through the kind of sober, realistic discussions for which the Bush administration has repeatedly called.

Enrichment and Reprocessing

The Bush administration deserves mixed grades for conceptual boldness and principled rectitude in one arena of many shopworn assumptions: concerns about nuclear technology “rights.” From early 2004, the administration took a strong stand against the further spread of enrichment and reprocessing technology to “any state that does not already possess full-scale, functioning enrichment and reprocessing plants.”[18] It realized that a world in which everyone has this sensitive technology is one in which everyone has the option of building a nuclear weapon; since the dawn of the nuclear age, availability of fissile material has been the principal challenge and pacing element for a nuclear weapons program.

The administration was quite right to seek to limit the further spread of this technology and has worked admirably hard, albeit with only limited success to date, to secure international agreement on such a principle. Washington has worked, for example, to promote new approaches to reliable nuclear fuel supply, to obviate any legitimate need for these technologies for producing reactor fuel, and is converting up to 17.4 tons of its own highly enriched uranium into a low-enriched fuel reserve in case a future backup mechanism is unable to provide an alternate supplier. As a result of a resistance from a disappointingly large number of states within the consensus-driven Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), including opposition from countries that are otherwise serious about nonproliferation (Canada) or at least claim to be (South Africa), the administration was recently forced to abandon a hard-fought effort flatly to prohibit further enrichment and reprocessing transfers, but it is no discredit to U.S. diplomats that they spent four years trying to do the right thing.

Nevertheless, the administration has seemed to lack the courage of its convictions when it comes to challenging the surprisingly widely held belief that Article IV of the NPT gives countries such as Iran some kind of right to enrichment and reprocessing technology. In its awkward silence on this subject, Washington has in effect ceded the intellectual field to the proliferators. Iran has not been shy, for example, in advancing amusingly tendentious legal arguments in NPT fora, but however shallow these appear to real attorneys, in the absence of clear rebutting arguments, too many readers, especially among governments in the Nonaligned Movement,[19] will take them more seriously than they deserve.

Some of the U.S. reluctance to engage on these issues is tactical, rooted in a desire to avoid being seen as trying to deny other countries’ rights. [20] Yet, instead of forcing the “everyone can have it” partisans to explain precisely why Article IV must be read to subvert both common sense and the core nonproliferation provisions of the treaty, advocates of stopping the spread of sensitive technology have been left on the diplomatic and seemingly legal defensive, having been assumed to concede that there indeed exist Article IV enrichment and reprocessing rights capable of being thus denied. If the United States manages to stop Iran’s nuclear weapons effort but ends up conceding that everyone in the world can have the capability to produce fissile material so long merely as the IAEA is able periodically to send inspectors, Washington will have won the battle but in the longer run will lose the war against nuclear weapons proliferation.


One of the centerpieces of Bush administration foreign policy during the second term has been the strategic partnership with India, purchased at the price of successful U.S. diplomatic efforts to win for New Delhi an agreed exception to the usual NSG rules of prohibiting transfers of nuclear technology to states lacking full-scope IAEA safeguards. Given India’s portentous geopolitical position—the world’s largest democracy sandwiched between a rising and notably undemocratic China and a worryingly unstable and radicalized Muslim world—there are enormous strategic benefits to the United States from this relationship. The arms control and nonproliferation community, however, generally regards the India deal as a horror, a cynical move of U.S. realpolitik that undermines the nonproliferation regime by ending India’s nonproliferation “isolation” and effectively rewarding it for developing nuclear weapons.

Let me be clear: had it been up to me, I doubt I would have made the same decision. At the very least, I would have looked longer and harder for some kind of non-nuclear payoff for New Delhi. The U.S.-Indian deal has indeed complicated our nonproliferation diplomacy, for whether it deserves to be or not, it is clearly widely regarded as a dangerous blow to the nonproliferation regime. Yet, the administration has in no way gotten a fair hearing for its arguments that the India policy has some nonproliferation benefits. One should remember that there never seems to have been more than the proverbial snowball’s chance that India would actually agree to dismantle its weapons program, nor even much chance of some sort of freeze absent Pakistani reciprocity and some kind of verification scheme acceptable to both South Asian nuclear rivals. The initiative thus needs to be assessed not against an ideal outcome but rather against the other available option: continuing to watch from afar as India operates and even expands its nuclear power industry, entirely outside the system of international safeguards and in ways closely intertwined with military programs.
Viewed in this context, the India deal therefore seems somewhat less horrible. India is now to separate the peaceful aspects of its nuclear industry from the military ones, place its peaceful nuclear sector fully under IAEA safeguards for the first time, and improve its export controls to help prevent unauthorized nuclear technology transfers. The military sector would be for the first time cut off from its long-standing relationship with other parts of India’s nuclear industry and would over time likely become an increasingly small and isolated proportion of the overall nuclear complex. U.S. officials have also made it clear that should India test another nuclear weapon, it should expect cooperation to end, despite Indian claims to the contrary. (It is also worth remembering that the deal is hugely controversial in India and widely believed to represent a capitulation by New Delhi; Prime Minister Manmohan Singh narrowly avoided the collapse of his fragile coalition government on this account.[21])

How this weighs out against the nonproliferation costs is admittedly a close call. It must be conceded that the deal’s impact on multilateral diplomacy has been unhelpful. Nevertheless, any lessons that might be taught to future would-be proliferators themselves by the highly idiosyncratic situation of a country that exploded its first nuclear device in 1974, before the NSG even existed, are likely to be small in comparison with the messages sent by how the international community succeeds or fails in handling the nuclear provocations of Iran and North Korea. All in all, the jury is still out on the net impact of the India deal.

The Legacy of Iraq

Finally, in discussing the Bush administration’s arms control and nonproliferation legacy, one cannot avoid discussing the debacle of the bungled assessments by the U.S. intelligence community of prewar Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and the fateful decision to invade Iraq that Bush could hardly have made without these flawed conclusions. Strictly speaking, of course, one cannot much blame the Bush administration itself for the misfortune of actually believing the mistaken analyses presented by its own intelligence professionals. The United States, as a whole, acted dramatically on mistaken conclusions, but the Bush administration cannot fairly be faulted for analytical errors by intelligence bureaucrats that began to develop years before Bush took office. [22] That excuse, however, makes the resulting impact on U.S. nonproliferation policy no less significant. To my eye, the Iraqi situation has had three negative effects on nonproliferation policy.

First, the flawed intelligence community assessments of Iraq have undermined U.S. credibility when it comes to mobilizing other countries in support of compliance enforcement against proliferators. It is likely that some degree of U.S. concern about any specific future proliferator will be based on intelligence information that cannot be shared publicly. The United States therefore sometimes will have no option but to say “trust me” when trying to mobilize support against emerging threats. In the wake of Iraq, however, its ability to do this has been greatly reduced, and the proliferators have been handed helpful tools of political counter-mobilization in the form of accusations, however untrue they might be, that “this is just another Iraq.”
Second, the cost of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in blood and treasure and the domestic and international controversy it has engendered have somewhat reduced the credibility of military action against future proliferators. Sadly, this need not have been the case. There was a time early in the U.S. occupation when the Iraq invasion made the threat of military counterproliferation extremely credible. This produced notable nonproliferation benefits and was surely a critical factor both in catalyzing Libya’s final decision to eliminate its WMD programs in 2003 and in what the U.S. intelligence community now says was Iran’s decision that year to halt work at least on those aspects of its nuclear weapons program that had not yet been revealed in the media. As Iraq came to be seen less as a quick victory and more as an ugly and unpopular quagmire, however, this valuable threat credibility eroded. Today, although the president’s belated surge of troops into Iraq has helped improve the situation there considerably, nonproliferation diplomats still labor under the burden of widespread assumptions elsewhere in the world that the U.S. military option remains on the table only in a nominal sense.

Third, the pain and controversy of Iraq seem to have created a situation in which some would-be diplomatic or military partners have acquired a neuralgia about armed compliance enforcement even when there is a great and indisputable proliferation threat. Such feelings obviously do not bode well for the international community’s ability to deter future would-be proliferators from following the example of North Korea or Iran in developing nuclear weapons in violation of their nonproliferation obligations.


It is too early to judge with any finality the Bush administration’s arms control and nonproliferation legacy. In my view, however, any reputable assessment must acknowledge and discuss its conceptual innovations on their own terms. Whether one agrees or disagrees with the administration’s approach and whatever one thinks of the specific details of its execution on a case-by-case basis, it is inadequate simply to indict the administration for failing to hew to the long-established conventional wisdom of arms control paradigms rooted in the Cold War. It is the responsibility of serious leaders to adapt their remedies to evolving global security problems, keeping old formulae where they remain appropriate to modern circumstances but fearlessly jettisoning them where they do not. The Bush administration deserves a fairer hearing in these regards than it has gotten from the arms control community. Sooner or later, this community will itself have to struggle with how to adapt its conceptual paradigms to the 21st century. When it does, whatever course they end up taking, the arms controllers will owe the Bush administration much for having opened the debate. ACT

Christopher A. Ford served as U.S. special representative for nuclear nonproliferation and as a principal deputy assistant secretary of state during the George W. Bush administration. Currently, Ford is a senior fellow and director of the Center for Technology and Global Security at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C.

Updated online November 5, 2008.


1. Real-world threats have fortunately matured less quickly than feared by the Rumsfeld Commission. Nevertheless, after test-firing long-range Taepo Dong missiles several years ago, North Korea is now reported to be testing a rocket engine for missiles with a range of almost 7,000 kilometers (4,300 miles), and Iran has developed a multistage booster with which it is attempting satellite launches. See “Iranian Space Adventures,” Aviation Week & Space Technology, October 20, 2008, p. 15; “North Korea Tests Rocket Engine,” Aviation Week & Space Technology, September 22, 2008, p. 26. Moreover, Israeli and other sources have claimed that North Korea provided Iran with 2,500-kilometer-range BM-25 ballistic missiles, derived from the Russian SS-N-6 submarine-launched ballistic missile, lending some credence to the commission’s warnings about the emergence of a collaborative missile proliferation industry. See David Fickling, “Iran Has Bought Long-Range Missiles, Says Israel,” Guardian.co.uk, April 27, 2006, www.guardian.co.uk/world/2006/apr/27/iran.israel; “The Iranian Missile Threat,” Washington Times, November 10, 2006. Coupled with reports of North Korean technology swaps of ballistic missile know-how for uranium enrichment centrifuges from Pakistan, such a prospect would indeed be alarming. See “Pakistan and North Korea: Dangerous Counter-Trades,” IISS Strategic Comments, Vol. 8, No. 9 (November 2002).
2. For fiscal year 2007, for instance, the administration set a target of increasing the dismantlement rate by 49 percent, but in fact achieved a remarkable 146 percent increase. See National Nuclear Security Administration, “Nuclear Weapons Dismantlement Rate Up 146 Percent,” October 1, 2007 (press release).
3. See Christopher Ford, “Nuclear Disarmament Progress and Challenges in the Post-Cold War World” (remarks to the Second Session of the Preparatory Committee meeting for the 2010 Review Conference of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, April 30, 2008), http://geneva.usmission.gov/CD/updates/0430USstatementNPT.html (U.S. special representative for nuclear nonproliferation).
4. See “Remarks by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov,” March 18, 2008, www.state.gov/secretary/rm/2008/03/102362.htm; Christopher Ford, “A Work Plan for the 2010 Review Cycle: Coping With Challenges Facing the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty” (opening remarks to the 2007 Preparatory Committee Meeting of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, April 30, 2007), www.state.gov/t/isn/rls/rm/84044.htm.
5. See Julian Barnes and Peter Spiegel, “Defense Secretary Robert Gates Fires Air Force’s Top 2 Officials,” Los Angeles Times, June 6, 2008.
6. Just as it perhaps required a conservative anti-Communist such as President Richard Nixon to open the door to a new relationship with China in the interest of broader U.S. strategic goals, it may be that only a president such as Bush could have succeeded with such innovative unilateralism in the arms control arena.
7. France, Germany, and the United Kingdom (the so-called EU-3) reached a deal with Iran whereby Tehran would suspend its enrichment program temporarily, in return for which the Europeans apparently agreed to derail U.S. efforts to report the issue from the IAEA to the Security Council. See “Statement by the Iranian Government and Visiting EU Foreign Ministers,” October 21, 2003, www.iaea.org/NewsCenter/Focus/IaeaIran/statement_iran21102003.shtml; Hassan Rohani [Hasan Rowhani], “Beyond the Challenges Facing Iran and the IAEA Concerning the Nuclear Dossier,” Tehran Rahbord, September 30, 2005, pp. 7-38 (translation from Farsi by FBIS, #IAP20060113336001) (recounting EU-3’s quid pro quo). This agreement and a written successor arrangement in 2004 were not honored by Iran, but a Security Council report was successfully delayed for years. See IAEA, “Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement in the Islamic Republic of Iran,” GOV/2004/34 (June 1, 2004), p. 40; IAEA, “Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement in the Islamic Republic of Iran,” GOV/2004/60 (September 1, 2004), pp. 7, 19, 51-53; IAEA Information Circular, “Communication Dated 26 November 2004 Received From the Permanent Representatives of France, Germany, the Islamic Republic of Iran, and the United Kingdom Concerning the Agreement Signed in Paris on 15 November 2004,” INFCIRC/637 (November 26, 2004); Mehdi Mohammadi, “Nuclear Case From Beginning to End in Interview With Dr. Hasan Rowhani (Part 1): We Are Testing Europe,” Tehran Keyhan, July 26, 2005, www.ifpa.org/pdf/Iran_102307/Rowhani_Interview.pdf (bragging about success of Iranian tactics with EU-3).
8. In October 2002, U.S. officials presented officials in Pyongyang with information obtained from intelligence sources about a clandestine uranium-enrichment effort in violation of the 1994 Agreed Framework. North Korean First Vice Minister Kang Sok Ju acknowledged that such a program existed, although North Korean officials have subsequently resumed denying it. Subsequently, Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf confirmed that renegade Pakistani nuclear weapons scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan had provided North Korea with uranium-enrichment centrifuges, while U.S. officials reported that evidence obtained in dismantling Libya’s WMD programs suggested North Korea as the origin of uranium hexafluoride provided by the Khan network to Libya for the development of nuclear weapons. (This would indicate the existence of a previously unsuspected uranium-conversion facility in North Korea, a source of feedstock for gas centrifuge enrichment.) See generally U.S. Department of State, “Adherence to and Compliance With Arms Control, Nonproliferation, and Disarmament Agreements and Commitments,” August 2005, pp. 87-92, www.state.gov/documents/organization/52113.pdf; Anthony Faiola, “N. Korea Declares Itself a Nuclear Power,” The Washington Post, February 10, 2005, www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A12836-2005Feb10.html; “Khan ‘Gave N. Korea Centrifuges,’” BBC News, August 24, 2005, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/4180286.stm; “Pakistan and North Korea: Dangerous Counter-Trades,” IISS Strategic Comments, Vol. 8, No. 9 (November 2002).
9. Administration officials have also quite properly reminded the arms control and disarmament community diplomatic counterparts in nonproliferation fora of the role that the U.S. nuclear umbrella (“extended [nuclear] deterrence”) has played over the years in preventing nuclear weapons proliferation, helping reassure allies that their fundamental security needs can be met through their alliance relationship with Washington rather than through the pursuit of an independent nuclear deterrent.
10. Rather than carping about U.S. skepticism on verification, an issue that does not preclude either negotiating or concluding an FMCT, arms control devotees wishing ever to see such a treaty might more usefully address their attention to Pakistan and China, which have blocked the commencement of negotiations.
11. In diplomatic parlance, nuclear negative security assurances are promises not to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against someone; positive security assurances are promises of assistance in the event that a third party does so. It is far from clear today that any country particularly fears nuclear weapons threats or use by one of the five nuclear-weapon states recognized by the NPT, as opposed to threats or use by regimes such as North Korea or Iran or by terrorists, but it remains fashionable in NPT diplomatic circles to call for negative security assurances from the five nuclear-weapon states. The nuclear-weapon-state protocols to regional nuclear-weapon-free zone treaties customarily include what is in effect a legally binding negative security assurance. See, for example, Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in Latin America and the Caribbean (Treaty of Tlatelolco), Additional Protocol II, Art. 3.
12. Interestingly, except for missile defense installations in Europe, these developments did not seem to alarm the Russians themselves very much. Even with regard to “third site” missile defenses in Europe, moreover, Russia’s public indignation, even if now perhaps internalized into something akin to sincerity, appears to have been born in contrivance and opportunism. In 2005-2006, I was reassured by Russian diplomats in official meetings that Russia fully understood that third-site plans posed no meaningful threat to Moscow’s strategic deterrent and that Russia would not object as long as the United States did not “surprise” Russia with some sudden deployment.
13. The Bush administration has not publicly voiced this idea, presumably in part because concerns about testing were only one of the reasons CTBT ratification died in the U.S. Senate in 1999. The other main public issue was over verifiability and whether a CTBT-compliant United States would risk strategic surprise from a sophisticated violator conducting small-scale weapons tests in ways designed to evade detection. Nevertheless, CTBT ratification is far more easily imaginable in the context of the RRW program providing a reliable strategic deterrent in a nontesting environment, even though it must always be remembered that U.S. ratification alone will hardly result in the CTBT actually entering into force. Pursuant to CTBT Article XIV, it requires ratification by all countries listed in an annex to the treaty. Because the requisite countries include China, India, Iran, Israel, North Korea, and Pakistan—none of whom have ratified either—one suspects that regardless of U.S. ratification, the world will have to wait a long time if it is ever to see a CTBT.
14. See “Achieving and Sustaining Nuclear Weapons Elimination,” U.S. presentation, Annecy, France, March 17, 2007, www.state.gov/t/isn/rls/other/81943.htm.
15. See “Statement by President Eisenhower at the Geneva Conference of Heads of Government: Aerial Inspection and Exchange of Military Blueprints,” July 21, 1955, in U.S. Department of State, Documents on Disarmament: 1945-1959, Volume I (Washington, D.C.: Department of State Historical Office, 1960); “Statement by the British Foreign Secretary (Macmillan) at the Geneva Meeting of the Foreign Ministers,” November 10, 1955, in U.S. Department of State, Documents on Disarmament: 1945-1959, Volume I (Washington, D.C.: Department of State Historical Office, 1960).
16. Herman Kahn, On Thermonuclear War (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1960), p. 7.
17. Disarmament advocates also need to do better at persuading relevant players that eliminating nuclear weapons would not simply, in the words of one foreign diplomat of my acquaintance, “make the world safe again for large-scale conventional war.”
18. Office of the Press Secretary, The White House, “President Announces New Measures to Counter the Threat of WMD,” February 11, 2004.
19. The Nonaligned Movement (NAM) is a loose, informal association of countries, principally in the developing world, that has existed since 1961. During the Cold War, as its name suggests, the NAM sought to forge an identity and agenda distinct from the superpower-dominated camps, although in practice it was associated principally with opposition to Western “imperialism” and included prominent members such as Cuba, which were anything but nonaligned with regard to Cold War disputes. Today, the NAM is most visible on arms control-related issues as an opponent of U.S. policy, generally seeming to find Russia’s increased reliance upon nuclear weapons, China’s continuing if slow strategic build-up, and both countries’ ongoing strategic modernization less worthy of critical comment than U.S. efforts such as the reliable replacement warhead undertaken in connection with avoiding nuclear tests and facilitating further reductions. Iran hosted the NAM’s 15th Ministerial Summit in Tehran in 2007, and at the time of writing, Cuba chairs the movement.
20. U.S. Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman, for instance, has said it is “unproductive often to talk in terms of rights.” See Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman, press briefing, February 6, 2006, www.energy.gov/news/3171.htm.
21. See Rama Lakshmi, “Indian Leader Rescues Nuclear Deal With U.S.,” The Washington Post, July 5, 2008, p. A11.
22. U.S. intelligence appears to have been well off the mark in overestimating Iraq’s WMD capabilities since the late 1990s under President Bill Clinton. Bush’s situation in acting dramatically on the even more detailed and alarming assessments presented him by an intelligence bureaucracy run by Clinton administration holdover George Tenet might perhaps be compared to one in which a police officer encounters a violent repeat offender acting threateningly in a dark alley. If the suspect pulls a gun-like object out of his pocket and points it at the officer, the latter is quite justified in opening fire himself, even if it turns out later that the object was not actually a weapon. All one can be expected to do is to act reasonably based on available information, and the U.S. intelligence community provided ample, if mistaken, information indicating that Iraq presented a notable threat. (How well the United States initially planned and executed its Iraqi operation, of course, is a separate question and one to which the answers may be less flattering, though this is best addressed elsewhere.)

Challenging conventional thinking is rarely popular, even or perhaps especially when it is most needed. So it has been with the Bush administration’s approach to arms control and nonproliferation issues. Determined to develop new approaches in arms control, nonproliferation, and strategic policy to deal with the new realities of a post-Cold War era, the administration found itself under fire from those determined to uphold traditional and often outmoded ways of thinking about these matters. Many of its critics doubtless now look forward to the Bush administration’s departure. (Continue)

LOOKING BACK: Carter’s 1978 Declaration and the Significance of Security Assurances

John Steinbruner

In terms of operational practice as distinct from political rhetoric, institutionalized security policy in the United States is based on two presumptions: that imperial aggression is the principal form of threat and that the countervailing threat of deterrent retaliation is the most decisive method of protection. This formulation was established during the Cold War and has been retained in its aftermath. Because no country can plausibly threaten immediate imperial aggression against U.S. territory, the formulation is now justified as a hedge against the rise of an unnamed peer competitor. For many other countries, however, the United States itself is the most credible potential embodiment of such a threat.

Although most prefer not to dwell on that practical fact, it does make the security assurances first issued by the Carter administration 30 years ago a matter of immediate interest. In the traditional formulation, a reliable deterrent should be based on the capacity to retaliate under all circumstances, not merely on the expressed intention to do so. Capacity displayed in immediate operational capability is considered to be more credible and less subject to deception or rapid change than are expressed intentions. That hard standard is far more readily achieved by the United States than by any other country. Because most countries do not have and cannot reasonably acquire unquestionable nuclear deterrent capability, they are dependent on agreed restraint and forced to rely more heavily on judgments of intention. As a result, the authoritative declarations of intention embodied in security assurances have greater global significance than is usually assumed in U.S. discussion of the topic.

Historical Declarations

The declarations of greatest significance are those issued in connection with the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). Those countries who agreed not to acquire nuclear weapons under the terms of the treaty had reasonable expectation that they would in return receive protection from the five states allowed to retain nuclear weapons. That basic rule was not included in the treaty text, however, because it was difficult to reconcile with U.S. and Soviet alliance commitments. By the time the NPT was negotiated in the late 1960s, the original principle of the UN Charter that each member state would be protected by all the others had been superseded by Cold War arrangements whereby protection was preferentially provided to formal alliance members. The United States believed at the time that the defense of Western Europe against conventional attack might require initiating the use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon state-parties to the treaty that belonged to the opposing Warsaw Pact. U.S. officials considered it imperative to extend the same commitment to Japan and South Korea as well.

Unable to include the expectation of general protection directly in the treaty language, the non-nuclear-weapon states resorted to UN Security Council Resolution 255, passed on June 19, 1968. The resolution “recognizes” that aggression with nuclear weapons against a non-nuclear-weapon state-party to the treaty would create an immediate obligation for action under the UN Charter and “welcomes the intention expressed by certain states” to provide assistance under those circumstances. That language suggests not merely the promise not to attack (negative assurance) but also to provide active defense if someone else did (positive assurance). By virtue of the Security Council vote, the concept was implicitly accepted by all five NPT nuclear-weapon states, although France abstained from the vote, stating that declaratory assurances would be inadequate without corresponding disarmament provisions.

In 1978, eight years after the NPT officially entered into force and 10 years after approval of Resolution 255, the United Nations convened its first special session on disarmament, and the United States used the occasion to issue an authoritative statement of intention. Speaking to the special session on behalf of President Jimmy Carter, Secretary of State Cyrus Vance stated:

The United States will not use nuclear weapons against any non-nuclear- weapon state party to the NPT or any comparable internationally binding commitment not to acquire nuclear explosive devices, except in the case of an attack on the United States, its territories or armed forces, or its allies, by such a state allied to a nuclear weapon state, or associated with a nuclear-weapon state in carrying out or sustaining the attack.[1]

That statement of negative assurance, endorsed by all succeeding administrations and reiterated at the 1995 NPT review conference that indefinitely extended the treaty, has come to be regarded as the standard formulation of U.S. declaratory policy. Its main feature is that the United States reserves the right to initiate the use of nuclear weapons in response to an attack of any sort as long as another nuclear-armed state is somehow implicated in the attack.

That qualified assurance had earlier been given formal legal standing for those states adhering to the nuclear-weapon-free-zone treaties for Latin America, the South Pacific, and Africa. In the Latin American case, the United States signed and subsequently ratified protocols to the treaty of Tlateloco extending negative security assurances to the states-parties to the treaties; but, as part of the ratification process, President Richard Nixon issued a proclamation laying out the qualification that was subsequently issued more generally but less formally in the 1978 statement.

Then, in 1996 with a Soviet invasion of Europe no longer a plausible concern, an aide to President Bill Clinton introduced additional qualifications at a White House press conference announcing that the United States had signed the corresponding protocol to the Treaty of Pelindaba, which sought to establish an African nuclear-weapon-free zone. He stated that attacks by other weapons of mass destruction would be justifying conditions for nuclear retaliation, and that was understood but not directly stated to mean chemical or biological agents. In Senate testimony two weeks earlier, Secretary of Defense William Perry had also implied that the use of nuclear weapons would be considered in responding to a chemical weapons attack. Neither statement addressed the central question as to whether the uniquely destructive power of nuclear weapons could be appropriately applied to substantially lesser forms of “mass destruction.”

In citing the doctrine of belligerent reprisal as justification for the additional qualifications, Clinton administration officials evoked a traditional legal rule holding that the provisions of one treaty would be suspended if those of related one were violated. Hence an attack using chemical or biological agents in violation of the 1925 Geneva protocol by a party to the Pelindaba treaty would invalidate its protection against a nuclear response.[2] They generally did not mention, however, that the doctrine would allow only for a response that could be demonstrated to be necessary and proportionate.

The evident efforts of Nixon, Carter, and Clinton to minimize legal limitations on U.S. deterrent operations all reflect an underlying institutionalized commitment to preserve as much uncertainty as possible in the minds of all conceivable opponents as to how far the deterrent effect of nuclear weapons might be extended. The incremental supplement to deterrence supposedly achieved against a willful aggressor by that deliberate ambiguity outweighed the legitimate interest of the non-nuclear-weapon states in establishing categorical security assurances, an interest on which they have repeatedly said their continued adherence to the treaty ultimately depends.

The U.S. extended deterrence doctrine has been emulated and thus reinforced by France, Russia, and the United Kingdom, all of whom have advanced similar qualifications to the security assurances they have issued.[3] Because the nuclear arsenals of Russia and the United States contain more than 95 percent of the nuclear weapons believed to exist, those two countries together effectively set the global standard. There is, however, a meaningful difference between them. Russia, whose conventional force capabilities are not competitive with those of NATO, has far more reason to rely on the extended deterrent effect of nuclear weapons for its own defense than does the United States. In fact, with the world’s most capable military establishment and least vulnerable national territory, the U.S. doctrine is especially subject to serious moral and practical questions.

Those questions are implicitly posed, moreover, by China’s nuclear weapons policy. China has historically had potentially antagonistic security relationships with Russia and the United States and is entangled in one of the world’s most significant remaining disputes over sovereign jurisdiction: the question of the ultimate status of Taiwan, which could become a trigger for active confrontation. China has nonetheless maintained the most limited deployment of the five official nuclear powers and has proclaimed the most restricted doctrine of use. China has repeatedly issued categorical assurance that it would not to be the first to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons at any time or under any circumstances, and those assurances are reflected in its deployment pattern. The most authoritative information indicates that China has less than 100 operational nuclear delivery systems, less than 25 of which could reach the United States and none of which are ever brought to immediately available alert status. Academic speculation aside, nothing in the historical record suggests that this minimal deployment posture and exclusive doctrine of retaliation has provided inadequate deterrent protection for China, despite the fact that it had the most demanding burden during its formative period and arguably still has.

Fundamental Issues

The extended deterrence doctrine has acquired nearly axiomatic status in U.S. security culture, to an extent that even its most glaring defects are generally ignored. Although few if any individuals seriously believe in the existence of an implacable aggressor held in check only by the threat of massive retaliation and poised to exploit any ambiguity of resolve, the continuation of deterrent operations designed against a hypothetical threat of that sort is considered prudent beyond question. That the resulting operational coupling of large U.S. and Russian alert forces creates the possibility of inadvertent catastrophe is dismissed as a negligible risk despite the directly applicable folk wisdom embodied in Murphy’s law: if something can go wrong, it eventually will.

Even more remarkably, the fact that large dispersed deployments increase the risk that terrorists might seize a weapon or an equivalent amount of explosive material is accepted despite frequently articulated fears of exactly that possibility. Current mainstream discussion appears willing to consider reducing active deployments to the 1,500-warhead level but not below 1,000. That latter figure might begin to impose meaningful constraint on the destructive potential of the U.S. deterrent force, but the former would not. There is no prominently articulated support for emulating China’s categorical assurances even from those who have recently advocated the elimination of nuclear weapons as an ultimate goal.

Despite its impressive hold over the U.S. security establishment, however, the extended deterrence doctrine is not assured indefinite reign. It has been undermined within the security bureaucracy by a radical assault from an intense minority faction promoting decisive military superiority as an ultimate substitute for deterrence. Successfully evoking the authority of President George W. Bush, they have advanced a doctrine of preventive war euphemistically labeled pre-emption. In an address to the West Point graduating class in 2002 and in an ensuing review of nuclear weapons policy, Bush reserved the right to initiate the use of force, including nuclear weapons if necessary, to prevent the acquisition of nuclear weapons by states considered to be inherently hostile to the United States.[4] In his 2002 State of the Union address,[5] Bush named Iran, Iraq, and North Korea as instances; in the perception of the world, he implemented the doctrine in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, unjustifiably as it turned out. Meanwhile, his administration issued a series of military planning documents proclaiming the intention to dominate space for national military advantage and began integrating both long-range precision strike weapons and ballistic missile defense into nuclear weapons operations, all of which projects a serious intention to engage in preventive operations.[6]

In the estimate of attentive military planners in China and Russia, the prevention/pre-emption doctrine backed by a rate of military investment that far exceeds their own is an inherent threat to their own deterrent forces, not merely to the named adversaries. If they come to believe that the doctrine has been established in the United States, they will be forced to counteract it in some fashion. That in turn is a threat to those in the professional core of the U.S. establishment who understand that the doctrine is inherently unrealistic and dangerously provocative. It is the unsustainable political project of an ideological minority whose actions have been discredited in Iraq and whose domination can be expected to diminish within the U.S. political system whatever the outcome of the election.

It is distinctly possible that adverse international reactions to the prevention/pre-emption doctrine will ultimately catalyze an accommodating revision of U.S. security policy that sweeps aside the traditional doctrine of extended deterrence as well. That outcome would be a bitter irony for the advocates of decisive superiority, but the threat of terrorist access to nuclear explosives provides a major incentive for that to occur. Admittedly, any hostile nuclear explosion anywhere in the world might trigger an insensate U.S. political reaction, reinforcing the aspiration for military dominance and giving it longer political life. Such an event would not render the aspiration achievable, however, and belligerent emotion would have to yield eventually to implacable fact.

Fortunately, it is more likely that some breach-of-security incident will command sufficient attention to give standing to the obvious common sense solution, namely, an arrangement whereby all nuclear weapons are removed from active operational deployment to secure storage where they can be continuously monitored and accurately counted. Because they could be reactivated if necessary, that arrangement would preserve all of the deterrent effect plausibly required and would essentially eliminate the inherent danger of inadvertent catastrophe. It would also provide much more reliable protection against terrorist exploitation, especially if all weapons-grade nuclear explosives are subjected to the same monitored storage conditions. Under such an arrangement, conveying reassurance of responsible management would be the principal objective. Preservation of a residual deterrent effect, readily achieved by the existence and operational potential of the stored weapons, would be subordinate to that objective.

The relentless underlying reality is that the process of globalization has rendered massive imperial aggression against any of the major established states virtually infeasible but is subjecting all of them to the disruptive threat of dissident violence emanating from the breakdown of legitimate authority in fragile jurisdictions. Common interest in preventing severe disruption of the global economy gives all major states strong reason to established higher standards of control over nuclear explosives and other menacing technologies. Those common interests are more significant than any residual threat of imperial aggression or coercive projection of influence. The imperatives of the situation require extensive collaboration for mutual protection rather than belligerent competition for national advantage. The ultimate implication is that reassurance replaces deterrence as the central purpose of security policy.

Defenders of the U.S. extended deterrence doctrine will be quick to point out that it plays an important role in conveying reassurance, as indeed it does for formal allies. Under emerging circumstances, however, it will be vitally important to recognize that extended deterrence does not require and cannot tolerate the initial use of nuclear weapons under any circumstance and that its legitimacy depends on global rather than culturally preferential application. To sustain the traditional doctrine in appropriately subordinated form, the United States will not only have to issue categorical negative security assurances, as China has done, but also globally inclusive positive assurances. It will have to indicate it is prepared to protect any country from unprovoked imperial attack and that it will not itself undertake pre-emptive attack without international authorization. That is the only viable way of justifying the degree of military superiority it will retain for quite some time.

Practical Observations

The U.S. political system does not concentrate executive authority to the degree that would be required to change operational security doctrine. The president and other authoritative agents can and do make doctrinal pronouncements, but institutionalized implementation depends on consensus created by seminal formative experience and lengthy evolution. The Cold War formulation still largely prevails because the United States has not yet encountered a comparably powerful formative experience. Unfortunately, it is an open question whether institutionalized policy can be appropriately altered in response to fundamental changes of circumstance without the motivating and organizing focus of global war, real in the case of World War II and widely imagined during the ensuing Cold War period.

It is not evident that entanglement in civil conflict and fear of associated terrorism will alone drive a fundamental reformulation. The threat involved is much smaller in scale in any given instance and different in character but not so different as to compel consensual reformulation. Nonetheless, current agonies of policy in Iraq and Afghanistan will clearly be formative experiences of some enduring consequence, and the lessons eventually drawn are likely to feature the importance of global collaboration. It is very unlikely that acceptable stabilization can be achieved in either instance without constructive engagement with Iran and significant assistance from Russia and China in accomplishing the degree of engagement required. That in turn will require fundamental accommodation with all three countries involving categorical negative assurances and substantial positive ones as well. Most immediately, however, that process will probably be burdened by the Russian action in Georgia, which is actually a localized event resulting from the failure of accommodation but is being depicted by defenders of the established doctrine as an ominous indication of broader imperialist impulse.

It is more likely that the consequences of global warming will eventually become imposing enough to force fundamental accommodation and the reformulation of policy necessary to accomplish it. Reliably effective action requires a massive transformation to energy generating technologies that do not emit carbon gases, which is unlikely to be accomplished on sufficient scale without substantial expansion of nuclear power generation. That in turn could not be safely or practically accomplished without new reactor designs, much more secure management of the fuel cycle, and intimate collaboration between the sources of finance and technology—primarily the European Union, Russia, and the United States—and the leading venues of application—China, India, and the developing world generally. Fundamental security accommodation would be an indispensable precondition.

Whatever the degree of accommodation eventually achieved, it is reasonable to expect that negative and positive security assurances will have increasing prominence in the regulation of security relationships. The disparities in military investment and resulting operational capability between the United States and everyone else virtually preclude equitable restriction of military capabilities and therefore make credible restraint on behavior essential. It will be increasingly incumbent on the United States to convey reassurance about the rules and circumstances under which its military establishment operates. It will be incumbent on potential adversaries to accept restrictions on behavior that preclude justification of coercive action. It will be incumbent on all to work out routine documentation of compliance more continuous and more convincing than traditional methods of adversarial verification. That is a predictable trend, however discouraging immediate events and traditionally interpreted history may appear to be.

John Steinbruner is director of the Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland (CISSM) and chairman of the board of directors of the Arms Control Association.


1. “Statement of Secretary of State Vance: U.S. Assurance on Non-Use of Nuclear Weapons, June 12, 1978,” Department of State Bulletin, August 1978, p. 52, ACDA, Documents on Disarmament, v. 1978, p. 384.
2. George Bunn, “The Legal Status of U.S. Negative Security Assurances to Non-Nuclear Weapon States,” Nonproliferation Review, Vol. 4, No. 3 (Spring-Summer 1997), pp. 1-17.
3. A conceptual distinction is often made between extending the deterrent effect from one state to another and extending it to forms of attack other than nuclear weapons. The operational doctrines of France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States all include both forms of extension.
4. Office of the Press Secretary, The White House, “President Bush Delivers Graduation Speech at West Point,” June 1, 2003.
5. Office of the Press Secretary, The White House, “President Delivers State of the Union Address,” January 29, 2002.
6. Nancy Gallagher and John D. Steinbruner, “Reconsidering the Rules for Space Security,” American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 2008, pp. 25-29.

In terms of operational practice as distinct from political rhetoric, institutionalized security policy in the United States is based on two presumptions: that imperial aggression is the principal form of threat and that the countervailing threat of deterrent retaliation is the most decisive method of protection. This formulation was established during the Cold War and has been retained in its aftermath. Because no country can plausibly threaten immediate imperial aggression against U.S. territory, the formulation is now justified as a hedge against the rise of an unnamed peer competitor. For many other countries, however, the United States itself is the most credible potential embodiment of such a threat. (Continue)

Report Urges Changes in Air Force Nuke Operations

Kirsten McNeil

A Department of Defense task force Sept. 12 recommended putting a single official in charge of the Air Force’s nuclear mission as well as other structural and procedural changes in the ways the service handles that mission. The recommendations follow highly publicized incidents involving the mishandling of nuclear warheads and components, reports of lax warhead security, and the dismissal of the Air Force’s top military and civilian leaders. (See ACT, July/August 2008.)

In June, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates appointed the task force headed by one of his predecessors, James Schlesinger. The Sept. 12 report represented the first phase of the panel’s work, which focused solely on the Air Force, responsible for strategic bombers and ICBMs. A second phase will provide recommendations on the entire Defense Department’s handling of nuclear weapons.

The report details how the Air Force has given lower priority to the nuclear mission over time as more pressing conventional priorities have taken precedence. It asserts that this lack of interest helped create the environment for the weapons-handling issues.

Currently, U.S. nuclear forces under Air Force control are spread over 10 Air Force bases and six logistics centers. The 20th Air Force, based out of Wyoming, has responsibility for maintenance and operations of all 450 deployed ICBMs. Strategic bombers are under the 8th Air Force, based out of Louisiana.

The task force recommended putting one person in charge of the nuclear mission, saying it was the lack of central responsibility that led to the handling errors. In addition, the report recommends realigning nuclear bombers and missiles (currently under Air Force Space Command) to an Air Force Strategic Command. This command, it said, should be better aligned with U.S. Strategic Command and provide clear lines of authority and accountability for the nuclear mission.

In March 2006, the Air Force established the Nuclear Weapons Center (NWC) at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico, and the Schlesinger-led task force recommended consolidating the storage of nuclear weapons there. In addition, the task force recommended placing management of logistics and inventory under the NWC instead of the Defense Logistics Agency. Consolidating responsibility is intended to prevent future handling issues.

By combining all personnel responsible for the management of nuclear weapons into one entity, the task force hopes a stronger culture and ethos will be created. The report recommends the assignment of all bombers to the 8th Air Force, and the removal from the 8th Air Force of several missions that are not bomber related, such as cyberwarfare, intelligence, and surveillance.

To address the relatively lax nuclear culture that has evolved in the Air Force since the end of the Cold War, the task force recommends requiring that nuclear personnel undergo professional military education covering topics of deterrence and defense. Unannounced inspections were recommended to ensure that equipment and procedures were maintained properly. A quarterly review of resource allocation and mission readiness is also recommended to restore confidence in the nuclear deterrent.

The Air Force is currently tracking more than 180 corrective actions stemming from the warhead-mishandling incidents. The recommendations in this report are designed to address more systemic problems that had evolved within the service since the end of the Cold War. However, the authors of the report also point out that it will take sustained leadership and commitment to “restore the culture and ethos of nuclear excellence.”

In addition, on Sept. 25, Acting Secretary of the Air Force Michael Donley announced administrative punishments for six Air Force generals and nine colonels for a mistaken 2006 shipment of four nosecone fuses for nuclear missiles to Taiwan. (See ACT, May 2008.) The officers received disciplinary letters of varying severity for their roles in the episode. This comes several months after Gates fired the secretary and the chief of staff of the Air Force.

A Department of Defense task force Sept. 12 recommended putting a single official in charge of the Air Force’s nuclear mission as well as other structural and procedural changes in the ways the service handles that mission. The recommendations follow highly publicized incidents involving the mishandling of nuclear warheads and components, reports of lax warhead security, and the dismissal of the Air Force’s top military and civilian leaders. (Continue)

Democratic Presidential Nominee Barack Obama Shares Views on Arms Control and Nonproliferation Issues with Arms Control Today




For Immediate Release: September 24, 2008
Press Contacts: Miles A. Pomper, Editor, Arms Control Today, (202) 463-8270 x108 and Daryl G. Kimball, Executive Director, Arms Control Association, (202) 463-8270 x107

(Washington, D.C.): Arms Control Today, a leading journal on nonproliferation and global security, today released Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama's answers to a dozen questions posed by the monthly magazine's editors on arms control and nonproliferation issues to both major party presidential candidates.

Arms Control Today has published such surveys of the presidential candidates going back three decades. The Obama survey answers are available at http://www.armscontrol.org/2008election and a PDF version is available here.

The questions covered areas from negotiations with Russia to relations with Iran and from appropriate U.S. policy on cluster munitions to the right approach to nuclear-armed neighbors India and Pakistan.

They were submitted to both the John McCain and Obama campaigns in June, with responses originally scheduled for publication in the magazine's September issue, but neither campaign was able to respond in time and the segment was rescheduled for the October issue.

The McCain campaign has previously expressed a willingness to provide answers to the same questions and has been cooperative in dealing with ACT. But the Republican presidential nominee's staff did not provide Arms Control Today with answers to the survey questions in time for the publication of the October issue of Arms Control Today. Arms Control Today will publish Senator McCain's responses to the survey whenever they become available.

In addition to the survey, please turn to the Website of the independent Arms Control Association (ACA), the publisher of Arms Control Today, for several other sources of information on the presidential candidates' views on arms control and nonproliferation issues:

  • An ACA panel discussion on "How the Next President Can Strengthen the Nonproliferation System" with representatives for the McCain and Obama campaigns. The discussion, which took place at ACA's annual luncheon in June, featured Stephen E. Biegun, now a foreign policy adviser to Republican Vice Presidential nominee Sarah Palin, who spoke on behalf of the McCain campaign, and John D. Holum, the former director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency under President Clinton, who spoke for the Obama campaign. It is available at http://www.armscontrol.org/events/20080617_Presidential_Debate.
  • This month, Arms Control Today also made past presidential questionnaires from as far back as 1976 available online. You can access the full list at http://www.armscontrol.org/historical_armscontrol_surveys.

Arms Control Today, a leading journal on nonproliferation and global security, today released Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama's answers to a dozen questions posed by the monthly magazine's editors on arms control and nonproliferation issues to both major party presidential candidates. (Continue)

Presidential Elections – Candidates Responses 1976 to Today


Since 1976, Arms Control Today has given presidential candidates the opportunity to present their views on a range of arms control and national security issues. Over the years presidential candidates have all taken the time to share their opinions with our readers. These fora are an excellent opportunity to compare leading politicians' opinions on critical issues in more specific detail than usually provided by campaign material.

Below you will find an archive of all the questions and answers Arms Control Today has exchanged with presidents and major party nominees since 1976.

Candidate Views on Arms Control 1976-2008

1976: Jimmy Carter vs. Gerald Ford
1980: Jimmy Carter vs. Ronald Reagan
1984: Walter Mondale vs. Ronald Reagan*
1988: Michael Dukakis vs. George H. W. Bush
1992: George H.W. Bush vs. Bill Clinton
1996: Bill Clinton vs. Bob Dole*
2000: George W. Bush vs. Albert Gore
2004: George W. Bush* vs. John Kerry*
2008: John McCain** vs. Barack Obama

* Ronald Reagan did not answer the survey in 1984 and Bob Dole declined in 1996. In 2004, the survey was not conducted when one of the major party candidates declined to participate.
**The McCain campaign has previously expressed a willingness to provide answers to the same questions and has been cooperative in dealing with Arms Control Today. But the Republican presidential nominee’s staff did not provide ACT with answers to the survey questions in time for the publication of the October issue of ACT. ACT will publish Senator McCain’s responses to the survey whenever they become available.




Since 1976, Arms Control Today has given presidential candidates the opportunity to present their views on a range of arms control and national security issues. Over the years presidential candidates have all taken the time to share their opinions with our readers. These fora are an excellent opportunity to compare leading politicians' opinions on critical issues in more specific detail than usually provided by campaign material. (Continue)

Keeping a Tight Lid on Pandora’s Box

The Nuclear Taboo: The United States and the Non-Use of Nuclear Weapons Since 1945
By Nina Tannenwald
Cambridge University Press, January 2008, 472 pp.

Reviewed by William Burr

In the spring of 2006, when rumors spread about a possible U.S. military strike against Iran's nuclear facilities, The New Yorker's Seymour Hersh reported that the Bush administration asked the Pentagon to include nuclear strikes among its options. The Joint Chiefs of Staff, however, strongly opposed any plans to target Iran with nuclear weapons; Hersh's sources told him that "there are very strong sentiments within the military against brandishing nuclear weapons against other countries." According to one of the sources, "[I]f senior Pentagon officers express their opposition to the use of offensive nuclear weapons, then it will never happen."

What happened next, the degree to which the Joint Chiefs prevailed in this debate about contingency plans for Iran, is unclear, but the claim that the U.S. high command strongly opposed the use of nuclear weapons resonates with the arguments made in a remarkable and long-awaited book by Brown University political scientist Nina Tannenwald. Her subject is what she sees as the "the single most important phenomenon of the nuclear age": the nonuse of nuclear weapons since 1945. (Truth-in-reviewing notice: I read and commented on an early draft of this book.) Noting that many Cold War analysts took it for granted that nuclear weapons would be fired in anger during a crisis, Tannenwald seeks to explain why the United States did not use nuclear weapons during hot wars in Asia and the Middle East. The United States was not the only nuclear-weapon state, but as a superpower with global security and economic interests, it was involved in significant military confrontations where nuclear weapons use was under consideration and where use was threatened. Despite the focus on Washington, Tannenwald believes that her findings are relevant to the experience of other countries and makes some generalizations in her conclusions.

Acknowledging that some analysts have argued that self-interest and prudence, such as the danger of nuclear war, sufficiently explain the nonuse of nuclear weapons, Tannenwald finds the realist explanations incomplete. Although strategic interests are important, Tannenwald argues that the historical record reveals that the idea of nuclear weapons use became tarred with "moral opprobrium." To explain why U.S. officials did not use nuclear weapons, Tannenwald develops a complex argument about an evolving "nuclear taboo." Drawing on anthropological theory that a taboo is "something that is not done, not said, or not touched," Tannenwald sees the nuclear taboo as a "de facto prohibition against the first use of nuclear weapons." Nuclear use, except in extremis, in retaliation to a nuclear attack, has become taboo because the weapons themselves have become stigmatized as "illegitimate and abhorrent." Violating the taboo, using nuclear weapons, would open a Pandora's box involving great danger and potentially terrible consequences. According to Tannenwald, once nuclear weapons are used, once the "bright line" is crossed, the peril unleashed would put one "immediately in a new world."

The nuclear taboo is a "normative belief about the behavior" of nonuse, that is, U.S. leaders came to believe that a taboo against first use exists. Tannenwald identifies three "pathways" that contributed to the formation of the taboo. One was the force of domestic public opinion. Another was world opinion, which exists "independently of the preferences of dominant states." The third was the personal convictions of the decision-makers themselves. All three helped create a nuclear taboo that constrained the actions of U.S. leaders during crisis and war.

How a "moral norm" proscribing the use of nuclear weapons developed during the decades after the Hiroshima and Nagasaki attacks takes up seven chapters of this book. Looking closely at the evolution of "discourse, institutions, and behavior," the author traces the beginning of the stigmatization of nuclear weapons to the years after World War II. Not unexpectedly, Tannenwald finds the roots of the taboo in the ethical tensions raised by the first use of nuclear weapons. The atomic strikes may not have been as decisive for Japan's surrender as she suggests (for example, Tsuyoshi Hasegawa's work indicates a more complex picture),[1] but Tannenwald is on firm ground when she belies the familiar view that President Harry Truman had no second thoughts about the bombings. Indeed, she finds him deeply troubled, disliking "the idea of killing...‘all those kids'" to the point that he called off further atomic attacks.

Truman was inconsistent (fire-bombing of Japanese cities also produced mass civilian casualties), but he nevertheless began putting nuclear weapons in a special category and kept them under tight civilian custody. He opposed military custody of the weapons because they were "horribly destructive" and "not for military uses." Although he eventually permitted military planning for the use of nuclear weapons and made decisions to expand the stockpile, as David Rosenberg has argued, Truman continued to see atomic bombs as weapons of last resort.[2] His reactions paralleled the development of world public opinion, which increasingly found nuclear use repugnant.

More or less simultaneously, the UN Commission for Conventional Armaments stigmatized the bomb by developing the concept of "weapons of mass destruction" (WMD), which linked nuclear weapons to biological, chemical, and other unconventional weapons that had "characteristics comparable in destructive effect to those of the atomic bomb." Tannenwald sees the emergence of the WMD category as providing fertile soil for a nuclear taboo to "take root."

The Korean War provided a test case for the developing and still tentative taboo. As the crisis unfolded, the Truman administration secretly deployed nuclear weapons components in the western Pacific, and after Beijing intervened militarily, Truman unleashed a furor by stating publicly that nuclear weapons were "under active consideration." Although military planners identified suitable targets, ethical concerns made Truman again loath to consider nuclear weapons use, and top Department of State advisers worried about the political costs of using nuclear weapons for a second time against Asian people. World opinion would put the "mark of Cain" on the United States for years to come.

Tannenwald sees normative and political considerations against nuclear weapons use in Korea as reinforcing a policy of restraint (limited war) to prevent escalation to global conflict with North Korea's Chinese and Soviet partners. This understanding of White House policy is persuasive, but Tannenwald may go too far in downplaying the concern that nuclear weapons use could escalate the war. She argues that Truman's advisers were divided about the risks of a wider war, but it is not clear that those divisions were all that important because the person whose opinion really mattered to the president, Secretary of State Dean Acheson, was worried about the escalation danger of nuclear weapons use. (Interestingly, she presents no evidence on Secretaries of Defense George C. Marshall or Robert Lovett, who must have weighed in on nuclear issues.) Thus, cost-benefit explanations, which Tannenwald deems "materialist," are likely to have been more relevant to Truman's decisions on Korea than she concedes.

World opinion was a political constraint, Tannenwald argues, that inhibited President Dwight Eisenhower from considering nuclear weapons use in Korea. Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles believed that nuclear weapons were far more usable than Truman did and presided over nuclear contingency planning for use if the armistice talks broke down. Nevertheless, they perceived, in their words, a "tabu" against nuclear use that was difficult to overcome. As Dulles acknowledged with respect to Korea, "[I]n the present state of world opinion we could not use an A-bomb." As much as Eisenhower and Dulles wanted to reverse the nuclear taboo and make nuclear weapons as usable as other munitions, Tannenwald sees these two as constrained by outside forces, against their own wishes.

Beginning in the mid-1950s, Tannenwald sees important developments, especially the global movements against nuclear weapons and weapons testing, strengthening the taboo: "by castigating nuclear weapons as abhorrent weapons and calling for a halt to the nuclear arms race, the peace groups helped to stigmatize nuclear weapons and to delegitimize them as acceptable weapons of war." This is an important part of her argument; by holding that social pressure and public opinion were crucial to the creation of the nuclear taboo, Tannnenwald challenges the view that institutional norms are "created mainly by and for the powerful." Thus, by the end of the 1950s, despite White House efforts to influence public opinion, top policymakers such as Secretary of Defense Neil McElroy acknowledged that world opinion was so strongly against nuclear weapons that it could make them "unusable in war, as proved to be the case with chemical weapons."

During the 1960s and the following years, Tannenwald sees the "institutionalization" of the taboo. Not only did the Kennedy and Johnson administrations initiate "flexible response" strategies designed to avoid or, at least, defer nuclear weapons use in a European confrontation, Kennedy presided over the creation of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, which provided a voice for nuclear arms restraint in the federal government. Moreover, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara privately advised Kennedy and President Lyndon Johnson never to initiate the use of nuclear weapons, advice that both apparently accepted. On a global scale, the stigmatization of nuclear weapons continued: Latin Americans in 1967 created the world's first nuclear-weapon-free zone, and states began signing the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1968.

In this context, the hot war in Vietnam became what Tannenwald sees as another important test for the taboo. In an arresting chapter, Tannenwald looks at the role (or nonrole) that nuclear arms played in policymaking during the Johnson and Nixon administrations. Top officials in each administration were willing to make occasional veiled nuclear threats against Hanoi, but apparently Johnson also found nuclear use morally unacceptable and was determined to have no Hiroshimas on his watch. Thus, when some Pentagon and White House officials began to look at nuclear options during the 1968 siege of Khe Sanh, Johnson put a halt to all contingency planning. As Tannenwald observes, Johnson's view was that "not only should nuclear weapons not be used, nuclear options should not even be studied." Although RAND Corporation analyst Sam Cohen strongly argued that nuclear weapons had military utility in Vietnam, no one would pay any attention to him.

The hard-nosed President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger may not have worried about the morality of using the bomb in Vietnam and possibly looked at nuclear options during 1969. Nevertheless, the nuclear taboo functioned as an "instrumental not internalized constraint" on their actions; "anticipated domestic and world public condemnation" continued to keep nuclear weapons off the table.

Whatever Nixon's and Kissinger's personal views about using nuclear weapons were, they strengthened nonuse norms through arms control negotiations with Moscow. The 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty was especially important because it amounted to a "strategic no-first use agreement" by codifying mutual deterrence. With the treaty leaving each country undefended from strategic attack, mutual survival depended on the prospect that neither side purposefully intended to launch their bomber or missile force. Tannenwald argues that "superpower self-interest" was critically important to strengthening the taboo.

In Tannenwald's account, the revived anti-nuclear controversies and movements of the late 1970s and early 1980s produced what she sees as "de facto denuclearization." The furor unleashed by the U.S. government's unsuccessful effort to produce and deploy the neutron bomb (Enhanced Radiation Warhead [ERW]), a weapon designed to destroy people but not structures, showed the continuing deep public antipathy to nuclear weapons. That Pentagon officials saw the ERW as a more credible threat was precisely what made it objectionable to others, the risk that it would make it easier to use nuclear weapons.

Also reinvigorating anti-nuclear sentiments and pressures for arms control was the Reagan administration's military buildup and public anxiety over the dangers of a reinvigorated Cold War. Pressures for a nuclear freeze and condemnations of the morality of nuclear first use and nuclear threats (deterrence) by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops and secular organizations were signs of the time. So was a critique that linked morality and interests by arguing that a strategy based on monstrous capabilities to destroy human existence was inconsistent with a realistic conception of security. Tannenwald finds that this thinking was in tune with public opinion, which, although not supporting nuclear disarmament, opposed first use of nuclear weapons.

The account of the 1980s as a decade that strengthened the taboo would be even stronger if it took into account the research of Paul Lettow and others, which portrays an anti-nuclear President Ronald Reagan.[3] Although Tannenwald acknowledges that Reagan contributed to anti-nuclear sentiment with his statements about making nuclear weapons "obsolete," why he felt that way deserves fuller explanation. After all, this president discussed with Mikhail Gorbachev proposals to abolish nuclear weapons. Like many of his predecessors, Reagan had a strong aversion toward nuclear weapons, evidence for which former associates have provided when they recalled him saying that nukes were "horrible" and "inherently evil." Such stigmatizing language strongly suggests that Reagan had internalized the nuclear taboo.

The discussion of the nonuse of nuclear weapons during the 1991 Persian Gulf War makes a strongly suggestive, if not definitive, case for the taboo persisting beyond the Cold War. Tannenwald provides significant evidence that, across the board, top military commanders found nuclear weapons irrelevant and unusable during the war. Some of them raised moral objections and argued that civilized states did not use nuclear weapons, but using the information that the author provides, it is possible to construct other explanations. Some of the statements by the commanders suggest more pragmatic, cost-benefit calculations, for example, that the United States would lose the "moral high ground" and that nuclear weapons were fundamentally impractical for the situation in the Gulf. Most prominently, Colin Powell, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, ruled out using nuclear weapons because "we're not going to let that genie loose."[4] Powell's implication may have been that he wanted to avoid setting a bad precedent, for example, that nuclear use might encourage even more proliferation and produce a more dangerous world. Although Tannenwald reasonably argues that norms shape thinking about precedent, Powell's remarks did not necessarily imply any particular ethical discomfort.

The lack of strong evidence on the thinking of civilian policymakers during the 1990 Gulf conflict makes it difficult to make authoritative statements about the impact of the nuclear taboo. Tannenwald shows that President George H. W. Bush, Secretary of State James Baker, and Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney were certainly willing to make ambiguous nuclear threats against Saddam Hussein, but to what extent had they internalized the taboo? Perhaps they did, but drawing firm conclusions requires more interviews, memoirs, and documents.

With nuclear proliferation becoming a focal issue in the post-Cold War world, Tannenwald sees a more complex environment for the nuclear taboo during the 1990s. Although the non-nuclear-weapon states did not challenge the taboo, they did question the inequalities of the nonproliferation regime, which limited nuclear deterrence and nonuse norms to a few. This unequal status proved galling to the non-nuclear-weapon states, which pushed hard to strengthen the NPT's disarmament requirements, obligations that the nuclear-weapon states have made weak commitments to fulfill. Nevertheless, efforts to delegitimize nuclear weapons proceeded, as non-nuclear-weapon states expanded nuclear-free zones and key NATO governments unsuccessfully introduced proposals to review first-use policy. Significantly, anti-nuclear activists began putting the abolition of nuclear weapons on the table, although polling data cited by Tannenwald suggests that U.S. public opinion was divided on the merits of abolition and nuclear weapons use. Tannenwald's history of these developments, including the successful push for a World Court advisory opinion on nuclear weapons, is invaluable and instructive, not least because it helps put recent events, such as the nuclear abolition initiative proposed by former senior officials, including former Secretary of State George Shultz, in historical context.[5]

Tannenwald emphasizes that, as an "evolving" phenomenon, the taboo is not yet "fully robust." Thus, her story is not one of assured progress: plans for nuclear war still exist, and nuclear threats continue to be made. Nevertheless, Tannenwald argues that the taboo has become so entrenched in official thinking that first use by the United States has become for all intents and purposes "unthinkable." Moreover, with respect to other countries, she argues that the taboo has become "widespread,"' not least because most other Western democracies are "more antinuclear than the United States." Although Tannenwald does not believe that the taboo in this country is facing a serious threat, she sees challenges that could weaken it, such as pressure for the use of nuclear "bunker busters" against terrorist or rogue-state underground complexes or an aggressive nationalistic policy, which she calls a "Leviathan" state-essentially current policy-that might seek to validate the use of nuclear weapons. With its unilateral emphasis, the Leviathan approach strongly supports missile defenses to maximize freedom of action. In this respect, Tannenwald is troubled by President George W. Bush's withdrawal from the ABM Treaty because it removed a prop from the system of mutual deterrence that had validated the practice of strategic nonuse for years.

Certainly, Hersh's reporting of the White House request for nuclear options against Iran suggests some weakening of the nuclear taboo in the Bush administration, as do its efforts on behalf of nuclear bunker busters. To prevent any erosion and to strengthen the taboo, Tannenwald believes it essential to keep alive the fear of nuclear war, move forward on a variety of institutional approaches to reduce the risk of nuclear use, and ensure that nuclear weapons remain in the category of "unacceptable" weapon of mass destruction. In this connection, she does not see abolition in the cards because of such difficulties as verification and the risk that some nation might secretly prepare to break out of an agreement. Instead, Tannenwald finds it more feasible to move toward "virtual abolition," to be achieved through changes in "habit, attitude, norm, law." Some of those changes-a wholly democratic world and the "obsolescence of war"-can be achieved only through sweeping historical development, but Tannenwald believes they could make nuclear weapons irrelevant. Besides these visionary prognostications, the author offers more tangible proposals to stigmatize nuclear weapons further: no-first-use agreements or a ban on nuclear weapons use altogether. The author's take on the abolition question should produce some debate, especially in light of the proposals by Shultz and his associates.

Tannenwald's commitment to political science's international relations (IR) theory, for example, her abstruse discussion of "material" versus "non-material" explanations, makes parts of The Nuclear Taboo a demanding read. Nevertheless, readers who are less interested in IR theory will benefit greatly from reading the historical chapters. The author does make some factual errors (e.g., misidentifying Eisenhower's role in 1950, misdating the first test of a deliverable hydrogen bomb, and confusing Kennedy with Johnson), but that may be inevitable when producing such a wide-ranging study. These complaints aside, Tannenwald has made a persuasive case for the existence of a nuclear taboo. Her book is a great accomplishment that will influence thinking about nuclear history and nuclear weapons policy for years to come.

William Burr is a senior analyst at the nongovernmental National Security Archive and directs its nuclear history documentation project.

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1. Tsuyoshi Hasegawa, Racing the Enemy: Stalin, Truman, and the Surrender of Japan (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005).

2. David Alan Rosenberg, "The Origins of Overkill: Nuclear Weapons and American Strategy, 1945-1960," International Security, Vol. 7, No. 4 (Spring 1983), p. 11.

3. Paul Lettow, Ronald Reagan and His Quest to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (New York: Random House, 2006).

4. Colin Powell with Joseph E. Persico, My American Journey (New York: Random House, 1995), p. 486.

5. See, for example, George P. Shultz, William J. Perry, Henry A. Kissinger, and Sam Nunn, "A World Free of Nuclear Weapons," The Wall Street Journal, January 4, 2007, p. A15; and "Toward a Nuclear-Free World," The Wall Street Journal, January 15, 2008, p. A13, www.nti.org/c_press/c3_opeds.html.

A Review of The Nuclear Taboo: The United States and the Non-Use of Nuclear Weapons Since 1945 by Nina Tannenwald.


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