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Dr. Christopher Ford • May 26, 2021

Good morning, and thanks for inviting me to participate. It’s a pleasure once again to be part of one of Peter Huessy’s breakfast series for the Mitchell Center – and to join my old friend Susan Koch in speaking to you. Peter suggested we say a few words up front about how to improve arms control verification and the possibilities of getting a new arms control framework that could involve both Russia and China, so let me offer a few thoughts.

First, I’d like to say a few words about arms control verification, then a few more about arms control compliance. I’ll finish up with some thoughts upon the security issues that underlie the arms control arena – and about some of the challenges that I think we face today.

I. Effective Verification

First, verification. I hope this won’t seem evasive, but I think it’s difficult to say much right now about future arms control verification. It’s not clear what limits a future arms control agreement would actually impose, and discussion of verification purely in the abstract – without relation to what is being verified – doesn’t make that much sense to me.

As I see it, the point of verification isn’t to conduct a general assessment of someone else’s armaments program; its point is to offer at least some minimum degree of assurance that one will detect a violation of whatever limits you write into your agreement.

How great a degree of assurance you need will depend upon the circumstances, and is basically a policy decision. The George W. Bush Administration, for instance, felt that no additional verification measures were necessary at all in connection with the Moscow Treaty of 2002; the Obama Administration felt it needed much more verification than that in New START of 2010, but it was nonetheless comfortable with fewer verification strictures than were contained in the original START agreement of 1991 as negotiated by the George H.W. Bush Administration. My guess is we’d need pretty robust verification in a future deal with Russia, particularly given their appalling track record of arms control violations, but that’s a policy decision that would have to be made in the moment, based upon the strategic circumstances and informed by such things as the nature and availability of alternative adversary courses of action, the degree to which we ourselves are comfortable being reciprocally subject to such strictures, and the likely consequences of noncompliance with whatever specific restrictions the next deal contains.

But I don’t see much use in discussing specific verification provisions in the absence of information about the particular limits with which it would be those provisions’ objective to verify compliance. Exchanging telemetry data, for instance, might tell you useful things about flight testing, and could help verify compliance with restrictions on having missiles of beyond a certain range. But telemetry surely doesn’t tell you anything very helpful about how many warheads the adversary possesses, and thus wouldn’t be much use in verifying an overall warhead cap. Similarly, being able to tell whether a particular object is in fact a nuclear warhead might be very helpful if the task were to ensure that a state’s arsenal did not exceed a given size – but it wouldn’t be much help in answering questions about delivery systems.

I also don’t care overmuch about re-litigating what verification measures should or shouldn’t have been agreed in past arms control treaties. New START has been extended for a full five years, and it’s not extendable any further, so whatever comes next with Russia or with China will need to be negotiated afresh. What verification makes sense in that agreement, if there is one, will depend upon the limits it imposes, and what’s possible – politically, technologically, legally, and institutionally – at the time. Debating what was or wasn’t done right in the past could perhaps help inform that, but such lessons are only likely to be directly useful if future agreements try to constrain the same things that past agreements did. And that won’t necessarily be the case at all.

From the perspective of thinking about a future arms control framework, therefore, we should presumably be thinking about what we might want to limit, and we should cross-check this objective against what it is possible to verify, as well as the likelihood that the other side would actually agree to what it would take to do so. But just hypothesizing an “ideal” verification package without knowing what limits you’re talking about – or why those limits are the most important ones to pursue – strikes me as going about things rather backwards.

II. Remembering Compliance

My second point has to do with arms control compliance. Specifically, even assuming verification works well, we need to pay attention to what happens if a violation is in fact detected.

This isn’t usually something that is addressed in a treaty itself, inasmuch as a particularly significant violation by one party – that is, a “material breach” in international treaty law terms – tends to relieve the other party of its obligation to comply, and will presumably result in the collapse of an agreement if the violation isn’t rectified. Nevertheless, the question of whether effective compliance enforcement is possible is very important.

No treaty violation is unimportant, and I am of the school of thought that it is indeed possible for a “pattern” of violations – each arguably fairly insignificant in itself – to add up to a major problem as parties evaluate whether they can continue to live together within a treaty framework. That said, it’s also true that some violations are much more significant than others. (This is obvious, in fact, from the very notion of “material breach” itself, with its clear signal that some breaches are not material.)

How one reacts to noncompliance will naturally be shaped by where a violation falls along this implied spectrum of materiality, but in no case should one forget that the challenge of verifying compliance with treaty limits necessarily involves some concept of compliance enforcement – that is, of what one can or should do in the event that the other party cheats. If you’re not willing to do something in the event of a violation, there’s not much point in having good verification, or even much point in having a treaty at all.

As I’ve long argued, not being willing to respond to violations beyond mere finger-wagging is a sign of fundamental unseriousness about arms control. If arms control matters, it necessarily matters whether arms control agreements are violated. Verification protocols, after all, don’t exist just so that historians can later document exactly when things fell apart: they exist to enable effective responses, in the present, to security challenges created by noncompliance. So someone who doesn’t care about violations – one of the surest signs of which is passivity when they occur – has no right to pretend to be serious about arms control.

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III. Compatible or Incompatible Geopolitical Visions?

But being reminded that arms control issues are ones of security – with the implied codicil that arms control agreements should be engaged in only where they actually increase security, should be avoided where they do not, and should be scuttled where they come to undermine it – brings me to my final point: about the importance of the security logics that underlie arms control questions. Through that lens, I fear that the biggest challenges facing the arms control enterprise today aren’t the technical issues of actual arms limits and their verification. The biggest challenges lie deeper, in the structure of the strategic environment in which we are trying to find a way forward.

In this respect, Russia is perhaps the easier case, though that’s not saying too much. Yes, Russia a notorious arms control scofflaw, engages endlessly in baseless propagandistic slurs against our own scrupulous compliance with arms control treaties, and is also today engaging in a provocative arms buildup. Specifically, Russia is developing a range of strategic delivery systems that aren’t covered by any agreement, and is further expanding the large arsenal of Non-Strategic Nuclear Weapons (NSNW) it retained by not fulfilling the promises it made in the Presidential Nuclear Initiatives, that it augmented by violating the INF Treaty, and that it is today working to increase sill further.

That certainly doesn’t bode well for future arms control, but at least Russia claims to be interested in cutting some kind of future agreement, is willing to sit at the table to discuss possibilities, and may intend its current provocations to position it better for such negotiations. More problematic is the provocative and belligerent behavior – even including the occasional military invasion – that the Putin regime directs at its neighbors and uses to boost its stature and role more globally. Russia’s international posture clearly reflects geopolitically revisionist ambitions that are not obviously compatible even with the approaches to nuclear arms control pioneered in the era of détente, much less the optimistic reductions of the post-Cold War era.

Yet even these problems pale in comparison to the situation with China, which is building up its arsenal at a furious pace and doesn’t even pretend to have any interest in negotiation. According to Admiral Richard, the head of the U.S. Strategic Command, China is likely to lead it to “double (if not triple or quadruple)” the size of its arsenal over the next decade. Beijing also sneers at U.S. calls for arms control talks, even while moving forward with plans for a large plutonium-production industry that would be capable of supporting a massive “surge” of weapons production.

In addition to this provocative nuclear trajectory – which has accelerated in recent decades even as the nuclear threats arguably facingChina have steadily been reduced through the dismantlement of the vast majority of the weapons in U.S. and Russian arsenals – China is ramping up threats against its neighbors. Backed by a huge buildup of conventional military power, Beijing has illegally occupied and militarized large areas of the South China Sea claimed by its neighbors, issues ever more bellicose threats against Taiwan, and was recently revealed also to have seized hundreds of square miles of Bhutanese territory.

China, in particular, doesn’t seem actually to want a stable international environment. Rather, it is working to change that environment coercively, undermining the relatively peaceable post-Cold War order and replacing it with one in which China becomes the unquestioned hegemon of Asia and displaces the United States as the central power of the international system. Is it possible to imagine arms control with this China any more than it was possible to imagine arms control with Japan or Germany in the 1930s? I hope so, but the Chinese Communist Party seems to be working increasingly hard to create worrisome historical resemblances.

The threats presented by China’s provocative trajectory, moreover, create new challenges even for whatever U.S.-Russian negotiations might yet prove possible. Take the issue of numerical limits, for example. As you’ll recall, the Obama Administration expressed its desire in 2013 to negotiate warhead cuts with Russia that would bring both sides down to about 1,000 operational warheads each. This did not go anywhere even at the time, for Moscow showed no interest.

But looking at President Obama’s “1,000-warhead” target from the vantage point of 2021, one cannot help being struck that this is exactly the number that a Chinese Communist Party-controlled newspaper in Beijing argued last year was the right number for China – not to mention a figure consonant with Admiral Richard’s recent comment about the possible scale of the Chinese nuclear buildup over the next decade. China’s destabilizing trajectory thus has potentially huge implications for U.S.-Russian arms control, for if Beijing continues on course, it’s hard to see what scope there would be for further U.S. and Russian reductions; neither Washington nor Moscow is likely to be very keen to accept a Chinese bid for strategic nuclear parity by cutting down to a level up to which China is building.

The issue of Sino-Russian strategic ambitions thus casts a dark shadow over the arms control enterprise, raising real questions about whether those two powers actually want the kind of geopolitical stability we have become accustomed to assuming that it is arms control’s purpose to advance. After all, the kind of future worlds the parties imagine – and that they seek to use arms control to promote – has historically been an important factor in whether arms control will be a success or a failure:

  • In the 1920s, the major powers used arms control to help manage competition and to some extent readjust global power balances in pursuit of a relatively peaceful form of coexistence informed by memories of World War One.
  • In the 1970s, the United States and the Soviet Union talked explicitly about “peaceful coexistence,” and used arms control to help manage the risks of the nuclear stalemate that made long-term coexistence necessary.
  • In the 1990s, the major powers sought to use arms control to codify and perpetuate a seemingly post-competitive great power environment.

In all three of those periods, the major participants’ respective visions of the future – and the relative power relationships that such visions can imply – were not so different as to preclude compromise and negotiation.

By contrast, visions of the future in the 1930s were characterized by sharp and growing divergences – between the Western democracies and Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and Imperial Japan – and arms control collapsed. It is worth pondering where our present era lies along this continuum of vision-compatibility.

There is a marvelous anecdote the historian Joel Blatt recounts from a conference in the 1920s trying to develop a global disarmament treaty, concerning a discussion between one of the British representatives and a Spanish admiral. Both men agreed that it made sense for a treaty to fix in place ratios between the major powers’ naval forces, based upon their relative positions in a specific reference year. The Briton suggested 1921 as the year that should be looked to in order to establish that ratio, which certainly made sense from the Royal Navy’s perspective. The Spaniard, however, replied by offering 1588 – the year of the Spanish Armada!

In the pursuit of arms control, details thus matter. And visions of the desired future matter. We need to think through what the revisionist visions of the current Russian and Chinese regimes may imply for the arms control and disarmament enterprise; I fear it is not good.

I would not argue that arms control is impossible today, though I think it does face challenges that the world hasn’t seen for a long time. If arms control is possible, however, it is unlikely to look like the post-Cold War approaches to which so many observers still urge the world to return.

To meet this challenge, we’ll likely need a good deal more creativity than has been shown to date in approaching such questions.