Christopher Ford. Remarks presented to a side event at the 2010 Review Conference of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, New Paradigms Forum, Hudson Institute, 20 May 2010.
… as present-day disarmament debates shift from a focus specifically upon nuclear weaponry to a broader focus upon full-spectrum military asymmetry, the disarmament discourse is characterized by competition between two conceptual paradigms that are quite incompatible even when their respective adherents seem to agree upon the importance of nuclear disarmament.
Let’s explore this a bit. Even as it seeks to pander to the conventional wisdom of the disarmament movement by attempting to purchase nonproliferation cooperation with concessions on disarmament, the Obama Administration seems to have embraced – as did the Bush Administration before it, though far less emphatically and flamboyantly – a vision of nuclear reductions and potential future disarmament profoundly at odds with much of the conceptual framework that underpins this conventional wisdom. Fundamentally, to the extent that there can be said to be a vision of disarmament progress prevalent among U.S. policy making elites, it is one that assumes and values military asymmetries favoring the United States.
It is not merely that the Obama Administration sees the development of improved nuclear weapons production capabilities as being essential to American reductions, as part of a strategy of substituting potential weapons for actual ones as America’s strategic “hedge” against future problems. It is in fact that non-nuclear U.S. military advantages are embraced as a way to facilitate reducing, or perhaps even replacing, U.S. reliance upon nuclear weapons: developing PGS or other technologies to supplant nuclear weapons in some missions previously thought to require them; improving BMD against proliferation threats; and relying upon robust conventional power-projection capabilities to maintain the solidity of trans-oceanic alliances that have traditionally relied in part upon forward-deployed U.S. nuclear weapons. No one in today’s White House would admit as much, of course, but this agenda – spelled out with some candor in the new 2010 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) – owes as much to the doctrinal vision of President Bush’s 2001 NPR as it does to the ideology of the nuclear abolition movement.
At issue is a real clash between conceptual paradigms about the nature of the global security environment and how best to maintain international peace and security within it. On the one hand, there is a paradigm that one might call “peer-group multilateralism.” It is an ethic of collective action among equals in which countries come together through multilateral (and preferably global and universal) institutions in order to address common challenges. This is a profoundly democratic vision, at least with respect to relations between countries. (Actual democracy for real populations of human beings is an entirely different question, alas.) In it, no one has any particular special privileges, and no one suffers “discrimination” except when misbehavior brings upon miscreants the wrath of the international community – expressed, of course, through formal and collective means. This multilateralist and quasi-democratic paradigm is reflected, for instance, in the consensus negotiation procedures of the CD, and in the one-country-one-vote formula of the U.N. General Assembly. Even where bodies are structured so as to permit slightly more effective decision-making through smaller size, these principles may yet be seen in provisions for rotating states through seats on the IAEA Board of Governors or in the non-permanent ranks of the U.N. Security Council.
In this paradigm, asymmetry of power is philosophically offensive. To prevent or undermine such asymmetry, majoritarian procedures – if not indeed consensus rules – are designed and expected to impede traditional “power politics” and to enable all to participate more or less equally in decision outcomes. Action against common threats is understood as a collective movement both expressing and predicated upon international solidarity, and upon all countries’ shared and axiomatically coequal role in preserving peace and security. By the same token, action not pursued with such a collective or at least majoritarian imprimatur is improper action. In a sense, therefore, the multilateral process is felt to create outcome legitimacy.
On the other end of this conceptual continuum lies a paradigm that one might call the “predominant actor model.” By this account – the essential features of which are evident in the thinking of multiple U.S. administrations, transcending party identification – multilateral institutions operating on the basis of formal equality among near-peers provide an important but sometimes an inadequate means of addressing challenges to international peace and security. It is not necessarily that such institutions fall always or entirely down on the job, but that they are ill-equipped to handle, on their own, the full panoply of international threats that might arise (e.g., on account of collective action problems, the high capital costs and high returns to experience in global power-projection capabilities, or psycho-political dynamics of risk-aversion or anti-militarist fashion).
According to this second model, the security system needs a predominant actor capable of shouldering disproportionate burdens and leading the community’s reaction to pressing challenges, and around whom serious systemic responses to some of the gravest challenges can crystallize – particularly, though not exclusively, where the employment of military force is at issue. In effect, this model presumes that international security is to some extent a public good that will be, in economic terms, under-produced, to the detriment of all, if a predominant actor does not sometimes take the reins. In contrast to “peer-group multilateralism,” outcome legitimacy is, in this model, basically process-exogenous, in that certain steps are assumed to be necessary for the preservation of global order and other critical values of the system, and there is nothing intrinsically wrong with the strongest player stepping in to ensure that these steps are taken. (Indeed, if other actors seem unable to do what is needed, it would be wrong for the predominant power not to intervene.) Other states’ actual consent to such initiative is desirable, but secondary; the key point is that what is needed actually gets done.
The United States tends to see itself as playing this predominant role, with its military power and capabilities underpinning the stability of the present global order and system of economic relations. Having inherited from Britain the baton of securing global sea lanes vital to international commerce – and having added to this a broad modern array of global security responsibilities, ranging from providing the power-projection “muscle” behind humanitarian intervention to fighting nuclear weapons proliferation, and from providing security reassurances to far-flung allies to countering access-denial strategies in outer space – Washington sees itself as having a vital role in the international system precisely on account of its disproportionate military power.
One model thus sees military asymmetry as profoundly subversive of global peace and security, and ultimately regards its erosion as being a requirement for the full success of nuclear disarmament. The other model regards a degree of asymmetry, at least in the right hands, as being essential to global order irrespective of whether or not nuclear weapons exist – and perhaps even especially valuable in preparing to confront the challenges of some hypothetical future in which major conflicts can no longer be “deterred” by nuclear weapons because such devices have been eliminated.
This is an important challenge to the nuclear disarmament “community”.
Christopher Ford, a nonproliferation official in the second Bush administration, is a consistent critic of “universalism” in international affairs and of the what he considers to be “faux” democratic process in international security institutions and fora. Whatever the validity of his doubts in these regard, what must not be denied by disarmament advocates is the reality that the “predominant actors” in the U.S. security establishment, both military and civilian, firmly believe that the U.S. should be the predominant actor on the world stage and are therefore predisposed to share most of Christopher Ford’s doubts (and perhaps allergy) about universalism and inter-national democratic practice.
More about these important issues later.