Getting State Back into Nuclear Arms Control and Nonproliferation

Nuclear arms control and nonproliferation remain critical national security challenges. How prepared is the State Department to deal with these issues?


The nuclear arms control field has been in difficult shape in recent years. A series of treaties and agreements have ended with the prospect for new ones slim. The State Department’s institutional capacity has dimmed, as well, particularly as far as Foreign Service ranks are concerned. But the salience of the nuclear challenge has not lessened.

Despite drawdowns of some 85 percent in U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals from their historic highs, the two countries still maintain some 90 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons whose use would end life as we know it. While China’s nuclear arsenal is vastly smaller, it is by no means decreasing. The North Korean nuclear challenge is as real as ever. The U.S. decision to abandon the Iran nuclear deal has gravely shortened the time in which Iran could mount a nuclear weapons breakout. Nuclear-armed India and Pakistan continue to be at loggerheads.

So as a new administration surveys the nuclear policy field in January 2021, nuclear arms control and nonproliferation remain critical national security issues. The Trump administration outlined ambitious proposals for strategic nuclear arms control with Russia and China but pursued them in a hamhanded manner. A Biden administration can be expected to extend New START, the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, due to expire Feb. 5, 2021, and will almost certainly explore how further arms control measures with Russia and China might bolster U.S. security, presumably beginning with serious strategic security dialogues.

The gravity of the stakes argues, further, that the State Department examine how it is equipped to deal with nuclear issues in the arms control, nonproliferation, security and disarmament areas. In sketching out these challenges in the nuclear field in the following, I note that many of the suggestions could also be relevant to other fields such as chemical weapons and biosecurity.

Where We Find Ourselves

During the last four years, the Trump administration has withdrawn or threatened to withdraw from a whole series of nuclear and nonnuclear agreements, leaving only New START hanging by a thread. In addition to that long-avowed opponent of arms control agreements, former National Security Adviser John Bolton, a number of respected arms control theorists and practitioners have referred to the “end of arms control” (Linton Brooks) or declared that “disarmament is at a dead end” (Frank Rose). The latter group, however, is by no means giving up on either the desirability or feasibility of nuclear arms control. Those experts are instead expressing pessimism about the future of traditional, legally binding treaties limiting specific nuclear weapons categories, as typified by New START, because of changed geopolitical conditions and the surge of great power competition.

The increasing difficulty of mustering the necessary 67 votes to obtain advice and consent for treaty ratification in a polarized U.S. Senate and the ease of presidential withdrawal from ratified treaties without any congressional debate or approval also complicate arms control negotiations. It impels any administration to draw on a range of mechanisms to achieve more stable and secure future nuclear arrangements. Further souring the prospects for Senate ratification of potential new treaties is Russia’s record of noncompliance with a number of conventional and nonconventional arms treaties.

The partisan divisions within Congress today argue for more rather than less engagement between Capitol Hill and State.

Not so fast, argues one of our foremost nuclear practitioner-scholars, Rose Gottemoeller, who believes that we can and should aim not only at extending New START (which she negotiated) but seek to negotiate a follow-on agreement with Russia. Gottemoeller acknowledges the tortuous nature of securing advice and consent to ratification for New START, but she argues that a legally binding agreement confers a higher status domestically, as well as with the negotiating partner and the international community. The process itself, she maintains, strengthened the treaty and was educational for both the public and Congress, which called for an unprecedented amount of testimony and required answers to its concerns. (Critics grumble, however, that the necessity for rounding up the necessary GOP votes for New START allowed congressional opponents to demand an even higher price tag for the subsequent U.S. nuclear modernization program, tabbed at around $1.2 trillion.)

The difficulties of traditional treaties notwithstanding, most agree on the broader context (and that includes many Republicans and Democrats, practitioners and academics), which is this:

• We are in an era of increased great power competition.

• We need to find the means to engage China in nuclear arms control.

• Future arms control should draw from a menu of legally binding treaty regimes, strategic stability dialogues, confidence building and risk reduction measures, reciprocal unilateral measures (such as the sweeping Presidential Nuclear Initiatives of the George H.W. Bush administration), and other bilateral and multilateral arrangements.

With this in mind, the new administration will want to examine how well positioned the State Department is—in terms of staffing, organization and policy processes—to carry out the president’s nuclear agenda.

The Importance of Congress and the NSC

The partisan divisions within Congress today argue for more rather than less engagement between Capitol Hill and State if we are to restore a semblance of that now quaint order when “politics stopped at the water’s edge.” Whether the incoming administration decides to pursue any new legally ratifiable nuclear treaties or not, State Department officials will want to improve communications with Congress. Aside from the power of ratification, Congress has extensive legislative and budgetary means to support or curtail future arms control arrangements and to determine the degree of funding and scope of our nuclear arsenal. Not only should State policy leadership interact formally with Congress, but individual officers should cultivate relationships with members and staffers who are usually overwhelmed with the press and range of issues with which they deal. They welcome briefings from State Department experts, especially in relatively esoteric fields such as nuclear policy.

As State ideally seeks to repair years of inadequate budgets, atrophying staff levels and marginalization in the policy process, it should increase the number of State officers detailed to Congress. State might also consider linking congressional details to assignments in the Bureau of Legislative Affairs (H). And, yes, we should encourage substantive congressional visits abroad to get a direct feel for nuclear and related foreign policy issues, rather than the superficial whirlwind CODELS that sometimes occur.

Congress is the indispensable partner of the executive branch, and both should benefit from focused congressional travel—whether it be to NATO to discuss concerns of this nuclear alliance, or key capitals such as Beijing, Tokyo, Seoul, Moscow, London, Paris, Berlin, New Delhi and Islamabad, to discuss their views on nuclear issues. Add to this list visits to the United Nations in New York to get a sense of the challenges faced by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and to Geneva to examine how we might reanimate the Conference on Disarmament.

Are there redundancies in the Bureaus of International Security and Nonproliferation (ISN) and Arms Control, Verification and Compliance (AVC) that might be streamlined?

Vienna showcases both the extraordinary range of nuclear nonproliferation, safety, security and peaceful use activities carried out by the International Atomic Energy Agency and the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organization, as well as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. State should seek ways to invigorate and support the bipartisan National Security Working Group, the successor to the Senate Arms Control Observer Group, which could make regular visits to the site(s) of any future nuclear arms negotiations for briefings by the U.S. team—an investment in securing ultimate Senate support for any future treaty.

Each president, of course, decides how he or she wants to employ the National Security Council. Whether an activist or a coordinating model is chosen by President-elect Joe Biden, State should seek to detail as many officers as possible to the NSC Arms Control and related directorates. A new national security adviser might also consider whether, to ensure better policy coordination, the now-separate arms control, and defense directorates should be combined, as they were prior to the Obama administration. Both the NSC and State benefit from the interchange. Career arms control experts can burnish technical and foreign policy skills with an enhanced appreciation for the domestic context of arms control, and hone negotiating skills with the always-demanding interagency community. And while we are talking about State details, the Department of Energy is as relevant as the Pentagon in the nuclear arena. In making such details, State should ensure that the detailees have positions waiting for them when they complete those assignments.

State’s Arms Control Bureaucracy

The arms control bureaucracy at Foggy Bottom has gone through a number of reorganizations since the demise of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency in 1999. Each left scar tissue, so management might be loath to undertake a new one. But the beginning of a new administration should be a time to at least review structure and process, as well as policy. Here, too, Congress will take an interest (witness its hold on the Bureau of Cyberspace Security and Emerging Technologies, which the Trump administration proposed to add to the “T” family headed by the under secretary for arms control and international security).

Given the comingling of nuclear issues in the nonproliferation and arms control spheres, are there redundancies in the Bureaus of International Security and Nonproliferation (ISN) and Arms Control, Verification and Compliance (AVC) that might be streamlined? Might these two bureaus even be reconfigured along other functional lines, rather than the current division between arms control and nonproliferation? One such reconfiguration could be grouping multilateral regimes together in one bureau, with another to house strategic and emerging security issues. Before actually undertaking any new reorganization, however, priority should be placed on reviving AVC, whose role and staff were particularly diminished during the Trump administration.

The State Department has been fortunate in having a wealth of nuclear experts over the years, but the cadre of experienced practitioners has thinned out since the heyday of nuclear negotiations. In particular, the Foreign Service has to rebuild its greatly diminished nuclear expert ranks. A number of FS (and civil servants) were pushed out during the Trump administration or left in dismay over its policies. Over time, the number of FS slots in the “T” family has dwindled. Certainly, our Civil Service ranks are filled with outstanding experts who can bring continuity and depth to the nuclear field. But if there is no career track for FSOs in the “T” family, the nuclear field will miss out on the particular skills and perspectives that they can bring, whether it be negotiating and language skills or knowledge of our nuclear partners and competitors.

To draw excellent FSOs to the “T” family, we will need to re-create in these bureaus a career ladder for the Foreign Service, which is now virtually nonexistent.

If we do not re-create the FSO slots in “T” that have been either dropped or converted, we will miss the next generation of such nuclear stars as Stephen Ledogar, Mark Fitzpatrick, Greg Thielmann and Steve Pifer, to name but a few. In fact, we brought John Ordway out of retirement in 2011 because his diplomatic skills, coupled with deep knowledge of Russia and Russian, made him a superb head of the Bilateral Consultative Commission established to deal with New START implementation. To draw excellent FSOs to the “T” family, we will need to re-create in these bureaus a career ladder for the Foreign Service, which is now virtually nonexistent in AVC and has lost many rungs in ISN, as well. Ideally, the Director General (in consultation with “T”) would review the staffing charts of the relevant offices to ensure that there are opportunities for FSOs to serve in mid- and senior-level positions to the benefit of both the bureaus and the Service. (Such a review would also be useful for other functional bureaus. More broadly, State should look at ways to lessen the concentration of FSOs in the geographic bureaus to the relative exclusion of service in the functional bureaus.)

FSOs typically staff our Vienna and Geneva arms control/nonproliferation missions but not the complementary offices at State. Why not link these overseas jobs with the domestic counterpart offices? Geneva and Vienna will always be draws, but the diplomats filling the specialized slots there will substantially benefit from prior work in AVC and ISN in addition to being prime candidates for future senior positions in the “T” family. And they will bring those same skills to assignments in the geographic bureaus, whose regional affairs offices should include a solid focus on arms control issues as, for example, the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs traditionally has.

The State Department will benefit overall from developing officers better grounded in nuclear and other arms control issues (The Hague for chemical weapons and Geneva, again, for biosecurity issues). Drawing effectively on both the Civil Service and Foreign Service will enhance our ability to tackle such specific issues as the North Korean nuclear challenge, as well as reengaging on the Iran nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Both highly complex nuclear issues were negotiated by multilateral coalitions and reflected historic and political issues for which area experts could be especially useful as team members. Our civil servants should continue to be offered relevant posts overseas, as well. We should look for opportunities to detail both FS and CS personnel to international nuclear organizations such as the IAEA, just as we have to NATO. This could enhance our influence in key institutions in addition to contributing to the professional development of our international security experts.

In the Multilateral Sphere

Developing synergy between the State Department’s Foreign and Civil Service will be more important than ever in today’s increasingly complex and multipolar world. Some of the world’s multilateral nuclear institutions are showing strains, some of which are long-standing. The Conference on Disarmament, the world’s sole standing multilateral disarmament body, for instance, has not been able to negotiate a treaty since the CTBT in 1996 because its consensus rules allow any one state to hold up even the start of a new negotiation. The IAEA is, by contrast, a highly evolved institution that is open to all states and has successfully accommodated new nuclear tasks over time, such as nuclear security, which got a major push from the Obama administration’s Nuclear Security Summit process. But even the IAEA has governance challenges, such as the inability of new members to join the regional groups, which are the ticket to election to its Board of Governors.

Are there ways we can help strengthen or reform these multilateral bodies to more effectively agree on new nuclear arrangements and implement those already in place? Is it time to think of new bodies, a series of existing informal groups of states or ad hoc coalitions to deal with particular issues? These are some of the institutional issues that should be examined by the new State Department leadership.

The State Department also needs to tap expertise beyond the government, especially as newer fields of cyber, artificial intelligence and space issues impact the nuclear field.

The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty review process, for example, has only occasionally been able to produce a consensus final document in its 50-year history. It faces even rockier times ahead (the 10th Review Conference should have taken place in April 2020 but has been twice postponed due to COVID-19 and is now set for August 2021). Widespread impatience among NPT member states over the pace of nuclear disarmament (mandated in the NPT’s Article VI) led to the separate negotiation and approval in 2017 by 122 states of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). This treaty will enter into force on Jan. 22, 2021, now that the 50th required country has ratified.

None of the five official nuclear weapons states (also dubbed the P-5: the U.S., U.K., Russia, China and France), the de facto nuclear weapons states (India, Pakistan, North Korea, Israel) or those allies under the “nuclear umbrella” have joined the TPNW. Nevertheless, this new treaty will inevitably pit its adherents against those outside the regime. While there is little likelihood the latter ranks will soon embrace the TPNW, there is a real need to seek some common ground between these two camps—and at a minimum conduct a civil dialogue—or risk erosion of the nuclear proliferation firewall. Many in the international arms control community will welcome a lessening of the often heated and damaging polemics commonly heard in the Trump administration in official statements, whether issued in formal plenaries or via Twitter.

The NPT does not include nuclear-capable states India, Pakistan and Israel. The last is a special case: Israel neither confirms nor denies its nuclear status, but its presumed nuclear status has long been a contentious issue in the NPT, particularly among Middle Eastern NPT members. This is a good example of the type of situation in which the involvement of FSOs can be of unique benefit. Former FSO Tom Countryman brought diplomatic skills, Middle East experience and Arabic language to his nonproliferation job as ISN assistant secretary. These skills gave Countryman special entrée to work on the issue of the Middle East Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone with Israel and its neighbors.

As the new administration examines possibilities for a more systematic nuclear dialogue with China, we should develop a cadre of Asian area experts with arms control expertise similar to that of the Russia arms control cadre we developed over the long years of the Cold War. We will need both South Asian and arms control experts, as well as novel ways to engage nuclear India and Pakistan, both of whom have made clear their unwillingness to join the NPT (which will admit only nonnuclear states). One such effort, which we called the P5 Plus, brought together India and Pakistan with the five legally recognized weapons states. It was inaugurated by Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Gottemoeller in 2011. In this case, we weren’t able to overcome a long-standing disagreement on the issue of a fissile material cut-off treaty. But ad hoc fora such as this one may offer promising means to tackle a range of nuclear issues beyond existing formal structures.

Tapping Expertise

The State Department also needs to tap expertise beyond the government, especially as newer fields of cyber, artificial intelligence and space issues impact the nuclear field. We have an unparalleled wealth of nuclear and other technical expertise in our universities, our think-tanks and our advocacy organizations. During the last four years in particular, when nuclear negotiations and policy-level security dialogues either halted or sputtered, these nongovernmental organizations did yeoman work in a variety of track two dialogues across the nuclear agenda.

A more flexible assignment process—and more human resources—could allow for State details to think-tanks such as NTI and universities (and vice versa).

The value of government cooperation with nonofficial entities is perhaps best exemplified by the U.S. Government–Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) partnership, which undergirded both the Obama-era Nuclear Security Summit process (2010-2016) and the International Partnership for Nuclear Disarmament Verification, which debuted in 2014 and was continued by the Trump administration.

We need to expand such public-private partnerships. A more flexible assignment process—and more human resources—could allow for State details to think-tanks such as NTI and universities (and vice versa). A greater presence of FSOs in academia could also help expand interest both in the field and in State Department careers generally. I, myself, benefited from such a university year at Stanford (when Condoleezza Rice was lecturing on arms control!) and also used the year to both explain U.S. foreign policy and recruit possible new diplomats.

Finally, we need to recruit new and more diverse experts in both the Civil Service and Foreign Service if we are to more effectively approach the complex array of nuclear and other security challenges, including new weapons and technologies. A whole generation of women began moving into senior positions in the historically male-dominated nuclear field during the Clinton administration and ascended further during the Obama years (Michèle Flournoy, Rose Gottemoeller, Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, Madelyn Creedon, Lynn Rusten, Laura Holgate, Susan Burk and Anita Friedt, to name just a few), but we need greater generational renewal and diversity throughout the field. Another of my colleagues from the Obama years is helping to lead the way here, former Ambassador Bonnie Jenkins, who founded Women of Color Advancing Peace, Security and Conflict Transformation.

The new Secretary of State in the Biden administration will face a daunting array of nuclear issues. Many have defied solution for decades and reflect difficult geopolitical problems not easily amenable to negotiation. But whatever the challenge, we need to tackle issues that are within our competence—and that is to find the best people, craft the most efficient organizations and policy processes, look for closer relationships with Congress, and shape the best policies and diplomacy for advancing U.S. arms control and nonproliferation goals.

Laura Kennedy, a retired FSO, served as ambassador to Turkmenistan, ambassador to the Conference on Disarmament, deputy assistant secretary in the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs, and chargé d’affaires at the U.S. Mission to International Organizations in Vienna. She serves on various boards, including Foreign Policy for America and the Arms Control Association.