Defining Ideas

The Path Forward On Arms Control

Thursday, August 31, 2017
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Barbara Kelley

The security and well-being of the American people and of all humanity are threatened by several global challenges that can only be successfully met through international cooperation. My estimate of the top six: (1) climate change and water scarcity, (2) mass migration caused by armed conflict or climate change, (3) pandemics caused by international travel through regions ravaged by diseases that are resistant to treatment, (4) terrorism generated by organized groups of extremists, (5) massive disruption or physical damage caused by cyberwarfare, and (6) human and environmental devastation caused by use of nuclear weapons. The last of these challenges, unlike the others listed, is almost entirely under the control of a small number of governments, so improving the performance of the US federal government in this area would pay big dividends.

Improving governance in the United States and elsewhere is not just a simple matter of a political choice. Governance of complex military/technical /political public policy issues in these rapidly changing times requires a combination of relevant expertise and leadership at several levels which, in the United States and elsewhere, is often missing in government institutions. The challenge is to create new institutions or reform existing ones so that they have the capacity to manage these complex issues. In this essay, I will draw on the experience of negotiating the limited test ban treaty (LTBT) during the period from 1961 to 1963 to demonstrate the unique role that a small federal agency with a crosscutting mandate and direct access to the president could play under proper conditions. I refer here to the US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA), where I was a staff member with special responsibilities for test ban negotiations from 1961 to 1963.

ACDA’s charter permitted it to acquire and maintain a mix of functional expertise rarely found at that time in government institutions charged with governance in the area of interstate relations. The charter also made clear that the director of the agency was to advise the president. Critically, two other factors existed: (1) a readiness of the president of the United States to sustain the right of an organization like ACDA to provide and promote independent advice; and (2) the determination of the leadership of ACDA to resist pressures from larger, more powerful federal agencies to conform to their institutional aims and policies so that the president could have options derived from other perspectives.

I must stress here that creating ACDA was not an exercise in creating a “czar” to handle a single complex issue but, rather, an effort to restructure the federal government so as to concentrate critical human resources for an indefinite duration on an area critical to the welfare of the nation.

By April 1961, President John F. Kennedy, who had then been in office three months, had decided to continue the policies of the Eisenhower administration and seek to negotiate a total, or comprehensive, ban on nuclear test explosions. This had been one of President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s goals since 1958, when he had proposed technical talks on the verification of a test ban. The scientists involved in the study included Soviet scientists, and they had concurred in a verification system to monitor nuclear testing. The ensuing negotiations among the United States, United Kingdom, and Soviet Union, the only three nations that had conducted test explosions by 1958, had come close to reaching an agreement in 1960, Eisenhower’s last year in office. On February 13, 1960, France conducted its first nuclear test explosion, which Moscow saw as a Western asset. But it was the downing by the Soviets of an American U-2 surveillance overflight of the Soviet Union on May 1, 1960, that killed any remaining chance that Eisenhower could reach an agreement.

The idea of excluding underground explosions from a treaty ban on nuclear tests arose within a short time after the beginning of the negotiations in 1958. The reason was the difficulty in distinguishing between nuclear explosions and earthquakes with then-available sensors. For small-yield explosions it appeared that seismographs might not record them at all if a nuclear explosion was decoupled from the surrounding rock by being detonated in a large cavern. For explosions in the atmosphere, underwater, and in space, a monitoring system consisting of several types of sensors was generally considered adequate for verification purposes. One proposed solution, mostly advanced by Soviet officials, was to negotiate a three-environment treaty and declare a moratorium on underground tests. Another solution, sometimes advanced by Western leaders, was to declare a moratorium on nuclear tests in the atmosphere while negotiating a verification system for underground tests.

The two sides were not able to converge on a common position on exempting underground tests partly because Moscow thought the United States and Britain would have a technical advantage in testing in that environment. Furthermore, other nations could acquire nuclear weapons by testing underground. Both sides recognized this problem, which would weaken the antiproliferation effects of a test ban treaty. For that reason, among others, both sides attached importance to the effort to negotiate a comprehensive, or total, ban on tests.

You may continue reading this essay here at the Hoover Institution’s website.