Michael KreponWhere Are We? And Where Do We go from Here?

Lyric of the Week:

“There’ll be no healing from the art of double dealing. Armageddon’s back in town again” — Patterson Hood, Drive-By Truckers, The Unraveling album

Note to Readers: Here’s what I had to say to the UN Secretary General’s Advisory Board on Disarmament Matters on January 30th:

We’re not doing well, obviously. But we’ve been through tough times before and we can get through this rough patch, as well. And in some key respects of norm building, we’re actually doing better than ever — hard as this might seem. 

Let’s assess the key pieces of what we might call the arms control enterprise.

The nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty has wide membership, almost all in good standing. This reflects ground realities: States that have felt compelled to acquire nuclear weapons in recent decades have not improved their security. Almost all states understand this, but a few are on the fence. Historically, there are usually a few fence sitters contemplating the nuclear option.

The international impulse to strengthen the NPT is weak, and this is worrisome. States possessing nuclear weapons haven’t done much lately to fulfill their responsibilities under the Treaty, and many Non-Nuclear-Weapon States have shifted their focus to the ban treaty.

Nonetheless, the NPT cornerstone of the global nuclear order, including the IAEA and ancillary instruments, thankfully remain in working order. The NPT Review Conference is likely to be difficult, but I don’t foresee shaken allegiances. It’s not in the national security interests of NNWS to walk away. I recognize that some hold regrets for extending this Treaty indefinitely in 1995, but if it were up for grabs every five years, the NPT would probably be far weaker than is presently the case. 

The Chemical Weapons Convention also remains in good working order. Solid norms have been established, as is evident by the existence of only one outlier at present. We’ve come a long way since World War I.

The most noticeable aspect of the Biological Weapons Convention — even without monitoring provisions — is the absence of battlefield use. This is a reflection of the absence of battlefield utility. The global community already has its hands full with viruses that aren’t created in laboratories.

With respect to nuclear testing, the CTBT hasn’t entered into force. This is deeply disappointing. But the norm against testing is stronger than ever. It has been over two decades since a major or a regional power has tested. Only one outlier still threatens or hints at testing. Since every test is a declaration of utility, the absence of testing for so long by so many is a remarkable achievement.

With respect to controls over fissile material used for making nuclear weapons, we have failed utterly.

The Open Skies Treaty has been an underutilized, under-appreciated success story that has few champions in the United States. It hangs by a thread — yet another reflection of the deterioration of geo-political thinking in my nation’s capital.

With respect to the reduction of nuclear weapon stockpiles and deployed forces, the record is mixed. The United States and Russia have reduced stockpiles and deployed forces considerably. Both are likely to continue to do so, even with new programs coming on-line. The primary reason is that these programs are ridiculously expensive. One reflection: The United States used to rely on 41 ballistic missile-carrying submarines. This number is slated to go down to twelve. It would be wise, however, for Washington and Moscow to make a virtue out of necessity by agreeing to lower numbers, formally or tacitly.

The nuclear weapon holdings of France, Great Britain and Israel appear to be static – although there is great opacity about Israel’s holdings. 

The nuclear weapon holdings of the four Asian states possessing nuclear weapons are growing. The North Korean nuclear program is dangerous. The triangular competition among China, India and Pakistan is more dangerous. The alternatives for this triangular competition are to set fixed deterrence requirements and drop out of the competition once they are met; to continue to compete in relative terms; or to find a mechanism that applies to all three that establishes informal plateaus and provides sufficient assurance of deterrence. More on this later.

Nuclear and conventional arms reduction treaties have gone by the wayside. Only one remains – New START – and its future is clouded.

What does this add up to?

The picture is disheartening, but the sky isn’t falling – at least not yet. Some key norms are stronger than ever, but could be broken at any time. We worry about arms racing, but we overuse the term. There is a bipartisan constituency for strategic modernization in the United States, but not for arms racing. Russia cannot afford an arms race and if it prompts one, it will lose.

Technological developments with respect to nuclear forces are less than meet the eye. The latest bright shiny object — hypervelocity/glide weapons — aren’t all that great and in some respects are less capable than old-fashioned ballistic missiles. They are niche weapons.

The basic technologies associated with nuclear weapons are six decades old.
These systems cost much and have had no demonstrable military utility since 1945. The methods of warfare of greatest consequence at present are hybrid in nature. Other methods of potential warfare that also demand our attention may not even be kinetic, let alone nuclear, in nature. I’m referring, of course, to space and cyber warfare.

So, where do we go from here?

The best antidotes to space and cyber warfare are not treaties or bans; they are codes of conduct. The one exception here may be a ban of limited scope on kinetic energy anti-satellite tests. But getting everyone on board without the usual efforts to expand the scope of a ban into unverifiable domains will be difficult. 

In the past, we’ve relied heavily on numbers embedded in treaties for nuclear arms control and reductions. It’s important to keep or retrieve as many useful numbers as we can, and then to reduce them. Looking forward, I anticipate a shift in the form of greater reliance on norms than on numbers. Schelling and Halperin actually wrote about this in their seminal text, Strategy and Arms Control.

The three most important norms are no use of nuclear weapons in warfare, no nuclear testing, and no further proliferation. The no battlefield use norm is now almost 75 years old. Of all norms, this is the strongest and most important. I propose a difficult but achievable goal: to extend this norm to the 100th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Let’s shoot for a Century.

As previously noted, the no nuclear testing norm for major and regional powers is now more than two decades old. My suggested goal — again difficult but achievable — is to extend this ban for half a century, to the 100th anniversary of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Our current nonproliferation challenges are obvious: they focus on Iran, and if we fail there, on Saudi Arabia, and Turkey. We have the means to succeed here, as well. If the leadership of Iran really wanted actual bombs, they would have had them by now.

If we focus on and protect these three crucial norms, we will progressively reduce nuclear dangers and weapons – whether or not there are new treaties codifying lower numbers. This isn’t, however, an either/or proposition; I’d much prefer to maintain on-site inspections embedded in treaties with reduced numbers as a way to strengthen norms.

These norms are already multilateral in nature. It’s easier – but far from easy – to multi-lateralize norms than it is to multi-lateralize numbers embedded in treaties. Success requires making multilateral norms stronger. 

It’s worth contemplating how the “Build-down” concept – first advanced by Alton Frye during a previous rough passage during the Reagan administration – might be adapted and reconsidered. The Build-down concept allowed for modernization programs but called for greater reductions in older systems at the same time. Given economic realities, the United States and the Russian Federation might well explicitly endorse this concept.

It’s also worth thinking about whether the Build-down concept might be adapted for application to the nuclear competition among China, India and Pakistan. 

It’s unlikely there will be drop-outs from this triangular competition. Pakistan would certainly qualify, given its economic straits, but it will continue to compete. If there are no drop-outs, then the only way to get off this treadmill is for all three to agree to slow down. Since the Build-down concept could be pursued even when states are unwilling to accept numerical limitations or a hierarchical order, it might be worth exploring here, as well.


  1. Phil Tanny (History)

    If you will allow a reply…

    As it appears from here, experts often know too much about the subject to be able to make their way to a some very simple bottom lines. Sometimes less is more.

    First, none of the above really matters so long as nuclear weapons exist, because in a time of crisis all rules, agreements, treaties and bans etc will immediately become irrelevant. Reducing numbers of weapons is obviously good, but until the numbers of nuclear weapons approaches zero, everything
    is still on the line, and no victory or even real progress can be declared.

    Second, we are never going to eliminate nuclear weapons until we find a way to get all the nuke states to disarm together, at the same time. No major power is going to disarm until it’s rivals do. This makes peaceful orderly disarmament very unlikely in the current status quo as the politics in _every_ weapons state would have to be agreeable, at the same time, or nothing much happens. Still trying to find any expert article which comments on this.

    Third, if the above is true, then what we are likely waiting around for is the next nuclear detonation. It seems that only a dramatic event of that scale has the power to so radically transform the global group consensus (overwhelmingly dominated by apathy to the highest levels of every society) as to make real disarmament possible.

    Our best hope may be a nuclear weapons accident in the United States, as that would transform the conversation without leading to yet another war.

  2. robgoldston (History)

    I think Phil misses the option of steady, mutually agreed reductions in verified numbers, such as when Obama floated the balloon of the US and Russia going down to 1000 from 1550 in New START. As we go down in numbers, however, verification gets more and more challenging, so we need to address that challenge and be ready when the politics makes this possible.

    • Michael Krepon (History)

      Thanks for this.Treaties have provided a legal basis for on-site inspections that have proven essential to draw down nuclear dangers and weapons. We’ve got to be smart enough to keep OSIs.

  3. Phil Tanny (History)


    Reductions don’t have much real world impact until they approach zero. Imagine even 50 nukes falling on any country.

    I support all disarmament efforts that are currently underway or being imagined. I’m trying to do my little part. I don’t mean to discourage any such efforts, I’m just trying to be realistic. Here’s an example.

    Europe has long been the home of high culture, philosophy, reason and science, and of course Christianity. None of that stopped Europeans from ceaselessly warring upon each other for centuries. What brought the carnage to an end was bombing nearly everything from London to Moscow in to burned out rubble in WWII. Europe didn’t learn through reason, it learned through pain.

    Hopefully I’m completely wrong and we will think our way out this mess. We do get lucky sometimes. But more likely, we are in a battle for the soul of humanity, and battles typically have casualties.

    The big opportunity will come once some city somewhere has paid the price. And then this topic which even Presidential candidates find too boring to discuss will become the only thing any one is talking about. What happens after that is anybody’s guess.

    Thanks for the conversation.

  4. nicholas biniairis (History)

    Truly, OSis, treaties, norms, and a functioning (sic) UN are means to reduce the chances of a nuclear war. But only to reduce them. However, the chances for a military confrontation among USA Russia China, India, Pakistan are on the rise. Economic, technological, scientific and military competition are feeding a strong undercurrent for conflict. I am afraid that Phil is right. Yes, keep all treaties and OSis alive but there is no progress towards the elimination of a nuclear war. I feel that actually the odds are on the rise because it seems that they are non-existent or neutralized. Familiarity breeds contempt and contempt breeds errors. I don’t trust the guards for peace and decision-makers for war.

    • Phil Tanny (History)

      Nicholas writes, “Economic, technological, scientific and military competition are feeding a strong undercurrent for conflict.”

      It seems the consistent pattern of history is that every so often such competitions break out in to open warfare. Chaos reigns for awhile, a big mess is made. Then we clean up the mess, try to learn some lessons, and the pattern continues. What’s obviously revolutionary about nuclear weapons is that they have the potential to bring this cycle to a close, ending the opportunity for renewal, at least for a long time.

      Underneath all the technical and political details there seems to be a more fundamental problem that will remain with us even if nuclear disarmament is totally successful. The knowledge explosion will continue to generate ever more, ever greater powers at an ever faster pace, while our “more is better” relationship with knowledge remains stuck in the 19th century.

      If there is any value to nuclear weapons it may be that their simplicity (a box that goes boom) might help us better see how unsustainable a marriage between a revolutionary knowledge explosion and an outdated philosophy really is. If such things are of interest, there’s more of it here:


      I’m not sure what the practical value of such an analysis might be. I find it overwhelmingly interesting, but after that I’m not sure how it helps. Maybe over the long run, should we get that lucky.

  5. John Hallam (History)

    It seems to me that what is missing here (did I miss something in my rather speedy read?) is any reference to the consensus about nuclear RISK.

    If we are to believe the Bulletin (and they aren’t by any means the only people saying this), then the actual risk not of a mere detonation but of an actual apocalypse, is higher than it has ever been.

    This makes ‘waiting for a detonation, into a ‘waiting for the end of the world’.

    Aren’t we better to try mightily to ensure that the world does NOT end – that the large – scale use of nukes (anything over 10 detonations) never takes place?

    Isnt the avoidance of an event sequence such as an India-Pakistan nuclear war, a DPRK EMP strike (which might possibly paralyse US retaliatory capability as well as take the US back to the 18th century in nanoseconds), or the full monty in the form of a US-Russia holocaust – a topmost prioroty?

    Shouldnt we be DOING something to ensure these events never take place?

    John Hallam

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