Michael KreponRestoring U.S. Arms Control Expertise

Quote of the week:

“The best defense against partisanship is expertise.” — Roger Angell

The incoming Biden administration’s damage assessments are now underway. All agencies of the executive branch have taken serious hits over the last four years and are in need of revitalization and reform. My focus here is on the State Department, and more particularly on the need to rehabilitate arms control expertise.
The public face of the decline and disparagement of diplomatic expertise during the Trump years is former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovich, an exceptional talent who was thrown overboard by Secretary Mike Pompeo in deference to his boss’s pursuit of re-election. This was merely the tip of the iceberg; the problem of dismissing and hastening the exit of diplomatic talent was systemic under Pompeo and his short-lived predecessor, Rex Tillerson.

The extent of this exodus is only now coming to light. According to data provided by the American Foreign Service Association, from December 2016 through December 2018, the State Department lost fourteen career ministers (three-star general equivalents), 94 minister counselors (two-star equivalents), and 68 counselors (one-star equivalents). Imagine a Pentagon denuded of one-fifth of its flag rank officers. This was the State Department’s fate at the half-way mark of the Trump administration.

More have no doubt fled in Pompeo’s last two years at Foggy Bottom. This picture becomes even more bleak when the exodus of younger talent and the appointment of poorly qualified Ambassadors are added to this equation.

No one has written more knowingly about the challenge of revitalizing the State Department than Bill Burns, the President of the Carnegie Endowment, a former high-ranking official in the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations. Correctives are also offered in an important study released last month by the Council on Foreign Relations, “Revitalizing the State Department and American Diplomacy,” by Uzra S. Zeya and Jon Finer.

Among the functional areas of expertise that Zeya and Finer highlight for an immediate infusion of new hires and returning expertise are climate change and pandemic disease. Inexplicably absent in their otherwise excellent report is recognition of the compelling need to boost expertise to address regional, functional and technical arms control and nonproliferation challenges.

The State Department’s weakness in these skill sets has become profound and was foretold long ago when the semi-autonomous agency devoted to this work, the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, was folded into State in 1999. ACDA was created in 1961 after President Eisenhower fumbled talks on surprise attack and nuclear testing in the first two interactions with Soviet negotiators. It was clear to President Kennedy that a cadre of experts would be needed to tackle arms control issues, so he designated John McCloy to make this happen. The Senator most deeply committed to the establishment of a new agency was Hubert Humphrey.

ACDA was founded on the premise that special expertise on these matters would not flourish at the State Department and that arms control would be given a lesser priority relative to other aspects of statecraft. This premise was born out during the Johnson administration when ACDA succeeded in championing the 1968 Nonproliferation Treaty, which Secretary of State Dean Rusk and those around him were unenthusiastic about because it constrained future options to arm U.S. allies and friends with nuclear weapons.

ACDA’s pursuit of strategic arms control put a bullseye on its back. Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger carried out the first purge of its ranks after the 1972 SALT I Accords. Senator Henry Jackson and others who felt aggrieved by the conduct and outcome of negotiations demanded that heads roll, and ACDA took the fall. Seventeen of the Agency’s top 20 officials cleared out their desks.

To help strengthen the Agency’s ranks, Democratic majorities on Capitol Hill empowered the Carter administration to hire specialized expertise outside of regular Civil Service procedures. This is how I joined the Carter administration. Then ACDA again went through hard times when Ronald Reagan was elected. His transition team culled those who were deemed too enthusiastic about the Agency’s mission, including me.

When Bill Clinton was elected, he and his transition team faced the choice of either rejuvenating ACDA once again or folding it into the State Department. James Goodby produced a study for the State Department’s Inspector General calling for rejuvenation. A Stimson Center assessment, based on the thinking of former ACDA Directors, did as well, calling for a rebuild around the mission of nonproliferation. A study group chaired by Richard Holbrooke consisting mostly of retired Foreign Service Officers called for ACDA’s incorporation into the State Department.

Clinton didn’t make a command decision. Third-tier State Department officials lobbied for incorporating ACDA while no-one was nominated for confirmable positions there, including a new ACDA Director. Finally, Senator Humphrey’s widow persuaded Secretary of State Warren Christopher to allow ACDA to remain as a semi-autonomous agency and to fight for another day.

Because of this wrangling, the better part of the Clinton administration’s first year was lost to arms control, to damaging effect. Ratification of the Chemical Weapons Convention, completed just before Clinton took office, languished. When Clinton belatedly attended to its ratification in 1996, he didn’t have enough Republican votes. After a hiatus of four years, the treaty belonged to him and not to Reagan, on whose watch the negotiations began, or George H.W. Bush, who was its foremost champion.

When Clinton tried a second time in 1997, the White House and the Ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Joe Biden, yielded to the insistence of the Committee’s Chairman, Jesse Helms, that ACDA be folded into State as a condition for floor votes on the CWC.

The damage of having ACDA swallowed up into State was temporarily delayed by the dual-hatted appointment in 1997 of John Holum, ACDA’s last Director, as the Undersecretary of State for Arms Control. When Holum was succeeded by John Bolton in the incoming George W. Bush administration, another exodus of talent and specialized expertise followed. The Obama administration didn’t attend to the replenishment of arms control expertise at the State Department when it enjoyed Democratic majorities on Capitol Hill and the exodus continued under Trump.

Biden now has an opportunity to replenish mid- and entry-level talent with regional, functional, and technical expertise, including on cooperative monitoring techniques. Senior ranks also need to be filled with those who believe in this work and who look like the country they serve. Deputy Assistant Secretary-level jobs that do not require Senate confirmation can be filled quickly. The cupboard is bare, and some Republicans on Capitol Hill will be predisposed against replenishment.

Those who predicted the demise of governmental expertise in arms control and nonproliferation with the incorporation of ACDA into the State Department were right. Some now argue for re-establishing ACDA as a quasi-independent agency, but there is every reason to expect a new agency to experience a similar fate — assuming it could be recreated —  because of Republican hostility on Capitol Hill. Even if a recreated agency could survive, it would again be populated with appointments hostile to its mission during Republican administrations that hand this portfolio over to hard liners.

When Secretary of Defense Robert Lovett testified about ACDA’s creation in 1961, he worried that it would become “a Mecca for a wide variety of screwballs.” Instead of being populated by abolitionists and beatniks — another Lovett concern — ACDA became home for those who opposed its original raison d’être.

The alternative to recreating ACDA is to beef up expertise at the State Department. Admittedly, this, too, invites relapses. Even if the Biden administration can secure funding and slots to revitalize the State Department, these fixes may well be temporary. After the election of another Republican President predisposed against nonproliferation diplomacy and arms control, dedicated employees will again face the dilemma of choosing between waiting out the storm or leaving.

But first things first: Replenishing the State Department’s ranks of regional, functional and technical experts for the challenges that lie ahead is more doable than recreating ACDA. Biden has a chance to accomplish what Clinton and Obama failed to address. He can build the State Department back better with arms control expertise if he and those around him give this the attention it deserves.


  1. Amy (History)

    MIchael, it could also be necessary to reinvigorate arms control knowledge and expertise at DOD (and maybe DOE). There are plenty of examples of places where DOD took the lead on significant arms control endeavors (like the PNIs). And the expertise at DOD and DOE proved crucial both during the negotiations and the ratification process for New START. When arms control is seen as a “whole of government” mechanism to strengthening U.S. national security, the outcome may be more durable.

    • Michael Krepon (History)

      Thanks for adding this crucial point, Amy.
      Just to amplify: I asked a civilian at the Pentagon how many full-time employees were now focused on on-site inspections. His answer: one. Stunning. The Office of the Secretary of Defense, like State, is in great need of rehabilitation.
      Happy holidays–

    • E Rhym (History)

      Michael — Your information on the number of full-time employees at the pentagon who are “now focused on on-site inspections” is inaccurate as it is imprecise. For starters one could clarify that there are no full-time employees at the pentagon “focused on on-site inspections;” however, there are definitely more than one full-time employee focused on arms control at the pentagon–for whom, on-site inspections are a part of their portfolio. And that’s just in the building (so to speak, if by “pentagon” you mean the five-sided edifice). If you mean DoD, writ large, why you are dramatically understating the knowledgeable human resources embedded within every Service and Agency, not to mention the Defense Threat Reduction Agency that has an entire directorate dedicated (by name) to On-Site Inspections. Plus you have multiple offices within OSD as well as the Joint Staff who have arms control expertise. So both you and Ms. Amy need not concern yourselves about any dearth of resident expertise within DoD — or OSD, in particular. It exists.

  2. Michael Krepon (History)

    A friend and colleague offers a strong rebuttal, calling for the recreation of ACDA:

    “One point I would like to pursue is the argument against re-establishing a new ACDA on the grounds that even if it were successfully legislated, a new iteration of the agency, like the original, would fail because it would be purged during hostile Republican administrations, and captured by leaders who were hostile to the arms control mission.

    I agree that this is a very likely, unhappy scenario, and I know that I am in the minority in my view, but I do note two points:

    –The United States actually achieved more arms control under Republican presidents than Democrats, and maybe the “show trials” of ACDA purges provided a bit of necessary theatrics to enable the GOP leadership to throw some red meat to the right wing, while proceeding forward with positive arms control accomplishments.

    –Even if there is not that sort of “silver lining” to the dark cloud of ACDA’s being captured by hostile forces, that is still not a sufficient argument against the re-establishment of the agency. Of course, an ACDA would be taken over by hostile forces during a hostile administration — that same sort of politicization occurs in every executive branch agency. During the dark days of the Trump administration (or the dark days of the first Reagan term or the George W administration) other agencies that were devoted to progressive ideas were decimated, too — it would have been no fun working at the Environmental Protection Agency, or the Department of Justice, or the Department of Labor during those years. But we should not dispose of those agencies just because they can get captured by negative forces.

    The most we could say about ACDA (the original, or a reprise) would be that if conditions are favorable, it can facilitate important progress on the mission. If conditions are unfavorable, the agency becomes irrelevant or even an impediment to progress.”