Arms Control Wonk ArmsControlWonk


The Selfie Generation doesn’t do arms control. Its cause célèbre is the environment. This grandparent can relate. I am excited and grateful to see how much youthful energy is now directed toward healing our planet’s wounds. I am also very jealous. My cause célèbre has faded. Fewer and fewer people focus on reducing nuclear dangers. Street marches are now about climate change.

Graphic stories of environmental disasters rooted in long-term disregard for carbon emissions, air pollution, and the degradation of water quality are with us every week. A study by the National Climactic Data Center and National Center for Atmospheric Research estimates that the frequency of “billion dollar storms” increases at a rate of roughly five per cent a year, which seems understated. A 2013 report by the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that a rise in temperature of two degrees Celsius will cost up to two per cent of the world’s income by 2050. This UN panel also estimated that the combined cost of crop losses, rising sea levels, higher temperatures and fresh water shortages could amount to between $70 and $100 billion a year. These estimates also appear understated: According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, the insurance industry estimated that climate-related disasters in the United States in 2012 alone resulted in more than $139 billion in damages. The cumulative costs of clean-up after a decade of super storms, droughts, and battered shorelines remind me of the estimated cost consequences for limited nuclear wars back in the 1980s.

The United Nations devotes a special summit to raise environmental consciousness and accelerate corrective measures. Back in my day, there were special UN sessions on disarmament. President Obama has made protection of the environment a key priority during the remainder of his second term, while prospects for another strategic arms reduction treaty and the entry into force of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty recede further into the future. Young talent entering the work force is now focused on environmental causes, while 48 per cent of the civil servants working on arms control in the State Department near retirement age.

On Capitol Hill, champions of arms control issues are dwindling. Non-governmental organizations could also benefit from a new wave of energy. During tough times, it’s always a good strategy to invest in rising talent — otherwise, the future could be more daunting than the present. Unfortunately, major foundations continue to leave the field, and a new generation of techno-philanthropists is drawn to causes where investments can yield quantifiable progress. When political conditions permit, quantifiable progress in reducing nuclear stockpiles and deployed forces is certainly possible, but the most important successes in reducing nuclear dangers are often measured by non-events.

The comparison between the number of environmental studies departments and courses now offered at the college level and in graduate schools with arms control-related courses would be striking. But there’s no need to do the math: the conclusions are obvious. Can those still interested in reducing nuclear dangers poach off the energy of the environmental movement? I doubt it. Those with a sense of mission are not easily diverted, and besides, opportunities to work on arms control and non-proliferation are increasingly scarce. Will it take another big scare or a nuclear catastrophe to rejuvenate the field?


What are the regional perceptions of Iran’s nuclear program? Are the Gulf States obsessed with breakout times and the Arak reactor, or are their concerns more political in nature? Is the United States doing enough to reassure its Gulf Allies about the nuclear negotiations with Iran? Do the Gulfees actually have an Iran nuclear strategy?

Today, Aaron and Jeffrey speak with Dina Esfandiary, a research associate in the Nonproliferation and Disarmament program at the International Institute of Strategic Studies, about the regional perceptions of Iran’s nuclear program.


For those seeking relief from the news coming out of Syria, Iraq, and Libya, I highly recommend watching The Wind and the Lion, a 1975 flick by John Milius. Sean Connery, at the peak of his powers, plays Mulai Ahmed er Raisuli, an untamed tribal of the Rif, who spirits away a miscast Candice Bergen and her two children. Connery is such a powerful screen presence that he plays the part of a Berber brigand with a Scottish brogue, and all is forgiven. He goes up against another force of nature, President Teddy Roosevelt, played brilliantly by Brian Keith. TR is beginning to feel his age while America is growing into its powers. Acting out of a mix of chivalry and geopolitical opportunity, he sends U.S. expeditionary forces to release the American captives. The fabulous John Huston plays Secretary of State John Hay as a wise and weary man who knows the limits of his persuasive powers when dealing with TR.

Raisuli roams as free as the wind; TR roars like a lion. Each admires what the other enjoys. TR feels confined in the White House; Raisuli has too few muskets and tribesmen to go up against the U.S. Marines. Candice Bergen’s disgust with her captor slowly turns to fascination and attraction, as we fully expect. The movie ends with everyone feeling wistful along with the triumph of the martial American spirit in a strange and distant land.

Hollywood can’t make a movie like this now because audiences are sadder and wiser. Movies about post-9/11 U.S. military campaigns are shaded in darkness and brutality. Even America’s apex heroic moment – settling scores with Osama bin Laden – is depicted in Zero Dark Thirty as an unfair fight enabled by torture. Desert windstorms have become lethal and unpredictable. The lion is a wounded, foreign presence. Those looking for diversion at the movies have moved on to computer-generated images and Marvel superheroes.


Last week, Dr. Lassina Zerbo, the Executive Secretary of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organization (CTBO), paid a visit to us at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies.

Dr. Jeffrey Lewis took advantage of Dr. Zerbo’s visit to stop by the Digital Learning Commons and record a special podcast. Drs. Lewis and Zerbo discuss the CTBTO’s monitoring system and the prospects of the entry-into-force of the CTBT.


Aaron took a long weekend in Istanbul, but Jeffrey and Karl were hard at work!

Jeffrey talks to Christopher Bidwell, a senior fellow at the Federation of American Scientists and co-author of a new report, Verifying a Nuclear Agreement with Iran.

The report concludes that any “agreement should require Iran to provide, prior to the next phase of sanctions relief, a comprehensive declaration that is correct and complete concerning all aspects of its nuclear program both current and past.”

Jeffrey recently wrote a column for Foreign Policy arguing that such a disclosure by Iran at the outset might actually be counterproductive. OMG TMI.

Listen to Jeffrey and Chris discuss how much Iran should disclose up front about what its done in the past.


I have long wanted Allen Thomson to take up blogging.  Allen is one of those old guys — you know, the kind who have forgotten more than you’ll ever know, but aren’t well known from the DC rubber chicken circuit or hanging out in various cable TV green rooms.

If you’re smart, you run stuff by people like Allen, a former intelligence analyst who prepares these little dossiers based on open source information.  He’s latest one is pretty amazing.

Allen has been documenting China’s construction of targets in the Gobi desert for anti-ship missiles:

In the course of a search for possible target areas for the failed Chinese hypersonic glide vehicle test of 2014-08-07 (*), it came to light that two and possibly three areas which appear intended to test antiship weapons recently became identifiable in an area of China previously known to have weapons targets. Although no connection could be made with the hypersonic test, the areas , arbitrarily designated A, B and C, seem to have intrinsic interest and are documented here.

Any further information concerning them would be greatly appreciated. Please email it to thomsona [at] and indicate whether the sender wishes to be acknowledged in possible future versions of this document.

You should read the whole document, entitled Appearance of Apparent Antiship Missile Targets in Gobi Test Areas during 2013, but here are the comparisons to whet your interest:

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The best definition of the “action-reaction” syndrome was provided by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara during a deeply conflicted speech before United Press International editors and publishers on September 18, 1967. McNamara used this occasion to rail against the nuclear arms race while endorsing a limited ballistic missile defense, ostensibly against China. [Aspiring wonks: to understand why McNamara would deliver a speech undermining his recommended course of action, check out Mort Halperin’s essay, “The Decision to Deploy the ABM: Bureaucratic and Domestic Politics in the Johnson Administration” in the October 1972 issue of World Politics.]

Here are the key passages:

There is a kind of mad momentum intrinsic to the development of all new nuclear weaponry. If a weapon system works – and works well – there is strong pressure from many directions to procure and deploy the weapon out of all proportion to the prudent level required…

What is essential to understand here is that the Soviet Union and the United States mutually influence one another’s strategic plans.

Whatever be their intentions, whatever be our intentions, actions – or even realistically potential actions – on either side relating to the build-up of nuclear forces, be they either offensive or defensive weapons, necessarily trigger reactions on the other side.

It is precisely this action-reaction phenomenon that fuels an arms race.

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Norms are standards of proper or acceptable behavior. They establish expectations and clarify misbehavior, thereby helping to isolate, limit, and sanction bad behavior. Without norms, there are no norm-breakers. They can be codified in treaties and other legal instruments, or they can be less formal, such as those embedded in international codes of conduct. When less-formal norms become customary international practice, they gain standing in international law.

Norms can be particularly helpful when they encourage transparency, because transparency measures can lead to important negotiating breakthroughs. Extraordinary treaties that drastically reduced nuclear forces between the United States and the Soviet Union were enabled by a slightly regarded, multilateral agreement in 1983 in which the Kremlin permitted foreign observers to attend conventional military exercises.

Not everyone will sign up to norms right away, and there will always be outliers. Even so, norms can discourage unwanted behavior, even by holdouts — but not for die-hard outliers. The speed and effectiveness of norm building depends on the attitudes and actions of major powers, not outliers. The most reluctant major power is usually China.

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AS James Acton, Catherine Dill and I prepared our “Crashing Tiger, Hidden Hotspring” post, one of my students, Philippe Mauger, made a number of important observations including offering a possible identification of the rocket engine found among the debris. I asked Philippe to write up some of his observations.

Hypersonic loose ends
A short addendum to the “Crashing Tiger, Hidden Hotspring” piece.

Philippe Mauger

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Did Vladimir Putin just threaten the West with nuclear weapons? Could nuclear weapons be used in Europe? What is Russia’s nuclear doctrine? Does a nuclear balance make the world safe for conventional war?

Today, Aaron and Jeffrey talk about Russia’s nuclear weapons and the recent chatter about them in Moscow.

Jeffrey and Aaron discussed a number of articles during the podcast:

Jeffrey Lewis, “The Sources of Putin’s Conduct,” Foreign Policy, July 15, 2014.

Пятая колонка,, August 8, 2014.

Meeting with members of political parties represented in the State Dumа, August 14, 2014.

Vladimir Putin visits the Seliger 2014 10th National Youth Forum, August 29, 2014.

Anne Applebaum, “War in Europe is not a Hysterical Idea,” The Washington Post, August, 29, 2014.

Jeffrey Lewis, “A Boy and His Toys,” Foreign Policy, September 5, 2014.

As always, you can subscribe to the (now better sounding) Arms Control Wonk Podcast on iTunes.