Arms Control Wonk ArmsControlWonk


One way to try to have an influence on South Asia’s nuclear future is to mentor rising talent. Thanks to the Stimson Center’s funders — the Carnegie Corporation, the MacArthur Foundation and the NNSA — we do workshops with this cohort, we’re planning our first open, online course on regional nuclear issues, and my colleague, Julia Thompson, has been overseeing a website, South Asian Voices, to foster civil discourse between Indian and Pakistani bloggers. They own the content; Stimson controls the server and filters out noise pollution. We also offer fellowships for outstanding bloggers so that they can work alongside each other as they get acquainted with Washington. Why should they only be familiar with dysfunction back home?

[Oh, snap! -Ed.]

I recently came across an old email trying to explain why Stimson has chosen this strategy to a colleague at Pakistan’s Strategic Plans Division at Joint Staff Headquarters in Rawalpindi. The SPD used to send Visiting Fellows to Stimson, but have stopped, for reasons that are unclear to me. I am reproducing my email below, verbatim.

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I am delighted that my article on the modernization of the uranium mill at Pyongsan is getting so much attention.

I do, however, have to register a small reservation — partly about the  coverage but mostly about my own role in it.  I study nuclear weapons, so I am first and foremost interested in what the operation of the uranium mill means for North Korea’s nuclear programs.  It is natural that I would focus on the possibility that the modernization of the mill means more North Korean nuclear weapons, which is a definitely a bad thing.

But it is also a speculative thing — North Korea might someday use those nuclear weapons to kill people or it might maim or kill people in conventional provocations that it would not have undertaken with a small stockpile of nuclear weapons.

What is definitely happening, though, is that North Korea is dumping the tailings from the plant into an unlined pond, one surrounded by farms. That’s not a hypothetical harm.  That’s actual pollution that is harming the health and well being of the local community.  I often complain that nuclear nonproliferation doesn’t get enough attention, but like any security issue nuclear war gets loads more attention than “small” harms like environmental pollution and human health.

Of course, those aren’t small harms to the people who are being poisoned. Nor is this harm speculative. Over time, small or not, these harms accumulate. One of the problems in public policy, as I see it, is that we give short shrift to small harms but very real harms.

I did include a paragraph about the environmental harm posed by the mill, one that highlighted the clean-up effort at Sillamäe in Estonia. My friend Cheryl Rofer worked on the Sillamäe site remediation. I can heartily recommend the book she edited with Tönis Kaasik, Turning a Problem into a Resource: Remediation and Waste Management at the Sillamäe Site, Estonia (Springer, 2000).

But my mention of environmental issues was only a few words.  I am sure those people working on these really, really important issues will feel slighted. Well, before they have a chance to feel that way, I wanted to an issue an open invitation for suggestions about how I might do better next time.  As I am writing this, I’ve thought of a number of things I might have done differently. I am ready to hear more.


In this week’s podcast, Jeffrey speaks to Aaron live from Hiroshima. Seventy years after the first use of nuclear weapons, Aaron and Jeffrey discuss the decision to use the bomb, the bureaucracy underpinning American nuclear decision-making, and the role of nuclear weapons in the twenty-first century.


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As numbers-based arms control wanes, norms become even more important. Norms can be clarified in Codes of Conduct or established by customary practice. The most important norm in our field is the non-use of nuclear weapons in combat.

Few expected this norm to exist after atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki – let alone to last for 70 years. As Nina Tannenwald has written in The Nuclear Taboo: The United States and the Non-Use of Nuclear Weapons Since 1945 (2007) “It is rare for a weapon found to be useful on one occasion to remain unused in the next.” And yet, this was the case during the Cuban Missile Crisis, as well as during the Korean, Vietnam, and Kargil wars. So far, the Bomb’s vast destructive powers have been confined by popular demand, wise decision-making, and divine intervention. Some would argue that deterrence also deserves credit for non-use, even though it has failed often enough. There’s some truth to this assertion, but nuclear weapons are more of a hindrance than a help in severe confrontations.

To my way of thinking, we’ve made it to the 70th anniversary of battlefield non-use in large measure because of the mental image we humans collectively hold of the mushroom cloud. Everything in the body of work that we call arms control is built on this collective fear — and the foundational norm that national leaders have adopted because of it.

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The European Union’s International Code of Conduct for responsible space-faring nations got mugged on the Lower East Side during the week of July 27th. The crime, which went unreported, occurred at the United Nations. The ringleaders were Russia and China, who lined up support from Brazil, India, and South Africa (the BRICS), as well as the Non-Aligned Movement. Critics of the EU’s handiwork got what they wanted in New York: At the end of the conclave, the EU conceded the need to pursue “negotiations within the framework of the United Nations through a mandate of the General Assembly.”

This could have been an important moment for the UN. It’s not every day that diplomats have the opportunity to write benchmark rules of the road for a global commons. But Moscow, Beijing, and their NAM supporters were in no hurry to do so. Their opposition was anticipated due to longstanding concerns that the EU drafting process wasn’t inclusive enough.

On this issue, critics were exactly right. The EU was trying to spare the International Code the fate of the Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty, now languishing for almost two decades in the purgatory of the Conference of Disarmament, where the UN’s consensus rule applies.

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How much has the Republican Party on Capitol Hill lost its equilibrium? Just hear the histrionics about the Iran deal — a deal which has the unanimous support of the UN Security Council and every U.S. ally and friend around the world save one: the Government of Israel. A deal that prevents Iran from producing nuclear weapons for 10-15 years and perhaps much longer. And a deal that has no support among Republican leaders on Capitol Hill.

Instead, these leaders are in lock-step with Party insurgents. They’ve signed up rather than be overrun. Even the thoughtful Republican Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, has brought a harsh, new demeanor to these hearings.

Most Republicans will vote to torpedo the deal and can be expected to try repeatedly to block its implementation. Far too few are reserving judgment, engaging in fact-finding, genuinely hearing people out and weighing down-side risks. For all but seven Republican senators (now six, with Corker’s declaration at the outset of the hearings), certainty has come quickly. Very decent and highly capable people in the Obama Administration have tried their best to prevent Iran from getting the Bomb and the United States from fighting another unnecessary, preventive war in the Middle East. In return for their efforts they received invective. Denunciations flowed. Pithy, cutting quotes were at the ready. The auto-da-fé was teed up and the grandstand wasn’t disappointed.

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The Defense Department released a Law of War Manual in June that says some interesting things about how the United States views legal questions about the use of nuclear weapon.

Legal perspectives are terribly important in the United States. I observe that the United States tends to think about nuclear weapons in a far more legalistic manner than other states, whether friend or foe.  I was in one meeting where an American participant talked about the legal constraints on a President contemplating the use of nuclear weapons when a French colleague laughed.  ”We would throw the lawyers out the room!” he said.  That struck me, since of course in the United States that would mean the President would have to throw himself out of the room.

For the past couple of years I’ve been working on a big idea that looks at how the United States might alter its approach to nuclear deterrence, one that is rooted in legal questions about military necessity and the use of nuclear weapons.  But I am getting ahead of myself!  There is still the issue of the June 2015 Law of War Manual.

Fortunately, Dr. Heather Williams (@heatherwilly) has kindly agreed to send along a very useful analytic summary.

Nuclear Weapons and the Law of War Manual in Six Points

Heather Williams, King’s College London

While we were all distracted by the Iran deal (see last nine ACW posts), the US Department of Defense released its Law of War Manual back on June 12, 2015. Heavily footnoted legalese may not seem quite as gripping as the down-to-the-wire drama of negotiations in Vienna, but there are some good nuggets in there with respect to the legality of nuclear weapons use and nuclear deterrence. This comes after a controversial NPT Review Conference in May, and legal justification for nuclear weapons runs up against increasing pressure from some states in the humanitarian impacts initiative for a nuclear weapons ban.

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Sanctions relief is a super important part of the Iran deal. It can also be kind of boring. We know boring. We study arms control verification, for pete’s sake.

But it’s still super important. Jeffrey and Aaron are joined by Sam Cutler, policy advisor at Ferrari & Associates, P.C., in a special joint Arms Control Wonk and Sanction Law podcast. You might even say it’s s Joint Comprehensive Podcast. Special bonus: Jeffrey and Aaron help Sam develop some sanction law related pickup lines.



A “free” vote on Capitol Hill is one without negative consequences. Republicans and Democrats can line up with party activists and showboat without risk because they will be unsuccessful. Hard decisions can be sidestepped and political posturing is easy when negative consequences are blocked by the U.S. Constitution’s separation of powers.

Republicans have proven to the party faithful their sincere opposition to Obamacare by voting against it over fifty times. They were free votes because opponents couldn’t override a Presidential veto. When conservative activists turned to the Courts, Chief Justice John Roberts bailed out Republicans from earning the wrath of millions of Americans left without coverage, facing steep and sudden rate increases. By voting against Obamacare and failing to kill it, Republicans can blame rate increases and public dissatisfaction with health care on the Democrats.

Democrats on Capitol Hill demonstrated their sincere opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact by voting against fast-tracking it, to the satisfaction of the energized, populist wing of their party. These votes didn’t entail the loss of export-related jobs to high hourly-wage countries because the White House was subsequently (and predictably) able to cobble together enough pro-trade Democrats to join most Republicans in reversing course.

Partisan divides on Capitol Hill have become the norm. The rest of the world can look on with bemusement at divisions over Obamacare and other domestic policy issues. But when partisan divides occur on national security issues, America’s friends are not amused and adversaries look for ways to take advantage. The debate on the Iran deal now taking shape is emblematic of what ails Washington. Opposition to the Iran deal, mostly along partisan lines, is sincerely held, but the issue here isn’t sincerity; it’s the herd instinct and the absence of better alternatives.

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After months of negotiations, the EU3+3 and Iran have signed a nuclear agreement. Jeffrey was so excited he got up at 3:30 in the morning California time to get a jump on reading the 159 page document. Meanwhile, Europe based Aaron read it over coffee at a cafe outside. All in all, the JCPOA looks a lot like the US fact sheet after Lausanne – and that is a good thing!

In today’s episode, Aaron and Jeffrey talk about the merits of the deal, why we should have cared more about Cyprus, and Iran’s Fordow compromise. The discussions also touches on the missile issue, as well Russia’s cornering of the Iranian conventional weapons market. On it merits, the agreement is good for nonproliferation, but will do little to help solve the region’s security problems. But based on the deal’s original intent – sanctions relief for greater access to Iranian nuclear sites – the agreement achieves what it set out to do.

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