By John Erath
After 30 years as a U.S. Foreign Service Officer, I now begin a new job as Senior Policy Director at the Center and Council. I got my start in arms control in the 1990s when I was on the India-Pakistan account and got my first taste of international negotiations working on issues surrounding the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty. Since then, I have been involved with non-proliferation and arms control regularly, working for both Democratic and Republican administrations. A quarter century after I first worked on arms control issues, I am eager to return to this work full time.
Some of my friends have expressed concern over this career move. After all, why go back into arms control at a time when the prospects seem rather poor and the world is becoming more dangerous? The news is not good. Iran continues to enrich uranium and insist on concessions before contemplating resuming its obligations under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, better known as the Iran nuclear deal. North Korea has recently announced missile tests. Russia is developing new types of nuclear weapons and delivery systems. Arms control and non-proliferation must be on the ropes. I prefer to take a different view. It is precisely because the danger of nuclear weapons is increasing that it is more important to work toward stopping their spread and minimizing the possibility that they would ever be used.
There can be no doubt that any use of nuclear weapons would be catastrophic, yet progress toward reducing their numbers has taken a step backwards. In addition to North Korea and China building more weapons and Russia announcing new types, the United Kingdom has recently announced plans to rebuild its own deterrent, believing itself less secure as weapons of mass destruction proliferate. Despite these developments, I would argue that nonproliferation and arms control are more important than ever. The 1985 U.S.-Soviet statement that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought should still guide our thinking. There is near universal agreement that additional states acquiring nuclear weapons would jeopardize global security, and that lower numbers of nuclear weapons where they do exist would improve it. Given these common interests, the time will come for further arms control and it will be important to be ready. Just because major breakthroughs are uncommon should not mean that we are not at work continuously to create the conditions for the next one.
Done correctly, arms control can be among the most effective means of improving national security. The challenge, of course, lies in the adverb. What is correct in how to approach arms control? If anyone had the full answer to this question, he or she would be polishing their Nobel Prize and figuring out how to spend the ten million kronor. One important clue as to the right path can be found in the Center’s name: Arms Control AND Non-Proliferation. Without effective policies to stop the spread of nuclear weapons, efforts to reduce their numbers will be futile. This area also holds the most promise for rebuilding a consensus with allies and partners. There is disagreement over whether the U.S. decision to leave the Iran nuclear deal was the best way to address concerns over its effectiveness, but there can be little doubt that Iran has been able to exploit the resulting division between the U.S. and Europe to evade serious discussions on compliance. A first step should be finding a common approach with like-minded countries aimed at curbing Iranian nuclear ambitions. Iran is but one of the challenges we face. Nuclear weapons present a global threat and cannot be adequately addressed only in bilateral U.S.-Russia channels. There is growing understanding that future arms control agreements should include all states possessing nuclear weapons. It is true to state that China’s arsenal is much smaller than that of the U.S. or Russia, but it is growing without transparency as to Beijing’s long-term plan for its deterrent. In the meantime, the uncertainty can lead to hesitancy when considering the next steps in arms control. Just as with Russia, it will remain critical to avoid letting frustrations with China’s behavior get in the way of engaging with those countries in areas, such as arms control, where it is in our best interests to do so.
As a diplomat, I am accustomed to looking at the foreign policy implications of any given issue. With arms control and non-proliferation, it is also important to consider the domestic side. These issues also involve defense policy, national security, internal politics, budgeting and navigating the legislative process. It is in these areas that the Center and Council excel, and I am excited to join the team and work to make the world more secure.