September 27, 2021

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Arms Control and International Security Since January 2017

20 min read

Dr. Christopher Ashley Ford, Assistant SecretaryBureau of International Security and Nonproliferation

EU Consortium on Nonproliferation and Disarmament Annual Conference

As Prepared

Good day, everyone.  I’m glad to see you again, Marjolijn and Cong, and it’s a pleasure to take part once again in this important conference.  I’d like to take this opportunity to offer a sort of “wave top” survey of some key developments in U.S. foreign and national security policy over the last four years, at least as seen from the so-called “T” family of bureaus at the U.S. Department of State – that is, the units that report to the Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security (an office known in the Department as “T”).   

With Ambassador Fu in his remarks having struck an unfortunately but characteristically belligerent tone, I suppose it’s especially appropriate for me to sketch a few of the ways in which global security threats from the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the Russian Federation have affected our work in arms control and international security policy in my little corner of the State Department, and what we’ve been doing to meet those threats. 

The last few years have been marked by the U.S. Government’s belated recognition that the global security environment has not turned out to be an enduringly benign one in which the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) have become “responsible stakeholders” in the international system.  It is now painfully clear that both of those governments have set for themselves the strategic agenda – doggedly pursued for years even before January 2017 – of changing the security environment to their advantage, and to the great disadvantage of the democracies of the world and the free and open international order upon which international peace and security have depended for so long.   

Those regimes’ destabilizing geopolitical revisionism has become a key feature of the security environment, and responding to it has necessarily become the leitmotif of U.S. international security policy.  Accordingly, during the last four years, we have strived to realign U.S. efforts to meet the threats presented by state-level adversaries and competitors.    

Arms Control  

In the arms control arena, the last four years as seen through this competitive prism have been eventful ones, marked first and foremost by our determination to take compliance with arms control agreements more seriously than before.  In 2017, the United States adopted new strategies in response to Russia’s ongoing violation of both the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty and the Treaty on Open Skies, stepping up our diplomacy to enlist allies and partners in holding Russia accountable, implementing unilateral steps to put more pressure on Moscow and thereby finally give it concrete reasons to change course, and clearly signaling that our patience with chronic, unaddressed Russian violations would not continue indefinitely.    

Unfortunately, of course, Russia opted not to change course – thus choosing to destroy the INF Treaty rather than to stop deploying battalion after battalion of its INF-prohibited intermediate-range ground-launched cruise missiles.  Russia also opted to sit back and watch the United States withdraw from Open Skies in response to Russia’s chronic violations and manipulation of Open Skies implementation, rather than actually being willing to stop those abuses.  All this we regret, of course, for it had indeed been our hope to persuade the Kremlin to change course on both treaties and return to full compliance.  But Russia made the irresponsible choices that resulted in our withdrawal from both instruments.  

Unsurprisingly, Russia has tried to recast these developments as part of its disinformation campaign that the United States is somehow “against arms control,” and we’ve heard more such disinformation from Cong today, but of course this is errant nonsense.  In fact, the forceful U.S. approach to arms control compliance – specifically, our refusal to accept endemic violation of important agreements – has demonstrated that U.S. policy takes arms control seriously.  After all, no country that willingly accepts a situation in which the other side chronically violates an arms control agreement can be said to be serious about arms control.  Precisely to the degree that we are serious about arms control and about the security benefits that it can bring if its rules are honored, however, we must ensure that arms control obligations are not ignored, and that chronic violations are not tolerated.  (There may be terms for situations in which one side gets to threaten the other with whatever it wants and that threatened party promises not to respond, but “arms control” is not one of those terms.) And so Russia’s scofflaw self-aggrandizement has destroyed one important and valued international agreement and gravely damaged another.   

Despite all this, however, our commitment to serious arms control remains undimmed, and it is precisely that commitment that has underlain the United States’ call for new arms control agreements with Russia, and including the PRC.  Such a new arms control framework is badly needed for at least two reasons.  First, it is necessary in order to prevent a dangerous new spiral in the nuclear arms race as a result of those countries’ nuclear buildups – for of course Russia and China are engaged in dangerous buildup: both in terms of Beijing’s huge expansion of overall numbers and its diversity of systems and in terms of Russia’s destabilizing new strategic delivery systems and an expanding arsenal of non-strategic nuclear weaponry that threatens the democracies of Europe and East Asia, and the PRC.  Such a new framework is also important in order for all three powers to help fulfill their obligation under Article VI of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament. 

In March 2020, the President appointed a Special Presidential Envoy for Arms Control to take over U.S. efforts to bring the PRC and Russia into a new arms control framework.  It is becoming obvious to everyone that Beijing is not taking seriously its responsibility as a nuclear power to engage in meaningful arms control negotiations, and it continues to shun arms control negotiations with us on effective measures to prevent a new nuclear arms race spiral.  The Russians have been more responsive, however, and our Envoy has met with them repeatedly.  It is for some reason proving very hard for Moscow to agree with us on the principle of capping the overall size of our respective nuclear arsenals and extending New START in order to give time for negotiations on a new framework, but we hope this will soon change.  

Deterring Aggression   

We also remain determined to preserve the U.S. capacity to deter aggression – including through the “umbrella” of “extended” nuclear deterrence that we offer to our military allies, and which still represents the world’s most successful nonproliferation tool.  As the diplomatic arm of the overall U.S. effort to deter aggression against the United States and its allies, the T family has been at the forefront of international dialogues fostering better cooperation to this critical end.  We have played key roles in U.S. diplomacy in these regards, leading State’s participation in multiple dialogues on issues related to extended deterrence and assurance with foreign partners in both Europe and the Far East. 

Strengthening Security Partnerships  

The T family has also been doing outstanding work during the last four years in strengthening America’s security partnerships through arms transfers and capacity-building engagement.  This work has increased the capacity and resilience of U.S. partners and allies in advancing shared security objectives – not simply in order to support and empower the U.S. Defense Industrial Base through exports, but also to use such programs more broadly, as a tool to improve security outcomes on the ground and bolster our partners against the threats posed by regional revisionist powers such as Iran and North Korea, and by the global revisionists in Beijing and Moscow.  These efforts also expand the range of partners with which the U.S. armed services are able to work in deterring aggression, as well as the interoperability between our various forces in the event that deterrence fails and it is necessary to defeat such aggression. 

Since 2017, we have notified the U.S. Congress of worldwide arms sales in excess of $272 billion dollars, and provided nearly $1.4 billion to support partners’ security programs in the Indo-Pacific, where we are working pursuant to our Indo-Pacific Strategy to ensure the freedom of sea and skies and to insulate sovereign nations from external coercion.  We have also been deepening security cooperation with U.S. allies and partners around the world through new defense, burden-sharing, and information exchange agreements.   

Technology and Security  

The T family has also been working to take the skills and experience we developed through years of nonproliferation work in trying to keep dangerous tools out of the hands of rogue regimes and terrorists – e.g., through implementing nonproliferation sanctions, developing improved technology transfer and national security export controls, and undertaking worldwide capacity-building programming to help U.S. partners develop and implement “best practices” in export control and border security – and apply these tools also in the arena of great power competition.   

Central to these efforts has been the U.S. focus on countering the threats presented by the PRC’s “Military-Civil Fusion” (MCF) strategy of blurring (and ultimately erasing) distinctions between the PRC’s military and civilian innovation, science and technology, and industrial sectors.  Beijing has coupled this strategy with an aggressive program of targeting foreign technology areas for acquisition and diversion to the People’s Liberation Army to further the global ambitions of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), but we are working to meet this challenge.  It was, for instance, one of our bureaus that in the summer of 2018 first began to sound the alarm about MCF and its implications for traditional U.S. national security export controls, that drove the U.S. government’s path-breaking revision of civil-nuclear export control policy in October 2018, and that first nominated the Chinese technology giant Huawei for the Commerce Department’s “Entity List” in 2019.   

In fact, the T family has led what in some respects amounts to a verifiable revolution in U.S. national security export controls and technology-transfer diplomacy.  We conduct MCF-related threat awareness diplomacy around the world; we are building “coalitions of caution” against PRC-related technology transfer threats; we are mobilizing resistance to the depredations, technology theft, and strategic manipulations associated with the state-sponsored PRC and Russian “national champion” nuclear technology sectors; we are drawing attention to the security threats associated with PRC colonization of 5G telecommunications markets worldwide; and we are working with our interagency partners to develop tougher semiconductor export control rules, new export control approaches to emerging and foundational technologies, and MCF-related visa screening procedures.  Moreover, we have begun to look at the strategic impact that future critical and emerging technologies, such as artificial intelligence or quantum computing, could have on our collective security.  We also recently released a National Strategy to begin addressing those issues to help ensure that the U.S. and our allies maintain our global leadership. 

If you happen to be a Chinese Communist Party strategist, I suppose all this makes us villains indeed.  But if you’re from a country that adheres to democratic values and the rule of law, these efforts ought to be very good news.  All such countries have powerful reasons to make common cause in such work.  

Countering State Chemical and Biological Weapons Programs  

The last four years have unfortunately also been eventful ones when it comes to the resurgence of threats from chemical and biological weapons programs in the hands of state actors – and by that I do not merely mean rogue regimes such as North Korea and Iran.  Russia used an illegal novichok nerve agent, for instance, in attempting to assassinate expatriate defector Sergei Skripal in the United Kingdom in 2018 – an episode that revealed to the world the existence of Russia’s novichok chemical weapons and publicly resurfaced new-generation chemical weapons threats in the context of great power competition.  Another novichok agent was used to poison Russian opposition leader Aleksey Navalny in August.  We have been in the forefront of pushing back against these various horrific and illegal acts, including by implementing sanctions against Russia and successfully proposing to add two families of novichok agents to the Chemical Weapons Convention’s Annex of Chemicals following the 2018 attack. 

But this isn’t just a chemical weapons problem.  Concerns regarding biological weapons (BW) programs in the hands of geopolitically revisionist authoritarian leaders determined to undermine the security interests of the world’s democracies has also resurfaced.  For years, it was not possible to say much about great power BW threats.  We have, however, finally begun to lift the curtain on potentially terrifying biological weapons capabilities based upon the insights and methods of modern biotechnology.  In August 2020, the U.S. Department of Commerce added to its “Entity List” of persons and organizations found to be engaged in “activities contrary to U.S. national security and/or foreign policy interests” three institutions “associated with the Russian biological weapons program.”  This action highlighted in public for the first time the fact that there is a Russian biological weapons program, and all should take note of this. 

Competition Tempered with Cooperation  

So we have clearly left behind prior complacency about such great power threats.  But no one should mistake our approach to great power competition as an unreflexively hostile one.  To the contrary, mindful that the contemporary geopolitical context requires a strategy that mixes elements of competition with elements of cooperation, the T family has sought to find a wise “middle way” which is unstintingly “competitive” where our adversaries force us to be, but yet constructively “cooperative” where we can nonetheless still advance shared interests by engaging even with those who generally wish us ill.    

We also continue to prize dialogue and engagement, even with competitors whose global strategies threaten Americans’ security and well-being.  We have, for instance, conducted multiple Strategic Security Dialogues with Russian counterparts, as well as important Space Security Exchanges with both Russia and the PRC.  Unfortunately, our efforts to hold a Strategic Security Dialogue with Beijing have not been reciprocated, with no answer received from the PRC in response to a U.S. invitation offered nearly a year ago now, and despite the fact that Ambassador Fu Cong promised us at a P5 event last January that a response to my letter would be coming “soon.”  As in other arenas, the Chinese Communist Party seems to have little but contempt for bilateral risk-reduction diplomacy.  

But we do seek dialogue and engagement.  It is not merely that such continued direct diplomatic engagement is important despite the fraught nature of our broader relationships with Russia and the PRC.  In an era of great power competition in which the contenders possess weaponry potentially capable of killing millions and devastating the globe, continued engagement on how to mitigate risks is vital precisely because of those broader challenges.  So I hope that at events like this one, all of you will be able to join us in demanding that Moscow and Beijing take such dialogue seriously. 

In response to your initial question, Marjolijn, the answer is that I do think it’s still possible to find common ground in a time of competitive pressures.  But we don’t have to speculate: we can find out.  So let’s get finally get U.S. and Russian and Chinese diplomats together at the table to work on it.  Why does Ambassador Fu find the idea of such dialogue so offensive?

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