This meeting, jointly sponsored by the Center's International Security Studies Program and the Los Alamos National Laboratory, was another in the ongoing Nonproliferation Forum series.
Former Ambassador Ford approached the question of the abolition of nuclear weapons not from the perspective of the United States' putative legal obligations under Article VI of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, but in terms of its own policy merits.
Ford argued that "a world free of nuclear weapons would indeed be in the United States' interest. [But] that's not the same thing as saying that just any world free of nuclear weapons would be in … the interest of international peace and security." For example, he cited a foreign diplomat who expressed concern that the abolition of nuclear weapons could "make the world safe again for large-scale conventional war."
Among the current roster of nuclear-weapons states, the United States is best positioned to live in a non-nuclear world because of its overwhelming superiority in conventional military capabilities. But Ford pointed to a major function served by U.S. nuclear weapons – so-called "extended deterrence." The American nuclear umbrella has, paradoxically, been a major nonproliferation instrument: the tangible assurance of the U.S. nuclear guarantee has created a politico-military environment in which threatened states (such as West Germany during the Cold War) could feel sufficiently secure to forego the nuclear option.
Other nuclear weapon states have approached the issue of nuclear abolition warily. Britain has embraced the desirability of the goal, but is still moving forward to modernize its Trident submarine fleet. France and China are likewise upgrading their nuclear deterrents even as both are notionally committed to general disarmament. Russia is the most unlikely among the declared nuclear weapons states to accept the zero option. "Russia has decided that it needs nuclear weapons more than ever in order to be reckoned a first-rate power," Ford argued. Beyond the problematic stance of the nuclear powers recognized by the NPT, other states possessing nuclear weapons (Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea) are "even less interested" than their NPT-counterparts in nuclear abolition.
Ford cited but did not address at length the formidable verification challenges of nuclear abolition. These technical and political issues include verifying the dismantlement of nuclear weapons, accounting for and safeguarding all nuclear materials, and creating a robust international enforcement mechanism to deal with noncompliance.
To address the threat of nuclear breakout by a cheating state, Ford argued that a global disarmament regime could conceivably rely on a capability that he termed "countervailing reconstitution" (CR). The ability to rapidly reconstitute nuclear forces could provide some states the necessary assurance to give up their final remaining nuclear weapons. Ford argued that message of CR to potential violators would be, in essence: "It's not worth your while. If you try to build some, we'll jump back into the business and either flatly out-compete you or at least vitiate whatever advantage you may have hoped to gain by breakout." He acknowledged that CR, while addressing the breakout problem, may have negative consequences for crisis stability.
However desirable the goal of nuclear abolition, Ford concluded, much work remains to be done in thinking through that transition. "[I]ntellectual honesty and basic prudence also compel us to consider what should be done if ‘zero' proves impossible" and the existing system of nuclear deterrence becomes still further complicated by the rise of additional nuclear "players."