Organizing for arms control in the Obama administration

By Pierce S. Corden | January 12, 2009

Ten years ago this March, the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA) was merged with the State Department. ACDA had been created in 1961 as an independent agency, in recognition by President John F. Kennedy and prominent senators such as Hubert Humphrey that the nuclear arms race warranted a separate bureaucratic structure to pursue negotiated solutions to threats to national security. During its 38-year history, ACDA played a key role in setting in place a broad range of arms control and nonproliferation undertakings, including the 1963 Limited Test Ban Treaty, the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, the 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty, and the first Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty.

However, the end of the Cold War and loss of Senate focus on arms control led to a situation in which arms control skeptics were allowed to execute a bureaucratic coup. In 1997, in political deal-making that amounted to a step forward and a step backward, the Senate gave its consent to ratification of the convention banning chemical weapons while–at the instigation of late North Carolina Republican Sen. Jesse Helms–giving a green light to the merger of ACDA with State.

Supporters of arms control and nonproliferation might have persuaded themselves that, given the lack of strong congressional interest in a separate agency, the merger was the least-bad option for supporting–or at least not hampering–the maintenance of existing international agreements and institutions and the negotiation of next steps in weapons reductions. It seems safe to say that arms control skeptics believed that ACDA, as a separate entity in the executive branch’s national security structure that had been effective in pursuing measures that were, in their minds, counterproductive, was a voice that should be silenced.

As the Obama administration takes office, the question arises whether this merger has served the United States well.

Almost a year ago, Democratic Sen. Daniel Akaka of Hawaii convened an important, although little noted, hearing of the government management oversight subcommittee of the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. The witnesses were former ambassadors Thomas Graham and Norman Wulf and former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Andrew Semmel. All three had top policy and management responsibilities in administrations as far back as that of Richard Nixon for U.S. policies and programs for lowering the risk of nuclear war, reversing proliferation, eliminating chemical and biological weapons, and reducing destabilizing stockpiles of conventional weapons. Their testimony makes depressingly clear that these objectives haven’t been best served by the 1999 merger.

U.S. resources for implementing arms control agreements, supporting important organizations such as the International Atomic Energy Agency, and developing and negotiating new accords are considerably fewer than those available a decade ago. In his statement to the subcommittee, Akaka called for the new presidential administration to correct the damage to these resources caused by factors such as “a hostile political environment, a poorly conducted reorganization in 2005, and a resultant loss of well-qualified federal civil service employees.” (See “Reorganization Run Amok: State Department’s WMD Effort Weakened.”) He also termed the merger “a tragic mistake.”

The subcommittee witnesses testified that the merger didn’t work as intended. Rather, they said, the merger precipitated a substantially diminished capability–in terms of technical and policy expertise and historical memory–to address twenty-first century security challenges. The debilitating restructuring of State’s arms control and nonproliferation bureaucracy in 2005, morale issues, and the lack of sustained attention to the detailed requirements of implementing key arms control undertakings such as the NPT should compel the new administration to take prompt remedial action.

President-elect Obama has voiced support for moving toward a nuclear-weapon-free world. But this won’t happen by him waving his hands. The army entrusts its operations to officers trained and experienced in combat. Similarly, U.S. foreign policy is entrusted, in embassies and in the State Department in Washington, to career foreign-service officers. Indeed, this is why there’s a Foreign Service and not simply a practice of assigning civil servants to foreign posts. In the same vein, the business of arms control should be carried out by career officials mandated to maintain existing agreements and negotiate next steps.

ACDA’s size was always modest, even compared with State, let alone the Defense Department. Yet its presence in the executive branch and its access to the highest levels of the administration were critical to success in arms control. Presence matters. Access matters.

But how would this work? Should State still house the bureaucracy to support the arms control and nonproliferation mission of the U.S. government? Or is a separate, dedicated entity better? And should a new ACDA be “independent”?

If a president isn’t of a mind to maintain, let alone advance, negotiated agreements for reducing the threats posed by nuclear and other weapons, even an ideal structure with the best staff will find the going tough. But a president needs to know the full spectrum of available options. The president’s ability to turn to a robust bureaucracy that lays out the arms control options and then pursues the chosen option is demonstrably better than simply deciding on a correct policy–look at the bureaucratic tasks now facing the Treasury Department in rescuing Wall Street and Main Street.

Clearly, independence does not mean “independent of the executive.” On ACDA’s organization chart there was a solid line to the president and the National Security Council and a dotted line to the secretary of state.

But independence does mean access. Arms control and nonproliferation are vital to national security, and officials with primary responsibility for these issues should have direct access to the president and the National Security Council. Independence also means a structure, however related to the regional and line bureaus in State and to counterpart elements in other departments and agencies, with sufficient “clout” that its recommendations can be considered at the highest levels without being submerged by competing approaches to national security.

In addition, independence means the presence of a stable structure with sufficient personnel with the right background and experience–scientific, technical, policy, legal, diplomatic, and military. It means the continuity of this structure and staff from administration to administration. This translates into an organization of career civil servants together with an appropriate mix of foreign service and military officers.

In short, the best way to realize the twin objectives of presence and access would be to establish an agency very much like ACDA. And the easiest way would be simply to restore ACDA by adopting legislation along the lines of the 1994 Arms Control and Nonproliferation Act.

Reducing the threats to national security posed by nuclear weapons and their proliferation is no less urgent now than it was in the 1960s. As the president-elect’s senior national security team takes office, it should consider promptly how it will implement his policy directions, in concrete terms of optimal institutional arrangements. The new president deserves no less from a well-organized executive branch.

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