Looking Back: Arms Control Reorganization, Then and Now

John Holum

When he was pressing for the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency’s (ACDA) demise in the 1990s, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) called the agency and its mission “Cold War relics.” This year, explaining the proposed merger of the Department of State’s Arms Control and Nonproliferation Bureaus, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was less colorful in taking essentially the same position, explaining that we are “in a fundamentally new age” and so “have to think differently about what our challenges are, and that is what this merger is intended to try to do.”

She further described the “proliferation of [weapons of mass destruction] into the wrong hands, state actors, nonstate actors…[and] the [Abdul Qadeer] Kahn network” as “challenges that were barely imaginable when these bureaus were structured.”

Actually, those challenges were central to our thinking when the current Arms Control and Nonproliferation Bureaus were set up in the late 1990s. At that time, the nearly four-decade old ACDA became part of the State Department. We understood then as Rice understands now that proliferation issues merited special attention, which is why I fought hard and successfully within the executive branch to keep ACDA independent in 1995-1996, when Vice President Al Gore’s “reinventing government” project was considering the State Department’s latest plan for bringing all nonmilitary foreign affairs functions under one roof.

In 1997, however, when the issue was resurrected, we had vacancies in all four assistant director positions, and it was clear that Helms, who had been recently re-elected, would simply sit on ACDA appointments, robbing our effectiveness. While reserving the option of continued independence, I began discussing the key elements of a friendly merger with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. In the end, we were able to agree on some extraordinary provisions aimed at preserving an independent arms control and nonproliferation voice within the State Department.

Unfortunately, the administration now proposes to ignore this legacy and squeeze arms control and nonproliferation into a single bureau. Such a merger would undercut both of those urgent 21st century missions and in the process marginalize Rice’s department. The administration’s original plan, when Colin Powell was still secretary of state, was to slip the merger through quietly by notifying the relevant congressional authorizing and appropriating committees of a simple reprogramming of funds. Barring objections by any of the committee chairmen or ranking Democrats, the merger could have been implemented without further congressional review. Facing these objections, however, Powell decided to hold off, allowing Rice to take a fresh look. She now has a task force analyzing the merger, but her comments suggest she has already decided to go ahead with the move, with only the means left to be resolved.

Evaluating the Proposals
Rice’s plan is one of several proposals on the table for reorganizing the government’s arms control and nonproliferation efforts. One bill by Representatives Ellen Tauscher (D-Calif.), John Spratt (D-S.C.), and Martin Meehan (D-Mass.) and another by Representatives Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) and Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) would create a nonproliferation czar in the White House to coordinate nonproliferation activities throughout the government. The recent Robb-Silberman report on intelligence failures in Iraq (see page 20) calls for creation of a National Counter Proliferation Center that would bring all relevant agencies together. Some basic principles may be useful in evaluating these proposed reorganizations.

Structure does matter.
Indeed, structure often controls substance. That is why Albright and I and our teams went to so much trouble to spell out the precise details of the ACDA-State merger in 1997-1999. Structure determines how much senior-level time and attention a subject receives and whether it dries out on the shelf or percolates on the front burner. A bureau hierarchy determines the level at which you interact within a department with other agencies in the government and, with foreign governments, whether you lead or follow a process. That in turn affects your ability to influence policy, set priorities, and shape events. Structure, including promotional opportunities and grade levels, determines whether you can attract and keep the unique skills needed for technical specialties such as arms control and nonproliferation. Obviously, political appointees have a huge impact for good or ill, but a well-staffed structure keeps a focus on the mission, whether it is the case-bycase prevention and enforcement process of nonproliferation or the pursuit and implementation of new or strengthened formal agreements to limit arms that is the purview of arms control.

Clashing perspectives make better policy.
This truth has deep roots in arms control and nonproliferation. In the 1960s, for example, ACDA championed the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) over the opposition of the State Department, which sided with friendly countries hoping to retain the nuclear option. More recently, specialized intelligence analysts in the Departments of State and Energy differed from the CIA and the other preponderant parts of the intelligence community in their evaluation of key pieces of intelligence about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Indeed, the analysts at the State and Energy Departments eventually were proven right. Especially for intelligence, but for policy as well, the premium should be on getting the right inputs, not a predetermined outcome or homogenized product. Attempts to get everything under one roof are both futile—agencies across the government have programs to run as well as nonproliferation expertise to bring to bear—and foolish because they tend to stifle dissent. To its credit, the Robb- Silberman report does recognize the need for a diversity of views. Indeed, reviewing the CIA’s experience in combining arms control and nonproliferation, the report recommends their separation, even as the State Department appears headed the opposite way.

Whoever controls the resources has the power.
As we have seen over the years with White House czars on drugs, energy, homeland security, and various other subjects, there is good reason to be skeptical that a thinly staffed White House coordinator of anything can have much impact when the decisions on allocating people and funds remain with the agencies that run the programs. That is why Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld fought so hard on Capitol Hill to retain control of intelligence assets, leaving the new director of national intelligence, John Negroponte, with considerably less authority than he will need to be effective. Well-run interagency processes, with capable National Security Council coordination and sufficient presidential attention, are less flashy but more workable than a dual bureaucracy in the White House.

How do these thoughts apply to the proposal to collapse the State Department’s Nonproliferation and Arms Control Bureaus? Rice is correct to identify proliferation as a leading priority, but she is mistaken in thinking this realignment will advance it.

The contraction by definition will spread the single remaining assistant secretary thinner, leaving less time to focus on proliferation, and inevitably curtail other senior positions as well. Without a dedicated assistant secretary, an official whose sole focus is nonproliferation, there will no longer be regular access to the secretary and the deputy secretary, making nonproliferation more vulnerable to subordination to the department’s dominant mission of diplomacy and country relations. That has already happened with India and Pakistan, as sanctions responding to their overt nuclear weapons programs have withered, taking a back seat to other foreign policy goals. In turn, the State Department will have less horsepower and less clout in dealing with other agencies and international entities. Our 1990s merger agreement went to extraordinary lengths to counter this risk, moving the interagency lead on nonproliferation to the State Department, and even creating independent, parallel access to senior policy groups and to the president. At best, combining two bureaus into one will drain much of the value from those arrangements.

The reorganization plan will undercut nonproliferation diplomacy even when the United States takes a strong position.

A convincing U.S. dedication to arms control is a political precondition to having many other countries follow our lead against proliferation. In 1995 the NPT itself was at risk; a limited term extension would have required an unattainable consensus to extend it again. As part of the bargain to make the NPT permanent, all five nuclear-weapon states reaffirmed their original NPT Article VI commitment to negotiate toward the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons, a promise further refined and specified at the 2000 NPT Review Conference. I would have hated to carry the U.S. brief at last month’s review conference after revelation of U.S. plans to amputate the part of the government that does arms control, a clear statement perhaps of what we care most about but a poke in the eye to those we expect to follow our lead. Moving forward on the merger will not only prove to be a dumb stroke politically, but an invitation to others to take their NPT obligations less seriously.

Effective nonproliferation also depends on the fruits of arms control: multilateral arms control agreements and standards. The Bush administration has shown little patience for global negotiations, but fighting the spread of weapons of mass destruction is much easier when there is a worldwide consensus that no one, states or nonstate actors, should have weapons of mass destruction or their precursors. “Because I said so” is not an especially persuasive argument, even when the speaker is the world’s most powerful country. It is telling that the United States is trailing, rather than leading, in fighting nuclear-weapon threats in North Korea and Iran, both far more serious than Iraq even if you believed the faulty intelligence. This has occurred in considerable part because the world’s toughest grader on nonproliferation is no longer the world’s most trusted and consistent advocate for strong arms control and nonproliferation agreements.

The Bush administration has attempted to fill the gap by relying on “coalitions of the willing,” but these represent a good supplement to and not a substitute for global enforcement structures. For example, the Proliferation Security Initiative, an effort to intercept dangerous shipments, is interesting, but its effectiveness is constrained by limited participation. Likewise, we have learned over the years that, in a global economy, penalties and sanctions by one country or a small group have little impact. The first line of defense—collective enforcement of strong export and re-export controls—to prevent dangerous shipments in the first place require broader, collective standards.

Moreover, contrary to Rice’s impression, the arms control mission has never been confined to the U.S.-Soviet context, and even there, it is far from done with implementation of existing agreements still incomplete. Much more can be done to safeguard or destroy Russian tactical nuclear weapons and fissile material, as well as to pursue global commitments for deeper nuclear cuts, eventually with all the nuclear-weapon states.

Beyond that, there is an immense agenda ahead on such diverse subjects as enforcing the Biological and Chemical Weapons Conventions, cutting off the production of fissile material, and restricting small arms, landmines, and other especially destructive conventional weapons such as Man-Portable Air Defense Systems. A separate arms control bureau can and should be working on the creative application of confidence-building measures and on an arms control dialogue and eventually negotiations with China. The current administration’s disinterest in pursuing most of these causes does not mean that no administration ever will. Eliminating the bureau goes far beyond a statement of current priorities; it means incapacitation for the indefinite future.

The merger is not yet a done deal. While Powell was still in charge, Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.), the ranking member on the House Appropriations Committee and a forceful friend of arms control, got wind of the reprogramming idea and made clear he would stoutly resist any attempt to make such a fateful change through such cavalier means. In itself, that may have been enough to avert the sleight-of-hand route, although it remains to be seen whether Rice will send up the reprogramming notification anyway or will instead pursue separate legislation.

Focusing on either possibility, Albright and I jointly wrote to each of the House and Senate committee chairs and ranking members, recalling that the bureau structure we designed was meant to answer concerns that ACDA’s expertise and missions “would be marginalized in a larger bureaucracy” and pointing out that the proposed merger would “repudiate the agreed foreign policy structure that Congress approved in 1999.” We also said:

This step has a huge potential impact on our efforts to curb the spread of weapons of mass destruction. If it is to be pursued, it should be through the legislative process, with full consideration of the consequences. Otherwise, we could find ourselves looking back regretfully at an improvident, hasty action that further complicated the task of keeping the deadliest weapons away from the world’s most dangerous people and states.

Why Merge?
How did we get here? The merger idea ostensibly flows from a State Department inspector general’s (IG) report that has not been publicly released but, I am told, found the existing structure to be poorly managed. Poor leadership, however, does not justify changing the underlying organization or hampering the work of career professionals trying to do the best job they can.

Most likely the real reason is still more mundane. The greatest complication we faced in designing the ACDA-State merger was not at the top, where Albright and Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott were unfailingly attentive to our concerns, but among the department’s career organizationchart mavens who were sorely stressed at creating functional bureaus that did not fit nicely into the State Department’s pattern as to size, administrative arrangements, reporting lines, and the like. In that sense, the ACDA-State merger inevitably was a test to see whether the State Department bureaucracy could commit to these specialized missions and welcome the deeply experienced, technically skilled people—largely civil service rather than Foreign Service—that those missions require. Yet, the department’s hostility to functional bureaus has only worsened: civil service grade levels are declining, promotion rates for those Foreign Service officers in the Nonproliferation and Arms Control Bureaus remain low, and now the plan to wipe out a functional bureau removes any doubt.

The sole virtue of the merger is that the State Department’s organizational chart will be simpler, although even odder in one sense because the IG recommendation also to abolish the even smaller and narrower Verification and Compliance Bureau is conspicuously ignored, presumably because it is the darling of congressional conservatives. In any case, if organizational neatness is your goal in life, you could call the merger plan a step forward, but it would not do the secretary of state or the nation’s security against weapons of mass destruction any favors, instead inflicting real harm. It should be stopped dead in its tracks.


John Holum was the last director of the former U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA) and became the first undersecretary of state for arms control and international security when ACDA was merged into the Department of State in 1999.