Revisiting Arms Control Organization, Again

John Holum

The U.S.-Russian agreement on Syria’s chemical weapons is a recent, powerful reminder of the extraordinary value of arms control. An arduous process to find and destroy the chemical arsenal of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad lies ahead.

Yet, it is made much simpler by the aggregation of expertise and baseline of protocols and procedures under the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), which was negotiated under President George H.W. Bush and ratified under President Bill Clinton. Imagine the difficulty of starting this effort without those assets.

Why then is the United States degrading its capability to design, negotiate, and lead efforts to enforce agreements such as the CWC?

In late 1999, the independent U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA) was folded into the Department of State, a process in which I was deeply involved as ACDA’s last director. I had high hopes for the reorganization. While creating an institutional home in a larger, more powerful agency, the plan on which ACDA and the State Department had agreed, with congressional approval, preserved ACDA’s two most irreplaceable assets—an independent voice for arms control and nonproliferation priorities at the highest levels of the government and protection of job security and career opportunities for the technical experts whose skills and insights were indispensable to success.

Fourteen years on, however, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that the reorganization has failed, a sad result documented in an important new study by a scholar at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. That paper, released in September, lays out how both of the core purposes we fought so hard to preserve have fallen away.

Under the current structure it is virtually impossible for the government’s top arms control official to communicate a position to the President or to members of the National Security Council [NSC] that contradicts the views of the Secretary of State. Furthermore, by most accounts the [State] Department has struggled to retain and recruit technical arms control expertise, much to the detriment of both arms control and national security.[1]

The State Department’s dominant culture has ostensibly won the bureaucratic battle by squeezing the former ACDA into its conventional structure and squelching its independent voice. Unless the damage can be repaired, however, the State Department itself stands to be the biggest loser.

A Direct Line to the President

As we negotiated the merger of ACDA and the State Department, the reporting line to the president, through the secretary of state, for the new undersecretary of state for arms control and international security—“T,” in the department’s jargon—was the last issue to be resolved. Our team, led by my deputy and former ACDA Director Ralph Earle; Thomas Graham, who had been ACDA’s long-time general counsel and its acting director; acting Assistant Director Norman Wulf; and Executive Secretary Barbara Starr, combined a collective deep institutional memory with enormous skill and resolve in advancing ACDA’s values and protecting its personnel. Nevertheless, our counterparts in the State Department found shocking, if not laughable, the very idea of a subordinate official taking their disagreements with the secretary directly to the interagency process, even to the president. That issue would have to be resolved with the secretary of state.

It was settled when, still as ACDA director, I rode with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to a NSC Principals Committee meeting. On the way to the White House, I laid out our case and said that if we could resolve this final issue, the reorganization would be a friendly merger rather than a hostile takeover. Albright said she would think about it during the meeting and that we would discuss it further on the way back to Foggy Bottom. As it happened, that day’s meeting was on a subject on which we expressed opposite views. That did not seem to bode well. On the way back from the meeting, however, Albright said, “Well, that worked well. Let’s go ahead with the plan.”

When ACDA was created, that direct access was seen as vital. It was a way to balance power centers in the government, particularly in the armed forces and the Department of Defense, that have strong institutional biases against any limits on U.S. military options. With its own seat at the table, ACDA could make the compelling case that U.S. national security is enhanced by agreements that take weapons away from potential adversaries, in lieu of building up to defeat them. During merger negotiations, we saw that access as crucial not only for the undersecretary in the final stages of decision-making, but also as the way to ensure that the appropriate T bureau personnel would be at the table in the lower-level interagency meetings where policy begins to take shape, and at every stage after that.

The value of arms control as a national security instrument may be more widely understood now than in the 1960s. Yet, when it comes to specific policy disputes such as the 1990s arguments over seeking a true “zero yield” nuclear test ban, the core rationale remains just as valid as it was then.

This direct-reporting line has withered away, and it has been missed. For example, in policy deliberations during negotiations from 2005 to 2007 leading to the U.S.-Indian agreement for nuclear cooperation, State Department nonproliferation experts argued their case that nuclear cooperation with a country that maintained a nuclear arsenal and remained outside the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) would undercut U.S. credibility in enforcing the NPT, as the United States would seem to be treating the NPT as a tool to wield against U.S. adversaries while excusing friends. That argument did not prevail in the State Department, which strongly favored the agreement as a way to strengthen U.S.-Indian bilateral ties.

Given the momentum behind the deal, it almost certainly would have been approved even if advocates of an alternative view had been able to press their case outside the department and at higher levels. Nevertheless, one can easily imagine an outcome that would have lent more support to the global nonproliferation regime. For example, Washington could have insisted that New Delhi make a commitment to ultimately eliminate its nuclear weapons, an obligation the United States long ago accepted for itself.

Dwindling Expertise

Meanwhile, as a result of retirements, frustrated departures, and slow recruitment, ACDA’s technical expertise on arms control and nonproliferation issues is rapidly disappearing as well. The Belfer Center study traces this in part to the shrinkage in the number of senior-level positions and the increasing skewing of those positions toward Foreign Service officers (FSOs) over technically proficient civil servants.

So long as the State Department retains the coordinating role for arms control policy planning[,] it needs to include technical experts among its ranks. Yet, given the “crowding out” of this expertise within the T bureaus, the State Department risks losing much of the institutional memory on those matters, leading to considerable capacity gaps both inside the Department and the federal government. Considering the technical nature of so many of the nation’s arms control challenges, this “crowding out” effect will have long-term negative implications for both arms control and national security.[2]

FSOs such as Stephen Ledogar, the accomplished U.S. ambassador to the Conference on Disarmament; his successor, Robert Grey Jr.; Avis Bohlen, assistant secretary of state for arms control; and Stephen Steiner, the U.S. representative to the implementation bodies for the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, have contributed decisively to arms control success. Their cases, however, also reflect the reality that FSOs who spend the necessary years mastering arms control diplomacy often see their careers stalled, while comparably talented colleagues who focus on traditional diplomacy keep advancing into the senior ranks.

Meanwhile, civil service experts are relegated to secondary roles, on the premise that skilled FSO generalists can master any topic. According to this way of thinking, the best role for the scientists and other technical experts is to draft talking points and answer questions, not to lead negotiations or manage bureaus and offices. Yet, one could make a strong case for the opposite view, that it is easier for a substantive expert to acquire negotiating skills than it is for a generalist on a three-year rotation to master the substance of disciplines as intricate and historically fraught as arms control and nonproliferation.

If State Department managers find that approach unacceptable, then the most gifted experts will leave the State Department or will not join in the first place. As a result, the department will find that it is losing arguments with other U.S. agencies or with foreign negotiators because its envoys are not as well prepared as their interlocutors. The State Department, although cementing the dominance of Foreign Service over civil service personnel, is making itself less and less capable of shaping U.S. arms control and nonproliferation policy and of dealing effectively with its foreign counterparts.

What Went Wrong

Under the 1999 merger, the T undersecretary, recast as undersecretary of state for arms control and international security and a senior adviser to the president, oversaw three carefully constructed new bureaus focused on nonproliferation, arms control, and verification and compliance, as well as the pre-existing Bureau of Political-Military Affairs. For the remaining 20 months of Clinton’s term, the department operated under the new structure and procedure.

Had there been time for the new structure to become solidly embedded and the process accepted as routine, perhaps it could have worked. The change of administrations in 2001, however, brought about a shift in arms control and nonproliferation priorities that was sharper than usual, even among transitions from one party to the other. Since Dwight Eisenhower, presidents of either party had pursued formal arms control, with most of the greatest breakthroughs coming under Republican leadership.

The administration of George W. Bush had different ideas. John Bolton, the new T undersecretary, made no secret of his disdain for formal arms control and for those parts of the reorganized bureaus designed to pursue it. Rather, regardless of organizational lines, he drew almost exclusively on those who shared his enthusiasm for aggressive nonproliferation enforcement, whether pursuant to treaties or ad hoc, and left other offices to languish.

Small wonder then that a State Department inspector general’s report in 2004 concluded that the structure was marked by unclear lines of authority, unproductive competition among offices, and uneven workloads.[3] The report was uncovering self-inflicted wounds.

That led to yet another reorganization plan in 2005 and 2006, supposedly to fix those problems. The plan tracked many of the points of resistance that had been raised by the State Department’s managers as the merger of ACDA into the department was being negotiated in 1997 and 1998.

For example, back then, over the objections of the department’s management specialists, the merger plan embraced the premise that a structure with limited administrative roles but large policy and negotiating responsibilities would necessarily be top heavy, with comparatively small bureaus focused on discrete disciplines. The State Department is accustomed to a more hierarchical structure made up of regional bureaus incorporating thousands of people, from assistant secretaries and ambassadors down to consular officers and clerks with many levels in between.

To more closely follow the department’s norm, the department’s negotiators wanted fewer senior officials in the former ACDA. They gained considerable ground in 2006, when the arms control bureau was abolished and combined with the one handling nonproliferation, in the process downgrading both and shedding senior positions. In time, that evolved further into another problem identified in the Belfer Center study: the dilution of senior-level focus on verification and compliance. Those functions are now combined with negotiation, so that a deputy assistant secretary, instead of an assistant secretary, is the highest-level official focused exclusively on verification and compliance.

There is an inherent conflict between the desire to close a deal and insistence that it can be verified. Under today’s structure, the same assistant secretary often decides both. That is the sort of thing that happens when one kills off a bureau solely on the basis of a belief that there are too many.

A 2009 Government Accountability Office review4 concluded that the new reorganization was designed from the top down, with little or no input from the people actually doing the work. That was painfully apparent in the redesign of the bureaus and offices, which matched up similar topics on the organizational chart but was operationally incoherent. For example, bilateral enforcement efforts against a particular country’s biological weapons have very little in common with multilateral negotiations to tighten the global prohibition. They both involve biological weapons expertise, but the contexts and processes are vastly different and do not necessarily fit together.

At the time of the reorganization, Representative David Obey (D-Wis.), the ranking member on the House Appropriations Committee, had followed these issues closely and tried to draw Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s attention to an alternative approach. She never responded. Every indication was that the secretary simply accepted the premise that the new bureaus did not fit together properly and then left it to subordinates to figure out the solution, with no real thought given to how further restructuring would affect the bureaus’ missions or the department’s long-term strength. With inattention at the top, the 2005-2006 reorganization was nothing but a relitigation of many of the issues settled before. The shared aim of ACDA, the department, and the Congress then was to preserve indispensable capabilities and a strong voice; a few years later, those goals were abandoned, and conformity within the State Department became the paramount concern.

In summary, the reorganization’s failure is traceable to a combination of ill-timed senior-level hostility to parts of the mission, indifference on the part of the secretary, and then relentless bureaucratic elbowing by State Department management personnel.

Subsequently, President Barack Obama put together an exceptional team, now led by Rose Gottemoeller as acting arms control undersecretary. Obama also followed a widely touted recommendation to appoint a nonproliferation “czar” in the White House and named Gary Samore, another skilled, knowledgeable, and broadly experienced public servant, to that position. Overall, aside from desultory efforts to gain Senate support for ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), the Obama administration has major achievements to its credit, led by the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) and the toughest-ever sanctions on Iran’s nuclear program, and has laid out an ambitious agenda for the future.

Organizationally, however, the central deficiencies have not been addressed. The creation of the czar position elevates the visibility of nonproliferation issues at the White House and in the interagency process. Nevertheless, it falls far short of what is needed.

In the early days of arms control, Eisenhower brought a prominent Republican former governor, Harold Stassen of Minnesota, into the White House to lead U.S. disarmament efforts and draw together what had been a fragmented approach to policymaking in that area. It is tempting to think that having an advocate at the president’s elbow would make all the difference. Yet, it did not work then, when government was smaller and much less complex, and it is not enough now. Because the White House is overcrowded with senior advisers and because presidents are pulled in dozens of directions every day, almost no one is continuously or even regularly at the president’s elbow. A small White House office or single official, no matter how skilled a bureaucratic player, simply cannot reach into a cabinet department and direct its staff and budget.

Confronting the Problem

To recapture ACDA’s lost attributes, the most straightforward approach would be simply to revive and enforce the original 1999 reorganization plan, which was approved by Congress and still exists in law, if not in life. Yet, there is every reason to be skeptical that next time it will be different, that the State Department will suddenly acquire respect for civil servants and functional missions. The department has had a fair test, and it has dropped the ball.

The starkest alternative would be to re-establish ACDA as it was. There is much to be said for that, but it would require the reconstruction of entities that likely are irretrievable, such as ACDA’s compact and efficient administrative structure or ACDA’s general counsel’s office, with its exhaustive documentary record of arms control negotiations and its unparalleled understanding of each treaty’s or agreement’s terms.

The most plausible approach would lie somewhere between reviving ACDA and reasserting the 1999 plan. It would be possible to establish an independent agency but look to the State Department or elsewhere for administrative support. The agency’s funding would have to be protected, so the administering department would not be able to starve it into submission, and it would need its own relationships with Congress. Although it would be a novel approach, a streamlined new agency conceivably could be combined with the idea of the nonproliferation czar, centered in the White House, and led by a top presidential assistant comparable to the director of the Office of Management and Budget.

These and other concepts might be further developed through a bipartisan group of experts established to identify and flesh out various options and try to form a consensus. The Belfer Center study could serve as a catalyst and starting point.

This month marks the 50th anniversary of the entry into force of the Limited Test Ban Treaty (LTBT), which spared countless people around the world from the horrific consequences of atmospheric nuclear tests. It paved the way for ever-tighter controls, leading to the completion of the CTBT in 1996.

That early treaty also was the initial fruit of decisions made by Eisenhower and President John Kennedy to better equip the U.S. government to pursue arms control, leading to ACDA’s creation in 1961. The treaty’s successful negotiation depended in part on creative diplomacy, the appropriate political conditions, and powerful advocacy at the government’s highest levels, but it also owed a great deal to the deep knowledge of scientists in a range of disciplines from seismology to atmospheric patterns to the intricacies of nuclear weapons development.

Today, the challenges posed by the proliferation of nonconventional weapons are growing, as Iran, North Korea, and Syria demonstrate beyond any doubt. The arms control agenda also looms large and is increasingly complex. The United States retains long-standing goals of capping the production and reducing the stockpiles of fissile material, strengthening monitoring of the ban on biological weapons, and reining in trafficking in small arms. Building on New START, the Obama administration has embraced further U.S.-Russian strategic arms reductions and proposed the first real effort to control tactical nuclear weapons. Eventually, those discussions will have to be broadened to include the other recognized nuclear-weapon states—China, France, and the United Kingdom. Furthermore, the best experts need to be focused on the daunting tasks of how to negotiate and verify a world free of nuclear weapons, an immensely complex challenge, in pursuit of a worthy goal shared by distinguished statesmen of both parties and embraced by Obama.

Instead of approaching the end of arms control, the United States is at the beginning of a new era that is both technically complicated and tremendously promising. This era should be approached with the same bold mindset that prevailed when ACDA was created and the LTBT was realized. Any chance of success will depend on a revival of an ACDA approach—if not of ACDA itself, then of ACDA’s core features. Right now is a fine time to start.

John Holum was confirmed in 1993 as director of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA). When the merger of ACDA into the Department of State was completed in 1999, President Bill Clinton appointed him as the new undersecretary of state for arms control and international security and senior adviser to the president for arms control, nonproliferation, and disarmament. He is retired and lives in Annapolis.


1. Leon Ratz, “Organizing for Arms Control: The National Security Implications of the Loss of an Independent Arms Control Agency,” Belfer Center Discussion Paper, No. 2013-06 (September 2013), p. 4,

2. Ibid., p. 22.

3. See U.S. Department of State and Broadcasting Board of Governors, “Office of the Inspector General: Semiannual Report to the Congress,” 2005, p. 34 (covering the period October 1, 2004, to March 31, 2005).

4. U.S. Government Accountability Office, “Key Transformation Practices Could Have Helped in Restructuring Arms Control and Nonproliferation Bureaus,” GAO-09-738, July 2009, p. 27.