Belfer Center Home > Programs/Projects > Science, Technology, and Public Policy > Countering Proliferation

EmailEmail   PrintPrint Bookmark and Share

Countering Proliferation

Countering Proliferation


March 30, 2000

Author: Ashton B. Carter, Former Co-Director, Preventive Defense Project, Harvard & Stanford Universities

Belfer Center Programs or Projects: International Security; Preventive Defense Project






MARCH 30, 2000

Mr. Chairman and members of the Committee on Foreign Relations, thank you for the opportunity to appear before you today to discuss the vitally important issue of preventing and countering proliferation. Proliferation has taken the place of the Soviet Union as the number one threat to the security of Americans. Your efforts to explore and promote policy solutions to proliferation are therefore much appreciated by citizens like myself.

I have some brief remarks to make and then would be pleased to take your questions.

Dogs that don't bark. The effort to prevent proliferation is not successful in all places at all times. Policy understandably focuses on those places where the outcome seems in doubt. But to paraphrase Sherlock Holmes, we must not ignore the evidence of the "dogs that don't bark." The states that have forsworn weapons of mass destruction (WMD) far outnumber those that challenge the nonproliferation regime. Among them figure many friends and allies of the United States. Nations of great power and authority that could easily put their hands on the needed technology and funds nevertheless make the decision that their own security is best preserved without WMD. Why is this? In important measure it is because of the sense of stability, safety, and justice in their region and in the world as a whole -- a sense to which the broader foreign policies of the United States make an essential contribution. Said differently, all of U.S. foreign and defense policy contributes to nonproliferation policy.

While we are not successful at preventing proliferation in all places and times, U.S. policy has had some remarkable successes under the two administrations that have spanned this decade. As the decade opened, a reasonable person testifying to this Committee would have been justified in forecasting no fewer than six new entrants into the rolls of nuclear proliferators during the 1990s. But Ukraine, Kazakstan, and Belarus are today non-nuclear due to the farsightedness of the Nunn-Lugar program. South Africa dismantled its nuclear weapons after a change of regime. Iraq began the decade on a path that would have led to a nuclear arsenal by this time, but defeat in war and the pressure of inspections have slowed its efforts. North Korea's plutonium production program, forecasted to yield dozens of weapons worth of plutonium by decade's end, is frozen. So the effort is well worthwhile and produces results, even if not in all places and all times.

Strategy and priorities. Recently former Secretary of Defense William Perry and I wrote a book entitled Preventive Defense: A New Security Strategy for America in which we argued for an American security strategy focused on what we called the "A-List" of dangers to the very survival, way of life, and position in the world of this country. A-List problems can grow into Cold-War scale threats. Proliferation of WMD (including possibly to sub-state terrorists) was on our A-List. Also on the A-List were the future evolutions of Russia and China, which could be either beneficial or deeply dangerous for U.S. security. We contrasted the A-List problems to such problems as the tragic conflict in the Balkans, which, while important, does not threaten America''s vital interests directly. We put such problems on a strategic "C-List." The B-List contained the two Major Theater Wars (MTWs) around which much of our defense spending is organized. The MTWs do threaten American vital interests, and we do not have the option to pick and choose among them. But neither do they threaten the survival, way of life, and position in the world of the United States in the manner that A-List proliferation does.

Therefore, as the United States struggles toward a conception of strategy for the post-Cold War world, we must keep our priorities firmly before us, even though CNN makes that difficult at times. George Marshall was bothered by the same problem of priorities at America''s last great strategic transition. In an address at Princeton University in 1947, he said, "Now that an immediate peril is not plainly visible, there is a natural tendency to relax and to return to business as usual. But I feel that we are seriously failing in our attitude toward the international problems whose solution will largely determine our future." The outcome of the struggle to prevent and counter proliferation will, as Marshall said, "largely determine our future."

Counterproliferation. Because we are not successful at preventing proliferation in all places at all times, it is important that proliferation problems figure in our defense as well as our diplomacy. Desert Storm was deeply deceptive in this regard: Americans got the impression that wars in the post-Cold War era would be purely conventional affairs, won handily by our peerless conventional forces. But future opponents will pose asymmetrical counters to our forces rather than taking them on frontally with symmetrical opposing conventional forces. It was in recognition of this danger that Secretary of Defense Aspin and then Secretary Perry began the Counterproliferation Initiative in DOD. Counterproliferation has gradually assumed greater importance in U.S. defense plans and programs, though a great deal more remains to be done. Our Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) still spends more effort perfecting the hammer for a nail like Desert Storm; but the next war might be a screw instead.

The counterproliferation approach completes the nation's portfolio of counters to proliferation. In DOD briefings (and now to my class at Harvard), I used to sum up this portfolio in the "8D''s" which the United States can to apply as a given proliferation situation becomes more dangerous: dissuasion, diplomacy, disarmament, denial, defusing, deterrence, destruction, and defense. We need all eight D''s, though we could apply all of them better.

Organization and management within the government. It is remarkable that as the world has changed so profoundly in the past decade, the structure of the national security establishment has not. That structure was established in its essential design in 1947 and 1949, when Congress passed and amended the National Security Act. It is as if we were trying to manage the Internet with the corporate structure of Ma Bell. The upcoming presidential transition offers an opportunity to make basic changes in management and organization. In the American system this opportunity comes only every four or eight years. Early in a presidential transition, civilian jobs are not yet filled with new officials who might resist a change in their functions. The new administration has not yet settled into a pattern of making do with "the system" it inherited. Politically, the Congress and the voters are expecting change.

Within the structure to deal with proliferation's A-List threat, DOD has made an important initial move by creating the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA), and one can only hope that further innovation will take place to give solid managerial focus to A-List problems in the Pentagon. Within the White House, from time to time a "proliferation czar" has been proposed as a replacement for the current National Security Council system of policy coordination. But the central problem at the White House is notpolicycoordination among agencies, but programcoordination. For example, early in the Nunn-Lugar program, implementation was slowed by problems coordinating spending and program engineering among departments. But the policy was perfectly clear and agreed upon by all agencies. In cases like this the White House NSC system has neither the right powers nor the right personnel, and another mechanism needs to be found. Today, the programs for counter-terrorism and cyber protection, and the programs for developing technology for the battle against proliferation would benefit from a better mechanism for programcoordination among departments.

A once-in-the-Nuclear-Age event. The disintegration of the Soviet Union and the continuing social and economic revolution in Russia is the most fateful event of the nuclear age. All the witnesses in these hearings have remarked upon the unprecedented specter of a superpower arsenal engulfed in change its designers never could have imagined, and the stunning results obtained by the innovative Nunn-Lugar program. Their warnings bear repeating. The half-life of Plutonium-239 is 24,400 years, and the half-life of Uranium-235 is 713 million years. That is a lot of election cycles for a young democracy like Russia.

The Nunn-Lugar program is the single most creative new foreign policy tool devised since the Cold War ended. Its many concrete accomplishments are well known to this Committee. But the current program's scale and scope are still much smaller than the opportunities to reduce this threat. Both the DOD and DOE programs have unfunded opportunities in the nuclear field, and much more could be done in the chemical and above all biological weapons fields.

Biological weapons. The nuclear weapon is a fearful technology, but it is at least a mature technology. In more than fifty years since the first thermonuclear explosion in 1949, the essentials of nuclear weapons effects have not changed. These terrible effects are also well understood by people all over the world. Biotechnology, by contrast, is at the dawn of a revolution that will produce a succession of dramatically new capabilities, matching and probably eventually dwarfing the nuclear revolution and the ongoing information revolution. Like all new technologies, it will be exploited for ill as well as good.

All of us who are concerned about proliferation need to move biological weapons to the top of our agenda. We need stronger diplomatic tools than the Biological Weapons Convention for prevention. Because biological proliferation has occurred at some places and times already, we also need much better counterproliferation (including counterterrorism) protections. In this connection, it is of some concern that the biotechnology revolution, unlike the nuclear revolution, is taking place outside of defense laboratories and companies. The information revolution is also spearheaded by non-defense commercial firms, but at least it had its beginning in defense-sponsored research, so DOD has a strong technological base in this field. The nonproliferation community, including DOD, will need to make a strong effort to develop a base of expertise in biotechnology.

North Korea. The nuclear weapons and ballistic missile related activities of the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea (DPRK) are a triple concern. First, they occur in a theater of possible large-scale and catastrophic war in which American soldiers would be directly and immediately involved. Second, they take place in an area where a regional arms race is looming. And third, they threaten the fabric of the nonproliferation norm worldwide.

Mr. Chairman, as you know, it has been my privilege to serve the administration and Secretary William Perry as Senior Adviser to the North Korea Policy Review. The Review's recommended strategy for dealing with the DPRK was detailed in its unclassified report. I will not repeat the logic or conclusions of that report here, but I request that the report be entered into the record of this hearing along with my statement. I would be pleased to answer questions about it.

*Work sponsored in part by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

Please see the attached document or the link below for the full text of Dr. Carter's testimony:

Adapting Nonproliferation Policy to Future Challenges, Hearing before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, March 30, 2000.



Full text of this publication is available at:

For Academic Citation:

Carter, Ashton B. "Countering Proliferation." Testimony to . March 30, 2000.

Bookmark and Share

How to Counter WMD
By Ashton B. Carter

Preventive Defense: A New Security Strategy for America
By Ashton B. Carter and Dr. William J. Perry

A New Era, A New Threat
By Ashton B. Carter and Richard Lugar

Preventive Defense Project

The Preventive Defense Project (PDP) is a Harvard-Stanford research collaboration, co-directed by Ashton B. Carter and William J. Perry.

Ashton B. Carter

In February 2015, Ashton B. Carter became Secretary of Defense for the United States.

Dr. Carter is former director of the Belfer Center's Preventive Defense Project and former director of what is now the Belfer Center. He is on leave.


Ashton Carter's bio >

Ashton Carter's publications >

Go to Preventive Defense Project >


Receive updates from the project

Sign up to receive occasional updates, developments and policy ideas from the Preventive Defense Project.