Powell’s Parting Gift
The outgoing secretary has the right idea about a reorganization at State.


Henry Sokolski

Although no one reported it, Colin Powell made a decision last week that could formally reverse the State Department’s earlier preoccupation with Cold War arms control into an intensified and much-needed battle against the spread of strategic arms to the world’s Irans and North Koreas. In an internal State Department memo, Powell agreed with the key recommendation of his inspector general to merge what was once State’s crown jewel–its Bureau of Arms Control–with the department’s Bureau of Nonproliferation.

This may seem like inside baseball but it’s not. Indeed, the question now is whether our government will simply combine two large organizations to do pretty much what they were doing before to restrain weapons of mass destruction or take on a much more serious effort to promote nonproliferation. For the moment, the jury is still out.

The State Department’s inspector general made his recommendations, after all, initially for good-housekeeping reasons: Fifteen years after the Cold War, the Bureau of Arms Control has less to do. The U.S. pulled out of the U.S.-Soviet Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2001. The U.S. Senate rejected the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty three years before that. Meanwhile, the number of U.S.- and Russian-deployed nuclear strategic-weapons systems have steadily declined and the U.S. has all but pulled its theater and tactical nuclear weapons from Europe. The Conventional Forces in Europe agreement at the end of the Cold War was designed to restrain a Soviet threat that no longer exists. Un-phased by any of these developments, the Bureau of Arms Control still has no fewer than five separate offices dedicated to these matters.

A second and more important reason for merging the two bureaus, though, is that after all the news about Iraq, North Korea, Libya, Iran, and Pakistan, preventing the spread of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons to hostile states and terrorists has become America’s number-one security headache. To prevent a world crowded with strategically armed states there’s plenty yet to do. For starters, the U.S. and its friends need to clarify just how far they are willing to go to create and enforce rules restricting the transfer and use of missile know-how, biological science, reactors, and nuclear fuel plants that could be used to make weapons that could wipe out thousands of innocent civilians. To whom do we want the rules to pertain? How willing are we to have them apply to us? What are we willing to do to enforce the rules we agree to? Then there is the matter of tracking what others are doing to block dangerous or illicit trade. How should this be done?

All of these proliferation matters and more require greater attention than they are currently receiving. Is the proposed State reorganization likely to help? It depends. If the new merged bureaus maintain the same line-up of offices they had before, the answer is probably not. A case might be made for continuing to worry about Cold War arms control agreements (excluding, of course, those agreements the U.S. no longer is a party to), but dragging offices focused on such concerns into a nonproliferation bureau is a surefire way to lose one’s focus.

At the same time, some of the offices within the Bureau of Nonproliferation–specifically those promoting U.S. nuclear safety and exports–have less to do with blocking proliferation than with maintaining U.S. strategic technology transfers. What this suggests is taking those offices focused on arms control that has the least to do with preventing proliferation (e.g., U.S.-Russian strategic arms limitations, conventional arms control in Europe, etc.) and moving them to another bureau altogether (one possibility would be to those European-centric concerns where conventional arms-control talks once were housed, within the European Bureau). In addition, it would make sense to send the handful of offices within the Bureau of Nonproliferation that promote nuclear power to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission or the Department of Energy.

The end result would be a single, slightly larger State Department bureau that would take the lead for the U.S. government on those arms-control agreements most closely related to nonproliferation: the Chemical Weapons Convention, the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, the Biological Weapons Convention, and the Fissile Material Production Cutoff. This office would formulate and negotiate U.S. policies and proposed agreements to promote nonproliferation.

As a natural balance and check on the diplomatic desire to reach agreements merely for agreements’ sake, the State Department’s existing Bureau of Verification and Compliance should be used to comment on the enforceability of any proposed understanding. This bureau also should be asked to verify other nations’ compliance with agreements reached. Finally, Verification and Compliance would be a natural to chair interagency meetings on the possible imposition of nonproliferation sanctions.

How realistic are these suggestions? Some are already under discussion within the State Department. None, however, are assured of being adopted. What is certain is that with time, bureaucratic infighting over these changes within the department will make any reasonable action far less likely. If this happens, Powell’s bold decision to focus his agency on the future could easily degenerate a petty debate over turf.

Henry Sokolski heads the Washington-based Nonproliferation Policy Education Center and is completing Evaluating America’s Nonproliferation Bureaucracy, from which this piece is drawn.