Prospects for Peace (A Conversation with Matt Korda)

Last October, in anticipation of a change of presidential administration in the United States, I interviewed Matt Korda of the Federation of American Scientists on the prospects for a progressive reformation of American foreign and defense policy .

Matt Korda

Matt Korda

Korda expressed what I would characterize as ‘qualified pessimism’ about the potential for Joe Biden to square a rather vicious circle: ending America’s ‘forever wars’ and inaugurating a new era of ‘peace first’ diplomacy, while maintaining what the Democratic Party Platform called “the best-trained, best-equipped, and most effective fighting force in the world.” Given this “bizarre contradiction,” he reasoned, it was “difficult to expect much change in the overall direction of US foreign policy” post-Trump.

Sadly, he was right, though ‘not much’ is still better than ‘none,’ and Biden has ended (in horrible circumstances) America’s 20-year war in Afghanistan, while averting the complete collapse of US-Russia nuclear arms control by agreeing to extend until 2026 the New START Treaty, limiting each side to a way-too-high, world-ending ceiling of 1,550 thermonuclear warheads.

Accompanying this relative prudence, however, have been nasty surprises – most shockingly, the Trump-esque folly of selling nuclear-powered submarines to Australia – and the tabling of the biggest ever Pentagon budget, three-quarters-of-a-trillion bucks at a time of fragile pandemic recovery, atrocious inequity, and ‘do or die’ climate emergency .

Korda’s main area of expertise is nuclear weapons policy, and much of our exchange last year explored options for reducing fast-rising nuclear spending and risks. He is also, however, a climate and social justice activist, part of the Sunrise Movement for a Climate Revolution and a founding member of the Foreign Policy Generation initiative, promoting the peace-loving, war-weary perspectives of those “old enough to remember the events of September 11, 2001 and the impact they had on US policy, but…too young to have our voices heard in shaping those policies.” This breadth of perspective deepened our dialogue and made me keen to draw again on his expertise, a year after Biden’s resounding victory. Happily for the Spectator, he kindly agreed.

Our interview (here lightly edited) was conducted by email in the first half of October.


The Big Picture? Two Cold Wars and Frozen Thinking

Sean Howard (SH): Let me open with congratulations on your big ‘scoop’ of July this year, when you were the first researcher to identify from satellite imagery the existence of a second ‘nuclear missile silo field’ in China, large enough to house over a hundred Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs).

But while your work was impressive, the discovery was grim, dealing a perhaps fatal blow to efforts (including your own) to persuade the Biden administration to phase-out its own land-based ICBMs, by far the weakest ‘leg’ – because the most vulnerable to attack – of the ‘nuclear triad’ of land-, air-, and sea-based weapons. Do you worry that Beijing’s clear abandonment of ‘minimum deterrence’ – limited to a ‘small’, second-strike, retaliatory force – in favor of a far more offensive posture – sufficient to overwhelm any conceivable US missile defenses – may act to crystallize a new ‘common sense’ view that America ‘needs’ sufficiently massive military power, nuclear and conventional, to deter or defeat two major-power competitors, China and Russia?

China Hami silos

The Hami missile silo field covers an area of about 800 square kilometers and is in the early phases of construction. (Source: FAS)

Matt Korda (MK): To international observers, it certainly appears China’s recent nuclear build-up – the most significant expansion of its arsenal ever – is in contradiction with its longstanding minimum deterrence policy. This is because China has consistently emphasized its posture was different than that of the United States and Russia, and that it would never participate in a nuclear arms race. With the recent discoveries of hundreds of new silos across the country, this appears to no longer be the case.

Despite this, however, the Chinese government is unlikely to officially declare that it is abandoning its minimum deterrence strategy. It is even possible that its nuclear modernization campaign will be promoted as part of its minimum deterrence posture, on the grounds that the threshold for what constitutes a “minimum” deterrent is changing in the context of the United States’, Russia’s, and India’s modernization programs.

Regardless of the view from Beijing, it seems clear that US Strategic Command (STRATCOM) is increasingly reorienting itself towards adopting a “three-way deterrence model” to include both Russia and China. The commander of STRATCOM even suggested recently that China could “soon surpass” Russia’s strategic capability, because China’s new systems and deployment patterns could complicate US targeting and war plans. At this time, it remains to be seen how this new model would function in practice, but it’s safe to say it will almost certainly result in a push for yet more US nuclear modernization.


An Exercise in ‘Validation’ – or Worse ? The Nuclear Posture Review

SH: The administration’s Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) began this summer and is expected to conclude early next year. In January, STRATCOM Commander Admiral Charles Richard opined that the review should be a “validation” of the status quo, confirming that “we like the strategy we have;” but in September, he said “China’s growth is so great that had we not been in the middle of an NPR, I would have called for one.” (So much for civilian control of the military!)

US Nuclear Posture Review (cover) 2018The same month, the abrupt dismissal of the lead official coordinating the NPR – Leonor Tomero, a highly-respected arms control expert – appalled observers hoping for a real review of options for reducing the number, types and role of US nuclear weapons . Do you hold out any hope for an NPR worthy of the name? If not, why do you think the president, who as both senator and presidential nominee seemed open to serious reforms – for example, adopting a No-First Use policy, or at least declaring that the ‘sole purpose’ of nuclear weapons is to deter or respond to nuclear attack – has seemingly let the ‘hawks’ take over?

MK: The decision to remove Leonor from her post was deeply unfortunate, and signals that the NPR is unlikely to be significantly different from the previous one. In stark contrast to Candidate Biden, President Biden has effectively been absent when it comes to speaking out publicly on nuclear issues. As a result, presidential guidance remains highly unclear, which provides significant latitude for the hawks to exert control. It’s understandable that the Biden administration is more focused on other important topics – especially Afghanistan and COVID – but if the president declines to outline why and how his nuclear policy will differ from his predecessor’s, then the two reviews will just end up looking essentially the same.

SH: In July, 21 Democratic members of Congress wrote to the president offering “guidance” aimed at making the review as far-reaching as possible. Noting that “even a limited nuclear exchange confined to one hemisphere would be felt by all the planet’s inhabitants through a sizable temperature drop, global famine, and other catastrophic events,” they urged Biden to:

…instruct the NPR drafters to model the climatic, environmental, and humanitarian effects of the US target list and include viable options to assign non-nuclear weapons to those same targets.

(I wonder whether Tomero was amenable to this request, and whether that was one reason for her removal?)

As you know, a Congressionally-mandated National Academy of Sciences study on these same issues is currently underway, and though it won’t report until next summer, its work and expertise could surely be drawn on. Do you share my concern, though, that the NPR will end up dodging – yet again – the momentous question of nuclear ecocide?

MK: I certainly share that concern. Nuclear hawks have a vested interest in avoiding any discussion of the humanitarian or environmental consequences of nuclear weapons, and this subject has – by design – been conspicuously absent in consecutive NPRs. The Pentagon has historically been reluctant to discuss such matters; for example, when making decisions about where to site ICBM bases during the early 1960s, General Curtis LeMay, former head of Strategic Air Command (SAC, the predecessor of STRATCOM), noted his discomfort with the fact that Congress had “‘re-emphasized’ the importance of thinking of possible collateral damage to major cities and heavily populated areas,’” suggesting this could negatively impact popular support for ICBMs.

Our recent polling effort bears this out: we found that the largest increase in support for eliminating ICBMs was prompted by showing participants a targeting map of the missile fields, complete with likely radioactive fallout patterns. Although I am concerned the NPR won’t address these obviously crucial issues, I am personally buoyed by these polling results, and by the fact more members of Congress are taking an interest in the humanitarian and environmental consequences of nuclear war.


Stop-Start: US Disarmament and Arms Control Policy

SH: You recently co-authored – with Dr. Tytti Erästö – a fascinating Commentary piece for the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) arguing it’s “time to factor missile defense into nuclear arms control talks.” Even though the idea of effective protection against nuclear attack is a dangerous delusion – fueled by Pentagon hype and brazenly rigged ‘tests’ – we’ve seen that China’s build-up is motivated primarily by concern over ever-more-extensive investments in a ‘shield;’ and Russia, too, constantly cites the abandonment of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty by the George W. Bush administration as justification for its nuclear modernization (and first-strike posture). Why does the issue matter so much? And are you calling for a revised ABM Treaty with Russia, and/or a new, global ABM regime involving China and other nuclear-armed states?


Richard Nixon and Leonid Brezhnev sign SALT Treaty, 1972

Richard Nixon and Leonid Brezhnev sign SALT Treaty, 1972

MK: As a recent letter to Biden from 65 ‘national security leaders’ makes clear, the failure to address Russian and Chinese concerns over the open-ended expansion of US missile defenses remains one of the most critical drivers of the arms race.

For decades, neither country has believed that US missile defenses were exclusively oriented towards what the US called “rogue states” (i.e. Iran and North Korea), and the most recent (2019) Missile Defense Review included an explicit statement that US missile defenses would address Chinese and Russian hypersonic threats in the future. At this stage, it is too early to know what would constitute a workable solution; however, it seems clear that a preliminary mutual agreement on missile defense limitations would go a long way towards unblocking the long road to nuclear disarmament.


Leading by Bad Example: US Non-Proliferation – and Sanctions – Policy

SH: I know you strongly object to the (ab)use of sanctions as a means of indiscriminate, massively-destructive economic warfare in pursuit of disarmament and non-proliferation objectives. Yet Biden persists with Trump’s brutal “maximum pressure” sanctions campaigns against both North Korea and Iran, while failing to reengage Pyongyang on denuclearization, and refusing (so far) to rejoin the Iran Nuclear Deal, one of the signature achievements of the Obama-Biden era . Are you surprised at the continued reliance on such draconian sanctions? Do you sense this is a question of increasing or decreasing concern among progressives in Congress?

MK: The Biden administration’s struggle to constructively re-engage with both North Korea and Iran has been disappointing. Clearly, the “maximum pressure” campaign has not been successful, and is irreparably damaging US credibility – all while harming civilians in the process. I certainly hope that Congress increases its engagement on this issue, and puts pressure on the administration to address both countries’ threat perceptions, rather than simply slapping on additional rounds of sanctions.

The UK prime minister, Boris Johnson (left), Australia's Scott Morrison (centre) and the US president, Joe Biden, at a joint press conference. Photograph: Mick Tsikas/EPA

The UK prime minister, Boris Johnson (left), Australia’s Scott Morrison (centre) and the US president, Joe Biden, at a joint press conference. Photograph: Mick Tsikas/EPA

SH: The recent Australia-UK-US (AUKUS) anti-China defense pact, under which the US will sell nuclear-powered submarines to Australia, surprised and dismayed almost all non-proliferation experts, worried both about the large amounts of unsafeguarded fissile material (highly-enriched uranium for submarine reactors) likely to be involved, and the dangerous precedent set .

The deal is a radical departure from long-standing, bipartisan US policy not to sell nuclear-powered submarines to non-nuclear-weapon states, and as Sébastien Phillipe wrote in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, “it is hard to understand the internal policy process that led to the decision.“ It seems, he lamented:

…that just like in the old Cold War, arms racing and the search for short-term strategic advantage is now bipartisan.

I’m sure you share this sense of shock, but what prospects do you see for serious pressure to build, domestically and internationally, against the deal?

MK: The implications of the AUKUS security agreement are very serious, and extend beyond significant non-proliferation concerns you mention. The breach of trust between the three parties and the European Union – most particularly France, which had been under contract to supply diesel submarines to Australia – will take years to repair, and could easily have been avoided. Moreover, the outsized reaction to the deal reflects the deep ties between the various parties and their respective military-industrial complexes. As states become increasingly intertwined with their weapons contractors, arms deals will take on outsized roles in multilateral diplomacy – meaning that bipartisan support for these arms deals will continue to increase as well.

SH: AUKUS clearly undermines the credibility of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), a blow struck in the run-up to the treaty’s pandemic-delayed Tenth Review Conference in January next year. What – aside from scrapping AUKUS! – could the US most effectively now do to revive the flagging fortunes of the NPT? And what approach would you suggest the administration take towards the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), the ‘Ban Treaty’ adopted by no fewer than 122 states at the UN General Assembly in 2017?

MK: In early October, Norway became the first NATO country to announce it would attend, as an observer, the inaugural Meeting of States Parties to the TPNW, due to take place in Vienna in March 2022 . This welcome announcement could potentially open the door towards other NATO countries deciding to attend as well. I would encourage the United States to not stand in their way.

There is certainly room for NATO members – including the United States – to engage with several treaty provisions that do not explicitly include disarmament. In particular, the treaty obligates countries to provide age- and gender-sensitive medical aid to victims of nuclear testing, offer financial assistance to those affected, and provide environmental remediation to contaminated areas like the Marshall Islands, where countless Bikinians were irradiated and displaced by Cold War nuclear tests. Such aid should not be delayed until states sign the Ban, and given the United States’ outsized role in inflicting these harms, these are areas Washington can and should take the lead.


The Post-Pandemic Pentagon Budget: a Forever War State?

SH: Referring to the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, President Biden recently declared at the UN that “as we close this period of relentless war, we’re opening a new era of relentless diplomacy.” Yet this claim is surely belied by his first defense budget request of just over $750 billion – since raised to nearly $780 billion by that part of the military-industrial complex known as Congress.

Barbara Lee

Barbara Lee

On the other hand, and for the first time, over half the Democratic caucus in the House (142 of 220) voted in support of an amendment calling for a 10% budget cut. Appropriately enough, the House amendment was tabled by Barbara Lee (California), the only member of Congress with the courage to vote against the blanket use-of-force authorization – still in effect! – rushed through after 9/11. In my September ‘War & Peace’ column,  I expressed the fragile hope that the war-torn era since 9/11 – your whole political lifetime – may soon start to close, primarily due to the glaring necessity, post-pandemic, of ‘building back’ America as a far more just, humane, green, and more peaceful society. Do you think the shattering impact – and inordinate costs – of COVID-19 has the chance to change the ‘game’ of military-industrial business as usual in Washington?

MK: The Pentagon is in the midst of a significant budget crisis; by its own admission, the United States cannot afford all the weapons it wants to buy. The tensions between the competing nuclear and conventional modernization programs are already coming into stark focus: in early 2020, for example, a decision to dramatically increase the budget of the National Nuclear Security Administration directly led to the cutting of a Virginia-class submarine from the Navy’s budget plan. This is often what the “affordability” arguments of nuclear hawks fail to take into account: the true, full cost of new nuclear weapons entails not only the significant funds spent to acquire, deploy, maintain and retire them, but the fact that prioritizing them means de-prioritizing other programs.

Recent polling by my organization  and others suggests that the American public would be wildly in favor of cutting the Pentagon’s budget in order to pay for priorities like education, healthcare, housing and pandemic recovery and preparedness. Additionally, our polling revealed that Americans overwhelmingly do not derive their sense of safety from investments in nuclear or conventional weapons. These results suggest that a legislative effort to reallocate funds from the Pentagon towards more proximate security priorities would be widely supported by Americans across the political spectrum.

However, it will be impossible to achieve this kind of progress without simultaneously addressing the key drivers of US military policy decisions: money and influence. Weapons contractors regularly purchase congressional influence by exploiting loopholes in the US political system, and the “revolving door” between the Pentagon, Congress, think tanks, contractors and lobbyists has been particularly well-documented. These forms of legalized corruption need to be eliminated in order for Americans to fully hold their representatives to account.


Sean Howard


Sean Howard is adjunct professor of political science at Cape Breton University and member of Peace Quest Cape Breton and the Canadian Pugwash Group. He may be reached here.