Policy Paper

The U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency: Restructuring for the Post-Cold War Era

in Program

The time has come to make hard choices about the US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA). ACDA’s declining fortunes over the past decade have hurt agency morale and, more importantly, weakened the U.S. Government’s ability to deal with the post-Cold War arms control agenda. Other parts of the executive branch have a spotty record in dealing with non-proliferation and treaty implementation–two of ACDA’s core concerns. At a time when these and other issues will place increasing demands upon policy-makers, basic decisions are in order about the agency’s future.

In the past decade, arms control expertise has been broadly diffused within the executive branch. Except in areas like multilateral diplomacy, chemical disarmament, and nuclear non-proliferation, ACDA no longer retains the comparative advantage in expertise that it once enjoyed.

In the past, ACDA could fairly claim important successes for its efforts, particularly the Nuclear Non­ Proliferation Treaty (NPT). But, clearly, the agency’s bureaucratic health has deteriorated over the past fourteen years, despite some recent modest increases in funding. Symptoms of the agency’s problems are numerous:

  • The political status and clout of the ACDA directorship has declined. The most influential advisors on arms control in the Reagan and Bush Administrations have been lodged in the State Department.
  • ACDA has slowly lost its place in the negotiating chain of command. Most arms control ambassadors are now housed in the State Department, not ACDA.
  • ACDA is beginning to lose its role in coordinating negotiations support activity (“backstopping”) to the State  Department.
  • Experienced staff in many areas have left the agency, oftentimes to take posts elsewhere in the executive branch, and recruitment for top jobs in ACDA has proved more and more difficult.
  • ACDA’s ability to be a credible interlocutor for the United States in international fora has suffered  in line with its declining status at home. When foreign governments or international organizations want to transact important business with the U.S. Government on arms control, ACDA is less and less the preferred point of contact.
  • The agency’s ability to fund and carry-out research on arms control has declined markedly since the 1960s and 1970s, and its whrewithal to coordinate government-wide arms control research priorities is marginal.

Despite these serious problems, ACDA has still been able to make important contributions to U.S. Government arms control efforts:

  • The agency took the lead in framing U.S. options and providing staff support for the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) negotiations. Without ACDA’s prodding, technical expertise, and institutional memory, it is doubtful that there would be a signing ceremony for the CWC in Paris next month.
  • ACDA has performed an important watchdog role in the nuclear non-proliferation field, while taking the lead in designing improved safeguards to strengthen the NPT.
  • The agency’s legal expertise has been indispensable in treaty drafting and has been the U.S. Government’s conscience on domestic arms control compliance issues.
  • ACDA has promoted the utilization of confidence­ building measures in regions of tension, particularly on the Korean peninsula, to address the demand side of proliferation problems.

Even though the agency is a shadow of its former self, there are good reasons to be concerned about its further demise. Other executive branch agencies have weak records in dealing with non-proliferation and treaty implementation issues which will be central concerns in the post-Cold War period. Other agenda items, such as export controls, multilateral negotiations, conventional arms transfer restraint, and economic conversion, have received short shrift by the Departments of State, Defense, and Commerce. There is no reason to believe they will perform better in these fields with ACDA’s demise or abolition.

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