Analysis & Opinions - War on the Rocks

Can This New Approach to Nuclear Disarmament Work?

| Jan. 23, 2019

An estimated 14,485 nuclear weapons exist on earth today — most are far more powerful than those that twisted railway ties, leveled buildings, and crushed, poisoned, and burned human beings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The majority of these weapons belong to the United States and Russia. For some in the U.S. government, including Chris Ford, assistant secretary at the State Department’s Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation, this number represents significant disarmament progress since Cold War highs of over 70,000 nuclear weapons. They argue the current security environment means that further reductions are not possible at this time. In contrast, for many disarmament advocates and officials from non-nuclear weapons states, this number is still far too high. They are now clamoring to ban all nuclear weapons. Because of this divide, according to Ford, we currently face a “disarmament crisis.”

To address this crisis, Ford recently announced a new approach to nuclear disarmament. Rejecting the traditional step-by-step reductions that U.S. officials and allies have long promoted, and even more strongly rejecting the path offered by the 2017 Nuclear Ban Treaty (which he called “emptily divisive virtue-signaling”), Ford revealed the establishment of the “Creating the Conditions Working Group.”

The State Department plans to convene a set of multilateral working groups with 20 to 30 countries each to “identify aspects of the real world security environment that present major obstacles to further disarmament movement and to develop specific proposals for how those obstacles might be overcome.” The United States presented a working paper at the spring 2018 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) meeting with many of these “obstacles” or conditions listed. Ford argues this new path is necessary because current geopolitical tensions are not conducive to disarmament progress, and previous reductions leave little room for going lower while Washington and its allies continue to rely on America’s nuclear deterrent.

There are at least three ways to view this new U.S. effort: First, a cynic may argue the State Department is seeking to make a show of pursuing nuclear disarmament even if it assumes there is little possibility of additional nuclear reductions any time soon. A new U.S. initiative on disarmament may provide a fig leaf, as at least some states will just be happy Washington is talking about disarmament at all. From the cynical perspective, little of substance will come from the effort, but making the effort is all that matters.

Second, a slightly less cynical observer might claim the U.S. government seeks to make real progress on some of these conditions but realizes that they are so difficult that progress is unlikely. Participants in the working groups from around the world will come to more fully appreciate the immense challenge of these problems. Thus, the U.S. argument that the conditions are not right for further nuclear disarmament will gain credence and disarmament pressure will lessen from key NPT stakeholders.

Third, a generous observer might believe that the State Department believes real progress can be made on some of the conditions using a multilateral working group format. Of course, an “America First” administration that criticizes its allies and scorns many international institutions is probably not in the best place to lead this effort — one can imagine the approach would have been more effective after President Barack Obama declared his vision of a world without nuclear weapons in 2009 — however, it is worth considering this approach seriously. Are the conditions for disarmament listed in the 2018 working paper likely to be advanced using the working group model? The U.S. working paper presents approximately 15 conditions:

  1. North Korea abandons nuclear weapons and the production of fissile material
  2. Iran complies with nonproliferation requirements
  3. All states respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all other states
  4. Address regional tensions and conflicts
  5. States renounce terrorism as an instrument of foreign policy
  6. All states recognize Israel’s right to exist
  7. A Middle East weapons of mass destruction-free zone is established
  8. All states fully comply with International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards, including the Model Additional Protocol
  9. A global moratorium on the production of fissile material is established
  10. Nuclear-armed states halt the increase in current nuclear arsenals
  11. Nuclear-armed states improve transparency surrounding nuclear weapons doctrines and arsenals
  12. States accept verification protocols and produce technology necessary for verification at very low numbers of nuclear weapons
  13. All states comply with existing and future arms control and non-proliferation obligations
  14. States establish the means of enforcing compliance with agreements
  15. All of the above is accomplished while ensuring the peaceful use of nuclear technology

It is notable how many topics on the list appear to be aimed at North Korea (#1, #4), Iran (#4, #5, #6, #7-in part, #12), and Russia (#3, #10, #13). This is not to say these steps are not helpful for future disarmament, only that it is a list of U.S. aims that may not be inclusive of what other countries would prioritize. Moreover, in reading this long and challenging list, it is difficult not to see it as being meant to delay talk of nuclear reductions. But, giving the initiative the benefit of the doubt, it merits considering which of the conditions are best suited to a multilateral working group approach.

To begin, some of these topics should or could be addressed in other existing groups. Halting the increase of current arsenals (#10) and improving transparency (#11) could be undertaken in existing bilateral arms control arrangements and by meetings of the NPT’s five nuclear weapons states — the United States, Russia, China, the United Kingdom, and France — with the eventual inclusion of India, Pakistan, and a less opaque Israel. Ensuring the peaceful use of nuclear technology (#15) could be addressed within the NPT or the Nuclear Suppliers Group, the 48-country group that sets rules about global nuclear supply. Developing a Middle East weapons of mass destruction-free zone (#7) has been a goal enshrined in many past NPT meetings. It is probably best tackled in a regional forum with additional stakeholders and will no doubt also have to address Israel’s right to exist (#6). To date, the stakeholders have been unable to convene an official meeting on this topic, so it is unclear how a U.S.-led working group would be able to bring the relevant states (i.e., Iran, Israel, Egypt) to engage face to face on this issue. The development of verification technology and protocols (#12) is perhaps best covered within the group for which this new initiative takes inspiration, the International Partnership for Nuclear Disarmament Verification. Established during the Obama administration, the partnership brings a group of states together to consider the technical challenges of nuclear disarmament verification.

It would be unwise to address some of the other topics in the proposed multilateral working group structure. As verified by the International Atomic Energy Agency on multiple occasions, Iran is in compliance with its non-proliferation commitments (#2), and the Iran nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, was one means by which to ensure this. With the U.S. withdrawal from the Iran deal, it seems unlikely that Iran would participate in a working group on this topic, nor would others in the international community welcome U.S. leadership. The highest levels of the U.S. administration are focused on the North Korean nuclear weapons program (#1), so it is hard to imagine what a multilateral working group would add, unless it means a reconvening of the six-party talks, which none of the key players wish to do. All states should renounce terrorism as a means of foreign policy (#5). Unfortunately, this working group is likely to run into the same problem that has befuddled the United Nation’s work on terrorism: the inability of its members to agree on a definition. The moratorium on producing fissile material (#9) — the key ingredients to nuclear weapons — is also a good idea and many nations have supported the establishment of a fissile material cut-off treaty. A working group is unnecessary to achieve support from most states, but it could convene to figure out next steps for negotiating the treaty outside of the Conference on Disarmament. At the Conference, the effort is stymied by the consensus-based rules where one state can stop the progress of negotiations. A working group is unnecessary to solve this problem, however. High level prioritization by a significant number of governments to move negotiations to a new forum is what is needed.

Culling the list of those topics discussed above, five remain that could make for beneficial working groups:

  • All states respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all other states (#3)
  • Address regional tensions and conflicts (#4)
  • All states fully comply with IAEA safeguards, including the Model Additional Protocol (#8)
  • All states comply with existing and future arms control and non-proliferation obligations (#13)
  • States establish the means of enforcing compliance with agreements (#14)

Addressing regional tensions and conflicts (#4), is a preposterous task for this working group model. Embedded in this “condition” is a new list of seemingly intractable challenges to include mitigating the significant tensions in the Middle East, South Asia, Southeast Asia (including the South China Sea), and Northeast Asia. In general, convening groups to address any of these areas could be useful if the major players in the conflict were willing to participate, but that is a significant “if.” Convening a working group of stakeholders connected to the South China Sea, for example, could be useful if China would attend. Otherwise the group risks antagonizing China and will do less to solve the conflicts than inflame them. A refusal to sit face-to-face in a regional forum has been a persistent stumbling block in the Middle East.

A group convened on safeguards (#8) would have to examine what it would take to make the Model Additional Protocol the universal safeguards standard. This safeguards agreement was developed in the 1990s after Iraq’s secret nuclear weapons program was revealed. International inspectors had been unable to detect the program in the 1980s, though Iraq was under safeguards, so the international community worked to create a more intrusive safeguards regime. The International Atomic Energy Agency and state partners have been successful in promoting the universalization of the 1997 Model Additional Protocol, but key holdouts remain, including Brazil, Argentina, Egypt, Venezuela, and Syria. These states cite a number of political reasons for not concluding the stronger safeguards agreement, such as a lack of disarmament progress by the nuclear weapons states or Israel’s status as a non-NPT member, though there are likely security reasons as well. The working group risks isolating these states, but perhaps they should feel isolated for their position outside of the mainstream on safeguards.

The final three topics (#3, #4, and #14) can be considered together as they all involve the trillion-dollar question of how to encourage states to abide by international norms and agreements — and what to do to enforce rules when they do not. With Syria and Russia’s use of chemical weapons in violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention, Russia’s violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and violation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, and the U.S. administration’s undermining of international laws of asylum, the international community desperately needs a renewed discussion of how to address the problem of enforcement with international rules. Norms are powerful, but they are not enough. This working group topic is ripe for creative ideas. In the interwar period in the 1930s, for example, some argued that limiting the supply of a specific group of minerals to aggressor states would curtail their war-making capabilities. Scholars argued this “mineral sanction” could have helped prevent the world wars. While that solution may not be feasible today, the group could consider how a new global consensus about rules and norms could be achieved and what new enforcement mechanisms could work to help existing and future regimes with compliance and enforcement.

Finally, I offer an alternate working group topic: how to sustain the NPT for the next 50 years. 2020 is the 50-year anniversary of the entry into force of the treaty — the cornerstone of global nuclear nonproliferation efforts. In its first 50 years, these efforts were developed, supported, and maintained in large part by the global superpowers. In a time of geopolitical change and uncertainty, it is time to consider how nuclear order will be sustained for the next half century. Which powers will sustain nuclear order if this is no longer a priority of the United States? How can the NPT endure given the deep divide between nuclear weapons state and non-nuclear weapons states over nuclear disarmament? Is it reasonable to expect the treaty to last another five decades without the inclusion of India, Pakistan, and Israel? What adaptations should be made? These are difficult questions that few governments are currently considering. The longevity of the NPT has long been taken for granted in Washington and elsewhere. This can no longer be assumed, and whether via the conditions-based approach or other means, it is critically important that the United States devote considerable time and diplomatic capital to ensuring the treaty — and the benefits it provides to national, allied, and international security — endures.

Rebecca Gibbons, PhD, is currently a fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center, where she is completing a book manuscript on the nuclear nonproliferation regime. She can be reached at

For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Gibbons, Rebecca Davis.“Can This New Approach to Nuclear Disarmament Work?.” War on the Rocks, January 23, 2019.

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