Good day, and thanks for coming; it’s always a pleasure to speak at Heritage. As we approach the 2020 Review Conference of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), I am frequently asked what more we in the United States can do to reassure the international community that we remain faithful stewards of the disarmament vision articulated in the Preamble and in Article VI of the NPT.
My usual answer begins by acknowledging the challenges that face the disarmament enterprise these days, for they are very real. After all, a new era of great power competition is upon us, with the revisionist powers of Russia and China putting pressure on us and our allies in their bids to remake the international system in their own dark and authoritarian image, and with Russia seeming to feel free to violate arms control treaties and flout prohibitions against chemical weapons use whenever it likes. With our primary obligation being to protect the security and advance the interests of the American people, these developments obviously present challenges for any serious and responsible disarmament agenda.
I then usually point my questioners, nonetheless, to our new “Creating an Environment for Nuclear Disarmament” (CEND) initiative and the multiparty dialogue and working groups we are building to bring states together to start to think through potential answers to such problems. I also often mention the ongoing work of the International Partnership for Nuclear Disarmament Verification (IPNDV), which continues to enjoy broad support as it brings states together to explore how to verify the dismantlement of nuclear weapons. And I urge listeners not to forget the disarmament progress that has already been possible because of the easing of Cold War tensions, permitting us and our Russian counterparts to draw down our arsenals by between 80 and 90 percent from Cold War peaks.
And indeed it is very important to draw attention to what we are doing in these regards, and what has already been done. But it is also necessary to clarify the role that disarmament does, and does not, play in the context of NPT diplomacy. My interlocutors, of course, frequently have suggestions about what they say would help U.S. NPT diplomacy by demonstrating our Article VI bona fides, thus contributing to a successful 2020 Review Conference. These suggestions are almost always well-intentioned, but unfortunately they frequently fail to address – or even acknowledge any need to address – the deterioration of the international security environment. As a result, their prescriptions sometimes miss the mark. Identifying contemporary international security problems and how they affect the role of nuclear weapons and deterrence, and exploring how to help meet such challenges, is precisely what we and our partners plan to do under CEND.
In order to focus more constructively upon such work, however, it is important to avoid being distracted by narratives that can get in the way of genuinely productive thinking about how to create a security environment more conducive to the kind of safe and stable disarmament progress we all would like to see. This means that sensible disarmament diplomacy sometimes needs to point out confusions in the conventional wisdom and to rebut interpretations that actually impede real advances. With your permission, that’s what I’d like to do a bit here today.
I. Nonproliferation Diplomacy and Disarmament Policy
To that end, let me outline a bit about how we think about the relationship between nonproliferation diplomacy and our disarmament posture. It is sometimes alleged that the United States should take certain disarmament-related steps as a way to encourage more nonproliferation cooperation from others. This appears to be based on the idea that the structure of the NPT represents some kind of “bargain” in which non-nuclear weapons states agree to support nonproliferation only conditionally – that is, to the degree that the nuclear weapons states themselves move with sufficient rapidity toward disarmament.
This “bargain” notion is widespread, and it both appeals to certain anti-Western G-77 political sentiments and was even advanced as one justification for the Obama Administration’s disarmament-focused “Prague Agenda.” Nevertheless, it bears little relationship to the text or history of the NPT itself.
Nor does this “bargain” concept reflect an obvious geopolitical reality about which the drafters of the Treaty themselves spoke clearly: the nonproliferation assurances provided by the NPT offer huge security benefits to all Parties. It offers such benefits not just to the nuclear weapons states, but particularly to the non-weapons states, which have powerful reasons not to see their neighbors or regional rivals acquire nuclear weapons, and who (by definition) would lack nuclear tools with which to deter threats from proliferators if this occurred. These security benefits to non-weapons states from nonproliferation are independent of the degree of disarmament by weapons states, giving non-weapons states a powerful stake in the NPT irrespective of disarmament progress.
Nor is there meaningful evidentiary support for the theory that disarmament movement will catalyze nonproliferation cooperation – though the previous U.S. administration seems to have believed this, and though we are frequently told this by interlocutors who seek to persuade us to conform our national security policies to their disarmament agendas. Indeed, research undertaken by the U.S. national security laboratories has pointed out that “[t]here is little evidence in the academic literature or otherwise to support such claims” of a linkage between disarmament progress and successful nonproliferation diplomacy, and I think this is correct.
In fact, this Administration explored these assertions quite carefully during our review of disarmament policy in 2017, out of which came our “Creating an Environment for Nuclear Disarmament” (CEND) initiative. To begin with, there is remarkably little evidence that any potential proliferator has ever made its decisions about whether to acquire nuclear weapons based upon the nature or pace of nuclear disarmament by the nuclear weapons states. Nor am I aware of any evidence of any country ever having made decisions about whether preventing the spread of nuclear weapons to others is a good idea on the basis of such considerations — which is quite consistent, of course, with the previous commonsense observation that nonproliferation provides enormous benefits to non-possessors irrespective of the pace of disarmament progress.
If anything, as we realized during the course of our 2017 review, the history of the post-Cold War period actually suggests the possibility that disarmament and nonproliferation are correlated in a very different, and potentially disturbing way. During the post-Cold War era, we in the United States succeeded in reducing our nuclear arsenal by the remarkable figure of about 88 percent. It is notable, however, that during this same period, three additional countries openly acquired and tested nuclear weapons, and two additional countries undertook secret nuclear weapons programs facilitated by an illicit worldwide network that supplied its customers with uranium enrichment technology and even nuclear weapons designs. The resulting threat from North Korean nuclear weapons and long-range ballistic missiles, Iran’s continued possession of capabilities that would allow it easily to resume its push for nuclear weaponization, and the growing nuclear weapons programs in South Asia have left the nonproliferation community struggling with some very difficult problems.
I certainly acknowledge that correlation does not necessarily demonstrate causation, but it is remarkable that as this record demonstrates, the post-Cold War period of extraordinary and unprecedented nuclear disarmament progress by the United States and the Russian Federation has also been an era of regression on nonproliferation. At the very least, this history demonstrates that the relationship between disarmament and nonproliferation, if any, is much more complex than the conventional wisdom of the disarmament community would have it. And it certainly debunks the simplistic disarmament-progress-leads-to-nonproliferation-progress narrative one hears being advanced so often in NPT circles.
To say this, of course, is not to argue that the nuclear weapons states should not pursue what the NPT’s Article VI describes as “effective measures” to help bring about disarmament; they have committed to do so, and indeed they should, and in fact they have. But it does mean that these complex policy questions resist simple answers, and that responsible approaches to disarmament must acknowledge, understand, and seek to ameliorate the problems of the global security environment that threaten to make further disarmament problematic or even dangerous if such challenges are not addressed. That is precisely the focus of our CEND initiative, and one of the reasons why we hope serious and thoughtful disarmament advocates will join us in the CEND exploration.
In the meantime, I think we need to resist incautious attempts to answer the disarmament mail, for the urge to demonstrate disarmament good faith by grand gestures can sometimes outrun good sense. And that’s why — especially in this critical run-up to the 2020 NPT Review Conference — nonproliferation diplomats need to be prepared to rebut well-meaning efforts to promote disarmament-related narratives or proposals that aren’t actually likely to work or to contribute to international peace and security as advertised.
II. Debunking False Critiques
First and foremost, if we are to build the kind of disarmament dialogue we need in order to make progress toward that goal in a time of deteriorating global security conditions, it is important not to misdiagnose the problem. I cannot tell you how many times I have heard the complaint — from some disarmament NGOs, and sometimes from otherwise-responsible international interlocutors — that things like the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) are necessary today because of a terrible “lack of progress” on nuclear disarmament. Some even go so far to say that such radical attempts at a solution are necessary because there has hitherto been “no progress” on disarmament.
Some years ago, in fact, the then-head of the U.N. Office of Disarmament Affairs actually declared to me that the United States should be given no credit for its nuclear reductions since the end of the Cold War because the end of that period of tension and conflict had reduced our need for such weapons. We should not be given disarmament credit, he contended, for dismantling weapons we no longer needed in order to safeguard our national security. In his eyes, therefore, it only counts as “disarmament” if you get rid of weapons you still need — that is, if you risk committing national suicide.
Such an assertion is obviously incorrect – and the idea that disarmament only counts if it harms one’s security is simply absurd. As I have noted, the truth is that both the United States and the Russian Federation have reduced their nuclear arsenals by between 80 and 90 percent from their Cold War peak. In our case, the figure is about 88 percent. As I like to point out in my own diplomatic engagements, if you think 88 percent is not a significant reduction, try taking an 88 percent cut in your salary, or coming to work tomorrow wearing only 12 percent of the clothing you are wearing today!
Clearly, enormous disarmament progress has occurred, and while I fully understand that many would like to see more progress still, to pretend that what has been accomplished to date — at huge difficulty and expense — is meaningless, is not just unfair (though it is), it is both false and deeply pernicious. I do not just mean that pretending that all of this amounts to nothing is unfair, though it is.
More significantly, it is simply dangerous for the disarmament community to tell weapons possessors that reductions on such a scale are essentially meaningless just because the world isn’t at “zero” yet. Such messages risk damaging the disarmament enterprise and discrediting the disarmament movement. They risk signaling that the disarmament movement is actually not about achieving a better and safer world, but rather simply using a virtue-signaling discourse to undermine the security interests of weapons possessors. That is no way to build the kind of dialogue and good-faith engagement that the world needs if we are to cope with a deteriorating security environment and aim ourselves at the disarmament future envisioned by the NPT’s Preamble and Article VI.
Credit should be given where credit is due, and weapons possessors who get rid of weapons they no longer need should absolutely be given credit for doing so. Especially when this, at least in the case of the United States, is the result of continual reassessment of how deterrence can be maintained at the lowest levels prudence dictates. This is precisely what the disarmament movement should be all about, and indeed there is scarcely any other way to imagine such progress ever happening. Our collective global objective should be to gradually build a world in which no one feels they need such tools any longer, because that’s how they would go away. The narrative that it only counts as “disarmament” to get rid of weapons without which one’s very national existence or that of one’s allies may be imperiled is a narrative that just encourages responsible listeners to distrust and ignore disarmament advocates and indeed the very idea of disarmament itself. The world deserves better than that.
III. Correcting Misunderstandings about the Path Forward
Another set of confusions that it is necessary to correct to improve the odds of making continued progress relates to how to deal, today, with states’ expressed understandings, in years past, of the optimal disarmament agenda. When countries come together in fora such as an NPT Review Conference, it is understandable for them to articulate and express their commitment to pursuing whatever disarmament-related steps they think make the most sense in view of the circumstances they face at the time.
But it’s also important to keep an open mind, since the world has a habit of changing over time, and there is no guarantee that what makes sense at one point will invariably make sense at a later point under different conditions. If our various diplomatic delegations are doing their job, I would expect that the majority of such past policy pronouncements about collective disarmament aspirations would generally still make sense over time. Especially where conditions in the global security environment are changing rapidly and significantly, however, it would be surprising if all such past policy pronouncements did.
Thoughtful proponents of disarmament should acknowledge this, and should understand it to be a part of our collective disarmament responsibilities to curate and adjust the policy agenda to ensure it remains as relevant as possible in light of changing conditions. After all, an uncritical, reflexive adherence to yesterday’s agenda where changes have occurred is likely to discredit the disarmament community and make progress more difficult.
As part of the “Thirteen Practical Steps” agreed upon by the 2000 NPT Review Conference, for instance, it was urged that the United States and Russia implement the START II arms control treaty, negotiate START III, and strengthen the ABM Treaty — none of which exist today. START II was negotiated, ratified, but never entered into force; the U.S. withdrew from the ABM Treaty in order to respond to emerging threats from North Korean and Iranian missiles given Russia ratification provisions; and START III negotiations never commenced (the envisioned framework of which was far different than that of the subsequent New START Treaty). Does it make sense to consider all of the “Thirteen Steps” to be the canonical disarmament agenda for today? Of course not. Yet the 2010 Review Conference “reaffirm[ed] the continued validity of the practical steps agreed to … in 2000.”
Clearly, a serious disarmament agenda for the present day must be willing to reassess its understandings as the world changes. That certainly doesn’t mean reflexively discarding past policy commitments, but it doesn’t mean reflexively endorsing them either. Article VI does not require any particular concrete steps, and indeed the Treaty’s negotiating record is replete with repeated rejections of efforts to require them. Instead, Article VI enjoins all states to work together toward disarmament — specifically, to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to disarmament — and it leaves it to the judgment of future decision makers as to how to do this under the prevailing circumstances.
It is our duty today to live up to the responsibility thus given us, by working to ensure that our policy agenda is one that effectively addresses the challenges of our time. (How our predecessors felt it best to address the challenges of their time is relevant, but should not be dispositive.) This is a responsibility not just for the nuclear weapons states, but for all. And it is essential that we seek genuinely effective measures — and not merely ones that adhere to past formulations just because there were past formulations.
The weapons states have expressed an “unequivocal commitment” to disarmament, but that does not absolve anyone of the responsibility for ensuring that the measures we seek are actually effective in light of current circumstances. (By analogy, one might be “unequivocally committed” to getting to the other side of town, but it would be madness to press blindly forward, irrespective of where each road actually leads, where there are sinkholes or road construction, or whether there is oncoming traffic when one wishes to turn!) If disarmament is important enough to pursue — and we are all agreed that it is — it is important enough to pursue with care and with prudence. To contend that one should press forward in a straight line irrespective of the terrain is a sign of unseriousness.
IV. Preventing a Wrong Turn
There are probably many disarmament mythologies that deserve debunking as we seek to find a genuinely effective way forward and build dialogue towards that end, and I won’t trouble you with a full laundry list today. But I would like to say a final word, in this regard, about a concept that is raised from time to time, and that perhaps enjoys a superficial appeal, but that is also based upon some important misunderstandings – and that, if adopted by the United States, could actually impede, rather than advance, the disarmament progress envisioned in the Preamble and Article VI of the NPT. I refer to the question of whether the United States should adopt a so-called “no-first-use” (or “NFU)” nuclear weapons policy.
In the years after the end of the Cold War, the issue of whether to make NFU into U.S. policy came up several times. The Obama Administration, for instance, flirted with declaring that the “sole purpose” of nuclear weapons is to defend against other nuclear weapons — a concept which is basically NFU in mufti, and that former Secretary of Defense William Perry explained was in fact developed as a way to rebrand “No First Use” so it could be sold, sub silentio, to American audiences. But in the end, the notion was still found wanting; it has consistently been dismissed by administrations of both parties as being deeply unwise and inimical to U.S. strategic interests.
Nevertheless, the NFU idea still bubbles up occasionally. In fact, however, NFU is no better an idea today than before. If anything, a U.S. NFU declaration would probably actually be even more problematic today than at any other time since the Cold War ended.
As for the idea that a lack of NFU has harmed nonproliferation, this is easily dispensed with — much as with the broader question of whether disarmament progress catalyzes nonproliferation progress, which I discussed earlier — for there is no evidence for this. And even if lack of NFU were to have some vague chilling effect on nonproliferation diplomacy, it is still a poor basis upon which to make strategic posture decisions in an arena of potentially existential questions about how to prevent great power war.
As for the claim that NFU provides “predictability,” I think in practice it would do no such thing, and indeed that its real effect might be to increase uncertainty and adversary distrust, and to make it harder to achieve the kind of clarity about posture and doctrinal thinking that we need between the world’s nuclear weapons possessors.
As a general rule, nuclear weapons possessors that face significant non-nuclear threats such as the danger of a large-scale conventional invasion or an assault with biological, chemical, or cyber weapons that could have a crippling strategic impact — or countries that wish to deter aggression against allies facing such threats — understandably opt against NFU policies. To adopt NFU, after all, is to proclaim that you will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons to deter any non-nuclear threat, no matter how great.
Precisely because successive generations of U.S. leaders have cared so deeply and consistently about preserving the integrity of the U.S. “nuclear umbrella” alliance networks in Europe and East Asia, the United States has always eschewed NFU. This was especially important during the Cold War, but it remains important in the current era of worsening great power competition in regional theaters where Russia and China enjoy local advantages vis-a-vis U.S. allies they seek to intimidate in hopes of dividing us, ultimately “decoupling” our allies from our deterrent umbrella.
In this context, a U.S. NFU declaration would be desperately unwise — a blow to the heart of our alliance system, a potential signal to would-be regional aggressors (and our friends) that we do not intend to defend our alliance partners, and a repudiation of decades of bipartisan and trans-oceanic good sense and agreement upon one of the most important planks of U.S. foreign and national security policy.
Historically, at least, it tends to be nuclear-armed countries that perceive themselves to possess an overwhelming non-nuclear advantage — and perhaps those who want, cynically, to increase the pressure upon a nuclear-armed but conventionally weaker adversary to forswear the very nuclear deterrence that could nullify that advantage — that find NFU attractive. Perhaps the most interesting study here is the Soviet NFU pledge made by Leonid Brezhnev in 1982.
That pledge was an entirely dishonest promise designed to help encourage the “nuclear freeze” movement in the West, to undermine the nuclear deterrence upon which NATO relied in order to deter invasion by Brezhnev’s armored divisions, and to pressure the Alliance into not responding to Moscow’s deployment of hundreds of SS-20 missiles. The Soviet NFU pledge was also a promise that the Kremlin never meant in the first place, as subsequent, post-Cold War revelations about the Soviet Union’s actual, immediate-nuclear-use operational planning were later to make clear. The Brezhnev example demonstrates how NFU can actually undermine deterrence and stability, and how feel-good virtue-signaling in nuclear policy can be weaponized for cynical ends.
Especially in light of the continuing importance of our alliance relationships and the worsening threat of revisionist aggression in local theaters where our own forces are somewhat thin on the ground, I would encourage those in the West who may be tempted by the NFU idea to think these things through carefully. It is worth asking whether our security — and international peace and security — would really benefit if we proclaimed an NFU policy and both our allies, and our adversaries really believed it. I submit that it would not.
But that, of course, brings us to the question of whether our allies and adversaries would in fact believe us if we proclaimed NFU — and here lies another one of the idea’s problems. As a mere statement of policy choice, having a “No First Use” doctrine is basically just a statement of intent, and it is something that can be undone at least as easily as it can be proclaimed, without any requirement of advance notice, or notice at all.
Since it could be changed on a whim, therefore, NFU might be a signal potent enough to convince our allies that we are not very serious about defending them, but it is very difficult to see how any adversary would place any reliance interest in it.
After all, if a nuclear-armed state faced an overwhelming conventional invasion, or a strategically crippling non-nuclear attack with some alternative form of WMD, for instance, how reasonable is it to expect that this country would really abjure using or at least threatening to use its nuclear weapons in order to save itself? To ask this question, I would think, is to answer it: in the kind of circumstances in which NFU would matter most, a bare NFU declaration can be relied upon least. NFU is just a statement, not a suicide note.
This goes to the heart of why NFU in fact wouldn’t provide the “predictability” in a crisis that some of its advocates contend it would. To be sure, there presumably are circumstances in which an NFU declaration would be quite credible, but these are not the ones anyone cares about. No one would question, for instance, a U.S. promise not to use nuclear weapons first against our closest treaty allies, but the very circumstances that would make that declaration credible also make it entirely unnecessary. Such an NFU promise would obviously be reliable because we are obviously close allies and friends between whom such problems would never arise in the first place.
All in all, therefore, NFU statements seem pretty useless: they can truly be credited only when they are unneeded, and where they would be the most consequential, they are at their most unreliable. This is no recipe for success.
If anything, the old example of the Soviet Union’s disingenuous 1982 NFU pledge suggests that the effort to claim credit for an NFU policy could actually contribute to unpredictability and distrust in a deterrence relationship. I cannot imagine, for example, that Moscow or Beijing would feel any more “reassured” by a U.S. NFU pledge than before. To the contrary, having themselves some experience with questionable NFU promises, they might feel more insecure and distrustful, seeing our own NFU claims as a form of dishonest and manipulative opacity that moves away from the kind of transparency and confidence-building engagement on doctrine and posture that U.S. leaders have been trying to elicit from our nuclear competitors. Worse, especially given the Kremlin’s weird fears of some kind of invasion by NATO, an NFU policy might be interpreted in Moscow as exactly what Brezhnev attempted: a stunt to delegitimize an adversary’s potential use of nuclear weapons to deter conventional aggression.
So while I would posit that the absolute worst case scenario would actually be if our great power adversaries actually believed an American NFU declaration — in which case they might feel much more free to threaten our European or Asian allies with non-nuclear force — the alternative scenario would also be quite bad: adversaries who are more distrusting of our intentions than before, and even less willing to engage with us on transparency and confidence-building measures in strategic policy.
And since our “nuclear umbrella” allies might quite plausibly take even a strategically non-credible NFU declaration as a clear message that Washington now finds it distasteful to contemplate using nuclear weapons to defend them, we would have ripped asunder our most valuable alliance relationships. Moreover, in articulating contempt for ally-reassuring “extended deterrence,” NFU could undo generations of U.S. nonproliferation policy, undermining the proliferation disincentives provided by our alliance relationships, and signaling to any current allies who think that nuclear weapons are still needed to deter aggression against them that it is now time to start building such devices themselves.
Truly, therefore, a U.S. NFU declaration would be a terrible idea. For all the potential feel-good psychology of NFU, its reality would be only sordid and problematic: ushering us into nuclear weapons relationships more unstable, unpredictable, and untrusting even than at present, transforming our alliance relationships into ones weaker and more tenuous than today, and making nuclear proliferation and indeed nuclear war more likely.
As we seek, through the CEND process, to build a serious dialogue aimed at addressing the myriad security challenges that make disarmament progress difficult, we must encourage thoughtful consideration of all such issues — and be willing, where necessary, to point out the flaws in some of the traditional rhetorical reflexes of the disarmament community. Finding a sound way forward requires cutting through such underbrush, even if that goes somewhat against the grain of political correctness.
We are trying to chart a path along these lines with our CEND initiative and the “Creating an Environment Working Group” process. As we move toward the 2020 Review Conference, I hope that more and more international counterparts will join us in trying to address these issues thoughtfully, with seriousness, and with an open mind.
Thank you for inviting me.