Dr. Christopher Ashley Ford
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation
Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS) Nonproliferation Workshop
March 17, 2018
Thank you for inviting me to speak today, and to Bill Potter and the other good folks at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS) for organizing this conference.
It has been fully a decade since I last attended this conference, and many changes have occurred in the world – changes that must necessarily affect how we all must think about nonproliferation and disarmament through the prism of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). As we begin to prepare ourselves for the 2020 NPT Review Conference, it is important that we acknowledge and carefully think through these changes and their implications, and that we recalibrate our approaches to key issues as needed in order to ensure that we remain as faithful as possible, in light of changing circumstances, to the ideals encoded in the Treaty.
Recent years have only highlighted the challenges facing the nonproliferation regime, with North Korea, in particular, developing nuclear weapons and long-range missile capabilities that present a grave threat to the future of that regime, as well as to the disarmament aspirations articulated in the NPT. The grave proliferation challenge presented by Iran, moreover, has merely been partially postponed – not resolved – even as the failure of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) to ensure that Iran is never able to position itself dangerously close to nuclear weaponization “breakout” exerts worrisome proliferation pressure on other countries in the region and farther afield.
For present purposes, however, I shall put aside for a moment the obvious imperative of saving the nonproliferation regime from collapse in the face of such pressures, in order to speak today about the particular issue of nuclear disarmament. In particular, I would like to say a few words about how it may still be possible to think about disarmament despite the formidable obstacles that stand in its way, and in a fashion that is finally as honest and realistic as that important topic deserves.
The first thing to remember, as I emphasized last year in addressing the Ploughshares Fund, is both that the feasibility of further progress toward disarmament depends upon the geopolitical conditions facing actual or would-be nuclear weapons possessors, and that, for this reason, disarmament is – as the text of the NPT’s Article VI makes clear – an endeavor in which all states have a responsibility. So what must we keep in mind as we all, together, try to live up to this responsibility?
With the waning of geopolitical tensions that accompanied the end of the Cold War a generation ago, the strategic environment faced by U.S. policymakers became markedly more benign – so much so that over the ensuing two decades, the United States felt able to retire and dismantle the vast majority of its nuclear forces.
That was, indeed, tremendous progress – progress which, unfortunately, too few countries still give full credit. But the world’s ability to take advantage of benign post-Cold War conditions to make such progress has largely worn off. The reservoir of nuclear weapons made unnecessary by the end of the Cold War has for the most part now already been eliminated. Moreover, the global strategic environment is worsening, rather than improving, for a number of reasons.
Russia and China are pursuing aggressive nuclear development work – some of the aspects of which Vladimir Putin first publicly revealed last week – and Russia continues to show itself unwilling to honor key arms control agreements, including the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. As I noted, North Korea and Iran remain, each in their own way, still notably unresolved proliferation problems. South Asia, meanwhile, is experiencing an accelerating nuclear arms race. Most broadly, we are also seeing a return of great power competition in world affairs, due both to destabilizing territorial revisionism by major powers on the Eurasian landmass and to ongoing efforts by these powers to reshape the entire postwar international system in their favor. Needless to say, these are very problematic trends from a disarmament perspective.
Despite all this, however, the United States remains committed to the ultimate goal of disarmament, and continues to fulfill its obligations under Article VI of the NPT. Though he is obviously acutely aware of these challenging global conditions – and firmly committed to ensuring that we in the United States are postured to defend our interests in response to such trends – when still a candidate, our President expressed the hope that world might eventually “come to its senses regarding nukes” and be able eventually to eliminate them. This administration remains committed – as every U.S. administration has been, ever since we played a pivotal role in drafting the NPT in the first place – to the disarmament elements of the Treaty.
It has become increasingly clear, however, that a reassessment of traditional approaches is needed if disarmament policy is to remain intelligibly and defensibly consistent with U.S. national security interests, with the preservation of international peace and security, and indeed with the disarmament vision articulated in the NPT itself.
Articulating a New Way Forward: the CCND Approach
We have therefore begun to articulate a new approach to disarmament diplomacy designed to seek ways to increase the odds of achieving a peaceful and stable disarmed world by creating ever more felicitous strategic conditions by focusing upon the very “easing of international tension and … strengthening of trust between States” that the Preamble of the NPT explicitly envisions “in order to facilitate” disarmament. Perhaps one could call this the “CCND Approach” – or “CCNDA,” to stand for “creating the conditions for nuclear disarmament” negotiations. It is intended to point the way to an international disarmament agenda for all nations that is faithful to the ideals expressed in the NPT, while yet acknowledging, and honestly grappling with, the problem of geopolitical conditions in ways that the international disarmament community has rarely hitherto done.
As our diplomatic consultations have begun to focus upon the geopolitical conditions that affect countries’ perceived need to acquire or retain nuclear weapons, a good many foreign counterparts have privately expressed great understanding of and sympathy for this “conditions-based” approach to disarmament. They seem to grasp our point that it is futile to think one can reduce the number of nuclear weapons in the world if one ignores the challenges presented by such conditions – and, in particular, if one ignores the obstacles to further disarmament progress presented by the worsening conditions that confront us all today. They also seem to grasp our point that ill-conceived disarmament efforts that are devised and advanced irrespective of conditions may well make these conditions worse yet, and thus make disarmament even more unlikely.
Some interlocutors have also expressed their willingness to engage in creative new thinking on how best to translate these insights into a concrete policy approach that really would finally improve the chances of greater progress, and even eventual disarmament, actually occurring. That is a promising start. But of course the beginning of such conversations can only be a start, and they cannot remain merely private conversations. It is now up to all of us – not just the United States and Russia, but also our partners, and indeed all States Party to the NPT, as quite properly envisioned by Article VI – to build our understanding of the link between geopolitical conditions and disarmament policy into a meaningful approach for how to improve those conditions in ways that may help make future disarmament progress a safe and feasible option for real-world policymakers.
What Might a Conditions-Based Approach Look Like?
So what might a conditions-based approach look like? Well, to begin with, a meaningful conditions-based disarmament agenda may not look much like what the disarmament community came to expect during an era in which it was possible to make disarmament progress simply by spending down post-Cold War nuclear surpluses. By contrast, reasoning that the perceived need for nuclear weapons possession is more a result than a cause of challenging strategic situations, it seems to us that any workable approach today is necessarily likely to focus more heavily upon addressing trends and circumstances of threats and competition in global affairs than upon the numbers of weapon in itself. It also seems to us that, to the degree that this approach does focus upon the weapons themselves, it is likely to require more attention to qualitative relative to merely quantitative factors – in other words, more attention to such things as weapon type, modes of deployment, nuclear doctrines, and the relationship of nuclear capabilities to other forms of military and national power.
Moreover, it seems all but inescapable that the appropriate content of a “conditions-based” disarmament approach will to some extent vary with the conditions we face in the global arena. Because the world is not a static place that presents us with unchanging challenges, what helps ameliorate today’s conditions may not be the right way to address tomorrow’s problems, and CCNDA needs to reflect this variability. We should thus not expect that any given articulation of “practical steps” needed for progress toward disarmament will necessarily remain valid over time: this is not arena in which to expect there to be too many unchanging, canonical “right answers.” If we are to work together gradually to overcome obstacles impeding progress toward a safely and stably disarmed world, the nature, content, and direction of the disarmament discourse will need to take their cues from the exigencies of geopolitical conditions on an ongoing basis.
But, with these important caveats, how should we start to think about the development of a disarmament agenda alive to the importance, as articulated in the Preamble to the NPT, to “further[ing] the easing of international tension and the strengthening of trust between States in order to facilitate” disarmament?
Many of you may not know this, and those of you who were here may not remember, but this is not the first time the United States has tried to engage with diplomatic counterparts in this fashion on the issue of creating the conditions for disarmament. In fact, U.S. officials raised the idea of a “conditions-based” disarmament approach at this very conference here in Annecy more than ten years ago – urging attendees to pay more attention to what sort of conditions it might be necessary to achieve, and to maintain over time, in order to make nuclear disarmament feasible. Regrettably, precious few diplomatic interlocutors took us up on our calls for dialogue at that point, and that brief U.S. focus upon conditions faded soon thereafter, in favor of a narrower and more traditional, numerically-focused discourse.
Since it is now well past time for real “conditions” conversations finally to occur, however, I would like quickly to walk you through some continuities in our thinking about what conditions would need to look like in order to facilitate further disarmament movement and – ideally – the eventual achievement of comprehensive elimination.
1. Robust and Reliable Nonproliferation Assurances
Nonproliferation has always – and inescapably – been both the foundation for achieving disarmament, and the conceptual and programmatic core of any intelligible disarmament regime. It is impossible to imagine sustainable progress on disarmament in a world where additional states are acquiring nuclear weapons. It is equally impossible to imagine disarmament of all existing nuclear weapons possessors unless it were very clear to each of them that others would not enter or re-enter the nuclear weapons “game” after they themselves had disarmed. Nor is it possible to imagine a world without nuclear weapons remaining thus for very long without rock-solid nonproliferation assurances – especially because the very fact of such disarmament might itself maximize the incentives for one or more states to cheat in an attempt to become, at least for a time, the only nuclear weapons possessor on the planet.
Disarmament, therefore, requires robust nonproliferation assurances – assurances that the international community seems hard-pressed to provide right now, given the immediate threat presented by North Korea and the longer-term threat presented by Iran’s nuclear program and the scheduled “sunset” of key provisions in JCPOA. Assuming that we can solve these problems, and I dearly hope we can, the international community also needs to shore up the nonproliferation regime more broadly – strengthening its norms, buttressing its verification institutions and authorities, and tightening its rules – in order to ensure that no such challenges ever again emerge. Only upon this foundation does it make sense to imagine the disarmament dream ever having much chance of being achieved and sustained, and in this respect we obviously have a great deal of work still to do together.
2. Successful Curtailment of Other WMD Threats
More than a decade ago here at Annecy, the United States made the point that the pursuit of other weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and their delivery systems must also be halted, and existing programs of this type – including clandestine ones – be terminated in order to help create the conditions for the disarmament envisioned in the NPT. The pursuit of biological and chemical weapons by countries such as Iran or North Korea, for instance, is clearly inconsistent with creating and maintaining the sort of security environment in which total elimination of nuclear weapons would be possible.
All this remains true, more than 10 years later. It is also worth pointing out, however, that the geopolitical conditions have been worsening in this regard as well.
The Syrian situation, in particular, highlights the challenge presented by clandestine WMD programs. There, we continue to see chemical weapons (CW) use by the Assad regime – both sarin and chlorine – on an ongoing basis, notwithstanding the much-vaunted elimination of Syria’s declared CW stocks under international supervision several years ago. At the same time, local terrorists have also made CW use a matter of battlefield routine.
Syria thus demonstrates all too tragically that the elimination of declared programs is only part of the battle, and that unless we can meet the challenge of preventing undeclared activities, we will never be able to put such threats effectively to rest.
Let me also note that we are all aware of the alarming events that occurred in Salisbury, the United Kingdom, on March 4, involving the use of a nerve agent against two UK citizens. The developments announced by UK Prime Minister Theresa May on March 12 regarding the nerve agent used in the assassination attempt are deeply disturbing. We agree with the UK assessment that Russia is responsible for the attack using a military-grade nerve agent – responsible either directly, through deliberate use, or indirectly, through its failure to declare and secure its stocks of this nerve agent.
The Salisbury attack reinforces concerns we have been raising for some time: that the international norm against chemical weapons use is eroding, and that the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) is under attack. This assault upon the CWC – the world’s first and so far only global regime for prohibiting, eliminating, and verifying the absence of an entire category of WMD – is profoundly worrying. It also highlights how far we still have to go in addressing non-nuclear WMD challenges before one could imagine real-world policymakers having confidence in any future nuclear weapons elimination regime.
Verification of Disarmament
The challenge of creating conditions in which disarmament might be feasible includes the challenge of ensuring that we can verify with sufficient confidence both (a) that disarmament has actually occurred and (b) that rearmament is not occurring. The first part of this is already beginning to be addressed by initiatives such as the International Partnership on Nuclear Disarmament Verification (IPNDV). In a world in which basic knowledge about nuclear weaponry is widespread and a growing number of countries possess the capability to produce fissile material, however, the challenge of ensuring timely warning against rearmament is one for which the international community as yet has little effective or scalable response.
3. Stability After “Zero”
In addition, unless one envisions – rather implausibly, I should think – that nuclear disarmament would be achieved simultaneously with general and complete disarmament, there would also need to be ways in which any deterrent requirements that remain after nuclear disarmament could be met in a non-nuclear (and “non-WMD”) fashion. Better yet, of course, would be for there to be no need for any such deterrence of conventional aggression in the first place – but unless and until geopolitical conditions evolve to a point at which that seems feasible, we will have no alternative but to continue to struggle with the challenge of ensuring that deterrence and stability prevail were the restraining effect of nuclear weaponry upon great power competition removed.
4. Making “Zero” Desirable
On top of all these other issues, we all face a formidable challenge with regard to how to alleviate the range of regional and global tensions that help encourage countries with nuclear weapons to wish to retain them, and that seems still to make nuclear weapons acquisition or development seem dangerously attractive to other countries despite the manifest risks and dangers of taking such a path. The importance of this challenge should point the disarmament community more constructively at problems of fostering regional dialogue, tension-reduction, and peacemaking in areas such as the Middle East, South Asia, and Northeast Asia. It should also point the disarmament community more constructively at geopolitical problems created by the agendas of Russia and China vis-à-vis their neighbors – and Iran vis-à-vis its own region – and the difficulties that these revisionist agendas create for crisis stability, deterrence of aggression, and the alleviation of proliferation pressures perceived by states menaced by this revisionism.
To be sure, the picture is not entirely bleak, for we do see other regions of the world where security rivalries remain limited and nuclear weapons are not considered attractive or relevant to regional states – including in the region associated with the oldest nuclear-weapon-free zone (NFWZ) in the world, which recently celebrated its 50th anniversary. But it is certainly true that in most respects, the geopolitical conditions of recent years are making the achievement of a peaceful and stable post-nuclear-weapons world harder, not easier.
We must, therefore, remember that disarmament is not an issue that can or should be carved off of, and treated separately from, broader questions of foreign policy, international security, and statecraft. Without a renewed, demonstrated commitment by all states, for instance – and in particular, certain problematic nuclear weapon states, the very revisionists I mentioned earlier – to respect the sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity of their neighbors, the international community will clearly be unable to move beyond the necessity of direct or indirect reliance upon nuclear deterrence.
Our intention here is not to unduly complicate the disarmament discourse or to dismiss its aims as unrealistic, for we remain hopeful about its long-term future and strongly committed to doing all that we can, in conjunction with our international partners, to help alleviate the conditions that so obviously stand today as obstacles to future progress. Nor do I mean to suggest that all of the challenging problems I have discussed here must necessarily be conclusively and permanently solved before there can be any further disarmament progress whatsoever. It is our firm conviction, however, that the only approach to disarmament that has any meaningful chance of success is one that takes into account – and tries to address – the problematic, and worsening, geopolitical conditions of the present day.
The international community has not yet done what it needs to do in order to foster a constructive dialogue on the development of measures that may be effective in creating the conditions for nuclear disarmament. Unfortunately, we have let many years go to waste while trying to press forward along an anachronistic, numbers-and-instruments-focused path that misapprehends lessons from the end of the Cold War, and which cannot succeed on its own terms because it refuses to address the real challenge of underlying geopolitical conditions.
So let’s do better. As we prepare for the 2020 NPT Review Conference, we call upon our partners to join with us in crafting a new way forward: a new way that will help us gradually to advance together despite the challenges of today’s geopolitical environment, and that will in time hopefully enable us finally to vindicate the wisdom of the NPT’s vision of easing tension and strengthening trust between states in order to facilitate disarmament.