Moderator: Ambassador Scheinman, thank you so much for joining us today. I’ll turn it over to you for your opening remarks.
Ambassador Scheinman: Well, thank you very much, and a good morning, a good evening, good afternoon to all from wherever you may be. Very early morning for me. I appreciate the opportunity to talk to you all about the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and the Review Conference. This is a conference that’s held every five years in the normal cycle, but because of COVID it was postponed from 2020, subsequently postponed at least two more times, and now we’ve finally found our way free to hold the conference in New York at the UN next month, starting on August 1st. It’s a four-week conference.
I’ll say a couple of words about why the NPT is important and a bit about the U.S. approach and what we hope will be the outcome of the Review Conference, and then look forward to taking your questions.
So the United States considers the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, or NPT, to be one of the most important and maybe the most successful multilateral nuclear security treaties in history. The NPT does several important things.
First, it provides the framework and some momentum for the nuclear weapons states, which are the five Permanent Members of the Security Council, to work on stabilizing their nuclear deterrence relationships, limiting or reducing nuclear stockpiles, and working toward the very long-term goal of the elimination of nuclear weapons, which is called for in the treaty.
Secondly, it gives the International Atomic Energy Agency the tools that it needs to ensure that countries aren’t pursuing nuclear weapons contrary to their obligations under the treaty. It’s also a common framework to challenge noncompliance and to discourage withdrawals from the treaty.
And third, it sets the framework enabling countries around the world to share in the benefits of peaceful nuclear science and technology – not referring here just to nuclear reactors and electricity generation, but also the very meaningful and diverse applications of nuclear technology for agriculture, for health, for environment that benefits developing countries around the world.
So these three elements are referred to the – as the pillars, the three pillars of the treaty: disarmament, nonproliferation, and peaceful uses.
So the U.S. at the conference beginning in less than a week will seek to set a positive outcome, or seek a positive outcome, that would hopefully be a consensus agreement of all the parties to the treaty and a consensus that meaningfully advances each of those three pillars that I just mentioned. To accomplish that, we intend to set a positive tone at the conference, one that makes clear the administration’s clear support for nonproliferation and for arms control. Secretary Blinken will address the conference on its first day and affirm our resolute support for the NPT, for international law, and for our common security as we secure it under this treaty.
During the conference, we’ll engage constructively on all proposals that are put forward. However, I think we also have to deal openly and honestly with threats to the treaty, in particular the effects of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its reckless behaviors that impact each of the treaty’s central tenets. I have no doubt that Russia’s actions will affect the climate at the conference, but we believe that with the right balance of ambition and realism and perhaps compromise, at the end of four weeks we’ll have a consensus document that outlines ways to secure the future as well as the treaty’s place in the rules-based international order.
That’s the pursuit we’re committed to. Success in the treaty and an agreed outcome at the conference will help in addressing core nonproliferation challenges, hopefully reduce – excuse me, reducing risks of nuclear war and expanding peaceful nuclear sharing. I’m sure it will be a tough conference; every NPT Review Conference in history has been for one reason or another. But I’m prepared to be somewhat optimistic about the prospects for the conference, and certainly for the future of the treaty. An agreed outcome in August would be a boost, and certainly may help lead to progress across the treaty’s three pillars even if it doesn’t solve any of the world’s major strategic challenges. But I’m optimistic about the prospects for the treaty itself, in part because we have no alternative to it. There is no other treaty we can point to.
So we’ll either have an NPT-based system for reducing nuclear risks or we’ll have no treaty-based system at all. There is, as I say, no in between or other treaty we can turn to or possibly negotiate today that would replace the NPT with the same broad participation. And I think perhaps that understanding is what may help lead countries toward an agreement, or at least a productive and positive review conference next month, even in today’s fairly challenging security environment.
So I’m sure you have plenty of questions, and I’ll note that my mandate is to prepare for this conference and deal with the NPT, not necessarily all of the extraneous issues circling around it. But with that, I’m happy to listen and take your questions.
Moderator: Thank you very much. We’ll now turn to the question and answer portion of today’s briefing. And our first question goes to Masakatsu Ota from Kyodo News in Japan, who asks: “Recently, you characterized the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons as a ‘penultimate step.’ Could you elaborate it in details? Also, how will the U.S. and allies handle the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in a consensus document at the NPT Review Conference?”
Ambassador Scheinman: Yeah, thank you for the question. TPNW refers to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons that a number of countries brought into force in the last year or so, and I don’t think I characterized TPNW itself as a “penultimate step.” My comment almost certainly was that as a final step on the long path to eventual nuclear disarmament, the world will need a verifiable, enforceable treaty, and it will have to be one that is consistent with security conditions in the world. The treaty itself would have to help generate the security necessary to prevent war.
That is not how I would characterize the TPNW. I don’t believe the treaty itself is an effective step that can lead to nuclear disarmament, not least because no state that has nuclear weapons currently is – has shown any interest in supporting the treaty. The treaty doesn’t provide the verification or the security that would be necessary to move to the final steps toward nuclear disarmament. So I don’t think we’re likely to approach that treaty as one that we wish to support or even indicate support for at the NPT Review Conference.
We certainly share the goal and the desire to advance to eventual nuclear disarmament, but the inconvenient truth is that progress toward that end just simply cannot be decoupled from the prevailing security environment. And I think that really is the TPNW’s fundamental flaw: it doesn’t explain how disarmament can generate the security necessary to sustain disarmament. I think the TPNW is also incompatible with our extended deterrence relationships that remain necessary for international peace and security, and so our approach would be a more stepwise one toward nuclear arms control and disarmament. The United States and Russia extended the New START Treaty in 2021 for five years, and eventually we hope to get back to talks to look at follow-on steps.
Moderator: Thank you very much. I’d like now to turn to one of our live questions, which will come from Alex Raufoglu from Turan News Agency in Azerbaijan. Go ahead, Alex. You can unmute yourself and ask your question.
Question: Okay, I believe you can hear me. Hi, how are you today?
Ambassador Scheinman: Good, thank you.
Question: Thank you so much for doing this. I’m just wondering how much damage have Putin’s threats done to the nuclear nonproliferation regime by far? Thank you so much.
Ambassador Scheinman: Well, I think – thank you for the question. I think I would simply note that Russia’s actions in my mind, as I said, impact each of the treaty’s core tenets. Russia’s provocative nuclear rhetoric I believe is out of step with the treaty’s aims toward nuclear arms control and eventual nuclear disarmament, certainly out of step with the statement that the leaders of the P5 countries had signed on January 3rd, just weeks before the Russian invasion that made clear that nuclear war cannot be won and should be never – and should never be fought.
I think the fact that Russia acted inconsistently, shall we say, with the Budapest Memorandum that allowed Ukraine to come into the NPT as a non-nuclear weapons state clearly was undermined, and I think Russia’s actions around Ukraine’s peaceful nuclear facilities would seem to put at risk Ukraine’s right under the NPT to pursue peaceful nuclear energy.
So the impacts are, frankly, across the treaty, and I would expect and hope that states parties are very clear in their national statements to the conference that damage has been done, and our job at the Review Conference of course will be to move from that and try to articulate ways to preserve and to strengthen this treaty. Thank you.
Moderator: Thank you very much. We’ll now turn to a question submitted by Eryk Bagshaw from Sydney Morning Herald in Australia. The question is: “China claimed that the AUKUS agreement sets a dangerous precedent by allowing the transfer of nuclear technology between nuclear and non-nuclear states. What is to stop China arguing it should be able to transfer nuclear submarine technology to North Korea or Cambodia or Pakistan?”
Ambassador Scheinman: Well, let me just say on the issue of the AUKUS arrangement, China has said many things about the deal – that it’s a violation of the NPT, a violation of other nonproliferation understandings, and so forth, and it’s just simply not the case. This is a system for nuclear propulsion, not for transfers of nuclear weapons. And the NPT itself very clearly prohibits assistance to countries in acquiring or manufacturing nuclear weapons. There is no violation of the NPT and we’ll be very clear about that at the NPT Review Conference.
It’s also the case that Australia is a state with impeccable nonproliferation credentials. It implements the highest standards for international safeguards agreements. It has made clear that it has no intent to pursue the fuel production capabilities that might give it some ability to produce nuclear weapons. So there is really nothing there. Australia is also working very closely with the United States and with the UK and the International Atomic Energy Agency to ensure that the very highest safeguards standards are applied to this arrangement as well.
I think – and I know – that China at the NPT Review Conference will criticize the partnership, although I also think that what China fails to do is to recognize that it’s China’s own actions in the region that have led the partners to close gaps in our security. And as I say, we’ll undertake this project in a way that reflects our longstanding support to global nonproliferation and in partnership with the International Atomic Energy Agency.
I can’t imagine any reason why China would have much interest in sharing nuclear propulsion technology with any other state in the region, and I very much doubt that that is in the minds of leaders in Beijing. Thank you.
Moderator: Thank you, sir. And now, our next question comes from Brent O’Halloran from Sky News Australia: “Regarding any concerns around nations rolling out new nuclear energy projects – whether this may make them more likely to develop nuclear weapons, and whether current measures are in place to stop such a course are sufficient.”
Ambassador Scheinman: Yeah, thank you. It’s an interesting question. I would say that we are not concerned about and I don’t think we need to be concerned about countries rolling out new nuclear energy projects, if that was the question. The issue is less the fact that countries are pursuing nuclear weapons than the possible intent that some countries may have to use nuclear power programs or, more likely, nuclear fuel production programs as a possible gateway down the road to breaking out of the NPT and pursuing nuclear weapons.
There have been over the decades fairly tough controls and rigorous standards for nuclear supply. We’ve learned from the past, including proliferation cases in the 1970s that led the supplier nations to institute very tough nuclear supply policies, as well as the discovery in the early 1990s of covert nuclear weapons programs in Iraq initially as well as in North Korea, which led to still further controls built into our international nuclear supply policies.
So I would suggest that the firewall between nuclear energy and a nuclear weapons development program is fairly robust, and of course we would insist for countries that we assist with nuclear energy that they, too, accept high standards for nuclear nonproliferation states that are in compliance with their NPT obligations and accept international safeguards agreements consistent with U.S. requirements.
The measures in place to stop countries from pursuing nuclear weapons, I would argue, are certainly necessary. I think in large measure they are sufficient. I mean, the fact is that we have not seen runaway nuclear proliferation as many had anticipated back in the ‘60s and even the 1970s. The vast majority of countries abide by their NPT commitments. There have been a very small number of cases where countries pursued activities that would not seem to be in line with international expectations. I think the Iran program was one that was uncovered over time, and of course we have sought a negotiated process to ensure that Iran remained in compliance with its obligations. Thank you.
Moderator: Thank you very much. And our next question comes from Eunjung Cho from Voice of America, who asks: “North Korea is preparing a seventh nuclear test. What does the U.S. delegation hope to achieve at the 10th NPT Review Conference regarding North Korea’s continued nuclear development?”
Ambassador Scheinman: Thank you for that question. It is certainly the case that North Korea’s unlawful nuclear and ballistic missile programs constitute a clear threat to international peace and security and to the global nonproliferation regime. It was the subject of multiple international – I’m sorry, UN Security Council resolutions that call for pretty stiff sanctions on North Korea and call on it to cease all provocative nuclear and missile-related activities. And of course, we are committed to ensuring that North Korea returns to compliance with all of its NPT and IAEA safeguards obligations.
The NPT Review Conference cannot solve this problem. I don’t think there are any resolutions or outcomes that can come from the conference that would change North Korea’s strategic calculation in any way. However, the parties can certainly condemn any possible nuclear tests or additional ballistic missile tests that North Korea may conduct. I think the body of opinion from NPT states parties can make clear that these actions are intolerable and out of step with international expectations and international peace and security.
It’s also the case with respect to North Korea that it is the only state that has withdrawn from the NPT. The NPT has virtual – not total, but close to universal adherence. Only four states are outside of the treaty. North Korea was in the treaty. It was essentially caught cheating on its obligations to the treaty. It subsequently decided to withdraw. This is a challenge, I think, for the future of the NPT, and that is: how do we as a community discourage abuse of the NPT’s withdrawal provision? And I’m not sure there are great answers on this score, but the Review Conference ought to look at this question about what it is it can say and do to discourage that kind of abuse of the withdrawal provision. And I say “abuse” because North Korea received peaceful nuclear assistance going way back to the Soviet period, then it withdrew from the treaty to build nuclear weapons, presumably based on some of that assistance.
So that’s the kind of concern I think we should all have as NPT states parties about withdrawal from the treaty and make clear that, as I say, states should be discouraged from pursuing that kind of withdrawal. Thank you.
Moderator: Thank you very much. We have time for one more question, and it will go to Igor Tabak of OBRIS – Obrana i sigurnost from Croatia. Igor has a question on the war in Ukraine. He asks, “Has the war in Ukraine influenced the NPT conference or the NPT itself?”
Ambassador Scheinman: Well, I think it’s a good question, and I think that will have to be addressed by each of the NPT states parties, and I think we’ll have a better sense of the dynamics after we get through the first week, which is what we call general debate and all states parties have the opportunity to issue a national statement.
I expect that many will point to Russia’s actions in Ukraine as reckless, irresponsible with respect to Russia’s own support for the NPT, and that issue will be prominent. I have very little doubt about that. But we also need at some point during the conference to shift gears from reflecting on the challenge to the treaty given current circumstances in Ukraine to thinking about ways to preserve and to strengthen the integrity of the NPT. And so those are really our primary aims here. We’ve got a series of things we’d like to do at a fairly high level, as I say. One is to ensure the NPT can operate into the future as a key element of our shared nuclear security. A second is to preserve the taboo on any future nuclear use, any use of nuclear weapons, and hopefully extend the expectation that the NPT’s nuclear weapon states will manage their competition without increasing nuclear risks. And the third is to prevent the emergence of new nuclear weapons states.
So I think if we, as a community in the NPT, are focused on those higher-level goals, as I say, there’s at least the prospect of coming out at the back end with an agreed outcome document. If we don’t, the NPT will persevere, perhaps a bit wounded, but we’ve had Review Conferences in the past that haven’t reached agreement and we simply have to move on to the next review cycle and hope – excuse me, hope for better down the road. So I think I’ll end with that.
Moderator: Unfortunately, that’s all the time we have today. Thank you for your questions, and thank you, Ambassador Scheinman, for joining us.
Ambassador Scheinman: Well, thank you all.
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