Where Next in Building a Conditions-Focused Disarmament Discourse?

Dr. Christopher Ashley Ford
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation
Global Enterprise to Strengthen Nonproliferation and Disarmament
Millenium Hilton, New York, NY
October 14, 2018

Good evening, and thank you for the opportunity to speak with you tonight.

The Nuclear Threat Initiative has done a great job in bringing together this NPT leadership group to share views about the future of nuclear nonproliferation and nuclear disarmament, and it is a pleasure to be here.

As my contribution to our discussion today, I would like briefly to recap the road we have travelled in the United States under the current administration, and then see what I can do by way of soliciting and catalyzing creative thinking about how to work together in exploring ways in which – in the words of the NPT’s Preamble – to ease tensions and strengthen trust between states in order to facilitate disarmament.

Our Path

First, let me offer a quick look back over the last two years. As one facet of our broader review of polices across the foreign policy and national security space – a series of reviews that also resulted in higher-profile products such as the National Security Strategy, the National Defense Strategy, and the Nuclear Posture Review, as well as a number of internal strategy documents – the incoming U.S. administration in early 2017 initiated a bottom-up review of U.S. policy on the issue of nuclear disarmament.

This was intended from the outset to be a truly comprehensive reassessment starting from first principles, for we wanted to be sure to explore a very broad range of alternative options in order to have confidence that, whatever outcome was reached, our new team had really done its homework and thought things through. During my service on the Presidential Transition Team at the end of 2016, for instance, I had been surprised to be told by outgoing Obama Administration officials that despite all the rhetorical and political energy and attention devoted to the disarmament elements of President Obama’s “Prague Agenda,” there had not been any meaningful staff work done in preparation for that initiative. (Instead, it was essentially just declared as a matter of political optics, and staffing to provide it with analytical underpinnings seems to have been undertaken only afterwards – e.g., in the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review.)

In our own review, we resolved to reverse that sequencing, approaching this important question by thinking things through first. We also wanted to make sure we really had examined not just that prior approach, but in fact a full range of options — seriously exploring the merits, demerits, and availability of the full range of alternatives, ranging from advocating radical, near-term arms reductions to the outright disavowal of disarmament as a naive and unachievable illusion. We wanted all these options to have been carefully considered. As I indicated publicly at the Carnegie International Nuclear Policy Conference in March of 2017, our objective was to be sure that wherever our review came out, our decision would have as solid an analytical foundation as possible.

To this end, in my directorate at the National Security Council, we worked on this review over the course of 2017. We reviewed open-source and academic literature on nuclear disarmament, pulled U.S. diplomatic and intelligence reporting recounting or assessing various foreign governments’ disarmament policies and reactions to the “Prague Agenda” and other U.S. disarmament policies of previous years, and discussed these topics with expert foreign and domestic interlocutors of all varieties. We also received enormously helpful assistance from the National Defense University and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, which graciously convened a series of off-the-record workshops for us that brought together a wide range of academics, NGO experts, and former government officials of greatly divergent political and ideological views to debate these matters and make recommendations.

Our New Initiative

Our review produced the new initiative we outlined last spring, in preparation for the 2018 NPT Preparatory Committee (PrepCom) meeting, in which we propose a new dialogue on creating the conditions for nuclear disarmament, and on which we submitted a Working Paper to the PrepCom.

This new approach seeks to learn from and build upon the enormous reductions in nuclear armaments we have undertaken since the end of the Cold War — reductions that have seen us cut our stockpile by as much as 88 percent since its Cold War peak — but this approach eschews reflexive and ahistorical fixations upon weapon numbers in favor of an approach informed by what we see as three inescapable facts:

  1. Disarmament movement only becomes available when, and to the degree that, real-world weapons possessors feel that such movement is feasible, safe, verifiable, and sustainable; 
  2. Such movement thus depends hugely upon the nature of, and perceived trends in, the prevailing conditions of rivalry, conflict, and threat in the security environment; and that therefore 
  3. The only serious and viable path to making a future nuclear weapons-free world more likely lies through making sustainable improvements in those conditions.

This is the foundation for the conditions-focused international discourse we are now trying to cultivate as we look for ways to improve those conditions and thus make more disarmament progress possible. One key way we are approaching this is through the broad, international invitation to dialogue and partnership that we made earlier this year, and which we have called the “Creating the Conditions for Nuclear Disarmament” (CCND) initiative.

Thinking About the Way Forward

So far, we’ve been quite pleased with the reception this new initiative has been getting – and all the more so because echoes of these new concepts have already emerged in a range of fora, including national statements at the NPT PrepCom, nonproliferation statements agreed among the G7 states, and U.N. First Committee resolutions. But we also know that having and promoting a conceptually sound approach isn’t the same thing as seeing it work. Accordingly, we know we need now to build sustained dialogue on these issues, and to catalyze constructive collective efforts to find ways forward in creating conditions that are more conducive to disarmament movement.

In particular, mindful of the need to ensure that this new global “conditions discourse” needs to involve a great deal more than just U.S. bilateral engagement, we’re very interested in hearing from our diplomatic partners about how best to move forward. In particular, we invite input on how best to structure a sustained approach to engagement of the sort that will help catalyze thoughtful engagement and creative thinking for years to come. The most immediate challenge, one might say, is thus perhaps less what to do in creating more congenial global conditions than the antecedent question of how to engage in thinking about and developing a wise and constructive “conditions” agenda.

That’s why I’m eager to hear from you, as we discuss this today and in the weeks and months ahead, about what you think the best way (or ways) might be to approach this challenge. How should we structure our collective approaches to getting a serious conditions-focused discourse underway in the international community? How best can we ensure that debates on disarmament don’t continue to consist merely of sterile repetitions of well-known talking points?

In this regard, however, let me say up front that we in the U.S. Government have not yet decided precisely what mechanism we think would be best – or perhaps indeed what mechanisms, since it may well be that the best answer involves trying to follow multiple, complementary paths at the same time. We hope to have more to say on this point soon, but it’s in part precisely in order to solicit input to inform our thinking that I am here with you today.

To that end, let me sketch a number of possible, hypothetical approaches in order to give you the chance – either at this event or at any convenient point hereafter – to let us know your views. These are not necessarily approaches that we support, and indeed I would venture to suggest that there’s at least one of them we very likely won’t support. Nevertheless, it’s my hope that thinking through the conceptual landscape in this way can help us make wiser choices together.


One potential approach that could perhaps contribute to improving the quality of international engagement on the critical question of how to improve global conditions in ways that could facilitate disarmament movement might be simply to replicate and expand the “workshop” or “roundtable” discussion forum approach that contributed so valuably to our review of disarmament policy in the United States last year. One might imagine, for instance, an advisory group of experts who come together to help identify those facets of the “conditions” problem that are most amenable to amelioration – after which other panels of thoughtful people might be set up in order to examine each of those facets from the perspective of what might most feasibly and sensibly be done in that area.

If one were to try this, it would be important to ensure that such roundtables were staffed by a sufficiently serious, thoughtful, and both intellectually and experientially diverse group of people. To be sure, there is no shortage of experienced people in the diplomatic corps and in civil society advocacy who have debated disarmament issues for years – or in some cases decades – and who certainly know the traditional agenda items extremely well. With all due respect to them, however, any serious effort at conditions-focused roundtables or workshops should do more to branch out.

It is perhaps the central insight of the international community’s emerging “conditions discourse” that traditional approaches to disarmament questions – which focus principally upon the weapons themselves – in large part miss the point, because they downplay or ignore the underlying conditions of security and geopolitical challenge that make it so difficult for existing possessors to imagine eliminating their nuclear weapons holdings. In this context, it would perforce also miss the point if one were to staff “conditions” workshops merely with the same old diplomatic and civil society players who have become so good at – and so conceptually entrenched with respect to – debating the traditional agenda.

Instead, in such an expert-based approach to conditions-focused disarmament brainstorming, it would presumably be important to involve a broader and more interdisciplinary group of folks from outside the community of disarmament “usual suspects.” If one were serious about building upon the wisdom encoded in the NPT Preamble about how easing tension and strengthening trust between nations is the key to facilitating disarmament, moreover, it would presumably also be essential to involve experts with a broader range of backgrounds and experience – from multiple disciplines in academia, for instance, as well as country-specific and regional experts, and current or former civilian and military officials from various parts of government in different countries who understand the foibles of the public policy process and the idiosyncrasies of bureaucratic and political decision-making in the national security realm.

One would have to include traditional disarmament and nuclear weapons experts as well, of course. But if the 2018 U.S. Nuclear Posture Review is correct that creating conditions that would permit the global elimination of nuclear weapons would entail a fundamental transformation of the world political order, we will need to reach considerably beyond the well-known cadre of diplomatic and civil society “usual suspects” if we are to begin to chart a way forward into that future.

That’s one possibility one might consider, and about which I’d be very interested in your views.

Practical Task Groups

Another idea – and as I mentioned, these various possibilities may not be mutually exclusive – might be to model a conditions-focused way forward upon some of the approaches that have already proven useful in the disarmament arena to date. The International Partnership for Nuclear Disarmament Verification (IPNDV), for instance, is a group that has involved more than 25 countries, and that works to identify and overcome challenges associated with nuclear disarmament verification. Building upon practical experience gained in U.S.-Russia arms control monitoring and verification work, as well as upon U.S.-UK and Anglo-Norwegian work in this field, IPNDV works to assess verification gaps, develop collaborative technical work streams, and contribute to global nuclear threat reduction.

A separate and less well-known initiative, but also a very impressive one, is being implemented under the auspices of the so-called “Quad Nuclear Verification Partnership.” This effort brings together the United States, Norway, Sweden, and the United Kingdom – a selection of partners that therefore draws upon perspectives from both nuclear weapons and non-weapons states, and both NATO and non-NATO countries – in additional efforts to explore and help solve verification and monitoring challenges that would be associated with nuclear disarmament. This project held a very interesting exercise at a Royal Air Force base in the UK in 2017, for instance, in which participants actually practiced monitoring technologies and techniques in a real-world scenario that simulated aspects of the demobilization, retirement, and dismantlement of a nuclear warhead. I have no doubt that there is much more good work ahead for both IPNDV and for the Quad.

Such practical work is relevant to “conditions” questions, of course, inasmuch as it is surely the case that nuclear weapons possessors would be unlikely to agree to disarmament – or even non-possessors to accept putative disarmament by the possessors – unless everyone could have reasonable assurances that it had actually occurred in the first place. Accordingly, the contributions of these practical task groups are quite valuable. They can help possessors understand the degree to which verified dismantlement is possible, and they can also help non-possessors understand how difficult it is to achieve and verify weapon dismantlement in a safe, accountable, and nonproliferation-appropriate way. It is deeply disappointing that Russia and China have recently decided to drop out of their previous “observer” status in IPNDV, of course – a development that I fear will lead others to conclude that Moscow and Beijing are fundamentally unserious about meeting the challenges of disarmament – but this shouldn’t detract from the value these projects have provided so far, and that they will be able to offer in the future.

With that in mind, therefore, it may be worth thinking through whether there are aspects of a broader, “conditions”-focused disarmament agenda that could be facilitated by the kind of multi-participant engagement demonstrated by IPNDV and the “Quad” – specifically, in identifying and exploring ways to overcome other key practical challenges that would be associated with moving forward on disarmament. Are there practical aspects of easing tension and strengthening trust between states in ways that could facilitate disarmament that one or more such project groups could advance in ways analogous to how IPNDV and the Quad are approaching the technical challenges of verifying dismantlement? It’s certainly worth considering.

Regional Workshops

A third conceptual model – or perhaps an additional way to implement either of the first two – might involve taking our cue from Ambassador Rafael Grossi’s commendable plans for a series of regional NPT workshops that address the peaceful uses of nuclear energy, to be held in the lead-up to the NPT Review Conference in 2020. Some kind of regional workshops might be valuable in the context of improving the disarmament “conditions” dialogue, since many of the obstacles to nuclear disarmament have a regional aspect – such as the conditions of escalating arms competition within and across regions of Asia, the proliferation pressures created by DPRK weaponization and the expansion of Chinese military power in East Asia, the challenges presented by Russian aggression in Central and Eastern Europe, and the complex interconnected threats and challenges of the modern Middle East (including the corrosive precedents of clandestine chemical weapons possession and use in Syria). No meaningful approach to thinking about disarmament could ignore such regional dynamics.

Such workshops, moreover, could also follow Rafael’s example in seeking to involve non-traditional stakeholders. For the reasons I outlined with regard to the “roundtable” approach mentioned earlier, a serious “conditions” discourse would certainly require engaging with a great many national, regional, and international issues beyond the remit of many of the diplomats and civil society activists who have traditionally dominated disarmament debates. Approaching this challenge of cross-disciplinary and cross-experiential diversity is critical, and it might make sense to do so on a region-by-region basis with a wide range of local players who are willing to engage thoughtfully with each other.

This is an insight that we in the United States are already building into our approach to the perennially vexing issue of a Middle East Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone (MEWMDFZ), since no serious approach to eliciting regional security and arms control steps in any region of the world can fail to consider the actual conditions prevailing in that region, and no approach to easing tension and strengthening trust in order to facilitate such steps is likely to succeed if it tries to move forward by strong-arming and demonizing key players whose voluntary and constructive involvement is indispensable. Such thinking also draws upon the 1999 UN Disarmament Commission guidelines for nuclear-weapon-free zones, which make clear that the initiative to establish a zone should emanate from the region concerned and be pursued on the basis of arrangements freely arrived at among the states of the region. We might do well, therefore, to include a “regional” component our “conditions” discourse.

The “PSI Model”

A fourth approach might learn from well-established but informal mechanisms such as the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) and the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism (GICNT), which were designed to provide a way for likeminded countries to work efficiently and effectively together under the umbrella of a shared set of policy principles. Partner nations that publicly subscribe to these Initiatives’ “Statement of Principles” are invited to participate in an ongoing series of nonpublic diplomatic engagements, including tabletop and operational exercises that seek to reinforce their like-mindedness and improve “best practices” – in interdiction work and in countering nuclear terrorism, respectively. These activities inculcate habits of cooperation and responsive efficiency upon which other partners will be able to rely if and when a real transfer of dangerous materials is detected or to prevent a nuclear terrorism incident and respond to one if it occurs.

We have experience with such models, and they have worked well. Without the formal, legal, and institutional hurdles and mechanisms of international organizations, PSI and GICNT have succeeded in remaining informal, flexible, and effective for over a decade. Because partners are involved in such work only if, and to the extent that, they actually demonstrate real like-mindedness, moreover, there is little of the “lowest common denominator” effect that is all too common in decisions made in large, traditional multilateral fora.

These initiatives operate, most of the time, below the diplomatic and political “radar,” with most of the interdictions that PSI has helped spur and GICNT’s counter nuclear terrorism successes over the years being ones about which it is not possible to talk in public. Nevertheless, as we consider what models to explore for how to help the international community move forward in developing new, conditions-focused approaches to easing tension and strengthening trust between states in order to facilitate nuclear disarmament, these two initiatives may offer an interesting model.

The Existing UN Disarmament Machinery

Another approach to developing a global “conditions” discourse might perhaps model itself on existing legal or institutional efforts to advance disarmament, such as the Conference on Disarmament (CD) at the United Nations in Geneva. That institution does, after all, include most of the players who would need to be involved were we to achieve, or even near, the ultimate goal.

I think we can all agree that the CD has done invaluable work in the past – such as in negotiating the Chemical Weapons Convention – and may well serve as a useful forum for further work if and when states are prepared to negotiate additional agreements. At the same time, however, I think we can also agree that it may not be a forum particularly suited for the type of fresh discourse we have in mind.

Right now, we are struggling even to get the CD to move forward on issues such as a Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty. As a result, adding additional items to the CD’s agenda – particularly a serious discourse focused upon ameliorating the security conditions that affect nuclear weapons-related decision-making in various countries, which would by definition require a conceptual breadth far greater than what has been on display in traditional disarmament debates in Geneva for so long – may not be wise.

Nor is it clear to me that it would be very helpful to create an institution analogous to the CD in order to provide a big multilateral forum for conditions-focused discourse. I’m not saying we are not open to argument on this, but I would expect that we would be skeptical of such an approach, for fear that of over-bureaucratizing and ossifying a “conditions” dialogue that needs instead to be conceptually creative and agile if it is to live up to its promise. Nevertheless, I would be interested in your perspectives on this.

A Cautionary Note

Before I conclude, however, let me add a note of caution and warning here – inasmuch as some might argue that an additional mechanism through which to pursue a global “conditions” discourse might perhaps be the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW, a.k.a. the “Ban Treaty”). I think this would be, frankly, a terrible model for multiple reasons.

It seems very clear to us that any serious conditions-focused discourse requires cooperative dialogue devoted to figuring out better ways to ease tension and strengthen trust among states in order to facilitate disarmament. But the Ban Treaty isn’t fundamentally about dialogue at all, nor about soliciting thoughtful input about how to move forward together. It is, instead, merely a specific initiative related to disarmament, and indeed one that claims already to know the answers to the most important disarmament questions, and aspires merely to enlist additional adherents to its certainty. That’s not an approach that will work here.

Moreover, far from exploring how to improve the regional and global security conditions that present obstacles to disarmament, the Ban effort carefully ignores those conditions. Indeed, the TPNW is perhaps the paradigmatic example of an approach to disarmament that is willfully blind to the challenges and complexities of the real world in which decisions about national and international security and nuclear disarmament actually occur. And in its deliberately provocative and divisive approach – drawing moralistic lines between stakeholders in the international community, for instance, slandering and demonizing those who disagree with its crusade, urging key states to take positions they understand to be gravely detrimental to those states’ national security, and ignoring imperatives tied to deterring aggression and maintaining alliance relationships that underpin peace and security in critical areas of the world – the TPNW model represents precisely the opposite of what one would want from a serious effort to ease tension and strengthen trust in ways conducive to disarmament progress.

If we are serious about improving conditions in ways that may facilitate disarmament, therefore, we should clearly put the Ban Treaty model and its associated divisiveness aside – except perhaps as a cautionary tale of how enthusiasm can overcome practical good sense, even in a good cause.


But that’s not to say that there aren’t good ideas out there, and perhaps you’ll think I’ve suggested a few. I hope that these remarks will help get you thinking about the various ways in which one could approach building a meaningful conditions-focused approach to international engagement as we work to move forward together. To repeat, I offer these musings simply as food for thought, and not as U.S. advocacy. As indicated, we in the United States have not yet taken a decision on precisely how best to advance conditions discourse and build upon the invitation to disarmament dialogue we issued to our international partners in the CCND initiative.

As we work on these questions, however, we value your input. If my speculation today has overlooked a promising avenue, for example – or if you think one or more of the ideas I have outlined has particular value – please let us know. I am looking forward to working with all of you on these issues in the months and years ahead.

Thank you for listening.