The P5 Process and Approaches to Nuclear Disarmament: A New Structured Dialogue
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation
Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. It is a great pleasure to be back at Wilton Park, and all the more so be able to join counterparts from Russia and China in speaking to you about the “P5” states and their role in global nonproliferation and disarmament diplomacy in the lead-up to the 2020 NPT Review Conference (RevCon).
I. The P5 Role in and Commitment to the NPT
The P5 have played a key role in every aspect of the NPT, sitting as they do at the center of the critical nonproliferation agreement that has lain at the core of the nuclear nonproliferation project since the so-called “Irish Resolution” of 1961 first articulated the principles that became the NPT’s Articles I and II — namely, that nuclear weapons possessors should not disseminate such weapons and non-possessors should not seek to acquire them. These principles at the core of the NPT are what produce the critical security benefits that the Treaty provides to all States Party, and they provide the foundation of nonproliferation assurances upon which depend both the worldwide system for sharing the benefits of nuclear technology and mankind’s hope for eventual nuclear disarmament.
Because of this, and as a result of the intrinsic geopolitical and economic weight of the P5 states, it matters a great deal what these countries do in the NPT process. And indeed the P5 states have made very clear — most recently in a joint statement issued at the United Nations First Committee in October — their continuing commitment to the NPT in all its aspects.
One of those aspects, of course, is the pursuit of good-faith negotiations on nuclear disarmament, and here the actions and example of the P5 — the world’s first nuclear weapons possessor states — loom particularly large. The P5 have proclaimed their continued commitment to this goal, declaring at the First Committee that they “support the ultimate goal of a world without nuclear weapons with undiminished security for all ... [and] are committed to working to make the international environment more conducive to further progress on nuclear disarmament.” And indeed, with the exception of China, the actions of the P5 states in eliminating the vast majority of their nuclear weapons stocks after the end of the Cold War epitomize the sort of extraordinary progress that is achievable when conditions in the security environment make such movement possible.
The critical question now, however, is: “Where do we go next?” The P5 have engaged regularly on NPT matters, and will continue to do so, but despite their shared commitments and central role in the NPT, they do not form a unified front on NPT matters. Indeed, devising a common P5 approach faces important challenges, and the global disarmament enterprise stands today at a crossroads, not least because important nuclear weapons possessor states remain outside the NPT. I believe we must face this crossroads — that is, face the contemporary crisis of the disarmament project — for it is only by facing its causes honestly that we have a chance of meeting its challenges. So what do I mean in saying that the disarmament enterprise today faces a crisis?
II. The Contemporary Disarmament Crisis
We arrive at this crossroads in part because of a global strategic environment that is today less conducive to further disarmament progress than it has been in decades. You don’t need me to tell you this, of course, for you have all seen these problems developing for years, particularly with the rise of revisionist powers at the global and regional level.
Some of these problems, of course, stem from the destabilizing and provocative actions of rogue regimes such as Iran and North Korea, but others stem directly from the conduct of P5 states — in particular, the determination by two of them to use military coercion to expand the territories under their control. Moreover, Russia has been blithely violating arms control agreements for years while seeking to shift blame to others, maintains a vast arsenal of non-strategic weapons, and all but boasts of constructing for itself a sprawling new and destabilizing array of nuclear delivery systems. For its part China remains opaque regarding its strategic intentions and the motivations behind its continuing and steady buildup of both its conventional and nuclear forces. These actions have contributed to a deteriorating global security environment, eroding the disarmament-conducive conditions that prevailed for years after the end of the Cold War.
Making things worse, from the perspective of our collective disarmament goals, these global and regional security challenges emerged at a time when traditional post-Cold War approaches to disarmament were running out of steam. Notwithstanding widespread complaints of the supposed lack of progress on disarmament, those traditional approaches had been hugely successful — leading, for instance, to a United States reduction by about 88 percent in the number of nuclear warheads we had at our Cold War peak. Nevertheless, by definition, eliminating weapons made unnecessary by the end of the Cold War was not an approach that could continue to move disarmament forward indefinitely so as long as any nuclear deterrence still remained necessary in our complex and troubled world, let alone in a world beset by worsening security problems.
It is this combination of a deteriorating security environment and the exhaustion of traditional post-Cold War approaches to disarmament that has produced a crisis in the disarmament arena, in which it is clear that old approaches have largely been exhausted and new threats make progress of any sort harder than it has been in a very long time. In reaction to this crisis, some have retreated into what is essentially magical thinking — placing vain hopes in a self-described Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) that will achieve no such thing, and that indeed may actually make the world a more dangerous, unstable, and nuclear weapons-dependent place. Thankfully, however, there is a better way forward than such emptily divisive virtue-signaling, and I am here today to tell you about it — and to urge all my P5 counterparts to join us in this new endeavor.
III. Development of the New “Conditions” Discourse
Painfully aware of how the traditional approach to disarmament has exhausted itself, and of the deteriorating security environment in which real-world disarmament decisions must necessarily be made, we in the United States undertook a bottom-up review of nuclear disarmament policy in the summer of 2017. That autumn, our interagency approved a new approach to disarmament policy based around dialogue aimed at identifying and addressing negative factors in the global security environment, and in regional contexts, that presently stand in the way of movement toward the ultimate goal of nuclear disarmament as envisioned in the Preamble and Article VI of the NPT.
The new U.S. approach to a reality-based dialogue was publicly announced in October 2017, and subsequently informed the discussion of disarmament issues that appeared in the new U.S. Nuclear Posture Review. In May 2018, it formed the basis of a seminal United States’ position paper at the NPT Preparatory Committee (PrepCom) meeting in Geneva, entitled “Creating the Conditions for Nuclear Disarmament,” which announced a new initiative by that same name — under the acronym “CCND.”
This new initiative aims to move beyond the traditional approach that had focused principally upon “step-by-step” efforts to bring down the number of U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons, but that did so in ways that did not provide a pathway to address the challenge of worsening security conditions, did not address nuclear build-ups by China, India, and Pakistan, and did not provide an answer to challenges of deterrence and stability in Europe and the Indo-Pacific, and that had clearly stalled.
This new discourse, building on the foundation provided by our 2017 review, is both more realistic than these traditional modes of thought and more consonant with the security challenges facing the real-world leaders whose engagement is essential for disarmament. For this reason, our initiative offers a more viable path toward the ultimate goal of disarmament than is offered either by traditional approaches or by the newer but conditions-blind absolutism of the TPNW. This initiative also offers a pathway of at least temporary convergence between major factions within the global disarmament debate, insofar as both ardent abolitionists and hawkish skeptics alike should — one would hope — be able to agree on working to improve conditions that still help drive some states to seek nuclear weapons and help make others unwilling to relinquish them.
IV. A Productive Start ... But More is Needed
Since the announcement of this new initiative by U.S. officials, our diplomats have had success in promoting these concepts in bilateral engagements and in multilateral fora. These concepts have been reflected in the disarmament language of the Japanese-sponsored “United Action” resolution adopted with U.S. support at the UN General Assembly’s First Committee in 2017, and in the nonproliferation language of the 2018 G7 Foreign Ministers and Nonproliferation Directors Group (NPDG) documents, and it has influenced national policy and diplomatic statements by a number of likeminded states — including the disarmament statement issued by the P5 at the First Committee in October.
This concept of a “conditions” discourse has also elicited notable interest and even support from some influential think tanks and civil society actors who are not normally well disposed toward U.S. nuclear weapons policy, some of which have expressed interest in hosting “conditions”-focused programming or are already beginning to do so. The new “conditions” discourse is also now a critical part of U.S. diplomatic messaging and public diplomacy as we head toward the NPT RevCon in 2020, marking the 50th anniversary of the NPT’s entry into force.
We recognize, however, that merely announcing a desire for a “conditions” dialogue to help the international community find a viable path toward disarmament is not enough. If the “conditions” initiative were to consist merely of the sum of U.S. bilateral engagements, moreover, it would quickly lose credibility and momentum. As we have envisioned all along, therefore — and as our allies and partners have urged — we now need to find a way to build, structure, and sustain a broader multilateral dialogue that will demonstrate the seriousness and value of the new approach by exploring how to improve the real-world security environment in ways that will advance nuclear disarmament objectives.
Accordingly, in October 2018, the United States stepped up its efforts to solicit input from international partners and other relevant stakeholders — and to suggest specific ideas for their consideration — about the best way to structure and sustain an international dialogue on creating a security environment that would make disarmament more realistically available and more sustainable. We are grateful to those of you who have responded to this invitation, and I am pleased today to be able to outline the conclusions we have reached and how we propose to move forward together.
V. Creating the Conditions Working Group
As we see it, the most promising way to build an effective multilateral dialogue to explore how to ameliorate the conditions impeding disarmament progress is to learn from what we all now know already works. We propose, therefore, to use the same basic organizational model for operationalizing the “conditions” discourse as is currently being used by the International Partnership for Nuclear Disarmament Verification (IPNDV).
As many of you already know, the IPNDV is a multilateral effort that has brought more than 25 states with and without nuclear weapons together to try to address specific, practical problems related to how actually to verify the achievement of nuclear weapons dismantlement to international audiences without contributing to proliferation by spreading weaponization knowledge. IPNDV enjoys considerable international support both from staunch disarmament advocates and from participating nuclear-weapon states, and it has proven its utility in practical terms by identifying the real-world complexities involved in verification and identifying potential verification methodologies. The IPNDV, in other words, is a demonstrably successful model that already resonates with the international stakeholders who would be involved in “conditions” engagements.
Accordingly, we have decided to establish a notionally titled “Creating the Conditions Working Group,” or CCWG. Like the IPNDV, the CCWG will include functional subgroups. This is necessary because in contrast to the IPNDV, which speaks solely to the specific challenges associated with disarmament verification, the CCWG will need to address differing practical aspects of the broader disarmament challenge. The goal of the CCWG will be to identify aspects of the real world security environment that present major obstacles to further disarmament movement and to develop specific proposals for how those obstacles might be overcome.
As we envision it, the CCWG would consist of perhaps 25 to 30 countries selected on the basis of both regional and political diversity, and united both by the understanding that further progress on disarmament requires addressing the security issues which impede it, and by a shared commitment to finding ways to do so. As long as states are committed to constructive dialogue aimed at finding ways to make regional and global conditions more conducive to disarmament, both ardent disarmers and disarmament skeptics would all be welcome.
The program of work for the CCWG would begin with an identification of key issues that, if addressed effectively, could improve prospects for progress on nuclear disarmament. The United States has already provided some thoughts in the working paper submitted to the NPT PrepCom in May 2018, but all participants will be invited to offer their own views. An initial deliverable for the CCWG will be to come to at least provisional agreement on such a list, which would thereafter be the basis upon which the Group would establish sub-groups to look at functional challenges.
After that, the next step will be to identify which specific issues from the list are most suitable for initial in-depth study by subgroups. Up to three subgroups will be established, with associated co-chairs, each assigned a specific functional topic. The co-chairs will be chosen to reflect the diversity of opinion on how to achieve progress on a given topic, but they would also be chosen from among states and individuals most able to provide constructive contributions. We in the United States would organize a small Executive Secretariat for the overall CCWG, staffed by the United States, which would also facilitate the functioning of each subgroup. As with the IPNDV, much of the work of these subgroups would be conducted virtually, through the exchange of working papers, but the working groups would also meet periodically for in-person consultations, hosted by one of the partners. (Concurrent, co-located sessions of all the groups, would allow for states with limited resources to participate as fully as they wish.) Once every 12 to 18 months, a plenary session will be held to review the work of the individual groups and plan for next steps.
We also envision identifying a suitable NGO to assist the CCWG both with logistics and resource support and with substantive input, as has proven helpful for the IPNDV. The subgroups and plenaries would be largely funded by the participant hosting them, our experience at IPNDV having shown that having additional funding sources allows for more diversity in hosting. This would not necessarily exclude other mechanisms for dialogue, and we will need to consider how to engage with states that are not part of the CCWG. Outside the structure of the CCWG itself, additional NGOs would also be encouraged to convene complementary efforts — such as colloquia on “conditions”-related issues that would bring academics and former policymakers together in “Track 1.5” or “Track 2” contexts in order to explore particular challenges, as one partner government has very helpfully already suggested.
We hope to have implementation planning for the new CCWG well underway by the time of the 2019 NPT PrepCom next spring, and to have the working group and its subgroups in full swing before the 2020 Review Conference.
So there you have it: our vision, so far, of how to build an effective, “conditions”-focused path forward. This new, historically- and contextually-informed effort at structured multilateral dialogue — explicitly focused upon the practical and prudential real-world challenges of changing the security environment in ways that could make possible further progress on nuclear disarmament and would increase the odds of success in eliminating all nuclear weapons in a safe, stable, and sustainable way — is worlds away from the TPNW’s magical thinking, and our new approach offers a far more viable and constructive way forward than does that sterile crusade.
Given the precarious state of the global security environment today, I hope you will agree with me that this dialogue initiative is a promising one — and indeed that it represents perhaps the most promising way, under current conditions, for states to come together, as the NPT urges us to do, in pursuit of “effective measures” contributing to nuclear disarmament. I hope you will all help us promote and advance the “conditions”-ameliorative dialogue it is designed to create.
And I will repeat what I said earlier about the special responsibility the P5 have in helping lead the development of a prudent and responsible path forward toward disarmament. So I urge my Russian and Chinese colleagues on this panel to join us in advancing this promising new “conditions” discourse.
The pursuit of “effective measures” to promote disarmament is both an NPT obligation and a moral responsibility for the P5 countries, as it is for all states, and I am sure I speak for most everyone here in voicing profound disappointment with the decision by Moscow and Beijing to abandon their observer participation in the IPNDV — a decision that suggests a worrying disinterest in finding ways to achieve nuclear disarmament. I urge Russia and China to reconsider their decision to walk away from the IPNDV, and invite them to join with us in supporting the new Creating the Conditions Working Group as it seeks a realistic and viable way forward in pursuit of the long-cherished dream of a nuclear weapons-free world.
Thank you. I look forward to working with all of you on this effort in the months and years to come.