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Disarmament: Have the Five Nuclear Powers Done Enough?

Lawrence Scheinman

Article VI of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) calls on parties to the treaty to “pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race...and to nuclear disarmament.” This article embodies not only a legal understanding but also a political expectation, particularly on the part of the non-nuclear-weapon states, who in signing the treaty, abjured acquiring nuclear weapons.

While recognizing that stemming nuclear proliferation would be in their national security interest and a good reason to join the NPT, they did not accept that the treaty distinction between nuclear-weapon and non-nuclear-weapon states should become permanent any more than they accepted that in forswearing nuclear weapons they would forfeit the “inalienable right” under Article IV of the treaty to “develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes without discrimination…”

The NPT did not set out a timetable for achieving the goals of Article VI, but it was presumed and anticipated that as conditions in the international security environment permitted, progress would be made toward that end and that realization of nonproliferation objectives and success in efforts to stop the arms race would help to create the conditions for disarmament to proceed. The importance of nuclear disarmament to non-nuclear-weapon states-parties is evident from the fact that differences over disarmament issues was the reason why, in three of the six NPT review conferences held every five years since the treaty entered into force in 1970, consensus on a final document reporting the results of the conferences could not be reached.

Observers are concerned that a similar stalemate might occur at this year’s review conference. In recent years, the nuclear-weapon states, particularly the United States, have been sending mixed signals about their commitment to disarmament, at a time when they are calling on the international community to take steps that some non-nuclear-weapon states view as curtailing their rights under Article IV and other provisions of the treaty.

How Much Progress?
The concerns of the non-nuclear-weapon states have been heightened by the failure of the nuclear-weapon states to make greater progress on commitments they outlined at the two most recent review conferences. The 1995 Review Conference, the first to take place after the end of the Cold War, was also a conference to determine whether to extend the treaty indefinitely or for a fixed period or periods of time. At the treaty’s inception, the non-nuclear-weapon states had favored that it be limited in time in order to permit an assessment of whether it was serving their security needs, including whether the nuclear-weapon states were meeting their obligations under Article VI.

At the 1995 Review Conference, many nonaligned states argued against indefinite extension, convinced that a series of limited-duration extensions would provide a stronger basis for pressing the nuclear-weapon states on nuclear disarmament. The decision to extend the NPT indefinitely was taken in conjunction with two other decisions, one of which contained a set of agreed Principles and Objectives for Nuclear Nonproliferation and Disarmament. The objectives included: completion of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which bans nuclear tests, by 1996; commencement and early conclusion of negotiations on a nondiscriminatory and universally applicable convention banning the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices; and “determined pursuit by the nuclear weapon states of systematic and progressive efforts to reduce nuclear weapons globally, with the ultimate goal of eliminating those weapons, and of all states of general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.” In this manner, permanence was once again linked with accountability.

The 2000 NPT Review Conference, one of the most successful in terms of achieving consensus on a review of the past and projecting these goals into the future, translated the 1995 principles and objectives on disarmament into an action agenda of 13 steps for systematic and progressive efforts to implement NPT Article VI.

A number of these measures are today at the heart of differences between most NPT states and a small group of states-parties, in particular, the United States. These include—but are not limited to—early entry into force of the CTBT, which was rejected by the U.S. Senate in 1999; negotiation of a multilateral and internationally and “effectively verifiable” fissile material cutoff treaty (FMCT), a goal the Bush administration views as not practical (see page 25); the application of the principle of irreversibility to nuclear disarmament; and whether the “unequivocal undertaking by nuclear weapon states to accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals leading to nuclear disarmament,”—hailed at the time as an important step forward—is unconditional (as most non-nuclear-weapon states insist) or qualified on achieving general and complete disarmament (as the nuclear-weapon states assert).

Also at issue is the proviso for diminishing the role of nuclear weapons in security policy. This has become a major concern in light of the George W. Bush administration’s Nuclear Posture Review (NPR)—a strategic planning document that integrates nuclear weapons into broader aspects of U.S. defense planning—that was submitted to Congress in December 2001. Administration officials contend that the NPR diminishes the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. security policy by establishing a new triad in which reduced nuclear forces are only a part, along with enhanced conventional forces, active and passive defenses, and a defense structure capable of rapidly responding to changes in the security environment. Critics of the NPR, however, view it as reaffirming that nuclear weapons are a critical factor in U.S. defense capabilities in that it proposes exploring possible new weapons (robust deep earth penetrators and low-yield nuclear devices) believed to be more suited to the character of threats now confronting the United States, its allies and friends—all of which leads to conjecture whether nuclear weapons are shifting from deterrence to use.

It was always evident to many, if not all, that achieving nuclear disarmament would be a tall mountain to climb. Arms control and disarmament judgments are not made in a vacuum but in the context of national security interests that are informed by political assessments and conclusions. That context had begun to change in a positive direction even before the end of the Cold War, reflected in a series of unparalleled arms control agreements between the United States and the Soviet Union/Russian Federation. These agreements made deep cuts in the two nuclear superpowers’ arsenals beginning with the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), eliminating an entire class of weapons; followed by the 1991 START I, resulting in the verified reduction of thousands of strategic nuclear weapons; and culminating in the two states’ leaders agreeing to make reciprocal parallel unilateral reductions in 1991-1992 of theater nuclear weapons.

Matters took a quite different turn, however, in the aftermath of the events of September 11, 2001 that among other things brought into focus concern about the conjunction of terrorism and weapons of mass destruction and attention to the danger that “rogue states” might acquire nuclear weapons, harbor terrorists, and then arm the terrorists with these weapons. Disinclined to rely on multinational regimes and institutions that were seen as cumbersome and lacking decisiveness, the Bush administration chose to counter this perceived threat by unilateral means or, where necessary or appropriate, non-institutionalized multilateral arrangements.

The Bush doctrine has had a significant spillover impact on arms control and disarmament and potentially on the nonproliferation regime itself. The effect has been reflected in the three preparatory committee meetings (PrepComs) leading up to the forthcoming 2005 Review Conference. While far from ignored, disarmament shares the stage not only with nonproliferation but also increasingly with questions of treaty compliance and enforcement; terrorism and weapons of mass destruction; and, more recently, renewed attention to strategies for managing sensitive nuclear technologies that can provide to weapons-usable nuclear materials. The U.S. emphasis has been far from universally endorsed, and division over what issues should take center stage at the review conference stalled progress at the PrepComs, including the failure to draft an agenda for the conference.

The Shape of Things to Come
An indication of the contours of discussion and debate on nuclear disarmament in the forthcoming review conference also can be found in the deliberations of the First Committee of the UN General Assembly that concluded its activities in early November 2004. Two resolutions in particular are of interest: one sponsored by the New Agenda Coalition (NAC)[1] that in 2000 was the critical bridge between the nuclear-weapon states and the non-nuclear-weapon states, in particular the large body of states of the Non-Aligned Movement; and the other a resolution cosponsored by Russia and the United States.

The NAC resolution, a much scaled-back version of resolutions introduced at the 2002 and 2003 PrepComs, focused on a limited number of the 13 practical steps on which action was needed: early entry into force of the CTBT, negotiation of an effectively verifiable FMCT, cuts in nonstrategic nuclear weapons, diminishing the role of nuclear weapons in security doctrines, rejecting the development of new kinds of nuclear weapons, establishing a subsidiary body on nuclear disarmament in the Conference on Disarmament, and ensuring the principles of transparency and irreversibility in disarmament measures.

What is significant about this resolution is that for the first time it gained the support of eight NATO states, including Germany, Belgium, Norway, and the Netherlands, who had previously abstained on NAC resolutions. Only the United States, the United Kingdom, and France, joined by Israel and Latvia, voted against it. Speaking on behalf of the United States, the United Kingdom, and itself, France approvingly noted the pragmatic approach of the resolution. But the French representative criticized the resolution’s failure to take account of the progress that was being made toward nuclear disarmament. It also chided the resolution for not taking into account that the obligation of all parties to the treaty extends to nonproliferation as well as to disarmament—undoubtedly a reference to problems of noncompliance by non-nuclear-weapon states-parties.

By contrast, the Russian-U.S. resolution on Bilateral Strategic Nuclear-Arms Reductions (adopted without a vote), called for General Assembly acknowledgement of the contribution and importance of the Strategic Offensive Reduction Treaty to nuclear disarmament. The NAC, while acknowledging the contribution to disarmament of reduced deployments, underscored that reductions cannot replace irreversible cuts and destruction of nuclear weapons and looked forward to total elimination “in line with the obligations of the NPT.” The Non-Aligned Movement stated that the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty reductions do not meet the “unequivocal undertaking under Article VI of the NPT to accomplish the total elimination of…nuclear arsenals leading to nuclear disarmament.”

Which side is right in this dispute depends upon where one sits. From a U.S. perspective, Article VI obligations are being fulfilled despite new challenges to peace and security arising from the threat of catastrophic terrorism and despite NPT compliance failures by states-parties. Strategic doctrines that governed Cold War relations have given way to a new security strategy that diminishes the role of nuclear weapons in favor of conventional capabilities, and nuclear weapons stockpiles are being reduced commensurate with a changing security strategy.

This assertion is supported by some concrete actions by the Bush administration. As two well respected independent nuclear experts have noted, “as of January 2005, there are approximately 5,300 operational nuclear warheads in the U.S. stockpile, including 4,530 strategic warheads and 780 non-strategic warheads [and] almost 5,000 additional warheads have been retained in a ‘responsive reserve force’ or are in an inactive status with their tritium removed.”[2] Further, when the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty reaches its current termination date in December 2012, “the current stockpile of more than 10,000 nuclear warheads will be reduced to about 6,000.”[3]

To this is added a whole litany of steps taken since the end of the Cold War that the Bush administration can proffer to demonstrate U.S. compliance with its obligations under the NPT. Among them are removal of four missile submarines from strategic service; elimination of numbers of heavy bombers and missile silos; deactivation of “Peacekeeper” ICBMs—the most accurate ballistic missiles ever designed and fielded, all of which will be eliminated by October 2005; de-alerting of components of the nuclear triad of nuclear-armed aircraft, missiles, and submarines; and the longstanding termination of the production of fissile material for weapons purposes.

The other nuclear-weapon states also can point to measures they have achieved in line with Article VI and the 13 steps of 2000. Russia, the United Kingdom, and France have ratified the CTBT; France and the United Kingdom have taken steps making elements of their nuclear weapons systems consistent with the principle of irreversibility; and the United Kingdom and France have taken some steps toward reducing operational status of their weapons systems. China has committed to a policy of no-first-use of nuclear weapons and, along with France and the United Kingdom, Beijing has ratified an Additional Protocol to its safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

However, a number of measures identified in the list of 13 practical steps have not been pursued, and in some cases there has been regression. For example, progress on an FMCT was blocked for five years by Chinese and Russian determination to tie negotiation of an FMCT to negotiations on measures intended to block an arms race in outer space. China’s nuclear weapons modernization activities and Russia’s reversal of its no-first-use doctrine and its reservation of the right to use nuclear weapons in response to a biological or chemical attack or any attack threatening the national security of the Russian Federation has called into question the commitment of those nuclear-weapon states to disarmament.

U.S. actions have drawn the most attention, however. The United States withdrew from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, provoking the Russians to prevent START II from entering into force. The Bush administration has also backed away from the 13 steps in its positions on the CTBT, the non-verifiability of an FMCT, and irreversibility as reflected in concluding a reversible Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty.

The U.S. position is that, although it no longer supports all of the 13 steps, it “unambiguously continues to support Article VI and the goal of nuclear disarmament…. We think it is a mistake to use strict adherence to the 13 steps as the only means by which NPT parties can fulfill their Article VI obligations. It is…important not to confuse the political consensus reflected by the 2000 Final Document with the legally binding obligations of the Treaty itself.”[4]

Two Sides of the Same Coin
Nuclear nonproliferation and nuclear disarmament are two sides of the NPT coin. When the treaty was negotiated, halting further proliferation was the immediate concern; achieving nuclear disarmament the longer-term goal. As noted earlier, progress on arms control and disarmament is predicated on the existence of a stable and secure political environment and a climate of trust. The end of the Cold War opened a new cooperative and constructive relationship between its two protagonists but did not bring an end to all tensions and conflicts.

Even as the end of the Cold War has permitted significant new disarmament steps, several nonproliferation challenges have emerged to confront the NPT regime, each of which has a sense of urgency: the failures of several parties to the treaty to comply with their commitments and undertakings; the emergence of transnational terrorists who would use weapons of mass destruction against civil society if they could acquire them; and the continued absence of four key states—Israel, India, Pakistan, and, to some degree, North Korea—from the treaty’s constraints. The urgency of these threats and concerns about the capabilities of the regime to confront them has eroded some confidence that the treaty will meet its nonproliferation aims.

Yet, rather than viewing the treaty’s disarmament obligations as an unwarranted nuisance at a time when these nonproliferation concerns have grown, the nuclear-weapon states should see them as useful tools, particularly in dealing with the terrorist threat. An FMCT (step 3) would reduce the availability of nuclear explosive materials, and in conjunction with programs to convert weapons-usable materials for use only in civil activities (a Cooperative Threat Reduction endeavor) would establish an even greater barrier to terrorist access. Activity in support of irreversibility (step 5), such as ensuring safe storage of warheads and fissile materials prior to and after dismantlement and removing nonstrategic nuclear weapons from harms way, would serve the same objective.

Finally there is the question of the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty. The United States and Russia have publicized the treaty as an important contribution to the disarmament process and a demonstration of their commitment to Article VI. The NAC considers the treaty an “important step in the right direction” but comments that “it does not require the destruction of these weapons, does not include tactical nuclear weapons and does not have any verification provisions. The process is neither irreversible, nor transparent.”[5]

The NAC statement can be seen as an indictment or as an opportunity. At this year’s review conference, states-parties will undoubtedly press the nuclear-weapon states to do more to implement and strengthen the NPT in all of its aspects, as evident from the NAC resolution in the UN General Assembly’s First Committee discussed earlier. Assuming that the Bush administration will not change its position on the verifiability of an FMCT or the CTBT, the United States and Russia could give consideration to building on the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty, explicitly recognizing it as a basis for the future and not an end in itself. This could include giving consideration to possibly extending its life while striving to reach agreement on even lower numbers of nuclear weapons as well as extending the life of START I, with its verification provisions, beyond its current expiration date of 2009 with a view to considering how to build on those capabilities in order to promote transparency.

There is no doubt that the review conference should and will have to deal with the urgent challenges of compliance, terrorism, and nonproliferation. Still, the flip side of the NPT coin cannot be shortchanged at the risk of generating indifference, if not resentment, which would be costly not only to the success of the conference but to the long-run prospects for the NPT and global security.


1. The New Agenda Coalition was launched in 1998 by the foreign ministers of eight non-nuclear nations—Ireland, Brazil, Egypt, Mexico, New Zealand, South Africa, Slovenia, and Sweden—with the purpose of pressuring the nuclear-weapon states to fulfill the obligation they undertook in Article VI of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty to eliminate nuclear arsenals. The coalition officially consists of seven non-nuclear nations: Ireland, Brazil, Egypt, Mexico, New Zealand, South Africa, and Sweden.

2. Norris, Robert S. and Hans Kristensen, “NRDC Nuclear Notebook,” Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, January/February 2005.

3. Norris, Robert S. and Hans M. Kristensen, “What’s Behind Bush’s Nuclear Cuts,” Arms Control Today, October 2004, pp. 6-12.

4. Statement of the Deputy, U.S. Representative to the Conference on Disarmament, Remarks to the Second Session of the Preparatory Committee for the 2005 NPT Review Conference, May 1, 2003).

5. “Nonproliferation and Disarmament Go Hand in Hand,” International Herald Tribune, September 22, 2004.

The United States on Key Nuclear Issues

Nuclear Warhead Arsenal: Approximately 10,000 nuclear warheads total. As of July 2004, the United States reported it possessed 5,966 deployed strategic nuclear warheads under the terms of the START agreement. It also deploys 480 tactical nuclear weapons under NATO’s stewardship in six European countries.

Latest Nuclear Force Developments: In June 2004, the Bush administration announced it would cut the U.S. nuclear stockpile “almost in half” by 2012. At the same time, the administration has advocated research into new and modified nuclear weapons and worked to extend the lifespan of its existing warheads.

Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty: Signed September 24, 1996. The Senate rejected the treaty in October 1999. The Bush administration says it has no plans to resume nuclear testing suspended in 1992, but it does not support the treaty and will not ask the Senate to reconsider it.

Fissile Material Production for Weapons: The United States announced a moratorium on the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons in July 1992. Although the Clinton administration was the leading advocate of an “effectively verifiable” fissile material cutoff treaty, the Bush administration announced in July 2004 that a final agreement could not be “effectively verifiable.”

Nuclear Use Doctrine: The United States has pledged not to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon states-parties in good standing under the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty unless they attack the United States in league with a state possessing nuclear arms. Top U.S. officials, however, have repeatedly hinted for more than a decade that Washington might respond with nuclear arms to a chemical or biological weapons attack, regardless of whether the attacker has nuclear weapons. In its secret September 2002 National Security Presidential Directive-17, the Bush administration stated explicitly that U.S. retaliation options for any type of weapon of mass destruction attack against the United States includes nuclear weapons.


Sources: Arms Control Association, Institute for Science and International Security, Natural Resources Defense Council, and national governments.

The 2000 NPT Review Conference
And the 13 Practical Steps: A Summary

At the 2000 nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference, states-parties agreed to take 13 “practical steps” to meet their commitments under Article VI of the NPT.

1. The early entry into force of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).

2. A nuclear testing moratorium pending entry into force of the CTBT.

3. The immediate commencement of negotiations in the Conference on Disarmament on a nondiscriminatory, multilateral, and effectively verifiable fissile material cutoff treaty. The negotiations should aim to be concluded within five years.

4. The establishment in the Conference on Disarmament of a subsidiary body to deal with nuclear disarmament.

5. The principle of irreversibility to apply to all nuclear disarmament and reduction measures.

6. An unequivocal undertaking by nuclear-weapon states to eliminate their nuclear arsenals.

7. The early entry into force and implementation of START II, the conclusion of START III, and the preservation and strengthening of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.

8. The completion and implementation of the Trilateral Initiative between the United States, the Russian Federation, and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

9. Steps by all nuclear-weapon states toward disarmament including unilateral nuclear reductions; transparency on weapons capabilities and Article VI-related agreements; reductions in nonstrategic nuclear weapons; measures to reduce the operational status of nuclear weapons; a diminishing role for nuclear weapons in security policies; the engagement of nuclear-weapon states as soon as appropriate in a process leading to complete disarmament.

10. The placement of excess military fissile materials under IAEA or other international verification and the disposition of such material for peaceful purposes.

11. Reaffirmation of the objective of general and complete disarmament under effective international control.

12. Regular state reporting in the NPT review process on the implementation of Article VI obligations.

13. The development of verification capabilities necessary to ensuring compliance with nuclear disarmament agreements.





Lawrence Scheinman is a distinguished professor of international policy at the Monterey Institute of International Studies and an adjunct professor at Georgetown University.