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“It will take all of us working together – government officials, and diplomats, academic experts, and scientists, activists, and organizers – to come up with new and innovative approaches to strengthen transparency and predictability, reduce risk, and forge the next generation of arms control agreements.”
– Wendy Sherman
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State
June 2, 2022
Keynote Address by Ambassador Alexander Kmentt
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2 June 2023

As prepared for delivery

The invitation as a keynote speaker at an ACA annual meeting is a great honor. I appreciate the opportunity as an Austrian diplomat to be able to speak to you on such a crucial global issue. I see it also as recognition of Austria’s focus on nuclear disarmament and a world without nuclear weapons for many years. 

I will speak in my personal capacity, so my remarks are not necessarily the position of Austria.

When I thought about this speech, I wanted to try to contribute to the discussion in DC the perspective that I believe is widely shared among the non-nuclear majority of states. I believe the needed US leadership on these issues requires a better understanding of and more engagement with these perspectives.

It is a perspective that goes beyond the 92 states that have signed of ratified the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) or the 125 states that vote for it in the UN General Assembly. At the last NPT Review Conference, 150 non-nuclear weapons States again joined a statement about the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons. 

It is a perspective of concern:

  • That the nuclear sword of Damocles still hangs above humanity with existential nuclear risks imposed on the entire international community.
  • Concern about the apparent inability of nuclear-armed states to extract themselves from a security paradigm that relies on the threat of mass destruction.
  • It is also a perspective informed by significant new scientific research and facts about the grave, complex and global humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons as well as the risks associated with these weapons and the practice of nuclear deterrence.
  • This perspective is, thus, based on profound arguments and legitimate security concerns of non-nuclear States.

Nevertheless, it is mostly disregarded in the international security and nuclear weapons discourse that is dominated by the geopolitical interests and strategic relations of the major military powers. There is a whole world out there in the nuclear debate beyond the US, Russia and China.

The result has been an increasing disenfrachisement and a deep sense of injustice about the nuclear treaty regime and the nuclear status quo as a whole.

The TPNW should be understood as the majority of non-nuclear states wanting to democratise this discourse and claim agency on one of the gravest existential and civilisational risks that humanity faces.

Nuclear Status Quo

Nuclear risks were on the rise long before Russian invasion in Ukraine and the subsequent implicit and unmistakable nuclear threats issued by President Putin and others. 

These are heightened geopolitical competition, arms race dynamics, the decline of arms control and the nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation regime. Nuclear risks are increasing, including through new technologies and corresponding vulnerabilities among others.

But this already disconcerting state of affairs is dramatically compounded by Russia's irresponsible nuclear rhetoric and the potential for nuclear escalation of the war in Ukraine.

We also hear talk about the use of tactical nuclear weapons, as if this would somehow be "not so bad". The use of nuclear weapons risks being "normalized" and the taboo against the use of nuclear weapons looks increasingly fragile.

Fittingly, the Doomsday Clock has now been set to 90 seconds at the start of this year the closest to midnight since 1947, when the Clock was started.

This is indeed a very dangerous situation.

The non-nuclear majority of states watches in disbelief how geopolitics slides the world back into a perilous phase of high risk of nuclear conflict.  

We are now at a fork in the road on the nuclear weapons issue. One conclusion that states may draw from this crisis is an even stronger emphasis on nuclear deterrence. We heard this also this morning. This likely takes us down the path of more competition, new nuclear arms races, more proliferation pressure and further increasing global nuclear risks. 

The non-nuclear majority hopes that this moment of heightened nuclear dangers finally leads to an alternative conclusion. Namely, that the crisis has brought into sharp focus the fragility of nuclear deterrence. That nuclear arms races much be avoided.

That the situation in Ukraine is so much more dangerous because of nuclear weapons; that this increases concerns about the sustainability of the nuclear status quo and that that a paradigm shift on nuclear weapons is needed.

Paradigm shift

A paradigm shift would mean two things: A critical re-assessment of the veracity of the arguments that underpin nuclear deterrence, and a weighing of these arguments against the empirical evidence on the humanitarian consequences and risks of nuclear weapons.

This is what non-nuclear weapons States are demanding and what is now enshrined in the TPNW.

Nuclear deterrence requires the capability to impose unacceptable costs and the resolve to use nuclear weapons. Without the belief in this resolve, nuclear deterrence theory does not work.

Of course, the assumption is that the threat will suffice to deter, and that escalation and conflict be avoided. In short, the more credible the threat of NWs use is, the more the non-use of NWs is assumed. This leads to what was called “the crazy reality that nuclear deterrence is a scheme for making war less probable by making it more probable”.

Even the horrendous concept of “mutually assured destruction” (MAD) is used in the abstract and is constructed as an argument of validaton for nuclear deterrence and its assumed outcome, namely deterrence stability and the non-use of nuclear weapons.

Nuclear deterrence is seen as the ultimate security guarantee, it is believed to have prevented nuclear conflict in the past decades and to do so in the current circumstances and in the foreseeable future. This belief is very deeply entrenched. Nothing must challenge it according to some.

The problem in this is that in reality we lack the hard empirical evidence. Nuclear deterrence is a theory. It assumes and projects actions, intentions, consequences and expected outcomes.

We can’t prove that nuclear deterrence has worked in the past or will work in the future, just as much as it cannot be proven that it has not prevented conflict in the past or will not do so in the future. Even a clear deterrence “success” in a particular crisis would not prove that in the next, different situation, it would work again.

Like any human belief system" nuclear deterrence depends on assumptions and carries within it the risk of overconfidence and a potential confirmation bias. 

The frequently used assertion that "nuclear deterrence works because of the consequences of nuclear weapons", is a perfect example for the assumption of non-use and a demonstration of potential confirmation bias. 

By contrast, here we have a lot of empirical evidence and a growing body of research on the broad range of humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons and of the risks of accidents, miscalculations and human and technical error.

All the research and new modelling that I have seen concludes that the consequences of a nuclear conflict are graver and more complex and likely global.

The same goes about nuclear risks. All experts that I have heard are concerned about increasing nuclear risks, the difficulties of understanding and controlling them.  

Would it not be prudent to base policy decisions regarding NWs primarily on these empirical facts rather than on the assumptions that underpin deterrence and that are fraught with uncertainties?

The effectiveness of nuclear deterrence is uncertain, but we know for sure that nuclear deterrence can fail - and if it fails, we have the evidence that it likely fails catastrophically and with global impact.

The whole world carries the risks of nuclear deterrence failing.

It brings high risks for the security of all other countries, whose populations could end up as collateral damage in much more severe ways than previously understood.

This raises profound legal, ethical, legitimacy and international and intergenerational justice questions. 

Nuclear Threats

What are we to do with irresponsible nuclear threats such as we see currently from Russia?

The unlawful aggression by a nuclear weapon state, permanent member of the UNSC and depositary of the NPT, which uses nuclear blackmail as cover of its actions, must not end up being successful.

Among the many other unacceptable results, it would profoundly damage any notion of nuclear restraint and create a massive proliferation incentive.

The restraint as shown by NATO of not engaging with Russia's strident nuclear rhetoric was laudable and crucial.  Equally important are the focus on non-nuclear deterrence through the most comprehensive set of sanctions and efforts to rally the international community against RU's actions and in support of UA. Nevertheless, the nuclear deterrence aspect plays a big role in NATO's response to Russia, as confirmed this morning.

It is an understandable reaction in the face of such irresponsible and aggressive behaviour.  

But this response also compounds and perpetuates nuclear risks. This response is logically also based on the resolve to use nuclear weapons with the risk of global humanitarian consequences and gravest violations of IL. The fact that this stance is grounded - as I highlighted before - in the assumption that nuclear weapons will in the end not be used does not change this. 

For non-nuclear states, this goes to the core of the legitimacy deficit of nuclear deterrence practices.

Are any nuclear threats responsible in light of what we know today about the humanitarian consequences and risks of these weapons? What in terms of humanitarian consequences can be considered as acceptable and, especially, for whom and based on what legitimation? And what kind of security and security for whom are we talking about in such a context.

An approach based on my nuclear threat is responsible while yours is irresponsible is not convincing from this perspective. 

At this moment of very high nuclear risks and in the face of Russia's aggression and nuclear rhetoric, the international community should really strive to be united.

United in:

  1. re-enforcing the taboo against use or threat of use and nuclear blackmail
  2. take all actions to reduce nuclear risks
  3. recommitment to the nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation regime and to the goal of a world without nuclear weapons.

Unfortunately, we see how the belief nuclear deterrence creates an inherent tension and difficulty to do this in a credible way. 

The Nuclear Taboo: The States parties to the TPNW, for their part, have done their share to re-enforce the taboo and to express their clear condemnation about any use or threat of use. In their joint declaration at the 1st MSP in Vienna last June, they stated:

"We are alarmed and dismayed by threats to use nuclear weapons and increasingly strident nuclear rhetoric. We stress that any use or threat of use of nuclear weapons is a violation of international law, including the Charter of the United Nations. We condemn unequivocally any and all nuclear threats, whether they be explicit or implicit and irrespective of the circumstances."

This is the clearest and most unequivocal internationally agreed statement on this issue to date to solidify the nuclear taboo.

The G20 Joint Communique last September was also an important step - it stated that "the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons is inadmissible". It was a strong stand-alone sentence and obviously a compromise between those who wanted to be as unequivocal as the TPNW and those who wanted to condemn only the actions of Russia.

The recent G7 statement walks the condemnation of nuclear threats back significantly compared to the G20. Russia's irresponsible actions and policies are condemned but overall, it is a joint statement in support of and conditioned by nuclear deterrence. 

There is a tension between nuclear deterrence policies and the ability of the international community to categorically reject nuclear weapons as instruments of policy and coercion.

Nuclear Risk Reduction: We see a similar tension on the issue of risk reduction.

For non-nuclear weapon States the humanitarian consequences of nuclear explosions, are the risks to which they, too, are exposed, against their will and outside their control. They want to see nuclear risks reduced by taking nuclear weapons as far away from any use or accident as possible. In addition to the elimination of nuclear weapons, which is the risk-reduction gold-standard, this would mean talking measures such as de-alerting, de-targeting, taking weapons out of operational service, no “first use” commitments among others. 

Nuclear-weapon States by contrast give dominance to “strategic risk reduction” understood as countering risks that could undermine nuclear deterrence relationships.

Consequently, this focus is to make nuclear deterrence work less risky, rather than consider the risks of the practice of nuclear deterrence itself. This limits the range of risk reduction measures considerably. Measures that restrict the ability to use nuclear weapons, such as the ones non-nuclear weapons states advocate for are not supported. They are assessed as having a negative impact on the credibility of nuclear deterrence.

Risk reduction measures are, thus, considered only insofar, as they do not impact the nuclear deterrence calculus, leaving aside that nuclear deterrence itself is the origin of nuclear risk.

This demonstrates the inherent contradiction: the perceived necessity to maintain nuclear weapons in a manner that demonstrates readiness and resolve to always use them, as “required” for the credibility of nuclear deterrence. And a more comprehensive approach to address nuclear risks aimed at ensuring that they will never be used, intentionally or unintentionally, or through human or technical error.

Support for the disarmament and nonproliferation regime: The 3rd element of a recommitment to the nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation regime and to the goal of a world without nuclear weapons looks equally bleak.

Picking up on what I heard this morning. I appreciate the comments by Jake Sullivan from today of wanting to keep engaging with Russia and China on arms control without preconditions, but the future of arms control is similarly conditioned by nuclear deterrence. Here, I just want to point out that the failure of the U.S. and Russia and the other NPT nuclear-armed states to engage in negotiations to end the arms race and achieve disarmament would be a violation of the NPT and a threat to the NPT.

This overarching conditionality was again obvious at the recent NPT Review Conference. Yes, Russia blocked the outcome document but what was on the table for adoption was deeply disappointing for non-nuclear weapon States. Nuclear weapon States are not ready to conceptualise nuclear disarmament in any other way than as an aspirational goal to be achieved maybe in a distant future security environment when nuclear weapons may not be needed. There are no credible plans how to actually achieve this goal.

All steps that are talked about in the NPT context are qualified by the need to maintain nuclear deterrence, which in practise means that no progress is being made.

This is what undermines the NPT and will possibly ruin it.

There are certainly differences among the NWS - with some being more engaged and more transparent - especially the US under this administration. However, the general approach is to manage the status quo and prevent any measure that would actually demonstrate readiness to move away from reliance on nuclear weapons.

The urgency that non-nuclear states see and would like to be translated into leadership is not there.

In conclusion, I just want to ask the question how long can we continue to assume that nuclear deterrence will hold, and nuclear weapons will not be used? We see Russian roulette being played at the moment. How can we be confident of this in the future, in tensions with China, with DPRK or between India and Pakistan or in a potential Middle East proliferation context?

Can it be considered as realist to continue to bet on deterrence stability or is it in reality wishful thinking based on rather flimsy evidence, many assumptions and uncertainties and the risk of confirmation bias? 

Trying to find a normative and political way out of the nuclear deterrence paradigm strikes me as a realist and prudent response to the empirical evidence on the consequences should the high-risk nuclear deterrence bet fail.

The TPNW codifies the delegitimisation of nuclear weapons because of their unacceptable humanitarian impact and risks. This is based on serious evidence and is a way to help the international community to conceptualise a change in perspective on these weapons. Ultimately, no responsible state should ever find the use of this most indiscriminate and destructive weapon acceptable. The same must go for the threat of use.

The TPNW is not a silver bullet answer for future security challenges, but nuclear deterrence most definitely is no silver bullet either and certainly not a sustainable one. In these extremely dangerous times, we need leadership, and we need cooperation. The TPNW is a constructive and serious investment into international law and the common security of all. Irrespective of different legal views regarding nuclear weapons, all responsible states should engage constructively on the profound arguments and legitimate and global security concerns now expressed in the TPNW.

The shared objective that Mr Sullivan confirmed in his statement today can only be achieved if, together, we find a way out of the precarious nuclear deterrence security paradigm.

Thank you.