Since the inception of the NPT, the United States and Russia —the world’s first nuclear-weapon states and possessors of the largest and most deadly nuclear arsenals—have been central to the success or failure of the treaty.
Successive U.S.-Russian arms control treaties have slowed the growth of and then cut the massive arsenals built up during the Cold War and lowered the risks of a nuclear exchange. Nevertheless, the threat of nuclear war and global nuclear competition persists.
Today, Russia still has some 1,780 and the United States has some 1,900 nuclear warheads that can be delivered on several hundred strategic bombers and missiles—far more than necessary to deter nuclear attack. Many of these weapons are primed for launch on warning. Since the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), further progress on disarmament has been stalled due to the severe downturn in U.S.-Russian relations and differences among key nuclear-armed states on the way forward.
In 2013, President Barack Obama said he was prepared to cut the U.S. arsenal by an additional one-third if Russia reciprocated. To date, Russian President Vladimir Putin has rebuffed the offer, citing differences over missile defense and the threat posed by other nuclear-armed states. Meanwhile, Russia and the United States are modernizing their arsenals, and China, India, and Pakistan are pursuing new ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, and sea-based nuclear delivery systems. Chinese officials are reluctant to engage in talks on nuclear restraint without deeper cuts in U.S. and Russian stockpiles.
Frustrated by the impasse, more than 150 states have convened important international conferences highlighting the catastrophic humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons use. Some non-nuclear-weapon states want to begin negotiations on a ban on nuclear weapons possession and use. However well intentioned, a ban treaty involving only non-nuclear-weapon states will not do much, if anything, to halt nuclear competition or move key states to engage in multilateral disarmament talks.
At the 2015 NPT Review Conference, which is under way in New York, non-nuclear-weapon states must press for specific actions by the nuclear-weapon states to accelerate progress on disarmament and reduce the risk of nuclear war. Russia, the United States, and the other NPT nuclear-weapon states must find new ways to get back on track or risk the fracturing of the NPT regime. To do so, the NPT conference should come together on several practical and overdue initiatives.
Accelerate U.S.-Russian New START implementation. In 2010, all of the nuclear-weapon states committed “to accelerate concrete progress on the steps leading to nuclear disarmament,” including “all types of nuclear weapons.”
The NPT review conference should call on Washington and Moscow to accelerate the pace of reductions under New START and continue to reduce force levels below the New START ceilings (1,550 deployed strategic warheads and 700 deployed strategic delivery vehicles).
Initiate New START follow-on talks no later than 2017. The conference should call on Washington and Moscow to begin formal negotiations on a follow-on to New START by 2017. The goal should be to cut each side’s strategic arsenal to fewer than 1,100 deployed strategic warheads and 500 deployed strategic delivery vehicles, including any strategic-range conventional prompt global-strike weapons. Such talks can and should explore options on transparency and confidence-building steps on tactical nuclear weapons and joint understandings on missile defense capabilities and deployments.
Press for global nuclear restraint. The conference must recognize that the world’s other nuclear-armed states must do their part to advance disarmament. All NPT states-parties should call on these other nuclear-armed states to freeze the overall size of their stockpiles as long as the United States and Russia continue to reduce their nuclear arsenals.
This would help create the conditions for a series of high-level summits and serious negotiations on multilateral, verifiable nuclear disarmament involving leading nuclear-armed and non-nuclear-weapon states.
Reduce the risk of nuclear war. In 2010, all of the NPT nuclear-weapon states committed to “diminish the role and significance of nuclear weapons” and “[d]iscuss policies that could prevent the use of nuclear weapons.” Few have taken steps to do so.
To reduce the risk of inadvertent nuclear weapons use, the presidents of Russia and the United States should, as retired Gens. James Cartwright and Vladimir Dvorkin have recommended, “decide in tandem to eliminate the launch-on-warning concept from their nuclear strategies.” This would not undermine strategic stability because both countries have nuclear forces designed to withstand an initial first strike. The NPT nuclear-weapon states should be required to make and report on specific changes to their nuclear weapons employment doctrines that reduce the risk of nuclear war.
The nuclear status quo in unsustainable, but, at the same time, there are no shortcuts to strengthening the NPT and global security. The United States, Russia, and other NPT parties must recognize that it is time to pursue new and more-effective disarmament strategies involving all of the world’s nuclear-armed states.