U.S. Interests and Priorities at the CD: Interview with Robert T. Grey, Jr.

Named U.S. permanent representative to the UN Conference on Disarmament (CD) in October 1997, Ambassador Robert T. Grey, Jr. completed his first year as head of the U.S. CD delegation on September 9, the close of the 1998 negotiating session. On November 20, Arms Control Association Research Analyst Wade Boese met with Ambassador Grey to discuss the CD's progress during 1998 and its prospects for the 1999 session, scheduled to begin January 18.

Ambassador Grey joined the Foreign Service in 1960 and held positions including executive assistant to the under secretary of state for political affairs and deputy office director in the Office of Military Sales and Assistance, Bureau of Political-Military Affairs. He has also served as acting deputy director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (1981–1983) and counselor for political affairs to the U.S. Mission to the United Nations (1989–1994). Prior to his CD appointment, Grey led the State Department UN Reform Team.

The following is an edited version of the interview.


Arms Control Today: After a disappointing 1997 session of the conference, the CD took some positive steps this year, in particular, agreement to begin work on a fissile material cutoff treaty. What do you attribute as the cause for the CD's success this year as opposed to last year?

Robert Grey: I think basically there was a little bit of fatigue in 1997. The CTBT [Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, completed in 1996] negotiation was long and protracted. Then folks took a pause; they wanted to take a look at which way to proceed at the following year's session. The obvious thing to work on was the FMCT, the fissile material cutoff treaty, but there was resistance on the part of India and Pakistan. Then the [Indian and Pakistani nuclear] testing took place [in May] and there was renewed pressure from the rest of the international community. Ultimately, at the last week of this year's CD, we got a week's work in on the FMCT, and I hope we can pick up where we left off on that and a number of other subjects when we reconvene on January 18.

ACT: Do you feel there was a sense of urgency among the delegations of the CD this year—that they had to do something or risk losing the CD's credibility as a multilateral negotiating forum?

Grey: I think there's always a sense in the CD that we're not perceived to be working actively on what we've set out to do. There's a risk that people will begin to consider the conference irrelevant; so yes, that's a concern. It's always there; I don't think it's any more urgent or less urgent than at any other time.

ACT: The 1997 deadlock was widely attributed to a standoff over negotiating priorities within the conference—the nuclear-weapon states and West European states favored negotiations on a cutoff treaty, whereas the non-aligned movement linked such talks to a timebound framework for nuclear disarmament. What broke this particular impasse this year? How much did the nuclear tests of India and Pakistan contribute to this shift in the non-aligneds' position?

Grey: There has been an evolution, and there is an interest on the part of a number of delegations, as you can see by the recently passed resolution in the [UN General Assembly's] First Committee on nuclear disarmament, in which a number of countries, both Western and G-77 [the non-aligned group], want to discuss nuclear disarmament in the CD. Some want to negotiate it, some only want to discuss it, but there's pressure to do something. So it's not just a North-South issue, if you will, or a West-versus-the-others type of proposition. It's a more widely felt sentiment. Some of our own allies would be interested in having the CD look at nuclear disarmament in a way that didn't have a negative impact on the ongoing U.S.-Russian bilateral negotiations.

So there's been an evolution from a timebound framework to something less than a timebound framework on the part of the G-77, and a push from some Western delegations to at least discuss nuclear disarmament without impeding or impacting negatively on U.S.-Russian negotiations. But I do think the Indian-Pakistani tests were a wake-up call for the entire community that we had to get on with our work; 47 members of the CD formally expressed concern and dismay at the tests when they occurred. And that was across a broad spectrum of CD membership.

Our own view is very clear: we don't think it is helpful or useful to discuss nuclear disarmament or negotiate nuclear disarmament in a multilateral context. We are prepared to keep people abreast of where we are in the negotiations with the Russians. But we don't think it would be productive, given the track record we have by proceeding step by step, to take nuclear disarmament and throw it into a multilateral context. The clear multilateral job to do in the future is the FMCT, and we will continue to push for progress there.

ACT: What impact do you feel that the Indian and Pakistani nuclear tests had on the conference in general?

Grey: As I said, I think they were a wake-up call to all of us that we have to get on with our work. The resolution in this year's First Committee, in which a strong majority deeply deplored the Indian and Pakistani tests, was a clear sign that the international community is very, very concerned and upset about them. There were a number of "killer" amendments attached to that resolution by Pakistan and India, and they all were voted down; this is an indication that the world is deeply concerned and entirely serious about trying to keep the NPT [nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty] regime in place and to make progress toward disarmament. There's been a sort of sea change here, this being the biggest threat to the effectiveness of the NPT in many years. This is because the tests represent the most serious challenge to the non-proliferation regime as anchored by the NPT. We don't want the world to think that the NPT is hollow.

ACT: The United States will assume the rotating presidency of the conference for the first four working weeks of the 1999 session. What will be your goals as the president of the conference? What do you hope will be accomplished during that period?

Grey: What I would like to do is to get the conference up and running, as early and quickly as possible, on all the subjects that were being discussed and along the same general lines that prevailed when the session ended in September: two ad hoc committees, one on negative security assurances and one on FMCT, and special coordinators to deal with the other items that were being considered—membership expansion, the form of the agenda, outer space, APLs [anti-personnel landmines], transparency in armaments, and improving the functioning of the conference. In addition, the troika of the past, present and future CD presidents were responsible for working on ways in which the conference might usefully address nuclear disarmament.

In general, I would like to see us begin in January where we ended up in September. It's not an unreasonable ambition but one that, given the curious nature of the CD, would probably take at least month to accomplish.

ACT: Can you explain what you mean by the curious nature of the CD?

Grey: Everyone has a different agenda, and in any negotiation, people sometimes advance maximalist positions even though they have already compromised and reached a satisfactory outcome the year before. That's especially true when the Americans are in the chair.

ACT: In August the CD decided to start negotiations on a fissile material cutoff treaty, but this mandate will have to be renewed in 1999. Do you foresee any problems winning the necessary consensus next year to resume these negotiations?

Grey: I'm confident that we will resume work on an FMCT. I can't predict when. My own hope and expectation would be that we can do it very early—that we can agree to continue the work program on which we had agreed at the end of September, and continue it into the new year. But that is always subject to negotiation.

A vast majority of the non-aligned want to do nuclear disarmament in the CD. That is not our position and it's not the position of the French, the British, the Russians, the Chinese, and many others. So, the [non-aligned] G-21 will push for more on nuclear disarmament and we will have to respond in our own interest. We can't agree on nuclear disarmament but we can agree on the program we agreed on last year, and over time, it will fall into place. It took a lot of skilled work by my Swiss colleague last year to get this program of work established. If it hadn't been for his very, very skillful diplomatic tactics we could still be at loggerheads. I give Ambassador [Erwin] Hofer of Switzerland a great deal of credit for getting us as far as we are now.

ACT: Do you think the deadlock over negotiating priorities could reappear?

Grey: It's always a possibility, but my expectation would be that since we made such good progress last year, we should build on that and not get down into burdensome deals about package arrangements. We should look at each issue on its merits and decide whether or not to pursue it. That's the ideal world; I must say that sometimes in diplomacy you don't live in ideal worlds. But you've got to be prepared to work on that basis.

ACT: With regards to the FMCT ad hoc committee that was formed last year, there was some disagreement over naming a chair for the committee. Would you explain the reasons why? Will this issue be revisited to a more significant degree this year?

Grey: It's hard to say at this time. The Canadians have been staunch advocates of an FMCT for more than 40 years, in one form or another; they're closely identified with it. There's a concern on the part of some countries that having a Canadian in the chair might give too positive a push to the issue, given the well-known Canadian national position. In the course of discussions, it emerged that there would be a Western chair during the first year of the committee's deliberations. We didn't really have deliberations last session, so my anticipation would be that a Western chair would be reappointed, and my hope would be that it would be Ambassador [Mark] Moher of Canada, who is a very skilled and very able diplomat. There is a little fallout from the First Committee, where the Canadians and the Australians and the New Zealanders took the lead on a resolution that deeply deplored the testing of India and Pakistan, and one doesn't know whether there's any ill will after that or not. Our hope and expectation is that our Canadian colleague will be reappointed.

ACT: Many states, led by Pakistan and Egypt, are calling for a fissile material treaty that goes beyond merely a cutoff and extends to the issue of stockpiles or past production. Why does the United States oppose this move?

Grey: Our view is that it's impossible to get into existing stocks at this stage, and that is a view shared by many in the international community. We approach things a step at a time, and we feel that this is the logical way to get progress on an FMCT.

Everyone knows that some time in the future, the question of existing stocks will have to be addressed. But I can assure you we would not have a successful negotiation on FMCT at this time if we tried to address existing stocks. In practice, the five nuclear-weapon states will have to address existing stocks during the long-term process of arms reductions that currently involves bilateral negotiations between the U.S. and Russia. I think that most people, on reflection, would agree with that. In addition, inserting existing stocks into the FMCT negotiations would give the two states that recently tested a sort of nuclear status, because the proposed provisions on existing stocks would implicitly put them in the same box as the five nuclear states, given that no one but the five NPT-defined nuclear-weapon states are supposed to have such stocks. I don't think that is something the rest of the international community wants to do.

But it is a sensitive issue, and we are working hard, bilaterally and unilaterally with the other nuclear states, to reduce these stocks. We recently agreed with Russia to place 50 tons of plutonium under IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] safeguards. I went down to Savannah River the other day and they are indeed digging the hole and getting ready to build the facility in which some of this material will be stored and monitored. So we are already spending big bucks to get ready for this.

ACT: Does the issue of existing fissile material stockpiles have the same potential for blocking conference progress as the issue of nuclear disarmament has in the past?

Grey: It is a possibility. One can never predict with any degree of accuracy what is going to happen. But one could debate this endlessly, and if we start on the question of scope it could quickly degenerate into people making maximalist statements without looking for a way forward. My expectation and hope is that this isn't going to happen. This is a very complicated and very difficult treaty, and we would be best advised to get started on all the issues in which we can see ways forward, such as identifying the key choke points in the production cycle and developing appropriate methods for ensuring compliance. There cannot be an FMCT if we try to include existing stocks. The nuclear states and India will not play. And I am sure the Israelis will not play. It is a very sensitive and delicate issue.

ACT: What elements would the United States like to see in a fissile material cutoff treaty?

Grey: Well, I don't want to tip my hand completely. It's quite clear that we want to see a system in place—and there are many ways to do this—in which there is no production of fissile material for nuclear explosive devices, as well as a verification regime in which people can clearly see that production has ceased. We have several ways to do that, which we are now discussing. We are laying our propositions on the table and have been working very hard with a number of states to come up with positions that meet our common concerns. But it's a major challenge.

One of the elements that we have to consider is the cost factor. The more intrusive, the more rigid the verification regime, the more costly this whole thing becomes. It's going to be very, very expensive, even with the kinds of safeguards we'd be interested in. If you want perfect safeguards, it becomes untenable.

ACT: What kinds of cost estimates are we looking at?

Grey: Each person you ask will give you a different answer, so I'm not going to give you one. It varies from the ridiculous to the sublime, but it's going to be a substantial increase in the cost of the inspection process. And how you do it—some people have reservations about the role of the IAEA, for example—those are matters that have to be addressed in the conference.

ACT: Do you foresee safeguards being placed on maintenance and dismantlement facilities in addition to reprocessing and enrichment facilities?

Grey: Our preference would be for reprocessing and enrichment. There are obviously other elements that will have to be considered, but we think that with those two you capture most of the problem.

ACT: Will the verification regime include confirming that past production facilities are not operational?

Grey: That's part of it. We believe that can be done. As a matter of fact, everyone under the IAEA safeguards—every non-nuclear state—has agreed to set up a regime that's much more intrusive and covers the full fuel cycle, so it probably wouldn't be a concern. If previous production facilities have been stripped of key equipment or otherwise put into mothballs, it should be very easy to verify that. It's not a complicated thing. The reality is that when a reprocessing or enrichment plant has been shut down, especially in our country, you couldn't simply start it up again even if you wanted to; it'd take several years and billions of dollars.

ACT: The other negotiating priority of the United States has been a transfer ban on anti-personnel landmines. Many states consider that work on such a treaty would duplicate work already done through the Ottawa Convention, which will soon enter into force for those states that have ratified it. How do you respond to such criticism?

Grey: It seems to me sort of silly. Most of the countries that export landmines have ceased doing it, but the major producers of landmines, and the exporters in the past, are all in the CD. As a complement to the Ottawa process, a simple export ban, in which people take a collective pledge to do what they're already individually committed to do, would be a useful step forward and would reinforce Ottawa. Some countries, frankly, will not be in a position to sign the Ottawa Convention in the near term or indefinite future and they have made that very clear. Why not get them to sign on to something they can sign?

There are two kinds of opposition to an export ban on APLs in the CD. There are those who signed on to Ottawa and think it's perfection. They wouldn't vote on any attempt to buttress it or to encourage other people to do anything but sign on to it; it'd be a sort of heresy. The others are dependent on landmines for their own self-defense and are suspicious of signing anything. We think an export ban is a sensible way to go for the short term.

We've made very clear our commitment to sign on to Ottawa ultimately. We have made it very clear to the Canadians and others that we don't see any contradiction between what we are seeking in the CD and ultimately signing on to the Ottawa Convention. We're not prepared to do anything that would affect in any way the kinds of terms and conditions of the Ottawa Convention.

In our view, a transfer ban is a step to move other countries which have not signed the Ottawa Convention in the direction of getting rid of these kinds of weapons. The fact of the matter is that people who haven't signed on to Ottawa still have the right to export mines. We think a transfer ban is a good interim step.

ACT: Will the United States seek to go beyond the transfer ban in the context of the CD?

Grey: No. We've made that pretty clear.

ACT: The Chinese ambassador, Li Changhe, made a very strong call for establishing an ad hoc committee for the prevention of an arms race in outer space, but the United States opposes this move. Why?

Grey: In our view, it's not an issue that deserves a major share of the time and effort the CD has available for negotiating arms control agreements. Outer space work is certainly not one of our priorities in the CD. There is no arms race in outer space. We have an unprecedented degree of international cooperation in outer space. And we think that rather than concentrating on getting involved in an issue that's not a problem now, we should concentrate on the real problem, the real job that we've been trying to get done for the last several years in the CD, which is the FMCT. That's our priority. And our second priority is APLs, because we think that's something that can be solved quickly, is a positive step forward, and addresses a real issue.

As long as there is no threat of an arms race in outer space, it is far from clear what the CD would gain by addressing it. Work on outer space would divert the attention of the CD from other things. Speaking personally, I have the view that given the resource limitations—both in terms of personnel and in terms of time—a step-by-step approach in the CD is probably all that can be expected. It can take on one big issue at a time. I think the way the CTBT was negotiated illustrates that.

ACT: If there is no arms race in outer space, wouldn't it be in the U.S. interest to negotiate a treaty that would freeze the status quo so there would be no possibility of an arms race?

Grey: We've got an agreement that bans the emplacement of weapons of mass destruction in outer space. We think that's enough; we don't anticipate any other problems.

ACT: A lot of countries have raised the concern of militarization of outer space, rather than an arms race in outer space.

Grey: The commercial and other civilian uses of outer space have long outpaced military uses such as communications, early warning and self-defense. It is therefore strange to hear talk about militarization occurring in outer space, and the prospect seems quite unlikely in the near future or the far future, for that matter. Our time could be more usefully spent dealing with the real emerging problem, and that is the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and the threat posed to the NPT regime by the Indian and Pakistani testing. You're not going to get significant arms control, in terms of nuclear arms reductions, in the future unless we have a lid on the production of fissile material, and that's in all our interest to do. When we get START III, and we're going to get it, the fact of an FMCT in force will make it significantly less difficult to negotiate even deeper reductions. At some point you have to capture the production of fissile material, and that's what we're trying to do.

ACT: The conference also started discussions regarding negative security assurances. However, the United States, among others, has opposed the negotiation of a treaty on negative security assurances. Why, and what does the United States advocate as an alternative?

Grey: We think the best way to do it is to continue to work on the creation of nuclear-weapon-free zones [NWFZs]. I think we've captured about 99 countries under those regimes now. If we can get the Southeast Asian zone and the Central Asian zone in satisfactory terms, we will capture well over a hundred. We think that's the way to go. It's a more productive way; it's a more effective way. That is a view shared by three of the other nuclear-weapon states as well.

ACT: Why does the United States reject the proposal put forth by China that negative security assurances for non-nuclear-weapon states should also include a "no-first-use" declaration by all nuclear-weapon states?

Grey: We don't think that's a good way to go. As long as you have a deterrent, you have to be prepared to exercise it. It's fundamental to our national security policy. When the happy day comes that we don't have to rely on nuclear deterrence, we're in a new world. But until then, it makes no sense. Arms control is basically an element of our national security policy, and we're not going to do things in the CD that call into question or alter in any fundamental way our own commitments to our allies and to our own people. We've made that abundantly clear, so many times and in so many places that it would bore your readers, who know the litany and probably wrote the instructions themselves.

ACT: Are there any other issues, besides an FMCT and a transfer ban on APLs, that the United States would like to see addressed by the conference?

Grey: The question of transparency in armaments and the issue of small arms are things that a number of people are concerned about. There is some reluctance on the part of others to address these right now, but these are issues, I think, that will keep coming back. We are sympathetic to that and will work constructively within the conference to see what we can do.

That having been said, if you look at the more urgent matters, we've been wrangling about FMCT for almost a decade. Now's the time to get working on it. That's where we're going to focus our efforts.

ACT: Will the United States continue to oppose moves within the conference to convene a body to discuss nuclear disarmament?

Grey: We're not totally negative. We have some ideas that could create a dialogue on nuclear disarmament within the conference without getting into negotiations. It's something that we've discussed at length with other people. We don't think the conference should set up an ad hoc committee on nuclear disarmament, but we're prepared to examine methods and approaches in which we could have a dialogue, as we did during the START process, and in which we could perhaps tell people where we've been, what we've accomplished, and where we're going.

ACT: How does that relate to negative security assurances?

Grey: As I said, our preference is to negotiate negative security assurances in the NWFZ context. That said, I'll agree to setting up the ad hoc committee, but the reality is that a global treaty will be far more difficult to reach in view of our known preference for another way of solving this problem.

ACT: Do you think the troika construct of past, present and future CD presidents created earlier this year and tasked with pursuing consultations with delegations on nuclear disarmament has been successful in meeting some countries' demands for work on this issue?

Grey: It's a useful vehicle because it gives them the potential to have something develop out of this. I'm prepared to see what recommendations develop out of this, and also to hold open the possibility, the very real possibility, that you'll get some kind of dialogue going, but not a negotiation.

ACT: What do you believe are the most important steps the nuclear-weapon states can take to assure CD members that the nuclear powers are indeed moving in the right direction with regard to nuclear disarmament?

Grey: The first thing is to keep them informed of what we are doing. We gave them a very comprehensive briefing, both in the NPT context and in the CD, about what we are actually doing with the Russians, and the degree to which we are sawing up weapons, dismantling things, turning stuff over to the IAEA, the fact that we're spending a billion dollars or so to help the Russians dismantle a number of their weapons. This is real; we have a very good track record. A hundred nuclear weapons being sawed up and thrown away every month is not insubstantial.

ACT: An initiative to increase the 61-member CD by five members was blocked by Iran in September. Does the United States support the continued expansion of the conference? Given the rule of consensus, does expansion not make it increasingly difficult to make decisions and accomplish work?

Grey: The expansion to 61 made it increasingly difficult to get the conference to function effectively. I think an expansion of five wouldn't make any difference one way or the other. Beyond that, we're agnostic. Once we achieve an FMCT successfully, maybe we'd be prepared to take another look. Until then, wherever we are when that negotiation starts, that's where we should stay, whether 61 or 66.

ACT: Is there an alternative to the mandate for consensus? Are there any options that the United States would consider worthwhile exploring?

Grey: Not as long as I am there.

ACT: Despite its successes, the CD has found it increasingly difficult to begin formal negotiations on a broad spectrum of issues. What are the principal factors that work against the CD functioning as a multilateral forum?

Grey: The principal difficulty is the perverse practice of packaging things, so that if I don't get "A," you don't get "B." I think it's imperative that we all look at issues in terms of what we're prepared to do collectively to achieve something positive. Our views on certain subjects, like negative security assurances or outer space, are well known. The reservations of other people on progress in transparency in armaments or small arms are well known. Where we have a convergence of interests, however, is in FMCT. Where there's a consensus, where there's a real need for it in the international community, where it's an appropriate subject for the conference to address, I think we should address that issue. If we're successful on that, others will emerge.

ACT: Do you believe there is an alternative approach to multilateral arms control other than the current patchwork of agreements, in which states often pick and choose the treaties they will adhere to and their conditions for participation?

Grey: As Bismarck said, drafting legislation and sausage-making are things you don't want to watch when they're happening. Whether you do it in the CD context or some other context, whenever you have different view on things it's a messy procedure; this is sort of like legislating for the international community. I can see a lot of other ways to do it, but would they be any less messy, or less confusing, or less piecemeal? Probably not.

ACT: Is there anything that you would like to say in general terms about the conference's operation or what you'd like to achieve?

Grey: The conference was conceived and set up and functioned for 40 years in basically a Cold War environment. One of the things I would like to see changed is this whole question of an Eastern group, a Western group, and a non-aligned group. The Western group is not unanimous; we have differences of opinion on lots of things. In a political sense, there is no Eastern group: Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary will be joining the Western group shortly, and a number of other Eastern countries want to join NATO, the European Union, etc. The non-aligned are no longer a unified group, if they ever were. Indian and Pakistani testing clearly was not supported by the non-aligned; you can see it in the voting in the UN First Committee. And an Eastern group that consists of two or three countries doesn't make much sense to me.

My hope would be that we could evolve the conference to reflect today's realities and not the realities of the Cold War. Perhaps the way to do business is to create like-minded groups addressing particular subjects. We've had a like-minded group on APL exports, covering a broad spectrum from the West and the East and the non-aligned, with about 20 countries trying to get progress on it. I think that's the wave of the future. The idea that to get a committee working you have to have one chairman from the East and one from the West and one from the G-21 is ridiculous. We should try to get chairmen, and friends of the chair, and coordinators, on the basis of their interests and their merits and their capabilities, not on the basis of what group they're from, especially when the groups no longer function as groups. It's a real frustration. Arms control is pretty rarefied stuff to begin with, especially multilateral arms control, with all the ideological baggage and yearnings and things people bring to it. It's even more unreal when you're dealing as if there were three blocs in a world when there are no blocs.

ACT: Going back to an earlier point that you mentioned, that APLs are a priority of the United States. Is it possible to do work both on the FMCT and APLs?

Grey: A number of the non-aligned would say that means that they are being forced to accept the U.S. agenda. Therefore, they probably won't let us have both.

ACT: Do a lot of the delegations have the resources to work on two issues simultaneously?

Grey: Negotiations would be much easier to manage if there were 18 delegations doing this, as in the 1960s. But at the end of the day, when you're working these things, it's only about 15 or 20 delegations that make a major effort to stay actively involved. If delegations want to be active, they will find the resources to do so.

ACT: Do you think the non-aligned will be even less effective as a bloc now that India and Pakistan have conducted nuclear tests?

Grey: They've been quite effective in terms of beating up on a couple of their own. But it's one thing to beat up on one of your own, or a country that is perceived to be one of your own. Scolding the United States, however, comes naturally to them.