Deadlocked and Waiting At the UN Conference on Disarmament

December 2000

Interviewed by Wade Boese

Ambassador Robert T. Grey, Jr. has been the U.S. permanent representative to the UN Conference on Disarmament (CD) since October 1997. The CD, which convenes in Geneva for several weeks three times each year, has met since 1979 as a forum for multilateral disarmament negotiations.

This year, the 66-member conference successfully passed its agenda—consisting of broad categories that are open for discussion—but was unable to reach the consensus needed to establish a program of work, which is composed of mandates outlining discussions or negotiations on selected topics. For example, the work program could establish an ad hoc committee to conduct formal negotiations on an issue, with the goal of eventually concluding a treaty, or to hold discussions on a topic, aiming simply to explore members' views. Without a work program, the CD cannot formally negotiate or discuss any agenda item.

After completing negotiations on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in 1996, the conference was unable to reach consensus on a work program in three of the next four years. In 1998, the conference did agree to a work program and began negotiations on a fissile material cutoff treaty (FMCT) in August, but it made little headway before its negotiating session ended September 9. Though all CD members currently support FMCT negotiations, a few have insisted that those negotiations can only take place if negotiations are also conducted on nuclear disarmament and prevention of an arms race in outer space, a linkage that the United States has opposed.

Prior to heading the U.S. delegation to the CD, Ambassador Grey led the State Department UN Reform Team. He was counselor for political affairs for the U.S. Mission to the UN from 1989 to 1994 and acting deputy director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency from 1981 to 1983. Before holding these posts, Ambassador Grey was the Political-Military Affairs Bureau's deputy office director in the Office of Military Sales and Assistance and the executive assistant to the undersecretary of state for political affairs. He joined the Foreign Service in 1960.

On November 27, Arms Control Association Senior Research Analyst Wade Boese spoke with Ambassador Grey about the causes of the current stalemate at the CD and the possibility of progress. The following is an edited version of their conversation.


Arms Control Today: When I interviewed you two years ago (see ACT, October 1998), you expressed cautious optimism that the Conference on Disarmament would begin negotiations in 1999, specifically on a fissile material cutoff treaty. But now, after CD sessions in 1999 and 2000, the conference is still deadlocked and has not agreed on a work program in the last two years. Why?

Ambassador Robert T. Grey, Jr.: First, the CD actually did get started for a brief couple of weeks on an FMCT a couple years back, in August 1998. That decision to go forward was heavily influenced by international concern over the nuclear weapons tests that India and Pakistan carried out that spring. But since everyone knew that the CD could not really achieve anything in the few weeks left in that year's session, some countries probably went along with the decision to establish an ad hoc committee as a show of their "good faith." In other words, I doubt that all 66 members of the CD really had a strong commitment to FMCT negotiations as an independent endeavor for its own sake.

In January 1999, the situation turned out to be considerably more complicated. Basically, there were two issues that blocked work that year and in 2000. The first one, which I think we may now have worked out, was the interest of the non-aligned countries to get something started on nuclear disarmament in the conference. As we worked with them, it became clear that there was a possible way to accommodate their interests, and we have come up with a proposal to discuss nuclear disarmament in the conference—various aspects of it—but we would not negotiate on it. This seems to be where the consensus has emerged on that issue, and therefore I think that hurdle really is behind us. We have ways to work out the exact wording for discussions on nuclear disarmament, in return for getting FMCT negotiations.

The next issue that arose and became more acute was the Chinese insistence that they wanted outer space negotiations. It started about 18 months ago when the Chinese declared that, if there were to be FMCT negotiations, there had to be a negotiation on banning weapons in outer space. This was a new demand that really came up about the time of NATO's military intervention in Kosovo in March 1999. The Chinese have stuck rigidly to that position ever since. China is still insisting that, if we are to have a negotiation on an FMCT, the conference must also have negotiations on banning arms in outer space along with the negotiations on nuclear disarmament in the CD, which were requested by the non-aligned states. Now I don't think that is a real Chinese position, but that is what they are saying in public.

ACT: Why do you say that's not a "real" Chinese position?

Grey: I don't think China is ever going to agree to negotiations in the CD on nuclear disarmament. I think they are being a little disingenuous on that issue, for they have never shown any willingness to talk about their own nuclear arsenal. But they really do want, and are insisting on, something on outer space.

ACT: Why does the United States not support negotiations on the prevention of an arms race in outer space?

Grey: The United States does not feel there is an arms race in outer space. We think the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which bans weapons of mass destruction in outer space, is adequate and sufficient. In addition, the treaty permits the use of celestial bodies only for peaceful purposes and prohibits their use for military establishments or maneuvers or for testing any type of weapons.

Nevertheless, we are prepared to discuss outer space in the context of a work program in the conference.

We are not prepared to negotiate a treaty banning outer space weapons at this stage of the game. Our position is very simple. We see no need to negotiate on outer space, but we are willing to talk about outer space in an ad hoc committee. We are also willing to talk about nuclear disarmament. In return, we expect to get FMCT negotiations started.

This package is basically what successive CD presidents have proposed, beginning with the Algerian presidency of the conference in July 1999. It was followed up by the Belgian president and most recently by the Brazilian president this August. That is the package where consensus seems to be emerging. We would have ad hoc committees on outer space and nuclear disarmament to talk about what we could conceivably accomplish. In return, the CD would have active negotiations on an FMCT. With the exception of the Chinese, Pakistanis, and Russians, everyone is prepared to accept that kind of a package.

ACT: If the United States were to compromise on outer space negotiations, do you think any other countries would oppose the start of formal talks on the subject? In other words, is the United States the principal opponent to such negotiations?

Grey: We are prepared to have ad hoc committees to discuss what perhaps could be achieved or couldn't be achieved on outer space and nuclear disarmament, whatever the case may be, in return for FMCT negotiations. Those are both significant concessions on our part, and that's where the consensus has emerged amongst the conference. A fissile material cutoff treaty is the only thing that people have agreed to over the last several years and is ripe for negotiation at this time. Many countries have commented that other topics are not ripe for negotiations now and that a phase of organized discussions would be needed before any such negotiations could conceivably begin.

ACT: At the conference, you have described the pursuit of negotiations on an arms race in outer space as "unwise and unrealistic." Why?

Grey: The United States does not think that negotiations on outer space is a proposal that makes any sense. There is no arms race in outer space at all. Even if we were to deploy President Clinton's proposed limited national missile defense (NMD) system, which we haven't decided to do, that would not involve putting arms in outer space. So, we are just not prepared to entertain outer space negotiations.

ACT: Some countries have argued that it makes sense to address the issue of outer space before there is an arms race there. What is your response to that?

Grey: It's like saying, let's outlaw new conventional weapons. It's impossible to predict with any clarity what is or what isn't going to be a problem in the future.

ACT: Does President Clinton's September 1 decision not to authorize deployment of the proposed NMD system increase the possibility that countries will be less strident in their pursuit of negotiations on outer space or more willing to compromise?

Grey: It is hard for me to say from the perspective of where I am sitting. All I can say is that you would expect that would be the case. But it certainly has not manifested itself in any changed position of the Chinese, the Russians, or the Pakistanis.

ACT: Russia has said that it supports FMCT negotiations and that it also wants outer space negotiations. Have the Russians, like the Chinese, formally linked the two issues?

Grey: Russia supports the Chinese position and made the linkage here—no agreement on a work program unless it includes outer space negotiations. I would say that's fair as a statement of Russia's bargaining position, although it is clearly unrealistic. But Russia has no interest whatsoever in doing anything with nuclear disarmament.

ACT: What impact, if any, do you think Russian President Vladimir Putin's proposal to hold an international conference next spring on preventing the weaponization of outer space will have on the work at the conference?

Grey: I don't know, it's very hard to say. I mean, it hasn't been fleshed out and there has not been any formal considered reactions to it by delegations represented in Geneva. The CD is currently in recess, so we will have to see as we get closer to January when the conference resumes what various positions are on that. But, as I said, the reality is that three countries, one of whom called for the outer space negotiations, are blocking action in the CD. So it is hard for me to predict what those three countries are going to do in the near future.

ACT: Does Pakistan also support talks on prevention of an arms race in outer space?

Grey: The Pakistani perspective is basically that they are sympathetic to the Chinese and are absolutely wedded to the Chinese position insisting on negotiations on all three issues.

ACT: You have had a number of exchanges with the Chinese ambassador on negotiating priorities within the CD, and you have consistently talked about the danger of linkage within the CD. How do you respond to the Chinese ambassador's charge that the U.S. insistence to drop "linkage" simply reflects Washington's wish to negotiate only on what it is interested in without addressing the concerns or interests of other CD members?

Grey: Very simple. As I said, with the exception of the Chinese, the Pakistanis, and the Russians, every single member of the CD is prepared to accept a work program tomorrow that we could accept. There would be three ad hoc committees: one discussing nuclear disarmament, one negotiating on an FMCT, and the third one discussing outer space.

ACT: Why is negotiation of an FMCT the top U.S. priority at the CD and what does the United States want to accomplish through it?

Grey: The idea would be to negotiate a treaty that would effectively, and forever, bar the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons. That would mean the five nuclear-weapon states of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) [Britain, China, France, Russia, and the United States] and the three states that allegedly have nuclear weapons which are not members of the NPT [India, Israel, and Pakistan] would forever cease producing fissile material that they could install in nuclear warheads. This prohibition is a necessary step in the long-term process of nuclear disarmament, and it is the only step in this general field that the CD can negotiate now. We believe the treaty's main focus should be on uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing facilities, and that is where it would have real teeth.

ACT: In the final document of the 2000 NPT review conference, the NPT parties agreed to the immediate commencement of negotiations on an FMCT, looking for a conclusion of those talks in five years. How realistic is that given the current state of the conference?

Grey: Obviously, if you are working in an environment in which there has to be unanimity on a work program and there are three countries blocking that consensus, it is hard to imagine you are going to get there in five years if you can't start negotiating now.

ACT: You have mentioned this rule of unanimity a couple of times. Do you think that the rule of consensus needs to be addressed so that the conference can operate more effectively? Should unanimity be abandoned as an operating principle of the conference?

Grey: It's been helpful in the past to require unanimity, because a multilateral treaty negotiated in the face of active opposition by key countries could actually end up undermining international peace and security, instead of enhancing it. Yes, the requirement for unanimity blocked progress in 1999 and 2000, after doing the same thing for all but the last month of the 1998 session. But it is unlikely that the rules of procedure will be changed because you need unanimity to change the rules of procedure. Although any scoundrel can hide behind unanimity, on balance the requirement is a good thing to have.

ACT: In one of your speeches at the conference, you stated that in the U.S. view "holding FMCT hostage to negotiations on outer space is simply a poorly disguised effort to block FMCT negotiations altogether." Why would the Chinese want to block FMCT negotiations?

Grey: I can only speculate. Certainly in the back of my mind—and I'm told in the conference that I'm not the only one who has this suspicion—the Chinese reluctance to get going on an FMCT may suggest that they are having second thoughts about it.

ACT: Why would they have second thoughts?

Grey: Well, I can't speak for them. I just think that, if you look at their behavior, it is a legitimate suspicion. They certainly have not done anything as a number of other countries have, including ourselves, in showing any transparency about their fissile material stocks or in terms of showing people what capacity they have to produce fissile material. We have closed down our production facilities and have shown them to outside visitors, including colleagues from Russia and China. The British and French are very transparent. The Russians are relatively transparent. Only the Chinese have not showed any willingness to engage in transparency. In addition, they have repeatedly declined to declare a moratorium on the production of fissile material for use in nuclear weapons.

ACT: Does your perception reflect the view of U.S. intelligence reports that China is currently modernizing its strategic forces?

Grey: Well, that's on the public record. They are doing that and have been for a number of years.

ACT: Do you think this would impact their position on FMCT negotiations?

Grey: I don't know if it would impact their position on it per se, but clearly they are the only people who are really engaged in an upgrade of that caliber.

ACT: In the past, other countries, such as Egypt and Pakistan, have really pushed the issue of wanting to include fissile stockpiles within an FMCT. Will that issue be raised again if the conference ever decides to begin work on an FMCT?

Grey: It will certainly be raised. But the first step is to halt the present production, freeze it, and then at some point in time address the existing stocks of fissile material, while reducing the stocks of nuclear weapons. The question of fissile material stockpiles will certainly be hammered hard by a number of Middle Eastern countries, most notably Egypt, and clearly the Pakistanis will raise it. They are very interested in addressing existing stocks in India, but not as interested in getting rid of their own.

ACT: Would it be a powerful enough issue that it would block progress on an FMCT?

Grey: How to address stockpiles will certainly be the toughest issue if we get a negotiation started. It's very clear that it will be the most contentious one and will take the longest time to sort out. None of the five recognized nuclear-weapon states support the idea that an FMCT should include obligations related to existing stocks of fissile material.

ACT: If a compromise is reached on the outer space issue, might general nuclear disarmament still prevent consensus on a work program to begin negotiations?

Grey: I don't think so. I think we have got that one. In broad terms, we have an acceptable compromise worked out there. I think the exact wording will be along lines that we could accept, along with most of the other members. The only question mark would be the Russians, and frankly I think, if that was the only thing between the conference getting a work program established, something would be worked out.

ACT: Why do you raise the Russians in particular?

Grey: They are not terribly enthusiastic about doing anything on nuclear disarmament in the conference. They are much more cautious about it than we are. Until you get to the endgame, you can't tell what their ultimate position will be, but clearly the Russians are not enthusiastic about it. Further reductions in nuclear arms have to be negotiated with the United States on a bilateral basis, and it is not clear that anything said in the CD can contribute to that.

ACT: You mentioned that a mandate for discussion on nuclear disarmament was very close, and at the conference you actually used the term "only a few words remaining" to describe how close the CD was to finding a mandate. Could you explain what those few words are?

Grey: No, not really. I want to politely punt on that. We don't have an exact formulation on the table. We have several words, but clearly if you look at the combinations of them there are ways our concerns could be met without giving away the store, and I think there are ways other peoples' concerns could be met. There are a number of ways one could get around the wording problem. Until we have a final paragraph or piece of paper with the words written down, I can't tell you which words should come in and which ones should go out. We are literally within five or six words of an agreement that satisfies everyone.

ACT: This will only be limited to discussions, not negotiations, correct?

Grey: That is exactly right.

ACT: At the CD, it appears you spend a lot of time defending the U.S. record on nuclear disarmament. Do you think the rest of the world is dissatisfied with the pace of U.S. and Russian progress in reducing their arsenals? And do you feel their dissatisfaction is warranted?

Grey: I think that one of the things we have done here is to try to make the record of what we have accomplished clearer, because this is a little bit like an ivory tower, if you will, in terms of what is really going on. So we have had a senior official from the Defense Department come over and brief on what we have been accomplishing both in NATO and in our bilaterals with the Russians. We have some Department of Energy and Department of State officials come over from time to time discussing the nuclear disposal program and the various ongoing programs the Department of Energy has with the Russians, because these people in the CD need to know what's happening. It's not that we are defending the record; it's that we are trying to make them aware that there is a record and there are things actually happening while they sit around on their duffs over here and do nothing.

ACT: In the final document of the 2000 NPT review conference, the nuclear-weapon states agreed to an "unequivocal undertaking" to accomplish "total elimination" of their arsenals. How will this pledge impact the work of the conference?

Grey: It certainly was warmly received by a number of countries, including the so-called New Agenda Coalition [Brazil, Egypt, Ireland, Mexico, New Zealand, South Africa, and Sweden]. For the first time this year, we were also able to support their resolution on disarmament in the UN General Assembly. That is a considerable step forward, I think, and it reflected the fact that their resolution was largely based on wording adopted by the NPT review conference.

ACT: Why didn't the success of the NPT review conference have an immediate impact on or carry over to the Conference on Disarmament this year?

Grey: I think that's very simple. The question of the ABM [Anti-Ballistic Missile] Treaty and missile defense was not an issue at the NPT review conference because the NPT does not deal with that. It is an issue at the CD because the Chinese have made it an issue. There is something in play here that was not in play at the NPT review conference.

ACT: Do you think the Chinese have a legitimate right to raise the question of the ABM Treaty at the Conference on Disarmament, or do you think because it is a bilateral treaty that they should not be able to do so?

Grey: Well, you know this is a place that operates on unanimity. Clearly, making linkages between subject A and subject B, whatever they are, is not helpful in the context of the conference's work. The ABM Treaty is a bilateral treaty; our position is that we can work this out with the Russians, we don't need any help. Making linkages at the CD is not going to move the process forward.

Traditionally, we used to decide issues on their own individual merits, not on whether someone thinks that something else should be in play at the same time. The latter is an absolutely splendid way to guarantee gridlock. I think we should negotiate on the merit of each individual proposal. If you look at the merits, everybody agrees we should be negotiating an FMCT.

ACT: What are the chances for starting any negotiations or for passing a work program while the United States is pursuing an NMD system? Will this be a continuing roadblock to work at the conference?

Grey: Well, I can say that, out of the 66 conference members, 63 of them are prepared to go ahead on the basis of the proposal I described, which has been put out by successive presidents; three are not. The conference works by unanimity. Are these three countries going to change their minds any time soon? I can't predict that.

ACT: What impact, if any, do you feel the Senate's October 1999 rejection of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty [CTBT] had on the conference?

Grey: Surprisingly little. I say that because I thought it would have. But the way the executive branch reacted to the Senate's rejection of the CTBT—its strong statements that it is continuing to work on it, the fact that it has been working the issue, and the fact that U.S. representatives continued to show a firm commitment to the CTBT in international bodies—convinced other countries that the United States is serious and sincere. People were disappointed, but they understood what happened and are convinced that over time this is going to change. Fortunately, at least in the Senate, it looks like we are going to have a better environment for some of these issues in the future than we've had in the past.

ACT: What if the next administration is not as active in supporting the CTBT?

Grey: If the position of the executive branch changed in a way that weakened U.S. support for the CTBT, it would obviously have a negative impact on all sorts of arms control.

ACT: The international community seems to be increasing its attention on the issue of small arms. Do you think the CD will eventually play a role on this issue or negotiate a treaty on small arms?

Grey: There is certainly an interest in looking at small arms, but I do not think there is any clear view that it ultimately should be something that is negotiated in the CD. This is not a subject we have spent a lot of time on here, but it seems to me that there are a number of people who are less than enthusiastic about doing it in the CD, most notably the Chinese. There also seems to be a tendency on the part of some that maybe you should deal with small arms at a regional level first and see what needs to be worked out later at the international level.

ACT: Wouldn't the CD, though, as the only multilateral forum for disarmament, be the ideal place for such a treaty to be negotiated?

Grey: It depends on how you decide to deal with the problem. If you decide to deal with it through regional regimes like nuclear-weapon-free zones, that is one way you can do it. The other alternative would be to do it as an international regime. But I don't think people have gotten far enough along in their analyses, studies, and discussions to come down firmly one way or another. There are many ways you can skin this particular cat.

ACT: What impact do you think the expanding lead of the United States in advanced conventional weaponry, precision-guided munitions, electronic warfare, unmanned aerial vehicles, and so forth has on the future of arms control, non-proliferation, and disarmament in general? How are other countries going to perceive and react to our growing lead in advanced conventional weapon technologies?

Grey: That's a complicated question. One of the concerns people have—and I think it's a real concern—is that conventional capabilities are expanding at a staggering rate. This was clear from the outcome in Kosovo and from the fact that this intervention went on without NATO sustaining any casualties. There is an indirect link to missile defense and other questions related to nuclear weapons—at least in the sense that countries may have to reflect whether they can manage two major efforts at the same time. If I try to think about the situation from China's perspective, perhaps the Chinese are wondering whether they can afford all this and can actually bring it off. Another question is whether European countries could work out an appropriate approach to missile defense while they are also developing a conventional army that really is ready to intervene in trouble spots. The Europeans have striking needs in regard to conventional weapons; just look at the astronomical cost of this stuff. Can they meet all these challenges at once?

One possible reaction is to try to outlaw potential weapons or techniques before they've even been invented or at least before they've been adapted for military purposes. For example, the Russians have been pursuing a First Committee initiative on information technology, and their underlying goal seems to be some kind of pledge not to interfere with each others' computers or other facilities involved in the flow of information. In other words, let's outlaw something before we figure out what it is. But outlawing certain kinds of computers or computer techniques is like trying to outlaw telephones. Like telephones, computers have many different functions, and the ways they are used and operated keep changing before our eyes.

Given the complex uncertainties that relate to various defense needs, plus the large amounts of money that may be involved, people come out of the woodwork and say, "Well, let's have a deal not to invent anything." It isn't going to work.

ACT: You mentioned Kosovo again. How much of the Chinese position or advocacy of negotiations on outer space reflects not only their concern about national missile defense, but also their concern about the ability to gather information and how this is used by the United States to operate with superiority in the conventional warfare arena?

Grey: Let me turn it around and say that the Chinese are concerned because one, NATO is expanding to the east and two, because the Kosovo intervention took place without what they thought was the proper authorization of the UN Security Council. If you take those two elements together, plus the fact that the United States has a huge lead in advanced technological capabilities related to a wide range of weapons systems, they believe they have cause for serious concern. They are not worried about Kosovo per se; they are worried about the possibility that the United States might wish to intervene in an area they consider much more important to their security than Kosovo.

ACT: Such as Taiwan?

Grey: Well, or Tibet or whatever. That's what they are afraid of. They thought their seat on the Security Council immunized them from any involvement in their domestic affairs. In a world that's seen the Nuremberg trials and a few other things, the fact of the matter is the world community does take an interest in things that occur in your backyard or in what you say is your backyard. And that's the reality they haven't quite adjusted to.

ACT: Do you think they are using the CD and outer space as another means to guard against possible intervention in their sovereignty?

Grey: They are against "hegemony."

ACT: Do you think the deadlock in the CD reflects a declining interest in arms control and disarmament in general, or is it just because of the specific issues that have arisen at this time?

Grey: I don't think it reflects a declining interest. I think it reflects a frustration with what you described correctly as a technologically expanding, highly innovative international environment where people get concerned about their ability to keep up.

ACT: Are you still optimistic about the future work at the conference?

Grey: Much less optimistic now than I was two years ago.

ACT: So you don't see any quick conclusion or compromise that will help us get around this issue of outer space?

Grey: I don't see anything further the United States can or should do. We have made some significant concessions already. We've agreed to set up an ad hoc committee to discuss outer space in the CD. That is very significant. We have agreed to set up an ad hoc committee to discuss nuclear disarmament in the CD. That is pretty substantial. I don't see us making any new moves.

The reality is that we are going to have a new administration. When the dust settles, there will be a settling-in period that will be somewhat more hectic than most. I would expect the Russians and the Chinese and others will wait and see how a new administration settles in and what initiatives it is prepared to take in the national security area and with regard to arms control. Other countries are also going to assess where the new administration is coming from and what its objectives are, before they decide to play or not in the CD and elsewhere.

ACT: So we shouldn't expect any quick progress next year at the CD?

Grey: I wouldn't expect any white smoke coming out of the chimney for a while, no.

ACT: What do you think must take place for the CD to be productive next year?

Grey: The Chinese have to change their minds.

ACT: Will it only be the Chinese, or do you think the Russians and the Pakistanis would then step forward and say, "No you are not going to hold any negotiations unless you agree to outer space negotiations?"

Grey: I think if the Chinese change their minds it changes the atmosphere. They created the problem; they have to solve it.