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March 7, 2018
The Conference on Disarmament: Means of Rejuvenation
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Michael Krepon

After a long and successful run, the Conference on Disarmament (CD) has fallen on hard times. The negotiating forum that has produced treaties setting norms against nuclear testing and chemical and biological weapons has, for the last 10 years, sat on its hands. CD ambassadors who once worked on deadline to hammer out key provisions governing on-site inspections and schedules of prohibited substances now moonlight on other assignments in Geneva.

The CD’s work agenda is in dispute, and its procedures are knotted by the rule that all matters must be agreed by consensus.

The consensus rule, which has remained unchanged since this forum originated as the Ten Nation Committee on Disarmament, has become unwieldy in a body consisting of 65 members. In effect, the CD has outgrown its mission. As the Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission chaired by Hans Blix concluded earlier this year, it makes little sense for a single country to prevent all others from negotiating something that could help make the world a safer place.[1]

The consensus rule is a vestige of the Cold War and was originally designed to allow one superpower to veto the nefarious designs of the other. It has since become more widely employed by other nations, mostly those with nuclear weapons or nuclear ambitions. The CD’s rules of procedure have thus become yet another reason to rue nuclear proliferation. We cannot, however, limit the blame for the CD’s inaction on its anachronistic rules of procedure. In exceptional cases, these procedures can be circumvented. For example, in 1996 the CD maneuvered around an Indian roadblock to present the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) to the UN General Assembly, where it was overwhelmingly approved and opened for signature.

A second factor contributing to the stalemate at the CD has been the tectonic shift in international relations after the demise of the Soviet Union. The CD and its most important accomplishments were essentially products of the Cold War. Even the two major treaties produced by the CD that postdated the fall of the Soviet Union—the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and the CTBT—were deeply rooted in bipolar politics. The first superpower discussions about a test ban occurred during the Eisenhower administration. The lineage of the CWC dates back to Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. The key negotiating breakthroughs for both agreements, relating to intrusive inspections, can be carbon-dated to the second Reagan administration, when Gorbachev overturned sclerotic Soviet negotiating practices.

After two of the Cold War’s major pieces of unfinished business were completed, the CD became rudderless. Its remaining agenda items have been fixed in amber, even after new challenges became more evident following the terrorist attacks of September 11. The champions of the traditional agenda have lacked clout, while the champion of the Cold War has lacked interest in new multilateral treaties. The CD has thus been orphaned during the “unipolar moment,” to use U.S. columnist Charles Krauthammer’s memorable phrase, when U.S. leaders enjoy unparalleled power, are beset by new challenges, and are disinterested in agreements that would constrain military options. In this new world, “democratic realists” such as Krauthammer have chosen “power over paper.” In their view, the negotiation of multilateral treaties would simply help weaker states tie Gulliver down. Besides, treaties are for well-behaved states; the problems of international relations lie elsewhere.[2]

A central tenet of this mode of thinking is that the world remains divided, this time between responsible states— U.S. friends and allies—and evildoers. Because these two camps operate by very different rules, the Bush administration postulated and sought to enforce separate norms for each camp. The Bush team has strongly asserted, for example, that responsible states should retain the right to hold and modernize nuclear weapons, rights that should not be granted to evildoers. This is a profound shift in thinking from the global nonproliferation system embodied in the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and reflected in the previous work of the CD.

The global nonproliferation system could only be built on norms that applied to all, especially in a world divided by nuclear weapons. The norm of nonproliferation and the norm of nuclear disarmament had to be intricately linked in the NPT in order to bridge this divide. The NPT could not be sustained and the basis for constraining outliers could not be maintained unless these norms applied to all states. The unity of norms also had been central to the functioning of the CD when it was negotiating multilateral treaties that reinforced the NPT.

The norms of nonproliferation and nuclear disarmament are now faltering for many troubling reasons, and the Bush administration is entirely correct in seeking new compensatory steps to halt dangerous trends. But these efforts are undercut by the administration’s attempt to seek one set of rules for good guys and another set of rules for bad actors. There most certainly are responsible states and dangerous ones, although disagreements persist as to which states fall into which category. We are wise to distinguish responsible states from dangerous ones by comparing their actions against universal norms; we invite trouble by trying to impose different norms for friends and potential adversaries.

One size has never fit all proliferation cases, but every case becomes more intractable by trying to impose two sets of rules governing proliferation. At the very time when U.S. military dominance could have been effectively used to reaffirm global norms of nonproliferation and nuclear disarmament, the Bush administration has made hard proliferation problems even more difficult to reverse.

To be sure, the loss of U.S. interest in the CD as a means of reinforcing the global nonproliferation system began during the Clinton administration. Once the CTBT was negotiated, the Clinton team neglected follow-on negotiations at the CD on space security. This disinterest turned to disdain in the Bush administration. Now the correlation between the global nonproliferation system and the CD is very weak, as is evident by the Bush team’s continued expressions of fealty for the former and the CD’s weak standing in Geneva.

The Bush team has adamantly ruled out the mere discussion of space security as a CD agenda item, which, in turn, enables other states to rule out a negotiating mandate on a fissile material cutoff treaty (FMCT). The Bush administration has taken the offensive by charging other states as hostage takers at the CD. This amounts to blaming the victim, however, as the CD’s logjam begins with the administration’s rejection of talks on space security and its a priori assertion that an FMCT is unverifiable. No other nation at the CD has embraced these positions although some might, if and when the CD actually applies itself to these topics. In the meantime, the administration remains isolated in Geneva, as well as at the United Nations, where the most recent resolution calling for space security initiatives was approved by a vote of 166-1-2. The no vote came from the United States; Israel and Cote d’Ivoire abstained.

Where does the CD go from here? The Tokyo Forum, a group of international experts convened by the Japanese government, concluded in 1999 that:

the Conference on Disarmament should suspend its operations unless it can revise its procedures, update its work program, and carry out purposeful work. It adheres to an agenda that has long been outdated but cannot be changed for lack of a consensus to do so. The consensus rule, even on minor procedural matters, is now causing perpetual deadlock. Consensus among CD members should not be necessary to begin or, indeed, conclude a multilateral convention. If a country does not like a treaty, it does not have to sign it. The structure of the CD’s groupings of states, based on outdated Cold War alignments, also needs to be changed to better reflect the contemporary world.[3]

It is a sad commentary on the nonworkings of the CD that, seven years later, these remedies remain largely unexplored. The CD is unlikely to return to its former role anytime soon. Nonetheless, there are still ways to derive good works from diplomats posted there. Creative diplomacy seeks opportunity out of adversity. By this measurement, opportunities abound.

One consequence of the Bush administration’s dualistic approach to proliferation has been to offer India what Washington hopes will be a single-country exception to the rules of nuclear commerce established by the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). Because the NSG also operates by consensus, some of its members might be inclined to attach conditions to the proposed U.S.-Indian deal before providing their consent. These conditions could either have further negative or some positive effect on proliferation. If some NSG members insist that, as a condition of their support, the United States drop its opposition to talks on space security in the CD, negotiations could also begin on an FMCT. This outcome could at least attach something positive to a deal that is likely to further weaken global norms against proliferation.

Space security and the fissile material cutoff are extremely complicated subjects. Even if the CD continues to be deadlocked, coalitions of the willing, including nongovernmental as well as governmental experts, could convene periodically in Geneva to lay the groundwork for agreements in both areas. Future agreements need not be confined to treaties, which take prolonged periods of time to negotiate and enter into force. Less-formal agreements that could be implemented more quickly than treaties might be considered by expert groups for subsequent consideration by the CD.

The CD has gingerly begun down this path, with annual workshops on space security initiated by Canada, China, and Russia with the assistance of the UN Institute for Disarmament Research. One worthwhile idea discussed at these workshops is creating a code of conduct for responsible spacefaring countries, which could serve as a near-term instrument to reinforce norms that prevent dangerous practices in outer space.[4] The pace of these deliberations might well be quickened with well-structured workshops between technical experts and diplomats on the key elements of a prospective code.

Global norms supporting nonproliferation and nuclear disarmament are undercut by ongoing fissile material production for nuclear weapons. It is therefore important for the CD to conclude an FMCT, but reaching agreement on such a treaty will be an arduous task. The governments that are most needed to sign up— India, Iran, Israel, North Korea, and Pakistan—may also be the most resistant to such a treaty. Monitoring arrangements for a cutoff agreement will be sensitive and far from simple. Verification workshops at the CD would be helpful to widen the circle of those familiar with these challenges.

A coalition of the willing could also pursue interim steps while awaiting a formal cutoff treaty. One step would be for the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, along with India, Pakistan, and perhaps Israel, to discuss a voluntary moratorium on fissile material production for nuclear weapons. France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States have publicly announced such moratoria. China has privately but not publicly said that it has stopped producing such material. A seven- or eight-party discussion might focus on how the current moratoria could be extended and how the parties might gain sufficient confidence that pledges are being honored. These talks could take place in parallel with CD deliberations.

Other workshops at the CD could be devoted to learning about cooperative threat reduction programs, such as how to improve border security to intercept the transport of dangerous materials. The CD also could host regular training sessions for the implementation of international codes of conduct, such as UN Security Council Resolution 1540.

These informal agenda items would not require consensus. Although modest, they could prove useful, leading to constructive governmental/nongovernmental partnerships and paving the way for more ambitious agenda items. The CD has had a distinguished past. With suitable adaptation, it could still have a useful future.

Michael Krepon is co-founder of the Henry L. Stimson Center and author of Cooperative Threat Reduction, Missile Defense, and the Nuclear Future (2002).


1. Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission, “Weapons of Terror, Freeing the World of Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Weapons, 2006, p. 180 (recommendation 58).

2. Charles Krauthammer, “The Unipolar Moment,” Foreign Affairs Vol. 70, No. 1, (Winter 1990-1991), pp. 23–33; Charles Krauthammer, “The Unipolar Moment Revisted,” The National Interest 70 (Winter 2002/2003), pp. 5-18; Charles Krauthammer, “In Defense of Democratic Realism,” The National Interest 77 (Fall 2004), pp. 1-12.

3. “Facing Nuclear Dangers: An Action Plan for the 21st Century: The Report of the Tokyo Forum for Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament,” July 25, 1999. The author participated in the Tokyo Forum’s deliberations.

4. Michael Krepon with Michael Katz-Hyman, “Space Weapons and Proliferation,” Nonproliferation Review, Vol. 12, No. 2 (July 2005), pp. 323-341.