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A Joint Enterprise: Diplomacy to Achieve a World Without Nuclear Weapons

By Steve Andreasen

While a candidate for president last summer, Barack Obama said in Berlin that "[t]his is the moment to begin the work of seeking the peace of a world without nuclear weapons." After the November election, the president-elect made clear in this magazine his support for the initiative led by former Secretaries of State George Shultz and Henry Kissinger, former Secretary of Defense William Perry, and former Senator Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) to embrace the vision of a world free of nuclear weapons and pursue a balanced program of practical steps toward achieving that goal, as the four American statesmen have proposed in two Wall Street Journal essays.[1]

The president is not alone. The response in the United States and abroad to the Shultz-Perry-Kissinger-Nunn articles has been remarkable. Mikhail Gorbachev wrote that as someone who signed the first treaties on real reductions in nuclear weapons, he felt it was his duty to support the call for urgent action.[2] Soon after, then-British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett delivered a speech in Washington outlining a path forward for dealing with nuclear threats, explicitly drawing on the views of the authors of the Wall Street Journal articles.[3] Additionally, an explosion of favorable letters, commentaries, editorials, and statements appeared in the United States and overseas. As of today, the initiative by the four has received the support of more than two-thirds of the living former secretaries of state and defense and national security advisers spanning the Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, and Bush administrations.[4]

A central theme from both Wall Street Journal commentaries is that, in order to reduce reliance on nuclear weapons globally and prevent their spread into dangerous hands, the United States must establish common objectives with other states. If a strong coalition of countries bands together behind the vision of a world free of nuclear weapons and agrees on a set of practical steps toward that goal, it can exert powerful pressures to prevent new nuclear-weapon states and make it much less likely that terrorists can get the materials they need to build a nuclear weapon.

In this context, Shultz, Perry, Kissinger, and Nunn have underscored the urgent need for Washington to work with leaders of other countries to turn the goal of a world without nuclear weapons into a joint enterprise among states by applying the necessary political will to build an international consensus on priorities. Achieving this consensus, however, requires grappling with a number of trade-offs on issues and approaches. Therefore, sorting through the issues and alternatives and determining a course of action will be one of the first tasks of Obama's new administration, with the choices having significant implications for advancing the nuclear agenda over the next four years.

Issues Associated With Establishing a Joint Enterprise

Initiating the Process

The first issue is how best to initiate the process of working with leaders of other countries to turn the goal of a world without nuclear weapons into a joint enterprise. Clearly, progress is not possible without early and sustained leadership by the United States, the world's leading nuclear-weapon state. As stated in The Wall Street Journal op-eds, "U.S. leadership will be required to take the world to the next stage-to a solid consensus for reversing reliance on nuclear weapons globally as a vital contribution to preventing their proliferation into potentially dangerous hands, and ultimately ending them as a threat to the world." Indeed, in the United States' absence, no state or combination of states can fill the leadership void and make tangible progress toward the goal.

That said, progress will ultimately require the cooperation of every country with nuclear weapons and every state with the capability to produce fissile material. In some instances, a heavy U.S. hand may undercut such cooperation. This is particularly true at the beginning of the process, while recognizing there are many countries looking to Washington to provide a sense of direction on this issue.

There may be much to be gained, in terms of mobilizing public support at home and abroad, from an early display of presidential commitment, for example, a speech delivered to the American people or the United Nations. Such a call to action by the president may be unavoidable and indispensable, but in order to have the maximum positive impact on establishing a joint enterprise among leaders and avoid the perception of a U.S. dictate, public action by the president should be carefully preceded by consultations with key states.

At a minimum, prior consultations with our closest nuclear allies, the United Kingdom and France, as well as NATO and our key nuclear interlocutor, Russia, will be required. Other nuclear-capable states, for example, China, India, Israel, and Pakistan as well as Germany and Japan, each possessing significant stockpiles of civilian plutonium, might be approached prior to a major U.S. initiative. Other non-nuclear-weapon states that have historically played an important role in nuclear and multilateral diplomacy, such as Australia, should also be included in these discussions.


A second issue is the extent to which this process must be procedurally and substantively inclusive, involving all nuclear-weapon states and other key countries, from the start. The United States and Russia possess nuclear stockpiles that dwarf those of all other states, each having approximately 10,000 nuclear warheads in its inventory. Nongovernmental analysts have estimated that, by 2012, about 6,000 warheads will remain in the U.S. stockpile, including nonstrategic and reserve warheads. The number of nuclear warheads in the Russian arsenal could also fall by 2012 to 6,000 or fewer. The remaining nuclear-weapon states today are estimated to possess a combined total on the order of 1,000 warheads.[5]

In this context, the United States and Russia could proceed bilaterally with significant reductions in their nuclear force levels before approaching the combined total of other states. That said, defining a global regime for reductions "in nuclear forces in all states that possess them," as stated in the 2007 Wall Street Journal op-ed, as well as a world without nuclear weapons will by definition involve all nuclear-weapon states and those states with the ability to produce nuclear material for weapons.

Moreover, beyond the issue of reductions in nuclear forces per se, many of the urgent steps envisioned by The Wall Street Journal op-eds, such as securing entry into force of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), providing security for all stocks of weapons and materials, getting control of the uranium-enrichment process; halting the production of fissile material for weapons globally, and implementing effective measures to impede or counter any nuclear-related conduct, would need to involve states other than the United States and Russia in order to be effective.

Simply stated, a process that is U.S.-Russian-centric at the outset might facilitate rapid progress on bilateral reductions. At the same time, not involving other key states at the outset or not pressing equally hard to make progress on those steps requiring a multilateral effort might hinder progress as well as undermine the potential for devising a truly global prohibition on nuclear arms. Alternatively, a process that envisions the early involvement of other key states, procedurally or substantively, risks bogging down, at least in some areas. This suggests the need to carefully balance a bilateral Moscow-Washington track with a multilateral one.

Centering the Process

A third issue is the extent to which the process should be centered within existing structures and mechanisms or on a more ad hoc basis. For example, elements of the existing international order for dealing with nuclear threats are centered in the 1968 nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). In Article VI of that treaty, the parties undertake "to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a Treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control." The NPT also includes a commitment by all non-nuclear-weapon states not to manufacture or acquire nuclear weapons and the right of all signatories to acquire nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. Although India, Israel, and Pakistan have yet to sign, it is truly a global accord, with 188 signatories. Every five years, a conference of states-parties to the NPT is held in order to review the operation of the treaty to assure that its purpose and provisions are being realized.

Moreover, the treaty comes with an associated verification instrument in the form of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which carries out inspections of nuclear facilities worldwide under safeguards agreements with NPT states designed to ensure the peaceful use of atomic energy and to prevent its diversion to nuclear weapons.

The NPT and its Article VI along with the IAEA provide an essential foundation for the goal of a world without nuclear weapons. The NPT's five-year review conferences have at times been used to advance this vision. For example, in 1995 the conference opted to extend the NPT indefinitely. At other times, however, the results have been far less impressive. The most recent NPT review conference in 2005 accomplished little other than to highlight tensions between the non-nuclear-weapon and nuclear-weapon states. In any case, it is not a day-to-day mechanism suitable for centering an ongoing process of nuclear disarmament, although the IAEA could conceivably play an expanded role with respect to the crucial issue of monitoring.

Another possibility might be the Conference on Disarmament (CD), which the UN established in 1979 as "the single multilateral disarmament negotiating forum of the international community." The CD was a result of the first Special Session on Disarmament of the UN General Assembly held in 1978. It succeeded other Geneva-based negotiating fora, which included the Ten-Nation Committee on Disarmament (1960), the Eighteen-Nation Committee on Disarmament (1962-1968), and the Conference of the Committee on Disarmament (1969-1978).

The terms of reference of the CD include practically all multilateral arms control and disarmament problems, including nuclear disarmament. The CD has a special relationship with the UN: it adopts its own procedural rules and its own agenda, taking into account the recommendations of the General Assembly and the proposals of its members. It reports to the General Assembly annually or more frequently, as appropriate. The conference meets in Geneva and conducts its work by consensus. The CD and its predecessors have negotiated such major multilateral arms limitation and disarmament agreements as the NPT, the Biological Weapons Convention, the Chemical Weapons Convention, and the CTBT. Currently, the CD is mired in an effort stretching back to 1993 to get started on the negotiation of a fissile material cutoff treaty (FMCT).

The terms of reference for the CD as well as its schedule of three regular sessions per year has made it at times a useful mechanism for achieving progress on specific steps. The CD's membership (65 states) and consensus rule, however, would make it an unwieldy structure for centering this joint disarmament enterprise, although it can still serve as a vehicle for accomplishing specific steps.

Other alternatives include the UN General Assembly and Security Council, which have been engaged on nuclear issues for decades, and indeed, the Security Council is today focused on the issues surrounding Iran's nuclear program. Given the Security Council's role in international peace and security and the fact that the five permanent members correspond with the five NPT nuclear-weapon states, involvement of the council in some fashion may be desirable and unavoidable.

That said, the Security Council's membership does not include on a routine basis the other nuclear-armed states (India, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan) or all states that can produce fissile material. Moreover, as has been the case with Iran, the ability of any one of the five permanent members to block action through a veto could be a significant procedural drag. Finally, there may be a significant constituency within the United States that will view any process centered in the UN as suspect.

For all of these reasons, an ad hoc structure might provide greater flexibility in involving key states and come without any institutional baggage associated with existing structures and mechanisms. Initiating and sustaining an ad hoc process, however, could prove as complex and frustrating as centering the process within existing frameworks.

Vision Versus Practical Achievements

Another question is the weight to give at the outset of this process to the achievement of practical steps as opposed to winning agreement on the vision.

Conceptually, obtaining agreement among leaders to affirm their support for the goal should be straightforward, at least with respect to the five NPT nuclear-weapon states, which are all committed to nuclear disarmament through Article VI. Nevertheless, some NPT nuclear-weapon states may be less than enthusiastic about participating in a high-profile, explicit reaffirmation of the goal, let alone a joint enterprise designed to achieve it. Other nuclear-armed states outside the NPT may also hesitate to embrace the goal publicly, particularly if they believe it will lead to early pressure on their own nuclear weapons programs. Alternatively, the highlighting of certain steps, for example, promoting CTBT entry into force with India, might undercut the effort.

In this context, one way to balance any tension between practical steps and the ultimate vision would be to seek an understanding among key states on the near-term and midterm steps that would be the initial focus of the joint enterprise that, once reached, could provide a base camp for an ascent up to the nuclear-free mountaintop. Such an approach might provide reassurance necessary to gain support for the vision and agreement on a process.

Four Approaches to Establishing a Joint Enterprise

As the preceding discussion illustrates, several different approaches might be followed to establish a joint enterprise. It also suggests that four criteria and questions are particularly useful in evaluating these alternatives. First, will the approach allow the United States to effectively promote and protect U.S. interests in reducing and eliminating nuclear threats? Second, will the approach create early momentum behind the vision and the steps? Third, will the approach be inclusive enough to prevent an outsider dynamic in which states that are not equally involved at the outset refuse to take part at a later date? Fourth, will the approach be flexible and sustainable over time?

A UN-Centered Approach

One alternative would be to center the process in the UN, an approach that has been advocated by long-time arms control negotiator Ambassador Max M. Kampelman.[6] Under this approach, the General Assembly would first pass a resolution calling for the elimination of all weapons of mass destruction-nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons. The General Assembly resolution would also request the Security Council, working with other key states, in particular, other nuclear-capable states such as India, Israel, and Pakistan, as well as states with the ability to produce enriched uranium and plutonium for nuclear arms, to develop effective political and technical means to achieve this goal. This would include stringent verification and severe penalties to prevent cheating. At an early date, the Security Council might call a "key states" conference under its auspices. The objective of the conference would be to build support for the vision and identify a program of specific steps that would lay the groundwork for a world free of the nuclear threat.

By centering the process for action in the Security Council, the United States would ensure the process took place in a forum where the United States has, by virtue of its veto, the power to protect U.S. interests. The fact that China, France, Russia, and the United Kingdom also possess a veto could at times complicate the U.S. effort to promote its interests.

Adoption of a General Assembly resolution that embraces the vision and centers the process for developing concrete steps within the Security Council would be an early reaffirmation of support from the international community. A stamp of legitimacy by all states would be firmly imprinted on the process, and the vision would be established as a goal in the minds of peoples of the world. Failure to achieve a General Assembly resolution or passage of a resolution without the support of key states, in particular nuclear-weapon states, might also be perceived as an early setback. Moreover, once the Security Council takes up the issue, tangible progress requiring the consent of all five nuclear-weapon states will be slow. Efforts to involve other key states, including India, Israel, and Pakistan, at an early phase may also slow progress.

The combination of a General Assembly resolution involving all countries and a Security Council process that would include other key states from the outset has the potential to promote a great degree of inclusiveness. Yet, if key states oppose the resolution or refuse to participate in a process centered in the Security Council, they will be publicly branded as outsiders from the outset, and they may find it difficult publicly to change that posture at a later date. Finally, a process centered in the UN may lack flexibility and inhibit progress; lack of progress may make the approach unsustainable.

An Ad Hoc Process

A second alternative would be to proceed outside the UN through an ad hoc process. Under this approach, the United States would work first with Russia and in consultation with key allies in devising a strategy for advancing the vision and specific steps. Initially, the focus would be heavily weighted toward bilateral action on steps pertaining to U.S. and Russian nuclear forces. The process for achieving further progress involving other countries would not be centered in or seek to involve either procedurally or substantively the UN in any significant way. Rather, the process would be ad hoc, involving only those countries and organizations necessary for achieving specific steps, for example, working within the 65-nation CD to achieve an FMCT.

Working initially within a framework that focuses first on bilateral steps between the United States and Russia is a process the United States has used successfully for decades to promote and protect U.S. interests. Later, or in some cases in parallel, an ad hoc process that involves those states or organizations necessary for achieving specific steps should minimize the risk that the process is used to frustrate U.S. interests.

This approach would give the United States and Russia a great deal of latitude to take early steps relating to their nuclear forces. In this way, it could best facilitate early momentum behind the vision and steps.

Although a number of steps could be taken by the United States and Russia working bilaterally, a process that did not procedurally and substantively involve other key states at the outset may provide a rationale for those states not to participate. This could ultimately undercut achieving progress on further steps toward a world free of nuclear weapons.

Nevertheless, this approach would provide maximum flexibility at the outset and later into the process. The key to its sustainability will be how successfully other key states can be brought in via ad hoc arrangements. If that proves not to be possible for whatever reason, an ad hoc approach may not be sustainable.

A Hybrid Process

Under this approach, the United States would work first with Russia and in consultation with key allies, with the initial focus on bilateral action on steps pertaining to U.S. and Russian nuclear force, just as in the second alternative. At some point, however, the United States, the other four permanent Security Council members, and other key states would encourage a resolution in the General Assembly that embraced the vision of and practical steps toward a world free of nuclear weapons. The process for achieving further progress on at least some issues could include the Security Council, where appropriate, as well as ad hoc assemblies.

Like the second alternative, working initially within a framework that focuses first on bilateral steps between the United States and Russia is a process the United States has used successfully for decades to promote and protect U.S. interests. Later, a process that involves a General Assembly resolution, the Security Council, and ad hoc assemblies depending on the issue should prove manageable with an emphasis on close coordination with the five permanent Security Council members and other key states.

Also like the second alternative, this approach would give the United States and Russia a great deal of latitude to take early steps relating to their nuclear forces. In this way, it would facilitate early momentum behind the vision and steps. Later, similar to the first alternative, the adoption of a General Assembly resolution embracing the vision would reaffirm support from the international community, provide a stamp of international legitimacy, and firmly enshrine the vision as a goal in the minds of peoples of the world.

This alternative, by virtue of a limited UN role, is designed to be more inclusive than the second alternative involving a bilateral U.S.-Russian track and various ad hoc assemblies. Like the first alternative, if key states oppose the General Assembly resolution or refuse to participate in a future process (Security Council or ad hoc), they will be cast as outsiders and may find it difficult publicly to change that posture at a later date.

Finally, like the second alternative, this approach provides a great deal of flexibility at the outset and later in the process. The key to its sustainability will be how successfully other key states can be brought in to the process at a later date, either through the Security Council or via ad hoc arrangements.

Global Zero

A fourth alternative would be to encourage a process centered outside of the UN and formal government structures as perhaps envisioned by the group Global Zero. In a Paris meeting held December 8-9, 2008, Global Zero publicly launched its effort to abolish all nuclear weapons. Although publicly supporting many of the specific steps advocated in the two Wall Street Journal commentaries, an important element of the group's strategy remains the development of a binding agreement for the elimination of all nuclear weapons in 25 years.

Exactly how this agreement will be developed is not explicitly defined. According to a December 9 press release, Global Zero will form an international commission of distinguished political and military leaders and policy experts from key countries, jointly led by two prominent individuals, one from Russia and one from the United States. This commission will emphasize establishing a Russian-U.S. partnership to work for the elimination of nuclear weapons. The leaders of Global Zero will then convene a world summit bringing together 500 political, military, business, and civic leaders in January 2010.[7] One possible permutation would be for individuals and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) working with Global Zero, perhaps joined by like-minded states, to draft the agreement on nuclear elimination. In this way, the effort would resemble the Ottawa process that drafted an agreement banning anti-personnel landmines during the 1990s outside of traditional diplomatic channels.

Although the Ottawa process has many advocates, the U.S. government was not able to effectively promote and protect U.S. interests using this model in the case of the landmine ban, at least as measured by the United States not becoming a party to the final agreement. Given the importance of nuclear weapons in U.S. security policy, Washington's participation in or support for such a process would seem uncertain at best.

A similar calculation might be made by other key states whose ultimate participation in the joint enterprise relating to nuclear weapons will be crucial. Many of these states, including China, India, Iran, Israel, Pakistan, North Korea, South Korea, and Russia, also remain outside the agreement banning anti-personnel landmines. Without the participation of key states, an Ottawa process on nuclear weapons could undercut the perception and the reality of early momentum in achieving the vision and the steps, at least at the government-to-government level. Moreover, there is also a risk that a new treaty effort, no matter how well intentioned, might weaken and divert progress toward specific steps, with consequences for the 2010 NPT Review Conference.

Reflecting these concerns, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office of the United Kingdom recently issued a paper entitled "Lifting the Nuclear Shadow: Creating the Conditions for Abolishing Nuclear Weapons," commenting on the feasibility of focusing on immediate negotiations to achieve a new treaty banning all nuclear weapons, like the model text that has been tabled before the UN: "[M]ost of the states with nuclear weapons, including the UK, while accepting that some form of such an agreement is likely to be necessary in due course to establish the final ban, consider that it would be premature and potentially counter-productive to focus efforts on it now when the many other conditions necessary to enable a ban have yet to be put in place."[8] Norway stated in its 2008 White Paper on Disarmament and Nonproliferation submitted by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that a number of countries oppose the idea of a convention and do not believe it would result in an agreement and that it would undermine the NPT, noting that "the most important task is to get the NPT countries to fulfill their disarmament and non-proliferation obligations."[9] Nevertheless, a visible process led by prominent individuals, NGOs, and like-minded states could raise public awareness and build support for specific steps, as well as the vision, of a world free of nuclear weapons.

Finally, if key states, in particular key nuclear-weapon states, remain outside the process involved in drafting an agreement on nuclear elimination or if key states feel unable to protect their interests during the process, there is a significant risk they will remain outside of any agreement that is developed. This also casts doubt on whether an Ottawa process applied to nuclear weapons would be sustainable over time.

A Path Forward

A hybrid process that allows for substantial latitude at the outset for the United States and Russia to lead and early involvement of other key states appears to be the most promising path.

Central to success in any effort is U.S. cooperation with Russia. The United States and Russia still have the bulk of the world's nuclear weapons, and we have a continuing interest in reducing and eliminating threats associated with these arsenals. U.S. and Russian cooperation is also optimal if not essential to build support from other nations on nuclear nonproliferation, including the urgent issues of Iran and North Korea, and nuclear terrorism.

Nuclear threat reduction and nonproliferation remain central to U.S. and Russian security. Although Russian national interests obviously do not always match our own, there remains a sufficient degree of convergence with respect to these interests to provide opportunities for advancing our shared interests. This remains the case even in the wake of the Georgia crisis, which makes all of these issues much more difficult but even more essential.

In addition, a hybrid process would be most likely to generate early momentum behind the vision and steps while gaining international legitimacy and support for efforts requiring the involvement of other key states. Such a process will necessarily be informed by early discussions between the United States and Russia as well as discussions with China, France, India, Israel, Pakistan, and the United Kingdom. This could then lead to action in other venues.

Care should be taken not to corner those key states that may lack enthusiasm at the outset for the vision or be averse to certain steps, as their positive involvement will be required at some future date. To be successful, any process will require the direct and sustained involvement of the president and leaders of key states, as the issues surrounding nuclear weapons go to the heart of national and international security. The absence of that involvement will likely doom the effort.

Finally, there will need to be a calculated and sustained effort by leaders and governments to enlist support of their publics for the vision and steps, and vice versa. The historic opportunity for making progress on the nuclear agenda that exists today has been generated in no small measure through the efforts of prominent individuals, most recently, Shultz, Perry, Kissinger, and Nunn and their Nuclear Security Project,[10] working outside of government. Developing mechanisms for communication and coordination between governmental and NGOs is a necessary ingredient to establishing a joint enterprise among states to deal decisively with nuclear threats. This may be our last best chance to get the job done.

Steve Andreasen served as director for defense policy and arms control on the National Security Council from 1993 to 2001 under President Bill Clinton and in the Department of State under Presidents George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan. He is a consultant to the Nuclear Threat Initiative in Washington, D.C., and teaches at the University of Minnesota's Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs.


1. George P. Shultz, William J. Perry, Henry A. Kissinger, and Sam Nunn, "A World Free of Nuclear Weapons," The Wall Street Journal, January 4, 2007, p. A15; George P. Shultz, William J. Perry, Henry A. Kissinger, and Sam Nunn, "Toward a Nuclear Free World," The Wall Street Journal, January 15, 2008, p.A13; "Arms Control Today 2008 Presidential Q&A: President-elect Barack Obama," Arms Control Today, December 2008, special section.

2. Mikhail Gorbachev, "The Nuclear Threat," The Wall Street Journal, January 31, 2007, p. 13.

3. Margaret Beckett, "A World Free of Nuclear Weapons?" Speech at the Carnegie Endowment, Washington, DC, June 25, 2007.

4. Schultz, Perry, Kissinger, and Nunn, "Toward a Nuclear Free World."

5. "Global Nuclear Inventories," International Panel on Fissile Materials, www.fissilematerials.org/ipfm/pages_us_en/fissile/inventories/inventories.php.

6. Max M. Kampelman, "Zero Nuclear Weapons," Implications of the Reykjavik Summit on Its Twentieth Anniversary (Stanford: Hoover Institution Press, 2007), pp. 97-106.

7. "100 International Leaders Launch Global Zero Campaign to Eliminate Nuclear Weapons," December 9, 2008, www.globalzero.org/en/press-release.

8. Foreign and Commonwealth Office of the United Kingdom, "Lifting the Nuclear Shadow: Creating the Conditions for Abolishing Nuclear Weapons," n.d., p. 34, www.fco.gov.uk/resources/en/pdf/pdf1/nuclear-paper.

9. Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, "Norwegian White Paper on Disarmament and Nonproliferation," May 30, 2008, www.norway-un.org/Selected+Topics/Disarmament/060208_WhitePaperonDisarmament.htm.

10. For further information, see www.nuclearsecurityproject.org.