A World Without Nuclear Weapons Is a Joint Enterprise

James Goodby

With the entry into force of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) between Russia and the United States, the time has come to widen the conversations about eliminating nuclear weapons to include other nuclear-armed states and states with advanced civil nuclear programs. Their support for creating the necessary conditions for achieving a world without nuclear weapons is essential in practice as well as in principle.

Russia and the United States have urgent unfinished business: reductions in the number of nuclear weapons beyond those scheduled in New START, including warheads associated with short-range delivery systems. Yet, talks limited to Russia and the United States alone cannot succeed in creating conditions conducive to achieving a world without nuclear weapons. The U.S. Senate, in its resolution of ratification for New START, “calls upon the other nuclear weapon states to give careful and early consideration to corresponding reductions of their own nuclear arsenals.” That is good advice.

The nuclear weapons programs of other countries are major barriers to sustained Russian-U.S. reductions in nuclear weap­onry and can encourage further proliferation in the absence of solid signs of commitment to the goals of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). These programs are cited again and again in critical commentary on the feasibility and even desirability of the goal of eliminating nuclear weapons. If other states that possess nuclear weapons were to join in a reduction and elimination program, even with small initial steps, the effect on Russia and the United States would be catalytic. It would energize their efforts to move toward deep reductions and ultimately the elimination of nuclear weapons. It also would help with nonproliferation efforts around the world.

A Relic of the Cold War

Historically, the involvement of other nuclear-armed states in nuclear reductions negotiations has not been a high priority for the United States. The focus has been on U.S. negotiations with Russia because those two countries account for about 90 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons. The involvement of other states has been seen as an obstacle in an already complex, bilateral U.S.-Russian negotiation. Furthermore, expanding the roster of countries in the negotiations has been seen as complicating U.S. relations with its allies, France and the United Kingdom. These arguments are now relics of Cold War circumstances.

Four years ago, an op-ed published in The Wall Street Journal revolutionized thinking in the United States and elsewhere about the future of nuclear weapons. George Shultz, William Perry, Henry Kissinger, and Sam Nunn wrote that “reassertion of the vision of a world free of nuclear weapons and practical measures toward achieving that goal would be, and would be perceived as, a bold initiative consistent with America’s moral heritage.”[1] They warned that the world is at a tipping point in its capacity to avoid nuclear catastrophe. The article identified several “agreed and urgent steps” that should be taken to create the conditions for a world without nuclear weapons. Even before listing those steps, the authors called “first and foremost” for “intensive work with leaders of the countries in possession of nuclear weapons to turn the goal of a world without nuclear weapons into a joint enterprise.”

During his first year in office, President Barack Obama accepted the goal of a world without nuclear weapons and the step-by-step method of achieving it. On September 24, 2009, he presided over a summit meeting of the UN Security Council on nuclear nonproliferation and nuclear disarmament. In Resolution 1887, the council resolved “to create the conditions for a world without nuclear weapons” and called on parties to the NPT “to undertake to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to nuclear arms reductions and disarmament.”

The United States and Russia acted together to comply with that mandate. Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed New START on April 8, 2010. On December 22, 2010, the Senate gave its assent to ratification of the treaty. The Russian legislature followed suit on January 26, 2011. On February 5, 2011, New START entered into force with the exchange of instruments of ratification between Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

Roles for All States

The Security Council resolution did not exclude other nuclear-armed countries when it called for an undertaking by NPT parties to pursue negotiations relating to nuclear arms reduction and disarmament. No state was excused from the task of helping to create the conditions necessary for a world without nuclear weapons. The purpose was not to urge Russia and the United States to reduce their nuclear arsenals while other states looked on. In fact, the resolution called “for further progress on all aspects of disarmament to enhance global security.”

In a 2010 essay published by the AmericanAcademy of Arts and Sciences, Scott Sagan quite correctly pointed out that all parties to the NPT have a “shared responsibility” for disarmament and nonproliferation. Indeed, the treaty’s Article VI states that “[e]ach of the Parties to the Treaty”—not just the nuclear-weapon states—“undertakes 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.”[2]

One of the first things that states can do is promote enhanced transparency. The final document of the 2010 NPT Review Conference welcomed “efforts towards the development of nuclear disarmament verification capabilities that will be required to provide assurance of compliance with nuclear disarmament agreements for the achievement and maintenance of a nuclear-weapon-free world.” It noted the cooperation between Norway, a non-nuclear-weapon state, and the United Kingdom on establishing a system for verifying the dismantlement of nuclear warheads.

Transparency is a crucial part of moving toward a nuclear-weapon-free world. The five countries that the NPT recognizes as nuclear-weapon states—China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States—held a meeting addressing that issue in London in 2009 and are expected to meet again in Paris later this year. Transparency, however, is a global requirement. Exchanges of data on nuclear programs and on holdings of fissile materials by all countries could be conducted on a regional basis, or they could be managed through the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on a global basis. If the nuclear-armed states entered into an agreement not to use fissile material to build more nuclear weapons, an exchange of data would be an essential part of the verification process. Furthermore, Sidney Drell and Christopher Stubbs have suggested that the Open Skies Treaty has provided a successful framework for addressing verification challenges and that its membership should be expanded and its suite of sensors modernized. This could be an important feature of transparency programs related to production of fissile material.[3]

Agreed and Urgent Steps

These kinds of transparency and confidence-building measures might be necessary precursors to other, more concrete advances toward a nuclear-weapon-free world because reductions of weapons stockpiles likely would not be the first step that the owners of smaller nuclear arsenals would take. They would need to build more mutual confidence than currently exists and gain experience in working together. A wide array of cooperative actions is available to nuclear-armed states and to states with advanced civil nuclear programs. Many of these actions could be pursued without delay. They would block further nuclear proliferation, an essential element in the effort to eliminate the nuclear threat.

Entry into force of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) was one of the “urgent” steps suggested in the Wall Street Journal op-ed. It would be a powerful nonproliferation tool. Adherence by all states to an IAEA additional protocol, a step that would promote international confidence that a country was not pursuing a covert nuclear weapons program, is another practical and realizable step. Several practical steps taken by individual states were identified in the documents emerging from the 47-state Washington nuclear security summit in April 2010. The work plan that emerged from the summit committed the countries to support the International Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism, the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material, UN Security Council Resolution 1540, and several IAEA initiatives. The experience of working together to tighten controls over nuclear materials is in itself a confidence-building measure.

Important early progress could be accomplished by a declaration among countries that have advanced civil or military nuclear programs that “fissile materials removed from nuclear weapons being eliminated and excess to national security require­ments will not be used to manufacture nuclear weapons; no newly pro­duced fissile materials will be used in nuclear weapons; and fissile mater­ials from or within civil nuclear programs will not be used to manufacture nuclear weapons.”

This language appears in a declaration issued by Russian President Boris Yeltsin and U.S. President Bill Clinton in 1995.[4] Early agree­ment on these points by all states with advanced nuclear programs would be a signal that they are determined to create the conditions for a world without nuclear weapons. A coalition of states acting in this fashion would accelerate agreement by Russia and the United States on deeper cuts in their nuclear arsenals.

Discussions about a treaty with a similar intent that would be applicable evenhandedly to all countries have been under way in the Geneva-based Conference on Disarmament, the UN forum for multilateral arms control negotiations, for several years. No serious negotiations have ever occurred, and the prospect for change in that situation is bleak. Nonetheless, these talks should continue. A binding and verifiable treaty should be negotiated, if possible, but the declaration described above would be much more than a stopgap measure. It would have value as a bridge to a vigorous joint enterprise to eliminate nuclear weapons.

Building a Coalition

International cooperation on sensitive nuclear issues should become easier if all nuclear-armed states visibly decided to opt out of nuclear weapons programs and states with advanced civil or military nuclear programs endorsed the CTBT and the declaration to disavow use of fissile material in future production of nuclear weapons. Russian and U.S. leadership will be required in measures such as these, but regional initiatives obviously must come from states in those regions. The other permanent members of the UN Security Council—China, France, and the United Kingdom—will have to assume leadership roles in a nonproliferation coalition if the global enterprise is to become a reality. However, this work should not be limited to the five permanent members of the UN Security Council.

Some of the measures are complex and therefore would require some time to negotiate; the relevant countries should start discussions now. Just beginning such talks would be a symbol of their intent and would tend to establish a nonproliferation coalition. These more complex measures include:

Settlement of regional disputes. Global agreements on nuclear weapons will not be sufficient in areas of the world where conflicts between regional powers have been deep-seated and intractable. A resolution of these differences will take a long time and will be multifaceted. One initial action could be regional negotiations on military confidence-building measures such as those that were negotiated as part of the Helsinki process in Europe. Restraints on conventional military operations could be negotiated, followed by protocols affecting weapons of mass destruction to augment existing global agreements, such as the Biological Weapons Convention and the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). These might entail “adversarial” inspections between rival states. Israel has supported the concept of a zone free of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East. This procedure is probably the best way to deal with such weapons in that region; reliance only on global agreements is not likely to be sufficient. A final stage in this progression from regional first steps would be agreements not to permit nuclear weapons, built locally or elsewhere, within the borders of a treaty-defined region. In such cases, rules regarding permissible nuclear activities might be applied, consistent with rules worked out in broader international negotiations.

Multilateralizing uranium-enrichment programs.[5] An international norm that sensitive parts of the nuclear fuel cycle should be subject to multinational ownership, providing opportunities to invest and participate in the management of such facilities while protecting the technology involved, could reduce incentives for states to acquire their own national facilities. All plans for new commercial enrichment facilities should be based on the presumption that the facilities will be owned multinationally and their operations safeguarded by the IAEA. The Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) should give preference to such facilities when considerations about selling enrichment equipment and technology emerge. Selling enrichment technology is a rare event, but it would become even rarer if the NSG agreed on this approach. Existing commercial facilities or those under construction that are not already owned multinationally should be encouraged to convert to multinational ownership, with their operations safeguarded by the IAEA.

International interim storage sites for spent nuclear fuel. The storage of spent fuel in cooling pools adjacent to the reactors in which the fuel was used is a common practice, in the United States and elsewhere. Events following the earthquake and tsunami in Japan showed the hazards that are inherent in this practice. Developing and funding a program for storing spent fuel in dry casks is a necessity. The back end of the nuclear fuel cycle has attracted considerable attention in the United States, partly because the Obama administration set aside plans to send U.S. utilities’ spent fuel to the YuccaMountain repository in Nevada. “Cradle-to-grave” fuel services that would provide for leasing and take-back arrangements currently are seen as an attractive option in Washington although the United States has been reluctant to serve as a site for returned spent fuel. Regional, interim spent-fuel centers make a great deal of sense. Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Ellen Tauscher, in a presentation at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution in January 2010, discussed the idea, pointing out that spent fuel could be stored at reactor sites while it was cooling and then be moved to an international interim-storage facility to await a decision on ultimate disposition.[6] (As the recent Japanese experience shows, at-reactor storage must be carefully planned; the location of reactors and associated spent-fuel cooling ponds is a critical issue.)

The idea of an interim storage facility should be pursued with a greater sense of urgency in light of the dangers shown in the case of Fukushima Daiichi. Moreover, in connection with turning the goal of a world without nuclear weapons into a joint enterprise, an effort to create regional interim-storage facilities deserves a high priority. It would contribute to nonproliferation objectives by providing international safeguards for material that can be turned into weapons. Also, it visibly would strengthen the practice of shared responsibility.

Unilateral or parallel reductions or freezes in nuclear weapons stockpiles. New START provides a treaty basis for reductions in the nuclear arsenals of Russia and the United States. France and the United Kingdom have unilaterally reduced their nuclear weapons stockpiles. A freeze at present levels on the part of China, India, and Pakistan would be a welcome contribution by those countries to the joint enterprise. In contrast, a buildup of nuclear weapons by those states would make it difficult, if not impossible, for the United States and Russia to move beyond New START. A good beginning in providing reassurance on this score would be the suggestion above for a joint statement regarding nonuse of fissile material for weapons modeled after the 1995 Clinton-Yeltsin declaration.

Continued work with Iran to block that country’s development of a nuclear weapons capability and with North Korea to freeze and then roll back its nuclear weapons program will be essential. In fact, a failure to accomplish that level of cooperation with new or nascent nuclear-weapon states almost certainly will doom the whole nonproliferation project.

Required Conditions

At some relatively early point in a joint enterprise to reduce and eliminate nuclear weapons, future Russian-U.S. reductions would become part of a multilateral framework. No longer would Russia and the United States proceed with nuclear reductions in the absence of some kind of limits on the nuclear forces of other countries. This is not the place to discuss the many models of multilateral nuclear arms reductions. Such models are not valid predictors of actual reductions, but they do provide a framework for examining key security issues that countries will face as they approach and enter the end state, i.e., no assembled nuclear weapons. Among the issues that the nuclear-armed states and the countries with advanced civilian nuclear programs could usefully discuss at an early date is the conditions that should be met before nuclear weapons are completely eliminated. This exercise should help them realize that the goal is a difficult one to reach, but by no means is it a fantasy. It should help to validate the goal and strengthen the commitment to proceed, step by step, to a world without nuclear weapons, and it should help them design the kinds of practical safeguards they would want to have in any program intended to eliminate nuclear weapons.

At this point, it appears that four key conditions will need to be met during the course of reducing nuclear arsenals:

Procedures for challenge inspections to search for concealed warheads should have been established and satisfactorily exercised. U.S.-Russian agreements following New START are to deal with nondeployed warheads. Methods for monitoring declared nondeployed warheads have been studied for many years. These include the use of chain-of-custody techniques, such as tags and seals and perimeter and portal monitoring. Searching for concealed warheads is a different matter, and procedures akin to those used by the IAEA under its additional protocol or in the CTBT or CWC would come into play. This would require short-notice visits to suspect sites and some kind of managed inspections with agreed types of instrumentation.

As Sidney Drell and Raymond Jeanloz point out, “[I]t is not feasible to sustain a concealed stockpile of effective and reliable nuclear weapons by passive means.”[7] Activities conducted by a state that tried to conceal a viable cache of nuclear weapons would be a tip-off to the likely location of undeclared concealed warheads. Such activities would justify a request for an on-site inspection on short notice. Effective operation for some years of a monitoring system that included short-notice visits on demand would be one condition for proceeding to eliminate all assembled weapons.

Warheads scheduled for elimination should have been dismantled under conditions that would assure that their actual dismantling can be confirmed, with the nuclear components placed in secure and monitored storage, pending final disposition. The United States and Russia have discussed the mechanics of doing this at least twice, once bilaterally and later with the participation of the IAEA.[8] Techniques have been proposed that would protect especially sensitive design information while confirming that the nuclear components of a weapon were inside a container queuing up for dismantling. The Nunn-Lugar program, adopted by the U.S. Congress under the leadership of Senators Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) and Nunn (D-Ga.), provides funding and expertise to promote nonproliferation activities, originally in the states of the former Soviet Union. Under this program, the United States supported Russia in the construction of storage facilities for dismantled warheads. The irreversibility of dismantling would be assured by U.S. and Russian inspectors at storage sites in each country. IAEA involvement also might be useful. Methods that have been developed by the United States and Russia might not be directly transferred in every detail to other states. In each country that has started the process of eliminating nuclear weapons, however, arrangements very similar to the U.S.-Russian ones should have been put in place before agreement to complete the elimination process.

Delivery vehicles scheduled for elimination should have been verifiably destroyed and procedures should be in place to confirm that dual-use systems—those capable of delivering conventional or nuclear warheads—have not been armed with nuclear warheads. This condition is necessary to assure that countries cannot break out rapidly from an agreement to eliminate nuclear weapons. It is an essential element of the preceding two conditions. Techniques for eliminating delivery vehicles such as bombers and ballistic and cruise missiles have been applied in the original START and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and will be applied in New START.

The complication presented by the use of conventional high-explosive warheads with delivery vehicles typically associated with nuclear weapons has been resolved until now by counting all such delivery vehicles as nuclear armed. That will not be appropriate as nuclear weapons are reduced to zero and a relatively large number of delivery vehicles are equipped with conventional warheads. A procedure wherein all nuclear-capable delivery vehicles are inspected to confirm the absence of nuclear weapons will be required. Previous agreements also have banned nuclear weapons storage sites within specified distances of missile sites. Some variation on this arrangement also will be necessary, as well as new cooperative measures designed to facilitate detection of illicit movement of nuclear warheads.

Compliance mechanisms should have been established to enforce nuclear agreements. Commissions designed to discuss and, if possible, resolve questions that arise in the process of implementing arms reduction treaties have been organized as integral parts of U.S.-Soviet/Russian nuclear reduction agreements; a similar commission is part of New START. Those consultative instruments are essential to the management of treaty compliance and probably would be adopted by other countries that have been engaged in bilateral adversarial relationships. As nuclear weapons reductions become a multilateral enterprise, bilateral or regional oversight of implementation will have to be supplemented by international arrangements by entities such as the IAEA or the UN Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission, established in December 1999 and terminated in June 2007, to monitor Iraq’s compliance with UN Security Council resolutions calling for elimination of all Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.

Creating a strengthened international capacity to enforce treaty compliance will be a daunting challenge, but it is one of the conditions that should have been met before countries get rid of the last of their nuclear weapons. There generally will be ambiguities about specific issues of compliance. For that reason, the basic requirements of a verification system are the capacity to present credible, preferably ironclad, evidence regarding any violations of a treaty. That means that an enforcement organization must have the technical expertise, the international legitimacy, and the freedom of access that will permit it to convincingly tell the public what it has discovered. Armed with that evidence, the UN Security Council, if necessary, can authorize actions under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter. If one of the permanent members of the council is involved, other nuclear-weapon states can take actions to reconstitute nuclear arsenals that they had dismantled. This form of nuclear deterrence is likely to be the enforcement mechanism for many, perhaps most, cases of potential violations.

Progress should have been made in addressing and resolving regional disputes that threaten to trigger military actions. One of the merits of making the elimination of nuclear weapons a truly international enterprise is that it shines a spotlight on “frozen conflicts,” disputes that have festered for so long that they have become accepted as inevitable. Such disputes will have to be addressed and at least ameliorated, if not completely resolved, if global progress in the elimination of nuclear weapons is to be anything more than a lovely dream. Russia and the United States are very unlikely to consider reducing their stocks of nuclear weapons to the 500 level, one of the targets often cited, while Pakistan continues to build nuclear warheads as has been alleged recently. Other countries that might be contemplating increasing their inventories should consider the impact on the global holdings of nuclear weapons and the potential for accelerated proliferation of national nuclear weapons programs. If a resolution of nuclear issues in Iran and North Korea cannot be found, the world certainly will tip toward the expectation, almost certainly a correct one, that the NPT no longer will be a serious factor in international relations.

The regional disputes in the Near East, South Asia, and Northeast Asia have profound implications for any effort to save and extend the nonproliferation regime that has been in place since the 1970s. The news on those fronts is not so bad. Recently, India and Pakistan tentatively agreed to renew talks. The vague outlines of a possible settlement in the Korean peninsula and Northeast Asia more broadly have been discernible for many years. Recent democratic revolutions in the Near East have unsettled that region, but they point toward a focus on internal reform rather than external adventures.

Summing Up

The days when the interests of two superpowers dominated the world’s strategic nuclear agenda are over. The days when the five NPT nuclear-weapon states had a decisive voice in global nuclear weapons issues are fading fast. As Russian and U.S. nuclear forces are reduced, other countries’ nuclear arsenals will loom larger in security calculations. Regional conflicts also generate their own sets of impulses that affect nuclear decisions. The political dynamics of Asia and Europe are different today than during the Cold War. Eliminating the threat posed by nuclear weapons requires that many states actively participate in negotiations to reduce all nuclear weapons pro­grams anywhere in the world.

The level of nuclear forces that Moscow and Washington may try to reach in the next phase could be achieved without the participation of other nuclear-armed states. Russia and the United States still will have by far the greatest numbers of nuclear weapons in their arsenals even after additional reductions. In practice, however, unless there is a widely and, preferably, universally shared commitment to progressively eliminate all nuclear weapons, the momentum necessary to sustain further Russian-U.S. negoti­ations will be lost.

The recognized nuclear-weapon states and the countries possessing advanced civil or military nuclear programs should join together to begin the process necessary to create conditions for a world free of nuclear weapons. These conditions can be identified and discussed even now, and implementing the first steps will provide the necessary real-world experience to fulfill those conditions and achieve the vision of a nuclear-weapon-free world. A number of near- and midterm measures are available and could be implemented in short order. Others are more difficult, but beginning to talk about them as a joint enterprise would be very important symbolically.

James Goodby is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at StanfordUniversity and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. He was involved in the creation of the International Atomic Energy Agency and the negotiation of the Limited Test Ban Treaty, the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, military transparency measures in Europe, and cooperative threat reduction. He is the author or editor of several books on international security. This article draws from his chapter in SIPRI Yearbook 2010: Armaments, Disarmament and International Security.


1. See 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.

2. Scott D. Sagan, “Shared Responsibilities for Nuclear Disarmament,” Daedalus, Vol. 138, No. 4 (Fall 2009), pp. 157-168.

3. Sidney Drell and Christopher Stubbs, “Realizing the Potential of Open Skies” (unpublished) (copy on file with the author).

4. American Presidency Project, “Joint Statement on the Transparency and Irreversibility of the Process of Reducing Nuclear Weapons,” Moscow, May 10, 1995, www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/print.php?pid=51341.

5. For a fuller discussion of this concept, see James Goodby and Geoffrey Forden, “Proceedings of MIT’s Workshop on Internationalizing Uranium Enrichment Facilities: Executive Summary,” Massachusetts Institute of Technology, October 20-21, 2008, http://web.mit.edu/stgs/pdfs/SummaryUpdatedMarch2009.pdf. For other papers associated with the workshop, see http://web.mit.edu/stgs/WorkshopOct2008.html.

6. Ellen Tauscher, “Addressing the Nuclear Fuel Cycle: Internationalizing Enrichment Services and Solving the Problem of Spent Fuel Storage,” Stanford, CA, January 19, 2010, www.state.gov/t/us/136426.htm.

7. Sidney Drell and Raymond Jeanloz, “Nuclear Deterrence After Zero,” in Deterrence: Its Past and Future, ed. George Shultz, Sidney Drell, and James Goodby (Stanford, CA: Hoover Press, 2011), ch. 3.

8. For a discussion of the former, see Harold Feiveson, ed., The Nuclear Turning Point (Washington, DC: Brookings Press, 1999).