Interviewed by Daryl Kimball and Terry Atlas
This interview is also being published in Russian by the Moscow-based Center for Energy and Security Studies (CENESS) in its journal Nuclear Club (Yaderny Klub). As part of a cooperative arrangement, the September issue of Arms Control Today features an interview with Ambassador Roland Timerbaev conducted by CENESS Director Anton Khlopkov. Timerbaev was a key figure in the Soviet delegation to the Nonproliferation Treaty negotiations and subsequently played a part in six NPT review conferences.
Lawrence Weiler was special assistant to the director of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA) and a U.S. negotiator on the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and other arms control measures during his government service under six U.S. presidents. As that landmark accord approaches its 50th anniversary next year, Weiler, now 96, recalled its creation and assessed its impact in a June interview with Arms Control Association Executive Director Daryl Kimball and ACT Editor Terry Atlas.
The NPT established the rules for safeguarded development of civilian nuclear technology and became the bedrock for the intricate structures of nuclear arms control that made it possible for the United States and Russia to sharply reduce their nuclear arsenals. Still, there is debate about whether the NPT has lived up to its promise, particularly in terms of the nuclear-weapon states fulfilling their Article VI commitment 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.”
Many non-nuclear-weapon countries, which pledged under the NPT to forgo nuclear weapons, say the Article VI obligation has not been met by the nuclear powers, one of the factors that fueled their push for the newly completed treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons.
“Most can agree that progress [under the NPT] has been slower than we had hoped and that nuclear weapons still threaten our civilization,” said Weiler. “Progress has been made, though the goal is still in front of us. Keep your fingers crossed and never give up.”
This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
ACT: Looking back over the past 50 years, has the NPT accomplished what you, as one of the negotiators, envisioned at the time? At the most basic level, what did you hope it might achieve?
Weiler: Well, it’s not just what the treaty accomplished, it’s what the people who signed the treaty and those who followed have accomplished. In my judgment, the treaty is a product of three things: First, the obvious one was a desire to keep the spread of nuclear weapons from happening, which people worried about. Related to that but somewhat separate for the arms controllers was the concern about keeping the number of people that you had to get together to agree on anything from increasing. In other words, to prevent the whole business of arms control from becoming too complicated because there were too many people involved with nuclear capabilities. That’s sort of the architects looking at the building. Those first two they’re related, but they’re separate.
The third one was the awareness of the fact that if you were ever going to get the Russians to talk about controlling strategic weapons, you had to get the Russians to not worry about the future of Germany. Even before, the German issue was central to the Russians. In other words, they weren’t about to talk about [limiting] strategic systems with the United States until the nuclear future of Germany was settled. It was not a coincidence that the date that the NPT was signed was the date that the United States announced that we and the Soviet Union had agreed to discuss strategic weapons. That was the same day. It was not a coincidence.
The third issue you’re talking about is the possibility of a multilateral nuclear force in Europe and whether Germany was going to possess or be allowed to possess such weapons.
Yes, the multilateral nuclear force (MLNF) discussion,1 which was a kooky idea and was so regarded by many in the government. But the government was pursuing it because of the desire of European allies to be somehow part of the nuclear equation. It was clear that the Russians had some hesitations about talking about strategic defensive systems. They were coming around, and [U.S. Secretary of Defense] Robert McNamara had tried to talk with them earlier and didn’t succeed. One critical decision was President Lyndon Johnson’s decision that he was going to kill the MLNF.2
How do you feel the NPT has performed, that is, has it delivered on the promise that you envisioned?
Basically yes, but not completely because we didn’t get every country signed up. I think we knew by the time the negotiations were over that we weren’t going to get India. At least that was my judgment. We didn’t and didn’t get the others that you know about. But you can’t get everything in life, and it seems to me that’s a philosophy that negotiators, that deciders ought to keep in mind. You mustn’t always be satisfied only if you get the perfect outcome. We should be happy that we don’t have 25 or so countries with nuclear weapons, as President John Kennedy talked about. And we began then with Russia the first successful negotiations on strategic arms, the so-called killer weapons.
That has gone slowly with some mishaps. We didn’t get [multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles] in the first strategic arms limitation agreement, and the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty part has been nullified. The U.S. decision in the George W. Bush administration to withdraw from the ABM Treaty has had a very serious effect on U.S.-Russian relations. The Obama administration placed a limited interpretation on our ABM-related policy, and what the Trump administration will do remains to be seen.
Can I just add one other thing? The NPT was a great training exercise. It was really the first time that you got a large number of nations involved in actually negotiating a document. That was important because it was an educational thing for a lot of people, including the Americans and the Russians. Oh, one of the things to add to what’s happened since the NPT is that you have the precedent of nuclear-free zones. That’s one consequence of the NPT that should be noted.
Looking back, what, as a negotiator, do you see as some of the shortcomings?
Were there things that the treaty could have done differently? Nothing comes readily to mind. It was an outline of goals, as well as arrangements. I wish we could have done something more on positive and negative assurances, and we tried very hard. There were some informal discussions that came up later in the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty negotiations, but they were mostly at the lower level. That’s one thing that, perhaps, I wish could have been developed more.
Why do you think those were not developed more?
Well, the tensions were still high. Neither government was ready then to move on formulations of what they would or would not do and negative and positive assurances. This proposed assurance would adversely affect the Russians, and that proposed alternative would adversely affect the Americans, as it was conceived of at that time. I don’t think that was a major issue particularly. It took some time, but it wasn’t a major issue.
How would you describe the geopolitical situation at the time, and how did that affect the relationships among the negotiators?
Well, it was a time when we were sort of optimistic. The ACDA was created.3 It was a substantial organization. In my judgment, the NPT would not have been negotiated successfully, at least not at that time, if you hadn’t had the ACDA established. The European section of the Department of State at that time—and this was reflected in other parts of the executive branch—was really opposed to taking on the problem and antagonizing our European allies. They knew it would run into the business of the MLNF, and it did antagonize our allies. There was no question about it. It antagonized the Germans. The Germans wanted to use it to bargain in German reunification talks. They also thought it was a threat to NATO.
The ACDA staffed the negotiations, backstopped the negotiations, fought internal battles, and so it was a terrible thing for arms control when they reintegrated the ACDA back into the State Department during the Clinton administration. I wish some form of it were re-established again. That would make prospects for the future much brighter.
How about the relationship with the negotiators when working on the NPT? You had Western countries, the United States, the Soviet Union, Soviet bloc, and representatives of other parts of the world. What were the relationships among negotiators?
It got difficult with some of them. The Indians weren’t particularly happy. The Germans really weren’t happy, and we had extensive negotiations with the Germans in Washington, as well as in Geneva. There was a general concern among the Japanese about whether the inspection arrangements would interfere with their nuclear power development. We were sent on a mission, about six of us, to talk to the Japanese about how any inspection that came out of the treaty would not interfere with their anticipated use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.
The Russians and the Americans had a problem, and they worked on it. I would say that the Russians and the American delegates got closer together in a personal sense. In one case, an American and a Russian on a Sunday fixed up a box of edibles and some drinks and took a sailboat out on Lake Geneva. They stopped on the shore and had a picnic, the two of them, and worked out one of the problems. Each one of them sent the outcome to his government as the other guy’s proposal, and it was approved. Now that’s not necessarily something I advocate, but it developed a much better working relationship by going through that experience. We had a lot of people involved. We had two different delegations. There were no recesses, other than going to the UN General Assembly. One group went, and then they came back, and the other group went.
You’re describing one key turning point that involved U.S.-Soviet negotiators working closely together. What would you say were one or two of the other key turning points during the NPT negotiations?
Well, the first is the question of prohibiting transfer, that was dealing with the Russian concern about our transferring to the Germans or, as the Russians insisted, no transfer to anyone whatsoever. The word “whatsoever” or “howsoever,” which I had never seen in a legal document before. That related to the MLNF type of thing, and related to that was also the Russian concern about our forward base systems. I know that Butch Fisher [of ACDA] and I took a trip around parts of Europe to look at our installations to see that the treaty that resulted didn’t interfere with them and that we still retained control.
I’m not sure of this, but I think the Russians were a bit pleased to learn of the PAL system that McNamara put in—permissive action links so that the deployed American nuclear weapons on allied aircraft could not be armed without a signal from a distant place. That whole business, which is related to the nontransfer, bothered the Russians. I remember arguing privately with them that we’re not going to destroy NATO in order to get this agreement, so let’s don’t argue. Let’s get on with the negotiation.
One of the key pillars of the treaty is the peaceful uses provision, Article IV, which was not part of the initial U.S. and Soviet drafts back in 1965 or so. The draft introduced at the Conference on Disarmament, or the ENDC [Eighteen-Nation Committee on Disarmament] as it was called in 1967, included an article on peaceful uses of nuclear energy, which was based on proposals from non-nuclear states. How did that factor into the negotiation?
Well, we didn’t have it in the first draft. I’m not absolutely sure why it wasn’t there, except that you don’t like to do things that complicate a negotiation and the negotiation was aimed at preventing the spread of nuclear capability. It became very clear that you had to deal with the consequences of preventing that spread and, that is, you had to deal with the restrictions, if any, on the non-nuclear parties. We were fortunate to have the International Atomic Energy Agency already in existence. As a negotiator, sometimes you get lucky. Certainly, it was clear to me and it was clear to most of us when we got started that you’re going to have to deal with that issue. It turned out to be a very difficult provision because the Europeans wanted to have the Euratom inspection arrangement take care of it. They felt that Euratom was the first step on the way toward reunification of Europe and this would interfere. We didn’t anticipate that when we hit that argument.
We knew there were going to be problems, and there were problems. In the final draft, that was one left to be worked out later, which they did, subsequently. That turned out to the longest one, I think, in many ways to be settled but was essential for the treaty. It became very clear that without settling that, you wouldn’t have a treaty. There was a feeling that was palpable in the room in Geneva. The countries that did not have nuclear weapons did not want this negotiation to be a negotiation deciding who are the haves and the have-not nations. This was bigger than nuclear weapons. They didn’t want this to be some arbitrary fundamental decision separating the different parties of the world—part psychological, part economic. I don’t think you would have ever had the treaty without it.
Tell me about one of those have/have-not issues, which is addressed by Article VI. That provision calls on the nuclear-weapon states to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to ending the arms race, to nuclear disarmament, and to general complete disarmament. How did the negotiation of that provision factor into the dynamics that you’re describing?
Everyone had thought that, at some point, there would be a treaty setting the goals, and [Soviet leader Nikita] Khrushchev had made popular the “general disarmament” phrasing. When Khrushchev came in [during 1953], Soviet policy changed. The May 10, 1955, Soviet proposal was the first serious Soviet arms control proposal, and it was looked upon at the time as something like the sunrise coming up. I remember the time when he came out for “general and complete disarmament,” the phrase we’re talking about. He was talking about the dangers of the arms race.
Do you think at the time that this language was significant and a commitment? Was it so vague, with no deadline, as to be essentially meaningless or at least not a real obligation?
No, I thought about it. That was the easiest way to express a future goal. I always have reservations about the general disarmament in defense including general conventional disarmament, but it was accepted. It’s not a simple statement. There are aspects to that phrase, and that phrase was carefully constructed.
“To pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to…”—that’s a little squidgy room there, you see? In other words, as negotiated it said, “You’re going to work towards that.” Now, that’s because there were some general reservations about how committed you should be at this stage. It’s got not just the nuclear bit, but it’s also got this general disarmament in it. There were various factors that worked into that. I hate to say we gave ourselves some squidgy room there, but it was more complicated than a blanket statement that “we will get general and complete disarmament.” My own view at the time was that you shouldn’t worry too much about the ultimate end. It’s not going to happen tomorrow. By the way, for those seeking the end of the road in negotiations, have they ever heard of the “Gromyko proposal”?4
The U.S. negotiating team and the U.S. government at the time, what were you all thinking were the steps that would lead in that direction? I mean, what did you all have in mind about what would fulfill that obligation?
Well, we had in mind the next big step. It was to discuss the killer weapons with the Russians. You must remember, we’d been at this for a long, long time, and nothing had ever happened until the Kennedy administration. Then you had three agreements. You had the Hotline Agreement. That was a big thing. It wasn’t an arms control thing, but it was very important, assuring communications, sort of recognition of the sensitivity of the world in terms of nuclear weapons. Then Partial Test Ban Treaty. Also the UN Outer Space resolution.
Fissile material production cutoff.
No, we never did get to the cutoff.
I’m saying at the time was that one of the things that was being discussed.
Oh yes, yes. The next big step would be negotiating with the Russians about missiles and long-range bombers. The possibility was coming up because two things happened. Satellites gave us target data, but they also gave us national technical means of verification, the opportunity to have verification without intrusion in some ways.
Let’s fast forward 25 years from 1968 to the 1995 NPT Review and Extension Conference. You all as negotiators, in your infinite wisdom, determined that the treaty shall last 25 years and that there shall be a review conference concerning a possible extension.
It was not in our infinite wisdom. It was the final concession we made in order to get a treaty.
Okay, looking back on the conference and the decisions that led to the indefinite extension decision, what is your view about whether the commitments that were made then have been faithfully carried out?
That’s a hard question because progress is hard, particularly in this area. You don’t have two people sitting down trying to draft a paper. You have many countries, you have changes in leadership in the countries. You have changes in the structure of the world. Now this can be looked on as excuses, but I wish we had made much more progress. I think most American leaders wish we had made more progress.
Just to follow up, do the non-nuclear-weapon states have reason to be disappointed or disillusioned with the NPT and the deal that they have committed to under the treaty?
Yeah. They have reason to be disappointed in the fact that more progress hasn’t been made, but that’s not a function of any deficiencies in the treaty. It’s not as much progress as the treaty commitment called for, as they see it. The effort has been made and hasn’t been as successful as one would have hoped, as American governments would have hoped. I think that the members of the NPT ought to take into account that while we haven’t done things in the exact order that they might have constructed, it’s constructing a path to nuclear disarmament.
Things are happening and have happened that are progress toward that goal. Number one, we’ve learned how to negotiate. We’ve gone through the process. We developed a cadre of people who were capable of doing that. The NPT now has a multitude of supporting institutions. Then you’ve got, for all practical purposes, a global nuclear test ban with one exception, and you’ve got a fissile material production cutoff with one or two exceptions. We’ve had a massive reduction in the total number of nuclear weapons on both sides. It’s incredible that we managed to come down to the current levels, which are still high but it’s a little hill compared to a mountain top where we were. If you think about it, we have covered much of what was usually in the first state of old three-stage disarmament plans. In practical terms, U.S.-Russia strategic-weapon treaty levels will hold under New START until 2021. The immediate issue is the conflict with North Korea, that will determine the direction for the future.
What do we need to do over the next many years to make sure that the NPT regime remains viable?
The treaty, in part, is a disarmament measure, a restriction. It’s important that the restriction be maintained. It’s also presumably a definition of the obligations. There, I can’t think of anything that can be done with the treaty. The main concern should not be about the “viability” of the treaty. I think that changes the whole nature of the discussion. It’s how much progress has been made toward a promise that was made—not as much progress as many advocated but probably more progress than some skeptics anticipated. We now really need to look at cyberwarfare.
Well, the more nuclear weapons you get around, the more options you have for mistakes being made, more options you have for them being stolen. The more weapons, the more accidents will happen. One bit of the great progress that’s been made is that we haven’t had a nuclear war, for God’s sake.
The world is changing. People talk to each other as human beings. At the time of the NPT negotiations, it was an occasion when senior Soviet, American, and Chinese officials got together. Today, they meet all the time. The subject may not be exclusively nuclear weapons, but they’re meeting as human beings. They’re getting to know each other. Remember, one of the objectives of the NPT was to keep things from getting worse and to provide for people to be able to get together. But I’m disappointed that we haven’t done more.
One of the things that’s about to happen is the conclusion of negotiations on a convention to prohibit nuclear weapons. I want to ask for your reflections on the potential impact of that treaty on the broader nuclear nonproliferation risk reduction and disarmament effort.
I’m not sure what consequences it will have. I think it’s going to irritate the leaders of all the nuclear countries. I’m not sure that it might not end up being of benefit, however. I think one of the things that needs to be looked at is the whole issue of nuclear use, that is, the issue of no first use. The idea would be that if you had a worldwide treaty that all the leaders would sign, then anyone who ever ordered the initiation of nuclear weapons use would automatically be considered an international outlaw. Just have it as part of a treaty so this becomes an accepted part of international thinking.
1. The Kennedy administration explored with NATO allies the idea of a multilateral nuclear force, under which U.S. nuclear missiles would be placed on submarines or surface ships manned by NATO crews. The concept was to provide a more credible deterrent against Soviet attack in Europe and, by giving NATO allies some control over nuclear weapons, reduce the likelihood that other countries, particularly West Germany, would seek a nuclear weapons capability of their own. See Steven Pifer et al., “U.S. Nuclear and Extended Deterrence: Considerations and Challenges,” Brookings Arms Control Series, No. 3 (May 2010), https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/06_nuclear_deterrence.pdf.
2. The multilateral nuclear force died for several reasons, including its inability to add to extended deterrence measures and the threat that it would violate the requirement for a centrally controllable, unified strategic nuclear arsenal. Further, U.S. officials anticipated that the European allies would not support such a plan once they realized the United States would retain its veto over launch and that NATO nations would be expected to share the costs of maintaining the multilateral nuclear force. See David N. Schwartz, NATO’s Nuclear Dilemmas (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 1983), pp. 94–95.
3. The Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA) was created in 1961 under President John Kennedy and charged with “formulating, advocating, negotiating, implementing and verifying effective arms control, nonproliferation, and disarmament policies, strategies, and agreements.” In 1999 it was merged into the State Department. For a history of the ACDA, see John Holum, “Looking Back: Arms Control Reorganization, Then and Now,” Arms Control Today, June 2005.
4. In the 1960s, Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko proposed a plan under which the United States and Soviet Union would eliminate most nuclear-weapon delivery systems, retaining only a “limited” number to provide a “nuclear umbrella” deterrent until the completion of disarmament. For more, “U.S. Bars Talks on Moscow Plan,” The New York Times, June 17, 1964.