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"I want to thank the Arms Control Association … for being such effective advocates for sensible policies to stem the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and most importantly, reduce the risk of nuclear war."
– Senator Joe Biden
January 28, 2004
Defining U.S. Goals for the NPT: An Interview with U.S. Ambassador Jeffrey Eberhardt


March 2020

As the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) marks the 50th anniversary of its entry into force, its parties will gather for the treaty’s 10th review conference in New York, from April 27 to May 22. Ambassador Jeffrey Eberhardt, special representative of the president for nuclear nonproliferation, will lead the U.S. delegation to the review conference. He spoke with Arms Control Today on February 5 to describe U.S. goals and positions on issues that will likely be contentious at the conference.

Jeffrey Eberhardt is sworn in as special representative of the president for nuclear nonproliferation In June 2019 by Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Ford. (Photo: U.S. State Department)Arms Control Today: At last year’s NPT preparatory committee meeting, the United States said that “we must recall our predecessors’ accomplishments,…reaffirm our shared commitment to the NPT and the broader nonproliferation regime, and…rededicate ourselves to preserving and strengthening them for future generations.” How does the United States plan to move in that direction?

Jeffrey Eberhardt: On the occasion of the treaty’s 50th anniversary, we really want to focus on our common, shared interests in the treaty. The benefits of the treaty, the effectiveness of the treaty, have been enormous over the years. If you look back to where we were when the treaty entered into force 50 years ago, how many nuclear-weapon states there were, how many potential nuclear-weapon states there were, it was not a good outlook. If you look at the state of the safeguards regime, it was not as strong as it is now. If you look at the ability to share the peaceful uses of nuclear energy, it was not as strong as it is now. Because of the NPT, that strong foundation of nonproliferation norms, that knowledge that your neighbors are not pursuing nuclear weapons programs has first and foremost helped set the conditions for the dramatic reductions that we’ve seen to date, even though initially our arsenals continued to grow.

The aspect that is most overlooked is the tremendous benefits that the world has seen from the spread of nuclear technology, not just in power generation, although this is a tremendous carbon-free power source, but in the areas of medicine and agriculture. The enormous benefit this has had in raising populations out of poverty, improving health, quality of life, would have been unimaginable without the NPT, that sharing of nuclear technology. So this is a great opportunity for us to focus on those benefits, and those benefits are as important today as they were 50 years ago.

ACT: But what are your goals? What would you like to see come out of the review conference?

Eberhardt: I’d like to see a good exchange of views on how people see the treaty being implemented. After all, we are required to review the treaty, that’s what we ought to do. We will have different views on how that has gone—that’s to be expected with a membership as wide and diverse as we have—and we will have a conversation about how we move forward. Again, views will vary, given the membership of the treaty. A robust exchange of views on the treaty, both past and future, would be important.

U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev sign the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) in Prague on April 8, 2010. It will not be possible to complete a new nuclear weapons treaty with China before New START's scheduled expiration in one year, according to Amb. Jeffrey Eberhardt, special representative of the president for nuclear nonproliferation. (Photo: Joe Klamar/AFP/Getty Images)Now, to the extent that can be captured in some kind of a final document remains to be seen. That has always been a daunting task, borne out by the fact that it has only happened twice in the classic sense where you’ve had a consensus review and a consensus forward-looking document, in 1985 and 2000. In other years, there have been various outcomes. In 2010, we had the forward-looking plan, but not the review. In 1995 we had a series of decisions. In 1985, we had a reflection of the various views that everyone agreed by consensus that this accurately reflected the views that were exchanged, even if not all these views command consensus. So there are a range of outcomes that are possible. There could be a simple statement reaffirming our commitment to the NPT as a separate decision. We are also looking at the area of peaceful uses, again one of the more underappreciated aspects of the treaty, and we’re looking at whether we can put together a package on peaceful uses that could be put in the form of a decision at the review conference. So, there are a number of ways to get to success that, as most often has happened in the past, fall short of a classic consensus review and forward-looking document.

ACT: One of the challenges still facing the treaty is the possibility that Iran could enrich uranium well beyond the limits set by the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. What does the United States hope the review conference can do about the Iran issue? What message do you think the conference could deliver that could help keep Iran’s capabilities in check?

Eberhardt: Part of this is being played out in the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) right now. There are serious questions as to what Iran has done. Iran has never come clean on the weapons program that it was pursuing. So what we want, and I think the president has made this clear, is a deal that ensures that Iran will never have a nuclear weapon. Now, we and our European allies may disagree on how best to achieve that. The president has put forward a plan for a pressure campaign to try to bring Iran back to the table. Those things take time. I don’t think it will be resolved by the review conference, to put it mildly, but that’s an issue that we will have to discuss at the conference. It won’t be the first time that we’ve had to discuss Iran at a review conference. That was an issue certainly in 2005, when we talked about potential Iranian noncompliance at the time. Of course, when we’re talking about noncompliance—and I’m not saying Iran is in noncompliance today—as a general matter, when you’re talking about the questionable behavior of a party to a treaty, then it makes getting consensus on a document that much more challenging.

What the conference can say by consensus about this, I have my doubts that we can have a strong statement, but it will certainly be an issue that needs to be raised and debated in the course of the conference. That’s what the review is all about.

ACT: How would you assess U.S. progress so far toward meeting its Article VI obligations to negotiate in good faith for nuclear disarmament?

Eberhardt: The United States has made tremendous progress by making dramatic reductions. We’ve had a whole series of negotiations dealing with nuclear arsenals going back to the days of the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks. Granted, those limited the rise of arsenals, not cuts. But once we were past the peak, there were a whole series of negotiations to reduce those arsenals, and really that’s what Article VI calls for: good faith negotiations on steps toward nuclear and general disarmament. So, we have done that, and we continue to pursue that. There’s nothing in Article VI that says this must be accomplished in one fell swoop, so I think over the decades, we have shown a tremendous commitment to Article VI, probably more so than any other NPT party.

Going forward, we have launched the Creating an Environment for Nuclear Disarmament (CEND) initiative to talk about how we get there. When I was in Geneva last week at a panel sponsored by the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs (UNODA), someone made the claim that he thought the initiative was a distraction. I said, “No, it’s not a distraction, it’s a serious discussion.” It’s all well and good to say we want a nuclear-free world and let’s all get rid of nuclear weapons, but the real question is how we do it. That’s what the CEND initiative is all about: How do we actually get there?

It was far easier to reduce when our stockpiles were fairly enormous and the verification demands weren’t as great. The first Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) capped U.S. and Soviet, then Russian, arsenals at 6,000 warheads. So if somebody is not quite at 6,000, does cheating on the margins of that treaty matter that much? From the standpoint of credibility of compliance, yes, of course it always matters, but as a militarily significant advantage, not much. But as we go down, the military significance of cheating on the margins becomes more important, and therefore verification becomes more important. So, we have different things to deal with.

As we go lower, we have to move beyond bilateral discussions between ourselves and Russia and bring in other countries. That brings in a whole other set of issues. Why do those other countries have nuclear weapons? The answer is not the same for every country. They have different dynamics they have to deal with, motivations, so if we are going to be serious about moving toward this—the United States is and always has been serious—we have to get at the root causes for why nuclear deterrence remains relevant today, then identify effective measures toward mitigating them to move progress forward. To my mind, the CEND initiative is the personification of Article VI in searching for ways to continue to move the process forward and make progress.

This is something we’ll be talking about at the review conference, both in our national statements and hopefully statements of others. We hope there will be a side event with some of the CEND working group co-chairs to talk about what we’re doing, how we’re doing it, where we’re trying to go, and getting the message out as to why we believe this is a serious effort that will go well beyond the review conference. I’ve always said that the review conference, while important, is a milepost, not the finish line, for the CEND initiative. It’s a significant event, obviously, for those CEND members that are members of the NPT, but it’s not driving what we’re doing. This is a long-term process.

ACT: What are some specific outcomes that you see emerging from the CEND initiative as it contributes directly to some of the goals and objectives that have been agreed at previous review conferences regarding Article VI?

Eberhardt: We are hoping to set up another CEND working group meeting between now and the review conference, probably in early April. [Editor's note: After this interview, the meeting was scheduled for April 8–9.] Since the last working group meeting, where we developed concept notes for each of the groups, we have been working with the co-chairs to develop programs of work to address exactly how to get at this problem. We’ve made some good headway in working with the co-chairs. We hope to be at a point soon where the co-chairs can send out some draft programs of work to the broader group for discussion and hopefully its approval and blessing at the next meeting. We have progressively disaggregated this problem. We started with creating the CEND initiative, we have broken that down into some working groups, and those groups then broke those down into specific lines of effort. The programs of work will now take those lines of effort and disaggregate them further, looking at which issues to take first, how do we approach these issues, what outside experience do we want to bring in to provide working papers and briefings, and sort of nail that down.

Hopefully by the end of the April program, we can definitively say the substantive work is now underway on these specific issues.

ACT: Today is February 5, and in 12 months, the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) is due to expire. Many NPT states-parties, including many U.S. allies, are encouraging the United States and Russia to extend the treaty and engage in follow-on talks. What message do you anticipate bringing to the review conference on the U.S. approach on that and the state of U.S.-Russian discussions on nuclear disarmament?

Eberhardt: As for New START specifically, we have not yet made a final determination on the extension of the treaty, but we still have time left. It doesn’t take much to extend it once you decide to do that. More broadly, we recently had a strategic security dialogue with Russia in Vienna, where we talked about a range of issues.

The president has also talked about going beyond bilateral arms control to trilateral arms control to bring China to the table in some way.

ACT: Is there going to be a proposal on that way before the review conference, because that idea was floated about a year ago?

Eberhardt: I can’t predict when we’ll have something more specific to say about that, but that is clearly where we need to go. If we are going to end the arms race—well, a couple of years ago I would have said the arms race is over, but Russia has been developing some dramatic new systems—and I’m not saying we’re in one now, the United States is certainly not racing, our program of record is what it is, but it is important to ensure that our potential negotiating partners don’t start racing or continue racing.

ACT: Even if China were interested in such a negotiation, is it realistically possible that there’s a new agreement involving China before New START expires?

Eberhardt: A new signed, sealed, delivered agreement? Realistically that’s not possible, but it is possible to have a negotiation underway or agreed to by then. New START took an entire year, these things do take time, but the commitment to negotiate can certainly be achieved by then.

ACT: Some U.S. officials have said the United States should not feel compelled to adhere to the body of commitments made at past review conferences. What is your assessment of that, and is the United States committed to the agreements achieved at the 1995 NPT Review and Extension Conference?

Eberhardt: Previous commitments cast a pretty wide net. I would say that it’s not just some current administration officials have said that. Some previous administration officials have made the same argument: decisions of review conferences, as embodied in final documents, are political commitments. They are taken in the context of the time in which they are achieved.

As for 1995, the extension of the treaty has a treaty-based nexus, so that is in fact a legal commitment because the original treaty called for a review and extension conference in 25 years to determine whether or not to extend the treaty. That is a treaty-based commitment that is distinct from other final document commitments.

The other aspect of 1995 is the resolution on a zone free of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in the Middle East. The U.S. position remains clear on that: we support the establishment of such a zone if it is freely arrived at among the parties in the region. Our position hasn’t changed on that since 1995. The question is, how do you get there?

It’s a challenge. If you imagine a WMD-free zone in the Middle East and you have a country that is violating the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), that’s a problem. If you have other countries that haven’t signed up to the CWC, that’s a problem. If you have uncertainty about where Iran is going with its nuclear program, that’s a problem.

You have to address the reasons why such a zone is not achievable today before you can achieve the zone.

There was a UN conference that was established in New York in November, but it doesn’t include the participation of all the key states in the region. Also, if you look at all the nuclear-weapon-free zones that have been negotiated in the world, none of them was negotiated at the United Nations. They were all agreements freely arrived at by the parties to the region. So, we need to find a way for the parties in the region to address all the concerns. We continue to support the goal, but it is not a goal that can be imposed from outside.

ACT: Now that the UN meeting has taken place, do you believe it set back efforts?

Eberhardt: That remains to be seen. It was said at the time the resolution passed the First Committee that this would relieve pressure on the NPT review process. I’m happy to take them at their word, and if they are satisfied with their conference, then this need not be an issue that is addressed at length at the review conference. That would be a very good outcome. We have many more pressing issues to address in New York than the Middle Eastern zone, but we’ll see what happens.

ACT: U.S. officials have said the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) is inconsistent with the NPT, but many NPT parties have supported it and have argued that it complements the NPT. Will this disagreement be a hurdle to a consensus decision at the review conference?

Eberhardt: It depends on what the advocates of the treaty want to say about it. They have set up a separate treaty with a separate process. I’m perfectly happy for them to discuss that treaty in that process. The TPNW is inconsistent with the NPT in the sense that there is a specific article that says when in conflict with other treaties, the TPNW takes precedence, so that’s a problem. It establishes a standard of verification that is lower than what is commonly accepted in the NPT: a comprehensive safeguards agreement with the IAEA and the additional protocol to that agreement.

Chaja Merk of Extinction Rebellion (left) and Alicia Sanders-Zakre of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) speak at ICAN's Campaign Forum in Paris on Feb. 15. ICAN promotes the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons that has been signed by 81 states so far, despite U.S. opposition. (Photo: Joe Jukes/ICAN)The TPNW is not an effective measure toward disarmament. This is not an issue that I want to belabor at the review conference, and if no one brings it up, I’ll be happy not to bring it up either. Let’s see how that goes.

ACT: Some NPT parties, such as Saudi Arabia, have not agreed to adopt an additional protocol to their safeguards agreement. What can the review conference do to advance that standard of verification?

Eberhardt: We would certainly like to see language in the final document, assuming there is one, reaffirming that comprehensive safeguards and the additional protocol are the recognized standard for verification of NPT safeguards obligations. That would be a strong affirmation of the fact that the additional protocol is so important, not just for Saudi Arabia but for everyone. It’s something I talked about when I was in Nigeria in December on a workshop on the peaceful uses of nuclear energy. Comprehensive safeguards and additional protocols are enablers for accessing the benefits of these technologies, and this was well understood and accepted by all participants in the workshop. It was a very gratifying experience.

ACT: What is the U.S. approach to the idea that the review conference might endorse specific nuclear risk reduction steps? For instance, some have urged NPT parties to say in their national statements that a nuclear war cannot be won and must not be fought, the Ronald Reagan-Mikhail Gorbachev formulation from 1985.

Eberhardt: I’m not really sure. I will say that I’m pleased that the discussion around risk reduction has matured. It used to be that all anybody wanted to talk about was reducing operational readiness, de-mating warheads, and various other measures that I think are actually destabilizing. The conversation has become more nuanced now, and people are talking about what exactly do we mean by risk reduction. There are four or five ways, including the reduction of nuclear war, reducing the risk of accidental use, and so on. This is actually one of the areas that the CEND initiative is taking up, and I’m looking forward to how that group develops the concepts and then looks at specific measures that can be taken. It’s still early days, so I can’t point to any specific measures in that. But I am also hopeful that because we’re having these serious discussions in the CEND initiative about risk reduction, that might spur progress elsewhere—perhaps in the process of regular meetings among the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, the P-5 process—to have a more serious discussion about risk reduction and measures that can be taken. It could be an impetus for that group to have that serious discussion. Russia and China have participated in the CEND initiative up to now; we’ll see how that plays out.

What specific measures might be available at the review conference, I can’t say. The Reagan-Gorbachev statement was of a time when arsenals were fairly enormous. What we are looking at is how can we perhaps come up with new language that is reflective of today’s environment, that gets to that same idea but perhaps in a more practical and realistic way. I don’t have anything to share with you now, but we’ll see how that plays out.

ACT: Argentina has organized a series of regional workshops to prepare for the review conference, after Rafael Grossi was selected as the conference’s presumptive president last year. Grossi became the director-general of the IAEA in December, but his Argentine colleague, Gustavo Zlauvinen, has taken his place. Have those meetings succeeded in expanding the time to prepare for the review conference? Are you comfortable with the organizational preparations for the conference?

Eberhardt: This is not a perfect situation, having to change president-designates midstream. We had already had the problem of getting Grossi named as the president-designate at the last Preparatory Committee meeting. It’s been a challenge, but I was impressed with Zlauvinen when I met him last week. He has a very realistic and measured approach toward executing the office, recognizing the need to take a balanced approach, taking into account all views. I know he intends to carry on the series of regional workshops that Grossi had set up, and those have been useful.

As to the organizational aspects, UNODA has done a great job of assisting throughout this process, so I’m an optimist. I play golf, so by definition I’m an optimist. We’re in good hands with Zlauvinen.