Can Disarmament Be Revived? An Interview With Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde

May 2021

Sweden has long played a significant role in seeking to advance nonproliferation and disarmament. For example, Sweden was part of the New Agenda Coalition, which has sought to bridge the divide between nuclear-weapon states and non-nuclear-weapon states that surfaced during negotiations regarding the indefinite extension of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1995.

Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde says the Stockholm Initiative, which aims to prod the world to revive progress on disarmament, is more important than ever. (Photo: Kristian Pohl/The Government Offices of Sweden)In 1998, Sweden co-authored a joint declaration calling for a new agenda for nuclear disarmament and deploring the fact that “countless resolutions and initiatives [with respect to the elimination] of nuclear weapons in the past half century remain unfulfilled.”

In February 2020, the 16 countries involved in the Stockholm Initiative for Nuclear Disarmament endorsed 22 measures, or “stepping stones,” to reinforce the disarmament goals of the NPT.

To help readers understand what this latest initiative has achieved and where it is headed, the following questions were posed by email to Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde.

ARMS CONTROL TODAY: How do you think the Stockholm Initiative can accelerate progress on nuclear disarmament? What do you hope it
can achieve in the short term and the long term? Is the effort more or less necessary since the initiative was launched in June 2019?

Foreign Minister Linde: The Stockholm Initiative and the 22 specific stepping stones adopted in Berlin last year are proposals for concrete measures for nuclear disarmament. They are honest suggestions for measures that we believe can be taken now—in the current security situation—to implement commitments and obligations from previous NPT review conferences. In parallel, these measures will contribute to building confidence and pave the way for further progress and additional steps. Nuclear risk reduction is a key area for the Stockholm Initiative, but our proposals also cover doctrines and policies, transparency, and disarmament verification.

The initiative is as important today as it was in June 2019, if not more so. The global security situation continues to deteriorate, and disarmament diplomacy remains highly polarized. This was a main reason for launching the initiative in Stockholm almost two years ago. At our latest ministerial meeting in Amman in January this year, we agreed that the challenges persist and that the initiative’s raison d’être and proposals for stepping stones remain valid. It is crucial that we move away from the deadlock and instead contribute to building an inclusive process that can lead to real progress at the next NPT review conference in August and beyond. In a nutshell, this is what the Stockholm Initiative is about. I sincerely think that it is possible to achieve progress if there is unity of purpose.

ACT: Many of the stepping stones call for nuclear-weapon states to open or deepen discussions on such issues as nuclear doctrine and strategic stability. How will the Stockholm Initiative encourage not only discussion but also action by nuclear-weapon states on these measures?

Linde: Reducing the role of nuclear weapons in doctrines and policies is crucial. The trend in the opposite direction that we have seen in recent years is deeply worrying and must be reversed.

This is why the issue figures prominently in the stepping stones package, in line with the commitments made at the 2010 NPT Review Conference.

Doctrines and policies will be high on our agenda in discussions with nuclear-weapon states. Increased transparency from the nuclear-weapon states with regard to their policies is certainly a welcome step, but more needs to be done. We should seek an outcome at the upcoming review conference that paves the way for concrete progress in the next review cycle.

ACT: What specific outcomes does Sweden envision coming out of these discussions, particularly in the next round of nuclear arms talks between Moscow and Washington following the five-year extension of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START)? How, specifically, could you prod other major nuclear armed states to engage more effectively in the nuclear disarmament process?

Linde: The five-year extension of New START was obviously of fundamental importance. But as was rightly pointed out by the United States, it should be seen as the beginning, not the end, of nuclear arms control efforts.

Negotiating new arms control agreements is difficult and time consuming, so I hope new talks can be launched soon, primarily between the United States and Russia. With an arsenal that is both expanding and becoming more diversified, the relevance of China’s participation is clearly also growing.

As for the agenda, I would hope that negotiators are ambitious and set out to do the following: (1) seek further reductions in the strategic arsenals; (2) for the first time, regulate arsenals of tactical nuclear weapons; (3) seek effective ways of mitigating the consequences of the demise of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty; and (4) enhance awareness of how emerging technology, including space-related technology, could impact future arms control.

ACT: The Stockholm Initiative last met in January 2021. Afterward, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas released a statement that said the initiative “will reach out to all groups and initiatives, both governmental and from civil society.“ Has this outreach occurred since this meeting, and if so, how has it been going? Have additional states signaled support for the initiative?

Swedish Foreign Minister Anne Linde (center) poses with officials from other countries involved in the Stockholm Initiative for Nuclear Disarmament at a ministerial meeting in Berlin in February 2020. (Photo by Tobias Schwarz/AFP via Getty Images)Linde: We have been happy to note strong interest for the initiative from other countries that are NPT states-parties. Several countries have chosen to align with the stepping stones proposals that were agreed in Berlin in February last year and we hope that more will follow. In any case, we hope that the initiative will be considered an effective method to achieve further disarmament and that our proposals can help stimulate discussion.

The pandemic and the current uncertainties related to the holding of the 10th NPT review conference complicate our work, but I am pleased to see that the engagement nonetheless remains strong.

ACT: One of the initiative’s recommendations is for “visits to and interaction with communities affected by nuclear weapons, including Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and former nuclear test sites.“ Why do you believe this is important? Should heads of state and foreign ministers commit to visiting sites where nuclear weapons have inflicted health and environmental consequences?

Linde: Such visits would serve several purposes. We are obliged to learn from history and to use our knowledge to make better choices in the future. Visits could help raise awareness of the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons and contribute to putting these issues back at the top of our political and public agendas. It would also be a key part of further engaging the younger generations, which in turn could promote a much-needed growth of knowledge and innovation in these areas.

Increased and inclusive knowledge of nuclear disarmament affairs is something that I find of utmost importance at all levels. Nationally, we are establishing a knowledge center with the purpose to engage in education and research in related areas, guarantee future expertise, and provide cross-disciplinary support for policy work. It is also a part of the broader quest to raise public awareness on nuclear disarmament and to stimulate a public debate.

ACT: In the February 2020 statement on the Stockholm Initiative, the group resolved “to strengthen the NPT against the background of disturbing trends—the unravelling of the arms-control fabric that has served and must continue to serve global security well, increasingly tense relations between nations, and risks arising from new and emerging weapon technologies.“ What specifically does Sweden believe needs to emerge from the 10th NPT review conference, tentatively scheduled for August, in order to jump-start progress on disarmament and to address new and emerging weapons technologies? Is it your goal to see the conference not only reaffirm past commitments and obligations on the Article VI disarmament pillar, which describes the mechanism by which disputes over the treaty may be settled, but also adopt an updated consensus action plan on specific disarmament-related measures?

Linde: The upcoming NPT review conference provides an important—and long awaited—opportunity for states-parties to strengthen all three pillars of the NPT. Much is at stake. Political engagement at the highest level is therefore essential. The format must allow for in-depth discussions, negotiations, and deliberations. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is to not underestimate the value and power of honest in-person exchanges of views in order to achieve results.

We need to collectively reaffirm the continued validity of previous commitments made within the NPT framework. Equally important is that real progress must be made in implementing these commitments, not least when it comes to Article VI. We need not only to review what has been done so far, but also to look into the future and examine what lies ahead and how greater progress can be made, regardless of the prevailing security environment. This is not the time to abandon or set aside what has once been agreed. There is only one possible direction, and that is going forward. There can be no backtracking.

In this regard, we would do well to remind ourselves that all states-parties to the NPT carry a responsibility to help make sure that the review conference achieves the desired outcome. Yes, it is true that nuclear-weapon states carry a special responsibility, particularly in terms of disarmament. However, this does not mean that the rest of us should not work hard to make sure that we reach our common goals. All efforts are needed. With the Stockholm Initiative and its stepping stones, Sweden, along with the initiative’s 15 other partner countries, is trying to do just that, to contribute in an ambitious yet realistic manner that embraces differences of opinion and that allows for an inclusive process. Only with everyone seated at the table can real progress be achieved.

ACT: Have you discussed the initiative with the Biden administration, and if so, what has been its response? Will the United States be an active participant?

Linde: Nuclear disarmament is a central Swedish foreign policy priority. I took the opportunity to raise the Stockholm Initiative with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken in our first conversation just days after he had taken up his duties. We had a brief discussion then, and I have since, together with my Canadian and German colleagues and on behalf of the members of the Stockholm Initiative, sent a letter encouraging the new administration to seriously consider the 22 stepping stone proposals to advance nuclear disarmament. These proposals are aimed at providing an ambitious and realistic set of measures that we hope that all NPT states-parties, not least the nuclear-weapon states with their special responsibility, will study with an open mind and act on.

The United States is a critical partner and without a doubt will be highly active and engaged in all our deliberations ahead of the review conference. I look forward to continuing the conversation with Secretary Blinken on how we can move forward on an implementation agenda.

ACT: In March, the United Kingdom announced that it will raise the ceiling on its total nuclear warhead stockpile by more than 40 percent, from its earlier goal of 180 by the mid-2020s to 260 warheads. Do you view this action as consistent with the UK’s political and legal commitments under the NPT, which include pursuing “negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament“? If this decision is inconsistent with those obligations, what can be done about it?

Lassina Zerbo, executive secretary of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization, addresses the 2015 Non-proliferation Treaty Review Conference, which fell apart when members could not reach consensus. Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde says the next conference, tentatively set for August, cannot afford such failure.  (Photo: United Nations)Linde: First of all, we regret that the UK is set to increase the cap on its nuclear arsenal and no longer provide public figures on operational stockpiles, deployed warheads, and deployed missiles. I believe this to be a clear step in the wrong direction, at a time when our focus should be on achieving progress on disarmament ahead of the review conference. It adds to a deeply worrying trend, with also China increasing and diversifying its arsenal and with major modernization efforts going on elsewhere, not least in Russia. We must do everything in our power to avoid a costly and dangerous arms race.

This has also been my message in recent discussions with UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab. It should be pointed out, however, that while the UK has announced a raised ceiling, the arsenal has not increased so far, and we certainly hope it never will. The UK has made clear that they will continue to press for key steps to achieve multilateral disarmament and that they remain strongly committed to the full implementation of the NPT in all its aspects, including nuclear disarmament. I trust that they plan to honor this commitment. I should also mention that the UK has been and continues to be a great partner to Sweden in areas such as nuclear disarmament verification through the Quad Nuclear Verification Partnership.

We will now have to find constructive ways to go from here. I would welcome further engagement by the UK on key areas such as nuclear risk reduction, transparency, and declaratory policy, and I do believe that the Stockholm Initiative offers a path forward in this regard.

ACT: In 2019 the United States launched the Creating an Environment for Nuclear Disarmament (CEND) initiative, which U.S. officials described as an effort to overcome obstacles to and create conditions for furthering nuclear disarmament. Almost all members of the Stockholm Initiative are also members of the CEND initiative, and Sweden is one of those. Where might the CEND and Stockholm initiatives’ efforts converge and diverge?

Linde: At the outset, let me make clear that I welcome all efforts and initiatives aiming to find ways forward on disarmament and to bring us closer to making our common goal of a world free from nuclear weapons a reality. There are quite a lot of groupings out there, be it at the regional, the cross-regional, or the thematic level; and in my opinion, they all bring something to the table. We have consistently underlined that the Stockholm Initiative is not there to replace or go against any other existing formats. Rather, we see efforts as complementary. If anything, the Stockholm Initiative proposes an agenda that can be supported by a large number of countries. Many of the countries of the Stockholm Initiative are also, as you rightly pointed out, active participants in other initiatives such as the Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Initiative (NPDI), the CEND initiative, or the Non-Aligned Movement, to name a few.

The CEND initiative gathers a broad group of countries, including states that are not part of the NPT but nevertheless possess nuclear weapons. In that sense, it fills a gap, providing a much-needed platform for discussions that go beyond treaties or commitments and possibly helping to build confidence, trust, and better understanding of positions among countries. However, the Stockholm Initiative is a more focused effort in that it proposes concrete steps that can be taken now, in the short term, and that could lead to further, substantive measures down the road. It also proposes a method in this regard, a stepping stones approach, and puts an emphasis on high-level political engagement. Committed and sustained political leadership is crucial if we are to achieve concrete and sustainable results.

ACT: Since the Stockholm Initiative was launched, the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) has entered into force, and the first meeting of states-parties will likely be held in January 2022. Should the TPNW be recognized as a positive contribution to efforts to reinforce the basic goals and obligations of the NPT, including disarmament, and to reinforce the taboo against nuclear weapons? Do you believe, as the five NPT nuclear-armed states put it in their joint statement in 2018, that it does not contribute to the development of customary international law and “is creating divisions across the international non-proliferation and disarmament machinery, which could make further progress on disarmament even more difficult“?

Linde: The entry into force of the TPNW constitutes a significant development in multilateral nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation.

It is clear that there are different views regarding the TPNW. For example, Sweden is one of the countries that decided not to sign or ratify the treaty due to what we perceived as a series of shortcomings. Nevertheless, Sweden intends to become an observer to the treaty as soon as a framework and process for this is put in place by states-parties.

It is essential that the upcoming NPT review conference does not turn into an argument for or against the TPNW. We must not let the differences in views add to further polarization among states-parties to the NPT. Digging ourselves deeper into trenches will not solve anything. Rather it may risk having a negative spillover effect on other issues. Only through understanding each other’s points of departure can we reach our common destination—a world free from nuclear weapons.

ACT: At the start of 2021, you became the chairperson-in-office of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). In 2020 the United States withdrew from the Open Skies Treaty, and in January of this year, Russia announced that it would begin domestic procedures to withdraw from the treaty if the United States remains outside the treaty. From Sweden’s perspective, how does this treaty contribute to European and international security? What does Sweden believe can be done to preserve the treaty, and what would Sweden like to see the United States and Russia do to ensure the treaty does not collapse?

Linde: The Open Skies Treaty plays a key role in contributing to transparency, predictability, and confidence building in the OSCE region. There is great value in maintaining it.

Although all OSCE countries are not parties to it, the Open Skies Treaty is a part of the comprehensive OSCE arms control framework. It is therefore a concern for the OSCE. As chairperson-in-office, I would regret to see any state withdraw from the treaty. Sweden would welcome the United States rejoining it.

The signals that Russia is considering withdrawing from the Open Skies Treaty are also worrying. A situation where neither the United States nor Russia would be parties to the treaty would be negative for confidence building and security in the OSCE area. Full implementation by all parties is key to preserving the treaty.