Congressional Members Urge Nuclear Arms Control Talks

Nuclear Disarmament Monitor
May 2024

As efforts by the United States to engage with Russia in talks on nuclear risk reduction and a new nuclear arms control framework remain on hold, a group of Democratic lawmakers in the House and the Senate are urging President Joe Biden to prioritize efforts to engage Russia in bilateral talks on nuclear arms control, and to continue bilateral nuclear risk reduction talks with China, warning of growing risks of nuclear instability.

On May 17, a dozen House and Senate Democrats wrote a bicameral letter to Biden on the need for renewed arms control talks amid Russia’s war in Ukraine and its suspension of participation in the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty.

In the letter, which was organized by Sens. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Reps. John Garamendi (D-Calif.) and Don Beyer (D-Va.), members of Congress wrote: “The stakes are too high not to try again. Even as the United States continues to provide aid and support for Ukraine in its effort to repel Russia’s ongoing assault, we can and must seek to engage with Russian leaders on risk reduction and arms control measures in order to protect U.S. and allied security.”

The letter also stresses that “in the absence of a new bilateral framework for nuclear arms control, an already dangerous Russia would be harder to manage” and that a breakdown in U.S.-Russia arms control pacts could embolden China “to expand its nuclear arsenal even further.”

The letter also urges Biden to continue to engage Beijing in arms control and nuclear risk reduction talks and “to push for fresh arms control talks between the U.S., China, Russia and two other permanent members of the UN Security Council: France and the United Kingdom.”

The letter follows the introduction of bicameral resolutions (H. Res. 1079 and S. Res. 593) which express support for the continued value of nuclear arms control agreements and condemn ongoing threats of nuclear weapons use by Russia. The House resolution has 31 cosponsors to date; the Senate resolution has 7.

The resolution “condemns in the strongest terms the Russian Federation’s nuclear escalatory rhetoric and veiled threats on the potential use of nuclear weapons to further its invasion and aggression against a free and independent Ukraine,” and it also “calls on the Biden administration to continue to pursue nuclear arms control and risk reduction dialogue with the Russian Federation to maintain strategic stability, ensure the conflict in Ukraine does not escalate to nuclear use, and avoid an unrestrained nuclear arms race.”—Xiaodon Liang, senior policy analyst; Shizuka Kuramitsu, research assistant; Libby Flatoff, operations and program assistant, Daryl Kimball, executive director.

Biden Approves Updated Nuclear Weapons Employment Guidance Document

In an address at a workshop organized by the two main U.S. nuclear weapons laboratories on “Nuclear Deterrence in the 21st Century,” Senior Director for Arms Control, Nonproliferation, and Disarmament Pranay Vaddi said that in March, “… the President approved updated Nuclear Weapons Employment Planning Guidance.” The guidance document sets the terms for Pentagon planning regarding the number and types of U.S. nuclear weapons systems deemed necessary to meet nuclear deterrence requirements. It follows the administration’s Nuclear Posture Review report released in 2022.

According to Vaddi, the review “wrestled with several questions” including:

  • What conventional and nuclear forces and posture are required to deter multiple adversaries simultaneously now and in the future?
  • How should the United States think about the selective generation of nuclear forces to ensure that it can deter an extended crisis or conflict, including one that may involve multiple adversaries?
  • How can the United States strengthen deterrence by improving the integration of non-nuclear capabilities into U.S. planning?
  • How should the United States consider allied capabilities, consultations, and coordination in scenarios where U.S. nuclear employment may be considered?
  • What role can arms control designed to limit adversary nuclear forces play in relieving the burden on U.S. nuclear forces in a multiple nuclear adversary environment?

Vaddi also stated: “We’re fully committed to recapitalizing the triad, sustaining legacy capabilities for as long as they’re needed, and developing a responsive and adaptable nuclear enterprise. We remain confident in our current forces and posture today. And we do not think we need to match or outnumber the combined total of our adversaries to successfully deter them.”

“But without a change in the trajectory that Russia, the PRC, and the DPRK are on—the United States will need to adjust our posture and capabilities to ensure our ability to deter and meet other objectives going forward.”

According to law, the administration is required to report to Congress on the Nuclear Weapons Employment Guidance document before the end of this year. The document will likely inform future decisions about whether or not the United States seeks to increase the number of deployed nuclear weapons or restructure its nuclear forces in response to Russian and Chinese nuclear weapons efforts.

Vaddi will deliver a keynote address entitled, “Adapting the U.S. Approach to Arms Control and Nonproliferation to a New Era,” at the Arms Control Association’s June 7 Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C. For details and registration, see:

China Reiterates NFU Proposal; U.S. Raises Questions

At the high-level segment meeting of the Conference on Disarmament in February and at a March 18 meeting of the UN Security Council, China repeated its proposal that nuclear-weapon states negotiate a mutual no-first-use (NFU) treaty. While China has a unilateral NFU policy and drafted an NFU treaty in the 1990s, the recent statement repeats a more specific diplomatic call that was first aired in August last year at the July-August nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty Preparatory Committee meeting. The offer was also reaffirmed at a meeting of the UN General Assembly’s First Committee in October.

U.S. officials confirmed that they were aware of the proposal as a distinct diplomatic initiative but raised questions about the feasibility of the idea. In an April interview with Arms Control Today, Assistant Secretary of State for Arms Control, Deterrence, and Stability Mallory Stewart called on China to “help us understand how your nuclear buildup is consistent with your no-first-use policy.”

Testifying May 15 before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Bonnie Jenkins said “We were made aware of this proposal by the PRC and this was really the first time we had heard that from them.” In response to questions from Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), Jenkins said U.S. officials would have to “think about it within the interagency,” but were not currently reconsidering the rejection of an NFU policy in the 2022 Nuclear Posture Review.

During his candidacy, U.S. President Joe Biden supported a pledge that the sole purpose of nuclear weapons is to deter a nuclear attack against the United States or its allies, but did not ultimately adopt the policy after his election.

In her prepared statement, Jenkins also confirmed that China had declined to schedule a follow-on to the meeting last November on nuclear arms control and nonproliferation.

P5 Meeting Held in Saudi Arabia but Little Disclosed

Experts representing the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (P5) recognized as nuclear states by the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty met in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on February 29. According to a statement from the Russian foreign ministry, representatives of the five nuclear states met in a working meeting format. None of the participants have discussed the meeting and its outcomes publicly and the participants did not issue a joint statement or any other summary text.

The meeting took place despite the statement earlier in February by Vladimir Leontiev, adviser to the Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, that his country saw no basis for strategic stability talks in any bilateral or multilateral format, including with the P5. Leontiev did not rule out a return to arms control in the long term but dismissed any possibility of immediate talks with the United States or its allies. This is in line with the general refusal of Russian officials to discuss arms control issues, including a follow-on to New START.

This is the second P5 meeting that has taken place under Russian chairmanship. In September 2023, an experts-level meeting was held on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly Meeting in New York. In August, China will take over from Russia as the rotating chair of the P5 process.

U.S. Convenes Western Hemisphere Nuclear Risk Reduction Meeting

The United States hosted delegations from western hemisphere countries April 22-23 in New York for meetings on nuclear risk reduction. According to Assistant Secretary of State for Arms Control, Deterrence, and Stability Mallory Stewart, the meetings focused on attendants’ concerns about the “heightened risk of nuclear conflict while we have an unstable international arena.”

The format of the April 22 meeting involved a multilateral discussion with diplomats from 27 Western hemisphere countries, while on April 23 the United States held a trilateral meeting with Canada and Mexico. Stewart clarified that the meetings were not focused on the risk of nuclear proliferation in the Western Hemisphere.

Academies of Science Call on G7 to Reaffirm Disarmament Commitments

Following their annual meeting, held April 11-12 of this year, the national academies of science of the G7 member states issued a statement calling on G7 countries to reaffirm their commitment to achieving a world without nuclear weapons and to take steps toward that goal.

Since 2005, the G7 academies of science have endorsed a brief list of topics that they recommend G7 delegations take up at the next summit meeting. This year, the G7 summit will be held in Puglia, Italy, on June 13-15. For the first time, the academies of science included nuclear arms control as one of their agenda suggestions, alongside agriculture, artificial intelligence, cultural heritage, health, and social inequalities.

In their statement, drafted by the Italian and German participants, the seven academies restated the scientific consensus on the damaging effects of limited and unrestricted nuclear war, which could lead to as many as hundreds of millions of human casualties. In particular, the academies noted their concern about the possibility of soot created by nuclear explosions blocking out sunlight and thereby affecting agricultural output and fish catches.

The academies stated that the “primary way” to reduce nuclear weapons and the danger of their use was through international agreements on limits, along with appropriate monitoring and verification measures and restrictions on the use of nuclear materials and technologies.

According to the joint statement, the scientific community can assist nuclear arms control efforts by helping to “develop and communicate the scientific evidence base that shows the catastrophic effects of nuclear warfare on human populations,” or by informing monitoring and verification techniques and through support to governments.

2024 UN Disarmament Commission Concludes on April 19

The 2024 session of the UN Disarmament Commission, a subsidiary organ of the UN General Assembly, held three weeks of discussion between April 1 and April 19. A substantive report of the Disarmament Commission’s work will be presented to the 79th session of the UN General Assembly in the fall of 2024.

Established in 1978 by the first United Nations General Assembly Special Session devoted to Disarmament (SSOD-I) as a subsidiary body of the UN General Assembly, the Disarmament Commission has historically offered a place where all UN member states can gather to discuss disarmament issues and to make recommendations. The Commission also submits an annual substantive report to the General Assembly. 

The Commission elected Muhammad Usman Iqbal Jadoon, Pakistani Ambassador and Deputy Permanent Representative of Pakistan, as chair. “The Disarmament Commission has the solemn responsibility to deliberate on topical issues related to disarmament and recommend measures,” said Jadoon April 1 according to meetings coverage from the UN.

Like many other multilateral disarmament fora, the Disarmament Commission is driven by consensus. Thus, parties faced difficulty agreeing on substantive outcomes in every year except one—2017— between 1999 and 2022. During the most recent session in 2023, states adopted consensus recommendations on the topic of outer space activities.

The Disarmament Commission’s agenda “would normally comprise two substantive items per year from the whole range of disarmament issues, including one on nuclear disarmament,” reflecting guidance issued in 1998 by the General Assembly, according to the United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs.

“The 2024 session … features discussion in two working groups – one on recommendations for achieving the objective of nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation of nuclear weapons and the other on recommendations on common understandings related to emerging technologies in the context of international security,” said the UN press office April 1.

This year’s report is not public as of May 22. According to the April 18 chair’s summary from the working group on emerging technologies, “many delegations expressed a preference for a more focused scope for discussions during the next sessions of the Disarmament Commission with a view to reaching substantive recommendations for further consideration by the General Assembly.”

Ministerial Declaration Not Included at ICONS 2024

Unlike in previous years, the International Conference on Nuclear Security (ICONS) will not issue a consensus-based ministerial declaration at the end of its current session in late May.

The ministerial declaration would have made a political reaffirmation of participating states’ commitment to nuclear security amid current tensions. States failed to reach consensus, however, due to Iran’s objections. Instead, many countries chose to endorse the statement by the co-presidents, which is similar to previous declarations.

The conference is hosted by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) every four years in Vienna with the purpose of providing a forum for ministers, policymakers, senior officials, and nuclear security experts to discuss topics of nuclear security.

At ICONS 2016, the ministerial declaration endorsed, in its second paragraph of the document, “the common goals of nuclear non-proliferation, nuclear disarmament and peaceful uses of nuclear energy, recognize[d] that nuclear security contributes to international peace and security, and stress[ed] that progress in nuclear disarmament is critically needed and will continue to be addressed in all relevant fora, consistent with the relevant obligations and commitments of Member States.” In 2020, while maintaining the same group of goals, more language emphasizing the importance of nuclear security was included, which experts perceived as an “innovative addition” compared to 2016.

ICONS 2024 will inform the IAEA’s next Nuclear Security Plan, 2026–2029. Without a ministerial declaration, the European Union stressed on May 20, “that the commitments agreed at the 2020 ICONS remain valid and must be implemented, in addition to addressing new challenges.”

Ambassador and Permanent Representative of India Shambhu Kumaran shared his view that the lack of a ministerial declaration “must not however dissuade us from taking forward our functional cooperation in this important domain.”

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