"I want to tell you that your fact sheet on the [Missile Technology Control Regime] is very well done and useful for me when I have to speak on MTCR issues."

– Amb. Thomas Hajnoczi
Chair, MTCR
May 19, 2021
April 2019

Arms Control Today April 2019

Edition Date: 
Monday, April 1, 2019
Cover Image: 

The NPT and the Conditions for Nuclear Disarmament

April 2019
By Daryl G. Kimball, Executive Director

Fifty years ago, shortly after the conclusion of the 1968 nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), the United States and the Soviet Union launched the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT). Negotiated in the midst of severe tensions, the SALT agreement and the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty were the first restrictions on the superpowers’ massive strategic offensive weapons, as well as on their emerging strategic defensive systems. The SALT agreement and the ABM Treaty slowed the arms race and opened a period of U.S.-Soviet detente that lessened the threat of nuclear war.

View of the Soviet delegation (left) and United States negotiating team (right) sitting together during Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) in Vienna, Austria circa 1970. Negotiations would last from 1969 until May 1972 at a series of meetings in both Helsinki and Vienna and result in the signing of the SALT I agreement between the United States and Soviet Union in May 1972. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)The size of U.S. and Russian nuclear stockpiles has decreased significantly from their Cold War peaks, but the dangers posed by the still excessive arsenals and launch-under-attack postures are even now exceedingly high.

Further progress on nuclear disarmament by the United States and Russia has been and remains at the core of their NPT Article VI obligation 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.”

But as the 2020 NPT Review Conference approaches, the key agreements made by the world’s two largest nuclear powers are in severe jeopardy. Dialogue on nuclear arms control has been stalled since Russia rejected a 2013 U.S. offer to negotiate nuclear cuts beyond the modest reductions mandated by the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START).

More recently, the two sides have failed to engage in serious talks to resolve the dispute over Russian compliance with the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which will likely be terminated in August. Making matters worse, talks on extending New START, which is due to expire in 2021, have not begun.

Last year, Russia said it was interested in extending New START, but Team Trump will only say it remains engaged in an interagency review of the treaty. That review is led by National Security Advisor John Bolton, who publicly called for New START’s termination shortly before he joined the administration.

New START clearly serves U.S. and Russian security interests. The treaty imposes important bounds on the strategic nuclear competition between the two nuclear superpowers. Failure to extend New START, on the other hand, would compromise each side’s understanding of the others’ nuclear forces, open the door to unconstrained nuclear competition, and undermine international security. Agreement to extend New START requires the immediate start of consultations to address implementation concerns on both sides.

Instead of agreeing to begin talks on a New START extension, U.S. State Department officials claim that “the United States remains committed to arms control efforts and remains receptive to future arms control negotiations” but only “if conditions permit.”

Such arguments ignore the history of how progress on disarmament has been and can be achieved. For example, the 1969–1972 SALT negotiations went forward despite an extremely difficult geostrategic environment. As U.S. and Russian negotiators met in Helsinki, President Richard Nixon launched a secret nuclear alert to try to coerce Moscow’s allies in Hanoi to accept U.S. terms on ending the Vietnam War, and he expanded U.S. bombing into Cambodia and Laos. Meanwhile, the Soviet Union sent 20,000 troops to Egypt to back up Cairo’s military campaign to retake the Sinai Peninsula from Israel. In late 1971, Nixon risked war with the Soviet Union and India to help put an end to India's 1971 invasion of East Pakistan.

Back then, the White House and the Kremlin did not wait until better conditions for arms control talks emerged. Instead, they pursued direct talks to achieve modest arms control measures that, in turn, created a more stable and predictable geostrategic environment.

Today, U.S. officials, such as Christopher Ford, assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation, argue that the NPT does not require continual progress on disarmament and that NPT parties should launch a working group to discuss how to create an environment conducive for progress on nuclear disarmament.

Dialogue between nuclear-armed and non-nuclear-weapon states on disarmament can be useful, but the U.S. initiative titled “Creating an Environment for Nuclear Disarmament” must not be allowed to distract from the Trump administration’s lack of political will to engage in a common-sense nuclear arms control and risk reduction dialogue with key nuclear actors.

The current environment demands a productive, professional dialogue between Washington and Moscow to extend New START by five years, as allowed by Article XIV of the treaty; to reach a new agreement that prevents new deployment of destabilizing ground-based, intermediate-range missiles; and maintain strategic stability and reduce the risk of miscalculation.

Ahead of the pivotal 2020 NPT Review Conference, all states-parties need to press U.S. and Russian leaders to extend New START and pursue further effective measures to prevent an unconstrained nuclear arms race. Failure to do so would represent a violation of their NPT Article VI obligations and would threaten the very underpinnings of the NPT regime.



Fifty years ago, shortly after the conclusion of the 1968 nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), the United States and the Soviet Union launched the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT). Negotiated in the midst of severe tensions, the SALT agreement and the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty were the first restrictions on the superpowers’ massive strategic offensive weapons, as well as on their emerging strategic defensive systems. The SALT agreement and the ABM Treaty slowed the arms race and opened a period of U.S.-Soviet detente that lessened the threat of nuclear war.

Creating an Environment for Nuclear Disarmament: Striding Forward or Stepping Back?

April 2019
By Paul Meyer

Few would contest that the regime built on the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) is currently going through a rough patch, to put it mildly. Long-simmering frustrations with the lack of progress in fulfilling the treaty’s Article VI commitment on nuclear disarmament erupted in recent years in the form of a broadly based humanitarian initiative leading to the 2017 conclusion of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.

A protester in Sydney in 2018 urges Australia to sign the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. The treaty has highlighted public dissatisfaction with the pace of nuclear disarmament. (Photo: Peter Parks/AFP/Getty Images)The new treaty has posed a major challenge to the status quo. Backed by 122 states at the time of its adoption, the treaty has now garnered 70 signatures and 22 ratifications, with 50 ratifications needed for the pact to enter into force. Some nuclear powers, particularly the United States, have begun new initiatives to try to maintain their control over the direction of NPT activity.

The prevailing nuclear orthodoxy of the NPT community, which relied on the treaty’s five nuclear-weapon states to set the scope and pace of disarmament commitments, has been contested by a super majority of NPT members. These reformers have opted for an alternative path to nuclear disarmament by means of a treaty that rejects and stigmatizes nuclear weapons and the doctrines of nuclear deterrence associated with them. In so doing, they have opened up a fissure within the NPT membership that has put the nuclear-weapon states and their nuclear weapons-dependent allies into the role of a dissident minority, albeit one that possesses the very weapons the reformers seek to eliminate.

This schism will not be readily repaired. On one hand, there are the non-nuclear-weapon states, which have lost faith in the hollow and self-serving pledges of the nuclear-weapon states regarding nuclear disarmament. These states are using the prohibition treaty to embrace a new doctrine. On the other hand, there are the Old Believers who continue to espouse the hallowed texts from decades of NPT meetings that promise nuclear salvation through the so-called step-by-step approach to disarmament. In the NPT context, this has meant increasingly ritualized calls for entry into force of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which still needs eight ratifications, including the United States and China; the negotiation of a fissile material cutoff treaty (FMCT) within the Conference on Disarmament, a more than 20-year fantasy; and further reductions in the nuclear arsenals of possessing states, a goal undermined by the juggernaut of nuclear force modernization speeding in the opposite direction.

For the United States, the high priest of nuclear orthodoxy, the developments of the last few years have proven disconcerting. The negotiation and completion of the prohibition treaty represents an affront to U.S. authority. With its nuclear-weapon state counterparts, the United States found it easy to denounce this heresy and to press France and the United Kingdom to do likewise.

At the same time, it was difficult to continue to promote the virtue of the step-by-step approach in the face of the contradictory evidence as to its efficacy. This situation has led some in Washington to conclude that a change in tack was required, a discreet modification of the liturgy to deploy during the upcoming NPT services.

A New Approach to Create an Environment for Nuclear Disarmament

The new approach was manifested in a working paper entitled “Creating the Conditions for Nuclear Disarmament” submitted by the United States to the second preparatory committee meeting for the 2020 NPT Review Conference, held in Geneva in 2018. The United States has recently decided to rename the initiative “Creating an Environment for Nuclear Disarmament” (CEND), replacing an empirical term such as “conditions” for the vaguer and more subjectively determined concept of “environment.” The rationale behind the original paper remains the same and its initial paragraph sets out the essence of the problem it perceives with respect to nuclear disarmament: “If we continue to focus on numerical reductions and the immediate abolition of nuclear weapons, without addressing the real underlying security concerns that led to their production in the first place, and to their retention, we will advance neither the cause of disarmament nor the cause of enhanced collective international security.”1 In order “to get the international community past the sterility of such discourse,” the working paper recalls that the United States has previously “spoken in broad terms of the need to create the conditions conducive for further nuclear disarmament” and now “seeks to lay out some of the discrete tasks that would need to be accomplished for such conditions to exist.”



The paper refers to several steps in a wide range of political-security fields ranging from greater acceptance of existing best practices at the more modest end of the spectrum, such as the adoption of an additional protocol to a country’s safeguards agreement based on the International Atomic Energy Agency’s Model Additional Protocol, to fundamental transformations of interstate relations at the ambitious end, such as “a world in which the relationships between nations, especially major powers, are not driven by assumptions of zero-sum geopolitical competition, but are instead cooperative and free of conflict.” In between are conditions on altered threat perceptions, reduced regional tensions, diminished nuclear capabilities, enhanced transparency, comprehensive verification, and effective compliance enforcement measures.

A focus on conditions facilitating nuclear disarmament is not a novel element. Following U.S. President Barack Obama’s celebrated April 2009 speech in Prague invoking the need to move toward a “world without nuclear weapons,” NATO was moved to incorporate these ideas into its authoritative 2010 Strategic Concept. This primordial policy document was adopted at the Lisbon summit in November of that year and is still in force. In it NATO’s leaders state, “We are resolved to seek a safer world for all and to create the conditions for a world without nuclear weapons in accordance with the goals of the [NPT], in a way that promotes international stability, and is based on the principle of undiminished security for all.”2 On the surface, this stance seems aligned with the NPT and its nuclear disarmament goal, but the alliance has never defined these conditions or how it will contribute to their creation. In more recent years, NATO communiqués have stressed that “progress on arms control and disarmament must take into account the prevailing international security environment. We regret that the conditions for achieving disarmament are not favorable today.”3

The New York signing ceremony for the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons on Sept. 20, 2017. (Photo: Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images)This stance, however expedient for allies, ignores the reality that the international security environment was hardly any better during the Cold War, yet the alliance made great efforts with considerable success to devise agreements to reduce arms and promote cooperation. Nine years after the Strategic Concept, there is still no more wisdom regarding what NATO deems to be the essential conditions for nuclear disarmament
and how it is helping to achieve those conditions.

No NPT Article VI commitments to cessation of the arms race and to nuclear disarmament are conditioned by the considerations cited in the U.S. paper. At one point, the paper even acknowledged that this “new focus” will require commitments going beyond those embodied in the NPT. Although no author is identified on the U.S. paper, it bears the hallmarks of Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Ford, an official who has served with distinction under Presidents George W. Bush and Donald Trump. Fortunately for those trying to assess the significance of the new departure represented by the CEND initiative, Ford elaborated on the concept in December 2018 remarks about the 2020 NPT Review Conference.4

Ford traced the evolution of the CEND concept to deliberations leading up to the February 2018 U.S. Nuclear Posture Review report and the subsequent preparation of the working paper submitted to the NPT Preparatory Committee in April 2018. “This new initiative aims to move beyond the traditional approach that had focused principally upon ‘step-by-step’ efforts to bring down the number of U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons, but that did so in ways that did not provide a pathway to address the challenge of worsening security conditions, did not address nuclear build-ups by China, India and Pakistan, and did not provide an answer to challenges of deterrence and stability in Europe and the Indo-Pacific, and that had clearly stalled,” says the paper.

A Rejection of the Step-by-Step Approach

The significance of this appraisal of the effectiveness of the traditional approach on disarmament cannot be overstated. Ford is essentially saying that it has failed and it is time to move beyond it because it has been unable to deliver on earlier NPT review conference agreements, including the CTBT’s entry into force, FMCT negotiations, further reduction of the nuclear-weapon state arsenals, and a diminished role for nuclear weapons in strategic policies.

In addition to this core failure, the traditional approach does not provide a means of countering the current deterioration of security conditions or for addressing the nuclear build-ups of nuclear-armed nations not party to the NPT. According to Ford, a new discourse is required that is “both more realistic than these traditional modes of thought and more consonant with the security challenges facing the real-world leaders whose engagement is essential for disarmament.”

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Ford is spearheading the U.S. initiative “Creating an Environment for Nuclear Disarmament.” (Photo: Paul Morigi/Carnegie Endowment for International Peace)Such a major departure in disarmament diplomacy would normally have been a product of extensive prior consultation with affected allies and partners, but there is no public evidence that this has occurred. Indeed, this new doctrine pulls the carpet from underneath U.S. allies and partners who have dutifully been affirming the superiority of the step-by-step approach to fulfilling the NPT’s nuclear disarmament obligations. Particularly in the context of the diplomatic struggle over the humanitarian initiative and the development of the prohibition treaty, the U.S. nuclear dependents have faithfully argued the merits of the step-by-step, or progressive, approach to achieving nuclear disarmament. One illustration was given at the UN General Assembly First Committee last fall on the part of 30 non-nuclear-weapon states allied with the United States through NATO or bilateral accords. These states declared, “We are firmly committed to the goal of a nuclear-weapon-free-world and believe it is best pursued through a progressive approach consisting of pragmatic, inclusive and effective steps.”5

Similarly, the most recent Group of Seven consensus statement on nonproliferation and disarmament asserts, “[W]e support further practical and concrete steps in the fields of nuclear arms control, disarmament and nonproliferation.”6 Even the United States and its nuclear-weapon partners France and the United Kingdom remained rhetorically committed to the step-by-step approach until recently. For example, a 2015 explanation of a vote at the First Committee delivered on behalf of the three by the UK ambassador stated, “To create a world without nuclear weapons that remains free of nuclear weapons, however, disarmament cannot take place in isolation of the very real international security concerns that we face. We believe that the step-by-step approach is the only way to combine the imperatives of disarmament and of maintaining global stability.”7

It would seem that “the only way” is receiving a radical reinterpretation in Washington, one that will cause considerable diplomatic heartburn for those allies who have long asserted that the step-by-step approach is the sole viable path toward nuclear disarmament. The attachment of most non-nuclear-weapon states to this position lay in part to the authority these steps had as a result of their inclusion in a succession of consensus outcomes of NPT review conferences, notably those of 1995, 2000, and 2010. The steps could also be assessed more objectively than the general formula of the disarmament commitment in NPT Article VI.

To abandon this approach and its measurable benchmarks in order to embrace the vague and subjective criteria of the new environment discourse will be a difficult policy pill to swallow for those allies who have doggedly supported the mainstream, NPT-centric prescription for achieving nuclear disarmament. It will be particularly difficult for those non-nuclear allies who face significant domestic constituencies disappointed by their governments’ rejection of the prohibition treaty that will press for tangible indications that the step-by-step approach is yielding results. Although supporting a progressive approach toward nuclear disarmament has a positive ring to it, expectations will necessarily build for its proponents to demonstrate actual progress, which is unlikely in the current circumstances. This movement of the policy goalposts also will complicate prospects for success at the 2020 NPT Review Conference, an outcome ardently sought by the non-nuclear-weapon states, especially in the wake of the failed 2015 review conference.

A Problematic Model for Operationalizing the Concept

It is not only the doctrinal switch that Ford has introduced that may prove problematic, but also his concept as to how this new environment discourse is to be operationalized. His model for a Creating the Conditions Working Group is the earlier International Partnership for Nuclear Disarmament Verification, a U.S.-initiated process launched in 2014 that currently has some 25 participating states. The partnership has been geared to studying the verification procedures and technologies that would need to be developed to support nuclear disarmament. Its first phase ended in 2017 with the identification of 14 steps key to the nuclear weapons dismantlement process, and a second phase is currently underway with a view to tabling a final report at the 2020 NPT Review Conference. The partnership reached out to a variety of states, but a majority of its members are U.S. allies. Russia and China, which initially attended partnership meetings as observers, are apparently no longer participating.

In Ford’s view, the working group would consist of 25 to 30 countries “selected on the basis of both regional and political diversity” but filtered by a prior commitment to the new approach. States would be invited to comment on the “key issues that, if addressed effectively, could improve prospects for progress on nuclear disarmament” on the basis of the 2018 U.S. paper intending to agree on such a list as an “initial deliverable” for the working group. Ford envisages the establishment of up to three subgroups to be assigned a specific functional topic and with co-chairs “chosen from among states and individuals most able to provide constructive contributions.” Washington presumably will be making these choices because Ford states that the United States will organize and staff an executive secretariat to oversee the exercise. It is projected that planning for the new working group will be underway by the time of the NPT preparatory committee meeting this month and the working group will be fully operational before the 2020 review conference.

Such a “made in the USA” concept for implementing a multilateral effort is likely to meet resistance from several quarters, most notably from the non-allied nuclear-weapon states but also from partners that may fear that the enterprise will be too controlled and its areas of inquiry too constrained by U.S. preferences.

After decades of espousing practical measures for disarmament, non-nuclear allies will be sensitive to charges that the CEND initiative represents a huge distraction from the effort to achieve measurable progress in achieving the existing disarmament commitments agreed by all NPT parties. With its implication that little can be done in terms of progress on disarmament obligations until a broad spectrum of conditions are met, the CEND initiative risks being viewed as a talk shop disconnected from the disarmament process in which states are discussing how a conflict-free halcyon future for the world can be realized.

Conclusions and Alternative Recommendations

Those concerned with the NPT’s fate will not find the new U.S. approach reassuring. Not only does it undermine years of consistent allied support for an approach to nuclear disarmament grounded in the NPT and the political commitments made in successive review conferences, it suggests that these allies have been unrealistic and mistaken in their policies. By proposing that the agreed NPT benchmarks on nuclear disarmament should be ignored in favor of developing a new list of conditions that would facilitate an eventual disarmament progress, the United States is raising the bar on such progress and linking it to transformations in the international security landscape far removed from NPT-specified obligations.

To have a diplomatic strategy that offers some prospects of bridging the acute differences among NPT members at the 2020 review conference, the United States and other nuclear-weapon states should consider several measures.

Instead of investing in the new working group process with its attendant risks, they must ensure that any new mechanism to support the NPT is grounded in the actual legal and political commitments of the treaty. This could include an open-ended working group of NPT parties to examine the impediments to progress in realizing the specific nuclear disarmament-related steps agreed within the NPT process. Such an initiative would be rooted in the collective results of previous NPT proceedings and could be presented as such rather than as a quixotic pursuit of benign relations among states.

An effort should be made to accept the proposals developed over the last years to enhance transparency as part of a strengthened NPT review process, as agreed when the treaty was indefinitely extended in 1995. Although many non-nuclear-weapon states have called for greater transparency from the nuclear-weapon states, the carefully considered proposals of the 12-member Nonproliferation and Disarmament Initiative (NPDI) merit special attention.8 Not only are these proposals relevant and substantive in themselves, but cooperation with the NPDI group, which comprises supporters and opponents of the prohibition treaty, would make diplomatic sense in any broader effort to repair the rift within the NPT. NPDI members include several prominent and influential NPT parties, and for the nuclear-weapon states to persist in their dismissal of their constructive contribution is only going to further sap any bridge-building efforts at the review conference.

The results of the work undertaken by the International Partnership for Nuclear Disarmament Verification should be introduced into the review conference in a manner that suggests that it will facilitate actual nuclear disarmament steps. Demonstrations on how these verification approaches can be applied to real-world dismantlement of surplus nuclear weapons and fissile material would go a long way toward proving that the partnership is more than an interesting academic endeavor.

The nuclear-weapon states should tamp down their anti-prohibition treaty rhetoric in the lead-up to the review conference. It might be satisfying in a debating club context to denounce treaty supporters as engaging in “magical thinking” or “conditions-blind” absolutism, but the 122 states that have expressed support for the prohibition treaty are all NPT parties whose support will be necessary to arrive at any substantive consensus outcome for the 2020 review conference. A more respectful and diplomatic discourse is in order.

Finally, the greatest positive contribution to the NPT review conference would be tangible demonstrations by the nuclear-weapon states, particularly the United States and Russia, of their commitment to nuclear disarmament by means of further reduction of actual arsenals, the exercise of restraint in any modernization plans, and the resumption of strategic dialogues and cooperative arms control arrangements.

For friends of the NPT, the lead-up to the 2020 review conference is fraught with difficulties, none more significant than the chasm that has opened between varying concepts of effectuating NPT obligation on nuclear disarmament. Although out-of-the-box thinking is always welcome in disarmament diplomacy, it should be based on the cumulative legal and political commitments of the NPT, the most universal agreement on nuclear affairs. Demonstrating compliance with these commitments is the surest route for reinforcing the NPT’s authority during this period of crisis. To ignore this approach risks creating the conditions for nuclear disaster rather than nuclear disarmament.



1. Preparatory Committee for the 2020 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, “Creating the Conditions for Nuclear Disarmament (CCND): Working Paper Submitted by the United States,” NPT/CONF.2020/PC.II/WP.30, April 18, 2018.

2. NATO, “Active Engagement, Modern Defence: Strategic Concept for the Defence and Security of the Members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation,” n.d., para. 26, www.nato.int/lisbon2010/strategic-concept-2010-eng.pdf (adopted November 19, 2010).

3. NATO, “North Atlantic Council Statement on the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons,” September 20, 2017, https://www.nato.int/cps/us/natohq/news_146954.htm

4. Christopher Ashley Ford, “The P5 Process and Approaches to Nuclear Disarmament: A New Structured Dialogue,” Remarks to Wilton Park conference, December 10, 2018, https://www.state.gov/t/isn/rls/rm/2018/288018.htm.

5. “Statement on the Progressive Approach,” October 18, 2018, http://reachingcriticalwill.org/images/documents/Disarmament-fora/

6. Group of Seven, “G7 Statement on Non-Proliferation and Disarmament,” April 11, 2017, http://www.g7.utoronto.ca/foreign/170411-npdg_statement_-_final_.pdf.

7. “Explanation of Vote Before the Vote by Ambassador Matthew Rowland, UK Permanent Representative to the Conference on Disarmament on Behalf of France, the United Kingdom and the United States,” November 2, 2015.

8. Preparatory Committee for the 2020 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, “Proposals by the Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Initiative to Enhance Transparency for Strengthening the Review Process for the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons,” NPT/CONF.2020/PC.II/WP.26, April 11, 2018.


Paul Meyer is a fellow in international security at Simon Fraser University and a senior fellow at The Simons Foundation in Vancouver, Canada. He served in an array of international security positions during a 35-year diplomatic career with the Canadian Foreign Service.


A U.S. initiative to define a better environment for nuclear disarmament threatens to undermine the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty regime.

The Future of the Nuclear Order

April 2019
By Rebecca Davis Gibbons

Foreign policy pundits have bemoaned the unraveling of the post-World War II international order in recent years, describing threats to the multilateralism and liberalism enshrined in postwar institutions. An often overlooked component of that structure is the global nuclear order, which, like other parts of the postwar system, was created for magnanimous and selfish aims: reducing the dangers of nuclear weapons for all and serving the interests of the world’s most powerful states.

Amb. Elayne Whyte Gómez, permanent representative of Costa Rica to the United Nations at Geneva, and president of the UN conference that negotiated the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, speaks to the media in July 2017. (Photo: Eskinder Debbie/UN)Today, the global nuclear order is also at risk of unraveling. Taken for granted for too long, the nuclear order requires visionary leaders with the same foresight as the postwar order-makers to undertake bold measures in search of a renewed bargain between nuclear-armed and non-nuclear nations.

Challenges to the Global Nuclear Order

The long-established global nuclear order, as scholar William Walker has explained, comprises two linked systems of order. First, there is the “managed system of deterrence,” by which the nuclear powers, mainly the United States and Soviet Union and later Russia, have pursued deterrence and stability in a rule-bound system, such as with arms control agreements. Second, there is the nuclear nonproliferation order, in which many states have agreed not to develop nuclear weapons in exchange for specific benefits.1

Both systems are faltering. Within the deterrent order, U.S. and Russian leaders are failing to maintain traditional arms control treaties and increasing the salience of nuclear weapons. Pointing to Russian cheating, the United States has announced it will withdraw from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty in August, and Russia is following suit. The current U.S. administration has not yet shown an interest in extending the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) after it is set to expire in 2021. As restrictions are being lifted, Russia and the United States are exploring destabilizing weapons advancements. Last year, President Vladimir Putin announced a series of new nuclear military capabilities, including a nuclear torpedo and a nuclear cruise missile, neither of which is constrained by current arms control agreements.2 In recent weeks, the United States announced plans to test previously banned intermediate-range weapons after its INF Treaty withdrawal is complete.3

The nuclear nonproliferation order is in no better shape, primarily due to the pace of nuclear disarmament.4 Reflecting this concern, 122 nations, but nary a nuclear-weapon state, voted in July 2017 to adopt a treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons. Making the argument that nuclear weapons use is inconsistent with international humanitarian law, these states and their civil society partners have sought to stigmatize nuclear weapons and nuclear deterrence.5

U.S. and Russian plans to modernize their nuclear arsenals further exacerbate tensions with non-nuclear nations, as many believe the two powers are not adhering to their nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) obligation to pursue negotiations toward disarmament. With one side viewing nuclear weapons as inherently immoral and the other seeing nuclear deterrence as a way to maintain security for itself and its allies, there appears to be little space to bridge this divide until the nuclear possessor states move toward nuclear reductions and disarmament.

To make matters worse, NPT parties will this month begin the final preparatory committee meeting before the treaty’s review conference next year, when they will be reminded that 2020 marks the 25th anniversary of the 1995 decision to extend the treaty indefinitely. The United States and many of its allies pushed hard for indefinite extension in the 1990s, while some non-nuclear-weapon states sought a more limited 25-year extension, recognizing they would lose leverage over the nuclear states if the treaty were extended permanently. Current nuclear trends surely cause many states to regret the 1995 decision.

The divisions among the NPT community and between the United States and Russia are difficult enough, but they will have to be addressed in a world markedly different than the Cold War period when the two nuclear orders were established by the two superpowers. China, the second-largest economy in the world, is modernizing its military, including its nuclear arsenal, but has little experience in the negotiations and transparency required by nuclear arms control treaties. Other states are rising as well, indicating an emerging multipolar world. Finally, the rise of information technology has eased high-speed communication around the globe, allowing for individuals and groups to connect and coordinate for a variety of purposes, including advocacy. The reach and influence of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons
is evidence of this relatively new form of power.

Short-Term Forecast

The year 2020 marks the 50th anniversary of the NPT’s entry into force. Although this milestone warrants celebration, important work remains. It is unlikely the NPT, the cornerstone of the nonproliferation order, will face a mass exodus of states soon; but without change, it will likely suffer a slower but no less consequential death. Lower-ranked officials will come and give routine speeches at NPT meetings, but little of importance will happen because states will not prioritize the treaty. The NPT will no longer be a vehicle for states to discuss important issues of nuclear disarmament, nonproliferation, and peaceful uses of nuclear technology. It will calcify in a manner similar to the UN Conference on Disarmament, which has not completed a treaty in more than 20 years.

Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) and Russian President Vladimir Putin review a military honor guard during Putin's visit to Beijing on June 8, 2018. The two leaders appear unlikely to participate in a U.S. initiative to identify barriers to nuclear disarmament. (Photo: Greg Baker/AFP/Getty Images)Disagreement over the pace of disarmament is at the heart of the current NPT divide. In December 2018, Christopher Ford, U.S. assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation, argued that the U.S. arsenal has come down to such low numbers that the traditional step-wise nuclear reductions of the past are no longer prudent. Instead of further reductions, the United States seeks to work with other states to identify the obstacles to disarmament and address them. The plan, now called “Creating an Environment for Nuclear Disarmament” (CEND), is for working groups of 25 to 30 states each to meet and explore ways to overcome specific challenges. At the 2018 NPT Preparatory Committee meeting, the United States issued a working paper that identified a set of goals that Washington argued would enable further arms reductions.6 These included denuclearizing North Korea, addressing regional tensions and conflicts, establishing a Middle Eastern zone free of weapons of mass destruction, achieving universal compliance with International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards, and improving transparency surrounding nuclear doctrines and arsenals.7

The goal of solving global conflicts to establish more amenable conditions for future disarmament is laudable, but there are significant challenges inherent in the working group approach. With the current administration’s rejection of multilateral strategies, such as the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris climate agreement, U.S. leaders are not in the best position to lead a multilateral effort.

Furthermore, there is the question of who will participate in the CEND meetings. Will these working groups include the diverse membership the United States seeks? As the CEND initiative was presented as an alternative to the nuclear prohibition treaty, it would not be surprising if prohibition treaty proponents choose not to participate. After all, the prohibition treaty and the CEND process take conflicting normative approaches to nuclear weapons. For the prohibition movement, these are immoral weapons at odds with international humanitarian law—possession has no justification. In contrast, underlying the CEND initiative is the idea that these weapons are necessary and appropriate tools of deterrence as long as certain geopolitical conditions exist.

In addition, it is difficult to imagine China and Russia engaging productively in this new approach. Both states regrettably have already left the International Partnership for Nuclear Disarmament Verification (IPNDV), the organizational model for the CEND process. The partnership is undertaking important work addressing the many technical and political challenges of future nuclear warhead verification. China and Russia send an unfortunate message by choosing not to attend future meetings.

It seems probable that only the United States and its allies and partners will participate in the CEND work. If so, the approach will worsen divisions that already strain the nuclear order. Surely, the United States is not in an enviable position. On one side, to those seeking a nuclear weapons ban, the CEND initiative looks like a way for the United States to appear to make progress on disarmament without taking meaningful steps toward nuclear reductions. On the other hand, Washington appears to lack partners for a real arms control discussion, as demonstrated by the Russian and Chinese decisions to skip IPNDV meetings. One step in the right direction would be for the United States to seek a five-year extension on New START. This is the least the United States can do to keep the deterrent order on life-support until there is an opportunity to work constructively with Russia again.

Envisioning the Next Nuclear Order

The preservation of the nuclear order will not succeed without the type of dedicated and visionary leadership that led to post-World War II arrangements. Although near-term prospects are dim, a reinvigorated nuclear order will require current and emerging global powers to create a renewed consensus that addresses the challenges to the deterrent order and the nonproliferation order. In broad strokes, this new consensus includes a widened circle of nuclear nonproliferation state-leaders to reflect changing power dynamics, a renewed and more credible commitment to reducing nuclear dangers, and strategic dialogues to reduce risk and mitigate conflict among nuclear weapons possessors.

A sustainable nuclear order for the 21st century must accommodate changing global power dynamics. Based on economic projections, China, India, Brazil, and Indonesia are anticipated to be among the top powers by 2050, with India and China expected to surpass the United States by gross domestic product by 2030.8 Emerging powers should be invited and encouraged to assume leadership roles within a renewed nonproliferation order. This change should not be too difficult; just as the United States and the Soviet Union sought to limit the number of nuclear weapons possessor states for strategic reasons,9 so too will rising powers prioritize proliferation as their interests become global. Nonetheless, without encouragement, these powers may continue to rely on the United States to hold the line on proliferation as it has since the end of the Cold War. U.S. leaders can assist China and India by consulting on past and present U.S. nonproliferation diplomacy and encouraging greater transparency about their nuclear arms. The interests of Indonesia and Brazil also must be weighed in any new consensus. Indonesia has long been a proponent of nuclear disarmament and led the charge for 25-year rolling extensions at the 1995 NPT Review and Extension Conference. Brazil was one of the last states to join the NPT, doing so in 1998. Its late accession reflects Brazil’s complicated relationship with the nuclear nonproliferation order. Most recently, Brazil has refused to conclude an additional protocol to its IAEA safeguards agreement, but it was an important leader in the negotiations toward the nuclear prohibition treaty.

Together, the established and emerging global powers should pledge publicly to work together in a political process to promote nuclear nonproliferation. The new consensus should accept the IAEA Model Additional Protocol as the global safeguards standard and add constraints on any additional sites for enrichment and reprocessing. These sensitive technologies were not mentioned in the NPT text, and some states have claimed it is their “right” under the treaty to possess such technology for peaceful uses. A new consensus should reject this idea while credibly committing to providing a wide range of civilian nuclear technology, including access to enriched uranium for peaceful uses through the global marketplace with additional assurances through global fuel banks.

In a renewed nonproliferation consensus that brings India into the leadership of the nonproliferation order, Israel, North Korea, and Pakistan should be included in meetings and discussions as nuclear weapons possessor states. This de facto expansion of possessor states in a new nuclear nonproliferation order could only occur alongside a commitment by all nuclear weapons states to play a role in the deterrent order by reducing the role of nuclear weapons, seeking risk reduction measures, making significant nuclear reductions, and eventually pursuing disarmament. Incorporating all current nuclear weapons states into this political process matters because none of them should be able to avoid these commitments.

To make these commitments more credible after decades of broken promises, the nuclear possessor states should develop a sequence of steps, beginning with further U.S. and Russian reductions, that would put them on a path toward strategic stability and a reduced reliance on nuclear weapons. These steps could include changes in nuclear posture, such as removing nuclear weapons from high alert levels over time and separating warheads from delivery vehicles. In addition, the new steps could be made within a context in which nuclear weapons, conventional strategic weapons, and missile defenses are all on the negotiating table.10 Exclusively focusing on strategic nuclear weapons will not be effective. The more powerful nuclear-armed states could offer inducements in the form of aid to the other nuclear states to keep them participating in the process.

While working through these complex strategic issues, the major powers should identify and mitigate the conflicts that underlie their perceived need for nuclear weapons. In this way, the CEND initiative represents an important idea but one that requires buy-in from the highest levels of leadership in all nuclear weapons states. During this process, all states would contribute to improving verification technology and protocols for a world with many fewer nuclear weapons. Furthermore, as states dismantle weapons or down-blend nuclear weapons-grade fuel, they should keep meticulous records of the activities so the information would be useful in a future disarmament process.11

All of the above sounds far-fetched in the current geopolitical environment, but one factor that could help push forward a new nuclear consensus is the nascent norm against nuclear weapons possession. The still emerging norm could increasingly affect the thinking of citizens around the world as they become concerned about the loss of traditional arms control agreements, the development of new nuclear weapons, and new arms races. Beginning a process of greatly reducing the number of nuclear weapons would be much easier for leaders if their citizens thought possessing such weapons were wrong.

Crafting the NPT was challenging for the two Cold War-era superpowers. Developing a renewed bargain in a more multipolar system, even a tacit one that is political in nature and does not necessarily require new treaties, will be much more difficult. The leaders of the relevant states must be motivated to make a generational commitment to major changes to sustain the nuclear order. This is a task on par with addressing global climate change; it is a job for visionary leaders. Of the many challenges inherent in this process, maintaining momentum through executive leadership changes is one of the toughest. There is no hard and fast way for leaders to tie the hands of their successors, but by engaging the public and seeking its buy-in for the process, leaders increase the chance that their successors will continue moving forward.

Some U.S. leaders may reject the notion that a new nuclear order is needed. They may be happy to be free of the NPT disarmament obligation if the treaty collapses. After all, some already see it as merely a convenient fiction that helps maintain the NPT and reduces proliferation pressures. Yet, rejecting the commitment to disarm and losing the nonproliferation order risk a world in which capable states perceive fewer constraints on pursuing proliferation activities. In other words, even if one thinks the treaty’s disarmament requirement is a convenient fiction, it cannot last in perpetuity. It is not feasible to expect states to remain non-nuclear-weapon possessors without a disarmament commitment, a promise that has existed for 50 years. The disarmament movement would be further catalyzed by the United States and other nuclear-weapon states walking away from the commitment to negotiate eventual disarmament.

These tasks are immense. A world with multiple rising powers, a declining superpower, and influential civil society activists is one in which new political bargains will be difficult to forge. Even the most compelling leaders will be challenged by these order-sustaining projects. Yet, not taking up the challenge to adapt the nuclear order to new political realities means an increasingly nuclear-armed world in which nuclear war and nuclear accidents become more likely.



1. William Walker, “Nuclear Order and Disorder,” International Affairs, Vol. 76, No. 4 (October 2000): 703–724.

2. For a broader discussion of the breakdown of the nuclear order, see Steven E. Miller, Robert Legvold, and Lawrence Freedman, “Meeting the Challenges of the New Nuclear Age: Nuclear Weapons in a Changing Global Order,” American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 2019, pp. 19–26, https://www.amacad.org/sites/default/files/publication/downloads/2019_New-Nuclear-Age_Changing-Global-Order.pdf.

3. Robert Burns, Associated Press, “U.S. Plans Tests This Year of Long-Banned Types of Missiles,” March 13, 2019, https://www.apnews.com/ea243a96bc254378ba92f1e3e8761389.

4. For example, see Rebecca Davis Gibbons, “Our Deep Divide Over Nuclear Disarmament,” The Hill, December 11, 2018.

5. Rebecca Davis Gibbons, “The Humanitarian Turn in Nuclear Disarmament and the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons,” The Nonproliferation Review, Vol. 25, Nos. 1–2 (2018).

6. Preparatory Committee for the 2020 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, “Creating the Conditions for Nuclear Disarmament (CCND): Working Paper Submitted by the United States,” NPT/CONF.2020/PC.II/WP.30, April 18, 2018.

7. For more on this approach, see Rebecca Davis Gibbons, “Can This New Approach to Nuclear Disarmament Work?” War on the Rocks, January 23, 2019, https://warontherocks.com/2019/01/can-this-new-approach-to-nuclear-disarmament-work/.

8. Of course, long-term economic forecasting is an uncertain enterprise. For one recent study of the future economic order, see “The Long View: How Will the Global Economic Order Change by 2050?” PricewaterhouseCoopers, February 2017, https://www.pwc.com/world2050.

9. On the argument that great powers care more about nuclear proliferation than other states, see Matthew Kroenig, “Exporting the Bomb: Why States Provide Sensitive Nuclear Assistance,” American Political Science Review, Vol. 103, No. 1 (2009): 113–133.

10. A number of organizations and analysts have considered how such reductions could take place. See for example, the Deep Cuts Commission, the Nuclear Threat Initiative, Global Zero, and the work by James Acton and George Perkovich at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. For a treatment of U.S.-Russian reductions, see Justin Anderson and Darci McDonald, “Deter and Downsize: A Paradigm Shift for Nuclear Arms Control,” Arms Control Today, March 2017, pp. 15–20.

11. Sebastian Philippe, discussion with author, March 2019.


Rebecca Davis Gibbons is a postdoctoral research fellow with the Project on Managing the Atom and International Security Program at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University, where her research focuses on nonproliferation and the movement to prohibit nuclear weapons.



Visionary leadership is needed to renew the bargain between nuclear-armed and non-nuclear nations.

An Interview with Rep. Brad Sherman: Strengthen Oversight of U.S. Nuclear Trade

April 2019

In a March 7 interview with Arms Control Today, U.S. Representative Brad Sherman (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia, the Pacific, and Nonproliferation, describes his efforts to bolster congressional oversight of U.S. civil nuclear cooperation with other nations, particularly Saudi Arabia, to ensure that sensitive nuclear technologies and nuclear materials are not diverted for weapons programs.

Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) speaks to constituents at a 2016 town hall meeting. He has introduced legislation to increase congressional oversight of U.S. nuclear technology transfers. (Photo: Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images)First elected to the House in 1996, Sherman became chairman of the subcommittee in January 2019. It oversees the bilateral nuclear cooperation agreements that must be negotiated before a foreign country can receive U.S. nuclear technology. These agreements are called “123 agreements” after the section of the Atomic Energy Act that mandates adherence to several nonproliferation criteria to enable fast-track congressional review. Some technology recipients, such as Taiwan and the United Arab Emirates, have exceeded these criteria by agreeing to the so-called gold standard of 123 agreements, in which they have pledged to abstain from enriching uranium or separating plutonium and to adopt an additional protocol to their safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

By law, 123 agreements take effect 90 days after they are submitted to Congress unless it objects. In light of growing concerns about Saudi Arabia’s interest in dual-use nuclear technology and statements by senior Saudi officials that they may consider developing nuclear weapons if Iran does, Sherman has introduced legislation that would require Congress to approve any Saudi 123 agreement.

Arms Control Today: What is the appropriate role for Congress in overseeing U.S. nuclear commerce?

Sherman: You mention the word “commerce.” It appears in Article I of the Constitution, which establishes the Congress and empowers it to regulate commerce with foreign nations. We
have seen a process over the last 60
years of power being vested in the executive branch that would have appalled the founders.

The proper role is twofold: First, for Congress to make it plain that when a country has a nuclear energy program and does not have a 123 agreement with the United States, the United States will treat it like North Korea and Iran, which are both hostile powers that pursued nuclear programs without 123 agreements with the United States. The second thing is that a 123 agreement needs to be approved by Congress, and where we are concerned about proliferation, Congress should always insist that a nation receiving U.S. nuclear technology adopt the gold standard with an additional protocol [to its IAEA safeguards agreement].

ACT: Are you concerned about Saudi Arabia’s commitment to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and its possible interest in making its own nuclear fuel? How should this affect the U.S. approach to negotiating a civilian nuclear cooperation agreement with Riyadh?

Sherman: First, we have to question the economics of Saudi Arabia having a nuclear program to generate electricity when it’s a country that has so much natural gas. The economics would say the last place that you would put a nuclear plant to generate electricity, the last place in the world, would be in a place like Saudi Arabia, which has lots of sun for solar [power] and lots of natural gas.

Workers extract gold from Saudi Arabia's al-Amar mine. Saudi Arabia is currently assessing "uranium resources that can be used to produce nuclear fuel for future national power reactors and for uranium international market," according to the nation's nuclear agency. (Photo: Hassan Ammar/AFP/Getty Images)Second, Saudi Arabia has broadly hinted that it wants to keep up with the Joneses, or in this case the ayatollahs, when it comes to a nuclear program. We know that the Iranian program is not merely for electricity, and Saudi Arabia wants to be just like the Iranians. So, I think they’ve told us why they want to have a nuclear program: they want to master the fuel cycle, they want to position themselves so that they can develop a nuclear weapon. And if there’s a government that you can’t trust with a bone saw, you shouldn’t trust it with nuclear weapons. We don’t need more nuclear powers in the world. We certainly don’t need any more in the Middle East.

Even if they’re going to have nuclear power generation, they don’t need to control the whole fuel cycle. You know, I eat sandwiches, but I don’t slaughter the cows, I just buy what I eat. So, we have to ask, Why do they want to have reprocessing? Why do they want to
have enrichment?

Also, we have to ask if Saudi Arabia wants to have a peaceful nuclear program, why isn’t it interested in an additional protocol? What does it have to hide?

ACT: What is your sense of the status of the negotiations between the United States and Saudi Arabia at this stage, and has the administration been keeping Congress apprised of the talks?

Sherman: Many times, the executive branch has honored in the breach its obligation to keep Congress informed. It isn’t shocking that this administration is even less faithful to such requirements than other administrations. That’s why we need a statute that says, “Negotiate what you’re going to negotiate, show it to us, and we’ll vote it up or down.”

ACT: Could rigorous U.S. nonproliferation standards drive Saudi Arabia to other suppliers?

Sherman: First, it’s not clear what the United States would get as far as jobs even if this program went forward. It looks like it would simply be a matter of licensing U.S. technology to South Korea. So, the upside to the United States is modest.

Second, if Saudi Arabia wants to go full speed ahead—without a 123 agreement, without an additional protocol, without the gold standard—if it wants to imitate Iran, then we have to duplicate for Riyadh what we’ve given to Tehran, which has not been good for the Iranian economy. If they want to act like Iran, we have to treat them like they’re acting like Iran.

Saudi Arabia has to understand that its entire relationship with the United States is at stake. It can’t say, “We’ve got oil, we’ve got money, we’re going to have a giant nuclear weapons program, and there’s nothing you can do to stop us.” No. If they want to act like Iran, fine. We can play that game stronger with Saudi Arabia than we did with Iran, and by the way, it was pretty strong with Iran.

ACT: If the Trump administration presents Congress with a Saudi Arabian 123 agreement with inadequate nonproliferation safeguards, what steps could Congress take to condition any approval of the agreement?

Sherman: Congress is in a weak legal position. We have abrogated and punted to the point where the president at least believes that he can build a wall with funds that we appropriated for other purposes.

So that’s why I have introduced legislation with Senators Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Representative Ted Yoho (R-Fla.) to increase congressional oversight over any 123 agreement with Saudi Arabia. The president could veto this bill that has bipartisan support, but he would be vetoing a bill that has Rubio and Sherman as its chief proponents, and there’s no other legislation with such a broad coalition.

If the president submits a bad 123 agreement, Congress could pass resolutions of disapproval, they could be passed by both houses, but he could veto those. We have a lot of Republican support for the idea that we do not want a Saudi nuclear weapons program, there’s a good possibility that a veto could be overridden.

ACT: What other steps can you take if your oversight bill does not succeed?

Sherman: In part, we would continue to focus on public awareness. Even if no statute is enacted, presidents tend not to do things that the bulk of the interested public thinks are just plain wrong. I don’t need a poll to tell me that Americans do not want Saudi Arabia to have nuclear weapons and the missiles to deliver them.

Also, if Saudi Arabia pursues its nuclear ambitions without a 123 agreement, we would move to limit or prevent any future arms transfers to Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia is now treated like an ally, but it can’t act like Iran and be an ally of the United States.

ACT: What are the implications of the House Oversight and Reform Committee’s interim staff report on the White House push for nuclear commerce with Saudi Arabia?

Sherman: It just illustrates that there are many reasons why the administration might make a mistake, and it would be a mistake to green-light an inadequately safeguarded nuclear program in Saudi Arabia.

You have two possible corrupting influences on the decision-making processes. One relates to the IP3 firm with [former National Security Advisor Michael] Flynn. The other influence is with [senior adviser to the president Jared] Kushner, Brookfield Asset Management, and its involvement with [the Kushner family-owned building at] 666 5th Avenue, and Brookfield’s involvement with the Westinghouse nuclear company. Again, we have to understand that Westinghouse has technology that can be licensed. That doesn’t mean there are any jobs in this for the United States. Well, perhaps a few jobs for lawyers.

ACT: In the past, you have co-sponsored legislation to require 123 agreements to meet the gold standard in order to qualify for fast-track approval. Why is such a reform necessary?

Sherman: The discussion of Saudi Arabia is not the last time that we are going to be concerned about a country developing nuclear weapons while claiming that its focus is the generation of electricity, so Congress needs to be involved and evaluate any agreement that doesn’t meet the gold standard. Today, congressional involvement is too limited and the standards in the Atomic Energy Act are too minimal. So, we need to ensure that if an administration wants a fast track, it must negotiate a 123 agreement that includes the gold standard and an additional protocol.

Representative Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) discusses congressional oversight of U.S. nuclear commerce and his concerns about providing U.S. nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia.

Lawrence D. Weiler (1920–2019)

April 2019
By Daryl G. Kimball

Lawrence D. Weiler, an architect of the first major nuclear arms control, risk reduction, and nonproliferation agreements, died February 24. Throughout his 98 years, Weiler was often in the right place at the right time, including during his service to six presidents, from Dwight Eisenhower to Jimmy Carter.

Born in Salt Lake City, Weiler studied at the University of Utah, where he failed to top his class, just missing out by one spot to Mary Recore, who would later become his wife of 72 years.

After his decorated World War II Army service, he earned his master’s and doctorate degrees in political science at Stanford University.

His arms control career began at the State Department in 1952, and soon thereafter, he served on the staff of Harold Stassen, the special assistant for disarmament to Eisenhower.

In the 1960s, Weiler helped establish the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, and he was a key member of the U.S. negotiating team that concluded the 1963 Hotline Agreement, the first legally binding nuclear risk reduction agreement of its kind.

Weiler participated in negotiating the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) from 1966 to 1968. Fifty years later, he shared his thoughts on the NPT’s legacy with Arms Control Today. (See ACT, October 2017.)

Following the NPT’s completion, Weiler helped negotiate the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and the Strategic Arms Limitation agreement, the first U.S.-Soviet strategic arms control pacts.

Lawrence Weiler (left) is greeted by President Lyndon Johnson and Lady Bird Johnson (right) at a 1968 reception. (Photo courtesy of Weiler family.)Next came a faculty stint at Stanford before returning to governmental service in 1977 as U.S. ambassador and special coordinator for the UN Special Session on Disarmament.

Weiler returned to academia at George Washington University, publishing frequently, including in Arms Control Today. Weiler was never afraid to advocate for the correct position even when it was unpopular. For example, he was an early proponent of a U.S. no-first-use policy. In February 1983, he wrote in The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, “Contrary to the general impression, the idea of no-first-use is as old as nuclear weapons. And in a very real sense, the first advocate of outlawing and forgoing use, or first use, was the U.S. government. Thus, the idea is neither revolutionary nor ‘un-American.’”

In retirement, Weiler maintained an active interest in nuclear issues. When President George W. Bush visited Weiler’s retirement home in 2006 to discuss health care with the residents, Weiler challenged him to consider adopting a no-first-use policy. He also told Bush that the controversial U.S. deal for Indian nuclear cooperation threatened the NPT’s long-term viability. Broadcast live on C-SPAN, the exchange elicited national news coverage.

Long into his “retirement,” Weiler regularly attended Arms Control Association events; and in the summer of 2018, Larry shared some thoughts with association members:

Over the 65 years of my involvement in the field of arms control, I have seen how effective nonproliferation agreements have reduced the danger of nuclear war and curbed the spread of nuclear weapons. Though we have achieved progress, our work is not over. The global nonproliferation and disarmament regime that
many in and outside the government have helped to build is at risk, but I am still optimistic. Why? Because even during the dark days of the Cold War, when it didn't seem like things were possible, we persisted. American and Soviet negotiators engaged with one another in an effort to reduce nuclear risks. If we could do it then, we can also find practical ways to tackle today’s tough nuclear challenges.


Lawrence D. Weiler, an architect of the first major nuclear arms control, risk reduction, and nonproliferation agreements, died February 24.

Keep Human Control Over New Weapons

April 2019


Michael T. Klare’s article “Autonomous Weapons Systems and the Laws of War” (ACT, March 2019) highlights important issues, but omits enormous strategic risks inhearent to the use of artificial intelligence (AI) in a role of command. In a war between major powers, both sides’ AI systems would be able to outperform humans in the application of game theory, similar to state-of-the-art poker-playing AI, which can now readily defeat the top human players. Nation-states would be tempted to endow these genius-level autonomous killing systems with the authority to escalate, bringing the risk of bad luck causing misunderstandings that
lead to uncontrolled escalation.

Exacerbating the risk of near-instant autonomous escalation is the risk of an AI system deciding that it, unlike a human, may have nothing to lose. A human commander might be a father or mother who might choose to put the preservation of the human race above nationalistic warmongering. Recall how Soviet air defense officer Stanislav Petrov (a father of two) saved the world in 1983 by choosing to disbelieve a computerized system that claimed a U.S. nuclear first strike was in progress. His decision may have included a desire to put mercy over patriotism and not to participate in the annihilation of the human race.

Unfortunately, an AI system would have no such qualms. An AI system might or might not be trained with a self-preservation instinct. If not, it would not care if it is destroyed, and it could take needless risks, carelessly bluffing and escalating, seeking to make the adversary back down through suicidal brinksmanship.

One might think, therefore, that it is important to endow battlefield AI systems with a self-preservation instinct, but the consequences of doing so could be even worse. Once a weaponized AI system is given a self-preservation instinct, it may become impossible to shut down, as it would kill anyone who tried to shut it off, including its own country’s military or government leaders.

These killings might play out in several ways. On a small scale, the system could limit its “self-defense” killings by targeting only the officials trying to disable the AI system. Worse, the AI system could try to preserve itself by threatening mutually assured destruction: if it ever suspected, even incorrectly, that its shutdown was imminent, the AI system could retaliate with the launch of nuclear weapons.

A dying AI system, still energized for a few milliseconds by the last electrical charge remaining in its internal capacitors, could even nuke not just its own nation but the entire surface of Earth.

Jonathan Rodriguez founded Vergence Labs in 2011, which developed computerized smartglasses. Vergence was acquired by Snap Inc., where he is now manager of new device prototyping.



Michael T. Klare’s article “Autonomous Weapons Systems and the Laws of War” (ACT, March 2019) provides an excellent overview of the risks of the military uses of autonomous weapons. We need some kind of international control to ensure that autonomous military technologies obey the laws of war and do not cause inadvertent escalation. The Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) offers the best chance for meaningful regulation.

Klare identifies three strategies for regulating autonomous weapons: a CCW protocol banning autonomous weapons, a politically binding declaration requiring human control, and an ethical focus arguing that such weapons violate the laws of war. I would add two other strategies: a CCW protocol short of prohibition and a prohibition negotiated outside of the CCW, the way the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty grew out of CCW negotiations.

Of these five strategies, a new CCW protocol provides the best hope for mitigating the risks. While a total prohibition would be preferable, it might be more realistic to agree on a set of regulations, such as a requirement that a human operator always be available to take over. Anything short of a new, legally binding treaty would likely be too weak to influence the states most interested in deploying autonomous weapons, while a treaty negotiated outside the CCW would likely be too restrictive.

To prevent arms race that Klare describes, any method for controlling autonomous weapons will need the buy-in of the countries with the most advanced autonomous weapons programs, and they are currently very skeptical of any control. A politically binding declaration or an appeal to the Hague Convention’s Martens Clause might have normative power, but that will not be enough to deter many states from seeking the military advantages that autonomous weapons could offer.

While reaching an agreement in the consensus-based CCW will be difficult, negotiating a treaty outside the CCW will likely be impossible. Given the success of groups like Human Rights Watch in achieving the Mine Ban Treaty and CCM, an agreement controlling autonomous weapons in some way can be completed. What remains to be seen is whether such an agreement will be enough to change the trajectory we are currently on.

Lisa A. Bergstrom is a technology and security specialist in Berkeley, Calif.





Keep Human Control Over New Weapons

REMARKS: We Need a New Vision for Arms Control

April 2019
By António Guterres

I will be blunt. Key components of the international arms control architecture are collapsing.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres speaks to the UN Conference on Disarmament on Feb. 25, 2019. (Photo: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images)The continued use of chemical weapons with impunity is driving
new proliferation.

Thousands of civilian lives continue to be lost because of illicit small arms and the use in urban areas of explosive weapons designed for open battlefields.

New weapon technologies are intensifying risks in ways we do not yet understand and cannot even imagine.

We need a new vision for arms control in the complex international security environment of today.

But, as we work toward this new common endeavor, we must take great care to preserve our existing frameworks which continue to bring
us indispensable benefits.

Many of the most successful and ambitious disarmament and arms control initiatives over the past several decades were those led by the major powers; that is perfectly natural.

Their drive to regulate and eliminate arms was the product of a strategic understanding of how cooperation and agreement could be the most effective security tools to help prevent, mitigate, and resolve armed conflict.

And that is why it is one of my highest priorities.

Over the past seven decades, United Nations member states have made great gains in these fields.

But our efforts are in increasing jeopardy.

States are seeking security not in the proven collective value of diplomacy and dialogue, but in developing and accumulating new weapons.

And the situation is particularly dangerous as regards nuclear weapons.

The demise of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, should it be allowed to happen, would make the world a more insecure and unstable place. That insecurity and instability will be keenly felt here in Europe. And we simply cannot afford to return to the unrestrained nuclear competition of the darkest days of the Cold War.

I call on the parties to the INF Treaty to use the time remaining to engage in sincere dialogue on the various issues that have been raised. It is very important that this treaty is preserved.

I also call on the United States and the Russian Federation to extend the so-called “New START” Treaty before it expires in 2021.

This treaty is the only international legal instrument limiting the size of the world’s two largest nuclear arsenals, and its inspection provisions represent an important confidence-building set of measures that benefit the entire world.

I urge Russia and the United States to use the time provided by an extension to the treaty to consider further reductions in their strategic nuclear arsenals.

The bilateral arms control process between the Russian Federation and the United States has been one of the hallmarks of international security for 50 years.

Thanks to their efforts, global stockpiles of nuclear weapons are now less than one-sixth of what they were
in 1985.

That is the legacy that is in grave danger.

The arms control and disarmament regime is built on the good faith implementation of provisions and on rigorous verification and enforcement of compliance. I hope the parties will make use of both while there is still time.

Adapted from remarks by UN Secretary-General António Guterres to the opening session of the UN Conference on Disarmament in Geneva on February 25. For more on Guterres’ disarmament agenda, see the January/February 2019 issue of Arms Control Today.

The UN secretary-general warns of a collapsing arms control regime.

New START Extension Debated

April 2019
By Shervin Taheran

Prospects for extending the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) appeared to dim in March as U.S. and Russian officials threw cold water on the idea of a quick or easy extension process. The treaty capping deployed strategic nuclear weapons in both countries is due to expire in February 2021, but it could be extended for up to five years by mutual agreement.

Air Force Gen. John Hyten, head of the U.S. Strategic Command, testifies to Congress in 2017. He recently described himself as a supporter of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. (Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images)U.S. officials have avoided expressing a public position on extending the treaty and have expressed concern about Russia’s strategic weapons plans. Yleem Poblete, U.S. assistant secretary of state for arms control, verification, and compliance, told the UN Conference on Disarmament (CD) in Geneva on March 19 that Russia “remains in compliance” with the treaty, but she questioned whether Russia’s development of new nuclear weapons were the actions of a “responsible stakeholder.” One week earlier, Andrea Thompson, U.S. undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, told a Washington nuclear policy conference that the remaining two-year period offers plenty of time to review the pact.

For their part, Russian officials have expressed concerns about U.S. compliance with New START and have suggested that lengthy talks may be needed to resolve them. Russia has questioned U.S. procedures to convert some weapons launchers from nuclear to conventional roles. The two nations need to “solve the problem” related to the conversion procedures, which Russia “cannot certify,” said Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov at the Geneva conference one day after Poblete spoke. (See ACT, March 2019.)

According to Lavrov, Russia has put forth “possible solutions,” adding that “it is a question of political will in Washington.” Any such talks would require significant time, Russian officials have said, quashing the hopes of some that the treaty could be extended quickly by a new U.S. president if President Donald Trump fails to win re-election in November 2020.

“It is clear for us that first you have to have a dialogue,” said Anatoly Antonov, Russian ambassador to the United States, at the Washington conference. “We hope to find solutions before we put our signature on any document.”

Introducing potential further complications, Lavrov said the deterioration of arms control agreements such as the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty shows that nuclear arms reductions “can no longer be sustained in a bilateral U.S.-Russia format” and that a multilateral process should be launched.

Meanwhile, the international community has strengthened calls for the treaty’s extension. Notably, UN Secretary-General António Guterres spoke at the Feb. 25 opening of the CD’s 2019 session to urge the United States and Russia to extend the pact. The treaty is “the only international legal instrument limiting the size of the world’s two largest nuclear arsenals,” he said, praising the agreement’s confidence-building and inspection measures.

Contributing to the Trump administration’s consideration of New START, a senior U.S. military official expressed support for the treaty during Feb. 26 congressional testimony.

U.S. Air Force Gen. John Hyten, head of U.S. Strategic Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the treaty allows him to “understand what [Russia’s] limits are and…position my force accordingly.” New START also provides “unbelievably important” insight about Russian nuclear weapons activities, he said, adding that the United States has “very good intelligence capabilities, but there’s really nothing that can replace the eyes-on, hands-on ability to look at something.”

Hyten’s support was not unconditional, as he also expressed concerns about planned Russian strategic weapons, including a new underwater torpedo, a globe-circling nuclear-powered cruise missile, and a hypersonic glide vehicle. None of these would be constrained by the treaty, and Hyten said the State Department is “reaching out to the Russians and the Russians are not answering favorably.”

The Russian Foreign Ministry responded to Hyten’s remarks by saying that U.S. concerns “outside of the purview of the New START Treaty could be considered in the context of a strategic dialogue” but “Washington stubbornly avoids this dialogue and prefers to whip up hysteria in the public space.”


U.S. and Russian officials see no quick and easy extension to New START.

U.S. to Test INF Treaty-Range Missiles

April 2019
By Shervin Taheran

Just weeks after declaring its intent to withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, the United States announced plans to test two missiles this year with ranges that exceed the treaty’s limits. The tests are scheduled to take place after Aug. 2, when the U.S. treaty withdrawal is set to take effect, Defense Department officials told reporters March 13.

The United States plans to test a ground-based variant of the Tomahawk sea-launched cruise missile, shown here in 2003. (Photo: Christopher Senenk/U.S. Navy/Getty Images)First, reportedly in August, the Pentagon plans to test a mobile, ground-launched variant of the Navy’s Tomahawk sea-launched cruise missile, with a 1,000-kilometer range. The new cruise missile could be deployed within 18 months, according to defense officials.

Next, a mobile, ground-launched ballistic missile with a range of 3,000 to 4,000 kilometers, is likely to be tested in November. The officials said this new weapon will not be ready for deployment for at least five years.

The United States announced on Feb. 2 that it would immediately suspend its adherence to the INF Treaty and withdraw completely from the pact in six months, citing Russian deployments of cruise missiles that U.S. officials said violated the treaty’s range limits. (See ACT, March 2019.) The Pentagon would cancel the scheduled U.S. tests if Russia returns to compliance with the INF Treaty before the U.S. withdrawal, the defense officials said March 13.

There have been no discussions with allies in Europe and Asia about hosting the new missiles, the officials said, but one speculated that the new ballistic missile could be deployed in Guam, a U.S. territory located about 3,000 kilometers from China.

The Defense Department has not yet indicated the cost of developing the new weapons. Last year, Congress approved $48 million for research and development on “concepts and options for conventional, ground-launched, intermediate-range missile systems” in response to Russia’s alleged violation of the INF Treaty. (See ACT, November 2018.)

Russia has disputed U.S. claims that its 9M729 cruise missile violates the treaty, but reacted to the U.S. treaty suspension by announcing its own plans to develop weapons that exceed treaty restrictions and by officially matching the U.S. treaty suspension on March 4.

The same day the U.S. suspension was announced, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered preparations for the development of a ground-launched adaptation of the Kalibr nuclear-capable, sea-launched cruise missile. He added that Russia would “not deploy intermediate-range or shorter-range weapons, if we develop weapons of this kind, neither in Europe nor anywhere else, until U.S. weapons of this kind are deployed to the corresponding regions of the world.”

Meanwhile, the Trump administration has yet to develop plans to prevent Russia from building more ground-launched, intermediate-range missiles in the absence of the INF Treaty, according to a senior military leader.

“I don’t know that we have a plan today. I know we’re working on what we think that plan might be,” said U.S. Army Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, head of the U.S. European Command and the NATO supreme allied commander in Europe, in March 5 congressional testimony.

When dealing with peer competitors such as Russia, he added, “we should look toward treaty capabilities in order to provide some stability.”

Treaty-prohibited missiles to be tested after INF Treaty termination.

Trump Budget Boosts Nuclear Efforts

April 2019
By Kingston Reif

Consistent with the recommendations of the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), the Trump administration’s fiscal year 2020 budget request would continue plans to expand U.S. nuclear weapon capabilities.

The Ohio-class USS Nebraska submarine returns to port in Washington in 2018.  The Trump administration is seeking funds to complete development of low-yield nuclear warheads for submarine-launched ballistic missiles (Photo: Michael Smith/U.S. Navy) The ultimate fate of the request, submitted to Congress March 11, remains uncertain as Democrats, particularly in the House, have signaled strong opposition to several controversial funding proposals. Their concerns include administration plans to develop two additional low-yield nuclear weapons and two conventionally armed, ground-launched missiles currently prohibited by the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty.

The budget submission illustrates the rising cost of the nuclear mission and the challenge those expenses may pose to the administration’s other national security priorities.

A Congressional Budget Office report in February estimates that the United States will spend $494 billion on nuclear weapons from fiscal years 2019 through 2028. That is an increase of $94 billion, or 23 percent, from the CBO’s previous 10-year estimate of $400 billion, which was published in January 2017. (See ACT, March 2019.)

The Trump administration’s budget proposal contains increases for several Defense and Energy department nuclear weapons systems. The request does not change the planned development timelines for these programs.

The largest increase sought is for the nuclear weapons account of the Energy Department’s semiautonomous National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA). The budget request calls for $12.4 billion, an increase of $1.3 billion above the fiscal year 2019 appropriation and $530 million above the projection in the fiscal year 2019 budget request.

The request includes funds for the continued development of two missile systems with ranges prohibited by the INF Treaty, but despite numerous queries by Arms Control Today and other outlets, the Pentagon has yet to divulge the amount.

Defense Department officials told a group of reporters March 13 that the Pentagon is planning to test a ground-launched cruise missile and a ballistic missile by the end of this year.

The announcement came just over a month after the Trump administration announced on Feb. 2 that it would withdraw from the treaty on Aug. 2 unless Russia corrects alleged compliance violations with the agreement. (See ACT, March 2019.)

The budget request for nuclear weapons programs is part of the overall $750 billion request for national defense. That figure includes the Defense Department’s regular budget activities and the Energy Department’s nuclear weapons programs.

New Nuclear Capabilities

The budget request would finish development of a small number of low-yield nuclear warheads for submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) and begin studies of a new fleet of sea-launched cruise missiles (SLCMs).

The Trump administration’s NPR report released in February 2018 called for developing two additional low-yield nuclear weapons primarily to counter Russia’s alleged willingness to use or threaten to use tactical nuclear weapons on a limited basis in a crisis or at lower levels of conflict, a strategy known as escalate to de-escalate. (See ACT, March 2018.)

Congress last year approved nearly $90 million for the two additional systems, but not without strong opposition from Democrats. (See ACT, November 2018.) House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) has said he plans to oppose continued funding for the weapons. (See ACT, January/February 2019.)

The NNSA is seeking $10 million for the low-yield SLBM warhead, $55 million less than the fiscal year 2019 appropriation. The request states that production of the warhead, known as the W76-2, will finish by the end of fiscal year 2019 and final program documentation and close-out activities will be completed fiscal year 2020. The agency said in February that it had completed the first production unit for the warhead.

The Defense Department request includes funds to support production of the low-yield variant, although the exact amount is not specified.

The Pentagon is also seeking increased funding to “conduct an Analysis of Alternatives study in support of” developing a new SLCM, but the specific amount has not been announced. Such an analysis is one of the first steps the Pentagon takes in the usually lengthy process to acquire a new weapons system.

The NNSA request includes as much as $12 million to begin a study of the warhead for a new SLCM.

The Nuclear Triad

The budget request would keep on schedule the Defense Department’s programs to sustain and rebuild the U.S. triad of nuclear-armed missiles, submarines, and bombers and their associated warheads and supporting infrastructure.

The request includes $2.2 billion for the Navy program to build 12 Columbia-class ballistic missile submarines. The Air Force is seeking $3 billion to continue development of the B-21 Raider strategic bomber, $713 million for the long-range standoff weapon program to replace the existing air-launched cruise missile (ALCM), and $678 million for the program to replace the Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) with a missile system called the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent.

The NNSA is asking for $793 million to continue developing and begin production of the B61-12 gravity bomb life-extension program and $899 million to refurbish the existing warhead that would be delivered by the new ALCM under development by the Air Force. The request for the ALCM warhead is $244 million more than the current appropriation and $185 million above last year’s projection for fiscal year 2020.

The request also includes $112 million to continue the design of the W87-1 warhead to replace the W78 warhead currently carried by the Minuteman III ICBM and an increase of more than $16 million above last year’s appropriation to sustain the B83-1 gravity bomb.

The NPR report recommended retaining the B83-1 gravity bomb, the only remaining megaton-class warhead in the U.S. stockpile, reversing the Obama administration’s proposal that the warhead be retired once confidence in the B61-12 is achieved.

New delivery vehicles and warheads are featured in fiscal year 2020 budget request.


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