“For half a century, ACA has been providing the world … with advocacy, analysis, and awareness on some of the most critical topics of international peace and security, including on how to achieve our common, shared goal of a world free of nuclear weapons.”

– Izumi Nakamitsu
UN High Representative for Disarmament Affairs
June 2, 2022
March 2020

Arms Control Today March 2020

Edition Date: 
Sunday, March 1, 2020
Cover Image: 

No One Wins an Arms Race or a Nuclear War

March 2020
By Daryl G. Kimball

Fulfilling a goal outlined in its 2018 Nuclear Posture Review report, the Trump administration acknowledged last month that the United States has deployed for the first time a low-yield nuclear warhead on some U.S. submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs).

The move comes as the administration is proposing to increase spending to more than $44 billion next year to continue and, in some cases, accelerate programs to replace and upgrade all the major elements of the bloated U.S. arsenal. Unless curtailed, the plan, which departs in important ways from long-standing U.S. policies, will accelerate global nuclear competition and increase the risk of nuclear war.

As if to underscore the dangers of the administration’s strategy, the Defense Department led an exercise last month simulating a limited nuclear war. “The scenario included a European contingency…. Russia decides to use a low-yield, limited nuclear weapon against a site on NATO territory,” and the United States fires back with a “limited” nuclear response, according to the Pentagon. The U.S. response presumably involved the low-yield sub-launched warhead, known as the W76-2.

The exercise perpetuates the dangerous illusion that a nuclear war can be fought and won. The new warhead, which packs a five-kiloton explosive yield, is large enough destroy a large city. It would be delivered on the same type of long-range ballistic missile launched from the same strategic submarine that carries missiles loaded with 100-kiloton strategic warheads. Russian military leaders would be hard pressed to know, in the heat of a crisis, whether the missile was part of a “limited” strike or the first wave of an all-out nuclear attack.

Nevertheless, Trump officials insist that the president needs “more credible” nuclear use options to deter the possible first use of nuclear weapons by Russia. In reality, once nuclear weapons of any kind are detonated in a conflict between nuclear-armed adversaries, there is no guarantee against a cycle of escalation leading to all-out global nuclear war. Lowering the threshold for nuclear use by making nuclear weapons “more usable” takes the United States and Russia and the world in the wrong direction.

The administration plans do not stop there. Its fiscal year 2021 budget proposal calls for other new kinds of destabilizing nuclear weapons systems, including a new nuclear warhead for SLBMs, dubbed the W93, and a new nuclear-armed sea-launched cruise missile for deployment on surface ships and submarines. If developed, the W93 would be the first new warhead design added to the U.S. arsenal in more than three decades.

The Defense Department is also seeking $28.9 billion next year, a 30 percent increase, for programs to sustain and recapitalize the existing nuclear arsenal.

The Pentagon’s nuclear modernization spending binge includes $4.4 billion to begin construction of a fleet of 12 Columbia-class ballistic missile submarines; $2.8 billion for the new B-21 stealth bomber program; $1.5 billion to start work on a new ground-based intercontinental ballistic missile system; and $500 million to continue development work on a new nuclear-armed, air-launched cruise missile.

The administration is also demanding a 25 percent boost for the National Nuclear Security Administration’s weapons budget, to $15.6 billion, to cover the growing cost of nuclear warhead refurbishment, design, and production work. This includes expanding the capacity to build plutonium warhead cores to at least 80 per year—an unrealistic and unnecessary goal.

The administration’s grandiose proposals not only would contribute to a dangerous global qualitative nuclear arms race, but they are excessive and unaffordable. Over the next 30 years, these and other nuclear weapons programs are estimated to cost taxpayers at least $1.5 trillion.

Worse yet, the Trump administration’s program of record would sustain deployed strategic warhead numbers at levels 30 percent higher than the Pentagon itself determined in 2013 is necessary to deter nuclear attack. Taken together, Trump’s policies to “greatly strengthen and expand” the U.S. nuclear capability and his failure to engage in good faith negotiations to end the arms race and pursue disarmament are a violation of U.S. obligations under Article VI of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

It does not have to be this way. First, the Trump administration needs to heed calls from military officials, U.S. allies, and bipartisan national security leaders to take up Russia’s offer to extend the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty by five years before it is due to expire early next year. Without the treaty, the doors to an open-ended global nuclear arms competition will swing open. History shows that there are no winners in a nuclear arms race.

Second, the Congress, and perhaps a new president in 2021, must rein in the exploding cost and scope of the U.S. nuclear modernization program, particularly the efforts to develop “more usable” nuclear weapons. Hundreds of billions of dollars can be saved by delaying, trimming, or eliminating major elements of the current plan while maintaining a devastating nuclear deterrent. This would allow for those monies to be redirected to other, more urgent national security projects and domestic programs that address real human needs.

Fulfilling a goal outlined in its 2018 Nuclear Posture Review report, the Trump administration acknowledged last month that the United States has deployed for the first time a low-yield nuclear warhead on some U.S. submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs).

Defining U.S. Goals for the NPT: An Interview with U.S. Ambassador Jeffrey Eberhardt

March 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The State Department’s head of delegation to the 2020 NPT Review Conference provides the U.S. perspective on the meeting.

The NPT at 50: Perish or Survive?

March 2020
By Tariq Rauf

On March 5, the three depositaries of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT)—Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States—will mark the 50th anniversary of the treaty’s entry into force. The treaty’s 191 states-parties will gather in New York from April 27 to May 22 to hold the treaty’s 10th review conference, which will be presided over by Argentine diplomat Gustavo Zlauvinen. The effectiveness of the treaty for the next 50 years will depend on reconciling two schools of thought on the treaty’s goals: Is it a nonproliferation treaty or a disarmament treaty?

Ambassador Jayantha Dhanapala, president of the 1995 NPT Review and Extension Conference, speaks to the media on April 26, 1995. May 11, 2020, will be the 25th anniversary of the conference agreement to extend the NPT indefinitely. (Photo: Evan Schneider/United Nations)For the five NPT-recognized nuclear-weapon states and the 26 non-nuclear-weapon states that rely on nuclear weapons through extended deterrence arrangements with the United States, the success of the treaty over the past five decades relates to slowing the spread of nuclear weapons to additional states and facilitating cooperation in the peaceful applications of nuclear technology. For this group, the NPT is a nonproliferation treaty.

A different view is held by 160 of the 186 non-nuclear-weapon states party to the treaty. Their interest is in reducing the number of nuclear weapons, leading eventually to their elimination, and in enjoying the peaceful uses of nuclear energy.

The chasm made by these divergent interests has been deepening, resulting in a loss of civility in NPT forums and in mutual recriminations. Together with the collapsing nuclear arms control architecture, the divide has brought the NPT to an inflection point.

A more significant anniversary will fall on May 11, exactly 25 years after NPT parties agreed without a vote to extend the NPT indefinitely under a framework of strengthening the review process, establishing benchmarks for nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament, and approving a resolution on setting up a zone free of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in the Middle East.1 This framework is under threat.

‘Elephants’ in the NPT Salon

Tension has been steadily building since the failure of states-parties to reach agreement on a final document at the ill-fated 2015 NPT Review Conference.2 A significant number of non-nuclear-weapon states have focused on highlighting the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons use, and they have voted in the UN General Assembly to set up working groups on nuclear disarmament negotiations in 2014 and 2016.3 Despite the strong opposition of the nuclear-weapon states and their followers, this lead, in turn, to the conclusion by 122 states of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), which now has 80 signatories and 34 of the 50 ratifications needed for entry into force.4

To counter this brazen challenge to the legitimacy of nuclear weapons and a deterrence-based security system, the United States turned the tables in 2018–2019, in the framework of the NPT preparatory committee sessions, to extend the responsibility for nuclear disarmament from the nuclear-weapon states to all non-nuclear-weapon states as well, by pursuing the initiative titled “Creating an Environment for Nuclear Disarmament” (CEND). Originally, the plan called for creating “conditions,” but U.S. officials replaced that term with “environment” after hearing a chorus of complaints.5 The CEND initiative has swept aside the long-championed traditional step-by-step approach of the Western group, by starting anew from a tabula rasa and abandoning the treaty’s acquis communautaire, the agreed commitments of 1995, 2000, and 2010.6

Yet another bone of contention in the NPT review process concerns the 1995 resolution on the Middle Eastern WMD-free zone that enabled the Arab states and Iran to accept indefinite extension. In 2000, Israel was called out by name to accede to the NPT as a non-nuclear-weapon state. In 2010, following the failure of the 2005 conference partly on the Middle East issue, it was agreed to convene a conference in 2012 on establishing the zone. This conference was not held, and inconclusive multilateral consultations in 2012–2014, attended by nearly all states of the region and Israel, paved the way for the collapse of the 2015 review conference. Regrouping in 2018, the Arab states succeeded in having the UN General Assembly mandate the UN secretary-general to convene a conference on the WMD-free zone that finally was held in New York on November 18-22, 2019,7 and to adopt a political declaration setting up an annual conference process to achieve a Middle Eastern WMD-free zone.8

These are the three “rampaging elephants” in the NPT salon at the review conference. Any discussion of the TPNW pokes the nuclear-weapon-state elephant in the eye, any CEND promotion will rile up the pro-disarmament elephant, and calling on Israel to join negotiations on a Middle Eastern WMD-free zone will enrage the Western group elephant. The nuclear-weapon states and their followers remain adamantly opposed to the TPNW and regard it as undermining the NPT, among other sharp criticisms. Cognizant of such harsh pushback, TPNW supporters and advocates of the catastrophic consequences of nuclear weapons use are wary of overemphasizing their position while not yielding on their concerns.

Regarding the Middle East, it is an overly optimistic view that the November 2019 conference has defused the issue. Likely, a surprise waiting in the wings could be that the Middle East zone issue now would need to be considered at three levels: UN General Assembly resolutions and the November 2019 conference process; the 1995 resolution; and resolutions on the application of safeguards in the Middle East and on Israeli nuclear capabilities at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).9

Thus, the die is cast for this year’s review conference to degenerate into a Hobbesian fray, perhaps even leading some countries to threaten rhetorically to withdraw from the treaty.

Damn the Review Process?

The deterioration of NPT diplomacy has led more and more non-nuclear-weapon-state parties to question the traditional NPT review process, in which a review conference is held every five years with preparatory committee meetings convening each of the three years before the review conference. The decline of civility in NPT diplomacy, the recurring failure to agree consensually to a factual summary of each session and the recommendations of the preparatory committee, and the inability to review final conference documents periodically have all contributed to non-nuclear-weapon-state frustration. Increasingly, those countries are attacking the integrity and practices of the strengthened review process the treaty parties established in 1995.

Some bizarre notions have been floated, such as holding three annual “decision-making conferences” with one preparatory committee session and a review conference every five years, convening annual general conferences to replace the preparatory committee sessions, addressing an “institutional deficit” by setting up a treaty support unit with up to three dedicated staff officers at the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs,10 establishing an NPT management board,11 and setting up an elected executive council. Fortunately, NPT parties have accepted none of these proposals for diverse reasons.

Christopher Ford, assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation, testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in December 2019. Ford is leading the Creating an Environment for Nuclear Disarmament initiative, an effort that critics describe as abandoning the traditional step-by-step approach toward nuclear disarmament. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)In 1995, the decision on the “strengthened review process” for the treaty established a substantively revised and efficient structure governing the work of the preparatory committee and the review conference.12 This decision was part of the interlinked, indivisible package of decisions and the resolution that made indefinite extension possible in 1995. Nonetheless, due to the interference and opposition of some of the depositary states, the NPT secretariat was unable to structure the preparatory committee starting in 1997 in accordance with this decision, and most of the non-nuclear-weapon states did not pay sufficient attention. Thus, the 1997-1999 Preparatory Committee sessions were unable to reach any semblance of agreement on recommendations to the review conference. To remedy this situation, while reaffirming the provisions of the 1995 process, the 2000 review conference made adjustments to the strengthened review process that also could not be implemented or put into practice due to inertia and the absence of political will to compromise.

To be absolutely clear, the NPT review process itself is neither deficient nor faulty. To paraphrase Shakespeare, the fault is not in the review process but in the states-parties themselves, both with the underlings and the top dogs. Many factors have combined to defeat the purposes of the review process: simple inability and resistance; inflexible group positions; lack of proper preparation; absence of continuity of knowledge and practice; politicization; lengthy, repetitive working papers and statements; reluctance to engage in results-oriented negotiations and interactive discussions; small-group backroom deals; obstinate pressure from the nuclear-weapon states; and disrespect and disregard for agreed outcomes.

Furthermore, as the rules-based order deriving from the precepts of the UN Charter and international law is steadily eroded, the principle of adhering to past agreements is violated, and the acquis of the NPT cast aside. The result is that trust in the NPT and its review process has frayed, thus making it easy to blame the tools of the review process.

The NPT Acquis

Since the failure of the 2015 review conference, some pro-disarmament states have taken to reminding the United States in particular about the acquis, or the accumulated agreed commitments, of the NPT community of states.13 The use of this French term irritates some in the U.S. administration as being sophistry, and in a recent speech in London a senior administration official clearly frustrated by the relentless pressure of the pro-disarmament states referred to them as “dim bulbs” and their attitudes as “some admixture of stupidity and insanity”.14 Never has the level of discourse sunk so low and it does not portend well for developing common ground between nuclear-weapon and non-nuclear-weapon states at the review conference.

Regardless, pursuant to NPT Article VIII.3 and the strengthened review process of 1995 and 2000, the long-standing practice has been to regard agreed review conference commitments as benchmarks or objectives to be implemented to strengthen the authority and integrity of the treaty. Consequently, the actions—the 13 “practical steps” for nuclear disarmament, the principles, and the objectives agreed, respectively, in 2010, 2000, and 1995—serve as guidance and commitments for all states-parties. Dismissing the NPT acquis with a stroke of a pen or by oratorical flourishes can only serve to weaken confidence in the treaty, encourage greater frustration, and deepen differences.

Fin de Régime or a Nouveau Régime?

A quarter-century after indefinite extension of the NPT, it seems to be facing twin crises of relevance and credibility. In the next 25 years, a key question is whether the inflection point is one of fin de régime or a nouveau régime. The question was first posed two decades ago, and states opted in 2000 and 2010 for a nouveau régime, or a “construction for the future.” In 2005 and 2015, however, they opted to “muddle through” when they lost their vision and were unable to agree on the way forward.15 Regrettably, since 2015 it seems that their chosen path is that of a “road to disintegration”16 because of a resumed Cold War, denial of the acquis and past obligations, and willful disregard of established rules.

If so, what might be done to preserve the NPT? At least some of the acquis must be salvaged and the review process buttressed.

A protestor is escorted from a U.S.-Russian presidential press conference in July 2018. The 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons has challenged nuclear-weapon states to advance nuclear disarmament. (Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)The Cold War nuclear arms control architecture is deteriorating rapidly. The trend began in 1999 when the U.S. Senate rejected ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) in 1999. Soon after, the United States abandoned the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002. More recently, the United States withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action limiting Iran’s nuclear program in 2018. In more bilateral fashion, the United States and Russia jettisoned the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in 2019 and appear to be reluctant to sustain the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty and the Open Skies Treaty. Furthermore, they have declined to reaffirm the Reagan-Gorbachev dictum that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought, and the two rivals appear unable to recognize that any conflict between the United States and Russia could have catastrophic consequences. Such an outcome requires the two sides to prevent any war, whether nuclear or conventional, and to avoid seeking to achieve military superiority. Lastly, their walk away from the agreed NPT commitments of 1995, 2000, and 2010 have contributed to the poisoning of the well of the 2020 review conference.17

On the nuclear disarmament front, there are two diverging paths. The first is to commit to the three existing multilateral treaties: the NPT, CTBT, and TPNW. The NPT is nearly universal; the CTBT is held up in part by four NPT states—China, Egypt, Iran, and the United States—and once the TPNW enters into force, the pro-deterrence states shall face the uncomfortable reality of relying on delegitimized weapons that threaten all of humanity.

The second path is that of the CEND initiative, of chasing rainbows, butterflies, and unicorns toward an illusory environment that will never exist. The nuclear disarmament pillar of the NPT is steadily being hollowed out by lack of implementation of the relevant acquis, and if the treaty is to retain credibility, a course correction is needed. The CEND initiative cannot provide the path to salvation as it is fundamentally flawed and cannot cope with the challenges facing the NPT. There is an inherent disconnect between creation of an environment for nuclear disarmament and the simultaneous rationales for deploying and positing use of low-yield nuclear weapons to somehow strengthen strategic stability or to deescalate a conflict.

With regard to the acquis of the strengthened review process, the prospects again are mixed. On the one hand, a positive development is that the chairs of the three preparatory committee meetings issued state-of-the-NPT reports, when consensus could not be obtained.18 Titled “Reflections of the Chair,” these have reflected continuity in areas of convergence that could be built on at the review conference.19

This innovation should be continued into future review cycles, rather than tinkering with the elements of the 1995 and 2000 review process guidance as discussed above. Another suggested innovation that would heed the 1995 review process guidance is to rationalize the structure and eliminate overlap in main committees but institute an article-by-article review, as is done for all other international treaties.20 This would enable a more efficient, structured, and balanced review.

On the other hand, facing the prospects of stalemate and uncivilized corrosive discourse at the upcoming review conference, some have suggested that the success of review conferences does not necessarily require an agreed final document. The act of holding the conference itself is argued to be sufficient.

Yet, having consecutive review conference failures would be disastrous, and a number of desperate notions are being considered to salvage the conclave. One such idea is to issue a ministerial or high-level declaration on the first or the second day of the conference, affirming the role of the treaty as the cornerstone of the multilateral nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament regime, along with some other elements such as security assurances and universality. The conference can then be concluded as there would be no further incentive to try to negotiate an agreed final document.

Such an outcome would be highly undesirable because it would reflect no confidence in the review process and violate the 1995 requirement of producing a final document in two parts: a backward-looking assessment and review of the treaty’s implementation and the 1995, 2000, and 2010 outcomes during the 2015–2020 time period and recommendations for implementation during the 2020–2025 period.

In reality, multilateral ministerial or high-level declarations generally reflect the lowest common denominator and are toothless. A concise final document along the lines of the 2014 Preparatory Committee chair’s paper,21 not one extending to 100–200 paragraphs, may have better prospects of being negotiated and then adopted by consensus or, alternatively, without objection.

Finally, the time has come to move the NPT review conference from New York to Vienna because it is there that the nonproliferation and peaceful uses of nuclear energy pillars always have been located through the work of the IAEA. A part of the nuclear disarmament pillar now also resides in Vienna in the work of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization. There is no relevant expertise in the New York delegations on any of the three pillars of the NPT, and meetings there are unduly influenced by the vicissitudes of global politics and the perverse shadow of the Security Council, not to mention that conference-related costs are lower in Vienna. Thus, states-parties could seriously consider convening the 2025 and future NPT conferences in Vienna, where the intangible “spirit of Vienna” can work in mysterious ways to foster harmony out of discord.

NPT states have a choice. They can continue trekking along a path to disintegration, or they can collaborate to construct a nouveau régime to preserve the acquis of the world’s most important multilateral nuclear arms control treaty.

The NPT must be preserved and strengthened to provide the essential foundation for eliminating nuclear weapons, preventing further proliferation, and utilizing the peaceful applications of nuclear energy.22 In this regard, the nuclear-weapon states and their followers need to shoulder the greater share of responsibility to build common ground for advancing disarmament, strengthening nonproliferation barriers, and preserving the long-sought and hard-fought achievements of the NPT and its associated regime. With the world now teetering at 100 seconds to midnight on the Doomsday Clock, what other option is there?


1. Tariq Rauf and Rebecca Johnson, “After the NPT’s Indefinite Extension: The Future of the Global Nonproliferation Regime,” The Nonproliferation Review, Fall 1995, pp. 28–41.

2. William C. Potter, “The Unfulfilled Promise of the 2015 NPT Review Conference,” Survival, Volume 58, No. 1 (2016): 151-178. For another view, see Tariq Rauf, “The 2015 NPT Review Conference: Setting the Record Straight,” Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), June 24, 2015, https://www.sipri.org/node/384.

3. See UN Office at Geneva, “Taking Forward Multilateral Nuclear Disarmament Negotiations in 2014,” n.d., https://www.unog.ch/80256EE600585943/(httpPages)/26EE896FB45E01E7C1257BAC00348663?OpenDocument; UN Office at Geneva, “Taking Forward Multilateral Nuclear Disarmament Negotiations in 2016,” n.d., https://www.unog.ch/80256EE600585943/(httpPages)/31F1B64B14E116B2C1257F63003F5453?OpenDocument.

4. Rebecca D. Gibbons, “The Nuclear Ban Treaty: How Did We Get Here, What Does It Mean for the United States?” War on the Rocks, July 14, 2017, https://warontherocks.com/2017/07/the-nuclear-ban-treaty-how-did-we-get-here-what-does-it-mean-for-the-united-states/.

5. 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),” NPT/CONF.2020/PC.II/WP.30, April 18, 2018; Preparatory Committee for the 2020 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, “Operationalizing the Creating an Environment for Nuclear Disarmament (CEND) Initiative,” NPT/CONF.2020/PC.III/WP.43, April 26, 2019.

6. Daryl G. Kimball, “Addressing the NPT’s Midlife Crisis,” Arms Control Today, January/February 2020; Tariq Rauf, “CEND Is Creating the Conditions to ‘Never Disarm,’” IDN-InDepthNews, August 5, 2019, https://indepthnews.net/index.php/opinion/2876-cend-is-creating-the-conditions-to-never-disarm-74-years-since-hiroshima-nagasaki.

7. Tariq Rauf, “Achieving the Possible: Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone in the Middle East,” IPS Inter Press News Agency, November 20, 2019, http://www.ipsnews.net/2019/11/achieving-possible-weapons-mass-destruction-free-zone-middle-east/.

8. The United States and Israel boycotted the conference, and the United States termed the UN General Assembly’s decision to convene the conference as “illegitimate.” Regarding the conference, see UN General Assembly, “Report of the Conference on the Establishment of a Middle East Zone Free of Nuclear Weapons and Other Weapons of Mass Destruction on the Work of Its First Session,” A/CONF.236/6, November 28, 2019; Tariq Rauf, “Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Middle East,” IPPMediaRoom, November 23, 2019, https://www.ippmedia.com/en/features/weapons-mass-destruction-free-one-middle-east-part-two.

9. UN General Assembly, “Establishment of a Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone in the Region of the Middle East,” A/RES/74/30, December 12, 2019; International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) General Conference, “Application of IAEA Safeguards in the Middle East,” Resolution GC(63)/RES/13, September 2019; IAEA General Conference, “Communication Received From the Resident Representative of Israel Regarding the Request to Include in the Agenda of the Conference an Item Entitled ‘Israeli Nuclear Capabilities,’” GC(63)17, July 30, 2018; IAEA General Conference, “Provisional Agenda,” GC(63)/1/Add.1, July 5, 2019.

10. 2000 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, “Strengthening the Review Process for the Treaty,” NPT/CONF.2000/WP.4/Rev.1, May 4, 2000; 2010 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, “Further Strengthening the Review Process of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons,” NPT/CONF.2010/WP.4, March 18, 2010.

11. 2000 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, “Strengthening the Review Process for the Treaty: Proposal for the Establishment of a Non-Proliferation Treaty Management Board,” NPT/CONF.2000/WP.9, May 9, 2000.

12. 1995 Review and Extension Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, “Final Document: Part I,” NPT/CONF.1995/32 (Part I), 1995, annex (“Decision 1: Strengthening the Review Process for the Treaty”).

13. For a detailed account and history of the NPT acquis, see Jayantha Dhanapala and Tariq Rauf, eds., “Reflections on the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons: Review Conferences and the Future of the NPT,” SIPRI, April 2017, https://sipri.org/sites/default/files/Reflections%20on%20the%20NPT_Dhanapala%20and%20Rauf.pdf.

14. See, Christopher A. Ford, “The Politics of Arms Control: Getting Beyond Post-Cold War Pathologies and Finding Security in a Competitive Environment”, London, February 11, 2020, https://www.state.gov/the-psychopolitics-of-arms-control/.

15. See Paul Meyer, “The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty: Fin de Regime?” Arms Control Today, April 2017.

16. See Mark Moher, “The Nuclear Disarmament Agenda and the Future of the NPT,” Nonproliferation Review, Fall 1999, pp. 65–69, http://www.nonproliferation.org/wp-content/uploads/npr/moher64.pdf.

17. Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum, “Joint Soviet-United States Statement on the Summit Meeting in Geneva,” November 21, 1985, https://www.reaganlibrary.gov/research/speeches/112185a.

18. See Tariq Rauf, “Preparing for the 2017 NPT Preparatory Committee Session: The Enhanced Strengthened Review Process,” n.d., https://www.nonproliferation.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/NPT2017_25FEB_RAUF_PrepCom.pdf.

19. Preparatory Committee for the 2020 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, “Towards 2020: Reflections of the Chair of the 2017 Session of the Preparatory Committee,” NPT/CONF.2020/PC.I/14, May 15, 2017; Preparatory Committee for the 2020 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, “Chair’s Reflections on the State of the NPT,” NPT/CONF.2020/PC.II/12, May 4, 2018; Preparatory Committee for the 2020 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, “Reflections of the Chair of the 2019 Session of the Preparatory Committee,” NPT/CONF.2020/PC.III/14, May 13, 2019.

20. See Tom Markram, “Options for the Further Strengthening of the NPT’s Review Process by 2015,” UNODA Occasional Papers, No. 22 (December 2012); Tariq Rauf, “PrepCom Opinion: Farewell to the NPT’s Strengthened Review Process,” Disarmament Diplomacy, No. 26 (May 1998).

21. See Preparatory Committee for the 2015 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, NPT/CONF.2015/PC.III/WP.46, May 8, 2014 (containing “Chairman’s Working Paper: Recommendations by the Chair to the 2015 NPT Review Conference,” prepared for the chair by this author and not adopted due to irreconcilable differences over nuclear disarmament).

22. Tariq Rauf, “Fiftieth Anniversary of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty: Preparing for a Successful Outcome,” Asia Pacific Leadership Network and Centre for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Policy Brief, No. 48 (November 2017), http://www.isodarco.com/courses/andalo19/paper/iso19_Rauf.pdf.

Tariq Rauf has attended all nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) meetings since 1987 as a delegate, including as senior adviser to the chair of Main Committee I (nuclear disarmament) in 2015 and to the chair of the 2014 preparatory committee; as alternate head of the International Atomic Energy Agency delegation to the NPT; and as a nonproliferation expert with the Canadian delegation from 1987 to 2000.


After 50 years in force, the cornerstone of the nuclear nonproliferation regime is at risk.

Time to Renew the Reagan-Gorbachev Principle

March 2020
By Lewis Dunn and William Potter

The risk of use of nuclear weapons among the great powers is greater today than since the height of the Cold War. Growing political-military competition has increased the possibility of a U.S.-Russian or U.S.-Chinese military conflict. Any such conflict would carry with it the danger of escalation across the nuclear threshold, most probably driven by misinterpretation and miscalculation.

Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and U.S. President Ronald Reagan arrive at a session of their 1985 summit in Geneva. Their agreement that "a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought" was the most notable achievement of the summit. (Photo: Bettman/Getty Images) Concerns about this risk have focused renewed attention among officials, experts, and civil society on the 1985 statement by U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” Whether or not nuclear-weapon states should endorse what came to be known as the Reagan-Gorbachev Principle, or make some other equally compelling commitment to avoiding use of nuclear weapons, almost certainly will be part of the debate at the upcoming 2020 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference.

Since the United States dropped two atomic bombs to end World War II in 1945, the subsequent nonuse of nuclear weapons is one of the more perplexing, if positive, phenomena of the past 75 years. This tradition, or what some prefer to consider to be a taboo or norm, has persisted despite the existence of a number of unfavorable conditions, from the demonstrated technical effectiveness of the weapon to the centrality of nuclear weapons in the deterrence strategies, military doctrines, and operational war plans of a growing number of states.1 Although the strength and vitality of the tradition of nuclear nonuse has fluctuated over time, the very fact of decade after decade of nonuse has steadily strengthened the norm.

The language of the Reagan-Gorbachev Principle has its roots in the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. That crisis led to an increasingly shared recognition in Washington and Moscow of the risks of using nuclear weapons and the need to stabilize the “balance of terror.”2 Although the precise formulation of this recognition is most closely associated with the November 1985 summit in Geneva between Reagan and Gorbachev, the underlying philosophy was reflected in a number of U.S.-Soviet agreements and treaties negotiated between 1969 and 1979. The 1971 Agreement on Measures to Reduce the Outbreak of Nuclear War, for example, proceeds from the premise that nuclear war would have “devastating consequences…for all mankind” and expresses “the need to exert every effort to avert the risk of outbreak of such a war.”3 Similarly, the 1972 Basic Principles of Relations Between the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics proceeds from “the common determination that in the nuclear age there is no alternative to conducting…mutual relations on the basis of peaceful coexistence...[and the parties] will do their utmost to avoid military confrontations and to prevent the outbreak of nuclear war.”4 The same perspective is articulated in almost verbatim language in the 1973 Agreement on the Prevention of Nuclear War, 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, and 1979 Strategic Arms Limitation Talks II Treaty.

This recognition of the risks of nuclear use was sustained in the 1960s and 1970s across both Republican and Democratic administrations, but it appeared to be in jeopardy when Reagan arrived in the White House in 1981. Some of his early comments about the potential for limiting the escalation of a war involving tactical nuclear weapons prompted Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev to declare in October 1981 that “it is dangerous madness to try to defeat each other in the arms race and to count on victory in nuclear war.” Brezhnev added that “only he who has decided to commit suicide can start a nuclear war in the hope of emerging a victor.”5

Almost immediately thereafter, Reagan responded to Brezhnev’s charge by declaring that he had been misquoted and that the United States also opposed the use of nuclear weapons as “all mankind would lose” in a nuclear exchange.6 Subsequently, in April 1982, Reagan refined his message in the famous line from a national radio address: “Those who’ve governed America throughout the nuclear age and we who govern it today have had to recognize that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”7 Frequently repeated by Reagan thereafter, the language later became the most notable achievement of the 1985 Geneva summit. After the summit, this phrase was repeated in bilateral settings such as the December 1987 Washington summit8 and the May-June 1988 Moscow summit.9 Variants of the statement also appeared in both Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty texts.10 Significantly, however, neither the more recent 2002 Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty nor the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty make direct or indirect reference to the principle.

Although references to the Reagan-Gorbachev Principle are much less prominent in multilateral disarmament and nonproliferation fora, there is language in the NPT and occasional formulations in the NPT review process that are consistent with the principle. Perhaps most importantly, the preamble to the NPT highlights “the devastation that would be visited upon all mankind by a nuclear war and the consequent need to make every effort to avert the danger of such a war and to take measures to safeguard the security of peoples.” Although the 1995 NPT Review and Extension Conference did not adopt a consensus document, the Reagan-Gorbachev Principle also is referenced in the report of Main Committee I, which states that “[t]he conference reaffirms that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought, considering the devastation that a nuclear war would bring.”11 Aside from this 1995 report, no other NPT review conference made specific reference to the Reagan-Gorbachev Principle, although the related theme of the global humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons use appears in the 2010 NPT Review Conference final document.12

Renewed Attention but Elusive Agreement

During the past two years, there has been renewed interest in the Reagan-Gorbachev Principle and its possible affirmation by the United States and Russia, as well as its endorsement more widely by all five NPT nuclear-weapon states. In 2018, UN High Representative for Disarmament Izumi Nakamitsu highlighted the current relevance of the principle.13 Writing in April 2019, former U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz, former U.S. Secretary of Defense William Perry, and former U.S. Senator Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) called for U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin jointly to reaffirm that declaration.14 In the months preceding the May 2019 NPT Preparatory Committee meeting in New York, China had unsuccessfully proposed an affirmation by the five permanent members of the UN Security Council when it served as chair of the P-5 process, periodic consultations among China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States on NPT-related matters. China also brought the issue back into the review process at that preparatory committee but received no public support for its initiative to include reference to the principle in the Chair’s Factual Summary.15

Chinese President Xi Jinping greets Russian President Vladimir Putin at a ceremony during their 2016 summit in Beijing. China and Russia have supported an affirmation of the Reagan-Gorbachev Principle. (Photo: Lintao Zhang/Getty Images)The thinking among these five states recognized as nuclear-weapon countries under the NPT on an affirmation of the Reagan-Gorbachev Principle is complex, and the lack of formal policy statements make understanding their policies more difficult. China has most strongly and consistently supported affirmation, and the United States has been the most reluctant. The Russian Federation appears to have been open to the Chinese effort to gain a joint statement on the subject and also has stated that it had sought unsuccessfully to gain U.S. affirmation of the principle in the fall of 2018.16 The position of the United Kingdom appears to have fluctuated over time, publicly in step with the United States but privately being more amenable to an endorsement. France has staked out its own position, at times suggesting that the principle erodes the fundamental logic of its nuclear deterrence posture.

The 2020 Review Conference

There are competing arguments on whether the review conference is an opportunity or perhaps a “forcing event” to create consensus among the nuclear-weapon states in support of the principle. Renewal could be pursued in several different ways: by a bilateral U.S.-Russian statement on the eve of the review conference, with which the other nuclear-weapon states could associate themselves; by its inclusion in a joint P-5 statement prior to or at the review conference; or by its inclusion in a review conference final declaration.

The primary argument for seeking agreement by all five nuclear-weapon states to affirm the principle is that it would be an important signal among themselves that they recognize today’s growing dangers of nuclear confrontation, crisis, and conflict escalation. Moreover, by signaling their shared interest in avoiding a nuclear war, an endorsement could be a stepping stone to more concrete actions to address today’s nuclear risks. Today’s P-5 discussions of nuclear doctrine could be broadened to include crisis avoidance and crisis management, perhaps by creating a dedicated working group to focus explicitly on the risks of misinterpretation, miscalculation, and subsequent escalation in a U.S./NATO-Russian or a U.S.-Chinese confrontation and how to reduce those risks. All of the five could also revisit the Cold War agreements aimed at reducing the dangers of nuclear war with the goal of first updating and then transforming those bilateral agreements into multilateral ones. By so contributing to reducing nuclear risks, renewal also would serve the interests of all the non-nuclear-weapon states.

Affirmation also could help create a more conducive political context for other bilateral risk reduction efforts such as resumption (in the U.S.-Russian case) or intensification (in the U.S.-Chinese case) of contacts between defense and military personnel to avoid possible accidents, miscalculations, and misinterpretations. Similarly, by signaling a shared interest in reducing nuclear dangers, affirmation could help halt the pending collapse of U.S.-Russian arms control as well as facilitate exploration of cooperative measures to avoid intensification of U.S.-Chinese strategic competition. Here, too, nuclear and non-nuclear nations would benefit.

Participants of the 2010 NPT Review Conference in New York, shown here in plenary session, agreed to adopt the NPT Action Plan, including a commitment by nuclear-weapon states to discuss policies to prevent the use of nuclear weapons. (Photo: United Nations)Renewal of the Reagan-Gorbachev Principle by all NPT parties could contribute, moreover, to a successful NPT review conference.17 By partly responding to widespread fears among many non-nuclear-weapon states of a heightened risk of nuclear use and greater reliance on perceived nuclear war-fighting doctrines by some nuclear-weapon states, it would set a more positive tone for the review conference. It also would signal that the nuclear powers understand and take seriously their concerns about nuclear risks.

Despite the benefits of pursuing the principle, there also are arguments for avoiding the effort. The consequences of trying and failing to reaffirm the principle could heighten suspicions the nuclear-weapon states have about each other. In particular, some Russian experts have warned that U.S. reluctance to reaffirm the Reagan-Gorbachev Principle has already raised questions in Moscow about U.S. intentions. Closely related, trying and failing could reinforce the existing judgment of some if not many non-nuclear-weapon states that several P-5 nations increasingly believe that nuclear weapons are usable. This outcome could negatively affect the atmosphere at the review conference and dampen prospects for a successful outcome.

It is difficult to anticipate the costs of trying and failing. Given that U.S., French, and to a lesser degree UK reluctance to reaffirm the Reagan-Gorbachev Principle is already well known publicly, the costs of a failed effort may well be sunk costs by now, already paid. It also is difficult to gauge how much credibility to give Russian claims that U.S. reluctance to reaffirm the principle has created new uneasiness about U.S. intentions. Nonetheless, there likely would be some cost in trying and failing.

A very different argument against seeking an affirmation of the Reagan-Gorbachev Principle in the NPT context is that it could be construed as ignoring the non-NPT nuclear-armed states. Nonetheless, rather than providing a reason to set aside pursuit of an affirmation by the nuclear-weapon states, this argument suggests the importance of finding ways to engage non-NPT nuclear-armed states. Indeed, a parallel commitment to do so could be a complement to an endorsement of the principle at the review conference.

In addition, it is sometimes argued that it makes no sense to affirm the principle because it was relevant only in the bygone U.S.-Soviet Cold War era. In many ways, however, today’s environment of mutual mistrust and heightened military competition among the United States, Russia, and China is all too reminiscent of the early 1980s when the U.S. and Soviet leadership worried about the risk of nuclear escalation and use.

Finally, there are concerns in some quarters that affirmation of the principle could contribute to the erosion of deterrence. While conceivable, other declarations and actions are apt to be far more relevant to a robust U.S. deterrence posture in a future crisis. Moreover, the argument that affirmation is at odds with the logic of nuclear deterrence, with its combination of a threat to use nuclear weapons and preparations to do so, is not as compelling because nuclear deterrence has long been based on a threat that the country making it ultimately would not have wanted to carry out. This dilemma is at its core, and an affirmation of the Reagan-Gorbachev Principle would not alter that predicament. Indeed, perhaps that partly explains why Reagan and his key advisers, clearly all very strong supporters of robust deterrence of the then-Soviet Union, were quite able to sign on to what became the Reagan-Gorbachev Principle.

It is difficult to predict how states will respond to the aforementioned points, and some may continue to object to a simple affirmation of the Reagan-Gorbachev Principle. Modified formulations could generate greater support. For example, one possibility would adapt the language of the NPT’s preamble to “affirm the commitment of the NPT nuclear-weapon states to be guided in their mutual actions by their joint recognition of the vast devastation that would be visited upon all mankind by a nuclear war and the consequent need to make every effort to avert the danger of such a war involving them.” Alternatively, the nuclear-weapon states could state their “recognition of their unique and special responsibility to ensure that nuclear weapons are never used again as well as their commitment to sustain and strengthen their mutual engagement, bilaterally and within the P-5 process, in order to avoid mutual misperceptions and miscalculations that could lead to a process of escalation to use of nuclear weapons.” Both of these statements would comprise a strong commitment to avoid the use of nuclear weapons and to act accordingly, but they lack the simplicity of the original formulation.

A Way Forward

A review of these considerations reinforces the logic of the Reagan-Gorbachev Principle and the desirability of seeking its affirmation in one form or another at the 2020 review conference. Admittedly, it is late in the game, but it is not too late, especially given past instances in which one or more of the P-5 has made a last-minute decision that led to a review conference outcome. Outside experts and civil society should make endorsement of the Reagan-Gorbachev Principle at the review conference a priority. That endorsement could be part of a broader package of actions consistent with the principle to address today’s risk of use of nuclear weapons. P-5 countries should acknowledge their unique responsibility to act in ways to avoid the use of nuclear weapons and to preserve the 75-year old nuclear taboo. Endorsing the principle also could be accompanied by a joint commitment to use the P-5 process along with bilateral actions to reduce the risks of nuclear escalation and use posed by misinterpretation and miscalculation during a crisis.

Ideally, governments that attach importance to the principle should pursue efforts diplomatically to secure its affirmation, at high levels, with the United States and other P-5 countries. They should consider doing so in any upcoming bilateral consultations on the NPT review conference and in other political consultations. Retired former senior officials could make the case yet again for affirmation privately and publicly.

Similarly, like-minded governments, outside experts, civil society, and others should look for ways to keep the issue of reviving and affirming the Reagan-Gorbachev Principle on the review conference agenda. Hopefully, China will again raise this issue within the P-5 context, while the current chair of the P-5, the United Kingdom, should keep the issue on the P-5 agenda. Supportive non-nuclear-weapon states also could call for endorsing the principle in their national statements at the review conference, while encouraging a similar call in the statements of those regional and political groups with which they are affiliated, including the Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Initiative, the New Agenda Coalition, and the Non-Aligned Movement. Nakamitsu already has raised this issue on a number of occasions, but could do so again. It also could be an element of any statement by UN Secretary-General António Guterres prior to or at the review conference.

Going a step further to mobilize and generate support, a group of countries could circulate a draft resolution at the review conference on affirmation and line up support from as many NPT parties participating in the conference as possible. This step would follow the model of the Canadian decision to circulate a resolution in support of indefinite extension of the NPT at the 1995 NPT Review and Extension Conference. The Canadian resolution gained support from many more countries than a majority of the participants in that conference, demonstrating in an irrefutable manner that the votes were present for indefinite extension. This knowledge helped to generate momentum for the eventual indefinite extension of the NPT without a vote. As in that case, the purpose of a resolution on affirmation would not be to seek a vote but to shift the thinking of countries, which otherwise might be reluctant to include affirmation of the Reagan-Gorbachev Principle as part of the review conference outcome.

How states will address the many problems that await them at the 2020 review conference remains uncertain. What is indisputable is the urgent need to reduce the danger of nuclear use. Hopefully, they will recognize that now, more than ever, is the time to renew the principle that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought. It is a precept that serves the interests of all NPT parties and merits special attention on the 75th anniversary of what should remain the first and only use of nuclear weapons.



1. William C. Potter, “In Search of the Nuclear Taboo: Past, Present, and Future,” IFRI Proliferation Papers, No. 31 (Winter 2010). For two of the most important scholarly works on the norm against nuclear weapons use, see Nina Tannenwald, The Nuclear Taboo: The United States and the Non-Use of Nuclear Weapons Since 1945 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007); T.V. Paul, The Tradition of Non-Use of Nuclear Weapons (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009).

2. Animated partly by that same concern, the Cuban missile crisis also led to greater U.S.-Soviet cooperation on nonproliferation. For a discussion of this relationship, see William C. Potter and Sarah Bidgood, eds., Once and Future Partners: The United States, Russia and Nuclear Non-Proliferation (New York: Routledge, 2018).

3. Agreement on Measures to Reduce the Risk of Outbreak of Nuclear War Between the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, preamble, September 30, 1971, 807 U.N.T.S. 57.

4. Office of the Historian, U.S. Department of State, “116. Paper Agreed Upon by the United States and the Soviet Union,” n.d., https://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1969-76v01/d116.

5. Serge Schmemann, “Brezhnev Bids Reagan Help Ban a Nuclear Attack,” The New York Times, October 21, 1981, p. A7.

6. Jim Anderson, “President Reagan, Answering a Challenge From Soviet Leader Leonid…,” UPI, October 21, 1981.

7. “Radio Address to the Nation on Nuclear Weapons,” Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum, April 17, 1982, https://www.reaganlibrary.gov/research/speeches/41782a.

8. International Atomic Energy Agency, “Text of the Joint U.S.-Soviet Summit Statement,” INFCIRC/348, December 21, 1987.

9. “Joint Statement Following the Soviet-United States Summit Meeting in Moscow,” June 1, 1988, http://insidethecoldwar.org/sites/default/files/documents/Joint%20Statement%20Following%20the%20Soviet-United%20States%20Summit%20Meeting%20in%20Moscow.pdf.

10. See “Treaty Between the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics on the Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms,” Conference on Disarmament, CD/1192, April 5, 1993; U.S. Department of State, “Treaty Between the United States of America and the Russian Federation on Further Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms (START II),” n.d., https://2009-2017.state.gov/t/avc/trty/102887.htm (“Conscious that nuclear war would have devastating consequences for all humanity, that it cannot be won and must never be fought…”).

11. 1995 Review and Extension Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, “Final Document: Part II,” NPT/CONF.1995/32) (Part II), 1995, p. 253.

12. 2010 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, “Final Document: Volume I,” NPT/CONF.2010/50) (Vol. I), 2010.

13. Izumi Nakamitsu, “Remarks at the First Committee Side Event Entitled ‘Disarmament to Save Humanity: Toward a World Free of Nuclear Weapons,” October 9, 2018, https://s3.amazonaws.com/unoda-web/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/Izumi-Remarks-at-First-Committee-Side-Event-on-Reducing-Nuclear-Risks.pdf.

14. George P. Shultz, William J. Perry, and Sam Nunn, “The Threat of Nuclear War Is Still With Us,” The Wall Street Journal, April 10, 2019.

15. The only other country to endorse the principle during formal sessions of the Preparatory Committee meeting was Switzerland, which in the opening general debate called on all states that possess nuclear weapons to affirm the appeal by the UN secretary-general that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.

16. See Elena Chernenko, “Yadernomu miru—da, da, da” [Toward Nuclear Peace—Yes, Yes, Yes], Kommersant, April 19, 2019, p. 1; “Briefing for Representative of Mass-Media by Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov on the Issues of Preparation to the 2020 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons,” April 26, 2019 (copy on file with authors. Oddly, Russia did not speak to the issue in any formal session of the Preparatory Committee and did not endorse the Chinese position.

17. The authors define a successful review conference outcome as one that advances the goals of the NPT, whether in a traditional final document; one or more separate resolutions or decisions; a series of stand-alone voluntary commitments made by groups of states, including the nuclear-weapon states; or a combination of these actions.

Lewis Dunn is a former U.S. ambassador to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty review conference. William Potter is the Sam Nunn and Richard Lugar Professor of Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. The authors wish to thank Vladislav Chernavskikh for his research assistance.

Reaffirming the principle that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought” could strengthen this year’s review of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

Ralph Earle II (1928–2020), Pursuing Arms Control to Strengthen Security

March 2020
By Greg Webb

Ralph Earle II a U.S. arms control architect who led the U.S. negotiating team to the second Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT II) at the time the agreement was signed in 1979, died Jan. 13 at the age of 91.

Photo courtesy of the family.His career in arms control and international security began in 1968 at the Defense Department, and his final official posting was as deputy director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA) in 1999. Outside of government, Earle was extremely active in the arms control community, especially with the Lawyers' Alliance for World Security (LAWS). He also served on the Arms Control Association Board of Directors from 1987 to 1994.

Joining the U.S.-Soviet SALT II negotiations in 1973, Earle served as alternate to chief negotiator Paul C. Warnke before moving up to the lead spot when Warnke resigned in 1978. The arduous negotiations required him to spend extensive time in Geneva, even forfeiting his Christmas leave in 1977 to prepare for a pending meeting of U.S. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko.

The time spent with Soviet counterparts yielded productive relationships, according to negotiation chronicler Strobe Talbott in his book End Game: The Inside Story of SALT II. Top Soviet negotiator Vladimir Semyonov was originally put off by having to meet frequently with the U.S. delegation second-in-command, Talbott reported, “[b]ut that relationship warmed, and soon Semyonov and Earle were exchanging classical records and comparing notes on their shared experience of bringing up teen-age daughters. Still, whenever conversation turned to SALT, the mood as well as the substance contacts at every level and in every setting remained, in the antiseptic phrase of the terse biweekly press releases, ‘serious and businesslike.’”

Soon after SALT II’s signing, Earle took the ACDA helm for just one year before President Ronald Reagan took office in 1980. Thereafter, he focused his efforts at LAWS, where he lectured and published extensively on arms control topics. In 1994 he returned to ACDA as deputy director, leaving this final governmental position in 1999.

Over decades, Ralph Earle II promoted arms control both in and out of government.

Swedish Initiative Aims to Strengthen the NPT

March 2020
By Ann Linde

We cannot take a passive stance on the nuclear threat. A worsening global security environment has led to milestone treaties and agreements being abandoned or facing an uncertain future and new nuclear capabilities being developed. Long-established norms are being challenged, as is the integrity of multilateral institutions. The current polarization and paralysis of multilateral disarmament frameworks are both deeply worrying and dangerous. The absence of trust is moving states farther apart from each other in areas where agreement and cooperation are crucial.

(Photo: Tobias Schwarz/AFP/Getty Images)On March 5, we will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) entering into force. This year also marks the 25th anniversary of the treaty’s indefinite extension. It is a historic occasion for a treaty that has served our collective security very well for decades.

The NPT constitutes the cornerstone of the multilateral disarmament and nonproliferation architecture. It has been successful in preventing the spread of nuclear weapons, laying the foundation for significant reductions in nuclear arsenals and facilitating the use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. It is truly an impressive achievement.

The 2020 NPT Review Conference will begin in less than two months. The review conference provides an opportunity for states-parties to strengthen the NPT. This opportunity must be seized.

The Stockholm Initiative on Nuclear Disarmament brings together 16 non-nuclear-weapon states at a high political level. We are united in our engagement to strengthen the NPT. We strive to mobilize political momentum for an ambitious yet realistic outcome of the review conference and beyond, with particular focus on disarmament.

This should not be interpreted as a lack of engagement on the other NPT pillars. The review conference will need a balanced outcome, which includes all three pillars. They are an indispensable part of the NPT fabric: important and mutually reinforcing. They all need to be part of a consensus package.

The disarmament-related commitments and obligations from past review conferences, notably in 1995, 2000, and 2010, remain valid. Several are still outstanding and should be implemented urgently.

The main features of the Stockholm Initiative can be described through six C’s:

Common ground. The explicit purpose of the Stockholm Initiative is to build political support for a pragmatic and results-oriented disarmament agenda within the NPT framework. The initiative aims to reach common ground and promote a successful outcome of the NPT review conference.

Compatibility. The Stockholm Initiative does not seek to replace any other initiatives or groupings that already exist. Instead, it seeks to complement others by building broad political support for an ambitious and realistic disarmament agenda.

Composition. The Stockholm Initiative brings together a quite diverse group of 16 engaged non-nuclear-weapon states. We have different geographic perspectives and security policy profiles. This is in itself a source of strength and credibility because it requires a degree of internal bridge-building and a constructive mind-set, which also must be applied among the broader NPT membership ahead of the review conference.

Collaboration. The Stockholm Initiative has a collaborative and inclusive approach. It is an invitation to all states-parties to the NPT, nuclear- and non-nuclear-weapon states, to engage in a results-oriented dialogue. All states-parties must be ready to get out of their “comfort zones” and engage in a spirit of compromise in order to reach concrete results. I look forward to broad outreach by members of the initiative in the weeks to come.

Concept. A crucial part of the Stockholm Initiative is the stepping-stones approach, which can be best described as an action-oriented methodology. It takes a new look at the traditional disarmament agenda. In breaking down long-standing items into more digestible parts, it seeks to identify “actionable” measures that are within reach in the current security environment.

Confidence-building. The Stockholm Initiative also tries to support rebuilding of trust. The absence of trust between states is a major barrier to disarmament progress. The stepping-stones approach seeks to rebuild mutual confidence by engaging key actors in a practical, rather than normative, incremental process. By identifying and implementing short-term measures, we can mitigate current risks but also pave the way for further steps and progress on nuclear disarmament. This is the essence of the approach.

I am convinced that progress is possible, even in challenging times. We can, with strong political will and a forward-looking mind-set, start the journey of unlocking disarmament diplomacy through delivering on commitments.

Adapted from remarks by Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde to the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva on Feb. 24.

The Swedish foreign minister outlines her nation's initiative.

U.S. to Allow Expanded Landmine Use

March 2020
By Jeff Abramson

In January, the Trump administration cancelled an Obama administration policy that had limited the potential U.S. use of anti-personnel landmines (APLs) to the Korean peninsula only. The previous policy sought to bring the United States closer to its allies and international norms for reducing the harm caused by indiscriminate weapons such as landmines. The White House said the new decision was needed because the Obama-era policy placed U.S. forces at a “severe disadvantage during a conflict against our adversaries,” according to a Jan. 31 statement.

A de-miner works to clear mines in Muhamalai, Sri Lanka, in March 2019. (Photo: Allison Joyce/Getty Images)The announcement drew reproach from the international community and members of the U.S. Congress. In a rare rebuke, the European Union said on Feb. 4 that the new policy “undermines the global norm” against APLs. “Their use anywhere, anytime, and by any actor remains completely unacceptable” to the EU, it said. All EU members are party to the Mine Ban Treaty, which forbids the use of victim-activated APLs, mandates destruction of stockpiles, clearance of contaminated lands, and other measures. The treaty, which entered into force on March 1, 1999, now has 164 states-parties, including all NATO members aside from the United States. (See ACT, January/February 2020.)

The U.S. policy change was a “step in the wrong direction,” said treaty president Osman Abufatima Adam Mohammed, deputy permanent representative of Sudan to the United Nations in Geneva, on Feb. 3. The United States is by far the world’s largest funder of mine-clearance activities, contributing more than $3 billion since 1993 to conventional weapons destruction internationally. “This change in U.S. policy goes against its long-standing commitment to work towards the eradication of the suffering caused by anti-personnel mines,” added Mohammed.

U.S. officials defended the new policy, arguing that it aligned with the Trump administration’s National Defense Strategy and “the return to great power competition,” according to Jan. 31 comments from Victorino Mercado, performing the duties of acting assistant secretary of defense for strategy, plans, and capabilities. In his comments, as well as in a policy memorandum issued that day, concerns about near-peer competitors were cited as the primary rationale for lifting geographic restrictions on landmine use. Mercado said he did not foresee the United States using landmines in such places as Afghanistan, Kenya, Niger, or Syria. Other documents also indicated that the new policy was not in response to Iran. Decisions to use landmines would be made at the combatant-commander level, a four-star general or admiral, not by the president as had been previous policy.

The policy permits the use of what the administration calls “nonpersistent landmines,” which are “specifically designed to reduce unintended harm to civilians and partner forces.” According to the administration plans, the munitions must have self-destruct and self-deactivation mechanisms, with the self-destruct system set for 30 days or less. The policy does not allow for using landmines that do not have these features. Mercado argued that there is “only a six in 1 million chance of a U.S. landmine being active after a predetermined period,” but studies backing this assessment were not made publicly available. Critics of the policy have long argued that such studies are unreliable, and the Mine Ban Treaty does not make such a distinction when banning APLs that explode due to the “presence, proximity or contact of a person.”

U.S. officials stated that the United States will continue to uphold commitments under Amended Protocol II of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW). That protocol permits the use of remotely delivered mines that have an “effective self-destruction or self-neutralization mechanism and have a back-up self-deactivation feature,” and it calls for clearing or marking of mined areas after the cessation of hostilities. Citing 2010 and 2014 figures, the Landmine Monitor estimates that the United States possesses a stockpile of approximately 3 million such mines that could be delivered by aircraft or artillery, including ADAM, GATOR and Volcano systems.

The United States has not used these or other Mine Ban Treaty-banned mines since 1991, with the exception of a single use in Afghanistan in 2002. It has not exported them since 1992, nor produced new mines since 1997. Although President Bill Clinton ultimately did not join the Mine Ban Treaty, he set a goal for the United States to do so by 2006, a goal President George W. Bush rejected in 2004. Obama administration policy, announced in 2014, banned production and acquisition of APLs and halted their use outside the Korean peninsula. It also set the aspiration to accede to the Mine Ban Treaty, but did not set a date for that to occur.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), a long-time anti-landmine leader, reacted quickly to the new policy. “The president’s decision to roll back the policy” on APLs “is as perplexing as it is disappointing, and reflexive, and unwise,” he said on Jan. 31. “This decision, like so many others of this White House, reverses the gains we have made and weakens our global leadership.”

In early February, six Democratic presidential candidates indicated that they would reverse the Trump policy, including Sens. Amy Klobuchar (Minn.), Bernie Sanders (Vt.), and Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), as well as former Vice President Joe Biden, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and businessman Tom Steyer. “Innocent civilians are the main casualties of landmines. This is an abhorrent decision that won’t make America any safer, and could cause untold damage,” Warren tweeted on Feb. 1.

President Trump removes limits on landmine deployments.

U.S. Nuclear Budget Skyrockets

March 2020
By Kingston Reif

The Trump administration’s fiscal year 2021 budget request released in February proposes a major increase to sustain and modernize the U.S. nuclear arsenal, prompting fresh questions about whether the spending plans are necessary or sustainable. The budget goals also fueled growing alarms about the challenge they may pose to other defense priorities.

National Nuclear Security Administration chief Lisa Gordon-Hagerty speaks in June 2018. She successfully persuaded the White House to seek a 25 percent increase in funding for the agency's nuclear weapons activities in fiscal year 2021. (Photo: NNSA)The request would support continued implementation of the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), which called for expanding U.S. nuclear weapons capabilities, and comes as the administration is recommending a lower national defense budget top line in fiscal year 2021 than Congress provided last year.

Congress will begin its review of the request in the coming weeks, but the ultimate fate of the submission is unlikely to be determined until after the presidential election in November. Last year, Congress supported the administration’s nuclear spending priorities despite opposition from the Democratic-led House. (See ACT, January/February 2020.)

The Trump administration is requesting $44.5 billion in fiscal year 2021 for the Defense and Energy departments to sustain and modernize U.S. nuclear delivery systems and warheads and their supporting infrastructure, an increase of about $7.3 billion, or 19 percent, from the fiscal year 2020 level. (See ACT, April 2019.) This includes $28.9 billion for the Pentagon and $15.6 billion for the Energy Department.

The proposed spending on nuclear weapons constitutes about 6 percent of the total national defense request, up from about 5 percent last year.

“The president was very clear to me, to the Pentagon, to the Hill, that modernization of our strategic nuclear forces is priority number one,” Defense Secretary Mark Esper said on Feb. 19.

The largest increase sought is for the nuclear weapons activities account of the Energy Department’s semiautonomous National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA). The budget request calls for $15.6 billion, an increase of $3.1 billion, or 25 percent, above the fiscal year 2020 appropriation and $2.8 billion above the projection for 2021 in the fiscal year 2020 budget request.

The NNSA had not released its detailed fiscal year 2021 budget request by Feb. 26, but it would increase funding for several ongoing nuclear warhead life extension programs, a new program for a future submarine-launched ballistic missile warhead dubbed the W93, and the expansion of the production of plutonium pits for nuclear warheads to at least 80 per year, NNSA Administrator Lisa-Gordon Hagerty told reporters in Washington
on Feb. 10.

The NNSA budget submission was reportedly a controversial issue within the Trump administration and was not resolved until days before the Feb. 10 public release of the budget. Gordon-Hagerty’s budget proposal of nearly $20 billion for the agency was opposed by the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB), which countered with $17.5 billion, according to a report published in late January by The Dispatch, a digital news publication.

Several administration officials, including Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette, were said to support the lower amount, and the budget was built based on that figure.

Gordon-Hagerty, joined by several Republican members of Congress, resisted the OMB figure, warning that a budget of $17.5 billion would undermine the modernization plan described in the NPR and force the United States to unilaterally reduce the size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

President Donald Trump ultimately sided with the NNSA and approved a total of $19.8 billion for the agency.

The factors driving the NNSA to request such a large unplanned increase are unclear. The agency said last year that its fiscal year 2020 budget plan was “fully consistent” with the 2018 NPR and “affordable and executable.” (See ACT, September 2019.) Under that proposal, the NNSA did not plan to request more than $15 billion for the weapons activities account until 2030. It is also unclear whether the NNSA could spend such a large increase in one year.

Trump’s support for increasing the NNSA budget forced a late scramble to make room for the higher amount. “I can tell you that [the Defense Department] is covering the cost for this increase,” Brouillette told Defense News on Feb. 16.

Although he did not identify the specific accounts that were cut, the Navy’s shipbuilding account was one of the causalities, according to a Bloomberg report on Feb. 6. The Navy is requesting $19.9 billion for shipbuilding in fiscal year 2021, a decrease of $4.1 billion below the fiscal year 2020 level.

“It is the worst-kept secret in Washington that last-minute maneuvering led to the shipbuilding budget being robbed to pay for other pet projects,” said Rep. Joe Courtney (D-Conn.), the chairman of the House Armed Services seapower and projection forces subcommittee, in a Feb. 10 statement.

Meanwhile, the budget request contains large but planned increases to maintain the schedule of Pentagon programs to sustain and rebuild the U.S. triad of nuclear-armed missiles, submarines, and bombers.

The request includes $4.4 billion for the Navy program to build 12 Columbia-class ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs). The Air Force is seeking $2.8 billion to continue development of the B-21 Raider strategic bomber, $500 million for the long-range standoff weapons program to replace the existing air-launched cruise missile, and $1.5 billion for the program to replace the Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile with a missile system called the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent. The Pentagon is also asking for $4.2 billion to sustain and upgrade nuclear command, control, and communications systems.

Collectively, the request for these programs is an increase of $3.2 billion, or more than 30 percent, above the fiscal year 2020 level.

The SSBN program, which is estimated to cost a total of $128 billion to acquire, poses a particularly significant affordability challenge. The fiscal year 2021 budget request includes funding to purchase the first submarine in the class over the next three years.

“[W]e must begin a 40-year recapitalization of our [SSBN] force,” Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly wrote in a Feb. 18 memo directing the Navy to identify $40 billion in savings over the next five years.

“This requirement will consume a significant portion of our shipbuilding budget in the coming years and squeeze out funds we need to build a larger fleet.”


The Trump administration is seeking larger increases to U.S. nuclear weapons than envisioned earlier.

Europe Seeks to Avoid UN Iran Sanctions

March 2020
By Kelsey Davenport

The three European parties to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal triggered the accord’s dispute resolution mechanism in January, potentially buying time to preserve the deal, but also increasing the risk that suspended UN sanctions on Iran could be snapped back. France, Germany, and the United Kingdom said they had “no choice” but to initiate the process on Jan. 14 after Iran’s announcement nine days earlier of its fifth violation of the nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). (See ACT, January/February 2020.)

Josep Borrell Fontelles, the high representative of the European Union, attends an EU foreign ministers meeting in January. He later said that France, Germany and the UK will try to draw out the JCPOA dispute resolution mechanism to avoid referring Iran to the UN Security Council. (Photo: Thierry Monasse/Getty Images)Once commenced, the dispute resolution mechanism begins with a 15-day review by the JCPOA Joint Commission, the body created to oversee the deal’s implementation. If it cannot resolve allegations of noncompliance, the foreign ministers of the participating JCPOA countries have 15 days to resolve the complaint. At the same time, or in lieu of ministerial consideration, a three-member advisory board can issue a nonbinding recommendation that the Joint Commission can consider for five days. The time periods for consideration by the Joint Commission and at the ministerial level can be extended by consensus.

If no resolution is achieved, any JCPOA participant can then refer the dispute to the UN Security Council, but such a step is not an automatic consequence of the dispute resolution mechanism process.

The terms of UN Security Council Resolution 2231, which eased UN sanctions against Iran after the JCPOA was negotiated, allow for those sanctions to be restored easily. Any council member may introduce a new resolution to continue lifting the sanctions, and if the resolution fails, the sanctions would be restored. The process thus bypasses the veto power of the council’s five permanent members (China, France, Russia, the UK, and the United States).

A referral to the Security Council would likely collapse the JCPOA as Tehran has threatened to withdraw from the JCPOA and the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty if the case ends up before the Security Council.

The Trump administration reportedly threatened to impose a tariff on European automobile parts imported to the United States if the three European nations failed to trigger the dispute resolution mechanism. Although the three said they decided to use the mechanism independently of U.S. President Donald Trump’s threat, the timing created speculation that they folded under pressure from the United States.

Their statement, however, emphasized that they are “not joining a campaign to implement maximum pressure against Iran” and reiterated their commitment to the JCPOA. The three nations have made clear that triggering the dispute resolution mechanism is designed to preserve the deal and address Iran’s breaches, but the move does increase the risk that Security Council sanctions could be reimposed on Iran. Still, during a Feb. 4 trip to Tehran, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell Fontelles said that the three European nations agreed to “continuously postponing the dates and time limits” of the mechanism to avoid Security Council referral.

He also emphasized that the dispute resolution mechanism “is not a measure orientated to finish with the deal, but to try to keep it alive, to give time for negotiation.” Borrell said he expected “some positive steps on the nuclear side” and “some positive aspects on the economic side” to come out of the process.

After meeting with Borrell in Tehran on Feb. 4, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said that Iran is “still ready for interaction and cooperation” with the European Union to resolve issues and will “return to its commitments” when the other parties to the deal meet their obligations.

The agreement to extend the dispute resolution process creates time, but it is unclear what steps the remaining parties are willing and able to take to provide Iran with sanctions relief that Tehran is demanding.

The three European nations have attempted to set up a trade mechanism to preserve legitimate trade with Iran that bypasses U.S. sanctions, but the mechanism has yet to process a transaction.

A Swiss effort to create a payment mechanism to facilitate transactions for humanitarian goods is nearly operational, the Swiss government announced on Jan. 30, but it is limited in scope to medical exports, pharmaceuticals, and food.

The three European nations may just be attempting to buy time until after the U.S. presidential election in November. The Democratic candidates for the nomination have all expressed their intent to rejoin the JCPOA.

Despite the three nations’ intentions to use the dispute resolution mechanism to preserve the deal, the move could backfire. Failure to continue extending the consultative periods, or the Trump administration pressuring one of them to break consensus, could result in Iran being referred back to the Security Council.

The Trump administration may also choose to paint the dispute resolution mechanism process as a failure if it does not address Iran’s noncompliance and try to force the Security Council to reimpose sanctions unilaterally.

Given that Trump withdrew the United States from the accord in May 2018, it is unclear if Washington has legal recourse to go directly to the Security Council to reimpose sanctions on Iran.

Resolution 2231 allows any JCPOA participant to refer an allegation of noncompliance directly to the Security Council. The resolution was not amended to remove the United States as a participating state after the U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA.

The U.S. State Department has reportedly written a memo outlining its case for why the United States can still refer Iran to the Security Council for significant noncompliance, and several members of Congress are pressuring the Trump administration to pursue this route.

The remaining parties to the deal, however, appear poised to challenge any U.S. attempt to use the Security Council to reimpose sanctions.

An official from one of the three European countries told Arms Control Today that “Trump does not get to pick and choose the parts of the deal” to advance his interests. The official suggested that any U.S. attempt to reimpose sanctions at the Security Council would be challenged by other members of the JCPOA.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration has continued to ratchet up pressure on Iran as the remaining parties to the JCPOA attempt to preserve the accord. The United States sanctioned the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) and its leader, Ali Akbar Salehi, in late January. According to a Jan. 31 announcement, Salehi was targeted for playing a “leading role in Iran’s nonperformance of its key nuclear commitments.” The AEOI was already subject to sanctions reimposed when the United States withdrew from the Iran deal.

The AEOI responded to the sanctions Jan. 31 by calling the move “unwise” and said it would “not in any way interrupt [Iran’s] peaceful nuclear activities and policies.”

But the Trump administration did renew sanctions waivers for 60 days, allowing several cooperative nuclear projects with Iran to continue. The Jan. 31 announcement by the State Department did not specify what JCPOA projects will be included, but the waivers likely cover modifications at the unfinished heavy-water reactor at Arak, the transfer of spent fuel out of Iran, the provision of fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor, and activities at the Bushehr power reactor.

During his visit, Borrell also requested that Iran continue to abide by the monitoring and verification provisions of the JCPOA. When Iran announced in January that it would no longer adhere to any restrictions put in place by the deal, Tehran affirmed its intent to continue to comply with International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections.

IAEA Director-General Rafael Grossi said on Feb. 5 that Iran continues to adhere to its safeguards agreement and its additional protocol, a more intrusive set of monitoring measures required by the JCPOA.

Grossi said in a Feb. 4 interview that if Iran is implementing its additional protocol, the international community “will always have prompt warning about any…concerning development.”


By triggering the JCPOA's dispute resolution mechanism, three European nations hope to save the accord.

U.S.-Russia Talks to Begin Soon, U.S. Says

March 2020
By Kingston Reif and Shannon Bugos

The United States and Russia are nearing the start of new arms control talks, but China is presently uninterested in limiting its nuclear forces, U.S. National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien said last month.

White House National Security Advisor Robert O'Brien participates in a February event in Washington. He acknowledged publicly for the first time in February that China is not interested in arms control talks with the United States or Russia. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)“We’ll be sitting down with our Russian colleagues very soon,” O’Brien said Feb. 11. “We’ll have to wait and see how those negotiations play out.”

He also acknowledged—the first time an administration official has done so—that China has no interest in joining the negotiations. “So far, and this is not surprising, the Chinese are not interested in arms control,” he said.

O’Brien’s admission stands in contrast to repeated statements from U.S. President Donald Trump that China is eager to join arms control talks. Beijing is “extremely excited about getting involved,” Trump claimed last December.

The New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), signed in 2010, will expire on Feb. 5, 2021, unless the United States and Russia mutually agree to extend it by up to five years.

Moscow stands ready to extend New START immediately and without any preconditions, according to remarks Russian President Vladimir Putin made in late 2019, but the Trump administration has yet to make its decision regarding the future of the accord. During his Feb. 11 remarks, O’Brien said he would not “get into conditions or that sort of thing in this context or in this forum” on potential U.S. preconditions for extending New START. U.S. officials have previously said Washington prefers to seek a more comprehensive deal that covers additional types of nuclear weapons and includes China.

Senior administration officials addressed bringing China into the arms control process at a Feb. 14 background briefing for reporters at the White House, but the administration has not yet put forward a proposal for a new accord. “Now is the time for China to put its money where its mouth is and prove that it is a responsible international actor,” said one official, Reuters reported.

“On New START, we have made no decision on a possible extension as we are focused on addressing a broader range of threats beyond just the weapons subject to the treaty,” another official said.

For its part, China has consistently expressed its opposition to trilateral talks with the United States and Russia. “This position is very clear and has been widely understood by the international community, including Russia,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang told reporters on Jan. 22. The United States “constantly makes an issue of China on this to dodge and shift its responsibilities for nuclear disarmament,” he said.

Robert Wood, the U.S. permanent representative to the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, claimed on Jan. 21 that Washington and Moscow had reached an “understanding” about pursuing trilateral talks with China. “Hopefully over time and through the influence of others besides the United States, [China] will come to the table,” he said.

Soviet Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, however, stated on Feb. 10 that Moscow “will not try to convince China” to join the talks. “If the Americans are quite sure that it makes no sense to take any further steps on the New START…without China, let them get down to business on this all on their own,” he said. “Even if a multilateral process gets under way, it will be utterly protracted,” and “we ought to have a safety net in an extended New START.”

“We have told the Americans as much,” he said. “They are still silent.”

In addition to pursuing trilateral talks with Russia and China, Christopher Ford, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation, said on Dec. 20 that the United States had invited China to begin a bilateral strategic security dialogue. Fu Cong, director of the arms control department at the Chinese Foreign Ministry, remarked on Feb. 12 at a conference of nuclear-weapon states in London that Beijing will answer Ford’s proposal “soon.”

Another reported hindrance to the U.S. effort to negotiate a more comprehensive replacement for New START is the Trump administration’s inability to find a lead negotiator for the undertaking. The administration has offered the role to several potential candidates, but no one has agreed to take it, Politico reported on Feb. 12.

Calls from key foreign leaders and former officials to extend New START have intensified amid the administration’s continued indecision on the future of the accord.

“It is critical that the New START…be extended beyond 2021,” said French President Emmanuel Macron in a Feb. 7 speech on defense and deterrence. The uncertainty regarding the treaty’s future, he said, contributes to “the possibility of a return of pure unhindered military and nuclear competition by 2021.” Macron joined other U.S. allies, such as Finland, Germany, and the United Kingdom, in endorsing the treaty’s extension.

The Aspen Ministers Forum, a group of former foreign ministers from around the world, released a statement on Feb. 10 also supporting prolonging the treaty. “Extending New START would lay solid groundwork and build momentum towards increased international cooperation in the new decade,” they stated.

Meanwhile, the United States and Russia resumed their dialogue on strategic security on Jan. 16 in Vienna. The State Department said the two sides discussed “nuclear stockpiles and strategy, crisis and arms race stability, and the role and potential future of arms control, including the importance of moving beyond a solely bilateral format.” The dialogue will continue, and the two sides will “begin expert-level engagement on particular topics in the near future,” according to the State Department.

In remarks to the press after the January meeting, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov commented that the talks were “difficult” and that Russia does not have a clear understanding of Washington’s overall strategic plan for arms control.

New START caps U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear arsenals at 1,550 deployed warheads, 700 deployed missiles and heavy bombers, and 800 deployed and nondeployed missile launchers and bombers each. It also put into place a rigorous inspections and verification regime, on which the U.S. military relies for knowledge about the Russian arsenal.

While declining to share his advice to the Trump administration on New START’s extension, Gen. John Hyten, current vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and former commander of the U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM), recently emphasized the importance of the accord.

“If you’re the STRATCOM commander, New START is really important,” Hyten said Jan. 17. “It allows you to posture your force and understand what you have to do in order to deter the adversary, Russia in this case, and tells you what you have to do. It also gives you insight into the Russian nuclear forces because of the verification regime.”

Hyten expressed concern about Russian nuclear weapons not covered by the treaty, such as new strategic nuclear weapon delivery vehicles that Moscow is developing and Russia’s larger arsenal of nonstrategic nuclear weapons, estimated at 2,000 warheads. “We have to make sure that when we sit down with Russia, we talk about all the nuclear weapons that are out there,” he said.


A dialogue may be advancing between the United States and Russia, but China appears unwilling to discuss any limits to its nuclear arsenal.


Subscribe to RSS - March 2020