"Though we have acheived progress, our work is not over. That is why I support the mission of the Arms Control Association. It is, quite simply, the most effective and important organization working in the field today." 

– Larry Weiler
Former U.S.-Russian arms control negotiator
August 7, 2018
May 2019

Arms Control Today May 2019

Edition Date: 
Wednesday, May 1, 2019
Cover Image: 

Trump Arms Control Gambit: Serious or a Poison Pill?

May 2019
By Daryl G. Kimball

Smart U.S. leadership is an essential part of the nuclear risk reduction equation. Unfortunately, after more than two years into President Donald Trump’s term in office, his administration has failed to present a credible strategy to reduce the risks posed by the still enormous U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals, which comprise more than 90 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons.

National Security Advisor John Bolton (R), listens to President Donald Trump during a briefing from senior military leaders, in the Cabinet Room on April 9, 2018. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)Instead, Trump has threatened to accelerate and “win” an arms race with nuclear-armed Russia and China as tensions with both states have grown. Trump has shunned a proposal supported by his own Defense and State departments to engage in strategic stability talks with Moscow. Trump also has ordered the termination of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty without a viable plan B, and his national security team has dithered for more than a year on beginning talks with Russia to extend the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) before it expires in February 2021.

Now, the president is dropping hints that he wants some sort of grand, new arms control deal with Russia and China. “Between Russia and China and us, we’re all making hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of weapons, including nuclear, which is ridiculous,” Trump said on April 4 as he hosted Chinese Vice Premier Liu He in the Oval Office.

According to an April 25 report in The Washington Post, Trump formally ordered his team to reach out to Russia and China on options for new arms control agreements. The instructions on Russia apparently call for the pursuit of limits on so-called nonstrategic nuclear weapons, a category of short-range, lower-yield weapons that has never been subject to a formal arms control arrangement.

At first glance, that may sound promising. Bringing other nuclear actors and all types of nuclear weapons into the disarmament process is an important and praiseworthy objective. But this administration has no plan, strategy, or capacity to negotiate such a far-reaching deal. Even if it did, negotiations would likely take years. 

China, which is estimated to possess a total of 300 nuclear warheads, has never been party to any agreement that limits the number or types of its nuclear weaponry. Beijing is highly unlikely to engage in any such talks until the United States and Russia significantly cut their far larger arsenals, estimated at 6,500 warheads each.

Russian President Vladimir Putin may be open to broader arms control talks with Trump, but he has a long list of grievances about U.S. policies and weapons systems, particularly the ever-expanding U.S. missile defense architecture. The Trump administration’s 2019 Missile Defense Review report says there can be no limits of any kind on U.S. missile defenses—a nonstarter for Russia. 

These realities, combined with the well-documented antipathy of Trump’s national security advisor, John Bolton, to New START strongly suggest that this new grand-deal gambit does not represent a serious attempt to halt and reverse a global arms race.

It is more likely that Trump and Bolton are scheming to walk away from New START by setting conditions they know to be too difficult to achieve.

With less than two years to go before New START expires, Washington and Moscow need to begin working immediately to reach agreement to extend the treaty by five years. Despite their strained relations, it is in their mutual interest to maintain verifiable caps on their enormous strategic nuclear stockpiles.

Without New START, which limits each side to no more than 1,550 deployed strategic warheads and 700 deployed strategic delivery vehicles, there will be no legally binding limits on the world’s two largest nuclear arsenals for the first time in nearly five decades.

Extending New START would provide a necessary foundation and additional time for any follow-on deal with Russia that addresses other issues of mutual concern, including nonstrategic nuclear weapons, intermediate-range weapons, and understandings on the location and capabilities of missile defense systems and advanced conventional-strike weapons that each country is developing.

A treaty extension could help put pressure on China to provide more information about its nuclear weapons and fissile material stockpiles. China also might be more likely to agree to freeze the overall size of its nuclear arsenal or agree to limit a certain class of weapons, such as nuclear-armed cruise missiles, so long as the United States and Russia continue to make progress to reduce their far larger and more capable arsenals.

If in the coming weeks, however, Team Trump suggests China must join New START or that Russia must agree to limits on tactical nuclear weapons as a condition for its extension, that should be recognized as a disingenuous poison pill designed to create a pretext for killing New START.

Before Trump and Bolton try to raise the stakes for nuclear arms control success, they must demonstrate they are committed to working with Russia to extend the most crucial, existing agreement: New START.

Smart U.S. leadership is an essential part of the nuclear risk reduction equation.

The Pulwama Crisis: Flirting With War in a Nuclear Environment

May 2019
By Moeed W. Yusuf

Nearly two decades ago, U.S. President Bill Clinton prophetically characterized Kashmir as the “most dangerous place on earth.”1 Since conducting nuclear tests in 1998, India and Pakistan have regularly faced crises linked to Kashmir, the disputed region at the northern tips of the two nations. Serious tensions over the last two months provided the latest reminder of the ease with which Kashmir could transform into a nuclear flashpoint.

Pakistan shot down an Indian Air Force MiG-21 fighter jet like this and captured its pilot during the Pulwama crisis, but the pilot's return to India days later served to calm tensions. (Photo: Manjunath Kiran/AFP/Getty Images)On February 14, Adil Ahmad Dar, a native of the Pulwama district in Indian Kashmir, ambushed a paramilitary convoy, killing 40 security personnel. The attack, which was claimed by the Pakistan-based terrorist outfit Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), was the deadliest terrorist incident in Kashmir in three decades.

In the days that followed, India and Pakistan engaged in aggressive threat-making and massive tit-for-tat artillery exchanges on the Line of Control, which separates Indian- and Pakistani-controlled parts of Kashmir, and India suspended several travel- and trade-related confidence-building measures. In just two weeks, the situation had escalated into the most dangerous crisis India and Pakistan had experienced since their overt nuclearization in 1998.

Tensions spiked on February 26, when India conducted air strikes on an alleged JeM terrorist camp deep inside Pakistan. India claimed to have killed “a very large number of JeM terrorists, trainers, senior commanders and groups of jihadis” in the attack.2 Pakistan retaliated the next day with its own air strikes in Indian Kashmir and also captured an Indian pilot, whose aircraft was shot down during a mission over Pakistani airspace.

The crisis was now on the brink of major war. India reportedly contemplated launching multiple conventional missile strikes inside Pakistan.3 Pakistan promised an immediate, scaled-up response. Fortunately, these plans never materialized. Instead, tensions subsided rather abruptly over the next two days.

Although the risk of nuclear conflagration remained extremely low during the Pulwama crisis, the episode witnessed unprecedented escalation. India and Pakistan not only engaged in air warfare, traditionally seen as escalatory by leaders on both sides, but India’s deliberate choice to strike Pakistan beyond Kashmir signaled a willingness to cross new frontiers. Pakistan too had never responded in such a tit-for-tat manner in previous crises in the nuclear era.

To learn how such an escalation happened and stopped short of a nuclear conflict requires an understanding of past trends in crisis management in South Asia. Despite the unprecedented aspects of the Pulwama episode, the initial escalation and subsequent termination of the crisis conformed to the historically established dynamics of crisis management between the two sides. Yet, the crisis also offered a stark reminder of the increasing complexity of these dynamics and the challenges this poses for crisis de-escalation.

Past Crises in South Asia

Pulwama was the fifth major Indian-Pakistani crisis since the two sides tested nuclear weapons in 1998. In each of the previous crises, third parties, principally the United States, were essential in brokering a peaceful end to the episode. Although India and Pakistan have displayed varying degrees of brinkmanship, each time they have welcomed third-party mediation, seeing it as an insurance policy against all-out escalation. Indeed, their crisis behavior through the years has been aimed as much at attracting third-party support as it has been at compelling the adversary to bend in the face of each other’s direct threats.4

Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi (left) meets U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Washington on October 2, 2018. During the Pulwama crisis, Pompeo urged his counterpart to avoid escalating the conflict. (Photo: Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images)U.S. success in crisis management was historically a function of its unwavering commitment to de-escalation above other competing regional interests and alliance preferences. During the first post-nuclearization crisis, the Kargil conflict in 1999, the United States shocked Pakistan by setting aside Washington’s history of angst and mistrust with India to back New Delhi’s demand for a unilateral reversal of Pakistan’s unprovoked military incursion into Indian Kashmir. In the next two crises, the 2001–2002 military standoff on the international border and the 2008 Mumbai crisis, each triggered by terrorist attacks linked to Pakistan-based outfits, the United States played down the middle despite the fact that its position on global terrorism naturally aligned with India’s. It worried that a more partisan stance in India’s favor would embolden Indian leaders to use military force against Pakistan in retaliation to the terrorist strikes.

None of these crises threatened to cross the nuclear threshold. Each episode featured nuclear signaling, including statements from both nations hinting at their resolve to employ nuclear weapons, unsubstantiated press reports of unusual movements around nuclear sites, and meetings of the agencies responsible for authorizing nuclear use. These signals, however, were largely aimed at playing on third-party nations’ fear of war to compel them to intervene in favor of one side or the other.

U.S. officials tended to take such indications seriously. Washington’s policymakers radiate an inviolable belief that all nuclear contexts carry a greater-than-zero risk of deliberate or inadvertent escalation. They therefore have been keen to intervene even though South Asia’s recessed nuclear postures—India and Pakistan are believed to store their nuclear warheads separately from their delivery systems—create a major buffer against swift escalation to the nuclear level.

The fundamental contours of this trilateral dynamic have remained intact over the years, but two developments following the Mumbai crisis complicated nuclear crisis management in South Asia. First, India’s lingering frustration with its inability to prevent terrorism emanating from Pakistani soil began to boil over. In exchange for relative Indian restraint during the Kargil conflict, 2001–2002 standoff, and Mumbai crisis, third parties promised to pressure Pakistan to do more to end anti-India terrorism. Yet, this pressure was never delivered effectively. India’s internal debate increasingly shifted toward the need to break from its restraint and raise Pakistani costs for failing to prevent terrorist operations from its soil. This view found official support when Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, known for his hawkish stance toward Pakistan, won office in 2014.

Second, the U.S. outlook toward South Asia began to shift in the post-Mumbai period, tracking closely with the tenor of the debate in India. Growing tensions between the United States and Pakistan over Islamabad’s alleged support for the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan and terrorism in India paralleled a fast-growing U.S.-Indian strategic partnership. Pakistan was increasingly seen as the problem and India as a victim of terrorism, a lucrative economic market, and potential counterweight to China that deserved U.S. support. When it came to crises, the principal focus on preventing major escalation remained as firmly entrenched in the minds of Washington’s decision-makers, but lingering sympathy for India’s predicament with terrorism began to translate into appetite for allowing India to act against Pakistan.

A 2016 terrorist attack on an army base in Uri in Indian Kashmir became the most high-profile crisis since the 2008 Mumbai episode. On September 29, 2016, India retaliated with what it called surgical strikes inside Pakistani Kashmir. The way it did so broke from India’s strategic restraint even though the strikes were largely indistinguishable from the raids India and Pakistan commonly employ across the Line of Control to keep each other off guard. The major difference this time was the Indian leadership’s loud public posturing, aimed at gaining domestic political mileage. Indian leaders were careful, however, to align with U.S. demands for de-escalation. They declared the action as a one-off preemptive strike and privately assured the United States that India wanted the episode closed.

Reacting, the United States publicly blamed Pakistan and denounced it for inaction against terrorists. It simultaneously urged de-escalation, but notably did not criticize the Indian strike. Washington convinced Pakistan that India would not escalate further and discouraged retaliation. Tellingly, Pakistan absorbed the Indian action and simply denied its occurrence.

The Uri crisis did not upend the fundamental contours of crisis management between India and Pakistan. Nevertheless, the episode complicated policies for responding to any future attacks alleged to have perpetrated by Pakistani-based terrorists. In a 2018 assessment, I wrote,

The next major terrorist attack in India could force Prime Minister Modi’s hand to act even more forcefully against Pakistan than he did after Uri. Perhaps emboldened by Washington’s conciliatory response to India’s post-Uri surgical strikes, there also is now an expectation in India that the United States will lean on Pakistan to absorb such Indian action. However, having already expended immense political capital in absorbing the post-Uri Indian action, Pakistan may find it extremely difficult to hold back in a similar future context, especially if the quantum of the Indian use of force is greater than after Uri. The scenario has all the makings of a crisis with a high potential for escalation.5

The Pulwama Crisis

It is difficult to overstate how much the Uri situation directly influenced crisis behavior during the Pulwama episode. India’s decision to act militarily was influenced by its experience at Uri. The Pakistani decision not to strike back during that crisis, while helping to de-escalate tensions at the time, emboldened India. Moreover, much like Uri, Pakistan’s signaling—public statements and private diplomacy with third parties—after the Pulwama attack was aimed quite explicitly at calming tensions. This may have further convinced India that Pakistan would not retaliate to an Indian strike, a precedent established during the 2016 crisis. The support of third parties, which India had reason to perceive as stronger than following the Uri crisis, would have further enabled India’s intent to act. After Pulwama, several capitals issued categorical statements supporting India, including hinting at their understanding for India’s desire to retaliate. The United States took the clearest stance it had to date, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeting that the United States “stand[s] with India as it confronts terrorism.”6 National Security Advisor John Bolton reportedly amplified U.S. support for “India’s right to self-defense against cross-border terrorism” during a conversation with his Indian counterpart.7 India could have reasonably perceived this as tacit U.S. support for Indian military action. Indeed, this seems to have been the U.S. intent: to accept India’s need to let off steam and press Pakistan to hold back in response.

Indian security forces guard the Indian-Pakistani border after a February 26 Indian air strike against a militant site in Pakistan. The air strike represented an escalation of Indian actions compared to previous crises. (Photo: Narinder Nanu/AFP/Getty Images)India’s choice of striking Pakistan beyond Kashmir, the first time since the 1971 war that led to Pakistan's break up and secession of its eastern half, also seems to have been influenced by the Uri crisis. By blaming Pakistan for the Pulwama attack, Modi de facto was accepting that, contrary to his promises, his post-Uri action did not deter militancy. More had to be done, especially with Indian elections looming, to make Modi’s response sellable at home and send a stern message to Pakistan. The solution: a strike beyond the disputed territory, but limited in scale to ensure that escalation remained controllable. To curry favor domestically, Modi exaggerated the damage of the attack. By all independent accounts, India struck a relatively barren target and the strike caused limited damage,8 perhaps exactly what India had intended. The Indian foreign minister subsequently acknowledged that no Pakistani citizens were killed in the strike.9

Third-party failure to curb Pakistan’s response was not for want of trying. U.S. interlocutors spoke to the Pakistani leadership to encourage restraint and to signal, much like after Uri, their confidence that India was not interested in escalating further. Pompeo spoke to Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi “to underscore the priority of de-escalating current tensions by avoiding military action.”10

The United States, however, seems to have underestimated how strongly the ghost of Uri was haunting Pakistan. Islamabad perceived danger in reinforcing a precedent set following Pakistan’s restraint during the Uri situation. It risked convincing India that it could use military force in such situations without fear of retaliation.

U.S. public support for India throughout the crisis also crystallized Pakistan’s perennial fears about U.S.-Indian collusion to undermine Pakistani interests. Moreover, although U.S. interlocutors were in regular touch with their Pakistani counterparts throughout the crisis, senior-level communication took a pause in the run-up to the Indian strike. Pakistan had requested a call between Pompeo and Qureshi, but a bureaucratic delay from Washington led some in Pakistan to wonder if it was a deliberate attempt to allow India time to act. When communication was restored after the Indian attack, the U.S. emphasis was naturally on persuading Pakistan to absorb the strike, thereby reinforcing the perception of a biased U.S. role. In these circumstances, Pakistani decision-makers did not trust U.S. assurances about India’s intent to de-escalate.

The Modi government found itself in a domestic political predicament when Pakistani forces shot down an Indian jet and captured its pilot. The Indian government’s triumphant rhetoric after the Indian strike transformed into serious political pressure as the Indian opposition demanded that the government negotiate the pilot’s return and explain the fiasco. This was precisely the nightmare scenario Indian leaders had hoped to avoid. For India to come out on top in the crisis, it needed Pakistan to absorb the strike. Pakistan’s commensurate response to India’s air operations undermined India’s goal of winning military conflicts despite Pakistan’s nuclear capability. Since quitting after a “one-shot” confrontation was tantamount to losing the crisis, India logically would have looked toward escalation. This may well have been the reason for threatening conventional missile attacks against Pakistan.

The Pulwama crisis was notably devoid of any nuclear signaling from either side. Apart from one meeting of the Pakistani National Command Authority, the agency responsible for nuclear decision-making, neither side engaged in nuclear brinkmanship. This is in line with the trend in South Asian crisis behavior: provocative nuclear signaling has progressively decreased with each passing crisis since 1998. Both sides are confident that existential deterrence holds. The urge to focus the world’s and the adversary’s attention on their respective deterrent capabilities, logical in the early years after the nuclear tests when the operationalization of the arsenals was still under question, has therefore declined.

Still, driven by its ever-present concerns over uncontrolled escalation in any nuclear environment and fearing further escalation, the United States quickly reverted to its traditional unequivocal prioritization of immediate de-escalation over alliance preferences after the Pakistani air strikes and the downing of the Indian plane. The tone and tenor of third-party messaging changed appreciably. There was renewed insistence on restraint and crisis termination, with Pompeo insisting that India and Pakistan “avoid escalation at any cost” and other third parties aligning their messaging in equally unequivocal terms.11 Within one day of the Indian pilot’s capture, the United States persuaded Pakistan to announce his release, thereby deflating some of the domestic pressure on Modi. The next day, the United States tabled a resolution in the UN Security Council to list JeM leader Masood Azhar as a terrorist—his listing being a long-standing Indian demand.12 Washington also compelled Islamabad to crack down on JeM and to acknowledge these actions publicly. Although past Pakistani crackdowns on such terrorist groups have not espoused confidence in their sustainability, they were nonetheless useful in offering Modi a potent face-saver. On February 28, the day Pakistan announced the release of the Indian pilot, U.S. President Donald Trump, largely silent on the crisis to this point, confidently stated that he had some “reasonably decent” news from India and Pakistan.13

The Next Indian-Pakistani Crisis

The Uri crisis had left South Asian crisis management in a decidedly more challenging place. The implications of Pulwama are not nearly as clear. This crisis revealed the dangers of third-party ambivalence, even if momentary, in terms of prioritizing de-escalation over alliance preferences. India’s decision to act militarily beyond Kashmir would have been far more difficult if the United States had insisted on restraint. The crisis also highlighted the ease with which intentions and actions of actors can be miscalculated. India and the United States appear to have assumed that Pakistan would recognize the symbolic intent of the Indian strike and absorb it as it did following Uri. Similarly, Pakistan read too much into U.S. support for India; there was no U.S. intention of encouraging India to go beyond letting off steam.

This crisis experience could potentially lead the United States to revert back to unequivocal prioritization of de-escalation and a resolve to prevent any military action from either side. Doing so would make crisis escalation less likely. Furthermore, New Delhi could internalize Islamabad’s successful retaliation at Pulwama and India’s inability to counteract as confirmation of the absence of space for limited war under the nuclear umbrella, which India has been seeking all along.

Yet, this view ignores the growing global support for India. With each passing crisis, the United States and India have come closer on the issue of counterterrorism. The default position in both capitals is to seek ways of raising Pakistan’s costs for what they see as its continued use of terrorism as an instrument of state policy. The Indian public sentiment also tends to bay for blood in crisis moments, forcing Indian leaders to feel compelled to up the ante. Modi has made matters worse in the wake of the Pulwama crisis by using nuclear threats against Pakistan to rile up nationalistic sentiments for political gain in India’s ongoing national elections.14 These factors once again may encourage Indian decision-makers to flex their muscles in crises, and the United States may continue to support this urge. Crisis escalation is therefore a realistic possibility; depending on what type and scale of force is applied, it could end up creating even greater risks of war than experienced during Pulwama.

The Way Forward

Although Indian and Pakistani officials appear to have easily avoided nuclear escalation during the Pulwama crisis, there will always be risks of unintended outcomes between nuclear-armed rivals. These risks can and must be mitigated, most notably by encouraging bilateral escalation control between India and Pakistan. As important as third parties have been to preventing major escalation, the presence of a multitude of actors inevitably complicates crisis communication. At the very least, India and Pakistan should use their direct communication channels dependably and constructively during crises. Fresh confidence-building measures and agreements aimed at instituting crisis risk-reduction measures, including in the nuclear realm, should also be urgently considered.

Still, even the best form of crisis management cannot offer a sustainable solution. This can only come from efforts at crisis prevention. Crisis management therefore must be complemented with proactive attempts at addressing deeper causes of crises, with the aim of eliminating them.

The principal enabling factors of conflict between India and Pakistan are terrorism and outstanding bilateral disputes. A policy approach that combines the two offers the best chance of success. Pakistan must employ all resources at its disposal to eliminate the ability of any terrorists to operate from its soil. India and Pakistan should also sincerely pursue and accelerate the conclusion of pending prosecution against their citizens known to be involved in terrorism on the other’s soil in the past. Moreover, both sides should set up a discrete channel to share any intelligence that could prove helpful in thwarting terrorist plots.

Simultaneously, greater attention is needed to address the Kashmir issue that still underpins much of the motivation for violence in Indian Kashmir. India’s heavy-handed measures to quash ever-growing dissent among Kashmiri Muslims have caused extreme anger and disenfranchisement among Kashmiri youth. The Pulwama attacker was radicalized after being beaten by Indian security forces in 2016. If the status quo holds, more Kashmiri youth will inevitably be attracted to violence, and regional and global terrorist organizations will seek to exploit them. India must adopt a more humane approach in Kashmir to pacify the situation.

Meanwhile, there is a need for India and Pakistan to engage in a quiet dialogue on Kashmir. This may seem far-fetched at the moment, but the last serious back-channel negotiations on the issue were initiated in similarly tense circumstances in the wake of the 2001–2002 military standoff. These brought the two sides close to an agreement before their bilateral peace process stalled in the wake of the Mumbai attacks in 2008. The world must encourage India and Pakistan to return to a similar dialogue. Otherwise, South Asia is sure to find itself in yet another crisis sooner or later.



1. Jonathan Marcus, “Analysis: The World’s Most Dangerous Place,” BBC News, March 23, 2000.

2. Indian Ministry of External Affairs, “Statement by Foreign Secretary on 26 February 2019 on the Strike on JeM Training Camp at Balakot,” February 26, 2019, https://www.mea.gov.in/media-briefings.htm?dtl/31090/Statement+by+Foreign+Secretary+on+26+February+2019+on+the+Strike+on+JeM+training+camp+at+Balakot.

3. Sanjeev Miglani and Drazen Jorgic, "India, Pakistan Threatened to Unleash Missiles at Each Other: Sources," Reuters, March 17, 2019.

4. For an analysis of Indian-Pakistani crisis behavior and third-party mediation in crisis moments, see Moeed W. Yusuf, Brokering Peace in Nuclear Environments: U.S. Crisis Management in South Asia (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2018).

5. Ibid., p. 175.

6. Aziz Haniffa, “U.S. Gives Green Light for India to Launch Strikes Against Terrorist Havens in Pakistan,” India Abroad, February 17, 2019.

7. Shamila N. Chaudhary, "Better Late Than Never: U.S. Comes to Its Senses on India-Pakistan Conflict,” The Hill, March 2, 2019.

8. Simon Scarr, Chris Inton, and Han Huang, “An Air Strike and Its Aftermath,” Reuters, March 6, 2019.

9. “No Pakistan Soldier or Citizen Died in Balakot Air Strike: Sushma Swaraj,” Times of India, April 18, 2019.

10. Mike Pompeo, “Concern Regarding India-Pakistan Tensions,” press release, February 26, 2019, https://www.state.gov/secretary/remarks/2019/02/289733.htm.

11. “From US to UK, Major World Powers Urge India, Pakistan to Avoid Further Military Action,” Indian Express, February 27, 2019.

12. "US Calls Upon Pakistan to Let Masood Azhar Be Placed on UN Terror List,” Dawn, February 19, 2019.

13. “Trump Says Hopefully India, Pakistan Conflict Coming to an End,” Reuters, February 28, 2019.

14. “PM Narendra Modi Says He Called Pak’s Nuclear Bluff Because India Has Nuclear Bombs,” The Economic Times, April 17, 2019.


Moeed W. Yusuf is associate vice president of the Asia Center at the U.S. Institute of Peace. He is the author of Brokering Peace in Nuclear Environments: U.S. Crisis Management in South Asia (2018). The author wishes to thank Emily Ashbridge and Talha Ali Madni for their research and editorial support.

India and Pakistan worked to maintain nuclear calm when a conflict threatened to escalate. 

Lessons Learned From Denuclearizing States

May 2019
By Paul Kerr

Finding ways to roll back nuclear weapon programs, particularly in countries such as North Korea, has vexed U.S. and world leaders for years, but there have been several cases in which states completely ended their nuclear weapons programs.

A guard keeps watch over Libyan uranium-enrichment centrifuges transferred to the United States in 2004. The end of Libya's nuclear weapons program was verified by the International Atomic Energy Agency. (Photo: U.S. Energy Department)For example, South Africa destroyed its nuclear weapons. Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine possessed nuclear weapons and transferred the warheads to Russia, a nuclear-armed state. Iraq and Libya ended nuclear weapons development programs. Other governments, including those of South Korea and Taiwan, abandoned the pursuit of nuclear weapons in response to U.S. pressure.

A review of these cases, South Africa and Libya in particular, reveals three salient observations that could support the development of robust and applicable tools to address current and future nonproliferation problems. First, voluntary state actions have effectively produced confidence in the peaceful nature of their nuclear programs. Second, existing institutions have been indispensable for managing solutions to proliferation cases. Third, no extraordinary restrictions on peaceful nuclear technology have been needed to provide the confidence-building transparency that reduces concerns about nuclear programs.

In the Beginning, the NPT

Early nonproliferation efforts focused on the 1968 nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), which permits its non-nuclear-weapon states-parties to possess civilian nuclear programs under certain constraints. Boasting 191 parties today, the treaty provides for non-nuclear-weapon states’ right to “develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes” while forgoing the acquisition or development of nuclear weapons.

The treaty represented a watershed moment for the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), with which all non-nuclear-weapon treaty states must conclude a comprehensive safeguards agreement. Such agreements empower the agency to monitor nuclear activities to ensure that nuclear materials, particularly uranium and plutonium, in peaceful nuclear activities are not diverted to nuclear weapons programs. Prior to the NPT’s 1970 entry into force, the agency applied safeguards to specific nuclear facilities, but the treaty-required comprehensive safeguards agreements enable the IAEA to assess all nuclear material in a country, as well as nuclear facilities and associated design information.

The IAEA safeguards system has evolved since receiving this larger role. For example, the agency discovered major shortcomings in the system after learning that Iraq had pursued a significant nuclear weapons program prior to the 1991 Persian Gulf War while in compliance with its IAEA comprehensive safeguards agreement. The agency subsequently implemented Programme 93+2 to improve its ability to detect undeclared nuclear facilities and activities. This exercise produced several significant outcomes for safeguards implementation that are particularly germane to other denuclearization cases.

Perhaps the most important of these outcomes is the Model Additional Protocol, approved by the IAEA Board of Governors in 1997, which complements the NPT-required comprehensive safeguards agreements.1 Such protocols, which are adopted voluntarily, augment IAEA authority to inspect certain nuclear-related facilities and require states to provide the agency with additional information about their nuclear programs.

In addition, the IAEA board decided in 1992 that states with comprehensive safeguards agreements are obligated to provide the agency with design information for new nuclear facilities “at the time of the decision to construct, or to authorize the construction” of such facilities.2 The IAEA had previously required states to provide this information at least 180 days “before the introduction of nuclear material into the facility.”3 Lastly, beginning in 1999, the IAEA started to draw for some states the “broader conclusion” that all of a state’s nuclear material “remains in peaceful activities.”4

The Two Most Relevant Cases

South Africa

During the late 1970s and the 1980s, South Africa built several nuclear explosive devices that used weapons-grade highly enriched uranium (HEU). The government ended its nuclear weapons program in 1989 and completed dismantling the weapons by September 1991. After acceding to the NPT in July 1991, South Africa concluded a comprehensive IAEA safeguards agreement two months later.5 The country previously had no legal obligation to eliminate its nuclear weapons program or place all of its nuclear facilities under IAEA safeguards.6 An IAEA General Conference resolution in September 1991 requested IAEA Director-General Hans Blix to “verify the completeness of the inventory of South Africa's nuclear installations and material.”7 After investigating the country’s program, the IAEA reported in 1993 that South Africa’s declared uranium-enrichment production was consistent with the agency’s findings. The IAEA “found no indication to suggest that there remain any sensitive components of the nuclear weapons program which have not been either rendered useless or converted to commercial non-nuclear applications or peaceful nuclear usage.”8

Although South Africa “had no obligation to declare…the past purpose” of the nuclear material that it had placed under safeguards,9 the IAEA was obligated to account for all of the nuclear material that the country had produced. Agency inspectors evaluated South Africa’s declarations pursuant to its safeguards agreement and verified that the government had dismantled its weapons program. During the investigation, agency officials inspected facilities that produced nuclear material, such as enrichment facilities, and received access to the country’s nuclear weapons facilities, such as those devoted to building, storing, and testing nuclear explosive devices. According to the IAEA, South Africa cooperated fully with the investigation by, for example, issuing a “standing invitation” to the agency that provided “access to any location or facility associated with” the weapons program.10 IAEA officials later described South African government officials’ “active co-operation...in arranging for access to all facilities that the [IAEA inspection] team requested to visit.”11

Today, the IAEA implements safeguards in South Africa just as it does in other NPT non-nuclear-weapon states with comparable nuclear programs. The government concluded an additional protocol to its comprehensive safeguards agreement in 2002, and the IAEA later drew the broader conclusion regarding South Africa’s nuclear material. The country is not subject to any restrictions on its nuclear program beyond those contained in the NPT and the government’s safeguards agreement. For example, South Africa, unlike Iran under the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and Iraq, was not required to dismantle, abandon, or limit its uranium-enrichment facilities or related research and development programs. South Africa operates safeguarded nuclear reactors and has discussed resuming its enrichment program.12


Following months of negotiations with the United Kingdom and United States, Libya publicly revealed in December 2003 that it had pursued a clandestine nuclear weapons program. The government had imported nuclear material, design information, components for a uranium-enrichment program, and design information related to nuclear weapons development, but the country never developed nuclear weapons or the ability to produce them. Unlike South Africa, Libya was party to the NPT with a comprehensive safeguards agreement and had concealed its acquisitions from the IAEA.

After its announcement, Tripoli worked with London and Washington to remove documents, equipment, and material associated with its covert nuclear program and asked the IAEA to “confirm, through verification, that all of its nuclear activities would henceforth be under safeguards and used exclusively for peaceful purposes.”13 The IAEA witnessed the removal of items related to Libya’s enrichment program to the United States and conducted an investigation of the government’s undeclared nuclear activities.14 IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei reported in September 2008 that the IAEA considered Libya’s unreported nuclear activities as “no longer outstanding.”15

The IAEA used no additional legal authority to carry out the verification mission in the country; Libya signed an additional protocol in March 2004, but it did not enter into force until 2006. Moreover, ElBaradei reported that Libya had provided the IAEA with “unrestricted and prompt access, beyond that required under its safeguards agreement and additional protocol, to those locations, information and individuals deemed necessary by the agency to fulfill its verification requirements.”16 As with South Africa, Libya has no extraordinary restrictions on its nuclear program, and the IAEA has drawn the broader conclusion with respect to nuclear material in the country.

Other Notable Cases


The IAEA’s experience conducting its UN-mandated inspection and monitoring mission in Iraq is anomalous. Although the UN Security Council, in the aftermath of Iraq’s defeat in the 1991 Gulf War, subjected the government to the most intrusive inspection and monitoring scheme ever devised, the inspectors’ efforts, despite being generally successful, were insufficient to prevent the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of the country.17

IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei (left) and Hans Blix, head of the UN Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission, meet reporters after briefing the UN Security Council in January 2003 on the status of WMD inspections in Iraq. Their information did not dissuade the U.S.-led coalition from invading Iraq soon after.  (Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)Following the 1991 war, the council adopted a series of resolutions requiring Baghdad to eliminate its nuclear weapons program and implement other steps to prevent the program’s reconstitution. These mandates supplemented Iraq’s NPT and safeguards agreement obligations. To verify Iraq’s compliance with these requirements, the resolutions augmented IAEA authority with powers that considerably exceeded those that the agency possessed under Iraq’s safeguards agreement.18 For example, although comprehensive safeguards agreements only require governments to declare nuclear material and associated facilities and design information, Resolution 687, which the Security Council adopted in April 1991, required Iraq to submit a much more expansive declaration to the UN secretary-general and the IAEA director-general. The resolution also required Baghdad to destroy certain components of its nuclear weapons program and allow the IAEA to remove specified nuclear materials from the country.19 In addition, Resolution 715 gave IAEA inspectors extraordinary authorities, such as the right to conduct unannounced short-notice inspections “at any time and without hindrance, of any site, facility, area, location, activity, material or other item in Iraq” and the right to “stop and inspect vehicles, ships, aircraft or any other means of transportation” within the country. Other resolutions also imposed extraordinary restrictions on Iraq’s nuclear program. For example, Resolution 707 required Baghdad to “[h]alt all nuclear activities of any kind, except for use of isotopes for medical, agricultural or industrial purposes,” until the council determined that Iraq had fully complied with Resolution 687’s requirements, as well as its IAEA safeguards obligations.

Despite Iraq’s initial efforts to conceal its nuclear weapons program from inspectors, the IAEA successfully completed most of its tasks with respect to destroying, removing, and “rendering harmless” the program’s elements by the end of 1992.20 Although the agency withdrew its inspectors in December 1998 following a considerable period of decreased Iraqi cooperation, the IAEA had been “able to draw a coherent picture of Iraq’s past nuclear weapons program, and to dismantle what was known of that program.”21 This success, however, did not resolve concerns that Iraq was still pursuing nuclear and prohibited weapons. The opacity exacerbated by the inspectors’ 1998 withdrawal increased existing suspicion caused by Iraq’s initial laggard compliance with the inspectors. Inspectors returned to Iraq shortly after the Security Council adopted Resolution 1441 in November 2002 and found no evidence of a revived Iraqi nuclear weapons program. Nevertheless, the United States led an invasion of the country in March 2003 shortly after the inspectors left the country.22 In 2010, Resolution 1957 repealed Resolution 687’s requirements, and Iraq is currently subject only to its comprehensive safeguards agreement and the additional protocol to that agreement. The IAEA has drawn the broader conclusion with respect to nuclear material in the country.

Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine

The 1991 dissolution of the Soviet Union, an NPT-recognized nuclear-weapon state, created a different situation. Three Soviet successor nations (Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine) found themselves with strategic nuclear weapons on their territory. After extended discussions with Russia and the United States, the three agreed to adhere to the NPT as non-nuclear-weapon states within “the shortest possible time.” Belarus acceded to the treaty in 1993; the other two followed suit in 1994. Although the three countries eventually concluded comprehensive safeguards agreements with the IAEA (Belarus and Kazakhstan in 1995, Ukraine in 1998), the agency was not involved in verifying the weapons’ destruction. Instead, the three countries transferred the weapons’ warheads to Russia, where they were subject to U.S.-Russian strategic arms control treaty inspections, and the countries received U.S. bilateral assistance for destroying the delivery vehicles.23

Iran and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action

The JCPOA was designed to resolve the international community’s suspicions that Iran, a non-nuclear-weapon state with comprehensive IAEA safeguards, was pursuing a nuclear weapons program. These suspicions were well grounded by a number of factors, particularly the exposure of Tehran’s past nuclear weapons program and its noncompliance with its safeguards agreement. The JCPOA was not necessary to dismantle a nuclear weapons program because Iran never developed such weapons, and the U.S. intelligence community assesses that Iran halted that program, to which Tehran has never admitted, in December 2003.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad tours the Natanz uranium-enrichment facility in 2008. The 2015 multilateral nuclear agreement has capped Iran's enrichment program. (Photo: Office of the Presidency of the Islamic Republic of Iran via Getty Images)The JCPOA not only reaffirmed Iran’s NPT and safeguards obligations, but also incorporated other important elements of the IAEA safeguards system in order to prevent Iranian reconstitution of its weapons program. For example, the agreement requires Iran to implement its additional protocol even though Iran has not yet ratified it—states normally conclude such protocols voluntarily—and to resume providing the IAEA with design notification of new nuclear facilities in accordance with the 1992 IAEA Board of Governors changes; Tehran had stopped providing this information in 2007.24 The JCPOA also states that the IAEA will pursue drawing the broader conclusion that all nuclear material in Iran is being used exclusively for peaceful purposes, a process that will likely entail investigating any unresolved questions about past Iranian nuclear activities.25

The agreement imposed a number of temporary monitoring and inspection requirements, as well as physical constraints, on Iran’s civil nuclear program, none of which are required by comprehensive safeguards agreements or additional protocols.26 Moreover, the JCPOA prohibits Iran indefinitely from engaging in a number of dual-use activities that could contribute to developing nuclear weapons.

The UN Security Council played a role with Iran during the years preceding the JCPOA and in the agreement itself. The council adopted a series of resolutions between 2006 and 2010 that imposed a number of requirements on Iran, most of which Tehran ignored. For example, these resolutions included a requirement that Iran suspend most of its nuclear programs and conclude an additional protocol. The council adopted a resolution in July 2015 that mandated Iranian compliance with the JCPOA and terminated the previous resolutions’ requirements.

How the Cases Apply

The South African and Libyan examples are most applicable to future nonproliferation problems for at least two reasons. First, those two governments’ NPT status most closely resembles that of most countries. Except for the NPT-recognized nuclear-weapon states (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) and the treaty’s nonsignatories possessing nuclear weapons (India, Israel, and Pakistan), most states are NPT non-nuclear-weapon states.27 The cases of Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine have limited applicability because those countries had the unique status of new states that inherited weapons from a nuclear-weapon state. Second, the Iraq case similarly has limited relevance because the Security Council imposed the extraordinary inspection, disarmament, and other conditions under circumstances that policymakers cannot easily replicate.

Governments grappling with future nonproliferation problems will obviously decide the type and degree of assurances that they will demand, in accordance with the situation’s unique circumstances. Experience reveals, however, that institutions are of vital importance for managing proliferation problems and that coercive solutions to those problems have serious limitations. This may seem obvious, but governments and outside observers have often ignored these notions. Indeed, a greater appreciation for UN inspectors’ work in Iraq would have obviated the need for the use of military force to eliminate concern with respect to a suspected Iraqi nuclear weapons program.

In general, the international community accepts the IAEA safeguards system’s mandatory and voluntary elements as adequate assurance that NPT non-nuclear-weapon states are not pursuing nuclear weapons. South Africa’s and Libya’s nuclear programs are currently subject only to the obligations of their IAEA safeguards agreements and their status as NPT non-nuclear-weapon states. For Iran, the permanent restrictions on that country’s nuclear program exist pursuant to Tehran’s safeguards agreement and the NPT or UN Security Council Resolution 2231, which makes the JCPOA binding on Iran.28 The widespread international support for these arrangements indicates that they are sufficient to provide most of the international community with confidence that these countries are not reconstituting their weapons programs. The IAEA and related institutions’ continued robustness is necessary for this confidence to continue and in order to remain a foundation on which policymakers can depend for any future nonproliferation arrangements.

The Security Council has clearly played an important role in nonproliferation cases. Perhaps the most important recent example is Resolution 2231. Such resolutions will remain a future option for policymakers, but those tools have accomplished only mixed results in the past. As noted, Iran ignored many Security Council resolution requirements before concluding the JCPOA. Furthermore, India, North Korea, and Pakistan are expanding their nuclear arsenals despite Security Council resolutions calling for cessation of this activity.29 Notably, Security Council resolutions did not play a significant role in the South African and Libyan cases.

Lastly, it is useful to consider the utility of extraordinary restrictions on countries’ nuclear programs, especially given the uncertain future of the JCPOA and the possibility, however remote, of any nuclear agreement with North Korea. In recent years, many observers have advocated prohibiting or discouraging countries from possessing uranium-enrichment or spent nuclear fuel reprocessing facilities, both of which can produce fissile material for nuclear weapons. Such U.S.-led efforts, however, have historically failed. For example, the United States proposed a Nuclear Suppliers Group ban on the transfer of enrichment and reprocessing technology to countries that did not already possess it, but failed to persuade the group to support the measure. Moreover, U.S.-led diplomatic efforts to prevent Iran from operating an enrichment program failed for years until the JCPOA was agreed. The international community appears willing to allow such facilities as long as they are well monitored by the IAEA. Future policies will need to account for this reality.

Past cases of denuclearization show the limits of coercive approaches to nonproliferation and of extraordinary restrictions on peaceful nuclear technology. These factors circumscribe policymaker options, but history also demonstrates that such measures have been unnecessary for providing transparency and confidence in suspect nuclear programs. The necessary institutions have shown they are capable of inspecting and monitoring NPT states’ nuclear programs, but their continued viability depends on sustained international support.



1. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), “Model Protocol Additional to the Agreement(s) Between State(s) and the International Atomic Energy Agency for the Application of Safeguards,” INFCIRC/540 (Corrected), September 1997.

2. IAEA Board of Governors, “Submission of Design Information: The Provision and Use of Design Information,” GOV/2554/Att.2/Rev. 2 (1992).

3. IAEA Board of Governors, “Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement in the Islamic Republic of Iran: Report by the Director General,” GOV/2003/40, June 6, 2003.

4. IAEA Board of Governors, “Supplementary Document to the Report on the Conceptualization and Development of Safeguards Implementation at the State Level (GOV/2013/38): Report by the Director General,” GOV/2014/41, August 13, 2014.

5. Prior to its nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) accession, South Africa had some individual nuclear facilities under IAEA safeguards.

6. Resolutions adopted by the IAEA General Conference and the UN General Assembly in 1986 demanded that South Africa place all of its nuclear facilities under IAEA safeguards, but these resolutions were not legally binding on the government.

7. IAEA, “South Africa's Nuclear Capabilities,” GC(XXXV)/RES/567, September 1991.

8. IAEA, “The Agency's Verification Activities in South Africa: Report by the Director General,” GOV/2684, September 8, 1993.

9. Adolf von Baeckmann, Gary Dillon, and Demetrius Perricos, “Nuclear Verification in South Africa,” IAEA Bulletin, Vol. 37, No. 1 (1995).

10. IAEA, “Agency's Verification Activities in South Africa.”

11. Von Baeckmann, Dillon, and Perricos.

12. Sarah Wild, “SA Needs Skilled Nuclear Scientists,” Mail & Guardian, October 18, 2013; Wendell Roelf, “S. Africa Considers Nuclear Fuel Cycle Facilities,” Reuters, April 2, 2012. South Africa has pursued several uranium-enrichment technologies.

13. IAEA Board of Governors, “Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement in the Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya: Report by the Director General,” GOV/2008/39, September 12, 2008.

14. For details, see IAEA Board of Governors, “Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement in the Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya: Report by the Director General,” GOV/2004/59, August 30, 2004; IAEA, “Removal of High-Enriched Uranium in Libyan Arab Jamahiriya,” March 8, 2004, https://www.iaea.org/newscenter/news/removal-high-enriched-uranium-libyan-arab-jamahiriya (updated July 27, 2017).

15. IAEA Board of Governors, “Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement in the Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya.”

16. Mohamed ElBaradei, The Age of Deception: Nuclear Diplomacy in Treacherous Times (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2011), p. 153.

17. For a longer discussion, see Paul Kerr, “Iraq: Disarmament Without Resolution,” Arms Control Today, January 2013.

18. Following the adoption of UN Security Council Resolution 687, the UN secretary-general formed the UN Special Commission (UNSCOM) to verify Iraq’s compliance with the resolution. IAEA Director-General Hans Blix established an action team to conduct the agency’s portion of those tasks. UNSCOM verified Iraq’s compliance with Resolution 687’s requirements relating to chemical and biological weapons and delivery vehicles.

19. Resolution 687 required Iraq to declare “the locations, amounts, and types” of any “nuclear weapons or nuclear-weapons-usable material or any subsystems or components or any [related] research, development, support or manufacturing facilities” and required the government to “place all of its nuclear-weapons-usable materials under the exclusive control, for custody and removal” of the IAEA and to “accept urgent on-site inspection and the destruction, removal or rendering harmless” of items relating to Baghdad’s nuclear weapons program.

20. UN Security Council, “Note by the Secretary-General,” S/1997/779, October 8, 1997.

21. IAEA, “Work Programme of IAEA in Iraq Pursuant to Security Council Resolution 1284 (1999),” March 19, 2003, https://www.iaea.org/newscenter/focus/iraq/wp_res1284.

22. Although concern about Iraq’s suspected weapons of mass destruction programs was not the only or even primary justification for the invasion, the United States and United Kingdom used such concern to secure public support for the invasion.

23. U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, “Annual Report to Congress 1996.”

24. Iran has complied with both of these requirements.

25. An extensive IAEA investigation revealed what a 2015 report from agency Director-General Yukiya Amano described as “a range of [Iranian] activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device.” IAEA Board of Governors, “Final Assessment on Past and Present Outstanding Issues Regarding Iran’s Nuclear Programme: Report by the Director General,” GOV/2015/68, December 2, 2015.

26. For details, see Paul Kerr, “The JCPOA and Safeguards: Model or Outlier?” The Nonproliferation Review, Vol. 24, Nos. 3/4 (2017).

27. North Korea announced its withdrawal from the NPT in 2003, but that decision has not been formally recognized by treaty’s other states-parties.

28. For example, the dual-use activities described are prohibited indefinitely.

29. The UN Security Council resolution concerning India and Pakistan, Resolution 1172, is nonbinding.


Paul Kerr has been an analyst on nonproliferation issues with the Congressional Research Service since 2007.

As the United States seeks denuclearization in North Korea, earlier cases may offer some lessons.

Rethinking Australia’s Middle-Power Nuclear Paradox

May 2019
By Aiden Warren

Australia has often championed itself as a good global citizen and middle power committed to the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons. For years, its top leaders have consistently advocated for irreversible reductions to nuclear arsenals of all nuclear-armed states. They have also regularly emphasized Australia’s commitment to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) as the cornerstone of global peace and security and to pursuing practical, realistic measures for nuclear disarmament.

Former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd visits the Atomic Bomb Dome in Hiroshima in 2008. Two years later, Australia and Japan led the creation of the Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Initiative. (Photo: Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP/Getty Images)Nevertheless, Canberra has undermined these worthy positions with a veiled, paradoxical approach in which its leaders do not challenge the purposes and value of nuclear weapons, question the legality and legitimacy of such weapons, or even the logic and practice of nuclear deterrence. The nation leaves consideration of such issues entirely in the hands of the possessor states, compliantly accepting that they can safely manage nuclear risks through what they deem appropriate adjustments to warhead numbers, nuclear doctrines, and force postures.

Australia has seemingly become a laggard, a hedging player, and in real terms a middle power where nuclear disarmament appears to be of lower priority than bolstering and indefinitely sustaining the legitimacy and credibility of nuclear weapons.

To change course, Australia could strengthen its standing by undertaking bolder collaborative efforts with like-minded states through the Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Initiative (NPDI), which aims to promote nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament. Further, if Australia really wants back up its nuclear high-road positions, then it needs to sign and ratify the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW).

A Cautious Start

From the early 1950s to the early 1970s, various groups within the Australian government considered the prospect of attaining nuclear weapons. During the earlier part of the 1960s, such considerations included the possibility of acquiring ready-made weapons from the United Kingdom. It is unclear how seriously varying factions pursued such options, but the idea of acquiring nuclear weapons was ultimately quashed in 1973 when Prime Minister Gough Whitlam’s government ratified the NPT, three years after a previous government had reluctantly signed the pact despite intending to keep a nuclear weapons option.1 In subsequent decades, Australia settled into its cozy position under the U.S. nuclear umbrella and focused its defense strategy on improving its conventional capabilities at home. As such, Australia’s nuclear strategy has remained comfortably static over the last 50 years, endorsing and providing some constructive contributions for disarmament, yet remaining closely nestled to the United States and its nuclear arsenal.2 Over this time, the Australian government has maintained the belief that the collective commitment to the NPT has mostly worked well to prevent a global nuclear arms race, contain the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and enable the peaceful uses of nuclear energy and technology. Australian foreign policymakers have also been quick to highlight Australia’s role in strengthening norms against using nuclear weapons and for nuclear nonproliferation.

More specifically, Australian governments have emphasized their engagement with like-minded states that endorse and support a practical “building blocks” approach to disarmament, steps that include promoting the entry into force of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), discussions on a fissile material cutoff treaty (FMCT), and efforts to strengthen nuclear disarmament verification, transparency, and confidence building. Such rhetoric has been welcomed by the disarmament community, but the approach has often been cautious, where the message has been about “sustained, practical and incremental steps” but reliant on the actions of “all states with nuclear weapons.”3

Australia’s position has been earnest and constructive, but has lacked the imagination and necessary rigor to make a difference commensurate with its middle-power status.

Australian Strengths

Australia has played a serviceable role in promoting the three pillars of the NPT: working toward disarmament, nonproliferation, and spreading the benefits of peaceful uses of nuclear technologies. It contributed to launching the 12-nation NPDI that discusses disarmament and nonproliferation issues and plays a prominent role in defining peaceful-use issues through its role within the Vienna Group of 10. Additionally, it has supported international efforts to slow or mitigate the proliferation of nuclear weapons, through its participation in the Nuclear Suppliers Group and Zangger Committee export control regimes and its role as a member of the International Atomic Energy Agency Board of Governors.4

The United Kingdom conducted its first atomic weapon test in Western Australia's Monte Bello Islands in 1952. Decades later, Australia was a leading nation promoting the entry into force of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. (Photo: Fox Photos/Getty Images)Other contributions are evident when looking at Australia’s role in supporting the CTBT by co-chairing with Japan the “Friends of the CTBT” foreign ministers’ meeting, which includes Canada, Germany, Finland, and the Netherlands, as well as being a lead sponsor of the annual UN General Assembly resolution on the CTBT. Canberra has demonstrated a concrete commitment to the CTBT by installing 21 of the treaty’s 300 monitoring facilities around the globe, the third-largest number of any state. Also, it has played a role in developing on-site inspection measures that could be used to assess possible nuclear tests.5

Additional constructive contributions encompassed in Australia’s approach to nuclear disarmament are evident in its advocacy of an FMCT. Canberra has participated in the High-Level FMCT Expert Preparatory Group that builds on a 2015 UN experts group report and considers the applicable factors should an FMCT be realized someday. Similarly, Australia has joined an informal 25-state grouping called the International Partnership for Nuclear Disarmament Verification, working to devise technical solutions for monitoring and verification across the nuclear weapons cycle.

Further positive Australian efforts are apparent in its support of nuclear-weapon-free zones. Australia joined the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone Treaty, also known as the Treaty of Rarotonga, which entered into force in 1986. Australia meets its commitments under the treaty through the South Pacific Nuclear-Free Zone Treaty Act 1986, which forbids the manufacture, production, or procurement of nuclear explosive devices; prohibits the possession of or control over such devices; prohibits research and development pertaining to their production; prohibits the positioning of nuclear explosive devices in Australia; and prohibits the testing of nuclear explosive devices.6 Some have questioned Canberra’s commitment to the zone or whether its related policies conflicted with other nations in the region.7

Improving Australia’s Contribution

Despite Australia’s seemingly robust history and record of constructively supporting nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation mechanisms, it has almost mastered the role of positioning itself into a comfortable caveat. Canberra rests in the shadow of U.S. security strategy, saying and doing the right things in terms of meeting its NPT obligations, but lacking rigor and policy muscle commensurate with its middle-power status. Simply put, Australia has become a paradoxical player in which it adheres to its U.S. alliance obligations while clinging to the waning vestiges of its position as a good global citizen. In other words, Australia has become a middle-power hedger that needs to pick up its game if it really wants to adhere meaningfully to nonproliferation and disarmament goals. As the 12th largest economy in the world, it needs to play a more active political role in bolstering the NPT and broader regime it portends to support.

An August 2018 newspaper commentary by German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas succinctly described what a middle power such as Australia needs to do, particularly in light of the currently inconsistent approach of U.S. leaders and questions surrounding the Trump administration. “It is not enough just to complain about the destruction of the multilateral order. We have to fight for it,” Maas wrote.8 If U.S. President Donald Trump is “letting go” of the liberal international order as Maas suggests, then Australia and other middle-power states must step up their efforts rather than sinking further back into inaction and complacency.

Although Australian policymakers have recognized the NPT’s important role in preventing uncontrolled proliferation and promoting disarmament and have long upheld the treaty as a core Australian foreign policy goal, Australian diplomacy in these areas needs new energy. In the words of one expert, “Disarmament diplomacy has hit a difficult patch and there’s a strong possibility that its current agenda will fail unless it’s adapted.”9 To shift out of its foreign policy inertia, Australia should consider two options: strengthening its role in the NPDI and signing the TPNW.

Bolstering the NPDI

In July 2010, Australia and Japan jointly established the NPDI “to take forward the consensus outcomes of the 2010 NPT Review Conference and jointly to advance the nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation agendas as mutually reinforcing processes.”10 Today, the NPDI consists of a cross-regional group of 12 countries: Australia, Canada, Chile, Germany, Japan, Mexico, Nigeria, the Netherlands, the Philippines, Poland, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates. The NPDI pursues a range of goals with a broad focus on advancing the nuclear disarmament agenda and greater transparency in the way nuclear-weapon states fulfill their disarmament commitments. More specifically, the NPDI’s priorities consist of encouraging greater transparency surrounding nuclear disarmament efforts, increasing support for and the conclusion of key legal instruments that safeguard and govern nuclear activities, and strengthening the NPT regime.11

At a time when international tensions are rising, proliferation pressures are growing, and momentum for nuclear arms reductions is dissipating, the role the coalition can play is more crucial than ever. To have a more decisive impact, however, the NPDI needs a realistic agenda; and its members, particularly states such as Australia, need to be sincerely committed to the goals they are advocating. Presently, it is debatable as to whether that is the case.

NPDI activities and declarations are perceived by many as lacking genuineness. Such views are based mainly on the configuration of the group. It is diverse in some respects, but it is predominantly comprised of U.S. allies that depend on U.S. extended deterrence (Australia, Canada, and Japan) or NATO nuclear-sharing arrangements (Germany, the Netherlands, Poland, and Turkey). These deterrence provisions clearly put these seven states in an unclear position regarding nonproliferation and disarmament norms, spurring questions about the integrity of their stated goals and their capacity to undertake the NPDI’s bridge-building agenda.12

Notwithstanding these criticisms and the group’s cautious approach, there is an opportunity for Australia to push the NPDI toward a more definitive role in the run-up to the 2020 NPT Review Conference. First, NPDI states should be clearer about how nuclear cooperation and extended nuclear deterrence are positioned in their respective security policies. Second, the partnership needs to refine its mission to consider recent developments and changing strategic realities, concentrating principally on endorsing frank and well-informed debate on nuclear weapons and disarmament dynamics in an atmosphere of rising tensions and growing uncertainties. This would be a significant shift in direction and could potentially upset the three NPDI states that enjoy the more robust non-nuclear credentials (Chile, Mexico, and the UAE). Nevertheless, if a diplomatic plan can be attained to maintain group coherency through this transition, then the NPDI could potentially realize the critical and underappreciated role of illuminating the strategic challenges related to disarmament.

To facilitate this process, as indicated, NPDI members should work at convening their defense and foreign policy officials to discuss disarmament challenges from strategic and political standpoints in the context of their varying deterrence relationships. As part of this initiative, Australia could actively engage and promote a platform in academic and think tank communities to stimulate broader debates about the connection between stability and disarmament, particularly in the current context where an increase in power shifts and cross-domain threats are clearly intensifying global security. This dialogue could focus on developments in and relationships between precision-guided conventional weapons, missile defense, space weaponization, and cyberwarfare, as well as strategic and nonstrategic nuclear weapons.

To support these efforts, Australia could foster forums on these issues on the periphery of the 2020 NPT Review Conference. This exercise may appear to be abstract, but it would bring together practitioners and experts who very often work in distinct silos, enabling them to appreciate the interconnectedness of deterrence, arms control, nonproliferation, and disarmament and the broader spectrum of political and strategic dilemmas. In this regard, Australia should encourage those articulating various degrees of resistance to nuclear disarmament to contemplate the strategic role that the NPT has played in the past, the duress it is under in the contemporary context, and the impact that national security policy decisions are having on the treaty’s future survival.

Here, an Australian-led initiative on this level should proceed with a series of Track 1.5 negotiations, bringing together a wide array of nonproliferation and disarmament practitioners and analysts from the Asia-Pacific region. The meetings could create two substantive recommendations. The first could be presented to the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defense and Trade in late 2019, mapping out a more definitive set of new ideas for Australia’s nonproliferation and disarmament diplomacy, where Australia should look to embolden its role in the region. The second could be presented to the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties, emphasizing a revised set of core issues and proposals for Australia and its NPDI partners to debate at the 2020 NPT Review Conference and in the UN General Assembly First Committee, as well as a series of forward-looking proposals around which the NPDI could advance a new and more assertive agenda beyond 2020.

Indeed, at the 2018 NPT Preparatory Committee meeting, members of the NPDI submitted a working paper that focused on the significance of transparency, transparency in the context of strengthening the NPT review process, enhanced reporting of NPT implementation, and NPDI proposals to enhance transparency by improving reporting.13 For Australia to go to the next level in its middle-power status, it needs to be a leader in driving forthright dialogue in the lead-up to the 2020 NPT Review Conference. Following the national election in May 2019, an opportunity will arise for Australia to lead a new nonproliferation and disarmament dialogue that could help strengthen the NPDI agenda and the NPT. Canberra’s geostrategic position, record of constructive NPT advocacy, and capacity to shift regional security challenges toward opportunities for closer cooperation put it in a unique position to provide the requisite leadership and make a real difference if it chooses to act with greater assertion.

The Prohibition Treaty

Although the NPDI option calls on Australia to play a more emboldened role within the current orthodox framework, there is another, more radical option that would most certainly propel Australia out of its incremental and cautionary approach: Australia should sign and ratify the TPNW.

Former Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, here speaking in May 2018, has said the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons undermines the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty regime (Photo: Nhac Nguyen/AFP/Getty Images)In late 2016, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution containing a decision to convene a UN conference to negotiate a legally binding agreement to prohibit nuclear weapons that would ultimately lead toward their total elimination. Reflecting the views of the conservative Liberal party, the Australian government did not embrace the core premise that merely banning nuclear weapons would lead to their elimination or would alter “the current, real, security concerns of states with nuclear weapons or those states, like Australia, that rely on extended nuclear deterrence as part of their security doctrine.” In this regard, the government argued, “disarmament efforts must engage all the nuclear-armed states and must focus on practical measures that recognize both the humanitarian and security dimensions of this issue.”14

To further illustrate its position, the Australian government did not take part in the ban treaty negotiations because it believed such a move did not offer a practical path to effective disarmament or enhanced security, nor did the negotiation include key states that possess nuclear weapons. Additionally, Australian leaders contended that a ban treaty risked undermining the NPT, which Australia rightly regards as the cornerstone of the global nonproliferation and disarmament architecture. Former Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop explained in 2018,

The argument “to ban the bomb” may be emotionally appealing, but the reality is that disarmament cannot be imposed this way. Just pushing for a ban would divert attention from the sustained, practical steps needed for effective disarmament. The global community needs to engage those countries that have chosen to acquire nuclear weapons and address the security drivers behind their choices. They are the only ones that can take the necessary action to disarm.15

Bishop is wrong. The TPNW evolved principally from the sheer frustration felt by many nations that NPT nuclear-weapon states are shunning their treaty obligation to pursue negotiations in good faith toward total nuclear disarmament. Notwithstanding the large U.S. and Russian reductions that followed the end of the Cold War, it is evident that nuclear-weapon states have not held up their end of the NPT bargain.

Additionally, disarmament proponents have highlighted nuclear-weapon states’ plans to modernize their nuclear arsenals, clearly illustrating that those nations are planning to retain their nuclear arsenals for the long term. For ban treaty proponents, the accumulative effect of such modernization plans, in conjunction with the divisions within the NPT community, illustrate that the NPT has distinct limitations.

From an Australian perspective, despite the NPT’s good faith obligations, there is a legal gap that must be addressed: nuclear weapons, like chemical and biological weapons, need to be banned.16

Bishop’s view is hardly surprising and sits perfectly alongside the pedestrian approach of many Australian policymakers, past and present. Aside from the concerns Bishop raised, there has been a strong chorus of ban treaty critics who have focused their attention on the impact Australia’s signing would have on the U.S.-Australian alliance. According to former Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans, “[T]he difficulty for Australia in terms of signing or ratifying the ban treaty is that, to do so, we would effectively be tearing up our U.S. alliance commitment.”17 Similarly, Shadow Defense Minister Richard Marles contends that the ban treaty “raises the prospect of Australia needing to repudiate our longstanding defense relationship” with the United States and “might undermine” the NPT and the 1951 Australia, New Zealand, United States Security Treaty.18

Such views, however, reveal a fundamental misunderstanding of the ban treaty in Australian foreign policy circles. Australian ban treaty membership could advance its goal of promoting nuclear disarmament without threatening military relations with the United States, just as Australian adherence to treaties on landmines and cluster munitions have not undermined the U.S.-Australian defense relationship. Simply put, the alliance relationship does not bind Australia to include weapons of mass destruction in its defense policies.

Indeed, a military alliance with a nuclear-armed state can be compatible with the TPNW, as long as forbidden activities pertaining to nuclear weapons are excluded. According to a Swiss government assessment, the ban treaty “does not in principle place any legal restrictions on military cooperation with nuclear weapon states or nuclear umbrella states, provided such cooperation is not aimed at developing, modernizing, acquiring or using nuclear weapons.”19 Several U.S. allies are among the TPNW’s strongest supporters and earliest signatories, such as New Zealand, the Philippines, and Thailand, and they demonstrate that support for the ban treaty can work alongside non-nuclear military collaboration with the United States.20

These sentiments came clearly into play at an Australian Labor Party meeting in December 2018, when a key leader, Anthony Albanese, announced that Australia would sign and ratify the TPNW if Labor wins power in elections this May. Albanese also supported a more assertive posture for Australia to promote the ban treaty and nuclear disarmament. “One way in which you secure universality of support, in terms of a step towards that, is by Australia playing a role. And Australia, of course, played no role at the UN processes where this treaty was finalized,” he said.21

Labor would have political support for joining the treaty and increasing Australia’s role in promoting nuclear disarmament. With 78 percent of the federal caucus signed up to support the ban, 83 percent of Labor voters in support, and two dozen unions adding their voice, the Australian Labor Party has a clear mandate, particularly given that recent polls suggest that a federal victory is in the cards.22

Need for Urgent Action

The threat posed by nuclear weapons is real and urgent. More than ever, Australia’s security depends on an effective, rules-based international order and robust multilateral institutions. Australian policymakers have regularly championed the perception that Australia punches above its weight in terms of its contributions to nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation, but they have rarely challenged or questioned the purposes and value of nuclear weapons, the legality and legitimacy of such weapons, or the logic and practice of nuclear deterrence.

Australia has constructively partaken in a plethora of initiatives complimenting the NPT and the broader regime, but particularly in recent times has become an overly cautious, complacent, and in many ways hedging player on the international stage. With tensions between the United States and Russia at a low point, nuclear-weapon states busily modernizing their stockpiles, and divisions within the NPT, new and reinvigorated approaches from middle-power states are needed more than ever. Australia needs to heed the advice of Maas and lift its game by pushing back against actions that threaten future steps on arms control and by advancing policy options that prevent further fracturing of the NPT and promote moves toward disarmament. Moreover, rather than sitting indolently and lamenting what this new era and the U.S. administration may present, Australia needs to shift out of its foreign policy inertia by stepping up its role and actions in the NPDI and boldly signing the TPNW.



1. Jacques Hymans, “Isotopes and Identity, Australia and the Nuclear Weapons Option, 1949-1999,” The Nonproliferation Review, Vol. 7, No. 1 (Spring 2000): 5.

2. Joey Watson, “Does Australia Need a Nuclear Arsenal? And What Would Be the Cost?” ABC News, October 23, 2018, https://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-10-24/should-australia-have-a-nuclear-weapons-program/10407610.

3. Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, “Australia’s Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Policy,” 2018, https://dfat.gov.au/international-relations/security/non-proliferation-disarmament-arms-control/nuclear-issues/Pages/australias-nuclear-non-proliferation-and-disarmament-policy.aspx.

4. Ibid.

5. Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), “Steps Towards a Nuclear-Weapons-Free World,” 2018, https://dfat.gov.au/international-relations/security/non-proliferation-disarmament-arms-control/nuclear-issues/Pages/steps-towards-a-nuclear-weapons-free-world.aspx.

6. Ibid.

7. Tim Wright, “Documents Reveal Australia Is ‘Worried’ About ‘Growing Momentum’ Towards Nuclear Weapon Ban,” International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, September 15, 2015, http://www.icanw.org/campaign-news/foi-documents-reveal-australia-is-worried-about-growing-momentum-towards-nuclear-ban/.

8. Heiko Maas, “Making plans for a new world order,” Handelsblatt Today, August 22, 2018, https://www.handelsblatt.com/today/opinion/heiko-maas-making-plans-for-a-new-world-order/23583082.html.

9. Tanya Ogilvie-White, “Australia and the Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Initiative: Difficult Times for Disarmament Diplomacy,” Australia Strategic Policy Institute Policy Analysis, No. 110 (May 27, 2013), https://s3-ap-southeast-2.amazonaws.com/ad-aspi/import/Policy_Analysis110_NPDI.pdf?Qk8fTm44rrEEhlhyToOGcJeTVoBZGAJL.

10. “Joint Statement by Foreign Ministers: On nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation,” September 22, 2010, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, https://www.mofa.go.jp/announce/fm/npt1009.html.

11. Nuclear Threat Initiative, “Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Initiative (NPDI),” March 31, 2019, https://www.nti.org/learn/treaties-and-regimes/non-proliferation-and-disarmament-initiative-npdi/.

12. Ibid.

13. Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Initiative, 9th Ministerial Meeting, September 21, 2017, https://new-york-un.diplo.de/un-en/news-corner/20170921-npdi-minmtg/923918.

14. DFAT, “Steps Towards a Nuclear-Weapons-Free World.”

15. Ibid.

16. Shanelle Van, “Revisiting the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons,” Lawfare, November 27, 2018, https://www.lawfareblog.com/revisiting-treaty-prohibition-nuclear-weapons.

17. Paul Karp, “Labor Set for Nuclear Showdown as Gareth Evans Warns of Risk to US Alliance,” The Guardian, December 17, 2018.

18. Richard Lennane, “Shadow Ministers’ Move on Nuclear Ban Treaty,” Australian Institute of International Affairs, October 25, 2018, https://www.internationalaffairs.org.au/australianoutlook/shadow-ministers-move-on-nuclear-ban-treaty/.

19. Ibid.

20. Ibid.

21. Anthony Albanese, “Speech to the 48th National Conference of the Australian Labor Party – Moving Support for the Nuclear Weapon Ban Treaty,” December 18, 2018, http://anthonyalbanese.com.au/speech-moving-support-for-the-nuclear-weapon-ban-treaty-tuesday-18-december-2018.

22. Gem Romuld, “Labor Sets the Right Course on Nuclear Disarmament,” The Sydney Morning Herald, December 27, 2018.


Aiden Warren is an associate professor at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) University, focusing on international security. He recently completed a six-month Fulbright scholarship in the United States.

Australia says it champions nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation, but does it do enough?

Ban Nuclear Weapons

May 2019

(Photo: Peter Parks/AFP/Getty Images)I was pleased to see that Paul Meyer's “Creating an Environment for Nuclear Disarmament: Striding Forward or Stepping Back?” (ACT, April 2019) featured a photograph of an activist: me. I have devoted many of my 90 years trying to warn about nuclear dangers. We live in such a precarious world, with some countries having many lethal weapons, getting more, and ignoring the result of destruction to human beings and our world—that is, as long as “I’m all right Jack.” I hold my sign on busy streets and watch the public who usually ignore the message. I think perhaps because I am so old, most people passing by purposefully ignore looking—three words only. Don’t they realize that we are in danger of complete extinction of the human race? Of all the things we hold dear—families, careers—complete annihilation of our continents. I then think of Oppenheimer who cited the Bhagavad Gita following the first test of the atomic bomb, 'Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds'; and before the bombs were dropped in Japan, he asked, “What have we done?” —Marty Morrison, Sydney, Australia

Ban Nuclear Weapons

REMARKS: Gorging at the Nuclear Buffet Table

May 2019
By Sen. Chris Van Hollen

Before I ever thought of running for elected office, I interacted a lot with folks at the Arms Control Association and in the arms control community back in the 1980s. I grew up in a Foreign Service family in many places around the world, but one of the things that I remember most and that had a great impact on me was when I read Jonathan Schell’s New Yorker series, “The Fate of the Earth,” that described what would happen to the planet after a nuclear war. That, among other things, led me to concentrate in graduate school on international security matters, and I went to work on Capitol Hill in the mid-1980s as the legislative assistant for defense policy and arms control to former Maryland Senator Mac Matthias, who was a liberal, moderate Republican of the civil rights era.

Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) argues against unrestrained nuclear weapon spending during his remarks at the Arms Control Association’s annual meeting.  (Photo: Allen Harris/Arms Control Association)Part of my portfolio was NATO, and I worked on the ratification of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty back in the day. Then the Berlin Wall came down. The Cold War ended. It was great news for the world; it was great news for the country. It ushered in a period of relative stability, including on arms control agreements, the most recent one being the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START).

But now, we gather here at another urgent moment. It has been important work all along, but we are in an urgent moment now. Because with the Trump administration, all signs indicate that we’re jettisoning, we’re abandoning what has been a bipartisan tradition of recognizing that we need to modernize our nuclear forces, we need to modernize our triad, we need to make sure its survivable and resilient, but that we should do it within the framework of an arms control architecture that leads to predictability, stability, and transparency. That has been an important formula even as relations between the United States and the Soviet Union, now Russia, have gone up and down. We have still maintained that conversation, we have still maintained that structure, and that structure has helped keep the peace.

Now with this new administration, with [National Security Advisor] John Bolton in the White House, we are in a very different world. He has not found a nuclear arms agreement or, as far as I can tell, any multilateral agreement or international agreement that he likes.

But when it comes to arms control, despite his being a foe, he has never explained how an unconstrained nuclear arms race would actually make us any safer. He can never answer that argument. He just tells us what he doesn’t like, but he doesn’t tell us what is better, that would make us more stable.

That’s where we are right now. The tearing up of the INF Treaty was an early indication of where this administration is going.

I want to be really clear. The Russians violated the agreement, and there is a consensus in NATO that they violated the agreement. We can’t just stand idly by.

But there is a big gulf between standing idly by and being the first to initiate tearing up the agreement. There is a whole area of engaging in the act of diplomacy and enforcement and looking for every other alternative first. That, this administration has not done.

The notion that we should therefore just proceed with developing not just one, but multiple noncompliant INF missiles makes no sense. We already have a robust capability when it comes to responding to anything in the European theater. We already have dual-capable bombers with gravity bombs, we have air-launched cruise missiles, we have a range of weapons that already serve as a deterrent. So, just building more for the sake of building more doesn’t do us any good, and it creates more instabilities.

In addition, I don’t buy the argument that we need to have an intermediate-range missile on Guam with the purpose of holding the Chinese in check. There are lots of things we need to be doing in that region, but I don’t think a missile on Guam does the job. As you know, our other allies, Japan and South Korea, have made it very clear they won’t deploy this kind of missile.

There is really no good argument for rushing to tear up the agreement. Obviously, it has created a lot of anxiety among our European allies. I was at the Munich Conference when Prime Minister Angela Merkel spoke. She was very upset at the way this had all rolled out and with the result. Now, our NATO allies are putting a game face on. You saw the secretary-general here addressing the U.S. Congress, but NATO would have preferred to see a very different outcome.

Of course, what is happening on INF leads to an even more worrisome situation with respect to New START. Because if you get rid of INF and New START, you’re in a world where there are no enforceable, written, agreed-on limits on our nuclear forces. So, that is why a group of us wrote to President Trump urging the administration to get going on a discussion to extend the New START agreement.

Russia has complied with the New START agreement. And as we modernize our nuclear forces, which we need to do to maintain our own deterrent, it is a much better world to do that where we have predictability and stability knowing what the Russian strategic forces are and what limits they’re under. This is in addition to the important transparency and inspection regime that the treaty brings. You get rid of New START, you get rid of INF, you are potentially flying entirely blind unless both sides voluntarily agree to comply, but that is not guaranteed. That is a big, big issue.

The other issue I want to focus on has to do with the overall nuclear posture that this administration is pursuing when it comes to nuclear weapons. I think we all agree that we need to modernize our nuclear forces, but we don’t need to add on every single, conceivable new capability.

It’s like showing up at a buffet and, instead of having a balanced meal, you say, “I will just gorge on every single capability that is out there.” When you only need a balanced meal to do the job, you don’t need to eat everything at the nuclear buffet table, including offensive and defensive weapons.

Unlike a dinner buffet where it’s “all you can eat at a fixed price,” the nuclear buffet table requires you to pay for everything. With the current spending plan, that is right now estimated to be $1.7 trillion over the next 30 years by the Congressional Budget Office. If you add on all the other capabilities this administration apparently wants to add on, you’re talking about an even bigger price tag.

So, in addition to having a big price tag, you’re also talking about building additional capabilities that are not only unnecessary, but can be very destabilizing. That is especially true when it comes to the administration considering two new capabilities with submarine-launched ballistic missiles, putting a low-yield warhead on some, as well as resuscitating the nuclear-armed, sea-launched cruise missile.

I think that if you look at the direction we’re going, it is very worrisome from a price tag perspective when we have so many other national requirements and priorities. But also, we are going to be spending taxpayer money on something that actually makes us less, not more, safe by lowering the threshold of use of nuclear weapons. Therefore, we’re increasing the risks of an all-out
nuclear war.

The reason we have arms control agreements to begin with is the idea that when you start building all these new capabilities, it inevitably touches off an action-reaction cycle. Whether you are doing offensive weapons only or defensive ones too, you are bound to create a new arms race. That is expensive and destabilizing, and it risks nuclear confrontation and war, which obviously means the end of life on Earth as we know it.

In our office, we are very focused on this. We are going to be teaming up with Senator Jeffrey Merkley (D-Ore.) and others on the Appropriations Committee to try to zero out the funding for these low-yield warheads. They are unnecessary. Representative Adam Smith (D-Wash.), the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, is pursuing a similar approach.

Now that we have a majority in the House that share that view, we will see how all this works out. We need to make sure that we don’t get into this conversation, which we seem to be with the Trump administration, about how you can actually think about winning a nuclear war or prevailing in a nuclear war. We all know that there is no winning a nuclear war, and we need to make sure we never go in that direction.

So, I will just close with the statement that was jointly made by Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev and U.S. President Ronald Reagan in Geneva, 30 years ago: “A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” Let us dedicate ourselves to making sure that remains the case, that nobody thinks they can win a nuclear war. Because that will be, as Jonathan Schell described, the end of the earth.

Excerpted from remarks delivered by Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) to the Arms Control Association’s annual meeting on April 15 in Washington. Elected to the Senate in 2016, Van Hollen previously represented Maryland’s Eighth District in the House of Representatives.


Senator Van Hollen argues against unrestrained nuclear weapon spending.

Trump Increases Budget for Banned Missiles

May 2019
By Kingston Reif

The Trump administration has requested nearly $100 million in fiscal year 2020 to develop three new missile systems that would exceed the range limits of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, a pact the United States is preparing to exit in August.

A Soviet inspector examines a BGM-109G ground-launched cruise missile before it was destroyed in 1988 under the INF Treaty. The United States plans to test a new, ground-launched variant of the Tomahawk sea-launched cruise missile soon after the treaty expires in August. (Photo: Jose Lopez/U.S. Air Force)The funding proposal seeks more than twice what Congress provided last year and is likely to prove controversial in Congress. Democrats have criticized the administration’s treaty withdrawal plans and questioned the need for new missiles.

The budget submission includes $76 million in the Office of the Secretary of Defense’s Prompt Global Strike Capability Development account to develop a mobile, conventionally armed, land-based cruise missile and a ballistic missile system, a congressional aide told Arms Control Today. The request is $28 million more than the fiscal year 2019 appropriation to research and develop concepts and options for INF Treaty-range missile systems. (See ACT, November 2018.)

The budget documents do not specify the purpose of the proposed funding other than to note that it is for “a classified munitions program” and to address “strategic policy and treaty issues.” In the past, the prompt global-strike program has focused on the development of hypersonic missile technologies, but the two treaty-busting missiles funded in this account are currently slated to fly on traditional cruise and ballistic trajectories.

Defense Department officials told reporters in March that the Pentagon is planning to test a ground-launched variant of the Navy’s Tomahawk sea-launched cruise missile that has a range of about 1,000 kilometers in August and a ground-launched ballistic missile with a range of 3,000 to 4,000 kilometers in November. (See ACT, April 2019.) The INF Treaty required the United States and Russia to eliminate permanently all their nuclear and conventional ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges of 500 to 5,500 kilometers.

Prior to the INF Treaty’s conclusion in 1987, the United States deployed several hundred nuclear-armed, intermediate-range Pershing II ballistic missiles and ground-launched cruise missiles in Europe, the latter of which were an adaptation of the Tomahawk. The Pentagon spent over $6 billion, in fiscal year 1987 dollars, to develop and procure the missiles.

The officials estimated that the new cruise missile could be deployed in 18 months while the new ballistic missile would not be ready for at least five years.

The announcement of the planned tests came just more than a month after the Trump administration announced on Feb. 2 that it would withdraw from the INF Treaty on Aug. 2 unless Russia corrects alleged compliance violations with the agreement. U.S. officials also announced in early February the immediate suspension of U.S. implementation of the pact.

The officials said the Pentagon would cancel the tests if Russia returns to compliance with the treaty, but the likelihood of that happening is low. (See ACT, March 2019.) They also noted that there have been no discussions with allies in Europe and Asia about hosting the missiles. One official said the new ballistic missile could be deployed in Guam, a U.S. territory, which would allow the missile to strike targets in mainland China.

U.S. officials have said Russia has deployed several battalions of the allegedly treaty-noncompliant 9M729 cruise missile, including some at locations within range of European targets. Russia, which denies any treaty violation, formally suspended its implementation of the agreement in March and has pledged to begin development of new INF Treaty-range missiles.

A New, Third Weapon

The budget request also contains $20 million for the Army to begin development of a mobile, land-based, medium-range missile “that can attack specific threat vulnerabilities in order to penetrate, dis-integrate, and exploit in the strategic and deep maneuver areas.” The Army is planning to request to total of $900 million for the missile through fiscal year 2024.

A U.S. Army Tactical Missile System is tested in South Korea in 2017.  The United States is considering replacing the system with a missile that could fly further than currently allowed by the INF Treaty. (Photo: South Korean Defense Ministry via Getty Images)The budget documents do not specify the type or range of the missile, but the congressional aide confirmed that the weapon would fall within the range prohibited by the INF Treaty. The Defense Department classifies a medium-range missile as having a range between 1,000 and 3,000 kilometers.

In addition, the Army is pursuing several other ground-launched missile systems with ranges that could exceed 500 kilometers.

The service is requesting $164 million to continue development of a Precision Strike Missile to replace the aging Army Tactical Missile System. The current range requirement for the new ballistic missile is up to 499 kilometers, as dictated by the INF Treaty, but Army officials have stated the missile could eventually fly as far as 700 kilometers. The service aims to begin fielding the missile as soon as 2023.

The budget request seeks $228 million to begin developing a land-based hypersonic missile “to provide the Army with a prototype strategic attack weapon system” and $92 million for a Strategic Long-Range Cannon program “to further enhance range, lethality, and precision enablers for extended range cannon and munition systems.”

Gen. John Murray, the chief of Army Futures Command, told Congress last September that the service is “looking very hard and starting down the path of hypersonics and then also looking at what we call the Strategic Long-Range Cannon, which conceivably could have a range of up to 1,000 nautical miles.”

It is unclear whether these weapons would meet the INF Treaty’s definition of a ground-launched ballistic missile and thus be limited by the agreement, but this question now appears moot given the impending collapse of the treaty.

Supporters of developing new INF Treaty-range missiles argue that such weapons would provide additional military options against Russia and especially China, which is not a party to the agreement and has deployed large numbers of missiles with ranges that the United States and Russia are prohibited from deploying.

Critics argue that the U.S. military can counter Russia and China by continuing to field air- and sea-launched cruise missiles that do not violate the accord. They also note that such intermediate-range weapons would need to be deployed on the territory of allies neighboring Russia or China to be of meaningful military value. So far, no country has said that it would be willing to host such missiles. Several countries, including Poland, have made it clear that any deployment of the new systems in Europe would have to be approved by all NATO members.

In an Oct. 24, 2018, letter to the secretaries of defense and state, Reps. Adam Smith (D-Wash.) and Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), now the chairmen of the House armed services and foreign affairs committees, respectively, said they had seen “no validated military requirement for withdrawing from the INF Treaty and deploying INF-range missiles.”

Other congressional Democrats have introduced legislation to restrict funding for ground-launched, INF Treaty-range missiles unless several specific conditions have been met, the key one being a requirement that any deployment of such a missile in Europe come from a NATO-wide decision, not a bilateral agreement.

The Trump administration has requested nearly $100 million in fiscal year 2020 to develop three new missile systems that would exceed the range limits of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, a pact the United States is preparing to exit in August.

U.S. to Quit Arms Trade Treaty

May 2019
By Jeff Abramson and Greg Webb

The United States will drop out of the Arms Trade Treaty, the 2013 pact designed to regulate the international trade of conventional arms, President Donald Trump announced April 26.

Speaking to the National Rifle Association on April 26, President Donald Trump displays an order he signed during the speech for the United States to reject the Arms Trade Treaty. (Photo Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)“The United States will be revoking the effect of America’s signature from this badly misguided agreement,” Trump told a large audience at the annual meeting of the National Rifle Association (NRA) in Indianapolis. “The United Nations will soon receive a formal notice that America is rejecting this treaty.”

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry signed the pact in 2013, but the United States has not ratified it. On stage in Indianapolis, Trump signed a message to the U.S. Senate asking it to discontinue the treaty’s ratification process.

International and U.S. treaty supporters decried Trump’s decision. The pact is the third major arms-related agreement from which the United States has withdrawn since he took office in January 2017.

Latvian Ambassador Janis Karklins, who will preside over the upcoming August 26-30 conference of the treaty's states parties in Geneva, said, “I hope that the U.S. administration will reconsider its decision in the future.”

“This is yet another myopic decision that jeopardizes U.S. security based on false premises and fearmongering,” said Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He was echoed by House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) who said, “It is abhorrent to use international diplomacy for blatant political pandering.”

Although popular today internationally, the treaty was not concluded easily. Measures to curb illegal and define responsible arms sales were discussed for decades, and a special treaty negotiating process failed in 2013 when Iran, North Korea, and Syria refused to join a consensus agreement. Instead, the pact was taken to the UN General Assembly days later and approved there against their “no” votes. It entered into force on Dec. 24, 2014. Today, the treaty has 101 states-parties and another 34 signatories that have not yet ratified.

The treaty is the first global accord to regulate a broad array of conventional weapons. It establishes common international standards that must be met before states authorize weapons transfers. The treaty generally seeks to reduce the illicit arms trade, reduce human suffering caused by illegal and irresponsible arms transfers, improve regional security and stability, and promote accountability and transparency by state-parties concerning transfers of conventional arms.

U.S. negotiators made clear during the treaty-making process that the pact would not threaten the right to bear arms afforded by the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. It has no authority over national gun control laws.

Nevertheless, U.S. gun-rights organizations, led by the NRA, have alleged that the treaty would impose limits on U.S. domestic gun sales, and Trump repeated those claims in his NRA speech. “Under my administration, we will never surrender American sovereignty to anyone. We will never allow foreign bureaucrats to trample on your Second Amendment freedom.”

Such rhetoric was misplaced, according to Thomas Countryman, the lead U.S. negotiator of the treaty and now the chair of the Arms Control Association board. “The treaty, if ratified by the U.S. Senate, would not require the United States to change anything in its law or procedures,” he said. “The president's action today is yet another mistaken step that threatens to make the world less
safe rather than more secure.”

Trump to revoke U.S. signature of treaty regulating international trade of conventional weapons.

Trump, Kim Raise Conditions for Third Summit

May 2019
By Kelsey Davenport

U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said in April that they are willing to participate in a third summit, but each imposed conditions on the meeting, raising doubt about the prospects for progress.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) greets North Korea leader Kim Jong Un during a portion of Kim's visit to Vladivostok on April 25. (Photo: Alexander Zemlianichenko/AFP/Getty Images)The Trump administration wants to see additional action from North Korea demonstrating its commitment to denuclearization, while Kim said Pyongyang will abandon the negotiations at the end of this year if the United States does not take a more flexible approach. It is unclear how the two sides will resolve this standoff over the process to advance talks.

The U.S. and North Korean negotiating teams have not met since the second summit between Trump and Kim in Hanoi ended abruptly on Feb. 28 without any progress on the goals of denuclearization and peace-building on the Korean peninsula. (See ACT, March 2019.)

Meanwhile, Kim met with Russian President Vladimir Putin on April 25 in Vladivostok. It was their first summit meeting. Putin told reporters afterward that he discussed denuclearization with Kim, but said North Korea “needs guarantees of its security and sovereignty” in return.

Putin said multilateral talks may be an option to develop “internationals security guarantees for North Korea,” and he said he would convey to Washington Kim’s position on future negotiations with the United States.

Trump, speaking to reporters during his April 11 summit with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, said he would be willing to meet Kim again and expressed his belief that “tremendous things will happen” with North Korea, but it is “not going to go fast.”

U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton said on April 17 that Washington is looking for a “real indication from North Korea that they’ve made the strategic decision to give up nuclear weapons” and that Trump would be willing to participate in a third summit only if he can get a “real deal.” Bolton described a real deal as a “big deal,” likely referring to the more comprehensive agreement outlining the end state of negotiations that Trump sought in Hanoi. (See ACT, April 2019.)

In April 12 remarks to the North Korean Supreme People’s Assembly, Kim said that he is willing to try “one more time” if Washington proposes a third summit, but the United States must have the “right stance,” likely referring to the Trump administration’s preference to pursue a more comprehensive deal and its unwillingness to offer relief from economic sanctions earlier in the process.

Kim was clearly seeking relief from UN sanctions targeting North Korea’s economy during the Hanoi summit, but he told the assembly that the United States is miscalculating if it believes North Korea can be pressured into submission. North Korea “will no longer obsess over lifting sanctions” and will open the path to economic prosperity through our own means,” Kim said.

Pyongyang has repeatedly rejected pursing a big deal and indicated its preference for an incremental approach. In his April 12 remarks, Kim criticized the Trump administration’s “methodology” for pursuing negotiations.

He called for the United States to “lay down unilateral requirements and seek constructive solutions,” saying that the United States has until the end of the year to change its negotiating approach or the “prospects for solving a problem will be bleak and very dangerous.” He did not specify what if any actions North Korea would take if its deadline was not met.

Trump said on April 11 that the United States is still focused on the big deal with North Korea, but he did not rule out a step-by-step approach to negotiations, saying there are “various small deals that could happen.”

Trump continues to rule out economic sanctions relief early in the process. He said on April 11 that sanctions will “remain in place” until denuclearization is complete but that he would not impose new measures at this time.

The Trump administration’s unwillingness to consider economic sanctions relief is a setback for Moon, who reportedly hoped during his April 11 visit to Washington to persuade the Trump administration to be more flexible on sanctions and grant waivers allowing inter-Korean projects to proceed.

At the April 11 press conference, Trump said that he would support joint economic projects between the two Koreas at the right time but that now is not that time. He did say the United States is discussing “certain humanitarian things” and the United States is supportive of South Korean food aid for North Korea.

Moon is seeking a fourth summit with Kim. He said on April 15 that it was time to “begin the preparations in earnest” for the next meeting and that he hopes to hold “detailed and substantive talks on how to achieve further progress that goes beyond the previous two summits” between Trump and Kim.

Kim, however, has criticized Moon for attempting to act as a “mediator” between Pyongyang and Washington. He said on April 12 that Moon should “subordinate everything to the improvement of North-South ties.”

Commentary in North Korean media outlets has also criticized South Korea for “succumbing to the pressure” of the United States and failing to move forward on economic projects designed to promote integration between North and South Korea.

North Korea also criticized the composition of the U.S. negotiating team, with the foreign ministry calling for U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to step aside as head of delegation. In an April 18 statement, Kwon Jong Gun, head of the ministry’s Department of American Affairs, said that “talks will become entangled” if Pompeo is involved in future rounds of negotiations. He called Pompeo “reckless” and said North Korea would prefer a “person who is more careful and mature in communicating with us.”

In what may have been an attempt to demonstrate limited patience with the negotiating process and put pressure on the Trump administration, Pyongyang tested what it called a new tactical weapon on April 17. North Korea did not provide specific details about the weapon, but it appeared to be an artillery system with a conventional warhead. Such a weapon would not break Kim’s voluntary moratorium on long-range ballistic missile testing announced in April 2018.

Kim was present at the test, and the state-run Korean Central News Agency said Kim described the weapon as “increasing the combat power” of the army.


North Korea threatens to end talks if U.S. refuses to ease its stance on denuclearization.

U.S. Seeks Broader Nuclear Arms Pact

May 2019
By Kingston Reif and Shervin Taheran

President Donald Trump has ordered his staff to seek a new agreement on nuclear weapons that would encompass all Russian and Chinese nuclear arms, senior administration officials told reporters in April. Currently, the United States and Russia abide by the bilateral 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) that limits only deployed strategic weapons and does not involve China. The treaty is due to expire in February 2021, but the pact allows the two sides to extend it for up to five years.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov (center), speaking here at January conference in Beijing, suggested in April that any future U.S.-Russian arms control talks would need to address a variety of previously unnegotiated issues. (Photo: Thomas Peter/Getty Images)“The president has made clear that he thinks that arms control should include Russia and China and should include all the weapons, all the warheads, all the missiles,” said a senior White House official on April 25. “We have an ambition to give the president options as quickly as possible to give him as much space on the calendar as possible.”

Sergei Ryabkov, Russia’s deputy foreign minister, suggested Moscow’s response would depend on the nature of any U.S. proposals. “Further steps towards nuclear disarmament will require creating a number of prerequisites and taking into account many factors that have a direct impact on strategic stability” including missile defense systems, cyber weapons, weapons development in space, and advanced conventional arms, he said in an April 26 news briefing.

The Trump administration has shown no indication that it would be willing to limit these weapons in an agreement with Russia and China. Even if it were willing to do so, it is highly unlikely an agreement could be reached before New START expires in less than two years.

The president’s new order followed his April 4 comments at the White House, while sitting next to Chinese Vice-Premier Liu He, on the need for the United States, Russia, and China to reduce the numbers of and spending on nuclear weapons.

“Between Russia and China and us, we’re all making hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of weapons, including nuclear [weapons], which is ridiculous…. We have to be the leader. I think it’s much better if we all got together and we didn’t make these weapons…. And those three countries, I think, can [come] together and stop the spending and spend on things that maybe are more productive toward long-term peace,” Trump said.

Senior administration officials echoed the president’s desire to include China in arms control. The Trump administration is “at the very beginning of conversations about renewing” New START, said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in April 10 testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “If we can get the deal right, if we can make sure that it fits 2021 and beyond, President [Donald] Trump has made very clear that if we can get a good, solid arms control agreement, we ought to get one.”

Remaining unclear is whether Pompeo was referring to conversations within the Trump administration, conversations with Russia, or both. Administration officials have been saying for months that they are in the early stages of formulating the U.S. position on an extension, arguing that plenty of time remains before the treaty lapses. Several factors would guide a decision, according to the officials, including how Russia pursues its concerns about U.S. compliance with the pact, whether Russia would agree to limit new strategic weapons it is developing, and Russian compliance with other arms control agreements.

Pompeo appeared to add additional factors at the hearing, suggesting that future arms control agreements should incorporate more nations. “We need to make sure that we've got all of the parties that are relevant,” he said. “It’s very different today in the world than it was” when New START was completed, he added. Asked to clarify which nations should be included, Pompeo said, “[I]t’s certainly China that has large numbers.”

Russian officials have also offered ambiguous projections for New START’s future. Anatoly Antonov, Russian ambassador to the United States, said Russia is ready to discuss extending the treaty, but repeated previously stated concerns about U.S. compliance with some of the pact’s conversion procedures.

“The extension of the New START is not a simple technicality that could be resolved in a couple of weeks,” he said at the Arms Control Association’s April 15 annual meeting. “Serious issues must be settled.”

Antonov also said that the full array of Russia’s planned new nuclear weapons would not be covered by New START, so any limits on them would need “another round of negotiations,” which would require Senate and Duma approval.

Meanwhile, the treaty’s dispute resolution forum, the Bilateral Consultative Commission, met in April, according to an April 12 release from the U.S. State Department. It was 17th meeting of the commission, which meets twice yearly.

Several current and former U.S. military officials have recently lamented the reduced level of communication and dialogue between the United States and Russia.

“During the Cold War, we understood each other’s signals. We talked,” said U.S. Army Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, the top military commander in Europe, in an April interview. “I’m concerned that we don’t know them as well today.”


Administration opens door to negotiations on new weapons, new partners.


Subscribe to RSS - May 2019