"I find hope in the work of long-established groups such as the Arms Control Association...[and] I find hope in younger anti-nuclear activists and the movement around the world to formally ban the bomb."

– Vincent Intondi
Professor of History, Montgomery College
July 1, 2020
A Both/And Approach: Next Steps on Disarmament and the Role of the Ban Treaty
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Remarks by Daryl G. Kimball, Executive Director, Arms Control Association
Roundtable on “Global and Regional Nuclear Orders in a Moment of Geopolitical Uncertainty"
Thursday, March 16, 2017, 1:00-3:00 PM
United Nations, UN Delegates Dining Room

Through the years, the international nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation enterprise, though imperfect has curbed nuclear proliferation, forced reductions in major-power nuclear arsenals, ended nuclear testing by all but one state, and created an informal taboo against nuclear weapons use.

But today, there are some very tough challenges that pose a serious threat to the international nuclear order.

Tensions between the world’s nuclear-armed states are on the rise. Progress on the next steps on nuclear disarmament as outlined in the 2010 NPT Review Conference Action Plan is stalled.

Washington and Moscow are on track to replace their excessive nuclear arsenals at enormous cost; other nuclear-armed states are slowly improving their capabilities; North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, if not capped through a new diplomatic initiative, could soon give Pyongyang the operational capability to strike states in the region with nuclear weapons.

As William J. Perry, the former U.S. Secretary of Defense, warned in his 2016 memoir, My Nuclear Journey; “Today, the danger of some sort of a nuclear catastrophe is greater than it was during the Cold War.”

U.S. president-elect Donald Trump is poised to build up nuclear tensions even further.

His Dec 22 tweet that “the United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear arsenal,” reported comments the next day welcoming an “arms race,” and denunciation of the 2010 New START agreement with Russia, could signal a radical shift away from decades of bipartisan U.S. policy to seen an end to the nuclear arms race and reduce nuclear stockpiles.

These trends have driven the non-nuclear weapon state majority to negotiate a treaty to prohibit nuclear weapons and are putting the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty—which will turn 50 years old in 2018—under tremendous strain.

In response, the leaders of all of the world’s states must redouble efforts to head-off renewed nuclear competition, reduce the risk of nuclear weapons use, and support a more energetic drive to verifiably reduce the number of nuclear weapons and their role in military and security affairs.

What Can Be Expected from the United States Under A Trump Administration?

The new administration’s approach is not yet clear but Trump’s early statements on nuclear weapons and nuclear arms control are deeply troubling.

Unlike President Barack Obama, who came into the White House with a detailed nuclear threat reduction game plan, Trump has no discernable strategy for managing today’s most daunting nuclear dangers.

And Trump has contradicted himself and his cabinet officials on whether he wants to increase or reduce the number of nuclear weapons.

In a pre-inauguration interview in January 2017 with the Times of London Trump said "nuclear weapons should be way down and reduced very substantially,” and he suggested that such a deal might be linked to the easing of sanctions against Russia for its annexation of Ukrainian territory.

But in response to President Putin’s suggestion that New START should be extended for another five years, Trump reportedly denounced the treaty as “one-sided.”

Sorting out what the actual Trump administration policies on nuclear weapons actually are will take some time. In January, Trump ordered his Defense Secretary James Mattis to lead a new Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), the fourth since the end of the Cold War.

The review will be completed just as the Trump administration is making decisions on key nuclear policy matters with long-term implications.

Before the end his term Trump, along with Russian president Vladimir Putin will need to decide whether to:

  • extend the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) and is monitoring regime past its February 2021 expiration date for another five years;
  • negotiate a follow-on agreement;
  •  or go forward without legally-binding, verifiable limits on the world’s two largest nuclear arsenals.

Trump’s suggestion that the United States must increase the “capacity” of its nuclear stockpile could encourage some hawkish members of Congress to seek to overturn the Obama-era policy of “no new nuclear warhead designs” and approve funding for the development of new types of “more usable” nuclear warheads.

A December 2016 Defense Science Board report prepared for the new administration recommends "a more flexible nuclear enterprise that could produce, if needed, a rapid, tailored nuclear option for limited use," ostensibly for a conflict in Europe with Russia.

Other members of the House and Senate, including Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) have introduced legislation to restrict funding for the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization, which is responsible for monitoring global compliance with the CTBT.

The bill also calls on Congress to declare that a Sept. 23, 2016 UN Security Council resolution does not “impose an obligation on the United States to refrain from actions that would run counter to the object and purpose” of the CTBT, which bans nuclear test explosions.

The bottom line is that the pillars of the global nuclear order cannot be taken for granted.

What Can Be Done?

Doing nothing is not an option. More energetic and creative approaches are necessary to overcome old and new obstacles.

Every responsible member of the international community—nuclear and nonnuclear weapon states, governmental and nongovernmental leaders—have an important role to play in encouraging the Mr. Putin and Mr. Trump to respect and uphold their past nuclear risk reduction commitments and to seek ways to further reduce the role, salience and number of nuclear weapons.

I would highlight two near term priorities—both of which deserve attention and support:

1. Reduce U.S.-Russian nuclear tensions. When Trump and Putin meet later this year, the two leaders could reduce worries about nuclear missteps by reaffirming the statement by U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev from 1985 that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought” and that “given the catastrophic effects of nuclear weapons, the fundamental purpose of nuclear weapons, so long as they exist, should be to deter the use of nuclear weapons.”

In addition, they should be encouraged to:

  • Reaffirm the Commitment to the CTBT: Building on UNSC Resolution 2310 that was approved in Sept. 2016, the two leaders should also be encouraged reaffirm their commitment to the quarter-century-long U.S. and Russian moratoria on nuclear weapons test explosions and the prompt entry into force of the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which both have signed but only Russia has ratified.

Failure by either side to stand by their CTBT commitments risks further nuclear tensions.

  • Extend New START and Seek Deeper Cuts: As President Barack Obama noted in his final press conference, “[T]here remains a lot of room for both countries to reduce our nuclear stockpiles.” With up to 1,550 deployed strategic nuclear weapons allowed under New START, Russia and the United States can safely cut their bloated nuclear stockpiles further without negotiating a new treaty.

By agreeing to extend New START and its verification provisions by five years, to 2026, Trump and Putin could confidently pursue further, significant parallel reductions of warhead and delivery system inventories by one-third or more and still meet their respective nuclear deterrence requirements.

This step would ease tensions and reduce fears of a new nuclear arms race, plus it would reduce the skyrocketing price of nuclear weapons.

  • Address the INF Treaty compliance dispute. Russia’s deployment of ground-based cruise missiles prohibited by the landmark 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty is a serious matter. Trump said on Feb. 23 he would take up the issue with Putin when they meet. New U.S. or NATO nuclear-capable missile deployments are in appropriate. Rather, the two sides should discuss the U.S. evidence at another meeting of the treaty’s Special Verification Commission and to work to resolve all outstanding compliance issues. 

If Moscow continues to deploy the banned ground-launched cruise missiles, U.S. and NATO leaders should insist that the weapons would need to be counted under the limits set in the next round of nuclear arms reductions.

2. Further Reducing the Salience of Nuclear Weapons Through the Ban Treaty: Of course another important new step that can further reduce the salience of nuclear weapons is the forthcoming negotiation of a new instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons.

Fundamentally, the initiative aims to spur action on nuclear disarmament and risk reduction and to further delegitimize their possession.

Although most of the world’s nuclear-armed states will likely boycott the negotiations, the process and the final product could help strengthen the legal and political norm against their use—a worthy goal, especially in light of the uncertainty surrounding U.S. nuclear policy under Trump’s leadership.

Contrary to some skeptics, this process is not a “distraction,” nor will it undermine the NPT, as some fear – so long as ban treaty advocates recognize its value and its limitations and so long as the nuclear weapon states do not continue to suggest that the ban treaty is the source of the nuclear nonproliferation regime’s problems.

Let’s be clear: the stresses and strains on the NPT are due to the actions of North Korea, the inability of the major nuclear armed states to make progress on disarmament commitments, the technological arms race by the nuclear weapon states, and the failure of key states in the Middle East to agree on the agenda for a conference on a WMD-free zone in their region – not the ban treaty negotiations.

In order to attain a world free of nuclear weapons, it will be necessary, at some point, to establish a legally-binding norm to prohibit such weapons. As such, the pursuit of a treaty banning the development, production, possession and use of nuclear weapons is a key step along the way.

Yes, this is a challenge to the unsustainable and dangerous concept of security based upon the threat of nuclear weapons use, which can produce catastrophic destruction far beyond the borders of the warring parties.

To achieve the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons and to avoid the use of nuclear weapons, states that possess nuclear weapons and those in alliance with nuclear-armed states can and must shift away from nuclear deterrence to conventional military deterrence. This process is already underway. United States strategy of “extended deterrence” to allies in Europe against potential Russian aggression, and to U.S. allies in Asia has increasingly relied on non-nuclear elements, including forward U.S. conventional presence and effective theater missile defenses.

The participation of key middle powers, such as Japan and the Netherlands and Sweden, would help improve the quality of the outcome.

This new process has the potential to further delegitimize nuclear weapons and strengthen the legal and political norm against their use—a worthy goal.

Those states and NGOs involved in the negotiation – and we plan to be among them – have some difficult work ahead. To be effective, the instrument will need to:

  • Specify which activities related to nuclear weapons possession, nuclear sharing planning, development, production, and testing are prohibited. If not already set out in an existing treaty (such as the CTBT), each of these prohibitions must be effectively verifiable, even if this negotiation does not elaborate and set out the monitoring and verification regime to verify compliance, which could be a task for a future comprehensive nuclear weapons elimination convention.
  • Be consistent with existing treaties that prohibit or limit certain nuclear weapons-related activities, including the CTBT, the current nuclear weapons free zone treaties, and the NPT. In order to compliment, rather than undermine these other pillars of nonproliferation and disarmament, the new treaty should require that states parties also adhere to the disarmament and nonproliferation-related obligations of these agreements.
  • Provide for pathways by which states that now possess nuclear weapons, or are part of alliances with nuclear-armed states, can support the new nuclear weapons prohibition treaty before they become a full-fledged member of new instrument. For example, negotiators should also consider protocols to the main treaty that nuclear-weapons possessor states could adopt that prohibits states armed with nuclear weapons, or in a military alliance with a nuclear-armed state, from threatening or using nuclear weapons against a non-nuclear weapon state in good standing with its nuclear weapons ban treaty, NPT, and CTBT obligations.

The negotiators should seek a formula that is meaningful but also draws the widest possible support from states participating in the negotiation. Consensus should be the goal but not a requirement for agreement on the final outcome.

At the same time, advocates of coming nuclear weapons ban treaty must recognize it is not a substitute for necessary, progressive steps on nuclear disarmament.

The new prohibition treaty can help delegitimize nuclear weapons as instruments of national power and further clarify that their possession and use is inconsistent with international law.

But without follow-through pressure for concrete nuclear restraint and disarmament measures, the process will necessarily lead the nuclear-armed states to act with urgency to fulfill their nuclear disarmament obligations.

As the 2016 UNGA resolution on launching the talks noted:

“…that additional measures, both practical and legally binding, for the irreversible, verifiable and transparent destruction of nuclear weapons would be needed in order to achieve and maintain a world without nuclear weapons.”

Thank you for your attention.