“What's really strikes me about ACA is the potential to shape the next generation of leaders on arms control and nuclear policy. This is something I witnessed firsthand as someone who was introduced to the field through ACA.”
– Alicia Sanders-Zakre
June 2, 2022

BWC Review Conference Dispatch: A Cliffhanger Conference Seeks to Strengthen Biological Weapons Convention

January/February 2023
By Jenifer Mackby and Sruthi Katakam

After three weeks of intense debate, detailed drafting sessions, and late-night meetings, the ninth review conference of the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) agreed to establish a working group aimed at strengthening the convention, which outlaws biological arms and entered into force in 1975. The final document approved on Dec. 16 mandated that the working group develop specific, possibly legally binding, measures to support international cooperation, scientific research, and economic and technological development for peaceful purposes.

Delegates to the ninth review conference of the Biological Weapons Convention met from Nov. 28 to Dec. 16 in Geneva. (Photo courtesy of UN Geneva)The working group is to recommend establishing two other mechanisms: one to support international coperation and assistance in implementing the BWC and the other to review and assess BWC-related scientific and technological developments and to provide states-parties with relevant advice. Overall, these decisions are intended to “bring the convention into the 21st century,” one delegate said.

Convention delegates came armed with a plethora of proposals contained in 65 working papers.1 Nevertheless, after the recent nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) review conference failed to achieve consensus on its final document, BWC states-parties recognized that it would take extreme efforts to achieve success at their review conference.

Delegates also realized that international tensions over Russia’s war on Ukraine and the widely refuted Russian accusations that the United States was involved with biological weapons laboratories in Ukraine would make this conference a deeply challenging exercise. Facing these odds, delegates burst into resounding applause as the final document was adopted.

The COVID-19 pandemic helped the world understand that diseases could be used deliberately to cause widespread panic, emergency health crises, millions of deaths, and severe economic damage. This increased awareness of a shared international vulnerability caused most states-parties to work to give the BWC a more active role or at least put it on par with the NPT and the Chemical Weapons Convention. Even so, some states-parties insisted on deleting any reference to COVID-19 in the final document.

The new working group will address measures on international cooperation and assistance under Article X of the convention, which calls on states-parties to facilitate the exchange of equipment, materials, and scientific and technological information for peaceful purposes. It will also address scientific and technological developments, as well as confidence-building and transparency efforts to improve reporting on national biological activities. Further, the group will consider compliance and verification measures and measures to improve domestic laws and regulations to implement the convention.

The group will address assistance, response, and preparedness under Article VII, which calls for states-parties to provide support to a state that has “been exposed to danger as a result of violation of the convention.” The group also will consider organizational and financial arrangements to cover the costs of BWC meetings and the convention’s Implementation Support Unit (ISU).

The new working group has been authorized to meet for 15 days each year from 2023 to 2026 and to adopt a report with recommendations to be submitted to BWC states-parties at the 10th review conference, to be held no later than 2027.

The final document did not include many of the ambitious proposals that enjoyed cross-regional support from numerous states-parties and that were included in a previous draft just one day before the conference ended.2 For instance, the previous draft included the explicit establishment of a working group and two other mechanisms, as well as descriptions of how they would operate. This outcome would have allowed states-parties to start the substantive work in all three groups immediately instead of waiting for recommendations to establish two of them.

The draft called for an advisory group that would facilitate international cooperation under Article X, which states from the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) had been requesting for many years. They contend that they have been prevented from benefitting from the BWC’s peaceful uses provisions, which stipulate that the convention should “avoid hampering the economic or technological development of states-parties to the convention or international co-operation in the field of peaceful bacteriological (biological) activities.”3 The advisory group would include a database to match offers and requests for assistance, as well as a voluntary trust fund to support projects under Article X.

The prior draft also would have established a scientific advisory board, which many delegations have long recommended. They recognize that rapid advances in the life sciences, in particular biotechnology tools that can alter organisms, such as genetic editing, can be used to greatly benefit public health, medicine, agriculture, and the environment, but can also be applied for nefarious purposes banned by the convention. The plan was to have the working group on strengthening the convention make recommendations on the board’s mandate, composition, financial implications, and other arrangements. The board would consist of a scientific advisory group open to all and a limited size scientific reporting committee.

The conference facilitator, Ljupco Gjorgjinski of North Macedonia, worked with delegates for months to develop the terms of reference and rules of procedure for this proposed scientific body. Iran has long opposed such a group, although the proposal has been supported by states from all regional groups. Each of the two new mechanisms would have acquired an additional ISU staff.

The United States, long maligned because it rejected the BWC Verification Protocol in 2001, took steps to change that image. Bonnie Jenkins, U.S. undersecretary of state for arms control and international affairs, introduced an initiative in late 2021 calling for a process to examine compliance that could lead to discussions on verification. Since 2001, many NAM states have requested a legally binding protocol that would include verification. The United States also accepted the idea of an international cooperation entity, which it previously opposed due to concerns that some countries would focus on export controls. As one U.S. delegate put it, “We were rolling out the red carpet at this conference.”

These gestures, however, seemed to go largely unnoticed. Iran, Cuba, and other NAM members repeated their complaints about “unilateral coercive measures” that they say violate Article X by denying them access to vaccines, materials, and equipment. This tension between developing countries that want an increased exchange of technology and developed countries that are concerned mostly with nonproliferation has played out in numerous multilateral forums.

Russia’s claims about biological weapons laboratories in Ukraine, strongly refuted by Ukraine and the United States, played a role in the review conference deliberations. Russia had brought its allegations to the UN Security Council and instigated a formal meeting in August under the consultation and cooperation provisions of BWC Article V, but no conclusions were reached.

Russia wanted to include language in the review conference final document stressing the need for further investigations of its allegations regarding biological laboratories in Ukraine and what it considered an insufficient response from the United States and Ukraine. Moscow proposed establishing a group of governmental experts to determine guidelines for conducting Article VI investigations.4

Normally, the review conference final document comprises three parts. Part I, which deals with the organization and work of the conference, lists the dates, agenda, documents, and participants. In Part II, the final declaration, states-parties reaffirm their general aspirations and support for the convention’s principles, followed by a detailed review of its 15 articles. Part III contains the decisions and recommendations in which parties look to the future, outlining the intersessional process and other recommendations.

In the December 15 draft final document, Part II was 14 pages long and included mature reflections on strengthening each article. On the final day of the conference, however, the conference president, Leonardo Bencini of Italy, announced that consensus was not possible on that part of the document. He had held closed-door consultations with delegations until the early morning of December 16, but they were unable to agree on a number of contentious issues, including proposed Russian language on biological weapons laboratories in Ukraine. The section on recommendations also was considerably reduced. Due to the consensus rule in most UN multilateral forums, it is possible for one country to prevent an agreement.

The penultimate draft included several other proposals that ultimately were dropped from the final document. One encouraged states-parties to incorporate elements from the recently developed Tianjin Biosecurity Guidelines for Codes of Conduct for Scientists.5 These guidelines, initiated by China with U.S. support, had been sought by a majority of the international community and already have been adopted by more than 140 scientific academies worldwide.

Another deleted provision recommended that states-parties promote best practices in life sciences research, including oversight in infectious disease research to improve biosafety and biosecurity globally. It called on stakeholders to apply standards to manage risks posed by working with infectious agents and toxins in laboratories and recommended that states-parties adopt model laws in their national legal codes.

The draft also had included proposals on methods to increase the participation of states-parties in submitting their annual UN forms on confidence-building measures.6 These forms, which typically draw responses from only half of the states-parties, contain an exchange of information on research centers and laboratories, national biological defense research and development programs, outbreaks of infectious diseases caused by toxins, and publications. Several proposals to include equal representation of women in various activities also were removed from the text.

Proposals that did remain in the final document requested states-parties to promote universalization of the convention and renewed the mandate of the ISU, which conducts the BWC Secretariat’s substantive and administrative functions. After years of requests, the conference agreed to increase the staff from three persons to four for 2023–2027.

Over the years, financing BWC meetings has been problematic because states-parties often do not pay on time or do not pay at all. The annual BWC budget is $1.8 million. Costs are shared by states-parties based roughly on the UN scale of assessments. In 2021, almost two- thirds of the 183 states-parties paid less than $1,000 for the BWC. Of these, 54 states paid less than $100.

In comments after the final document was adopted, the Algerian representative, Lazhar Soualem, spoke for many in the conference room, saying, “Despite our high expectations and ambitions, we consider this compromise document as an important step forward.” Most delegations said the document will provide a good basis for future progress on the proposals that were not adopted but had gained so much support at the conference.

The Cuban representative, Rodolfo Benítez Verson, said the BWC’s main weakness is the lack of a verification mechanism and expressed support for the working group to strengthen the convention. The Chinese representative, Li Song, said the document represents a major breakthrough to strengthen the convention and a victory for multilateralism, although he regretted that the Tianjin Guidelines were left out. The Mexican delegate, Fernando Israel Espinosa Olivera, expressed disappointment that the conference did not mention COVID-19 or take decisions on “more mature, daring proposals” on such issues as preparedness and strengthening biosecurity.

Although the Russian representative, Konstantin Vorontsov, welcomed the final document, he blamed an unnamed country, presumably the United States, for blocking consensus on Part II. Russia “will not agree to pathogens and transmitters by foreign military agencies near our border. This one country has blocked a legally binding protocol with a verification mechanism so that they can continue military activities around the world,” he said.

The U.S. representative, Kenneth Ward, said he was pleased that states-parties came together for the adoption of the final document but that this “soon fell apart.” He said the Russian statement shows that “the great and long suffering people of Russia are not threatened by the United States or the West; they are only threatened by [President Vladimir] Putin’s government, driven by lies, hatred, and warmongering.”

The U.S. delegation then walked out of the conference room. Several more delegates spoke after the United States left, expressing both pleasure and regrets over the outcome. Bencini concluded, “We should be proud of this document.”



1. For a list of the 65 papers, see UN Office for Disarmament Affairs (UNODA), “Biological Weapons Convention - Ninth Review Conference,” n.d., https://meetings.unoda.org/bwc-revcon/biological-weapons-convention-ninth-review-conference-2022 (accessed January 3, 2023).

2. Ninth Review Conference of the States Parties to the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on Their Destruction (Ninth BWC Review Conference), “Draft Final Document of the Ninth Review Conference,” BWC/CONF.IX/CRP.2/Rev.1, December 15, 2022.

3. Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on Their Destruction, April 10, 1972, 1015 U.N.T.S. 163, art. X.

4. Ninth BWC Review Conference, “Strengthening the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC): Proposal for the BWC Article VI Implementation; Submitted by the Russian Federation,” BWC/CONF.IX/WP.15, November 7, 2022.

5. Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, Tianjin University, and the InterAcademy Partnership, “The Tianjin Biosecurity Guidelines for Codes of Conduct for Scientists,” n.d., https://www.interacademies.org/sites/default/files/2021-07/Tianjin-Biosecurity-Guidelines-Codes-Conduct.pdf.

6. UNODA, “Confidence Building Measures,” n.d., https://www.un.org/disarmament/biological-weapons/confidence-building-measures/ (accessed January 3, 2023).


Jenifer Mackby is leading a project on establishing a scientific advisory body for the Biological Weapons Convention. She has worked for a number of organizations on nonproliferation, international security, and verification issues. Sruthi Katakam is a Herbert Scoville Jr. Peace Fellow at the Federation of American Scientists and a recent graduate from Johns Hopkins University.

The conference established a working group to develop measures to support international cooperation, scientific
research, and economic and technological development for peaceful purposes.

The Iranian Nuclear Crisis: Time for Plan B

December 2022
By Kelsey Davenport

Halfway into his first term, U.S. President Joe Biden faces the reality that one of his most significant foreign policy promises remains unmet: returning the United States and Iran to compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).1

Robert Malley, the U.S. special envoy for Iran, says the Biden administration is open to resuming diplomacy with Iran but right now is focused on “what is happening in Iran…. the sale of armed drones by Iran to Russia…and the liberation of our hostages.” (Photo by Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images)Tragically, time nearly has run out to achieve this commitment. If Biden does not start exploring other options to stabilize the growing nuclear crisis, the United States could have to contend with an Iranian regime on the brink of possessing nuclear weapons or with a conflict to prevent it.

Restoring the JCPOA even at this late date still would significantly reduce the proliferation risk posed by Iran’s rapidly advancing nuclear program and restore critical monitoring mechanisms. Nevertheless, the Iranian negotiating strategy casts doubt on President Ebrahim Raisi’s current interest in resurrecting the accord.

After closing in on an agreement to revive the JCPOA in August, Iran’s 11th-hour demand that any agreement end the investigation by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) into Iran’s nuclear past and prohibit such probes in the future stalled momentum toward a deal.2 The United States and its JCPOA partners (China, France, Germany, Russia, and the United Kingdom) have no role in negotiating over the IAEA safeguards mandate, a fact of which Iran is well aware. Iran’s continued investment in new nuclear capabilities that cannot be fully reversed and have no civil nuclear justification raises further questions about whether Iran is serious about returning to the accord.

In addition to Iran’s intransigence in negotiations, political will to reach a deal is waning in the United States and Europe. Since talks to restore the JCPOA stalled, protests erupted throughout Iran after the country’s morality police beat a young woman, Mahsa Amini, to death for improperly wearing a headscarf. The Biden administration quickly expressed support for the protesters and is now under domestic political pressure to refrain from any actions that could be perceived as legitimizing or enriching the regime in Tehran. Iran’s sale of drones to Russia, in violation of UN Security Council Resolution 2231, which endorsed the JCPOA, has inflamed tensions further, making negotiations even more difficult.

Robert Malley, U.S. special envoy for Iran, said on November 14 that the Biden administration is open to resuming diplomacy with Iran “when and if” the time comes, but he reiterated that the U.S. focus is on “what is happening in Iran…the sale of armed drones by Iran to Russia…and the liberation of our hostages.”3

Malley would not put a time frame on how long the administration will keep open the option of returning to the JCPOA, but he said Washington is continuing to apply pressure and sanctions while talks are stalled. If this is Biden’s plan B for addressing the nuclear crisis, it will not stabilize the situation, not least because Iran can ratchet up its nuclear program far more quickly than the United States can turn up the sanctions pressure.

Washington’s European partners appear more willing to acknowledge that prospects for restoring the JCPOA have diminished severely and that it is time to consider a new approach. French President Emmanuel Macron suggested on November 14 that a “new framework” will likely be necessary for addressing the nuclear crisis.4

It is critical that the Biden administration, as well as the Europeans, outline options for a new diplomatic initiative. With the nuclear program steadily advancing and with Tehran facing new political pressures that make a decision to produce a nuclear bomb increasingly likely, the United States cannot afford to let this major security challenge fester any longer.

A Dangerous Nuclear Acceleration

When Iran first began violating the JCPOA’s limits in May 2019, a year after U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the accord and reimposed sanctions, the breaches were calibrated carefully. Designed to be reversible quickly, they largely comprised instances where Iran resumed nuclear activities that had been limited under the JCPOA.5 This deliberate response suggests that Iran was trying to preserve space to restore the JCPOA by putting pressure on the United States to return to the accord while signaling that Iran had no intention of developing nuclear weapons or investing in new weapons-relevant research.

Iran’s strategy shifted, however, in December 2020 when the Iranian parliament passed a law that required the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran to further accelerate the country’s nuclear program and reduce IAEA access. The parliament pushed the law through after Israel assassinated Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the man often called the father of Iran’s pre-2003 nuclear weapons program, in November 2020.

When Raisi became president in August 2021, he continued aggressively expanding Iran’s nuclear program into more proliferation-sensitive areas beyond what was required by the December 2020 law, including the unprecedented step of enriching uranium to 60 percent U-235 in April 2021. The decision to begin enrichment to this level was made shortly after an explosion at the Natanz uranium-enrichment complex. That was another serious escalation that cannot be fully reversed given the knowledge Tehran gained from the enrichment process.

Due to these breaches, Iran’s nuclear program is more advanced than at any point in the country’s history. As of November 2022, Tehran could produce enough weapons-grade uranium for a bomb in fewer than seven days. By comparison, that period, often called the breakout period, was two to three months when the United States began negotiations on the JCPOA in 2013 and about 12 months when the JCPOA was fully implemented.6

The risk posed by the shrinking breakout window is further compounded by the December 2020 law’s requirement that Iran suspend aspects of its more intrusive safeguards arrangement with the IAEA, known as the additional protocol to Iran’s safeguards agreement, and the continuous surveillance of key nuclear sites required by the JCPOA. Halting implementation of these measures in February 2021 eliminated IAEA access to facilities, such as centrifuge production workshops, that support Iran’s nuclear program but do not contain nuclear materials. The suspension also reduced the tools available for the agency to verify that Iran’s nuclear program is peaceful. Iran continues to implement a less intrusive comprehensive safeguards agreement, as required by the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), but history has demonstrated that these agreements are insufficient in preventing proliferation.7

As a result of the reduced access, Iran could amass a significant quantity of bomb-grade material at some point between IAEA inspections, raising the risk that a move to produce weapons-grade material would not be detected. Although weaponization could still take two years, these processes would take place at covert facilities and be more difficult to detect.8

Thus far, the United States appears willing to tolerate this increased proliferation risk, but that calculus might change when Iran is able to produce enough nuclear materials for several nuclear weapons between IAEA inspections. Breaking out to produce one nuclear weapon does not provide Tehran with much of a deterrent, particularly given that it has never tested a nuclear explosive device, but producing several warheads would have greater deterrence value and pose a more serious proliferation threat.

Even so, the speed at which Iran could break out and build a nuclear weapon is a technical calculation. It does not take into account Iran’s intentions or the political factors that might drive the country to consider developing a nuclear deterrent. The U.S. intelligence community long has stated that Iran’s decision to pursue nuclear weapons will be based on a cost-benefit analysis. As of early 2022, it assessed that Tehran had not made the political decision to build a bomb or restarted key nuclear weapons-related activities.9

The factors influencing Iran’s decision-making, however, could be shifting if the regime views the widespread protests at home as a political challenge. Tehran may view the development of nuclear weapons as an option with which to preserve the existing political system, particularly if it perceives foreign countries as supporting the domestic protests.

Tehran also may gamble that the geopolitical rift caused by Russia’s war against Ukraine would mitigate the impact of UN sanctions and the diplomatic isolation that the United States and its European partners will pursue if Iran continues its nuclear expansion. The Raisi government may calculate that its support for Russia and its supply of drones for the war will insulate it partially from the global pressure campaign that preceded negotiations on the JCPOA.

Although it is still unlikely that Iran will decide to pursue nuclear weapons or withdraw from the NPT, the threat of proliferation is increasing, and this is underscoring the urgent need to stabilize Iran’s nuclear program.

Increasing Transparency

Iran’s advancing nuclear program poses two serious proliferation risks. First, Iran’s enrichment capacity and stockpiles of highly enriched uranium (HEU) allow it to break out quickly, possibly between IAEA inspections. The second risk is a longer-term concern that Iran is diverting materials from unmonitored facilities to build a covert, parallel program that could be used to develop weapons-grade uranium down the road. Given the urgency of these risks, it is important to stabilize the situation and prevent Iran from further escalating its nuclear program, thus reducing the risk of conflict and creating time and space for a more comprehensive negotiation on a long-term solution. As the JCPOA has demonstrated, reaching a new nuclear agreement could take years.

The United States could seek to mitigate these risks and buy time for future talks by offering Iran limited sanctions relief in exchange for increased monitoring over Iran’s nuclear program. Ideally, additional transparency would increase the likelihood that the IAEA would more quickly detect any Iranian attempt to break out and deter any move to divert materials, such as centrifuge components, for a covert program.

To increase the likelihood of IAEA inspectors detecting any move to produce weapons-grade uranium, Iran could reinstate daily access to uranium-enrichment facilities. The JCPOA required this level of access, but since February 2021, the frequency of IAEA inspections has been determined by Iran’s comprehensive safeguards agreement, which requires less frequent access for inspections.

The level of enrichment is one factor that helps determine the frequency of inspections. Given that Iran is now enriching uranium to 60 percent U-235, a level that no other non-nuclear-weapon state is pursuing, inspectors are visiting enrichment facilities quite regularly. The threat of an undetected breakout still exists, however, as Malley warned the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on May 25.10 Daily inspections would further mitigate that risk.

Iran also could reconnect the online enrichment monitors, a verification tool that is used to track its enrichment levels in real time. Iran disconnected these machines in June 2022 after the IAEA Board of Governors censured Iran for failing to cooperate with the agency’s safeguards investigation. Without these machines in place, IAEA sampling and analysis of uranium-enrichment levels can take up to three weeks.11 Resuming the monitoring of enrichment in real time would help inspectors determine more quickly if Iran was deviating from its stated enrichment plans and pursing uranium enrichment up to 90 percent U-235.

To deter and detect any Iranian attempts to divert materials from facilities no longer subject to IAEA inspections, Iran could allow the agency to conduct technical visits to these locations. Technical visits are voluntary access arrangements that have been used in the past when the IAEA sought access beyond what is permitted in a safeguards agreement and the state agreed.12

Rafael Mariano Grossi, director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, displays a surveillance camera that is used to monitor Iran’s nuclear program. (Photo by Guo Chen/Xinhua via Getty Images)Another confidence-building action would be for Iran to allow the IAEA to restart camera surveillance at nuclear facilities no longer subject to inspections. In February 2021, after Iran suspended adherence to its additional protocol, which gave the IAEA access to more information and sites that support Iran’s nuclear program but do not contain nuclear materials, and JCPOA-specific transparency measures, Iran and the IAEA agreed that agency cameras would continue collecting data at certain facilities. Iran said it would give the recordings to the agency if the JCPOA was restored. Tehran’s decision to disconnect 27 of those cameras in June 2022, however, will make it difficult if not impossible for the IAEA to re-create a history of Iran’s nuclear activities during the monitoring gap.

IAEA Director-General Rafael Mariano Grossi warned in reports on September 7 and November 10 that because of the monitoring gap, the agency will be challenged to reestablish a baseline of Iran’s centrifuges and heavy water, even with Iran’s cooperation and the recordings from February 2021 to June 2022.13 If the IAEA cannot establish a reliable baseline, that could have serious implications for future diplomacy. It would be even more challenging for the IAEA to verify that Iran is meeting agreed limits in a restored JCPOA or a new deal.

The Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act (INARA), a U.S. law passed in 2015, requires the U.S. Department of State to submit a report to Congress assessing the IAEA’s capacity to verify any nuclear agreement with Iran. The agency’s concerns about reestablishing a baseline could make that certification more difficult and provide a basis for JCPOA opponents to argue that Congress should exercise its authority under the law to block sanctions relief. Restarting the cameras and giving the IAEA regular access to the recordings could preserve space for future diplomacy while providing some assurance that Tehran is not diverting materials for a covert program.

Agreeing to additional monitoring also benefits Iran. Greater transparency would provide further assurance that Tehran’s nuclear program is peaceful, as the government claims. As Iran seeks to increase its leverage by ratcheting up its nuclear program further, it runs a greater risk of misjudging what activities might trigger a military response. Increased transparency could reduce the chance of miscalculating the proliferation threat posed by Iran’s technological advances, thus decreasing the risk of further sabotage or military action by the United States or Israel.

If Iran is willing to take voluntary steps to increase transparency, the United States must propose meaningful sanctions relief that would benefit Iran immediately. One option is to allow Iran to sell a limited amount of oil and petrochemical products every month. As with the nuclear monitoring steps, oil sales would provide an immediate benefit and could be halted quickly if Tehran suspended the voluntary verification measures. The United States also could consider unfreezing limited amounts of Iranian assets held abroad.

Longer-Term Stabilization

Increased monitoring and transparency of Iran’s nuclear program are modest steps that would mitigate the growing proliferation risk, but they are not a long-term solution for the threat posed by an unrestrained Iranian nuclear program. If the Biden administration decides that the nonproliferation benefits of the JCPOA have eroded past the point where the sanctions relief offered is sensible or that restoration of the JCPOA is too polarizing in the United States, it may prefer negotiating an entirely new nuclear agreement.

Iran too may favor such an approach, given declining support in Tehran for the JCPOA and deficiencies in the 2015 deal’s approach to sanctions relief. It also may prefer to wait until after the 2024 U.S. elections to begin negotiations on a longer-term deal. If a Republican is elected, they may withdraw again from the JCPOA, even if Iran is complying with the accord. Other frontrunners for the Republican presidential nomination have expressed similar opposition to the JCPOA, fueling concern in Tehran that even if the deal is restored, it may only last two years.

In any scenario where a new, more comprehensive deal or restoration of the 2015 JCPOA is not anticipated in the short term, voluntary measures solely aimed at increasing monitoring may not be sufficient. Increasing transparency and expanding Iran’s breakout window would stand a better chance of stabilizing the current crisis for a longer period and building time and space for negotiations on a new comprehensive nuclear agreement. This could be accomplished through an interim deal or a series of voluntary steps that include monitoring measures and limits on certain nuclear activities.

The swiftest way to increase Iran’s breakout time would be to ship out or blend down the country’s stockpiles of uranium that is enriched to 60 percent U-235 or 20 percent U-235. These stockpiles can be enriched to weapons grade (90 percent U-235) much more quickly than the 3.67 percent U-235 level to which Iran was restricted under the JCPOA. Iran, however, views these materials as its most significant source of leverage and is unlikely to give them up as part of an interim process. Nevertheless, Tehran could take certain steps to mitigate the risk posed by these materials.

One option would be for Iran to limit the amount of 60 percent- and 20 percent-enriched uranium that is stored in gas form in the country. Uranium in gas form can be injected back into centrifuges for further enrichment. Nearly all of Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium is in this form. If Iran has enough uranium enriched to these levels to use as feedstock to produce weapons-grade uranium for several nuclear weapons before the international community could respond, it could develop a more effective nuclear deterrent.

If Iran can only produce weapons-grade uranium for one nuclear weapon between inspections, that constitutes a less significant proliferation risk because one weapon provides limited security value. Capping stocks of 60 percent- and 20 percent-enriched uranium gas at this amount would increase Iran’s breakout margin, while allowing the country to retain its most significant source of leverage. The excess material could be converted to powder or stored in another country.

Enriched uranium in powder form poses less proliferation risk because it must be converted back into gas form before it can be enriched further. This process would be more challenging to complete without detection by the IAEA.

In addition to capping HEU stockpiles, an interim deal could limit Iran’s research and development activities to prevent further acquisition of new capabilities that could complicate future diplomatic efforts or further reduce the breakout window. This could include commitments by Tehran to refrain from further advanced centrifuge R&D and weaponization-related activities, such as uranium metal production and experiments relevant to designing an explosive package for a nuclear warhead. By allowing Iran to continue ongoing nuclear activities, albeit with some new restrictions in areas such as uranium stockpiling and centrifuge development, the Raisi government may be able to sell such an agreement domestically because it would not have to dismantle its nuclear infrastructure.

The Challenge of Congress

If the Biden administration succeeds in negotiating an interim deal or a series of voluntary measures with Iran, it will face a second challenge: preventing Congress from blocking sanctions relief. Under INARA, Congress has 30 days to review a nuclear deal with Iran. During that period, if the House of Representatives and the Senate pass resolutions opposing the agreement, the president is blocked from lifting sanctions on Iran.

The Democratic majority in the Senate in the next Congress increases the likelihood that the administration could prevent both chambers from passing resolutions of disapproval. Biden cannot assume, however, that the Democrats will support a new nuclear deal. Like the administration, Congress is focused on steps that the United States can take to support the Iranian protests. Even some previous JCPOA supporters are urging a pause in negotiations with Iran during the protests.

Despite shifting congressional support, Biden can make a strong argument that either an interim deal or voluntary measures would provide U.S. national security and nonproliferation benefits commensurate with limited sanctions relief and that such an arrangement is necessary to prevent escalation and buy time for a longer-term deal.

The risk of military conflict also will increase absent steps to prevent the nuclear crisis from escalating. There is little domestic appetite for the United States to become embroiled in another Middle Eastern conflict, particularly while it is helping Ukraine repel Russia, and Congress will not want to bear the blame for driving the United States into a preventable conflict. Given this, Biden should be able to garner enough congressional support to deliver sanctions relief commensurate with Iranian steps to reduce nuclear concerns.

The Drawbacks of Military Action

Although the available diplomatic options have drawbacks, they are by far preferable to military action or sabotage and stand a better chance of blocking Iran’s pathways to nuclear weapons in the long run. Kinetic action may slow the nuclear program, but as history demonstrates, Iran will respond by hardening its nuclear facilities against further attacks and by further ratcheting up its nuclear program.

In a worst-case scenario, military action could drive Iran to develop nuclear weapons covertly or withdraw from the NPT. If Tehran views nuclear weapons as the best means to prevent further attacks on its territory, the perceived security benefits of a nuclear arsenal increase.

It is also questionable how successful a military operation against Iran’s nuclear program could be, given the hardened nature of certain sites, particularly Fordow, the underground enrichment facility near Qom.

During JCPOA negotiations, the United States pushed to end enrichment at Fordow because its location deep within the mountains make it challenging if not impossible to destroy the facility using conventional weaponry. Iran restarted enrichment at that facility in November 2019 as part of its campaign to pressure the remaining parties to the JCPOA to deliver on sanctions relief.

In a study prior to the JCPOA negotiations, experts assessed that an Israeli military strike might set Iran’s nuclear ambitions back up to two years and a U.S.-led strike by up to four years.14 Those estimates are likely optimistic at this point, given that Iran has built additional, hardened facilities since then and gained additional knowledge as a result of its research activities that cannot be reversed. The U.S. intelligence community assessed in 2007 that Iran had the technical capacities to build a nuclear weapon if it decided to do so.15 Since then, Iran has not had an organized nuclear weapons program, but its uranium-enrichment capability significantly increased, and the knowledge it gained from mastering those processes cannot be bombed away.

Protesters in New York in November call on the United Nations to take actions against the treatment of women in Iran where the government is facing political unrest after Masha Amimi died in the custody of the Iranian morality police.  (Photo by Yuki Iwamura/AFP via Getty Images)Although military options are unlikely to be successful in blocking Iran’s pathways to the bomb in the long run, Biden probably would use military force rather than allow Iran to build a bomb during his presidency. Given the current inadequate monitoring system and Iran’s intention to continue building leverage by further advancing its nuclear program, it is increasingly likely that it could misjudge the leeway it has to maneuver and cross a line that triggers U.S. or, more likely, Israeli military action. The short window available to try and disrupt a nuclear breakout before Iran could move its nuclear material to a covert facility further increases the risk of some country prematurely using military force.

In addition to pursing voluntary measures or an interim deal to increase transparency and put time back on the breakout clock, the United States and its JCPOA partners should communicate clearly to Iran what nuclear activities will trigger a military response. Given the muted international response to past escalations, such as Iran’s decision to enrich to 60 percent U-235, Iran may perceive more latitude to expand its nuclear program than actually exists. If all options are indeed on the table to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran, greater clarity about U.S. redlines could avert miscalculation.

The United States manufactured the current nuclear crisis when Trump withdrew from the JCPOA despite Iran’s compliance and over the objections of U.S. allies. Although Iran will now share the blame if the JCPOA is not restored, it would be an act of diplomatic malpractice if the Biden administration passively allows this volatile situation to continue to build. Negotiating with Iran while the regime is brutally repressing peaceful protests is not an attractive option, but an Iranian regime emboldened by nuclear weapons is a far greater threat to the Iranian people, the United States, and its allies and partners in the region. It is time for a diplomatic plan B to stabilize the cycle of nuclear escalation and create space for future diplomacy.



1. Joseph Biden, “There’s a Smarter Way to Be Tough on Iran,” CNN, September 13, 2020, https://www.cnn.com/2020/09/13/opinions/smarter-way-to-be-tough-on-iran-joe-biden/index.html.

2. Stephanie Liechtenstein, “Iran Nuclear Talks Head Into Deep Freeze Ahead of Midterms,” Politico, September 9, 2022, https://www.politico.com/news/2022/09/13/iran-nuclear-talks-midterms-00056312.

3. John Irish, “No Push for Iran Nuclear Talks, U.S. Envoy Says, Due to Protests, Drone Sales,” Reuters, November 14, 2022, https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/no-push-iran-nuclear-talks-us-envoy-says-due-protests-drone-sales-2022-11-14/.

4. “France’s Macron Does Not See Room for Progress on Iran Nuclear Deal Right Now,” Reuters, November 14, 2022, https://www.reuters.com/world/frances-macron-need-find-new-framework-over-iran-nuclear-deal-2022-11-14/.

5. Julia Masterson and Kelsey Davenport, “Assessing the Risk Posed by Iran’s Violations of the Nuclear Deal,” Arms Control Association Issue Brief, Vol. 11, No. 9 (January 29, 2020), https://www.armscontrol.org/issue-briefs/2019-12/assessing-risk-posed-iran-violations-nuclear-deal.

6. Kelsey Davenport and Julia Masterson, “The Limits of Breakout Estimates in Assessing Iran’s Nuclear Program,” Arms Control Association Issue Brief, Vol. 12, No. 6 (August 4, 2020), https://www.armscontrol.org/issue-briefs/2020-08/limits-breakout-estimates-assessing-irans-nuclear-program.

7. Trevor Findlay, “Looking Back: The Additional Protocol,” Arms Control Today, November 2007, https://www.armscontrol.org/act/2007_11/Lookingback.

8. Anna Ahronheim, “Iran Is Not Getting the Bomb Any Time Soon - Military Intelligence Head,” The Jerusalem Post, October 3, 2021, https://www.jpost.com/middle-east/iran-news/head-of-military-intelligence-iran-not-getting-the-bomb-any-time-soon-680853.

9. U.S. Department of State, “Adherence to and Compliance With Arms Control, Nonproliferation, and Disarmament Agreements and Commitments,” April 2022, https://www.state.gov/wp-content/uploads/2022/04/2022-Adherence-to-and-Compliance-with-Arms-Control-Nonproliferation-and-Disarmament-Agreements-and-Commitments-1.pdf; Office of the Director of National Intelligence, “Annual Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community,” February 2022, https://www.dni.gov/index.php/newsroom/reports-publications/reports-publications-2022/item/2279-2022-annual-threat-assessment-of-the-u-s-intelligence-community.

10. Robert Malley, “The JCPOA Negotiations and the United States’ Policy on Iran Moving Forward,” May 25, 2022, https://www.foreign.senate.gov/hearings/the-jcpoa-negotiations-and-united-states-policy-on-iran-moving-forward05252201.

11. Vincent Fournier and Miklos Gaspar, “New IAEA Uranium Enrichment Monitor to Verify Iran’s Commitments Under JCPOA,” International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Office of Public Information and Communication, January 16, 2016, https://www.iaea.org/newscenter/news/new-iaea-uranium-enrichment-monitor-verify-iran’s-commitments-under-jcpoa.

12. John Carlson, “Special Inspections Revisited” (paper presented to Annual Meeting of the Institute of Nuclear Materials Management, Phoenix, Arizona, July 10–14, 2005), https://www.belfercenter.org/sites/default/files/legacy/files/uploads/INMM2005SpecialInspections.pdf.

13. IAEA, “NPT Safeguards Agreement With the Islamic Republic of Iran: Report by the Director General,” September 7, 2022, https://www.iaea.org/sites/default/files/22/09/gov2022-42.pdf.

14. The Iran Project, “Weighing the Benefits and Costs of Military Action Against Iran,” 2012, https://www.wilsoncenter.org/sites/default/files/media/documents/event/IranReport_091112_ExecutiveSummary.pdf.

15. “Iran: Nuclear Intentions and Capabilities,” November 2007, https://www.dni.gov/files/documents/Newsroom/Reports%20and%20Pubs/20071203_release.pdf.

Kelsey Davenport is director for nonproliferation policy at the Arms Control Association.

With time running out on the Iran nuclear deal, what can be done to reduce the risk of Iran’s nuclear program?

Engaging China on Multilateral Arms Control

December 2022
By Oliver Meier and Michael Staack

Future efforts to maintain and strengthen multilateral arms control will have to take China into account. Beijing has abandoned its previous restraint and is actively shaping the global security order of the 21st century. It sees itself as a global player, a trading power, a major power in Asia, and the world's largest developing country, although it would be more accurate to say it is a country that has been developing rapidly.

Under President Xi Jinping, shown here at the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee in October, China has evinced some ambivalent policies on arms control and nonproliferation. Even so, future efforts to strengthen multilateral arms control will have to take China into account. (Photo by Lintao Zhang/Getty Images)With China’s constructive participation, it will be much easier to manage challenges to international arms control and the international order, such as those posed by Iran and North Korea. Efforts to further develop the multilateral arms control architecture also will be more effective and sustainable if Beijing is on board.

In August, China’s growing importance and more assertive stance on arms control, disarmament, and nonproliferation became abundantly clear at the 10th review conference of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), where it pursued its own interests and significantly shaped the meeting’s agenda. China highlighted its concerns about the nuclear submarine cooperation among Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. It opposed any increased commitments on nuclear transparency and successfully rebuffed calls for a fissile material moratorium that could impinge on its own nuclear arms buildup.

The Chinese style of disarmament diplomacy was often tenuous and uncompromising. Even so, the four-week-long review conference also demonstrated that Chinese arms control and disarmament policies no longer can be simply equated with those of Russia. On some issues, such as criticism of NATO’s nuclear sharing arrangements, the positions of Moscow and Beijing overlapped. Nevertheless, China did not provide political cover for Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine.

Review conference President Gustavo Zlauvinen said later that he was under the impression that “there was no overall strategic coordination” between China and Russia in New York. He described how, on the conference’s penultimate day, China “let go” of its objection to language on transparency and reporting on nuclear arsenals in order to pave the way for a draft final outcome document.1 Even if China was ready to accept the compromise language, it could not prevent Russia from standing in the way of consensus.2 The review conference ended in disagreement, with Beijing calling this failure “regrettable.”3

In early November, during German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s visit to Beijing, Chinese President Xi Jinping confirmed Chinese concerns about a possible nuclear escalation over Ukraine. Xi said that the world should “advocate that nuclear weapons cannot be used, a nuclear war cannot be waged, in order to prevent a nuclear crisis” in Eurasia, the strongest Chinese warning against nuclear use directed at Russia.4

Engagement on arms control with China is also necessary because it is no longer possible to relegate China to the level of a second-rate military power. By 2050, China aims to have military forces that are technologically on par with those of the United States. Beijing is developing a broad arsenal of state-of-the-art weapons systems, making technological leaps in development, becoming increasingly active as an arms exporter, and initiating sophisticated defense cooperation programs, for example, with Pakistan and Russia. An unconstrained Chinese military build-up with the consequence of new arms races is highly destabilizing and costly. As a result, any progress on engaging China in cooperative efforts to control and reduce military potentials is valuable in and of itself.

Arms control with China mostly has been discussed from the perspective of dialogue between itself and the United States, the two main global competitors, but U.S. efforts to engage China have had limited success. Some bilateral dialogue forums came to a halt during the Trump administration, and efforts to restart them mostly have flopped. It is therefore imperative to broaden the discussion. Engaging China in efforts to advance multilateral arms control, disarmament, and nonproliferation efforts matters not only to the United States but to all states with a vested interest in preserving global arms control arrangements.

Countries around the world are struggling to deal with Russia’s turn against multilateral arms control across the board. Moscow is shedding arms limitations and increasingly misusing global regimes to promote false narratives and deepen divides within the international community. Its ultimate goal is to undercut the broad global rejection of the war against Ukraine. Against this dire background, Chinese support and engagement is a necessary precondition to keep the norms against weapons of mass destruction intact and multilateral disarmament and nonproliferation regimes afloat. Achieving that outcome will require that, in addition to the United States, countries that are not seen as China’s strategic competitors also pursue constructive dialogues with China on multilateral arms control.

Keeping It Simple

Four guidelines could improve the likelihood of successful multilateral arms control engagement with China. First, an arms control dialogue should be kept as separate as possible from discussions on other security issues. Chinese involvement in multilateral, regional, and bilateral agreements to limit military capabilities, for example, those that could spread to third countries, has merit in and of itself. Such cooperation can contribute to a long-term positive change in the political relationships between China and other countries that support arms control, establish channels of communication, and foster awareness of shared interests.

As a participant in multilateral nuclear negotiations on Iran and North Korea, China has benefited by being treated as equal to other major powers. Here, Wang Qun, China’s envoy to the United Nations and other international organizations in Vienna, speaks with reporters in 2021 after a meeting on the 2015 Iran deal. (Photo by Georges Schneider/Xinhua via Getty Images)Second, engagement should be as issue specific as possible. The field of disarmament and arms control has evolved and become so multifaceted and differentiated that the general demand for Chinese involvement rings hollow. Although interconnections between topics cannot be completely ignored, for example, with regard to issues involving disarmament and nonproliferation, there is a risk of weighing down talks with too many linkages.

Third, proposals for talks should begin with topics on which China’s understanding of its role in multilateral arms control is ambivalent. China wants to leverage its nuclear weapons, yet remains interested in preventing nuclear war. It wants to reduce the risk of military escalation over conflicts involving the nuclear programs of Iran and North Korea but also wants to maintain its political and economic influence in the Middle East and East Asia. China sees arms control accords that focus on the humanitarian consequences of weaponry, such as anti-personnel landmines and cluster munitions, as a means to build bridges with countries of the global South. Even so, it does not want to renounce possession of such weapons, at least while its main competitors retain them. For countries interested in engaging China, it is worth exploring the gaps between these competing goals.

Finally, Beijing’s participation and involvement in informal groups of states discussing specific arms control challenges, such as the International Partnership for Disarmament Verification, should be encouraged. Given military power disparities and distrust among major powers, China’s lack of experience in arms control, and the closed nature of the Chinese political system, the level of ambition of any engagement with China on multilateral arms control initially will have to be low. Technical discussions in cross-regional groups, for example, on nuclear risk reduction or verification, could be a way of bypassing currently unresolvable political issues that stand in the way of engaging China on arms control.

Avoiding Pitfalls

It is important to be realistic about China’s participation in arms control, nonproliferation, and disarmament initiatives. China wants to be treated as an equal with its main competitor, the United States. China is not ready for agreements that impose constraints on its arms policy without the United States being subject to similar provisions.

Thus, China has rejected participation in the Russian-U.S. nuclear arms control process and is likely to continue to do so as long as there is a significant gap between its nuclear capabilities and those of the two biggest nuclear possessor states.5 China believes that U.S. missile defenses, the possible deployment of U.S. intermediate-range missile systems, and advanced U.S. conventional weapons in Asia put its nuclear second-strike capability at risk. Fu Cong, director-general of the department of arms control at the Chinese Foreign Ministry, argues that “under all these circumstances, you can't expect China to be both transparent in doctrine and transparent in numbers.”6

Beijing also is dragging its feet regarding arrangements on militarily applicable technologies that it wants to use for an asymmetric arms build-up against the United States. For example, China has a technological lead over the United States on hypersonic weapons systems and therefore is unlikely to sit down to discuss transparency measures, let alone limits. Unsurprisingly, the result is a destabilizing and dangerous arms race in these systems.7

China does not support or is reluctant to support regional approaches to confidence- and security-building measures or arms control if these run counter to its aspirations for regional supremacy. Compounding the problem is the fact that any efforts at regional arms control would have little on which to build. Regional arms control scarcely exists in Asia, and regional decision-makers are often unaware of the usefulness of arms control as a stabilizing instrument. Mutual security perceptions are driven by worst-case scenarios.

Furthermore, China remains deeply skeptical about governance approaches for the regulation of novel technologies, such as information or space technologies, that can be used for civilian and military purposes. By contrast, many Western countries believe that effective rules and regulations for such dual-use technologies would need to be based on cooperation between governments and civil society, as well as private sector actors. In Beijing’s view, codes of conduct or attempts to operationalize international legal standards for arms control could amount to “interference in the internal affairs” of the country. China promotes a traditional—some would say outdated—concept of disarmament, arms control, and nonproliferation, based on legally binding intergovernmental agreements that are implemented and verified with minimal invasiveness.

For example, China and Russia have proposed a treaty on the prevention of the placement of weapons in outer space to prohibit an arms race there. Western countries, however, have criticized the proposal for being based on the concept of regulating objects, rather than providing generic rules of the road to prevent military misuse. They argue that the Chinese-Russian approach is no longer appropriate and are pushing for an agreement that would set norms for responsible behaviors in space. Such differences also characterize multilateral discussions on regulations to prevent the military misuse of information technology and artificial intelligence.

Straddling Contradictions

China is a latecomer to multilateral arms control, having begun to intensify its involvement in such treaties and regimes in the mid-1980s during the country’s economic opening. Ten years later, China largely had caught up with the arms control mainstream. Today, it is a signatory to all major multilateral regimes for the control of weapons of mass destruction and also party to other arms control treaties.

As other states do, China is trying to influence political discussions in multilateral institutions by filling senior posts with national staff. Overall, it still is underrepresented, having held only 13 top postings in UN specialized agencies since assuming its UN Security Council seat in 1971. Of the five permanent council members, only Russia has assumed fewer senior positions while the United States has held five times as many. China has “yet to lead an agency with a remit directly addressing international peace and security.”8 Nevertheless, Chinese influence is growing, and Beijing would appear to be attempting to politically “guide” UN staff possessing Chinese passports more closely than in the past.

Although China’s policy on disarmament, arms control, and nonproliferation is guided by clear principles, its actions are by no means cast from a single mold. Conflicts between objectives and a fractured understanding of its role sometimes result in ambivalence or inconsistency. For example, China has an interest in strong nonproliferation regimes to minimize proliferation risks that could endanger stability, especially in regions where it has strong economic ties. For China, being part of the Iranian nuclear negotiations with France, Germany, Russia, the UK, the United States, and the European Union and part of the six-party talks with North Korea has the added benefit of giving it equal footing with other major powers.

Yet, there is friction between Beijing’s support for nonproliferation and its geopolitical power claims and economic interests, particularly in Asia and the Middle East. Sometimes it views potential or real proliferators as difficult regional partners; other times it sees them as useful allies in its broader geopolitical competition with the United States. China’s support for Pakistan illustrates the ambivalence or duplicity of its nonproliferation policy. China has tolerated and even encouraged Pakistan’s development into a nuclear weapons possessor by sharing nuclear weapons-related information. China views Pakistan as a counterweight to its regional competitor India. Even today, China is supplying civilian nuclear technology to Pakistan, which, like India, is not party to the NPT.

China is expanding its nuclear weapons stockpile and growing in importance on arms control, disarmament and nonproliferation challenges. This Donfeng-41 intercontinental ballistic missile, paraded through Beijing in 2019, is a major addition to its arsenal. (Photo by Lan Hongguang/Xinhua via Getty Images)Such an incongruous policy can have implications for multilateral arms control. For decades, Pakistan has been blocking the start of negotiations on a treaty prohibiting the production of weapons-grade fissile material at the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva. Islamabad ostensibly has conditioned its consent on including New Delhi’s stockpiles of fissile material in any future treaty, but many observers wonder whether Beijing may be encouraging such stonewalling to prevent future limits on its own nuclear weapons.

China wants to avoid a military, especially nuclear, escalation of the conflict between North Korea and the United States. Yet, it also props up the North Korean regime whose collapse could lead to a unified Korea allied with Washington. Beijing at times has supported international sanctions against Pyongyang, but implemented them inadequately.

China’s self-perception in arms control regimes also fluctuates between its claim to regional hegemony and its traditional role as a developing country. China’s historical experience as a victim of Western, especially Japanese, aggression, including the horrendous use of biological and chemical weapons by Japan against China from the early 1930s until 1945, has left a lasting mark on Chinese attitudes toward arms control. As a result, China has long criticized the NPT as discriminatory, arguing that the United States and Soviet Union saw the treaty as an instrument to prevent it and other countries from fully developing a nuclear arsenal. It was only in 1990 that Beijing took part in an NPT review conference for the first time and two years later that it acceded to the NPT.

Today, China’s positions on the NPT range between siding with those of the Non-Aligned Movement, which primarily represents the interests of non-nuclear-weapon states from the global South, and embracing its privileged role as a nuclear-weapon state formally recognized under the NPT. This dichotomy is underscored by the fact that when Beijing operates in multilateral forums outside of regional groupings, it refers to itself as the “group of one.”

In recent years, China has increased the size and diversity of its nuclear arsenal,9 yet it declares itself in favor of a world free of nuclear weapons and repeatedly asserts that it does not want to be involved in a nuclear arms race. China is the only NPT nuclear-weapon state to have adopted a nuclear no-first-use policy and advocates that other nuclear weapons possessors adopt a similar policy. Despite such disarmament rhetoric, Beijing has aligned itself with the other nuclear-weapon states in rejecting calls for a comprehensive ban on nuclear weapons and in opposing the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). Like all other nuclear-weapon possessors, China did not participate as an observer at the June 2022 conference of TPNW states-parties.

China feels comfortable in the company of other nuclear-weapon states on other issues too. It has the lead among them in developing a joint glossary on nuclear terminology and coordinates the nuclear-weapon states’ dialogue with members of the nuclear-weapon-free zone in Southeast Asia. China frequently and proudly refers to the January 2022 statement in which the five nuclear-weapon states agreed that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”10

There also are incongruities in Beijing’s policies on chemical and biological weapons control issues. China has been a party in good standing to the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention since the treaty entered into force. It has declared and dismantled its chemical weapons program in conformity with the convention’s rules, and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) conducts routine inspections in China without any major problems.

Yet, China backs Russia in the United Nations and in OPCW decision-making bodies in protecting Syria from the consequences of its repeated use of chemical weapons. China and Russia have wielded their UN Security Council vetoes to prevent referral of the investigation into chemical weapons attacks in Syria to the International Criminal Court. Beijing has opposed new OPCW powers to investigate chemical weapons attacks. It also has voted against funding a new Investigation and Identification Team in the regular OPCW budget, arguing that such funding would give the OPCW investigative powers beyond the intergovernmental sphere.

China’s behavior as a member of the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) is similarly incongruous. It supports calls by many nonaligned states for resuming talks on a BWC verification protocol. Since 2016, China has been working within the BWC framework to improve international cooperation on security-relevant research and with Pakistan and Brazil produced a proposal titled “The Tianjin Biosecurity Guidelines for Codes of Conduct for Scientists,” which received wide support among BWC states-parties.11

This engagement stands in stark contrast to Chinese support for baseless accusations by Russia that biosecurity laboratories funded by Western countries in Ukraine and elsewhere are being used for prohibited biological weapons activities. In October 2021, Beijing and Moscow jointly argued that “overseas military biological activities” by the United States and its allies “cause serious concerns and questions among the international community over its compliance with the BWC” and “pose serious risks for the national security” of China and Russia.12

China’s understanding of its role in humanitarian arms control, which aims to reduce the human suffering caused by particularly gruesome types of weapons, is also somewhat ambivalent. It appears open to the humanitarian perspective, but rejects the norms-based approach adopted in relevant treaties. As with other permanent UN Security Council members, Beijing also is unhappy that states have agreed on new humanitarian arms control accords by evading the consensus principle.

This ambivalent attitude likely is an attempt to improve China’s political standing vis-à-vis countries of the global South without assuming any disarmament obligations. The result is that China has not signed the 1999 Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines and on Their Destruction, which bans most landmines, or the 2010 Convention on Cluster Munitions, which bans cluster munitions. Nevertheless, China attends meetings of states-parties to both treaties as an observer and supports key principles in the accords, such as the one asserting that states responsible for use of cluster munitions are responsible for clearing them.

Engaging China

Arms control engagement should focus first on such gaps, ambivalences, and contradictions in China’s arms control policies. Even if Beijing holds some of its disarmament positions for opportunistic or propagandistic reasons, taking it at its word could ease the way for dialogue.

Wherever possible, this kind of pragmatic approach should aim to separate dialogue on arms control from the overall geopolitical rivalry. Talking about nuclear risk reduction and nuclear disarmament as “global goods” benefiting the entire world may be more persuasive than framing arms control as a tool to restrain military competition. This is particularly true for countries that see China not only as a rival and competitor, but also as a partner.

In his November 2021 talks with Xi, U.S. President Joe Biden seemed to imply that Washington supports separating arms control from the broader competition. Biden “underscored the importance of managing strategic risks” and emphasized “the need for common-sense guardrails to ensure that competition does not veer into conflict and to keep lines of communication open.”13 This approach appears to be more promising than the crude and heavy-handed demands of Biden’s predecessor that Beijing join trilateral nuclear talks with Moscow and Washington. It would also be in line with U.S. policy to seek dialogue with China on transnational challenges such as climate change and health security.14

Discussions on technical issues, such as verification, could be one good starting point. China has comparatively little experience in this important aspect of arms control, but has shown some interest in it.15 From 2014 to 2017, China participated with Russia as an observer in the first phase of the International Partnership for Nuclear Disarmament Verification, where more than 25 nuclear-weapon and non-nuclear-weapon states discussed procedures to jointly verify nuclear disarmament. Beijing stopped participating during the Trump administration. Bringing Chinese experts back into this dialogue could be one way to tackle “China’s traditional belief in the top-down approach of trust-building.”16

Cooperation on implementing positive obligations under multilateral arms control agreements might be another engagement avenue. This could include joint work on the peaceful use of certain technologies or in the humanitarian area. Such cooperation could appeal to China’s proclaimed affinity for positions of the countries of the global South. The EU and Germany support cooperative initiatives in manifold ways, such as in the control and destruction of small arms and light weapons.

Nuclear risk reduction is a third challenge on which intensified Chinese engagement should be sought. Even before Russia’s nuclear threats in the context of its war against Ukraine, the topic had received attention among NPT member states. One venue for such discussions could be the Creating an Environment for Nuclear Disarmament Initiative, a group of about 40 nuclear-weapon and non-nuclear-weapon states that is conducting informal talks on nuclear disarmament-related matters. China has participated since the United States launched the group in 2018. Within this initiative, nuclear risk reduction is the focus of a working group co-chaired by Finland and Germany.

None of these recommendations will lead immediately to restrictions on China’s growing military capabilities. Nevertheless, even low-threshold dialogues can help establish channels of discussion, provide insights into the formation of Chinese opinion and decision-making, and in this manner prepare the ground for the eventual initiation of dialogue at the formal level at a later stage. That would be no small achievement given current conditions of global geopolitical competition.



1. Multilateraler Dialog KAS, “Webinar: The NPT Review Conference,” YouTube, September 8, 2022, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iz-YmZ-MlX0.

2. Gaukhar Mukhatzhanova, “10th NPT Review Conference: Why It Was Doomed and How It Almost Succeeded,” Arms Control Today, October 2022, pp. 20–24.

3. “Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Zhao Lijian’s Regular Press Conference,” August 29, 2022, https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/xwfw_665399/s2510_665401/202208/t20220829_10757209.html.

4. Stuart Lau, “China’s Xi Warns Putin Not to Use Nuclear Arms in Ukraine,” Politico, November 4, 2022.

5. See Ulrich Kühn, ed., “Trilateral Arms Control? Perspectives From Washington, Moscow, and Beijing,” Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy Research Report, No. 002 (March 2020), https://ifsh.de/file/publication/Research_Report/002/20200224_IFSH_Research_Report_002_final.pdf.

6. Elena Chernenko, “Director-General Fu Cong’s Interview With Kommersant,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, October 16, 2020, https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/wjb_663304/zzjg_663340/jks_665232/jkxw_665234/202010/t20201016_599378.html.

7. Shannon Bugos, “China Tested Hypersonic Capability, U.S. Says,” Arms Control Today, November 2021, pp. 19–20.

8. Courtney J. Fung and Shing-hon Lam, “Why the Increase in Chinese Staff at the United Nations Matters,” International Affairs Blog, August 2, 2021, https://medium.com/international-affairs-blog/why-the-increase-in-chinese-staff-at-the-united-nations-matters-e0c30fdfcc46.

9. Gerald C. Brown, “Understanding the Risks and Realities of China’s Nuclear Forces,” Arms Control Today, June 2021, pp. 6–13.

10. “Joint Statement of the Leaders of the Five Nuclear-Weapon States on Preventing Nuclear War and Avoiding Arms Races,” The White House, January 3, 2022, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2022/01/03/p5-statement-on-preventing-nuclear-war-and-avoiding-arms-races/.

11. Ninth Review Conference of the States Parties to the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on Their Destruction, “The Tianjin Biosecurity Guidelines for Codes of Conduct for Scientists,” BWC/CONF.IX/PC/WP.10, April 7, 2022.

12. “Joint Statement by the Foreign Ministers of the People’s Republic of China and the Russia Federation on Strengthening the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on Their Destruction,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, October 7, 2021, https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/wjdt_665385/2649_665393/202110/t20211007_9580297.html.

13. “Readout of President Biden’s Virtual Meeting With President Xi Jinping of the People’s Republic of China,” The White House, November 16, 2021, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2021/11/16/readout-of-president-bidens-virtual-meeting-with-president-xi-jinping-of-the-peoples-republic-of-china/.

14. “Readout of President Joe Biden’s Meeting With President Xi Jinping of the People’s Republic of China,” The White House, November 14, 2022, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2022/11/14/readout-of-president-joe-bidens-meeting-with-president-xi-jinping-of-the-peoples-republic-of-china/.

15. Tong Zhao, “Practical Ways to Promote U.S.-China Arms Control Cooperation,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Policy Outlook, 2020, https://carnegieendowment.org/files/Outlook_Zhao_ArmsControl-Updated.pdf.

16. Tong Zhao, “China’s Approach to Arms Control Verification,” Sandia Report, SAND2022-3562 O (March 2022), p. 23, https://www.sandia.gov/app/uploads/sites/148/2022/04/SAND2022-3562-O.pdf.

Oliver Meier is a senior researcher at the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy at the University of Hamburg, based in Berlin. Michael Staack is a professor of international relations at Helmut Schmidt University/University of the Armed Forces in Germany. This article is based on the authors’ 2022 report “China’s Role in Multilateral Arms Control,” Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, Bonn, June 2022.

Chinese support is needed to keep the norms against weapons of mass destruction intact.

The Cautious Nuclear Approach of Australia’s New Prime Minister

December 2022
By Aiden Warren

During 19 of the last 26 years in Australia, the conservative Liberal Party has been at the forefront of defining and cultivating the country’s foreign policy and its broader approaches toward global security. Not surprisingly, that has included maintaining a nonintrusive line in the arms control and nuclear nonproliferation domain.

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese (L) meets Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Group of 20 summit in Bali in November. Concerns about Chinese aggression have caused Australia to enter the new Australia-United Kingdom-United States (AUKUS) defense pact. (Photo by James Brickwood/Sydney Morning Herald via Getty Images)Although Liberal leaders generally have advocated reductions in the numbers of nuclear weapons held by all nuclear-weapon states and adhered to Australian participation in the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), their approach has been somewhat paradoxical. In this regard, Australia has not forthrightly challenged the utility, value, legality, and legitimacy of nuclear weapons nor questioned the logic and practice of nuclear deterrence. Notwithstanding the 2021 pact among Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States known as AUKUS, Australia has left nuclear agency predominantly in the hands of the states that possess nuclear weapons, compliantly accepting that this group can safely manage nuclear risks through appropriate adjustments to warhead numbers, nuclear doctrines, and force postures.

With the election of Anthony Albanese as prime minister in May 2022, Australia looked poised to move away from this hedging and somewhat pedestrian position to one that would embolden its nonproliferation efforts by proposing concrete new steps toward disarmament. Despite making bold proclamations while in opposition, however, the Albanese government’s position in its first year in office indicates that any movement toward a more progressive disposition on arms control and nonproliferation will be slow and very cautious. Evidence of that assessment can be found most clearly in the government’s approach to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) and implementation of the controversial AUKUS pact.


In late 2016, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution mandating the convening of a conference to negotiate a legally binding agreement that would prohibit nuclear weapons and ultimately lead to their total elimination. Reflecting the views of the Liberal Party, which was in power at that time, Australia did not embrace the treaty’s core premise that merely banning nuclear weapons would lead to their elimination. The Liberal government also did not believe that such a treaty 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.” On this point, they argued that “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.”1

To further underscore its position, the Liberal government did not take part in the UN conference to negotiate the ban treaty because it said that such a move did not offer a practical path to effective disarmament or enhanced security because key nuclear-armed states were not involved. Additionally, government officials contended that a ban treaty risked undermining the NPT, which Australia rightly regards as the cornerstone of the global nonproliferation and disarmament architecture. Because the TPNW stipulates parallel commitments to the NPT, officials argued that the ban treaty would create “ambiguity and confusion and would deepen divisions” between nuclear- and non-nuclear-weapon states.2

As stated by Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop 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.3

The TPNW evolved principally out of the sheer frustration felt by some states and nongovernmental disarmament organizations that the NPT was not effectively moving states toward a world without nuclear weapons. Although there has been significant reductions in the Russian and U.S. nuclear arsenals since the Cold War, it became evident in the early to late 2000s that the five nuclear-weapon states recognized under the NPT (China, France, Russia, the UK, and the United States) had not held up their end of the NPT bargain. Disarmament proponents highlighted the plans of nuclear-armed states to modernize their nuclear arsenals and argued that this trend clearly indicated that these states intended to maintain their stockpiles. For TPNW proponents, the accumulative effect of such modernization plans, coupled with the varying divisions within the NPT community, proved that the NPT had distinct limitations. Although the NPT imposed good faith obligations on nuclear-armed states, it left a legal gap to be addressed, namely that nuclear weapons need to be banned just as chemical and biological weapons are banned.4

The response of Australian policymakers toward the ban treaty has not been surprising and sits comfortably alongside the narrative and approach sponsored by many previous governments. In addition to complaints about the ban treaty “complicating matters,” there has been strong criticism about what signing the ban treaty would do to the Australian-U.S. alliance. According to Gareth Evans, foreign minister in a previous Labor-led government, “The 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.”5 While in opposition, Richard Marles, the deputy prime minister and defense minister in the current Labor government, argued that the ban treaty raised “the prospect of Australia needing to repudiate our longstanding defense relationship” with the United States and “might undermine” the NPT and the ANZUS (Australia-New Zealand-United States) security agreement.6

Such views reveal a fundamental misunderstanding of the ban treaty in Australian foreign policy circles. One commentator, citing a paper published by the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School, has argued that in signing the ban treaty, Australia actually would advance its stated goal of pursuing nuclear disarmament without engendering insuperable legal complications to ongoing military relations with the United States. Moreover, Australia signed up to the treaties banning landmines and cluster munitions even though the United States still has not signed on. In other words, the alliance relationship does not bind Australia to include weapons of mass destruction in its defense policies.7 In 2018 it was clear that these sentiments had come into play when, on the last day of the 48th Australian Labor Party national conference, Albanese, then opposition stalwart, declared that if Labor won the 2019 Australian federal election, it would sign and ratify the TPNW. He gave assurances that his party would pursue a more assertive and “ambitious” approach, saying, “There’s a practical issue of how we bring those states, which are nuclear states, forward, so that this isn’t just a gesture…. [W]e want outcomes, that’s what we’re about as a political party. But one way in which you secure universality of support, in terms of a step towards that, is by Australia playing a role.”8

Labor leaders at the time believed that there was ample support for such a policy, with 78 percent of the federal caucus, 83 percent of Labor voters, and two dozen unions agreeing to endorse the ban treaty. Despite polls indicating that Labor was the hot favorite to win control of the government, it actually lost what was supposed to be the unlosable election to the Liberal Party’s Scott Morrison. With that definitive verdict, Albanese’s bold proclamations came to an abrupt halt.

Following the treaty’s global entry into force, the Labor Party reasserted its 2018 policy pledge on the TPNW at a platform conference in March 2021. Party branches in the states of South Australia, Tasmania, Victoria, and Western Australia, as well the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory, passed motions reinforcing the federal position. According to Albanese, Labor’s “carefully negotiated commitment” is consistent with its “values and our long history of advocacy on weapons of mass destruction.”9 When the party won control of government in the May 2022 national election, Albanese, as the newly minted prime minister, indicated that Australia would attend the UN meeting of states-parties to the ban treaty, which he had advocated in opposition and swore to ratify should Labor attain power.

As Albanese promised, Susan Templeman, a Labor member of Parliament from Macquarie, attended the first TPNW meeting of states-parties the following month as an observer. Her attendance was welcomed by the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), whose spokesperson said the group saw it as “recognition the newly-elected federal government is willing to engage with this critical meeting as a step towards signature and ratification” of the treaty.10

Yet, the new government made clear its cautious approach and its desire first to evaluate the legitimacy of the treaty’s verification and enforcement regime, its interface with the NPT treaty, and the extent to which states that signed the treaty proposed to bring together widespread support for the absolute ban. In this regard, the Albanese government wanted to be assured that such matters were addressed before it agreed to sign and ratify the treaty.11

Despite Albanese’s caution, the significance of the issue within the Australian political ranks was evident when, ahead of the TPNW meeting, 55 former Australian ambassadors and high commissioners, including Stephen FitzGerald, John McCarthy, Neal Blewett, and Natasha Stott Despoja, sent an open letter encouraging the prime minister to act promptly in meeting his preelection promise to sign and ratify the TPNW. “We hope…that Labor’s commitment to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons will be swiftly realized. Making meaningful gains in eliminating the most destructive weapons ever invented is as crucial for Australia’s security as it is for the security of people everywhere,”12 the letter stated.

There was strong popular support for such a move. An Ipsos poll in 2022 found that 76 percent of the public believed Australia should sign the TPNW, with 6 percent opposed, and 18 percent undecided. A range of actors within civil society also backed the treaty, including the Australian Medical Association, the Australian Red Cross, the Australian Council of Trade Unions, and more than 60 religious organizations. Local government councils in 40 Australian towns and cities, including Brisbane, Canberra, Hobart, Melbourne, and Sydney, also called on the government to sign and ratify the TPNW.13 In response, the government said that although it “shares the ambition of TPNW states-parties of a world without nuclear weapons,” it needed to take a thorough approach in examining a range of questions “to inform its approach to the TPNW.” Moreover, despite the government recently dropping its opposition to the ban treaty and shifting its voting position at the United Nations to “abstain” after five years of “no,” a prolonged, cautious approach of “consultation with partners, and civil society stakeholders” will remain par for the course.14

The AUKUS Pact

The other significant issue that will challenge the mettle of the Albanese government’s nuclear approach pertains to the controversial AUKUS pact. Announced in September 2021, the security partnership markedly redefined Australia’s middle-power status in the context of its role and capabilities in the Indo-Pacific region and beyond. Given the growing significance and frequency of Australian-U.S. ministerial consultation meetings over the last decade, the AUKUS pact in many ways can be perceived as yet another extension of Australia’s increasingly robust bilateral alliance with the United States. During the last five years in particular, the two countries clearly have decided that the Indo-Pacific strategic environment, dominated by competition with China, requires a more cooperative, unified approach that utilizes the shared defense technology and industrial bases of both states.

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese met French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris in July in an attempt to smooth bilateral relations that were badly damaged after Australia canceled a deal to buy 12 submarines from France.  (Photo by Chesnot/Getty Images)Not surprisingly, many of the concerns articulated by local and international experts during the AUKUS initiative’s first year will persist deep into Albanese’s tenure in office. The first controversial development emanating from it was the clumsy diplomacy demonstrated when Australia precipitously canceled its planned purchase of Attack-class submarines from France so that it could buy nuclear-powered submarines from the UK and the United States. Although the financial compensation for terminating this program—$568 million paid by Canberra to the French-owned Naval Group—has been settled and recent diplomatic visits to Paris by Albanese and Marles have quelled the acrimony, the total cost of the abandoned program will be approximately $2.3 billion. Aside from the economic fallout, many questions remain unanswered, including those relating to the logistics, gaps in capability, and extent to which Australia will be able to meet its NPT obligations.15 Additionally, Australia is a non-nuclear-weapon state; so its ability to own, operate, and fuel nuclear-powered submarines will have to comply with strict NPT requirements.

In the next few years, more information likely will come to the fore as the three AUKUS states turn from the consultation stage to the actual implementation of the pact. The depth and timing of such disclosures no doubt will continue to spur much discussion. Traditionally, the Australian defense industrial base has been dependent on the United States for key technologies. As such, Australian governments since 2017, including the Albanese government, have placed an important emphasis on working with the expanded U.S. national technology and industrial base, which is designed to promote a defense free trade area with some U.S. alliance partners, as well as leverage the Australian-U.S. Defense Trade Cooperation Treaty.

In a July 2022 speech, Marles underlined that one of the main goals of the AUKUS agreement was to “streamline processes and overcome barriers” in industrial cooperation. In undertaking this task, the Albanese government, he argued, would strive to improve its capacity to traverse the complicated U.S. defense export control regime, particularly U.S. Department of State regulations for international arms sales, with its requirements for security classifications and technology transfers. This would entail close dialogue with the U.S. Congress and agencies, such as the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration on the submarines and the Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Industry and Security on export regulations for categories such as quantum technologies. Such increased cooperation has engendered much debate between those who argue that developments in the Indo-Pacific region necessitate these overtures and those who believe that they put Australia on a slippery slope to being inextricably tied to the U.S. military and its questionable security incursions.

Australia plans to replace this conventionally-powered Collins-class submarine with nuclear-powered submarines from the United Kingdom and the United States under their new AUKUS defense pact. The deal has raised many questions.  (Photo by POIS Yuri Ramsey/Australian Defence Force via Getty Images)Albanese will be in a better position to address lingering questions about the AUKUS pact when the government’s nuclear-powered submarine task force makes recommendations in March 2023. For instance, on a logistical level, the task force is expected to determine whether Australia will go with the UK Astute-class submarine, the U.S. Virginia-class nuclear submarine, or another version shared by all three states. The conclusions of this preliminary consultation phase should also illuminate the specific details of a submarine built domestically, what submarine the government proposes as an interim capability, and any additional proposals to address any AUKUS workforce requirements.

In addition, the government’s defense strategic review, also due for release in early 2023, will convey how the AUKUS initiative is situated overall in Australia’s wider defense posture, preparedness, structure, and “looming capability gap.”16 The government will also articulate whether an interim, conventionally powered submarine fleet is required to address the chasm between the retirement of the Collins-class submarines and the development of the AUKUS nuclear-powered vessels.

In this regard, several retired defense officials have cautioned that Australia needs a “son of Collins” fleet or else the state will be left in a vulnerable position, particularly given that AUKUS submarines will not be operational until the 2040s. Navy Chief Vice Admiral Mike Noonan has said that constructing a new class of submarines as an “interim” capability could not be ruled out: “I think we’re going to see a period of study and reflection and we’re going to look at all options, so I don’t rule out any decision that our government might make with respect to realising our future navy capabilities.”17

Aside from these issues, what is missing in Albanese’s approach thus far is more clarity regarding proliferation concerns, which have resonated at home and abroad. A group of crossbench independents remain hesitant about the AUKUS pact, while the Australian Greens Party, in particular, has disagreed vehemently with the procurement of nuclear-powered submarines, or what they have termed “floating Chernobyls.” There are fears that introducing nuclear-powered submarines into Australia, a non-nuclear-weapon state, could prompt other non-nuclear-weapon states to acquire such a technology. This could trigger an arms race while increasing threat perceptions and security risks associated with Australia’s procurement of Tomahawk cruise missiles for the future submarines, particularly with regard to China. In the United States, some Democratic members of Congress also have raised concerns about the impact such developments could have on nonproliferation precedents.18

Many critics have questioned the utility of acquiring nuclear-powered submarines.19 Such vessels are regarded principally as a means of extending power at a distance, where they can operate near to China’s coast in conjunction with U.S. war-fighting strategies, instead of protecting Australia’s own coastline. A continued reliance on conventionally powered submarines is perceived to be a more suitable, cost-efficient strategy.

Additionally, some commentators and analysts have argued that obtaining nuclear submarines could necessitate a greater investment in a range of associated activities: more nuclear engineers, more applicable infrastructure, more logistical coupling, and further nuclear-military intermingling with the UK and the United States. Notwithstanding the growing anxieties about an increasingly assertive China, the majority of the Australian public is still disinclined toward nuclear weapons and nuclear power. The general populace also is concerned that the argument for nuclear-powered submarines could be skewed to soften up popular sentiment toward the eventual basing or storage of nuclear weapons on Australian territory.

The most pressing debate, however, has been the specific proliferation questions presented by the prospect of nuclear-powered submarines. Australia has been a consistent proponent of nuclear nonproliferation efforts, including domestic and international programs to reduce and remove weapons-usable highly enriched uranium (HEU) from civilian uses worldwide, and it claims to support a fissile material cut-off treaty. Even so, each submarine could contain approximately 20 nuclear weapons’ worth of HEU.20 Such a large cache of weapons-usable material could undermine Australian nonproliferation efforts and fissile material security if it is not subject to International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards and inspections. Although using low-enriched uranium (LEU) as an alternative in the submarines would present a lower proliferation hazard than the existing HEU plan, nuclear-powered vessels and their accompanying nuclear infrastructure still raise other environmental, health, radioactive waste, accident, and proliferation risks. As a result, critics contend that the spread of any naval nuclear propulsion would be dangerous.

One issue to be addressed pertains to the further development of naval nuclear reactors and the Paragraph 14 loophole in the IAEA Model Safeguards Agreement Albanese needs to articulate in greater detail and nuance how he aims to maintain and even strengthen the effectiveness and efficiency of the IAEA safeguards system and not weaken it through the acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines. Additionally, in the context of the NPT, what will the military-to-military transfer of HEU to a non-nuclear-weapon state such as Australia mean for IAEA verification? Surely this could open the pathway for other non-nuclear-weapon states, some with potential proliferation motives, to obtain nuclear materials and to evade adherence to safeguards.21

Lastly, the Labor government, much like its Liberal predecessor, has said little regarding Australia’s South Pacific neighbors who have not been a factor in the recent nuclear-related discussions even though the humanitarian impacts of past nuclear tests and other nuclear activities remain a serious concern for them. Some Pacific leaders have argued that the AUKUS agreement undermines the Pacific community’s deep commitment to keeping the region nuclear-free. It also has spurred proliferation and political concerns among some of Australia’s closer neighbors in Southeast Asia.

A Disappointing Start

Albanese promised that his election as prime minister would deliver a more robust Australian commitment to nonproliferation, but his government’s first seven months in office have been somewhat disappointing, revealing a cautious, incremental approach that falls short of the challenge. Given that key nuclear-weapon states are busily modernizing and in some instances increasing their armories instead of dismantling them, many Australians have become disillusioned with the NPT and are pushing ratification of the TPNW with its absolute ban on nuclear weapons. Notwithstanding his government’s observer participation at the TPNW meeting in May, Albanese’s wait-and-see approach appears in stark contrast to the promising progressive words espoused before he was in a position of power.

In terms of the AUKUS pact, the discussion and scoping stage is now shifting toward the implementation phase. How the Albanese government responds to the findings of the task force and the defense review in early 2023 will determine the options for future Australian governments. Uncertainties persist as to the scale, budget, timeline, and significance of the AUKUS pact. All this makes 2023 a critical year for the Labor government.22

Commentators have explicitly highlighted the government’s general lack of discussion and transparency on these and other seminal issues: the diplomatic falling-out with France; the expanding cost of reneging on the French submarine deal; the likely cost to obtain nuclear submarines from the UK or the United States; the prospect of nuclear mishaps and their environmental ramifications; the disrupting capacity that the AUKUS pact might present to the Indo-Pacific region, particularly when diplomatic nuance, rather than military responses to China, needs to remain at the fore; and the concern of several of Australia’s neighbors whose sensitivities to nuclear issues have been disregarded. On all these matters, Albanese and Marles have walked a careful, minimalist line in terms of treatment and explanation.

Although it can be argued that it is too early to assess Albanese’s performance on the nuclear disarmament portfolio, indications suggest that incrementalism likely will remain his preferred approach. Such a missed opportunity would be tragic, especially when Albanese once espoused a more ambitious and hopeful vision of a world far less dependent on nuclear weapons.



1. Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, “Steps Towards a Nuclear-Weapons-Free World,” 2018.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

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

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

6. 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/.

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

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

9. The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), “Australia’s New Prime Minister Is a TPNW Champion,” May 21, 2022, https://www.icanw.org/tpnw_albanese.

10. “MP Susan Templeman Represents Australia at Landmark Nuclear Weapons Ban Treaty in Vienna,” Blue Mountains Gazette, June 26, 2022.

11. Ben Doherty, “Australia Yet to Sign Up to Treaty Banning Nuclear Weapons but Will Attend UN Meeting as Observer,” The Guardian, June 19, 2022.

12. Ibid.

13. ICAN, “Australia,” n.d., https://www.icanw.org/australia (accessed November 19, 2022).

14. Ibid.

15. Peter K. Lee and Alice Nason, “365 Days of AUKUS: Progress, Challenges and Prospects,” United States Study Centre, September 14, 2022, https://www.ussc.edu.au/analysis/365-days-of-aukus-progress-challenges-and-prospects.

16. Ibid.

17. Andrew Greene, “AUKUS Nuclear Submarine Plan to Be Revealed by March 2023,” ABC News, June 28, 2022, https://www.abc.net.au/news/2022-06-29/richard-marles-defence-projects-submarines-aukus/101190876.

18. Lee and Nason, “365 Days of AUKUS.”

19. Hugh White, “From the Submarine to the Ridiculous,” Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, Australian National University, September 18, 2021, https://sdsc.bellschool.anu.edu.au/news-events/news/8191/submarine-ridiculous.

20. Alan Kuperman, “Opinion: Bomb-Grade Uranium for Australian Submarines?” Kyodo News, November 11, 2021, https://english.kyodonews.net/news/2021/11/006a0287253b-opinion-bomb-grade-uranium-for-australian-submarines.html.

21. Marianne Hanson and Gem Romuld, “Introduction,” in Troubled Waters: Nuclear Submarines, AUKUS and the NPT, ed. Gem Romuld (ICAN, Australia, July 2022), pp. 2–5, https://icanw.org.au/wp-content/uploads/Troubled-Waters-nuclear-submarines-AUKUS-NPT-July-2022-final.pdf.

22. Lee and Nason, “365 Days of AUKUS.”

Aiden Warren is a professor of international relations at RMIT University in Melbourne and an Arms Control Association Fulbright Scholar alumnus.

This article was corrected online Jan. 3, 2023, to reflect these changes: Anthony Albanese was an opposition stalwart not its leader in 2018; endnote 11 should read Ben Doherty, not Brett Doherty; and the Labor Party came to power seven months ago, not nine months ago.

There had been hopes that Anthony Albanese would embolden his country’s nonproliferation efforts with concrete new steps toward disarmament.

Making the Case That Nuclear Weapons Are Immoral: An Interview With Archbishop John C. Wester

December 2022

(Photo by Leslie M. Radigan)If nuclear weapons are ever eliminated, it will be the result of actions big and small at every communal level, from international leaders to civil society. The Reverend John C. Wester occupies a unique role in this continuum as the Roman Catholic archbishop of Santa Fe, whose archdiocese is home to the Los Alamos and Sandia national nuclear laboratories and site of the first Manhattan Project nuclear tests. In January, Wester issued a pastoral letter, “Living in the Light of Christ’s Peace: A Conversation Toward Nuclear Disarmament,” which called for the abolition of nuclear weapons and declared that the archdiocese “must be part of a strong peace initiative.” He had a compelling basis for action: In 2021, Pope Francis shifted the church’s position from accepting deterrence as a legitimate rationale for nuclear weapons to decrying the possession of nuclear weapons as “immoral.” Even with the pope’s admonition, however, Wester is finding his peace initiative slow going. He discussed his efforts with Carol Giacomo, editor of Arms Control Today. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

ARMS CONTROL TODAY: You often tell the story of visiting Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 2017. It almost seems like an epiphany. How did that trip and other forces, including serving as the top Roman Catholic Church official in Santa Fe, home to Los Alamos and Sandia, propel you to take on the mission of eliminating nuclear weapons?

Archbishop John C. Wester: Until I came here to Santa Fe, I was pretty much like I believe most people are, lulled into a false sense of complacency. I did not think much of nuclear weapons, to be honest. I do remember vividly 60 years ago during the Cuban missile crisis, but going to Japan and going to Hiroshima and Nagasaki and seeing the children, that was what really hit me most. I saw the display in the museum there, the audio and video displays and all the pictures. They had this one of the children rushing to the window to see the bright light that was detonated above their heads. That really hit me hard, it was a visceral moment, and I think it was an epiphany. It was a real sea change in my own attitude and my own consciousness of nuclear weapons.

ACT: How did you school yourself on nuclear issues, which can be an arcane subject?

Wester: It was very gradual. It involved taking my family members and friends to the museum in Santa Fe and looking at the Manhattan Project [displays]. Initially, there was a feeling in me of a kind of national pride, in what our country came up with, what the scientists and all did. Then immediately I felt, wait a minute, I'm looking at what we created and developed and manufactured and sent out to Japan. These are the very bombs I'm looking at that killed those children. So, the disconnect and the sharp contrast was so real.

As a man of faith—I believe in God, obviously—I really believe it was providential. I was asked to give a talk at our state capitol in Santa Fe on peace and nuclear disarmament, and I gave the talk. To be honest, at that time, these were words to me, and I didn't really understand a lot of them yet. Then I met this gentleman, who went to the talk, and he's become a very dear friend of mine now, Jay Coghlan, the head of Nuclear Watch New Mexico. He saw me afterwards, and he asked me questions. My first thought was, “Oh gosh, here's one of these radicals.” He challenged me to be more upfront about this subject and not just to give one talk but to get into it.

A tourist at the Bradbury Science Museum in Los Alamos, New Mexico, examines a full-size replica of the 'Fat Man' atomic bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, on August 9, 1945. The museum is operated by the U.S. Department of Energy and the Los Alamos National Lab, which was established in 1943 as part of the Manhattan Project, the nation's top secret program to develop and build the atomic bomb. The lab remains central to the U.S. nuclear program. (Photo by Robert Alexander/Getty Images)One thing led to another, and we ended up writing a pastoral letter. I thought this is exactly what I should do as the archbishop of Santa Fe, where all these nuclear weapons programs started. Santa Fe has to have a place at the table discussing those issues. Then I started reading up, including some things that are in favor of dropping the bomb in World War II, just so I can hear more from the other side. I don't want to be myopic on it. I'm on a steep learning curve, and I'm doing my best to get it because my whole intent is to keep the conversation going further. We have to keep talking about this until one day we can really rid the world of nuclear weapons.

ACT: Pope Francis has made disarmament a major focus, declaring that possessing nuclear weapons is “immoral.” What do you see as the faith basis for arguing for an end to nuclear weapons?

Wester: This is an extremely important point. I believe it's an ethical principle for all human beings, regardless of their faith or if they have no faith, that Pope Francis boldly and courageously, I would say, declared that even possessing nuclear weapons is immoral. To me that moved the moral needle like crazy. In 1983 the bishops of the United States said it was okay to have nuclear weapons for deterrence, and that seemed plausible to me. But then Pope Francis says no, you can't even possess them, what you're doing just having them sit there is immoral.

I think that really was a wake-up call. I have to admit that it's a good thing when the pope says it because it sure makes it easier for me because you do get interesting letters when you make a bold statement [like that]. Indeed, the pope is right on target because nuclear weapons are immoral; and considering their potential lethalness, they could destroy all of us and the planet and civilization. If anyone still survived the nuclear winter, it would send us all back to the ice age. We'd all be in caves and writing on the walls, and everything would have to be reinvented, you know, the alphabet and penicillin and you name it. I'm learning quickly that people don't want to talk about it.

ACT: You recently gave a speech in which you noted that the U.S. Catholic Church and the media have ignored the pope's call. If the pope made such an issue of nuclear weapons, why aren't all clergy speaking out? If you can't get the Catholic clergy to do it, how can you expect to rally others?

Wester: It's a very good question, but it's a complicated one. Part of it has to do with the polarization in our world and our politics and in our church, and part of it has to do with a more conservative approach, even to things like defenses and the whole nuclear armament question. I think it's also tied to a new point that the pope has made that nuclear weapons are immoral. A lot of people that I'm conversing with, and I welcome all angles, really do believe that we need these nuclear arms for deterrence. They think that this is the right way to go. I would say, unfortunately, they don't understand.

As [U.S. Secretary of Defense] Robert McNamara said many decades ago, the only reason we didn't have a problem in the Cuban missile crisis was because of luck. We've been lucky. We've had miscues, such as Soviet submarine officers who decided not to fire their nuclear weapons. There have been bombs dropped, even here in Albuquerque, that did not detonate because one last little low-voltage switch didn't turn on and luckily nothing detonated. How long is our luck going to last? Anybody who gambles for a living will tell you it never lasts forever. But this is something that people, either because they don't want to or because they're afraid to think of it, just don't want to deal with. Yet, we have to do it because if we don't do it now, it's going to be too late; and once it's too late, it truly is too late.

ACT: What feedback have you gotten as you advocate eliminating nuclear weapons?

Wester: The response I've gotten, including from the archdiocese and the church in general, has been—how would I characterize it? If you're a teacher, grading on the A-thru-F scale, I'd put it at a C-minus. The response has been polite. Some people, very few, have said, “Wow, we're so glad you did this, it's so important.” The people you'd expect [with disarmament organizations] have been very favorable, but in the general population, I’d say it has been polite but very unengaged, not wanting to talk about it. My sense is that they're hoping the issue will just go away. That's one thing we're doing our very best not to let happen. We've translated the pastoral letter into Japanese and Korean and Spanish. We've just ordered 1,000 more copies in Spanish, so we're doing our very best to get the word out to keep this conversation going.

But the response has been lackluster. I haven't gotten a lot of hate mail. Maybe that's because, deep down, most people do understand that nuclear weapons are not a good thing. I'm trying to read that. Maybe deep down, they know we do have to do something about it but would just as soon someone else do it. I think, too, with the Ukraine war and with [Russian] President [Vladimir] Putin rattling his nuclear saber, that scares people. India-Pakistan, China-Taiwan, Iran, all of these geopolitical issues scare people. They're probably feeling the best offense is a good defense so let's keep building these plutonium pit cores [for nuclear weapons] and let's keep doing what we're doing. What we're doing is really pursuing a second arms race that's probably more dangerous than the first.

ACT: Have you met with executives at the labs at Los Alamos and Sandia or with defense industry CEOs?

Workers conduct an analysis of plutonium at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico where plutonium pits for nuclear weapons are manufactured.  (Photo courtesy of Los Alamos National Laboratory)Wester: Yes. We are going to. We had quite a few date possibilities this last summer. I was going to meet with scientists in the Los Alamos labs, and we're still going to do it, we just could not come up with a date, I suppose because of the vacations and all. So, I want to have that conversation. I have gotten some responses from some engineers and scientists at Sandia and Los Alamos that have been positive. They've said they agree with the pastoral letter. They read the summary of it at least, and they do agree with its ultimate desire to rid the world of nuclear arms. But my sense is that they think that we have quite a few steps to take before we get there. It's hedging their bets maybe. We've already waited too long. There are 13,000 weapons in the world today, with more being produced. Several countries are modernizing their weapons, including with hypersonic delivery systems, and all this portends badly for the future.

ACT: Presumably, some people are worried about losing jobs if the nuclear industry goes away. You have suggested that if nuclear weapons are eliminated, the scientists and their skills can be used for other things such as verification work and environmental cleanup. Do people consider that argument credible?

Wester: The feedback has been mixed. I think it's more one of disbelief, like, prove it, show me. We're working on that, trying to get more statistics. I think there are two points there, though, that really are compelling. One is that there's going to be about $9.4 billion spent by the U.S. Department of Energy in New Mexico this fiscal year for nuclear weapons development, most of it for Los Alamos and plutonium pit core production, and also for the Sandia labs for nuclear weapons life extension programs. I think it's $8.5 billion. So, that’s 10 percent more than the state of New Mexico’s entire operating budget. People see those numbers and they go, “New Mexico is benefiting from all this money,” but in fact New Mexico is not benefiting from all this money. There are some who are, and obviously Los Alamos is one of the wealthiest areas of the United States. But the money does not really trickle down to the average citizen in New Mexico. It's kind of a red herring to think that all this money is going to help. It doesn't.

Number two, the labs are already doing other things besides developing and building nuclear arms. They were at work helping with the COVID-19 crisis. They also do work in the medical field and on climate control questions, and if we really do have verifiable, multilateral nuclear disarmament, we're going to need very clean and well-developed technology to do what [President Ronald] Reagan said, trust and verify. That's going to be a huge industry. I don't deny that whenever there's a switch—when the Industrial Revolution came along, or when technology and computers came along—obviously there are going to be instances of people losing a particular job. But in the main, I believe there'll be far more jobs available because of this. Plus, this is going to be a gradual thing. We're not going to unilaterally disarm tomorrow morning. So, I think the job question can definitely be answered clearly and, I think, satisfactorily.

ACT: Is there anybody in the New Mexico congressional delegation who's been particularly supportive?

Wester: Yes. I think Representative Melanie Stansbury has been supportive, and I'm very grateful to her. But our delegation pretty much is backing up the nuclear weapons industry here in New Mexico, and this is going to be a tough nut to crack. But we're going to do our very best to do so because we've got to really make our case with them, and we have to make the case at the grassroots level. We're trying to develop a grassroots here to get our archdiocesan and parish peace and justice commissions to be more conversant on the pastoral letter and on this issue so they can start writing letters. Politicians want to know where the votes are, and if we can show them that we've got the votes, that's going to make a big difference.

ACT: In a June public statement, you asked what the United States was afraid of when it refused to even attend a meeting of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Later, you accused nuclear-weapon states of having no intention to honor their pledge to eliminate nuclear weapons. Have you gotten any pushback from federal officials on such comments?

Wester: Not to my knowledge. I know when I came out with my [state capitol speech] a couple years ago, I got pushback from the local paper, the Albuquerque Journal, which is a conservative-biased paper. They refuted my speech, and to their credit, they published a letter to the editor that we wrote back as a counterrefutation. I'm a pretty small voice in this whole question. I don't think people really hear my voice. But maybe if I keep speaking, I'll become annoying enough. It's going to take real leadership to do what we're asking, for the United States to take the lead and work with the other nuclear parties to say, “Look, we've got to do something about this.” In my opinion, we also have to come to an agreement that we will not have any first-strike plans in our nuclear posture review. That alone would be a very important first step.

Right now, everybody's too afraid to make the first move, and I think the United States has to do that. I think President Joe Biden and his administration are handling the Ukraine war tragedy very well and they're trying to tamp down any panic or possibility of miscommunication [prompted by Putin’s nuclear threats]. I think they're doing as best they can, given the circumstances. They've taken real leadership on this, and the way I see the geopolitical landscape right now, I think the United States is the one to make that first step [on nuclear policy as well].

ACT: What did you think of the administration’s new nuclear policy review, which did not include a no-first-use nuclear strike component?

Wester: I'm a neophyte in many ways on this, but from my vantage point, I found the Nuclear Posture Review that came out recently very disappointing. It's going in exactly the wrong directions and not showing the necessary leadership. It’s frustrating that a lot of times, politicians will say things as they go up the ladder, but then when they get to a position where they really can do something, they pull back. They're privy to information I don't have, obviously, but it seems to be quite logical that having these nuclear arms is just untenable and we've got to do something about it and we've got to start taking the first step.

We're not asking President Biden or President Putin or [Chinese] President Xi Jinping to unilaterally disarm. We're asking them to begin. Why can't we go back to those days when we went from, like, 60,000 nuclear weapons down to what we have now, 13,000? That was quite a significant reduction in nuclear armaments. It seems to me that we could take the leadership and start that diplomacy going again. But for some reason, there just does not seem to be the will at those higher levels that you speak of.

ACT: As you mentioned earlier, we are in a different political environment, and there's a real turn, certainly in this country, toward grievance and vitriol. That's a pretty tough environment in which to make policy that breaks the mold.

Wester: You're right, and it's absolutely irresponsible, for example, for the U.S. president to say [as President Donald Trump said to North Korean leader Kim Jung Un], “If you do this, you're going to see more hellfire from heaven than you've ever seen before.” We're just trying to get a political leader to move the needle back to the middle where he will be diplomatic and careful and prudent of what he says.

ACT: Are there any concluding points you want to make?

Wester: There's one thing that really speaks to me, and that is, as I am doing this, I do get the impression that a lot of people look at me and say, “Oh well, archbishop, aren't you a nice man, why don't you just go back to your sacristy and say your prayers and don't stick your nose where it doesn't belong.” I have a feeling that what they're saying to me is, “You're just being naive, you really don't understand what we're dealing with, we're the scientists, we're the politicians, we're the ones who know what we're talking about.” I would say back to them, who really is it that's being naive? If they look at all the years now that we've had nuclear weapons, as I've said earlier, and as McNamara, [President Dwight] Eisenhower, Reagan have said, really, it's only by luck that we haven't destroyed the planet yet.

It's far more naive to think that we can continue the way that we're going, building up our nuclear arms, and to think that luck is going to save the day. To me, that’s the epitome of naiveté. What we need to do is roll up our sleeves and start talking seriously about the danger our planet Earth is in. You talk about climate change; this to me is the number one issue of climate change. You talk about the sanctity of human life; this to me is the number one issue of human life, because these bombs would destroy all of human life and all of any living, sentient beings. So, I'm waiting for the day for somebody to come up and just say it, you know, archbishop, you're a bit naive. Oh? Because I think you're naive.

He knows some think he is naïve but says, “It’s far more naïve to think that we can continue the way that we’re going.”

The U.S. Defense Budget and Russia’s War on Ukraine

November 2022
By Monica Montgomery

The Russian war on Ukraine has led to significant increases in U.S. defense spending this year in terms of direct war-related expenditures and the Pentagon’s base budget. Even before the war, however, the push to invest more in defense had been advancing with the backing of a majority in Congress concerned about rising threats from Russia and China. The conflict in Ukraine is certain to have a profound impact on this trend.

U.S. weapons transfers to Ukraine, such as this MK-19 automatic grenade launcher being aimed at Russian positions by Ukrainian soldiers near the front-line in the Donetsk region, are having a big impact on the U.S. defense budget.  (Photo by Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP via Getty Images)The areas of defense spending that need reevaluating in this new environment raise major questions with which Washington urgently needs to grapple. The challenge for lawmakers is clear. They must unlearn the ways in which defense spending has been determined in recent years, based on fuzzy strategies and bad-faith arguments by those who stand to benefit from a bloated defense budget, and relearn how to focus the spending on real security requirements and fixed goals.

Rising Defense Budget

Even before Russia invaded Ukraine in February, the U.S. defense budget had been trending upward at a greater rate than inflation or the risk climate would dictate. Last year’s bill to authorize defense-related spending and policies, the fiscal year 2022 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), increased the topline authorization level by $25 billion above President Joe Biden’s request, a request that was already billions more than the previous year. The initial votes to boost the defense budget took place months before Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered Russian forces into Ukraine and even before there was widespread concern in Washington that Russian troop buildups along Ukraine’s borders could lead to direct conflict. In fact, discretionary dollars allocated for national defense programs have increased by an average of $23 billion annually during the administrations of Biden and President Donald Trump.1 Since the end of World War II, the United States has spent proportionally more on the military than it does now only during the 2009 and 2010 spending peaks of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

Proponents of higher defense spending argue that these historic levels of spending are justified, and in the eyes of some, they are still insufficient. The United States is operating in a new strategic environment, they say, one with two near-peer strategic rivals in Russia and China; enduring threats from North Korea, Iran, and proxy terrorist groups; and new, emerging technologies and war-fighting domains. To these worried minds, the solution is obvious: a strong military bolstered by a robust defense budget to address all these threats simultaneously.

The prioritization of a strong national defense understandably receives widespread support within Congress and among the voters who sent them there, but how should the country define exactly what constitutes a strong national defense? The easiest metric is seemingly the amount of money set aside for the military. After all, it seems logical that a well-funded defense budget will ensure that U.S. national security strategy objectives are met. In theory, it is the president’s duty to outline a cohesive national security strategy and translate it into a budget. Congress will then work to fulfill its constitutional duty to translate the budget into real dollars, ensuring that the U.S. military receives adequate funding without wasting taxpayer dollars or crowding out other nondefense national priorities.

In practice, however, the defense budget is often increased year after year without solid grounding in a defined, workable strategy. Although the Biden administration’s National Security Strategy, released in October, emphasizes “shared challenges” that necessitate cooperation across international borders, the dominate focus is to “outcompete” rival major powers, namely China and Russia.2 This latest catchphrase of “strategic competition” also had been central to the national security strategy outlined by the Trump administration, but most policymakers and experts in Washington would be hard-pressed to define what the term actually means or how competition can be a security end goal in itself. What the strategic competition mindset does provide is a magic word to ensure that any program, regardless of its future relevance or utility, will be funded if the request is categorized as necessary to compete against China or Russia. Yet, competing with China and Russia in every corner of the globe would be very expensive, requiring ever-larger investments in operations, maintenance, and the retention of legacy platforms that detract from opportunities to right-size the military for the future and seek noncompetitive methods of addressing shared threats such as nuclear proliferation and climate change.3

Compounding this dynamic is the outsized influence exerted on the budget process by the service branches, with their parochial concerns; defense contractors and other powerful lobbies; and lawmakers who have strong interests in serving their districts and play lead roles in developing and approving spending.4 The result is a failure to effectively translate an already opaque defense strategy into dollars, leaving the government with an “everything but the kitchen sink” approach to crafting the budget and a misguided notion that if enough money is thrown at a threat, it can be defeated.

Support for Ukraine

Unsurprisingly, many lawmakers immediately seized the opportunity following the Russian invasion to call for boosting the U.S. defense budget beyond existing high spending levels. On the same day that Russian tanks first rolled into the Donbas region of Ukraine, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) concluded his statement regarding the invasion with a pitch not only for shoring up Ukrainian and NATO defenses, but also for increasing the base U.S. defense budget. “We need to rebuild our atrophied ability to deter and defend against aggression by these adversaries. That means we must invest more robustly in our own military capabilities to keep pace,” he said.5 Similar statements from many other members of Congress from both sides of the aisle followed in the weeks and months after the invasion.

Understandably, Congress, in unison with the White House, has been eager to supply Ukraine and frontline NATO allies with the necessary weapons and support to defend themselves against unprovoked Russian aggression. To do so, the United States has provided historic levels of military aid to Ukraine in the months prior to and since the start of the war, mostly through emergency supplemental appropriations. In total, the United States has provided $28 billion in defense aid for Ukraine in fiscal year 2022.6 Specifically, these funds have been used to subsidize, train, equip, and advise Ukrainian forces through the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative; to replenish stocks of U.S. equipment sent to Ukraine; and to fund Department of Defense operations and personnel accounts, including covering costs related to additional U.S. troop deployments to Europe.7

Although much of this money has flowed directly to the frontline, a significant chunk has gone to the Pentagon and to defense contractors to cover costs related to U.S military support for Ukrainian forces.8 The most recent supplemental defense funding approved by Congress in late September also included some longer-term and less war-related spending, including for research and development accounts and for bolstering the U.S. domestic defense industrial base. As more needs and expenses accrue down the line, Congress can be expected to continue providing additional emergency funding for Ukraine for the foreseeable future in a similar manner, although the quantity and type of weapons that the United States should be providing persists as a source of debate.

As a result, justifying increases to U.S. defense spending through the regular appropriations and authorization processes to cover Ukraine-related costs should be seen as disingenuous double-dipping into the pockets of taxpayers because the supplemental emergency funding is covering those costs. Topline increases in the base budget have little or nothing to do with shoring up Ukrainian forces or replenishing U.S. stocks. Rather, they are exploiting Russian aggression to beef up the U.S. military. To this end, many of those calling for increases in the annual defense budget in response to the war are making a direct link between Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and a supposed weakness in the U.S. defense budget.9

This claim is unfounded. By some estimates, the U.S. defense budget in 2021 accounted for 38 percent of the world’s total military expenditures and was 12 times greater than the share of Russian spending on its own military.10 Based on these figures alone, it is difficult to imagine how anyone could argue credibly that a more robustly funded U.S. military would have stopped Russia from invading Ukraine. Moreover, the embarrassingly bad performance of the Russian military has highlighted what most experts already knew: there is already a huge qualitative gap between Russia and the West.

The strength of the U.S. military was not a factor in Putin’s calculus to invade Ukraine earlier this year, however warped that calculus may have been. That Russia has been careful thus far not to escalate the conflict in a way that would provoke direct U.S. and NATO intervention, combined with Putin’s reckless overreliance on nuclear blackmailing, underscores the comparative weakness of Russian conventional forces.11 Instead of inflating the threat posed by Russia, U.S. policymakers should conclude from Russia’s war failures that the United States needs to fundamentally modify its defense strategy to take into account the factors that allowed Ukraine to resist Russian aggression successfully without excessive spending.

Budget Inflation in 2022

Predictably, this lesson was not reflected in recent budget developments on Capitol Hill. In the fiscal year 2023 NDAA that is now making its way through Congress, the House voted to boost the defense topline by $37 billion while the Senate added $45 billion beyond the White House request, which already was higher than previously projected.

The increases in this year’s defense policy bills were endorsed by bipartisan majorities during markups in the relevant committees and were explained largely as responses to the war in Ukraine and to offset historic inflation at home. “War. Inflation. That’s it.… That sets the tone for more, more, more for the military,” said Rep. John Garamendi (D-Calif.), who chairs a House Armed Services subcommittee and opposed the increase.12

An examination into the specifics, however, shows that funding related to inflationary pressures and Ukraine only account for a fraction of the overall increases. The bulk of programs receiving funding boosts came directly off the “unfunded priorities lists” developed by certain segments of the Pentagon and National Nuclear Security Administration, just as was done in the previous fiscal year when the defense budget also was increased. These lists, commonly referenced as “wish lists” or “risk lists” depending on one’s perspective, are a budget gimmick. They allow the military service branches, combatant commands, and various defense-related agencies to circumvent top civilian leadership at the White House and Pentagon by directly providing Congress with a list of so-called priorities that did not make it into the administration’s budget request and can be used as an easy road map for boosting the budget.13

Although the House and Senate amendments to increase defense expenditures differed in some areas, funding has been authorized to procure additional ships and aircraft, sustain legacy weapons systems that the services are trying to retire, invest in unproven missile defense technologies, and fund R&D projects and infrastructure upgrades that were not deemed priorities in the administration’s budget request. The utility of many of these programs for countering Russian aggression in the current conflict is unclear, and their impact on offsetting inflationary pressures at the Pentagon is nil. In fact, this stunt is exactly what Pentagon leaders warned Congress against doing, as expressed by Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks in May: “What we don’t want is added topline [funding] that’s filled with new programs that we can’t support and afford in the out-years and that doesn’t cover inflation…. That is my number one concern.”14

Although the House and Senate have yet to negotiate a final NDAA and appropriations package for 2023, the national defense discretionary topline figure likely will total more than $850 billion, even before accounting for any additional emergency supplementals related to Ukraine. Many lawmakers will be tempted to look at this large figure and conclude that it meets the mark of responding to Russian aggression in Ukraine and domestic inflation, but more spending does not necessarily equal more security. In fact, the specifics of this year’s overall boost reveal a continuation of congressional bad habits to fund the Pentagon in a manner inconsistent with its own wishes and at the expense of taxpayers.15

The Nuclear Budget

One area of the defense budget that is likely to be singled out as requiring bigger investments following the invasion of Ukraine is the nuclear weapons portfolio. Although Russia’s lagging conventional capabilities have been on full display in the war, so has its use of nuclear saber-rattling to project strength and deter outside intervention on Ukraine’s behalf. Putin’s threats to use nuclear weapons are cause for concern in themselves, but they also have provided fodder to nuclear hawks who would like to see the U.S. nuclear arsenal grow in quantity and capabilities.

The Pentagon aims to replace Ohio-class ballistic submarines, such as the USS Henry M. Jackson, pictured here in 2015, with the new Columbia-class submarine whose total acquisition costs have grown by more than $3.4 billion. (Photo by U.S. Navy)The total price tag for U.S. nuclear weapons sustainment and modernization plans could reach $1.5–2.0 trillion over 30 years. Although much of this spending already has been committed, there still are many opportunities to trim excess and avoid exacerbating a new arms race while maintaining a credible and reliable U.S. deterrent. Nevertheless, close watchers of the nuclear budget certainly will not be surprised if the total figure reaches the high end of the total estimate or increases even further.

Many of the modernization plans already have faced or are likely to face schedule delays and cost increases beyond their initial projections. For example, the U.S. Government Accountability Office reported this summer that the estimated total acquisition costs for the Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine program have grown by more than $3.4 billion since the congressional watchdog’s last annual assessment.16 Similarly, the Air Force’s total cost estimate for the long-range standoff weapons system, a new air-launched cruise missile being developed by Raytheon Technologies under a sole-source contract, has already ballooned by $5.4 billion, an increase of 50 percent from the service’s original estimate in 2016.17 The new cruise missile’s associated warhead, the W80-4, has been plagued by delays that could risk cost increases down the line.18

Spending on nuclear programs is likely to see a further uptick if the long-standing push to develop new U.S. nuclear weapons gains fresh momentum from Putin’s nuclear threats. This trend was already in process with the development and deployment of the W76-2 low-yield submarine-launched ballistic missile warhead that was added to existing modernization plans by the Trump administration. Despite Biden’s previous opposition to the weapon, his administration gave its endorsement to retaining the W76-2 warhead in the 2022 Nuclear Posture Review, deeming the geopolitical landscape too hostile to remove the warhead from U.S. submarines.

Moreover, the Biden administration’s sensible decision not to move forward with another Trump-era plan, for a new low-yield sea-launched cruise missile, was met with fierce criticism from Republicans. These lawmakers channeled comments from certain high-ranking military commanders who publicly disagreed with Biden’s decision, even though the Navy leadership itself opposed the program.19 This pressure led Democratic leaders of the House and Senate armed services subcommittees that authorize nuclear weapons spending to broker deals with their Republican counterparts to allow $45 million for R&D of the system to move forward in the 2023 defense authorization bill. Even such a relatively low level of funding for the missile and its associated warhead potentially could translate into full-scale development and production in coming years.

By the end of this decade, when modernization spending as now projected is set to peak, nuclear weapons could account for nearly 10 percent of total U.S. national defense spending.20 Nothing about the situation in Ukraine recommends such a course. If anything, Russia’s lack of military success, despite possessing the world’s largest nuclear arsenal, argues for less U.S. reliance on nuclear weapons for anything beyond deterrence. Instead of adding even more weapons and requirements to U.S. nuclear modernization plans, Congress needs to enforce greater oversight of the ballooning nuclear budget with the aim of keeping plans on schedule and on budget. To reduce nuclear escalation risks, the priority should be placed on negotiating with the Russians to ensure that the last remaining bilateral treaty regarding U.S. and Russian strategic arms, the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, does not expire in 2026 without a plan to maintain its limitations and address additional areas of risk. History has proven that, even during periods of heightened dangers and tensions, the most sensible and urgent path forward requires difficult diplomacy.

The Path Forward

In recent years, there have been several efforts in Congress to interrupt the status quo budget process and rein in wasteful defense spending. The most visible one is the campaign, led primarily by progressive members of the House and Senate as part of the annual defense policy process, to implement a 10 percent cut in the defense budget that would be applied across the board, except for personnel and health programs. Other proposals have gained more traction, including amendments put forward on the floor to reverse just the increases added to the national defense budget topline in committee markups. Although these efforts all failed, they have provided important openings for an overdue debate on the trajectory of defense spending and the process that fuels it. More specifically, such initiatives have highlighted the inadvisability of simply mandating increases or decreases to the topline without solid strategic reasons.

Rep. Mikie Sherrill (D-N.J.) (L) and Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.) confer during a U.S. House Armed Services Committee hearing in April on the Biden administration’s fiscal year 2023 defense budget request. (Photo by Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)Lawmakers in both parties and from across the political spectrum have put forth proposals to enact more targeted cuts in expensive and controversial military programs, such as the F-35 fighter jet and the new Sentinel intercontinental ballistic missile, and to allow for the retirement of costly, unwanted platforms such as the Littoral Combat Ship. Finally, there has been a steady drumbeat of proposals that seek to root out waste, fraud, and abuse in the Pentagon and increase oversight of defense dollars. Specific proposals in this category include repealing the statutory requirements for unfunded priorities lists, imposing more penalties on the Pentagon until it passes a financial audit, and reforming acquisition laws to prevent private contractors from engaging in price gouging.

In sum, Congress does not lack proposals for scaling back bloat in the defense budget and making the Pentagon a more fiscally responsible and effective entity, all of which would enhance U.S. national security. Unfortunately, the majority of lawmakers do not appear keen to enact overdue reforms or harden their oversight of the Pentagon. These critical failings are likely to be exacerbated by hawkish lawmakers who will continue to point to Putin’s war on Ukraine, despite evidence of the Russian military’s serious shortcomings, as an easy excuse for pouring more money into every Pentagon account, including programs that do little to bolster U.S. national security.

This approach makes Americans less safe. Through blank checks and hyperfixation on competition, the defense budget overextends the military and allows for fiscal mismanagement at the Pentagon at the expense of readiness and efficiency. The current approach also provides little room to adequately address nontraditional threats such as climate change and pandemics, as well as the cooperative solutions needed across the U.S. government and with allies and adversaries to address them. This moment calls for a long overdue examination of how to spend smarter and center a defined, achievable strategy in U.S. budgetary decisions, not the other way around.



1. Stephen Semler, “Reagan’s Military Buildup vs. Pentagon Spending in the Trump-Biden Era,” Speaking Security Newsletter, No. 166, August 2, 2022, https://stephensemler.substack.com/p/reagans-military-buildup-vs-pentagon.

2. The White House, “National Security Strategy,” October 2022, pp. 11–12, https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2022/10/Biden-Harris-Administrations-National-Security-Strategy-10.2022.pdf.

3. Cornell Overfield, “Biden’s ‘Strategic Competition’ Is a Step Back,” Foreign Policy, October 13, 2021, https://foreignpolicy.com/2021/10/13/biden-strategic-competition-national-defense-strategy/; Becca Wasser and Stacie Pettyjohn, “Why the Pentagon Should Abandon ‘Strategic Competition,’” Foreign Policy, October 19, 2021, https://foreignpolicy.com/2021/10/19/2022-us-nds-national-defense-strategy-strategic-competition/.

4. Julia Gledhill and William D. Hartung, “Spending Unlimited,” TomDispatch, September 11, 2022, https://tomdispatch.com/spending-unlimited/.

5. Office of Senator Mitch McConnell, “McConnell on Putin Invading Ukraine: ‘The World Is Watching’ for America’s Response,” press release, February 22, 2022, https://www.mcconnell.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/pressreleases?ID=50ACBABF-06BF-4B40-A463-1687FA07D542.

6. Additional humanitarian funding has been provided from other nondefense accounts, so the $28 billion figure only represents programs under the purview of the Department of Defense.

7. For more on the specifics of the $28 billion provided in Defense Department funds to Ukraine so far, see Christina L. Arabia, Andrew S. Bowen, and Cory Welt, “U.S. Security Assistance to Ukraine,” Congressional Research Service in Focus, IF12040, August 29, 2022, https://crsreports.congress.gov/product/pdf/IF/IF12040.

8. Steve Ellis, “Surprise: Today’s ‘Must Pass’ CR Bill Includes Defense Company Goodies,” Responsible Statecraft, September 30, 2022, https://responsiblestatecraft.org/2022/09/30/surprise-todays-must-pass-cr-bill-includes-defense-company-goodies/.

9. See Kori Schake, “American Must Spend More on Defense,” Foreign Affairs, April 5, 2022, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/united-states/2022-04-05/america-must-spend-more-defense; Elbridge A. Colby, “More Spending Alone Won’t Fix the Pentagon’s Biggest Problem,” Time, March 28, 2022, https://time.com/6161573/us-defense-budget-strategy/.

10. Diego Lopes Da Silva et al., “Trends in World Military Expenditure, 2021,” Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, April 2022, https://www.sipri.org/sites/default/files/2022-04/fs_2204_milex_2021_0.pdf.

11. For a deeper discussion on these points, see Lyle J. Goldstein, “Threat Inflation, Russian Military Weakness, and the Resulting Nuclear Paradox: Implications of the War in Ukraine for U.S. Military Spending,” Costs of War Project, September 15, 2022, https://watson.brown.edu/costsofwar/files/cow/imce/papers/Threat%20Inflation%20and%20Russian%20Military%20Weakness_Goldstein_CostsofWar-2.pdf.

12. Connor O’Brien, “‘There Was Almost No Debate’: How Dems’ Defense Spending Spree Went From Shocker to Snoozer,” Politico, July 26, 2022, https://www.politico.com/news/2022/07/26/democrats-defense-spending-military-00048041.

13. For more on the history of and possible future for wish lists, see Andrew Lautz, “Congress Should Do Away With DoD Unfunded Priorities Lists, A Multibillion-Dollar Wish List Boondoggle,” National Taxpayers Union Issue Brief, March 31, 2021, https://www.ntu.org/library/doclib/2021/03/Congress-Should-Do-Away-With-DoD-Unfunded-Priorities-Lists-A-Multibillion-Dollar-Wish-List-Boondoggle.pdf.

14. Andrew Clevenger, “Pentagon to Work With Congress to Mitigate Inflation’s Budget Bite,” Roll Call, May 6, 2022, https://rollcall.com/2022/05/06/pentagon-to-work-with-congress-to-mitigate-inflations-budget-bite/.

15. For more information, see Ben Freeman and William Hartung, “Spending More and More for Less and Less at the Pentagon,” The Hill, April 15, 2022, https://thehill.com/opinion/national-security/3269553-spending-more-and-more-for-less-and-less-at-the-pentagon/.

16. U.S. Government Accountability Office, “Weapon Systems Annual Assessment: Challenges to Fielding Capabilities Faster Persist,” GAO-22-105230, June 2022, https://www.gao.gov/assets/gao-22-105230.pdf.

17. Kingston Reif, “New Cruise Missile Cost Rises,” Arms Control Today, September 2021, pp. 32–33.

18. Dan Leone, “Two-Year Delay for First W80-4 Warhead, but NNSA Says Will Still Deliver On-time to Air Force,” Nuclear Security & Deterrence Monitor, Vol. 26, No. 31 (August 4, 2022), https://www.exchangemonitor.com/two-year-delay-for-first-w80-4-warhead-but-nnsa-says-will-still-deliver-on-time-to-air-force-2/?printmode=1.

19. Shannon Bugos, “U.S. Defense Officials Balk at Biden’s Nuclear Budget,” Arms Control Today, June 2022, pp. 30–32.

20. Kingston Reif and Shannon Bugos, “Biden’s Disappointing First Nuclear Weapons Budget,” Arms Control Association Issue Brief, Vol. 13, No. 4 (July 9, 2021), https://www.armscontrol.org/issue-briefs/2021-07/bidens-disappointing-first-nuclear-weapons-budget.

Monica Montgomery is a policy analyst at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation focusing on issues involving nuclear arms control, nonproliferation, and the U.S. defense budget.

Must ever increasing military spending be the answer to new security threats?

The Case for Strengthening Transparency in Conventional Arms Transfers

November 2022
By Paul Holtom, Anna Mensah, and Ruben Nicolin

Every year, more than $100 billion worth of weapons are transferred to countries and other buyers all over the globe. Most of these international transactions happened in the shadows until 1991, when there was a concerted effort to ensure a measure of transparency about who is buying, who is selling, and what weapons are involved in the world’s deadliest conflicts.

France, Italy, Norway, and Sweden were once leaders in publishing data about their arms exports but now do less, according to one tracking tool. Here, French soldiers prepare a Leclerc tank to be sent to Romania as part of the NATO Battle Group Forward Presence. (Photo by Francois Nascimbeni/AFP via Getty Images)Although news reports and press releases provide the public with information on some orders and deliveries of conventional arms, fewer states are publicly reporting on their arms transfers compared to 10 or 20 years ago. If not for reporting by the world’s largest exporters of conventional arms on their activities, multilateral instruments designed to provide transparency on international arms transfers would be almost worthless. All of this raises the questions of what happened to the promise of those multilateral instruments, the UN Register of Conventional Arms (UNROCA) and the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), and what can be done to reverse the decline in reporting on arms exports and imports.

Tracking Conventional Arms

Thirty years ago, in December 1991, against the backdrop of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, UN member states established the UNROCA “to prevent excessive and destabilizing accumulation of arms [and] enhance confidence, promote stability, help states to exercise restraint, ease tensions, and strengthen regional and international peace and security.”1 By the turn of the millennium, more than 120 UN member states were providing information annually for the register on their imports and exports of seven categories of conventional arms: tanks, armored vehicles, large-caliber artillery systems, combat aircraft and unmanned combat aerial vehicles, attack helicopters, warships, and missiles and missile launchers (fig. 1). In addition, several states provided what is labeled “background information” in their annual submission on the number of conventional weapons that their national armed forces acquired from domestic arms production, as well as how many major conventional weapons systems are in their national inventory. The norm of transparency in international arms transfers appeared to be well established as the information provided by states was made publicly available by the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs.

To ensure the relevance and effectiveness of the register, a review mechanism was established under which the UN secretary-general appoints a group of governmental experts every three years to evaluate its operation and make proposals for further development. Each group determines if new weapons systems need to be included in national submissions to the register. It also looks at ways to promote participation in the register and how to use submitted information to build confidence and security among states.

In the spring and summer of 2022, the most recent experts group noted that its triennial review “took place against a backdrop of heightened international tension and mistrust, which underlined the continued relevance of the register and highlighted once again the continuing need for transparency and confidence-building instruments in political and military affairs.”2 Although there has been a dramatic downward trajectory in register reporting for more than a decade, the group lamented that it was meeting at a time when only 37 states had submitted their 2021 data to the register, compared to 124 submissions in 2001.3 It is time for new ideas to reinvigorate the move toward more and better transparency on the international arms trade.

Transparency in Decline

Sharing information on military capabilities with other states and making it available to the public has long been a sensitive issue for government officials and security personnel. Yet, since the end of the Cold War, transparency in international arms transfers looked to have been widely accepted. About 170 UN member states, more than three-quarters of the total, have participated in the register at least once.

Furthermore, the register has served as a point of reference and inspiration for regional confidence-building and information exchanges on international arms transfers in Africa, the Americas, and Europe. For example, states participating in the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe have exchanged annual reports on their imports and exports of conventional arms using UNROCA descriptions since 1998.4 States-parties to the Inter-American Convention on Transparency in Conventional Weapons Acquisitions, which entered into force in November 2002, are obliged to submit annual reports on imports and exports of items falling within the seven categories established by the UNROCA.5 Most recently, the register served as a key point of reference for the ATT, which obliges states-parties to report annually on their exports and imports of seven categories of major conventional weapons and also small arms and light weapons. Article 13(3) of the ATT even encourages states-parties to provide the same information for the ATT and the register.

UNROCA reporting levels logically might be expected to exceed those for the ATT because all UN member states are called on to participate in the register, whereas just more than half of these states are obliged to report on international arms transfers to the ATT Secretariat. Yet, almost from the start, ATT annual reporting rates have been higher than those for the register. Whereas all submissions to the UNROCA are available publicly, ATT states-parties can opt for their annual reports to be made available only to other ATT states-parties. In the first year of ATT reporting, two reports were made available for ATT states-parties only, while the other 52 reports were publicly available. By contrast, of the 64 ATT states-parties that submitted their annual report for 2021 by October 12, 2022, 20 states (31 percent) had chosen not to make their report publicly available.6 The figures for publicly reporting on arms exports and imports today look very similar to the 41 UNROCA submissions in the online database at the end of September 2022 and 44 ATT annual reports publicly available for 2021. Thus, a larger number of ATT states-parties prefer to provide information on their arms transfers only to other states. So, it is not just the register that is failing to expand public reporting on international arms transfers, as more ATT states are seeking to keep their transfers out of the public eye. This looks like a broader problem.

For the UNROCA, the dramatic decline in participation corresponds with a lack of countries submitting a “nil return,” that is, countries with no imports or exports of major conventional arms to report but that still participate in the register by declaring nothing to report. The annual average number of nil returns in 2000–2003 was 59 percent of submissions compared to 10 percent for 2020.7 The 2022 register experts group identified several factors to explain this, including limited capacities and lack of dedicated personnel for collecting and compiling data for submissions in national administrative structures and a lack of commitment to the register because it does not directly appear to link with their national security priorities, such as countering terrorism or organized crime. Other possible factors are an increasing burden on states that have multiple reporting obligations and limited capacity of the UNROCA Secretariat to encourage and support expanded participation.8

The Role of Major Arms Exporters

Despite the fact that an increasing number of countries are producing conventional weapons, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute estimates that the five largest arms exporting states accounted for 75 percent of the volume of international transfers of major conventional arms in 2012–2021, with the top 20 exporters accounting for 98 percent of that amount.9 All of the top 20 exporters in 1992–2021 have reported at least once to the register, with half of these states submitting information for at least 27 of the 30 years for which register submissions have been due. In addition, the 15 largest exporters that are also ATT states-parties have a 100 percent reporting record when it comes to ATT annual reports. Therefore, even though overall UNROCA reporting rates are in decline, the world’s largest arms exporters, in many cases due to requirements in national law or regulations, are still supporting the transparency norm and hopefully providing a reliable overview of the global flow of conventional arms.

At the same time, the quality of the information provided by these global leaders in arms exports varies. China and Russia only provide data on the number of items exported for each register category. For example, although Russia reported that it delivered 12 combat aircraft to Vietnam in 2021, it did not identify the type of aircraft. In contrast, Belarus reported the delivery of four MiG-29 jet fighters to Serbia that same year. Without this qualitative information, the utility of register submissions for confidence-building purposes is limited.

Although the Chinese and Russian approaches to reporting arms transfers have not changed in the past 30 years, other major exporters have altered their reporting practices and not always for the better. The Small Arms Survey’s Small Arms Trade Transparency Barometer, which has tracked the information provided by major small arms exporters for the past 20 years, found that some former transparency leaders, notably France, Italy, Norway, and Sweden, now publish less detailed information on arms exports.10 Meanwhile, the war in Ukraine could have a further detrimental impact on the transparency of several of the world’s largest arms exporters. The situation is dynamic and subject to change, but one could expect that states supplying conventional arms to Ukraine would not want the details to be made publicly available as they could reveal insights about Ukrainian military capabilities. Germany did not provide details about military materiel sent to Ukraine earlier this year, although it now regularly updates a governmental website with data on conventional arms and ammunition delivered to Ukraine, as well as planned transfers.11 France, Japan, Portugal, and Spain have announced plans to assist Ukraine militarily, but have not officially provided specific data on the arms and ammunition being delivered.12 It is a real question as to how forthcoming these states will be when it comes to filing their ATT annual reports or register submissions in 2023.

Improving Transparency and Accountability

Some initiatives to improve transparency and accountability are underway, but more are needed. For example, in 2021 the seventh ATT conference of states-parties agreed that the parties can instruct the treaty secretariat to provide relevant information contained in the ATT annual report to the UNROCA Secretariat to be used for register submissions.13 In other words, an ATT state-party can prepare and submit one report on arms transfers and satisfy both its treaty reporting obligation and its register commitment. As of mid-October, 18 ATT states-parties that had made their annual reports publicly available for 2021 indicated that they could be used in such a manner.14 It appears that 11 of these states already are included in UNROCA figures, so the total number of submissions should be increased from 40 to 47 for 2021. Although this approach may not push the number of register submissions above the total number of ATT annual reports for this year, it has already made a difference in its first trial year and could encourage others to use the same approach in the future.

The 2022 UNROCA experts group and the ATT working group on transparency and reporting have proposed other good ideas for building national capacities to enable data collection and processing to compile complete submissions for the register and ATT annual reports. These ideas include providing more support to people appointed by governments to coordinate the report compiling processes, including by offering international cooperation and assistance. These groups have stressed the benefits of data sharing for increasing trust and building confidence among states. It is expected that by examining reports and engaging with states and international and regional organizations, it will be possible to identify in advance potential risks for conflict and illicit diversion.

The information contained in ATT annual reports and the register should be for bilateral and multilateral consultations on situations where there is a potential of arms transfers posing a risk to international and regional security. Such exchanges are usually confidential, but occasionally cases come to light in which information provided to the register can highlight concerns and prompt action to address diversion or arms fueling conflicts. Perhaps the highest profile case was in 2008 when a vessel transporting new military materiel from Ukraine to Kenya was seized by pirates. This occurred shortly after Ukraine provided information in its 2007 register submission on its delivery of tanks, artillery, and small arms to Kenya. Investigations by journalists and arms specialists engaged with the United Nations determined that at least some of the arms and ammunition to Kenya were diverted to South Sudan. In this case, Ukraine’s register submission provided information that was not only used in confidential bilateral consultations, but also enabled a public debate on accountability in Kenyan arms transfer activities because the information was publicly available.

It is critical that efforts to increase public reporting on international arms transfers address the specific challenges faced by individual states, rather than adopting a one-size-fits-all approach. The benefits derived from this transparency process and the administrative burden that reporting imposes can be very different from one state to another. At the same time, capacity-building assistance alone will not lift the level of reporting on international arms transfers.

Transparency for All

The UNROCA was premised on an understanding that transparency in arms transfers builds confidence among countries and can provide some warning if excessive or destabilizing accumulations of arms are taking place. As long as major arms exporters continue to report regularly on their conventional transfers, it will be possible to discern and address trends in international arms transfers that could be problematic.

Yet, the register is also intended to build confidence among states that are not major arms exporters. Although many states submitted a nil return 20 years ago, the commitment of these states has dwindled. For Latin America and the Caribbean, the level of participation has dropped dramatically, and there have been no African submissions for several years. Notably, states from these regions submit ATT annual reports, but are not participating in the UNROCA.

One of the main reasons given for the difference in reporting is that the ATT includes small arms and light weapons in its scope, and this has not always been the case for the register. Almost all states are involved in the international transfer of these weapons on a regular basis, and many have highlighted the illicit trade in this category as a pressing security challenge. Increasing transparency about these international transfers could help demonstrate that the register can meet the security needs of more states.

To address that weakness, every UNROCA experts group has discussed whether to include small arms and light weapons as an eighth reporting category, mirroring the ATT. Since 2003, UN member states have been invited to provide information on international transfers of these weapons, but this category is treated as a lower-level commitment than reporting on exports and imports of artillery, combat aircraft, and tanks. In the search for creative options to fix the problem, the 2016 experts group created a formula designed to encourage “states in a position to do so” to provide information on international transfers in this underreported small arms category. Small arms and light weapons do not yet constitute a formal new category, but the slow elevation of their status should mean that most states will have to report on at least some of these transfers in their UNROCA submission and that the register is beginning to reflect broader security concerns than just those that were most acute 30 years ago.

Another challenge for the register is that although it requires states to report on imports and exports, states can also acquire conventional arms through national production. States are encouraged to provide information to the register on weapons acquired from indigenous production, but only four did so in this year’s submission. Every register experts group has discussed upgrading the reporting on procurement through national production so that this method of arms acquisition is treated similarly to imports and exports. Such a change could demonstrate that the register does not require states that import or export conventional arms to be more transparent than those that produce their own. Removing this discriminatory element might not result in a dramatic increase in register participation, but it would ensure that the register can more accurately capture the different ways in which states strengthen their military capabilities.

Conventional arms continue to be the main weapons used in conflicts around the world, causing untold deaths and destruction and setting back the socioeconomic development of vulnerable populations. Although open sources, journalists, and specialized arms investigators provide valuable information on weapons flows into conflict areas, it is public reporting by states that can provide a comprehensive, accurate picture of international arms transfers and in this way foster genuine trust and confidence-building among states. Such transparency remains as important for international peace and security today as it was 30 years ago.



1. UN General Assembly, A/RES/46/36, December 6, 1991.

2. UN General Assembly, “Continuing Operation of the United Nations Register of Conventional Arms and Its Further Development: Note by the Secretary-General,” A/77/126, June 30, 2022, para. 88.

3. A UN report published in the summer of 2022 indicated that only 37 member states had participated in the register. By September 2022 the online database indicated that 41 member states have provided information. UN General Assembly, A/77/165, July 14, 2022, https://front.un-arm.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/09/A-77-165-UN-Register-of-Conventional-Arms-002.pdf; UNROCA, Transparency in the global reported arms trade, https://www.unroca.org/.

4. Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, FSC.DEC/13/97, July 16, 1997, https://www.osce.org/files/f/documents/8/3/453696.pdf.

5. OAS, CITAAC. Most national reports can be found online at: https://www.oas.org/csh/english/conventionalweapons.asp.

6. Arms Trade Treaty, “Annual Reports,” October 5, 2022, https://thearmstradetreaty.org/annual-reports.html?templateId=209826.

7. UN General Assembly, “Continuing Operation of the United Nations Register of Conventional Arms and Its Further Development,” para. 28.

8. Ibid., paras. 33–37.

9. Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, “SIPRI Arms Transfers Database,” March 14, 2022, https://www.sipri.org/databases/armstransfers.

10. Small Arms Survey, “The Small Arms Trade Transparency Barometer,” February 21, 2020, https://www.smallarmssurvey.org/database/small-arms-trade-transparency-barometer.

11. Federal Government of Germany, “Military Support for Ukraine,” October 11, 2022, https://www.bundesregierung.de/breg-en/news/military-support-ukraine-2054992.

12. For publicly available information on commitments and deliveries of conventional arms and ammunition to Ukraine in 2022, see Arianna Antezza et al., “The Ukraine Support Tracker: Which Countries Help Ukraine and How?” Kiel Working Paper, No. 2218, August 2022, https://www.ifw-kiel.de/fileadmin/Dateiverwaltung/IfW-Publications/-ifw/Kiel_Working_Paper/2022/KWP_2218_Which_countries_help_Ukraine_and_how_/KWP_2218_Version5.pdf; Kiel Institute for the World Economy, “Ukraine Support Tracker,” October 11, 2022, https://www.ifw-kiel.de/topics/war-against-ukraine/ukraine-support-tracker/; Claire Mills, “Military Assistance to Ukraine Since the Russian Invasion,” House of Commons Library Research Briefing, No. 9477, October 17, 2022, https://researchbriefings.files.parliament.uk/documents/CBP-9477/CBP-9477.pdf.

13. Arms Trade Treaty Secretariat, “Final Report,” ATT/CSP7/2021/SEC/681/Conf.FinRep.Rev1, September 2, 2021; Arms Trade Treaty Working Group on Transparency and Reporting, “Co-Chairs’ Draft Report to CSP7,” ATT/CSP7.WGTR/2021/CHAIR/676/Conf. Rep, July 22, 2021.

14. Dumisani Dladla, “Arms Trade Treaty: Status of Reporting” (presentation, August 24, 2022), https://www.thearmstradetreaty.org/hyper-images/file/ATT_CSP8_ATTS_Status%20of%20Reporting/ATT_CSP8_ATTS_Status%20of%20Reporting.pdf.


Paul Holtom, head of the Conventional Arms and Ammunition Programme at the UN Institute for Disarmament Research, has been a consultant to the 2013, 2016, 2019, and 2022 groups of governmental experts on the UN Register of Conventional Arms. Anna Mensah is an associate researcher with the program, focusing on weapons and ammunition management, arms transfers, and diversion prevention. Ruben Nicolin is a graduate professional with the program, focusing on weapons and ammunition management, transparency, and reporting.

Transparency in conventional arms transfers can advance stability, but fewer countries are reporting their activities.

Protecting Civilians in the War Zone: An Interview With Michael Gaffey

November 2022

From the start of its war on Ukraine, Russia and its military forces have pummeled civilian neighborhoods, inflicting grievous pain on ordinary people. By mid-October, the onslaught reached new ferocity as Russia bombarded civilian targets and infrastructure in Kyiv and elsewhere, threatening millions of Ukrainians with shortages of water, heating, and electricity as winter sets in.

(Photo courtesy of the Permanent Mission of Ireland to the United Nations in Geneva)The war gave fresh urgency to the new international political declaration on the use of explosive weapons in populated areas that was agreed in June and will open for endorsement at a conference in Dublin on Nov. 18. The declaration recognizes the devastating harm to civilians from bombing and shelling in towns and cities and commits signatory states to impose limits on the use of these weapons and take action to address harm to civilians. States that sign the document commit to develop or improve practices to protect civilians during conflict, collect and share data, and provide victim assistance.

Regarding weapons use, the states also commit to “ensure that our armed forces adopt and implement a range of policies and practices to help avoid civilian harm, including by restricting or refraining as appropriate from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, when their use may be expected to cause harm to civilians or civilian objects.”

Michael Gaffey, the new head of Ireland’s development agency who as Irish ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva chaired negotiations on the declaration, spoke to Carol Giacomo, editor of Arms Control Today. The interview has been edited for space and clarity.

Arms Control Today: You worked a long time on this political declaration. Now that it’s about to take effect, what do you really hope to achieve?
Michael Gaffey: We’ve been holding negotiations since 2019, but Ireland and other countries have been involved on the issues arising from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas for quite a number of years. The UN secretary-general called on the international community to negotiate a political declaration on the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, and Ireland took on the role of leading the consultations in 2019. I think reaching agreement on a political declaration represents a sign of hope in times of great difficulty in international relations, when the use of explosive weapons in urban areas is causing huge concern and harm.

We are very grateful to states, international organizations, and civil society for reaching this agreement in Geneva in June. The Irish government will hold an international conference in Dublin on November 18 to adopt the declaration and to have as many countries as possible sign up to it. The political declaration doesn’t involve a prohibition on the use of any type of weapon. What it does is recognize very clearly that the use of explosive weapons in populated areas is a problem and that the humanitarian impact, the impact on civilians, is large and wide-ranging. The impact is direct, and it’s indirect. What I think we will achieve from this is that there will be follow-up action by governments and militaries of states that sign the declaration. This will improve the level of protection for civilians from the use of explosive weapons in urban areas. That’s why we regard it as a significant move forward. We always said our aim was to have a declaration that would lead to real change in the protection of civilians.

ACT: There are already international laws, including laws against genocide and harming civilians in war. Yet, they are violated every day, including in Ukraine. Not to be pessimistic, but to some extent, is this declaration wishful thinking?
Gaffey: I don’t think so. The use [of these weapons] is covered by international humanitarian law, but what we’ve got in the declaration is agreement that there actually is a problem regarding the protection of civilians, and that we need to better implement international and humanitarian law. We expect to have a range of countries coming to the Dublin conference from all regions, including large, militarily active states, recognizing this and agreeing to work at a political level and with their militaries to take action on that basis.

Russian strikes on populated neighborhoods in Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities gave fresh urgency to adoption of the new international political declaration on the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. (Photo by Oleksii Samsonov/Global Images Ukraine via Getty Images)It is not just that we’ve agreed that countries need to “ensure that our armed forces adopt and implement a range of policies and practices to help avoid civilian harm, including by restricting or refraining as appropriate the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, when their use may be expected to cause harm to civilians or civilian objects.” We’ve also got agreement on just what that harm is and how wide-ranging the harm is, not just in terms of deaths and injuries but also in terms of civilian infrastructure, food systems, health systems, and long-term development.

The implementation of the declaration will hopefully lead to change in military practices, which would reduce the harm to civilians. Yes, there is some idealism in that, but it’s only idealistic if we then sit back and say that words alone bring change. We’re not going to do that. There has to be follow-up, and that will involve political cooperation and military-to-military contact on the sharing of best practices on the protection of civilians. It will involve member states, international organizations, and civil society, because civil society is very much to the fore in highlighting the need for this declaration, and we agreed that it needs to be fully involved in the implementation. What we said on June 17 when we reached the agreement was, this isn’t the end of a process, this is the start of a process, and its success will only be measured, not by its adoption but how it is implemented. That will be the next step.

ACT: The war in Ukraine has brought renewed attention to this problem of explosive weapons targeting civilians in populated areas. If this declaration is implemented, how might the war in Ukraine be different?
Gaffey: The impetus for this declaration was there even before the war in Ukraine because we had seen the increased urbanization and harm to civilians of conflict in Yemen, in Iraq, in Syria, and in other places. It is true that, in the final phase of our negotiations, we were seeing on our screens really clear evidence of the use of explosive weapons in populated areas of Ukraine. That did help the push toward agreement, but it’s very important to emphasize that this is not a Ukraine-alone declaration. It is a humanitarian disarmament declaration about an issue that is happening in Ukraine but also elsewhere.

This declaration doesn’t have legal force, and it doesn’t prohibit the use of any specific type of weapon. Our aim is to get as many states onboard for the declaration so that those states, in their military operations, will be acting differently and will be putting the protection of civilians to the fore. Now, while it is open to all, some states may not sign up to it, but we need to build up a sense of pressure and moral force behind this declaration. After all, the UN secretary-general several times called for us to negotiate this. It was never seen as a legal instrument but a political instrument, and one that we have to keep promoting and implementing, so that militaries will make lasting changes in their approach, prioritizing the protection of civilians.

As you say, a lot of the law is there. A lot of the suggested practices are there. But weapons are developing all the time, practices are not being observed, and the more countries that we can get to return to this issue on the basis of this declaration, the more we are going to be able to see change in the impact on civilians. Today in Ukraine, we’re seeing the opposite. We’re seeing civilians directly under fire. So, that is why the declaration is the start of a process for change. It will take time, but it’s a real positive that we have agreement and will have agreement from a large number of states and from across different regions.
It is not a European or a Western initiative. Presumably, to be honest, some of what might be seen as the most egregious offenders may not sign up to it, but we want to create a sense of what needs to be done and pressure to do so. The declaration also focuses on the behavior and actions of non-state actors that put civilians in danger. I do think that declarations like this can have a real impact.

ACT: You do have the United States on board, correct?
Gaffey: We expect the United States will be on board, yes.

ACT: What about Russia, China, and other major military powers?
Gaffey: We won’t know for sure who will sign up until we launch the declaration. Some countries have indicated already that they will sign. Others will indicate closer to the day. I would say Russia was fully aware of the consultations in Geneva and China participated in the consultations, so that’s a hopeful point. This is a process, and we’ll see how it goes, but we were really encouraged by the level of countries that participated and sustained engagement right through COVID. I’m not sure we would have had that level of engagement 10 years ago.

ACT: You said an important piece of this declaration has to do with militaries changing how they operate. Have you seen any signs so far that any militaries are beginning to make these changes?
Gaffey: Militaries and defense ministries were involved in delegations and participated in the negotiations. In Section 3 of the declaration, we have agreement in broad terms on what needs to be done, for instance, on comprehensive training of armed forces on the application of international humanitarian law. There is a commitment to ensure that our armed forces, including in their policies and practices, take into account the direct and indirect effect on civilians and civilian objects, which can reasonably be foreseen in the planning of military operations and the execution of attacks.

The declaration has commitments on the clearing and removing of explosive remnants of war. We also have agreement that there will be political engagement between states, and there will be military-to-military engagement on what this means in practice. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is very engaged also in looking at what this will mean in practice. I think we’re satisfied that there will now be a process underway that will involve consideration by militaries, in a shared setting, of how to implement the commitments in the political declaration. Everything’s not going to change in a day or even a year, but there is going to be a new process underway, which we believe does put the protection of civilians front and center in a way that hasn’t happened in recent years. Now, that might seem idealistic; but I think it’s also something that’s realistic, frankly.

ACT: Given the panoply of conflicts today, would the coalition that is working on this declaration prefer to focus first on one crisis such as Yemen and try to get some better result there, or will the focus be more wide-ranging?
Gaffey: We wouldn’t want to limit implementation. We have a declaration that should be applicable globally, but we also want countries to engage with it, to sign up to it on a cross-regional basis, from different regions. In the run-up to the negotiations, there were a number of regional conferences, in Maputo and in Santiago. That shows the way that I think we should work. We’ve got a commitment to progress across regions. Countries will, of course, examine how the declaration is being implemented regionally, in their own regions, but I don’t think we would all focus exclusively on just one country. I think the regional element is vital because it is not a centralized process and international humanitarian law needs to apply universally.

ACT: Given the thousands of people being killed in conflicts today, is a voluntary commitment like this enough?Gaffey: There’s been a big debate on this issue of prohibition or legal obligations. It was recognized in recent years that to start to make progress on the use of heavy explosive weapons in populated areas, rather than starting to negotiate a new instrument, if we could focus on a political declaration, we could start to get movement, even though it’s voluntary. It was a long and difficult process. To be honest, countries didn’t agree to any of this easily; there were a lot of compromises.

The debate on the use of the word “avoid,” committing to “avoiding” using explosive weapons in populated areas, was probably the most difficult part of the negotiations. I think what we will do with this is see if we can achieve a better understanding and clarity on what practical steps are required to reduce civilian harm in conflict, including with respect to the full implementation of international humanitarian law. It’s another step after that to look at the issues that you have raised. But if we can get greater clarity and commitment on the implementation of international humanitarian law, this would be a big step forward.

We set out on this process with the intention of it making a difference, and we think that our conference in November and the follow-up to that will start to make a difference. That is an obligation we are placing on ourselves in signing up to the declaration. Of course, everyone won’t sign up to it, but if we get enough, we can create a new sense of pressure here.

ACT: The international network on explosive weapons and many civil society proponents of the declaration had called for stronger prohibition language. Do you think this process could eventually lead to a stronger legal commitment?
Gaffey: Those groups called for prohibition, but they also have welcomed the declaration because they see its potential to move forward in terms of political-level understanding and military-level change in operations. Between states working on implementation and civil society pushing on the declaration’s potential and then working with the UN and the ICRC, I think we have a real opportunity to achieve progress on the protection of civilians in conflict. We have been ambitious, and we have together built a broad community of interest. All are committed to change. The challenge for us is to demonstrate over the coming years that that change will happen.

ACT: Without a verification mechanism, how will you assess implementation of the declaration?
Gaffey: That was something we didn’t set out in detail, to be honest, and for a reason because we wanted to get the commitments clear first. We were not prescriptive about follow-ups in the declaration. We do envisage regular meetings to review implementation of the declaration, including exchanging policies, practices, and views on implementation. Critically, these meetings will involve not just states, but also the UN, the ICRC, other international organizations, and civil society. In this way, we will put together a sort of broad verification mechanism that is collaborative.

After the Dublin conference, there will be work by all parties on implementation. When will the next meeting take place? I imagine it will be about 18 months after the November conference. Where will depend on who steps forward with an offer to host. I know this is an issue under active consideration. At that point, states and the UN and the ICRC will work with civil society to demonstrate progress made, that there are policies and practices starting to come into effect that will make a difference.

Michael Gaffey (L), Irish ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva who headed negotiations on the political declaration on the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, and Jamie Walsh, Irish deputy permanent representative in Geneva in charge of disarmament issues, bring down the gavel after the declaration was agreed in June.  (Photo courtesy of the Permanent Mission of Ireland to the United Nations in Geneva)ACT: Since the declaration was agreed in June, you have moved on to a new position as director of Ireland’s development agency, Irish Aid. Is there a connection between those two roles?
Gaffey: There’s a tendency sometimes for arms control negotiations and consultations to take place in a totally different room from the humanitarian consultations. Development is often in yet another different room. So, I do think it is a major challenge for us in our multilateral engagement to look at the problem from the eyes of the civilians who are experiencing the impact of explosive weapons. Getting the humanitarian and development and arms control communities to work together is vital. It is very much how the UN Sustainable Development Goals are framed. Humanitarian disarmament is a traditional foreign policy priority for Ireland, notably through our work on the anti-personnel landmine convention and the Convention on Cluster Munitions, and our focus on the declaration carries this forward.

ACT: Any final thoughts?
Gaffey: I would emphasize that this declaration is cross-regional, it’s global, it’s not exclusive, and it’s not solely about Ukraine. It results from collaboration between states, civil society, and international organizations. That continued collaboration can ensure that a political declaration is effective. The goal is to reduce the unacceptable level of harm to civilians in conflict.

The Irish diplomat discusses the initiative he led to better protect civilians from the ravages of war.

Will Russia’s War on Ukraine Spur Nuclear Proliferation?

October 2022
By Robert Einhorn

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine upended many of the norms and expectations essential to the success of the global nuclear nonproliferation regime.

At their June summit in Madrid, where Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy spoke remotely, NATO leaders agreed to augment alliance capabilities to defend the frontline states. (Photo by Gabriel Bouys/AFP via Getty Images)In his August 1 address to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) review conference, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken referred to the potentially damaging impact of the invasion: “So what message does this send to any country around the world that may think that it needs to have nuclear weapons to protect, to defend, to deter aggression against its sovereignty and independence? The worst possible message.”1 According to foreign affairs columnist David Ignatius the Russian war “might prove the greatest stimulus to nuclear proliferation in history.”2 Similar concerns are shared by many other experts.3

Such proliferation pessimism in the midst of Russia’s brutal effort to erase Ukraine as an independent state is understandable. Some non-nuclear-weapon states under threat from hostile nuclear powers may reconsider whether they need their own nuclear deterrent to guarantee their security. Moreover, the perception that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s nuclear saber-rattling succeeded in deterring NATO’s direct intervention in the conflict may reinforce the determination of nuclear-armed states such as North Korea to hold on to their nuclear weapons. It also may increase the fears of non-nuclear-weapon states that are potential victims of nuclear power aggression that they could be left without a nuclear protector and forced to fend for themselves.

In theory, the Ukraine experience could incentivize more countries to pursue their own nuclear weapons capabilities, but nuclear proliferation does not occur in theory. It occurs in particular countries, with particular security situations and adversaries, security relationships with friendly states, national priorities, technological and financial capabilities, and domestic balances of political power.

To evaluate the impact of the Russian invasion on real-world prospects for further proliferation, it is essential to focus on particular cases, including the countries often considered possible candidates for reconsidering their nuclear options. When one does that, the outlook for further proliferation does not appear as pessimistic as has been widely assumed.


If any country is likely to “go nuclear” as a result of the war, Ukraine would be a logical bet. Russia’s all-out invasion last February, annexation of Crimea in 2014, and support for pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine were clear-cut violations of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum. That agreement committed Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States to safeguard Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and significantly influenced Ukraine to remove Soviet-era nuclear weapons from its territory and join the NPT as a non-nuclear-weapon state. In a February 19 speech, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy asserted that Russia’s aggression “put in doubt” the package of decisions contained in the memorandum, presumably including Ukraine’s decision to renounce nuclear weapons.4

Nevertheless, for many of the reasons that Ukraine renounced nuclear weapons in the early 1990s and maintained its non-nuclear-weapon status despite Russia’s 2014 encroachments, it is very unlikely to opt for nuclear weapons now. Although Ukraine has a substantial nuclear energy infrastructure, it lacks the specialized facilities needed to produce fuel for nuclear weapons or the weapons themselves. Devoting time and resources to construct those facilities would make little sense when the national priority for years to come will be rebuilding the country in the wake of the war’s devastation.

More fundamentally, Ukraine believes, probably more now than in 1994, that its future is with the West. Even if NATO membership is never in the cards—many Ukrainians and NATO members doubt that it is—Ukraine recognizes that U.S. and European military assistance is essential to its war effort and to defending against future Russian aggression. Moreover, Ukraine is determined to join the European Union and become more integrated economically, politically, and socially with the rest of Europe.

Ukraine knows that embarking on a nuclear weapons development program would alienate its Western partners and put those interests in jeopardy. It could find itself cut off from security assistance and subject to sanctions, including on the civil nuclear cooperation needed to sustain its heavy reliance on nuclear power to meet its energy requirements. Ukraine also knows that an embryonic nuclear weapons program, if detected, could well provide a pretext for a preemptive Russian military attack.

Thus, the likelihood of Ukraine pursuing nuclear weapons development is low and would be even lower if Western security assistance enables the country to achieve a relatively acceptable outcome to the war and if the United States and its allies follow through on their declared intention to strengthen Ukrainian defenses against future Russian aggression.

Frontline NATO States

The frontline states of NATO, mainly Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland, might be considered candidates for reevaluating their nuclear options. Putin’s expansive, pre-invasion description of Russia’s geopolitical ambitions, essentially to turn the clock back to the days of the Soviet Union and its sphere of influence, was perceived by those NATO allies as a serious and immediate threat. Since the invasion, they have been on edge about the prospect of Russia expanding the war to their territories and urgently appealed to their NATO partners to bolster their capabilities to deter a Russian incursion.

At their June summit in Madrid, NATO leaders agreed to augment alliance capabilities to defend the frontline states and to “defend every inch of allied territory at all times.”

These force enhancements, the prospect of more in the future, and the renewed solidarity and sense of purpose displayed by NATO countries in response to the Russian invasion should convince the frontline allies that their interests are much better served by relying on NATO’s Article V security guarantee than pursuing an indigenous nuclear weapons capability.

Japan and South Korea

Russian aggression may indirectly affect the security calculations of U.S. allies Japan and South Korea. Neither feels directly threatened by Russia, but they are worried that its attack on Ukraine and its nuclear threats designed to deter U.S. and NATO intervention in the conflict could embolden China and North Korea to act aggressively in the region. They worry that China and North Korea might assume that their ability to strike the U.S. homeland with nuclear weapons would deter the United States from coming to the defense of its allies.

The situations are very different. The United States is not bound by treaty to defend non-ally Ukraine, but is obliged to defend allies Japan and South Korea. Moreover, unlike in Ukraine, the United States stations large numbers of military personnel in both East Asian nations, which ensures that aggression against them would implicate vital U.S. interests and virtually guarantee U.S. involvement in the conflict. Nonetheless, the unsettling Ukraine experience, combined with the threatening nuclear and missile capabilities of China and North Korea and persistent regional uncertainty about the reliability of U.S. security commitments, could increase interest in Japan and South Korea in pursuing their own nuclear deterrents.

In recent years, South Koreans have grown increasingly concerned about the ability of their alliance with the United States to deter North Korea. Political figures, especially from the ruling conservative People Power Party; prominent former officials; and think tank experts have suggested options to enhance deterrence, including the redeployment of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons in South Korea, NATO-like nuclear-sharing arrangements that would enable South Korean pilots to deliver U.S. nuclear weapons in the event of war, and South Korea’s acquisition of its own nuclear weapons capability. South Korean public opinion has long favored indigenous development of nuclear weapons. A recent poll found that 71 percent favored an independent South Korean deterrent, greater than the 56 percent that favored the deployment of U.S. nuclear weapons in South Korea.5

In Japan, the nuclear debate has been more subdued, with the Japanese public opposed to acquiring nuclear weapons.6 Still, the subject is no longer taboo. As in South Korea, questions about the credibility of the U.S. extended nuclear deterrent have led the Japanese strategic community to think seriously about options for strengthening deterrence in a more challenging security environment.

Although support has grown in both countries for reassessing the wisdom of remaining non-nuclear-weapon states, neither is likely to opt for its own nuclear weapons. The Biden administration has done much to reassure the Japanese and South Koreans by giving high priority to strengthening U.S. alliances and reinforcing the U.S. extended deterrent, a sharp contrast to President Donald Trump’s transactional, often dismissive approach to these long-standing allies.

In addition, while continuing to depend heavily on the U.S. nuclear deterrent, these allies have given high priority to increasing their own military spending and boosting their own conventional defense and deterrence capabilities. These national efforts, by enhancing overall alliance deterrence and reassuring citizens of the governments’ ability to defend against growing regional threats, may reduce the perceived need for Japan and South Korea to develop their own nuclear weapons.

Moreover, the strong and skillful leadership displayed by the United States in rallying broad international support for penalizing Russia and assisting Ukraine militarily, even in the absence of a formal alliance with Ukraine, could serve to warn China and North Korea of the risks of aggression and to reassure U.S. allies and partners about the U.S. willingness to stand with them against future aggression.

Another factor working against Japanese and South Korean nuclearization is that acquiring nuclear weapons would not be cost free. A decision by either country to withdraw from the NPT and pursue nuclear weapons development would be a body blow to the global nonproliferation regime and elicit strong international opprobrium. Trading partners could be expected to scale back cooperation in certain strategically sensitive goods and technologies. Among other penalties, international civil nuclear cooperation could be cut off, dramatically effecting Japan and South Korea, which depend on nuclear power for energy.

Both countries would be aware that national nuclear forces and their production and storage facilities would become potential targets of preemptive attack in a crisis, especially in the early stages of nuclearization before survivable retaliatory capabilities are established.

In weighing the costs and benefits of going nuclear, a key factor would be the likely reaction of the United States, which has long opposed the acquisition of nuclear weapons by its East Asian allies. For many years, Japan and South Korea have had good reason to believe that a decision to go nuclear would lead to the weakening of their alliances with the United States and possibly the unraveling of U.S. security guarantees, including the U.S. nuclear umbrella.

With the United States increasingly focused on geopolitical competition with China and Russia, there has been speculation that it would be more tolerant of Japan and South Korea developing nuclear weapons and might even see the move as valuable if it helped tilt the global strategic balance against the United States’ great-power rivals. In that event, Washington might be reluctant to impose security, economic, and other penalties on an ally for choosing its own deterrent.

Depending on the evolution of the international security environment, such a U.S. attitude cannot entirely be ruled out. At least for now, it does not appear likely. The Biden administration seems strongly committed to opposing proliferation, including by its allies in East Asia. It wants to maintain a consistent, global nonproliferation policy and believes that regional stability is better served by continued reliance on the U.S. extended deterrent than by proliferating national nuclear capabilities that would heighten tensions and the risks of nuclear confrontation, intentional or inadvertent, that could involve the United States.

Going forward, the main driver of Japanese and South Korean nuclear decision-making will be the perceived reliability of U.S. security assurances in countering the growing threats from China and North Korea. For now, the Biden administration’s renewed emphasis on strengthening its East Asian alliances and enhancing the credibility of its extended nuclear deterrent, together with Japanese and South Korean conventional defense enhancements, make it unlikely they will opt for their own nuclear deterrent.


Given its precarious geopolitical situation, Taiwan might be expected to revive its interest in acquiring nuclear weapons. China has long been determined to unify the self-governing democratic island with the mainland, by military force if necessary, and President Xi Jinping has stepped up political pressures and military intimidation to hasten that outcome. Taiwan clandestinely pursued a nuclear weapons capability throughout much of the 1970s and 1980s, but it was caught and forced, largely by the United States, to accept constraints on its nuclear activities that effectively crushed its nuclear aspirations.

Taiwan has plenty of incentive and financial resources to pursue nuclear weapons but is unlikely to do so because authorities recognize the downsides. In this photo, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen makes remarks during a visit to Penghu Air Force Base on Magong Island in 2020. (Photo by Sam Yeh/AFP via Getty Images)Taiwanese authorities have drawn parallels between Russia’s invasion of non-nuclear Ukraine, whose legitimacy as an independent state has been challenged by Putin, and an emboldened China’s threat to invade non-nuclear Taiwan, which China views as a renegade province. Like Ukraine, Taiwan faces a mortal threat from a nuclear-armed state and is not the recipient of binding security guarantees from any nuclear power.

Taiwan has plenty of incentive, financial resources, and technical expertise to make another run at nuclear weapons development, but is unlikely to do so. Years ago, it accepted constraints that block its potential paths, including the renunciation of enrichment and reprocessing capabilities, the removal of plutonium-bearing spent fuel, and the shutdown of a research reactor that could be a source of weapons-grade plutonium. After the discovery of Taiwan’s covert program, the United States and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) pressured Taiwan to accept more rigorous scrutiny of its civil nuclear program, including implementation of an additional protocol to its safeguards agreement, even though Taiwan’s nonstate legal status makes it ineligible to adhere formally.7

Authorities in Taipei also recognize the downsides of seeking nuclear weapons. They know that the United States, their principal benefactor, strongly opposes a nuclear-armed Taiwan, which would radically alter the cross-strait status quo that the United States is determined to uphold. Taiwan’s leaders understand that pursuing their own nuclear deterrent would likely forfeit the substantial increase in political support and military assistance they have received from the Trump and Biden administrations, including after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Taiwan’s international political isolation would worsen, and the international trade and investment relationships that are the source of the island’s prosperity could fall victim to sanctions. Not least, China would view a nuclear weapons program as a redline-crossing move intended to ensure Taiwan’s independence and almost certainly trigger a Chinese military response.

Taiwan’s leaders probably understand that, despite President Joe Biden’s apparent personal conviction that the United States should defend Taiwan if it is attacked, the official U.S. position will remain one of strategic ambiguity. Nonetheless, the United States has moved to beef up its military posture in the western Pacific, and a bipartisan group of U.S. senators has introduced the Taiwan Policy Act of 2022 aimed at boosting U.S. security assistance to Taiwan and designating it a major non-NATO ally.8 Taiwan’s leaders probably perceive the U.S. position as evolving in a more reassuring direction, even if it still falls short of a formal guarantee. With U.S. encouragement, Taiwan seems more inclined to take its defense requirements more seriously, to commit the needed funds and political capital to address the growing threat, and to acquire the military and intelligence capabilities most relevant to countering likely scenarios of Chinese aggression.9

Relying on growing U.S. support and stepped-up national defense efforts will be seen by Taiwan’s authorities as a more promising approach to safeguarding the island’s self-governing status than pursuing nuclear weapons.


The non-nuclear-weapon state most likely to seek to join the nuclear club is Iran, although its interest in doing so long predated the Russian invasion and, unlike frontline NATO states in Europe or U.S. allies in East Asia, it does not feel directly or indirectly threatened by Russian aggression.

An Iranian technician works at Iran’s uranium conversion facility in Isfahan in 2007. Experts fear that Iran could have the capability to produce enough weapons-grade uranium for a nuclear weapon in a matter of days if the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear deal is not revived. (Behrouz Mehri/AFP via Getty Images)The Trump administration withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal, formally the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), in 2018 and Iran responded with a large-scale buildup of its uranium-enrichment program. Indirect negotiations between the United States and Iran on an agreement to return to JCPOA compliance are at an impasse. Biden administration officials say prospects for a deal in the near term, particularly before the U.S. midterm elections in November, are unlikely.

In the absence of JCPOA revival, Iran could soon have the capability to produce enough weapons-grade uranium to fabricate a nuclear weapon in a matter of days. Reviving the JCPOA and its tight nuclear restrictions would lengthen that “breakout” time to around six months, giving the international community sufficient warning to discover an Iranian breakout and intervene to stop it, if necessary with military force.

An agreement would keep Iran that safe distance from the nuclear threshold for another eight years, but with the JCPOA’s nuclear restrictions scheduled to expire in 2031, a return to the nuclear deal would not permanently close Iran’s nuclear weapons options.

Thus, if the JCPOA is not revived or if it is revived but an extension of its restrictions beyond 2031 cannot be negotiated, Iran’s nuclear program would at some point be unrestricted. In either circumstance, the United States and its partners would have to rely on diplomatic pressures, economic sanctions, and ultimately the threat of preemptive attack to impede Iran’s advance to a nuclear weapons capability.

A nuclear-armed Iran is not inevitable. Iranian leaders may well decide that, in light of the potential economic costs and security risks of building nuclear weapons, their goals would be better served by settling for a threshold nuclear capability, which would give them a future option to acquire nuclear weapons relatively quickly at a time of their choosing. Such a capability could be seen in Tehran as enhancing their regional clout. Alternatively, as many observers predict, Iran may decide that the benefits of actually possessing nuclear weapons are much greater than having a threshold capability. In such a case, however, Iran would still face the obstacle of a few states, especially the United States and Israel, being willing to employ any means necessary to stop it.

At the margin, Iran’s choice might be influenced by the fallout over Ukraine. Although the strengthening of strategic ties between Moscow and Tehran preceded the invasion, it has accelerated since then,10 perhaps giving Iranian leaders the impression that they could count on Russia in withstanding the international pressures that would follow Iran’s nuclear breakout. Whatever Iran decides, it still will be driven fundamentally by the regime’s calculations of its own regional and domestic interests, not by any lessons from the war in Ukraine.

Saudi Arabia

Similarly, Saudi Arabia’s interest in nuclear weapons is independent of the war in Ukraine and based almost entirely on its judgment that arch-rival Iran is determined to be nuclear armed. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has declared his intention to match a future Iranian weapons capability.11 Contributing to this desire to follow Iran down the nuclear path is a belief shared by several other U.S. partners that the United States is withdrawing from the Middle East and cannot be relied on to protect them from efforts by Iran and its proxies to dominate the region.

Biden’s July trip to Israel and Saudi Arabia was designed in part to counteract that belief and reassure friends that the United States will remain engaged and help them push back against encroachments by Iran. In that connection, the Biden administration has sought to build on the Abraham Accords promoted by the Trump administration and assemble a coalition of Israel and Arab states concerned about the Iranian threat. It has promoted a cooperative missile and air defense and intelligence network to defend against missile, rocket, and drone attacks by Tehran and its proxies.12

Even if the Biden administration makes headway in rebuilding confidence in the U.S. commitment to the region, that is unlikely to dissuade the crown prince from seeking to match an Iranian nuclear capability, given his intense distrust of Iran and his uncertainty about the policies of future U.S. administrations.

Saudi Arabia is likely to have a difficult time catching up with Iran, however. The Saudis have an ambitious plan to build nuclear power reactors, and in negotiations with Washington on a bilateral civil nuclear cooperation agreement, have rejected U.S. proposals that they renounce uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing and adhere to an additional protocol to their safeguards agreement. Nonetheless, the kingdom is many years away from having the technical and human infrastructure required to produce nuclear weapons indigenously.

To build the bomb, the Saudis would need large-scale foreign assistance. Several nuclear supplier states, including China, France, Russia, South Korea, and the United States, are eager to sell them nuclear power reactors, but the Saudis would need enrichment or reprocessing facilities to attempt production of nuclear weapons themselves. It is doubtful that Riyadh could find a state possessing such proliferation-enabling technologies that would be willing to provide them or would be willing to sell a fabricated nuclear weapon or its fissile or nonfissile components.

Neither China nor Russia is likely to assist Saudi ambitions by providing proliferation-sensitive nuclear equipment or technology. They do not want a highly destabilizing nuclear arms competition in the Middle East, especially one pitting Saudi Arabia against Iran, their increasingly valued strategic partner.

Proliferation analysts tend to look more toward Pakistan or North Korea as potential nuclear enablers, but with Pakistani nuclear activities under heavy scrutiny in the post-A.Q. Khan era and the government pursuing good relations with Iran and Saudi Arabia, Pakistan is unlikely to provide critical help. Saudi Arabia will not be able to count on North Korea either given that illicit North Korean trading networks and possible Saudi efforts to shop the nuclear black market are likely to be key targets of U.S. and other intelligence and interdiction operations.

The Saudis are highly motivated and likely to persist if the Iranian nuclear threat continues to advance, but they have a steep hill to climb in acquiring a threshold nuclear capability or nuclear weapons, and the probability of succeeding is not high.

Worrisome Trends

The bottom line is that it is premature to write an obituary for the global nuclear nonproliferation regime. Although Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has unnerved the international community, it does not seem to be the proliferation trigger that many analysts predict.

A Ukranian soldier stands atop an abandoned Russian tank near a village on the outskirts of Izyum in the Kharkiv Region of eastern Ukraine on Sept. 11. The Russian invasion has raised new questions about the potential spread of nuclear weapons.  (Photo by Juan Barreto/AFP via Getty Images)This assessment is based on current circumstances, and circumstances can change. Nonproliferation experts have identified developments that could increase the likelihood of proliferation in the years ahead.13 For example, highly adversarial U.S.-Chinese and U.S.-Russian relations could significantly alter the global nonproliferation landscape. The major powers increasingly could prioritize geostrategic interests over nonproliferation goals. For example, China and Russia might be less inclined to rein in North Korean and Iranian nuclear ambitions that could help offset U.S. power and influence. Already, they are less likely to collaborate with the United States than they did in past negotiations with North Korea and Iran.

In addition, the relative decline in U.S. post-Cold War primacy could weaken Washington’s hand in addressing nonproliferation challenges. Although the United States remains the nonproliferation regime’s leading supporter, its ability to get friends and foes to fall in line behind its nonproliferation policies has diminished. Moreover, despite the Biden administration’s efforts to reassure friends and warn foes that the United States is back as a world leader and committed for the long haul, uncertainty about future U.S. overseas presence and security commitments is likely to persist, given deep domestic divisions at home and the possible return to America First policies.

A Positive Record

The global nonproliferation regime has had a remarkably positive record. In 1992, nine states were believed to possess nuclear weapons (China, France, India, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, the UK, and the United States). Thirty years later, despite predictions of a “cascade of proliferation,”14 there are still the same nine nuclear-armed states.

In light of today’s worrisome trends, however, the future of nuclear nonproliferation hardly can be taken for granted. At the same time, the factors that have reinforced the judgment of particular countries to remain non-nuclear, despite the war in Ukraine, will persist. These include the political, economic, and security risks a non-nuclear-weapon state would encounter in pursuing a nuclear weapons program; the financial and technical hurdles some non-nuclear-weapon states would face in embarking on such a program; the security assurances some of these states receive from allied nuclear-armed states; and the recognition by many non-nuclear-weapon states that acquiring nuclear weapons would not be the answer to the actual security challenges they face.

Whatever the likelihood of additional states acquiring nuclear weapons, it is essential to do whatever can be done to make that outcome less likely. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine should be a wake-up call to the United States and other key nations that unless they give high priority to preventing further proliferation by reducing incentives for their friends to acquire nuclear weapons and making it riskier for others to acquire them, the remarkable success of the global nonproliferation regime will be much more difficult to sustain.



1. Antony J. Blinken, Remarks to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty review conference, August 1, 2022, https://www.state.gov/secretary-antony-j-blinkens-remarks-to-the-nuclear-non-proliferation-treaty-review-conference/.

2. David Ignatius, “Watching Russia’s Military Failure Is Exhilarating. But a Cornered Putin Is Dangerous,” The Washington Post, March 17, 2022.

3. Michael E. O’Hanlon and Bruce Riedel, “The Russia-Ukraine War May Be Bad for Nuclear Proliferation,” Order From Chaos blog, March 29, 2002, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2022/03/29/the-russia-ukraine-war-may-be-bad-news-for-nuclear-nonproliferation/; Steven Pifer, “Why Putin’s Betrayal of Ukraine Could Trigger Nuclear Proliferation,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, June 1, 2022, https://thebulletin.org/2022/06/why-putins-betrayal-of-ukraine-could-trigger-nuclear-proliferation.

4. Mariana Budjeryn and Matthew Bunn, “Ukraine Building a Nuclear Bomb? Dangerous Nonsense,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, March 9, 2022, https://thebulletin.org/2022/03/ukraine-building-a-nuclear-bomb-dangerous-nonsense/.

5. Toby Dalton, Karl Friedhoff, and Lami Kim, “Thinking Nuclear: South Korean Attitudes on Nuclear Weapons,” Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Lester Crown Center on U.S. Foreign Policy, and Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, February 2022, https://www.thechicagocouncil.org/sites/default/files/2022-02/Korea%20Nuclear%20Report%20PDF.pdf.

6. Rupert Wingfield Hayes, “Will Ukraine Invasion Push Japan to Go Nuclear?” BBC News, March 26, 2022, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-60857346.

7. David Albright and Corey Gay, “Taiwan: Nuclear Nightmare Averted,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Vol. 54, No. 1 (1998): 54–60.

8. Michael Martina and Patricia Zengerle, “U.S. Senators Introduce Broad Taiwan Bill to Boost Security Assistance,” Reuters, June 17, 2022.

9. Joyu Wang, “In Taiwan, Russia’s War in Ukraine Stirs New Interest in Self-Defense,”
The Wall Street Journal, March 4, 2022.

10. Benoit Faucon, “Iran and Russia Are Cementing an Alliance With Grain, Drones, and Satellites,” The Wall Street Journal, August 27, 2022.

11. “Saudi Crown Prince: If Iran Develops Nuclear Bomb, So Will We,” CBS News, March 15, 2018, https://www.cbsnews.com/news/saudi-crown-prince-mohammed-bin-salman-iran-nuclear-bomb-saudi-arabia/.

12. Nancy Youssef and Stephen Kalin, “U.S. Proposes Helping Israel, Arab States Harden Air Defenses Against Iran,” The Wall Street Journal, June 9, 2022.

13. Eric Brewer, “The Nuclear Proliferation Landscape: Is Past Prologue,” The Washington Quarterly, Vol. 44, No. 2 (Summer 2021): 181–197.

14. “A More Secure World: Our Shared Responsibility; Report of the High-level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change,” United Nations, 2004, p. 39, https://www.un.org/peacebuilding/sites/www.un.org.peacebuilding/files/documents/hlp_more_secure_world.pdf.

Robert Einhorn, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, previously served as assistant secretary of state for nonproliferation in the Clinton administration and the secretary of state’s special adviser for nonproliferation and arms control in the Obama administration.

The outlook for further proliferation does not appear as pessimistic as has been widely assumed.

10th NPT Review Conference: The Nonproliferation and Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Energy Pillars

October 2022
By Sergey Batsanov, Vladislav Chernavskikh, and Anton Khlopkov

Despite the near-universal recognition of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) as the cornerstone of international security, it faces growing challenges. This was amply demonstrated at the recent 10th NPT Review Conference, where issues relating to all three pillars of the treaty—disarmament, nonproliferation, and peaceful uses of nuclear energy—were the subject of contentious debate.

Royal Australian Navy submarine HMAS Sheean arrives for a port visit in Hobart, Australia last year. A decision by Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States to form a new military and political alliance, known as AUKUS, was a major topic at the 10th NPT Review Conference, where states-parties expressed concern about UK and U.S. plans to provide Australia with nuclear-powered submarines. (Photo by LSIS Leo Baumgartner/Australian Defence Force via Getty Images)Delayed four times because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the conference has shown that as the international security environment continues to deteriorate, the NPT discussions are becoming increasingly politicized. This situation poses challenges for the future: Can states-parties adequately prioritize issues directly related to the NPT and compartmentalize them from their numerous disagreements in other areas, and what is the best way to do this? These are profound and difficult questions, but the ability to find a solution will have a direct impact on negotiations at the review conference in 2026 and the ability of the NPT to remain the bedrock of international arms control and nonproliferation of nuclear weapons.

Despite four weeks of intense negotiations, participants at the review conference, which ended on August 26 in New York, were unable to reach consensus on the substantive part of the outcome document.1 That was not unprecedented. Four of nine previous review conferences, in 1980, 1990, 2005, and 2015, concluded with a similar result.2 This one, however, was somewhat special. First, it was held in the context of the 50th anniversary of the NPT’s entry into force and the 25th anniversary of the treaty’s indefinite extension. Second, it marked the first time that two consecutive review cycles ended without the adoption of a consensus final document or substantive decisions.

In 2015, consensus was blocked by the Canadian, UK and U.S. delegations. This year, Russia was the only one to openly oppose adoption of the draft outcome document as submitted by the conference president. Even so, statements at the closing plenary and earlier discussions demonstrated a wide range of disagreements among delegations about the draft outcome document regarding all three NPT pillars. The New Zealand delegation, for example, expressed “deep disappointment” at how little had been achieved on disarmament issues despite “demands from non-nuclear weapon states.”3 The Mexican delegation, on behalf of more than 60 countries that are signatories to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, noted that the draft final document falls dramatically short of advancing nuclear disarmament and implementing Article VI of the NPT.4

Iran’s representative said the language regarding the weapons of mass destruction-free zone in the Middle East is the weakest its delegation has ever seen.5 The Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) countries emphasized that the growing interest of states-parties in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy should not be used as grounds to impose additional restrictions under the pretext of preventing proliferation.6 The Austrian delegation called the document “very disappointing” and regretted that the only chance to achieve an outcome document is when no delegation wishes to take the blame for breaking consensus.7

Conference Outcomes

Even before the conference opened, many experts warned that NPT states-parties had accumulated too many disagreements and that reaching consensus on the outcome document would be extremely difficult if not impossible.8 For example, the Trump administration withdrew from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and the Iran nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), in 2018. It also refused to seek ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty as documented in the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review. The United Kingdom decided to increase its nuclear stockpile and the trilateral AUKUS alliance took shape, under which the United States and the UK agreed to help Australia obtain nuclear submarines that are likely to use highly enriched uranium (HEU) as fuel.

Other factors looming over the conference were the unprecedented international security challenges manifested by crisis in Ukraine and the high level of confrontation among the delegations, including the five nuclear-weapon states. Indeed, some experts noted that this review conference was perhaps the most politicized in the history of the NPT. Ukraine, including the safety of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, became a major issue and the major politicizing factor at the conference. To the detriment of consensus building, some participants, mostly EU members, consistently brought up issues related to the Ukrainian crisis during the plenary sessions and meetings of all three main conference committees.

Many delegations were eager to find compromise on most agenda items and drafted an outcome document that addressed to some degree the majority of the key NPT challenges. Even so, the draft document ultimately was weak in language and substance, and the willingness to look for compromise was not enough to find language on the Ukrainian issue that would be acceptable to all delegations. Apart from Ukraine and disarmament issues, much of the debate focused on issues of nuclear nonproliferation and the peaceful uses of nuclear energy, which previously were considered relatively less divisive in the context of recent NPT review cycles.

AUKUS Alliance

The new AUKUS political and military alliance among Australia, the UK, and the United States has provoked, as expected, strong negative reaction from China, which AUKUS is designed to counter, mainly by military means. The Chinese delegation, supported by Russia, was sharply critical of the alliance at the conference.9 Austria, Indonesia, Iran, Malaysia, and the Philippines also expressed concerns about AUKUS and related “naval propulsion arrangements.” Their arguments included concerns about the further militarization of the Pacific and Indian oceans, the prospect of military infrastructure expansion in the region by the nuclear-weapon states, and the application of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards in connection with the naval nuclear propulsion program. These factors run the risk of rekindling Australia’s appetite for nuclear weapons, which was evident in the late 1950s and almost until the country acceded to the NPT in 1973.10

Under the agreement, the UK and the United States are expected to supply the HEU needed as a fuel for the nuclear-powered submarines that Australia will receive. The failure to design and implement effective IAEA safeguards solutions with regard to this nuclear material would risk setting a precedent that could weaken the safeguards regime and facilitate the proliferation of sensitive nuclear materials and technology.

Assurances should be provided via IAEA safeguards implementation that Australia will honor its obligation under its comprehensive safeguards agreement not to use the nuclear material in question for the production of nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices.11 There are other legal, technical, and procedural issues that deserve serious and thoughtful consideration. China, Russia, and some other countries also are concerned that the AUKUS participants may engage the IAEA in backroom negotiations and declare whatever they precook as a gold standard of safeguards application in connection with the naval nuclear propulsion program.

The review conference negotiations resulted in compromise language on this issue. The draft outcome document notes the interest of the NPT parties in this issue, as well as the need for non-nuclear-weapon states that pursue naval nuclear propulsion to engage with the IAEA in an open, transparent manner.

In various post-conference commentaries, there was a strong sense that by agreeing to this compromise language China had departed from its more far-reaching initial proposals. Regardless, Beijing and Moscow succeeded in defending their main interest: the AUKUS-related safeguards issue is now recognized as a serious one, and a proper way for addressing it with the IAEA has been indicated.

Middle Eastern WMD-Free Zone

In 2015, disagreements over the issue of the zone free of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in the Middle East were the main reason why that year’s review conference was unable to reach a consensus outcome document. Many experts anticipated it would also be one of the most controversial topics at the 10th review conference, given the unresolved differences between the Group of Arab States and the United States and the absence of the U.S. and Israeli representatives at the first two sessions of the UN conference on establishing a zone.

The working paper submitted by the Group of Arab States stressed that the UN conference was “an additional step” toward establishing a zone and called on all invited parties to “participate earnestly and constructively.”12 The Arab states noted that Israel had not yet taken part in the zone conference. They urged Israel to join the NPT as a non-nuclear-weapon state and to place all its nuclear facilities under IAEA comprehensive safeguards. Russia stressed that the UN conference “was a necessary step to break the deadlock in implementing the 1995 resolution on the Middle East.” It called on Israel to join the negotiations and the United States to join as an observer.13

The review conference draft outcome document “acknowledged the developments” of the first and second session of the UN conference on the zone in November 2019 and November 2021 and completely omitted references to Israel from the relevant section. According to some reports, several Middle Eastern countries were not invited to help draft the text in question; the main negotiations were carried out by the Egyptian and U.S. delegations. This prompted rumors that Iran, which essentially was excluded from the drafting process, might block adoption of the final document. Several other participants, including Lebanon, Syria, and the Palestinians, expressed dissatisfaction with the “weak” final text.

Thus, despite the agreement on the language of the relevant paragraphs in the draft final document, serious contradictions on the issue of a Middle Eastern WMD-free zone within the NPT process have persisted. The United States refrained from commitments to participate in the next zone conference in November. Continuing the negotiating process without Israel and the United States is likely to increase further confrontation on this issue in the next NPT review cycle.

Iran Nuclear Deal

It would seem logical to see references in the draft final document to the importance of restoring the JCPOA as early as possible. Strengthening the NPT is, in essence, the goal of the JCPOA and UN Security Council Resolution 2231, which endorsed the deal. Moreover, despite the uncertainty and stagnation that preceded the NPT review conference, many hoped the JCPOA talks had reached the final stage and would soon conclude successfully.

The most common explanation for the absence of any reference to the JCPOA in the draft final document is that the European Union, as coordinator of the JCPOA negotiations and in agreement with the United States, thought it counterproductive to give additional exposure to the nuclear deal. In principle, such a policy was justified, given the delicate stage of the negotiations, but it does not explain the complete absence of any mention of the JCPOA. One can assume that it was complications related to the Biden administration’s fears about the potential effect that restoring the JCPOA might have on the U.S. midterm elections in November.

Moreover, given Israel’s negative attitude toward the JCPOA, the inclusion of language calling for a swift and successful conclusion of negotiations could have led to a behind-the-scenes dispute between Israel and the United States. Ironically, Iran also was not eager to see a call for a successful conclusion of the JCPOA talks because of concern that the wording would be used to pressure Iran on its negotiating position and further complicate delicate internal political discussions in Tehran.

Regardless, the United States, Iran, and others were careful not to give negative signals about the JCPOA negotiations during the conference. Since then, there are signs that this kind of reasonable caution has given way to mutual recriminations about delaying the agreement. It looks certain that the endgame will be delayed until after the U.S. elections in November.

Korean Peninsula

Unlike the JCPOA, tensions on the Korean peninsula, which for several years has stagnated as an issue with no dialogue or negotiations taking place, sparked a heated debate at the review conference. The Japanese and South Korean delegations, with French, UK and U.S. support, promoted the maximalist concept of the complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement of the North Korean nuclear weapons program, essentially abandoning more pragmatic approaches that were used with some success during the Korean peninsula dialogue in 2018–2019.

Tensions on the Korean peninsula were the subject of heated debate at the 10th NPT Review Conference in New York on Aug. 1–26, according to the authors. This undated handout picture, released by North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) last April, reportedly shows the test-fire of a new type of tactical guided weapon in North Korea. (Photo by STR/KCNA VIA KNS/AFP via Getty Images) China, supported by Russia, has tried to promote more balanced and realistic language, insisting on the generally acceptable term “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” instead of “denuclearization of the DPRK,” which refers specifically to North Korea. China also called for a “principle of phased and synchronized actions.”14 Russia stressed that “the process of denuclearization of the Korean peninsula should be phased and based on equality and mutual respect for interests.”15

As a result, the draft final document expressed “unwavering support for the complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization of the Korean peninsula,” while noting the need to reduce tensions and resolve the situation through negotiations and diplomacy.

In general, the conference discussions confirmed that South Korea and the United States have returned to the more confrontational policies vis-à-vis North Korea. This creates potential for an escalation of regional tensions, as well as widening differences over the Korean peninsula and other regional security issues with Seoul, Tokyo, and Washington on one side and Beijing and Moscow on the other.

Achieving progress requires these capitals to realize that the factors contributing to tensions are not only North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, but also increased military activity in Northeast Asia by the states inside and especially outside of the region. More subtle approaches that take into account the security interests of all states involved are needed urgently to unblock the current dangerous impasse on the Korean peninsula.

Nuclear Energy, Safeguards, and Export Controls

Conference discussions and the draft final document highlighted the growing role of peaceful nuclear technologies, especially nuclear power, amid the challenges of economic development and decarbonization. The document recognized that “nuclear technologies and innovations, including advanced reactors and small and medium-sized or modular reactors…can play an important role in facilitating energy security, decarbonization and transitioning to a low carbon energy economy.” It also stated that “nuclear technologies can contribute to addressing climate change, mitigating and adapting to its consequences, and monitoring its impact,” thus reflecting the ongoing process of rethinking the role of nuclear power in the global energy transition.

As discussed at the 10th NPT Review Conference, many states, including members of the nonaligned movement, are concerned that international restrictions designed to prevent nuclear proliferation are applied unfairly, preventing developing countries from accessing nuclear energy for peaceful energy. EDF's Sizewell B nuclear power station, shown here, is located in Sizewell, England. (Photo by Chris Radburn/AFP via Getty Images)At the same time, the conference revealed deep disagreement over the balance between the inalienable right of all NPT states-parties to develop peaceful uses of nuclear energy and the multilateral and national export control regimes and strengthened IAEA safeguards that seek to control the nuclear activities of non-nuclear-weapon states. Many states-parties believe the current balance is not right.

Many states, including the NAM countries, expressed concern over “certain unilateral, politically motivated restrictions imposed on developing countries that seriously hamper states-parties from exercising their inalienable right to use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.” They cited as unacceptable the use of “interpretations in the application of safeguards” and “measures and initiatives aimed at strengthening nuclear safety and nuclear security” for these purposes.16 Some states singled out unilateral economic sanctions as one factor limiting the right to develop the peaceful uses of nuclear energy, while other states stressed that international export control regimes were developed without the proper involvement of developing countries.

There were many statements about the importance of safeguards and the need for their robust application, including at very high levels.17 The conference also discussed the role of an additional protocol to safeguards agreements. Some states, including the Vienna Group of Ten,18 EU countries, and the United States, insisted that an additional protocol “together with a comprehensive safeguards agreement represents the current verification standard.” Nonaligned countries noted that “additional measures related to the safeguards shall not undermine, condition, or in any way negatively affect the rights of the non-nuclear-weapon states-parties” to the NPT.19 Cuba rejected “proposals to make ratification of the additional protocol mandatory for access to nuclear assistance, cooperation, and technology transfer”20 while Brazil and Russia stressed its voluntary nature.

The draft final document attempted to bridge the disagreements, emphasizing the “distinction between voluntary, confidence-building measures and the legal obligations of states” and noting that “it is the sovereign decision of any state to conclude an additional protocol.” It said an additional protocol represents an “enhanced verification standard” but only for individual states and called on participants “to ensure that measures to strengthen nuclear security do not hamper international cooperation in the field of peaceful nuclear activities.”

Most of the problems are not new, and they were skillfully diluted in a number of generally acceptable paragraphs, which would have commanded general consensus if the document were to be adopted. Yet, there was one more matter, which received little attention: Because of a combination of factors, such as the growing need for nuclear energy, important technological innovations, and a general destabilization of the international security architecture, the world may soon witness an intensified competition on the global energy market. That may further complicate the developing world’s access to nuclear energy and stimulate nuclear proliferation risks.

Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant

The main issue complicating conference discussions was the safety and security of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, the largest in Europe. Russian forces took control of the plant, with its six VVER-1000 reactors, in March. In August, two reactor units were in operation, and Ukrainian management and staff have continued to carry out their day-to-day work while the site remained under Russian control.21

The Ukraine crisis and the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, occupied by Russian military forces since March, dominated discussion at the 10th NPT Review Conference, which was unable to reach consensus regarding those issues. (Photo by STRINGER/AFP via Getty Images)According to the Russian Ministry of Defense, over the past two months, Ukrainian armed forces have shelled the plant and its infrastructure more than 30 times and the nearby city of Energodar more than 70 times. There are other challenges, including difficulties rotating personnel who operate the station under stressful conditions.22

The topic of Zaporizhzhia, although urgent, disproportionately dominated discussions in the conference main committees 2 and 3 and was introduced in an extremely politicized manner. Delegates mixed up actual, legitimate issues with false information and with demands that have more to do with the battlefield situation. Ultimately, the paragraphs concerning Zaporizhzhia in the draft final document became the primary deal breaker that prevented consensus.

It is impossible to imagine that Western delegations were not aware of Russian redlines regarding Ukraine. They are understood to have included language that contained explicit or implicit criticism of Russia in the context of the Ukrainian crisis, could be instrumentalized for changing the situation on the battlefield, or questioned the status of Crimea as part of Russia.

The Russian delegation made several written proposals to find generally acceptable wording on those points, but they were not taken into account. By contrast, the proposed IAEA expert mission to Zaporizhzhia was never among the Russian redlines; Moscow had accepted that proposal in April.

Analyzing the conference from the general debate to the drafting process, there are reasons to assume that given the wide range of disagreements and the resulting practical impossibility of reaching agreement on a final document, some countries decided, even before the conference opened, to use it to advance political agendas unrelated to the NPT and to push the Russian delegation toward blocking the final document by insisting on unacceptable language referencing Ukraine-related issues.

Outlook and Priorities

Considering the heightened geopolitical tensions, it is hardly reasonable to judge the results of the next review cycle solely by whether there is a consensus document. At the same time, the NPT and the nonproliferation regime in general are facing serious escalating challenges that need to be addressed. If there is yet another failure to agree on an outcome document at the next conference in four years, that could lead to a profound systemic crisis for the NPT regime.

Against this backdrop, the NPT states-parties should start doing their homework as early as possible, nationally and internationally, to ensure they are well prepared for the 2026 review conference. The next review cycle will be shorter than usual, with the first meeting of the conference preparatory committee taking place next year. Most likely, the next cycle will also be more intensive because the just-concluded conference set up a working group on further strengthening the review process. The three sessions planned for the preparatory committee should be complemented by regular, inclusive informal meetings and consultations involving all major stakeholders. Think tanks and civil society also should play a role.

No matter the definition of success, the 2026 review conference is unlikely to succeed without constructive, regular expert- and political-level dialogue on all three NPT pillars among the five nuclear-weapon states, especially the three depositories of the treaty (Russia, the UK, and the United States). It is symptomatic that all the depositary countries were involved in blocking adoption of final documents at the last two review conferences.

At the moment, there is a need to generate the political will to assign higher priority to nuclear nonproliferation issues, understand real threats to the nonproliferation regime, and make an extra effort to keep the regime protected from new and dangerous challenges. To do that, there also needs to be serious informal, unofficial track 2 and 1.5 discussions where it may be easier to honestly explore and understand the risks the world is facing and their consequences.



1. 2020 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (Tenth NPT Review Conference), “Draft Final Document,” NPT/CONF.2020/CRP.1/Rev.2, August 25, 2022.

2. The 1995 review and extension conference of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) was unable to reach consensus on a comprehensive final document, but the states-parties agreed on a package of other decisions, which included the indefinite extension of the NPT.

3. Lucy Duncan, “Closing Statement to the NPT Plenary,” August 26, 2022, https://estatements.unmeetings.org/estatements/14.0447/20220826/q82W3cj6s5AC/ILjj78K3EC8e_en.pdf.

4. “Closing Statement: TPNW Supporting States,” n.d., https://estatements.unmeetings.org/estatements/14.0447/20220826/q82W3cj6s5AC/2DpugfhGk9QE_en.pdf (statement by Mexico on behalf of the states-parties and signatories of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons at the 10th NPT Review Conference, August 26, 2022).

5. Gabriela Rosa, “Updates From the 10th NPT Review Conference,” Arms Control Association, August 26, 2022, https://www.armscontrol.org/blog/2022/updates-10th-NPT-RevCon.

6. “Statement by the Delegation of the Republic of Indonesia on Behalf of the Group of the Non-Aligned States Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons,” August 26, 2022, https://estatements.unmeetings.org/estatements/14.0447/20220826/q82W3cj6s5AC/XTzgnxLhAvfb_en.pdf.

7. Alexander Kmentt, Closing remarks by Austria at the 10th NPT Review Conference, August 26, 2022, https://estatements.unmeetings.org/estatements/14.0447/20220826/q82W3cj6s5AC/FRT4JM0nRL8m_en.pdf.

8. See, for example, Robert Einhorn, “COVID-19 Has Given the 2020 NPT Review Conference a Reprieve. Let’s Take Advantage of It,” Brookings, May 13, 2020, https://www.brookings.edu/articles/covid-19-has-given-the-2020-npt-review-conference-a-reprieve-lets-take-advantage-of-it/; Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, “The Postponement of the NPT Review Conference. Antagonisms, Conflicts and Nuclear Risks After the Pandemic,” May 6, 2020, https://pugwashconferences.files.wordpress.com/2020/05/20200506_npt_postponement_and_the_pandemic-3.pdf; Tariq Rauf, “The NPT at 50: Perish or Survive?” Arms Control Today, March 2020, https://www.armscontrol.org/act/2020-03/features/npt-50-perish-survive; Daria Selezneva, “Challenges of Maintaining the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons,” World Economy and International Relations, Vol. 64, No. 3 (2020): 29–35, https://doi.org/10.20542/0131-2227-2020-64-3-29-35.

9. Igor Vishnevetskii, Statement on behalf of the delegation of the Russian Federation at Main Committee II of the 10th NPT Review Conference, n.d., https://estatements.unmeetings.org/estatements/14.0447/20220808/p4jjDsUzwclF/Lyfm0ubgY5Wt_en.pdf (hereinafter Vishnevetskii statement.)

10. See, for example, Jim Walsh, “Surprise Down Under: The Secret History of Australia’s Nuclear Ambitions,” The Nonproliferation Review, Fall 1998, pp. 1–20.

11. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), “The Structure and Content of Agreements Between the Agency and States Required in Connection With the Treaty on the Non-proliferation of Nuclear Weapons,” INFCIRC/153 (Corrected), n.d., para. 14 (a)(ii).

12. Tenth NPT Review Conference, “Specific Regional Issues and Implementation of the 1995 Resolution on the Middle East: Working Paper Submitted by the Group of Arab States,” NPT/CONF.2020/WP.8, August 26, 2020, paras. 10, 11.

13. Tenth NPT Review Conference, “Suggestions of the Delegation of the Russian Federation to Be Reflected in the Outcome Document of the 10th Review Conference of the NPT,” NPT/CONF.2020/MC.II/CRP.2, August 16, 2022, paras. 6, 8, and 9.

14. Fu Cong, “Upholding the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons for World Peace and Development,” August 2, 2022, https://estatements.unmeetings.org/estatements/14.0447/20220802/d9cjQBjtSPPR/qDSy5JAAfxdY_en.pdf.

15. Vishnevetskii statement.

16. Tenth NPT Review Conference, “The Inalienable Right to Develop Research, Production and Uses of Nuclear Energy for Peaceful Purposes: Working Paper Submitted by the Members of the Group of Non-Aligned States Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons,” NPT/CONF.2020/WP.25, November 24, 2021.

17. See, for example, President of Russia, “Greetings on the Opening of the Tenth Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons,” August 1, 2022, http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/69096; Antony J. Blinken, Remarks to the NPT review conference, August 1, 2022, https://www.state.gov/secretary-antony-j-blinkens-remarks-to-the-nuclear-non-proliferation-treaty-review-conference/.

18. The Vienna Group of Ten includes Australia, Austria, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Hungary, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, and Sweden.

19. Tenth NPT Review Conference, “Safeguards: Working Paper Submitted by the Members of the Group of Non-Aligned States Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons,” NPT/CONF.2020/WP.22, November 22, 2021.

20. Yiliam Gomez Sardinas, Statement on behalf of the delegation of the Republic of Cuba in Main Committee III of the 10th NPT Review Conference, August 8, 2022, https://estatements.unmeetings.org/estatements/14.0447/20220808/fHzmajQMkLne/maEg2ohM0p34_es.pdf (in Spanish).

21. IAEA, “Nuclear Safety, Security and Safeguards in Ukraine: 2nd Summary Report by the Director General, 28 April–5 September 2022,” n.d., p. 14, https://www.iaea.org/sites/default/files/22/09/ukraine-2ndsummaryreport_sept2022.pdf.

22. Speech by the Governor from the Russian Federation, Permanent Representative of the Russian Federation to International Organizations in Vienna M. I. Ulyanov on item 9 of the agenda of the session of the IAEA Board of Governors, September 15, 2022, https://www.mid.ru/ru/foreign_policy/news/1830064/ (in Russian).

Sergey Batsanov, director of the Geneva Office of Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, is a former Soviet and Russian ambassador to the Conference on Disarmament. Vladislav Chernavskikh is a research associate at the Moscow-based Center for Energy and Security Studies. Anton Khlopkov is the director of the Center for Energy and Security Studies.

In this year’s conference, Russia was the only NPT state-party to openly oppose adoption of the draft outcome document, but other countries also had disagreements.


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