"No one can solve this problem alone, but together we can change things for the better." 

– Setsuko Thurlow
Hiroshima Survivor
June 6, 2016
Arms Control Today

U.S., Ukraine Refute Russian Bioweapons Charges

October 2022
By Leanne Quinn

A special session of the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), convened in Geneva at Russia’s request and centered on biological weapons accusations against the United States and Ukraine, ended Sept. 9 without resolution.

As the Russian ambassador to the United Nations, Vasily Nebenzya has made his country's case for waging war in Ukraine and for accusing the United States and Ukraine of activities that violate the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC). But Russia never provided any evidence of its charges, including at a special BWC session in September in Geneva. (Photo by Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)During eight closed-door meetings held Sept. 5–9, 89 BWC states-parties and one BWC signatory state heard presentations from the three countries involved in the dispute. Russia has a history of mischaracterizing U.S. biological research cooperation with Ukraine and other partners, but the consultative meeting marked the first time Russia used a provision of the treaty to press the United States for answers to its allegations.

After the meeting, U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price lauded the work of the U.S. and Ukrainian delegations and condemned Russian attempts to spread disinformation.

“The United States and Ukraine presented a thorough, in-depth series of presentations that strongly refuted Russia’s absurd and false claims of U.S. biological weapons development and bio-labs in Ukraine,” he said in the statement.

Russia, which called for the meeting in June, sought answers to questions concerning the “fulfillment of [the U.S. and Ukrainian] respective obligations under the convention in the context of the operation of biological laboratories on the Ukrainian territory.”

Before the meeting, the United States received a diplomatic note from Russia that “did not contain any actual questions, but rather a series of assertions and mischaracterizations of various documents that the Russian Federation claims to have obtained during Russia’s war against Ukraine,” according to a U.S. document submitted to the meeting.

Addressing allegations related to U.S. funding of Ukrainian biological research facilities, the document explained that, in 2005, the U.S. Defense Department and the Ukrainian Health Ministry entered into a cooperative agreement on preventing the proliferation of technology, pathogens, and expertise that could be used in the development of biological weapons. Such cooperation is encouraged under Article X of the BWC.

The U.S. delegation noted that Russia was a foundational partner of the U.S. Cooperative Threat Reduction programs and benefited from similar collaborative biological research and biosafety work that took place between the United States and Russia for many years until cooperation was terminated by Russia in 2014.

“Normal Ukraine-United States Article X cooperation is being demonised, which is dangerous” for the BWC, Aiden Liddle, UK ambassador to the Conference on Disarmament, said in a tweet on Sept. 7.

One series of Russian questions focused on three U.S.-issued patents for technology related to the weaponization of toxins, including whether the patents violated U.S. obligations under the BWC. The United States responded that “the decision to issue a patent does not violate the obligations” of the United States under the BWC and the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) on the grounds that “patent rights do not confer a legal right or authorization to produce an invention” but rather “simply serve to give the patent owner the legal means to exclude other parties from taking certain actions with respect to that invention.”

The United States responded that because multiple states-parties to the BWC and CWC have issued similar patents, including Russia, it might be beneficial to hold “further discussions on best practices for identifying and addressing such applications.”

Regarding U.S. funding of animal surveillance projects in Ukraine, the United States dismissed Russian claims that the projects are seeking to “weaponize” migratory birds. It said the two research projects collect data on avian diseases in migratory birds to support “a long-term international effort encouraged by the World Health Organization to understand the spread of avian influenza around the world.”


Russia called a special meeting to reaffirm bioweapons charges against Ukraine and the United States but has offered no evidence.

ATT Meeting Focuses on Post-Transfer Arms Controls

October 2022
By Jeff Abramson

Improving control over weapons after they have been delivered was the theme of the annual conference of states-parties to the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), which took place during a time of massive weapons transfers by treaty members responding to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The annual conference of states-parties to the Arms Trade Treaty discussed improving controls over weapons after their delivery against the backdrop of the Russian war on Ukraine. In this photo, Ukrainian forces fire a U.S.-made M777 howitzer on the front line in the Kharkiv region of Ukraine on Aug. 1.   (Photo by Sergey Bobok/AFP via Getty Images)Under the treaty, member states agree to consider the risks that arms transfers would undermine peace and security or facilitate serious violations of international humanitarian or human rights laws. Very little discussion of specific transfers took place during the formal sessions, held in Geneva on Aug. 22–26, but a few countries spoke of the war in Ukraine, saying that the treaty should be interpreted so as to prohibit transfers to Russia.
(See ACT, October 2021.)

For example, the Netherlands called “on all our ATT partners to refrain from supplying weapons to the Russian Federation due to an overriding risk of misuse.” The United Kingdom encouraged all states-parties that have not suspended such transfers “to reconsider, in line with their treaty obligations.” The European Union argued that, “[i]n the current unprovoked and unjustified war of aggression by Russia in Ukraine, given the many grave breaches by Russia of the Geneva Conventions, including attacks directed against civilian objects or civilians, arms transfers to Russia would not be permitted under the ATT.”

Austria, while noting that its neutrality leads it not to provide weapons to Ukraine, said, “we fully acknowledge the right of Ukraine to acquire arms for self-defense against the illegal invasion by Russia.” Although Ukraine is a signatory, neither it nor Russia are states-parties to the treaty or are mentioned in the final report that was adopted by conference participants.

Delegates considered a range of recommendations for the post-shipment phase of transfers with the goal of preventing weapons diversion and addressing risks associated with the arms trade. In the final report, states-parties were encouraged to continue such discussions, which also will be taken up in the working group on effective treaty implementation.

Noting that discussion of specific transfers is often lacking, Cindy Ebbs, co-director of the civil society coalition Control Arms, told Arms Control Today on Sept. 14 that it was a positive sign that the Diversion Information Exchange Forum met for the first time during this year’s conference. Established in 2020 but delayed from meeting in person because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the forum is meant to provide an opportunity for states to share cases of suspected or detected diversion. It is controversial because it is open only to states-parties and signatories. (See ACT, September 2020.)

During the forum, four countries discussed specific diversion cases in what was reported to be a productive exchange. Ebbs continued to argue that the forum should be open to civil society, but welcomed the effort for countries to discuss concrete implementation challenges.

With the recent ratifications by Gabon and the Philippines, the ATT has 112 states-parties. The United States, whose 2013 signature to the treaty was rejected by President Donald Trump in 2019, sent a delegation to the meeting, which did not speak during the formal sessions. Last year, the U.S. delegation indicated that a new conventional arms transfer policy would be released shortly and help define Washington’s relationship to the treaty. That policy has yet to be released.

The ninth conference of ATT states-parties, led by South Korea, will be held in Geneva on Aug. 21–25, 2023, with an expected special focus on the role of industry.

As weapons shipments flood Ukraine, states-parties to the Arms Trade Treaty are discussing improving controls over weapons after they have been delivered.

Meeting Flags Cluster Munitions Harm in Ukraine

October 2022
By Jeff Abramson

States-parties to the treaty banning cluster munitions have reaffirmed their commitment to that goal amid the escalating challenges posed by the widespread use of the weapons in the war in Ukraine.

A tail section of a 300mm rocket which appears to have contained cluster bombs launched from a BM-30 Smerch multiple rocket launcher is seen embedded in the ground on July 3 after shelling in Kramatorsk, amid the Russian war on Ukraine.  (Photo by Genya Savilov / AFP via Getty Images)The members of the Convention on Cluster Munitions held their annual conference Aug. 30–Sept. 2 in Geneva. The president of the meeting, Aidan Liddle, UK ambassador to the Conference on Disarmament, said in his opening address that “our determination to achieve a world entirely free of any use of these weapons…is tested by the scenes we have witnessed since Russia launched its unprovoked and illegal invasion of Ukraine in February this year.”

In recent years, whether to name specific instances of use and how to express condemnation have been contentious issues at annual meetings of the convention. (See ACT, October 2021.)

In the final report adopted at this year’s conference, delegates said that, “in accordance with the object and provisions of the convention, [they] condemned any use of cluster munitions by any actor.” They also expressed their “grave concern at the increase in civilian casualties and the humanitarian impact resulting from the repeated and well-documented use of cluster munitions since the second review conference. This grave concern applies in particular to the use of cluster munitions in Ukraine.”

The Cluster Munition Monitor, published by the Cluster Munition Coalition, identified at least 689 casualties during cluster munitions attacks in Ukraine in the first half of 2022. That is more than four times the 149 casualties it identified for the entire previous year across nine countries plus Nagorno-Karabakh and Western Sahara, all of which were attributed to weapon remnants rather than new attacks. The vast majority of the cluster munitions use in Ukraine was done by Russian forces. Neither Russia nor Ukraine is a party to the treaty.

The treaty, which entered into force in 2010, has 110 states-parties and 13 signatories, numbers that have not changed since 2020. Under it, countries commit to clear within 10 years cluster munitions contamination from territory they control. At this year’s meeting, Chad received approval for an extension to this deadline, while Bosnia and Herzegovina and Chile received new extensions after having been granted short ones at last year’s review conference.

According to the Mine Action Review, 25 countries and three other areas remain contaminated with cluster munition remnants. Collectively, they cleared more than 151 square kilometers of contaminated territory in 2021, an annual record. Of 10 states-parties having contamination, the report found that only Afghanistan was on track to complete clearance without needing another extension, although it also noted that regime changes there “could still derail its progress.”

Abdulkarim Hashim Mustafa, the Iraqi ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, was named president of next year’s annual meeting, planned for Sept. 11–14.


States-parties to the treaty banning cluster munitions reaffirmed that goal as the use of the weapon escalated during the war in Ukraine.

An Opening for Renewed Disarmament Diplomacy

September 2022
By Daryl G. Kimball

In addition to increasing human suffering and reminding the world of the risks of nuclear weapons, the Russian war on Ukraine halted U.S. and Russian arms control talks that are necessary to maintain verifiable caps on, perhaps even reduce, the world’s largest nuclear arsenals. But now there is an opportunity for renewing disarmament diplomacy.

Photo by Vasily Maximov/AFP via Getty Images)U.S. President Joe Biden, building on his letter to the Arms Control Association on June 2 in which he said that “our progress must continue beyond the New START [New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty] extension,” issued a statement on Aug. 1 at the start of the 10th review conference of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) in which he declared, “Even at the height of the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union were able to work together to uphold our shared responsibility to ensure strategic stability. Today, my administration is ready to expeditiously negotiate a new arms control framework to replace New START when it expires in 2026. But negotiation requires a willing partner operating in good faith.”

This call for further nuclear arms control negotiations was welcomed by dozens of states at the NPT review conference, where frustration over the deficit in disarmament diplomacy ran high. Importantly, the United States and Russia agreed in the draft NPT document “to pursue negotiations in good faith on a successor framework to New START before its expiration in 2026, in order to achieve deeper, irreversible, and verifiable reductions in their nuclear arsenals.” Despite Russia’s decision to block consensus on the draft NPT document over other issues, both sides should follow through on the New START follow-on talks.

Without new arrangements to supersede New START, there will be no limits on the size or composition of the world’s two largest nuclear arsenals for the first time since 1972. Moreover, efforts to engage China and the other nuclear-armed states in the disarmament enterprise will fall flat, and the dangers of unconstrained global nuclear arms racing will only grow.

Although Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin say they want to negotiate new arms reduction agreements, they have not resumed their dialogue, and each suggests progress depends on the other.

Russia says it supports New START and talks on follow-on agreements, but first wants more details on the Biden administration’s proposal for talks. Complicating matters, Russia announced on Aug. 8 that it would not allow the resumption of inspections under New START that were suspended in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Russia claims that U.S. travel restrictions make it difficult for Russia to conduct inspections of U.S. nuclear installations while U.S. inspectors do not face similar rules.

Given that the war in Ukraine could drag on indefinitely and that time is running short on New START, it is imperative that Moscow and Washington immediately resolve the differences blocking the restart of New START inspections and begin negotiations, without conditions, on new arms control arrangements to supersede New START.

The key objective should be deeper, verifiable reductions to a total of 1,000 deployed strategic nuclear warheads and delivery systems per side, which would be roughly a 33 percent decrease from the levels in New START.

New understandings need not be expressed as formal treaties that require approval by the Russian Duma and the gridlocked U.S. Senate. Binding executive agreements, like the first U.S.-Soviet arms control deal, would suffice.

At a minimum, U.S. and Russian leaders should issue unilateral reciprocal commitments to respect the central limits of New START until such time as new agreements that supersede New START are concluded. With the recent collapse of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, negotiators also should pursue a verifiable moratorium on the deployment in Europe of missiles formerly banned by the treaty.

Progress will not be easy and political support is not assured. With the Dr. Strangelove Caucus in Congress already clamoring for the United States to abandon New START, the Biden administration and nongovernmental organizations committed to nuclear risk reduction need to expand their efforts.

Franklin Miller, a former Defense Department official, argues that, in response to China and Russia, the United States should withdraw from New START to allow a buildup from the current level of 1,550 deployed strategic warheads to 3,000 or 3,500. Such radical notions would repudiate 50 years of U.S. policy, violate U.S. legal obligations under the NPT to pursue disarmament, and open the door to a dangerous new era of nuclear arms racing and nuclear proliferation.

Negotiations on a New START follow-on framework are essential to reduce the Russian nuclear threat, constrain a potential Chinese nuclear buildup, and lower the risk of nuclear conflict. Now is the time for Washington and Moscow to resume talks on nuclear arms control. In 1979, Sen. Biden (D-Del.) told an Arms Control Association meeting that “[p]ursuing arms control is not a luxury or a sign of weakness, but an international responsibility and a national necessity.” That was true during the Cold War, and it remains true today.


In addition to increasing human suffering and reminding the world of the risks of nuclear weapons, the Russian war on Ukraine halted U.S. and Russian arms control talks that are necessary to maintain verifiable caps on, perhaps even reduce, the world’s largest nuclear arsenals. But now there is an opportunity for renewing disarmament diplomacy.

Mexico’s Bold Move Against Gun Companies

September 2022
By Wilma Gandoy Vázquez and Ximena García Hidalgo

Of 193 member states of the United Nations, Mexico has the fifth-largest number of unregistered firearms in civilian hands, behind the United States, India, China, and Pakistan.1 This availability of firearms and the violence it enables have major destructive consequences. In Mexico, guns are the weapon of choice in 70 percent of total homicides and 60 percent of homicides committed against women. Guns are also the main tool in homicides of young people.

This cache of .50 caliber rifles, which were seized from criminals or voluntarily handed over to Mexican authorities, was destroyed at Military Camp 1-A in Mexico City in August 2017. According to data from the Mexican Defense Ministry, from July 24 to July 31 that year, a total of 17,769 firearms were destroyed at various military camps around the country. (Photo by Bernardo Montoya/AFP via Getty Images)Gun violence is so pervasive that it has stagnated the growth in life expectancy of the Mexican population in general and, between 2005 and 2010, reduced the life expectancy of males by about 0.6 years.2 In addition to deaths and injuries, gun violence forces people to leave their homes and even flee to other countries without proper documentation. It limits day-to-day mobility by making people afraid to use public spaces and increases school dropout rates and gender violence. Around 40 percent of the population has heard or seen shootings frequently. Mexicans live most of their lives in fear.

In addition to the human carnage, the price of gun violence is felt economically. It has upended the functioning of major Mexican industries such as agriculture, tourism, and transportation; increased the cost of products and services; decreased the value of real estate; curtailed investment; and changed consumption and savings patterns. According to one estimate, the economic damage caused by violence amounts to 21 percent of the country’s gross domestic product.3 The resources that Mexico allocates to deal with the consequences of gun violence are no longer invested in development projects or social programs. Mexico is swamped by millions of handguns and military-style rifles, compromising its future and the well-being of its people.

As a result, the Mexican government has embarked on a comprehensive strategy to reduce arms trafficking and the violence it produces. In order to include corporate responsibility in its strategy, Mexico took an unprecedented and bold act: it filed a lawsuit against U.S. arms manufacturers and distributors who are responsible for facilitating the trafficking of firearms into Mexican territory through negligent and illegal business practices.

Compared to other countries, Mexico participates modestly in the manufacture and production of firearms, and private gun ownership is significantly restricted. Semi-automatic pistols higher than .380 caliber and all firearms using .223 caliber are prohibited. To receive a one-year gun permit, individuals must pass a background check. There is only one gun store in the country, run by the Mexican army, which sells about 38 guns a day. This means that almost all unregistered firearms in circulation in Mexico entered through illicit trafficking.

A man looks at the site where an armed group executed six people inside an addiction clinic in San Pedro Tlaquepaque, state of Jalisco, Mexico, on July 25. (Photo by Ulises Ruiz/AFP via Getty Images)Researchers have estimated that at least half a million firearms are trafficked each year from the United States.4 According to the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, about 70 percent of the firearms seized at crime scenes in Mexico are traced to the United States.5 Many of these weapons are military grade and wreak remarkable havoc. Between March 2009 and March 2021, criminal groups used firearms trafficked from the United States to kill 25 members of the Mexican army and wound 84 others. Between 2006 and 2021, trafficked firearms were used to kill 415 federal police and National Guard members, in addition to wounding 840 more. In 2019, more than 3.9 million crimes in Mexico were committed with a gun traced to the United States.6 Between 2015 and 2021, at least 140,000 civilians were killed with a firearm in Mexico.

This catastrophic situation is no accident. Through negligent and illicit business practices, the U.S. gun industry has built a permanent infrastructure that provides easy access to firearms for traffickers and, consequently, members of organized crime in Mexico. According to one research report, in 2012, nearly 47 percent of firearm dealers licensed by the U.S. government depended for their economic existence on some amount of demand from Mexico-related weapons trafficking.7 Although this trade takes place in nearly every state in the United States, many gun dealers have established themselves close to the Mexican border to meet the traffickers’ demands. Between 2010 and 2019, the number of gun stores in border states grew by 18 percent, while in nonborder states it increased by 1.8 percent. Currently, 18 percent of all licensed U.S. gun dealers are located in states bordering Mexico.8

A Lucrative Gun Trade

In 2021, specialists who collaborate with the Mexican Ministry of Foreign Affairs estimated the annual value of guns trafficked from the United States at more than $250 million.9 Some journalists and activists believe the problem lies with customs authorities, who overlook the magnitude of the border dynamics and the fact that any policy applied to strengthen border security would be insufficient if the arms industry does not change its business practices, which fuel the arms trafficking phenomenon.

One article posits that the first step in reducing gun trafficking into Mexico lies in focusing on legal sales.10 Guns are very different from other products because they generate their own demand. If more guns are available, insecurity increases and with it the demand for more guns. Therefore, reducing the supply of firearms is a viable policy to reduce demand. That would cause changes in the supply chain that would make it more difficult and more expensive for criminal groups to obtain firearms from the United States. If these criminal groups have less access to firepower, authorities could more feasibly tackle illegal activities such as drug trafficking.

The civil lawsuit filed by the Mexican government has its origin in an unfortunate event. On August 3, 2019, a white supremacist drove to a supermarket in El Paso, Texas, with the objective of exterminating “as many Mexicans as possible.” He killed 23 people and injured 23 others. A subsequent investigation by the Mexican Foreign Affairs Ministry identified a common denominator between the El Paso shooting and violence caused by the availability of firearms in Mexico: gun manufacturers and distributors engaging in negligent and illegal business practices that facilitated their products ending up in the hands of the wrong people.11

People take part in a ‘Walk for Peace’ to ask for a stop to violence, extortions, executions, and disappearances of people in Mexico, in Guadalajara, Mexico, on July 31. (Photo by Ulises Ruiz/AFP via Getty Images)These commercial practices include refusing to design firearms with mechanisms that prevent their use by unauthorized persons, thus making them useful and attractive to organized crime. In addition, although their products are supposed to be oriented to the civilian market, gun manufacturers use in their advertising the images, symbols, and language of military combat, characteristics that attract organized crime groups. Finally, their distribution systems allow sales without controls or inventories, thus allowing for thefts and losses, as well as multiple sales and “straw purchases.”12

Through tracing requests from authorities and governmental reports, companies are fully aware that their firearms are disproportionately used in the commission of crimes in Mexico. Although they have the power to prevent the transfer of their products to the criminal market by adopting easy, inexpensive measures that have already been tried, these companies prefer to continue those negligent, illegal commercial practices to maintain their profits.13

After two years of researching, the Mexican government filed suit in U.S. district court in Massachusetts on August 4, 2021. The defendants are familiar names: Smith & Wesson; Barrett; Beretta; Century International Arms; Colt; Glock; Sturm, Ruger & Co; and Witmer Public Safety/Interstate Arms. The suit’s main arguments are that by becoming members of the gun industry, the defendant companies acquired a responsibility to follow all relevant laws related to their activities, as well as to comply with the highest standards of care, such as Mexican gun import laws, U.S. gun export laws, Mexican and U.S. tort laws, and U.S. federal and state gun laws, and that the failure to comply with these responsibilities has caused massive harm to Mexico and its people.

Based on these premises, the Mexican government sued the companies for general negligence because the traffickers were able to obtain high-capacity firearms, ammunition, and magazines as a result of negligent marketing, distribution, and sales practices by firearms producers, distributors, and sellers and also for negligence per se, an exception to the U.S. Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA) that applies when sellers violate any law in the sale of a gun.

The government claims public nuisance based on the evidence that dealers have engaged in “straw sales” and multiple sales, and despite knowing or having to know about this practice, gun producers and distributors have continued to supply guns to these dealers. In addition, Mexico invokes the predicate statute, which operates when a supplier or seller is shown to violate a law related to the sale or marketing of arms and the violation of local laws. The lawsuit further argues that the sale of assault firearms to the public is a violation of the U.S. National Firearms Act, which prohibits automatic firearms because they can be easily converted into assault firearms.14

The Mexican government asserts that the PLCAA, the law granting immunity to the firearms industry, does not apply to its lawsuit because the damages occur outside the United States and because, given the negligent or illegal conduct of the defendants, several exceptions to such procedural immunity are activated in this case.15

The Mexican government asks the court to require the defendants to abate and remedy the public nuisance they have created and to create and implement standards to reasonably monitor and discipline their distribution systems. The suit also demands that gun manufacturers incorporate all reasonably available safety mechanisms into their guns, including devices to prevent use by unauthorized users, and that they fund studies, programs, advertising campaigns, and other events focused on preventing unlawful trafficking of guns. Finally, the suit requests that the defendants take all necessary action to abate the current and future harm that their conduct is causing and would otherwise cause in Mexico. It asks that the court grant damages, civil penalties, restitution, and disgorgement of the defendants' profits to the Mexican government.16

Gun Industry Dismissal Request

The case marks the first time that a foreign country has sued members of the firearms industry in a U.S. court. The companies filed their responses to the lawsuit on November 22, 2021. By means of a joint memorandum of law and individual memorandums, they ask the court to grant their motion to dismiss the complaint. Their main arguments are that the PLCAA grants them immunity from civil suits, that the Mexican government does not have standing to sue the companies, and that the companies are not subject to the court's jurisdiction because they do not have sufficient ties to Massachusetts.

In addition, the companies assert that there are too many intermediate steps between the damage in Mexico cited in the lawsuit and the actions of the companies, that the companies have no legal obligation to protect Mexico from the criminal misuse of their products in Mexican territory, and that the Mexican government is responsible for preventing the damages it claims. The defendants’ main objective in filing a motion to dismiss the complaint is to prevent the lawsuit from moving forward and reaching the discovery stage.

A bullet hole is seen on the door of a restaurant close to the site where four radio station workers were killed in Ciudad Juarez, state of Chihuahua, Mexico, on August 12. (Photo by Herika Martinez/AFP via Getty Images)In January 2022, the Mexican government filed its response to the defendants' motion to dismiss the complaint. It argues that because the injury occurs in Mexican territory, the substantive law that applies to this lawsuit is Mexican law and that the immunities granted by the PLCAA do not apply in this case. The government states that the complaint adequately describes how the companies violate their legal obligations and thereby create public nuisance in Mexico.

The government argues that neither international law nor custom preclude it from suing the companies in U.S. courts, that the district court in Massachusetts can hear the case because the defendants participate in the economic life and carry out business transactions in the state that result in damages in Mexico, that the progress of the case in the district court is not particularly onerous or unusual for the companies, and that what is being claimed are negligent and illegal business practices, not the criminal use of the firearms manufactured or distributed by the companies. In addition, the government submitted a report on Mexican tort law and a report by expert economists that calculated the number of firearms produced or sold in Massachusetts and trafficked into Mexico. According to the latter document, between 2011 and 2020, the total number of guns from defendant manufacturing companies linked to Massachusetts and trafficked to Mexico ranged from 68,552 to 250,214.17

In support of the lawsuit, groups from various countries submitted amicus curiae briefs. Attorneys general from 14 U.S. states explain that when the PLCAA was drafted, the U.S. Congress did not make the gun industry immune in cases in which its own conduct violated laws regulating the sale and marketing of guns. They also say that the Mexican government plausibly alleged that the companies' business practices violate the Connecticut Unfair Trade Practices Act and the Massachusetts Consumer Protection Act. District attorneys from 27 U.S. counties assert that careless gun sales and the gun trafficking to Mexico facilitated by these companies are having a direct impact on their communities by promoting drug trafficking and violence.

In another brief, 16 law professors from U.S. universities agree that the immunity granted by the PLCAA to members of the arms industry does not apply in this case and that international law recognizes the authority of a state to apply its tort law to conduct outside its territory that causes it substantial harm. Professors of international law from European universities also weigh in, asserting that public international law and conflict of law rules do not prohibit foreign law from being applied in a tort liability case against U.S. companies for damages they cause abroad.

Several leading U.S. gun violence prevention organizations also make a case that Massachusetts law allows Mexico’s lawsuit to be heard. The governments of Belize and Antigua and Barbuda, as well as SEHLAC, an international organization focused on security, describe the gun violence situation afflicting Latin America and the Caribbean and emphasize that the remedies sought by Mexico are simple measures that could drastically reduce gun violence in the region. Finally, Mexican academics, activists, victims, and experts vividly describe the ravages of gun trafficking in Mexico.18

On March 14, the companies responded to the court filings, asking that Mexico's request for discovery be denied. The Mexican government asked the court for authorization to file a sur-reply, which points out that the companies rejected the application of Mexican law without offering a legal analysis as to which tort law should be used to analyze this case. The government asserts that legal practice and international law establish that the applicable law is that of the place where the damage occurs and that the application of Mexican law in tort liability matters is not inconsistent with any public policy of Massachusetts or the United States.

On April 12, the parties presented oral arguments before Chief Judge Dennis Saylor through a videoconference. The hearing did not discuss substantive issues of the case, but the arguments related to the standing of the Mexican government, the scope of the PLCAA, and the jurisdiction of the U.S. district court. The judge's questions helped clarify that the legal arguments in the lawsuit are specific to the Mexican case. They also clarified that the Mexican government did not sue the companies because firearms were used to commit crimes, but rather the lawsuit is about the defendants knowing that their products are being trafficked to criminal groups in Mexico and making decisions that facilitate the trafficking.

On June 9, the Mexican government filed a notice of supplemental authority to the court, stemming from developments in National Shooting Sports Foundation v. James. In that case, the gun industry representative challenged a New York statute making it possible to hold gun manufacturers liable for knowingly or recklessly creating or contributing to endangering residents' public safety. The notice points out that several of the foundation’s arguments related to extraterritoriality and applicability of the law, as well as the scope of the PLCAA and separation of powers, are in line with the Mexican government's positions in its lawsuit. Four months after the hearing, the judge has not issued a decision. Whichever party falls short is expected to appeal, and the litigation will continue in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit.

A Comprehensive Strategy

In parallel to the lawsuit, Mexico has continued its strategy to combat arms trafficking. At the national level, it created the National Customs Agency, and all civilian customs personnel will be replaced by members of the Ministry of National Defense by 2023. At the bilateral level, Mexico signed the Bicentennial Agreement with the United States, which gives special attention to achieving tangible results in the fight against arms trafficking. It also has approached the European Union to invite its members to take responsibility for their firearms companies operating in the United States, emphasizing their duty to protect human rights as EU laws require.

At the international level, Mexico has taken actions in the most important mechanisms and institutions that help control and regulate firearms, such as the Arms Trade Treaty, the Firearms Working Group of the Conference of States Parties to the Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime, and the Inter-American Convention Against the Illicit Manufacture of and Trafficking in Firearms, Ammunition, Explosives, and Other Related Materials. In the UN Security Council, Mexico led the adoption of Resolution 2616, which recognizes that the diversion of small arms and light weapons is a threat to peace and security.19 In the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs, Mexico was central to the approval of a resolution that recognizes the link between arms trafficking and drug trafficking.

Through novel arguments and new interpretations of the laws regulating the gun industry, the civil lawsuit seeks to include one of the most powerful actors in the solution to gun violence. Companies have the ability to define the design of their products and the way they advertise, distribute, and sell them. They also have the most extensive and updated information on purchasing patterns to identify transfers to the illicit market. Because of this, more initiatives are emerging in the United States to hold the firearms industry accountable, such as California’s AB1594 law, New York’s S.7196/A.6762 law, and the establishment of an office in New Jersey to bring legal action against gun manufacturers, dealers, and sellers.

In this chaotic 21st century, the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated the importance of the role of the state in protecting the lives of its population. With this civil lawsuit against gun companies that facilitate gun trafficking into its territory, the Mexican government is attempting to fulfill its legal and moral obligation to defend its people. This bold and innovative action has the potential to save thousands of lives and change the landscape of gun violence across the Americas.



1. Small Arms Survey, “Civilian Firearms Holdings, 2017,” n.d., https://www.smallarmssurvey.org/sites/default/files/resources/SAS-BP-Civilian-held-firearms-annexe.pdf.

2. José Manuel Aburto et al., “Homicides in Mexico Reversed Life Expectancy Gains for Men and Slowed Them for Women, 2000–10,” Health Affairs, Vol. 35, No. 1 (January 2016): 88-95.

3. Institute for Economics & Peace, “Mexico Peace Index 2022,” IEP Report, No. 85 (May 2022), https://www.visionofhumanity.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/05/ENG-MPI-2022-web.pdf.

4. On August 4, 2022, the Mexican Ministry of Foreign Affairs published a repository with relevant documents and articles on the litigation. For documents submitted to the court by Mexico, including the complaint, see Gobierno de México, “SRE - Acervo Histórico Diplomático,” August 3, 2022, https://portales.sre.gob.mx/acervo/litigio-del-gobierno-de-mexico/379.

5. U.S. Government Accountability Office, “U.S. Efforts to Combat Firearms Trafficking to Mexico Have Improved, but Some Collaboration Challenges Remain,” GAO-16-223, January 2016, https://www.gao.gov/assets/gao-16-223.pdf; U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, “Firearms Trace Data: Mexico - 2015-2020,” November 16, 2021, https://www.atf.gov/resource-center/firearms-trace-data-mexico-2015-2020.

6. Estados Unidos Mexicanos v. Smith & Wesson Brands, Inc., et al., No. 21-11269 (Dist. Ct. Mass., August 4, 2021).

7. Topher McDougal et al., “The Way of the Gun: Estimating Firearms Traffic Across the U.S.-Mexico Border,” University of San Diego Trans-Border Institute and Igarapé Institute, March 2013, p. 2, https://catcher.sandiego.edu/items/peacestudies/way_of_the_gun.pdf.

8. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, “Federal Firearms Listings,” https://www.atf.gov/firearms/listing-federal-firearms-licensees.

9. Estados Unidos Mexicanos v. Smith & Wesson Brands.

10. Robert Muggah and Topher McDougal, “Why a ‘Great Wall’ Won’t Stop the Cross-Border Gun Trade,” Americas Quarterly, April 26, 2017, https://americasquarterly.org/fulltextarticle/why-a-great-wall-wont-stop-the-cross-border-gun-trade/.

11. For further information on the Mexican government’s reasoning behind the lawsuit, see Alejandro Celorio, “Mexico Is Tired of U.S. Guns Bloodying Our Streets. That’s Why We Are Suing Manufacturers,” The Washington Post, August 14, 2021.

12. Estados Unidos Mexicanos v. Smith & Wesson Brands.

13. Several of these measures were part of an agreement between Smith & Wesson and the Clinton administration in March 2000. Office of the Press Secretary, The White House, “Clinton Administration Reaches Historic Agreement With Smith and Wesson,” March 17, 2000.

14. Estados Unidos Mexicanos v. Smith & Wesson Brands.

15. For an in-depth explanation on the Mexican government’s position on the PLCAA, see Jindan-Karena Mann, “Mexico v. Smith & Wesson: How Should US Courts Approach the Issue of Proximate Cause in Tort Cases Against Gun Manufacturers?” Rethinking Slic, May 26, 2022, https://rethinkingslic.org/blog/tort-law/153-mexico-v-smith-wesson-how-should-us-courts-approach-the-issue-of-proximate-cause-in-tort-cases-against-gun-manufacturers.

16. Estados Unidos Mexicanos v. Smith & Wesson Brands.

17. See Gobierno de México, “SRE - Acervo Histórico Diplomático.”

18. For the amicus curiae briefs, see Gobierno de México, “SRE - Acervo Histórico Diplomático.”

19. UN Security Council, S/RES/2616, December 22, 2021.

Wilma Gandoy Vázquez, a member of the Mexican Foreign Service, and Ximena García Hidalgo, an international affairs specialist, are members of the team in the Head Legal Advisor’s Office at the Mexican Ministry of Foreign Affairs that is working on the government’s lawsuit against firearms companies in the United States. The authors’ opinions are their own and may not reflect the position of the government of Mexico.

One government mounts an innovative legal challenge to a powerful industry in an effort to protect its citizens.

The First TPNW Meeting and the Future of the Nuclear Ban Treaty

September 2022
By Rebecca Davis Gibbons and Stephen Herzog

As diplomats, activists, and researchers converged on Vienna in June for the first meeting of states-parties to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), recent tragic world events highlighted how critical it was to convene this multilateral forum on nuclear disarmament.

At the conclusion of the first meeting of states-parties to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) on June 23, questions from the press were fielded by (L) Beatrice Fihn of ICAN; Laurent Gisel, head of the arms and conduct of hostilities unit in the legal division of the International Committee of the Red Cross; and Alexander Kmentt, TPNW conference president. (Photo courtesy of UNIS Vienna)Since February, Russia’s war against Ukraine has epitomized the grave dangers of a world where nine states possess approximately 12,700 nuclear weapons.1 That Russia could invade a sovereign state and indiscriminately target its civilian population, while using nuclear threats to deter NATO from intervening, has stunned the world. It offers a stark reminder that possessing nuclear arms can enable abhorrent violations of international law.2

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggression and nuclear threats are the most egregious recent activities by a nuclear weapons possessor, but they are hardly the only transgressions. Nuclear-armed states continue to emphasize these weapons in their national security doctrines by pursuing new capabilities and modernization programs and by increasing their numbers of warheads. In other words, the five countries designated as nuclear-weapon states under the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) do not appear to be taking effective measures toward fulfilling their NPT Article VI disarmament commitments. Disappointment over a lack of progress in this area led diplomats and activists to pursue creation and ratification of the TPNW in the first place.3

The TPNW, which entered into force in January 2021 and is popularly known as the nuclear ban treaty, prohibits all nuclear weapons activities, including building, testing, possessing, transferring, helping others develop, and threatening the use of nuclear arms.4 The first meeting of states-parties originally was scheduled for January 2022, but was delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic, as were most other nuclear-related multilateral gatherings. By the time the meeting convened at the UN office in Vienna on June 21–23, the TPNW boasted 66 states-parties. Thirty-four other interested countries attended as observers.

Despite successful consolidation of the TPNW’s entry into force and progress toward developing policies for treaty implementation at the meeting, major challenges loom for this new fixture of the global nuclear order. Treaty proponents face the twin tasks of building effective treaty infrastructure and convincing additional states to join. These tasks may prove difficult in the short term. To be sure, policymakers and publics alike are waking up to nuclear risks due to media coverage of Russian threats and aggressive behavior. For some countries, this means increased interest about acquiring nuclear security guarantees for protection. Yet, if the unacceptable risks and consequences of nuclear deterrence become the dominant long-term narrative, a groundswell of support for the TPNW and nuclear disarmament could eventually emerge.

Implementing a Global Nuclear Weapons Ban

Before the meeting of states-parties, Austria hosted the Vienna Conference on the Humanitarian Impacts of Nuclear Weapons, which featured testimonials of nuclear explosion survivors alongside panel discussions and presentations on new scientific research about the devastating effects of nuclear weapons use. This event on June 20 marked the fourth such conference, following three others in 2013 and 2014, in Oslo; Nayarit, Mexico; and Vienna. They paved the way for the TPNW by educating diplomats on the impacts of nuclear weapons use on humans, their communities, and the environment.

The formal meeting of states-parties followed, with Austrian diplomat Alexander Kmentt, president of the proceedings, arguing that the TPNW is needed now more than ever and represents the world’s only nuclear trend moving in the right direction. UN Secretary-General António Guterres offered support by video, stating that “we must stop knocking on doomsday’s door” and “let’s eliminate these weapons before they eliminate us.” Statements from several political leaders came next, as well as from Peter Maurer, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross; Beatrice Fihn, executive director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN); and Karipbek Kuyukov, a survivor affected by Soviet nuclear testing in Semipalatinsk, Kazakhstan.

Because there were only three days of proceedings, the participants had negotiated in advance much of the language released in the meeting’s final declaration and action plan.5 Nevertheless, delegations debated numerous topics related to treaty implementation that would form the 50-point action plan, including how to persuade more countries to join the treaty, set timelines for eliminating nuclear arsenals after nuclear-armed states join the TPNW, establish the disarmament verification body, and put into practice the accord’s positive obligations.

Demonstrators outside the U.S. Mission to the United Nations on Aug. 2 carried a message for Washington as delegates to the 10th Review Conference for the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty met across the street at the United Nations.  (Photo credit: ICAN/Seth Shelden)Much discussion centered on Article 12, which calls for states-parties to “encourage” all other states to join the treaty “with the goal of universal adherence.” Member-states Austria and Costa Rica, alongside observer Indonesia, submitted a working paper with suggestions for implementation.6 During debate, several states expressed the need to go beyond seeking additional state ratifications and advocated for global, public educational efforts on the treaty and the effects of nuclear weapons use. The action plan calls on states-parties to establish national coordinators for Article 12 universalization efforts within 60 days and lays out the means to promote the treaty and its norms. These tools include démarches, outreach meetings, international conferences and workshops, UN General Assembly resolutions, and high-level official statements. The action plan notes that states-parties should emphasize dialogue and the humanitarian argument behind the treaty when engaging with states “that for the moment remain committed to nuclear weapons and nuclear deterrence.”

Another important issue concerned Article 4, stipulating the conditions for eliminating nuclear weapons. Before the Vienna meeting, this language did not specify a timeline by which nuclear-armed states that join the TPNW must do so. South Africa, the only state that has given up an indigenously developed nuclear arsenal, took the lead by holding consultations before the meeting and presenting a working paper.7 Subsequently, states-parties agreed to a 10-year window for nuclear weapons dismantlement, but allowed for possible extensions. They also decided that states that host forward-deployed nuclear weapons must remove them within 90 days after their accession to the TPNW.8

Article 4 also calls for members to “designate a competent international authority or authorities to negotiate and verify the irreversible elimination of nuclear-weapons programmes.” Mexico, with support from observer state Brazil, suggested that each country send a representative to an intersessional committee to examine the possibility further, and this was incorporated into the action plan.

Kazakhstan and Kiribati, as states deeply affected by the horrific legacy of nuclear testing, led consultations on Articles 6 and 7 of the treaty.9 These articles address two key positive treaty obligations: assistance for victims of nuclear use and testing and environmental remediation for areas affected by nuclear weapons use.10 The consultations resulted in several actions, including consideration of the feasibility of an international trust fund to support those harmed by nuclear weapons use.

On the final day of the conference, the parties made plans to establish expert consultative bodies. They created a scientific advisory group of up to 15 individuals to provide technical advice for treaty implementation and agreed to appoint an informal facilitator to focus on the TPNW’s complementarity with other nuclear treaties. The treaty members asked Ireland and Thailand to lead these activities following the countries’ working paper on the topic.11

To conduct treaty implementation work in the two years prior to the next meeting, states-parties established a coordination committee. It will meet at least quarterly and involve Kmentt, the next president-designate, chairs of informal committees on universalization and victim assistance and environmental remediation, and competent international authorities. ICAN and Red Cross representatives will observe. This intersessional process will ensure treaty implementation tasks continue between meetings of states-parties.

In addition to the action plan, states-parties consented to the Vienna declaration. This four-page document stresses the moral and humanitarian motivations underlying the treaty and voices significant concern about the nuclear weapons possessed by the five NPT-recognized nuclear-weapon states and four other nuclear-armed states outside the NPT: India, Israel, North Korea, and Pakistan. The declaration is unequivocal in its critique of nuclear weapons and nuclear deterrence; it expresses support for the goals of the TPNW and its full implementation.

The Vienna declaration also condemns nuclear threats in strong terms without naming specific states while hinting at recent Russian actions. It reads, “We are alarmed and dismayed by threats to use nuclear weapons and increasingly strident nuclear rhetoric. We stress that any use or threat of use of nuclear weapons is a violation of international law, including the Charter of the United Nations. We condemn unequivocally any and all nuclear threats, whether they be explicit or implicit and irrespective of the circumstances.”

The declaration further criticizes nuclear-armed states that have tried to pressure non-nuclear-weapon states not to join the treaty, an implicit reference to the NATO nuclear powers France, the UK, and the United States.

Unlike the nuclear-armed states and those under their protection, the declaration rejects nuclear deterrence and “the fallacy of nuclear deterrence doctrines.” It asserts that the goal of states-parties is to stigmatize and delegitimize these weapons and to “harness the public conscience in support of our goal of universal adherence to the Treaty and its full implementation.”

Finally, the declaration recognizes the global importance of the NPT, “[deploring] threats or actions that risk undermining it.”

States-Parties, Observers, and Nonparticipants

The 66 parties to the TPNW represent a broad cross-section of the international community, including states from Africa, Asia, Europe, the Middle East, North and South America, and Oceania. Their geographic diversity showcases the global appeal of nuclear disarmament and dissatisfaction with stalled progress fulfilling NPT Article VI. There was also a large international civil society presence in Vienna because nuclear weapons use would affect all people and the presence of nongovernmental organizations was mandated specifically by the TPNW.

Before the states-parties to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) held their first meeting in Vienna in June, civil society groups and anti-nuclear activists gathered there to discuss the humanitarian impacts of nuclear war. On this panel, representatives of Pacific nations discussed how they are banning together to protect their neighbors from nuclear threats. (Photo by Alexander Papis of ICAN)The 34 nonmember states that observed the Vienna proceedings included those intending to ratify the treaty, those not planning to join, and those still undecided. Among the observers were Brazil, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Indonesia, Libya, the Marshall Islands, Morocco, Nepal, and Switzerland, each of which had varied perspectives on salient issues. For example, Brazil stressed the compatibility of the TPNW and the NPT while Switzerland noted that relations between the treaties were not yet clear. Also observing were a handful of U.S. allies under the nuclear umbrella: Australia, Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, and Norway and soon-to-be-NATO-allies Finland and Sweden. Norway, host of a previous humanitarian conference, even stated that attending the meeting of states-parties should not be viewed as a step toward ratification of the TPNW because the new treaty “would be incompatible with our NATO obligations.”12 Regardless, observers agreed with the goal of nuclear disarmament in their statements and commended the humanitarian initiative. Germany also welcomed the positive treaty obligation regarding victim assistance.13

It is also important to take stock of who was not in Vienna, namely the five NPT-recognized nuclear-weapon states, as well as India, Israel, North Korea, and Pakistan, who have not joined the treaty and did not participate as observers. Many of their allies did not send delegations either. This behavior is broadly consistent with statements by numerous countries that rely on nuclear weapons or extended deterrence indicating their refusal to join because the TPNW will undermine the NPT and not contribute to disarmament.14

Japan’s official absence was particularly notable. Despite vigorous efforts by activists to persuade the Japanese government to observe the Vienna meeting, it decided instead to focus on the NPT review conference in August. This decision effectively dashed near-term hopes that Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, who represents Hiroshima, would part ways with his predecessor Shinzō Abe’s opposition to the treaty. Nevertheless, several hibakusha, the survivors of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; the mayors of these two cities; and other activists were present. Both mayors spoke at the conference and received significant attention from scores of Japanese reporters who were present.

The meeting seemed as much about implementing the treaty as it was about rebutting oft-repeated criticism of the accord; the states-parties frequently engaged with the arguments of observers and nuclear-armed states. These debates primarily dealt with three issues: whether or how the TPNW and NPT complement or conflict with each other, the extent to which some states prioritize deterrence over disarmament, and condemnation of Russia’s nuclear threats during the war in Ukraine.

On the first point, almost every state-party reiterated in its national statement the complementarity of the TPNW with existing nonproliferation regime infrastructure. This includes the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the nuclear-weapon-free zones, and especially the NPT. Such compatibility was a key message because the states-parties sought to counter the claims by nuclear-armed states that the new treaty would undermine the NPT, long the bedrock of arms control and disarmament efforts, and sow division among its members. Many delegates said the TPNW would encourage intensified efforts to meet unfulfilled NPT Article VI disarmament commitments.

On the second point, several delegations criticized states that rely on nuclear weapons for their national security. These statements drew attention to disagreements between those states that perceive nuclear weapons as a source of security and those that see them as creating insecurity. As the Jamaican delegate explained, “[F]ar from ensuring security, nuclear weapons threaten our survival.”15 The Irish delegate similarly stated, “It is our fundamental belief that nuclear weapons offer no security.”16 Another rhetorical theme was the use of the terms “realism” and “reality.” In the past, representatives of the nuclear-armed states have chastised the TPNW with phrases such as, “We have to be realistic.”17 Some treaty proponents used similar language to underline nuclear weapons effects and advocate for the global ban.

Finally, many European observer states wanted the states-parties to strongly condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine, especially Putin’s nuclear threats. TPNW member state Ireland, among others, vociferously agreed, stating, “We cannot shy away from calling out those who threaten the use of nuclear weapons.” Controversially, the majority of states-parties did not even mention Russian aggression against Ukraine in their remarks. Fierce debate occurred behind the scenes about whether to shame Russia by name in the final document, but in the end, the members’ condemnation of “any and all nuclear threats” did not single out Russia. Many states-parties viewed Russian nuclear threats during the war in Ukraine as continuing a long history of misbehavior by the nuclear-armed states. To these delegations, Russian actions were further evidence of a lack of seriousness about disarmament by the nuclear powers rather than a standalone transgression requiring separate condemnation.

Competing Narratives and Nuclear Futures

The success of the first meeting of the TPNW states-parties is difficult to deny in terms of organization and policy. For one thing, the nuclear weapons have-nots succeeded in solidifying entry into force of an international treaty banning the world’s most powerful weapons, weapons that could imperil the future of humanity. Resulting policy developments include concrete efforts to expand the treaty to more states, increase public outreach, implement future nuclear dismantlement after nuclear-armed states join the treaty, and address collateral consequences of nuclear weapons. The strong enthusiasm of the delegations and nongovernmental observers was noticeably atypical for diplomatic proceedings, highlighting their passion for the new treaty and dedication to its objectives.

Euphoria among many TPNW proponents notwithstanding, many challenges lie ahead. Russia’s war in Ukraine has underscored and exacerbated long-standing nuclear divisions among states. Two possible lessons have emerged. On the one hand, Ukraine, a state lacking a nuclear-armed patron, was invaded after having given up its inherited Soviet nuclear arsenal, which has increased some states’ interest in nuclear deterrence and extended deterrence.18 There is now wider discussion of South Korea acquiring its own nuclear weapons.19 Meanwhile, Finland and Sweden have moved swiftly to join NATO and be covered by the U.S. nuclear umbrella.20 On the other hand, Putin’s nuclear threats appear to have further convinced many states and activists of the dangers of possessing these deadly weapons of mass destruction.

Finding common ground between these camps will not be easy, but there is power in narrative. Now that the TPNW is here to stay, the best advocacy strategy for proponents of the treaty appears to be pointing to the world’s nuclear realities. Putin is reminding the public continuously of disturbing nuclear facts that have received only limited popular attention since the Cold War ended. All major cities in nuclear-armed states, as well as NATO states in Europe, are mere minutes from destruction by nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles. This mutual nuclear targeting has been the case for many decades, but it has had low visibility in the public sphere.

The devastating consequences of any nuclear weapons use on societies, the environment, and politics would affect everyone on the planet. Governments are not the only actors that matter. ICAN Executive Director Beatrice Fihn has stressed that one objective of the ban movement must be to stigmatize the bomb from the bottom up in states relying on nuclear deterrence.21 Put simply, public opinion and public discourse are critical. Research has shown, for example, that a majority of U.S. and Japanese citizens support nuclear disarmament even though their leaders continue to push narratives of security through deterrence.22 Other polls indicate, however, that public opinion cannot be taken for granted. Many Americans can be persuaded to oppose the TPNW by U.S. government arguments against the treaty, 52 percent of Germans support maintaining once unpopular U.S. tactical nuclear weapons on their soil given Russia’s aggressive behavior, and a majority of Dutch support TPNW accession “only if nuclear-weapon states or other NATO allies also joined.”23

The next meetings of TPNW states-parties will take place at the UN in New York in 2023 and 2026, with Mexico and Kazakhstan, respectively, presiding over the discussions. Meanwhile, treaty advocates can feel proud of what they accomplished in Vienna, while remaining clear-eyed about the difficult work ahead. Implementing the nuclear ban treaty and attracting new members, particularly those that rely on nuclear weapons for security, undoubtedly will be difficult. Prospects for nuclear disarmament, whether through NPT Article VI or the TPNW, appear bleak in the short term as the world’s nuclear-armed states become increasingly divided.24 The disturbing stream of world events suggests, however, that the Vienna action plan’s emphasis on the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons use is the nuclear narrative that most closely mirrors reality.



1. Federation of American Scientists, “Status of World Nuclear Forces,” n.d., https://fas.org/issues/nuclear-weapons/status-world-nuclear-forces/ (accessed August 12, 2022).

2. Alexander K. Bollfrass and Stephen Herzog, “The War in Ukraine and Global Nuclear Order,” Survival, Vol. 64, No. 4 (August/September 2022): 7–32.

3. Rebecca Davis Gibbons, “The Humanitarian Turn in Nuclear Disarmament and the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons,” The Nonproliferation Review, Vol. 25, Nos. 1-2 (February/March 2018): 11–36.

4. Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, July 7, 2017, https://treaties.un.org/doc/Treaties/2017/07/20170707%2003-42%20PM/Ch_XXVI_9.pdf.

5. First Meeting of States Parties to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, “Draft Vienna Declaration of the 1st Meeting of States Parties of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons: ‘Our Commitment to a World Free of Nuclear Weapons,’” TPNW/MSP/2022/CRP.8, June 23, 2022; First Meeting of States Parties to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, “Draft Vienna Action Plan,” TPNW/MSP/2022/CRP.7, June 22, 2022.

6. First Meeting of States Parties to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, “Implementing Article 12 of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons: Universalization; Working Paper Submitted by the Co-facilitators, Austria, Costa Rica and Indonesia,” TPNW/MSP/2022/WP.7, June 17, 2022.

7. First Meeting of States Parties to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, “Deadlines for the Removal From Operational Status and Destruction of Nuclear Weapons and Other Nuclear Explosive Devices, and Their Removal From National Territories (Article 4): Working Paper Submitted by the Facilitator, South Africa,” TPNW/MSP/2022/WP.9, June 22, 2022. For a discussion of why states may give up nuclear weapons, see Kjølv Egeland, “A Theory of Nuclear Disarmament: Cases, Analogies, and the Role of the Nonproliferation Regime,” Contemporary Security Policy, Vol. 43, No. 1 (January 2022): 106–133.

8. This time frame was influenced by research examining historical cases of weapons removal. See Moritz Kütt and Zia Mian, “Setting the Deadline for Nuclear Weapon Removal From Host States Under the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons,” Journal for Peace and Nuclear Disarmament, Vol. 5, No. 1 (June 2022): 148–161.

9. For more on these legacies, see Togzhan Kassenova, Atomic Steppe: How Kazakhstan Gave Up the Bomb (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2022); Becky Alexis-Martin et al., “Addressing the Humanitarian and Environmental Consequences of Atmospheric Nuclear Weapon Tests,” Global Policy, Vol. 12, No. 1 (February 2021): 106–121.

10. For further background, see Bonnie Docherty, “From Obligation to Action: Advancing Victim Assistance and Environmental Remediation at the First Meeting of States Parties to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons,” Journal for Peace and Nuclear Disarmament, Vol. 3, No. 2 (November 2020): 253–264; Nidhi Singh, “Victim Assistance Under the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons: An Analysis,” Journal for Peace and Nuclear Disarmament, Vol. 3, No. 2 (November 2020): 265–282.

11. First Meeting of States Parties to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, “Complementarity With the Existing Disarmament and Non-proliferation Regime: Working Paper Submitted by the Co-facilitators, Ireland and Thailand,” TPNW/MSP/2022/WP.3, June 8, 2022.

12. Jørn Osmundsen, Statement to the first meeting of states-parties to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, June 21, 2022, https://documents.unoda.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/06/Norway.pdf.

13. Rüdiger Bohn, Statement to the first meeting of states-parties to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, Vienna, June 21–23, 2022, https://documents.unoda.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/06/Germany.pdf.

14. See, for example, Paul Schulte, “The UK, France and the Nuclear Ban Treaty,” in Breakthrough or Breakpoint? Global Perspectives on the Nuclear Ban Treaty, ed. Shatabhisha Shetty and Denitsa Raynova, December 2017, p. 21, https://www.europeanleadershipnetwork.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/ELN-Global-Perspectives-on-the-Nuclear-Ban-Treaty-December-2017-1.pdf.

15. Government of Jamaica, Statement to the first meeting of states-parties to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, Vienna, June 21-23, 2022, https://documents.unoda.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/06/Jamaica.pdf.

16. Government of Ireland, Statement to the first meeting of states-parties to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, n.d., https://documents.unoda.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/06/Ireland.pdf.

17. Somini Sengupta and Rick Gladstone, “United States and Allies Protest U.N. Talks to Ban Nuclear Weapons,” The New York Times, March 27, 2017.

18. Lauren Sukin and Alexander Lanoszka, “Poll: Russia’s Nuclear Saber-rattling Is Rattling Neighbors’ Nerves,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, April 15, 2022, https://thebulletin.org/2022/04/poll-russias-nuclear-saber-rattling-israttling-neighbors-nerves/. For a discussion of Ukraine’s disarmament, see Mariana Budjeryn, Inheriting the Bomb: The Collapse of the USSR and the Nuclear Disarmament of Ukraine (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2022).

19. Choe Sang-hun, “Ukraine Conflict Revives Nuclear Arms Question in a Wary South Korea,” The New York Times, April 7, 2022, p. A10.

20. William Alberque and Benjamin Schreer, “Finland, Sweden and NATO Membership,” Survival, Vol. 64, No. 3 (June/July 2022): 67–72.

21. Motoko Mekata, “How Transnational Civil Society Realized the Ban Treaty: An Interview With Beatrice Fihn,” Journal for Peace and Nuclear Disarmament, Vol. 1, No. 1 (2018): 79–92.

22. Ondrej Rosendorf, Michal Smetana, and Marek Vranka, “Disarming Arguments: Public Opinion and Nuclear Abolition,” Survival, Vol. 63, No. 6 (December 2021/January 2022): 183-200; Jonathan Baron, Rebecca Davis Gibbons, and Stephen Herzog, “Japanese Public Opinion, Political Persuasion, and the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons,” Journal for Peace and Nuclear Disarmament, Vol. 3, No. 2 (November 2020): 299–309.

23. Stephen Herzog, Jonathon Baron, and Rebecca Davis Gibbons, “Antinormative Messaging, Group Cues, and the Nuclear Ban Treaty,” Journal of Politics, Vol. 84, No. 1 (January 2022): 591–596; Robert Bongen, Hans-Jakob Rausch, and Jonas Schreijäg, “Umfrage: Erstmals Mehrheit für Atomwaffen in Deutschland” [Poll: Majority in favor of nuclear weapons in Germany for the first time], Tagesschau, June 2, 2022, https://www.tagesschau.de/investigativ/panorama/umfrage-atomwaffen-deutschland-101.html; Michal Onderco et al., “When Do the Dutch Want to Join the Nuclear Ban Treaty? Findings of a Public Opinion Survey in the Netherlands,” The Nonproliferation Review, October 27, 2021, https://doi.org/10.1080/10736700.2021.1978156.

24. Rebecca Davis Gibbons and Stephen Herzog, “Durable Institution Under Fire? The NPT Confronts Emerging Multipolarity,” Contemporary Security Policy, Vol. 43, No. 1 (January 2022): 50–79.


Rebecca Davis Gibbons is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Southern Maine. Stephen Herzog is a senior researcher in nuclear arms control at the Center for Security Studies at ETH Zurich. They are co-chairs of the Beyond Nuclear Deterrence Working Group at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Project on Managing the Atom.

After the successful launch of the nuclear ban treaty, the hard work of convincing more states to join lies ahead.

Breaking the Impasse Over Security in Space

September 2022
By Victoria Samson

As the international use of space has become more complicated since the end of the Cold War, multilateral discussions about ensuring the security of this shared domain have stalled because of circular arguments. Yet, the need to address this challenge is acute because space security continues to grow as a factor in overall global stability and, in fact, has become more relevant, given that many more countries are interested in the benefits that come from space assets and in counterspace capabilities.

Russia in August unveiled a model of its planned new orbital space station at a military-industrial exhibition near Moscow. As tensions with the West rise, Russia has indicated that it will quit the International Space Station after 2024 to pursue its own project. (Photo by Contributor/Getty Images)A few statistics underscore this reality. As of August 2022, there are more than 6,400 active satellites in orbit, affiliated with more than 80 nations.1 The U.S. military is tracking 47,000 pieces of uncontrollable space debris that can disable or destroy satellites.2 A stable, predictable space environment serves all who get benefits from this domain, and because space is literally universal, it requires a shared global approach to achieve that outcome.

Although this lack of progress in space security discussions in multilateral forums has become worrisome, there is some reason for optimism. In an effort to break the impasse, international diplomats and experts over the past several years have begun shifting from a traditional arms control approach that attempted to limit control of technologies through treaties or other legally binding approaches to a focus on behavioral, non-legally binding approaches to space security. Toward this end, an open-ended working group established by the United Nations is striving to identify norms of behavior and responsible actions in space, a process that could create room for new governance mechanisms to make space more stable and predictable. The wildcard is whether the working group participants, next scheduled to meet in Geneva on September 12–16, are prepared to approach the conversation in good faith and prioritize the group’s success over winning short-term political points against rivals.

Along with using space for national security missions, such as intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, missile tracking, military communications, and command and control, more countries are relying on it for economic development. Increasingly, they also are investigating ways in which to interfere with other countries’ access to or use of space assets. The Secure World Foundation launched a global counterspace threat assessment in 2018 by examining what was known publicly about the counterspace research, development, policies, and budgets of China, India, Iran, North Korea, Russia, and the United States.3 In 2020, France and Japan were added; the version released this April also included Australia, South Korea, and the United Kingdom, for a total of 11 countries.4

Although many countries are pursuing significant research and development programs involving a broad range of destructive and nondestructive counterspace capabilities, only nondestructive capabilities are actively being used in current military operations. There has been a recent uptick, however, in destructive anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons testing, which is concerning because such tests can result in long-lived debris that can harm other satellites in orbit. They also can establish the precedent that ASAT weapons tests are acceptable and thus encourage more countries to conduct them. That in turn runs the risk of inadvertent escalation or even possible deliberate use of ASAT weapons during a conflict if this proliferation becomes more prevalent.

During the Cold War, the only two countries to test ASAT weapons systems were the Soviet Union and the United States. There was a decade-long pause in these tests at the end of the Cold War, but they eventually resumed with the involvement of two more countries: China in 2005 and India in 2019. Over the past 17 years, there have been 24 tests by the four countries, out of a total of 80 tests conducted since the first one by the United States in 1959 (fig. 1).5

Source: Secure World Foundation, https://swfound.org/counterspace, May 5.The security and stability of space has been a concern since the beginning of the Space Age. It is more acute now, however, because more than 80 countries have satellites in orbit and there is a rising dependence on space capabilities for such critical needs as economic development, environmental monitoring, and disaster management. Although space security had been perceived as important only to the geopolitical superpowers, nearly every person on the planet now uses space data in some way and thus benefits from a predictable space environment.

Given the security concerns related to space capabilities and the fact that space is a shared domain where the activities of one actor can affect the ability of all to utilize it, the United Nations is the natural organization to convene space security negotiations. Nevertheless, it has not generated any concrete results on this topic in years. One reason is a fundamental disagreement among geopolitical superpowers about the nature of the threat and managing it. China, Russia, and their allies have long focused on explicitly defined weapons systems placed in orbit that could threaten ground targets. They are concerned that a country would field space-based missile defense interceptors, with the assumption being that the United States would be the one to do this, even though it has no plans to deploy such interceptors or invest significantly in that capability. Such a threat definition reflects a traditional arms control approach focusing on a specific technology and designated weapons system that China and Russia consider destabilizing to space security.

China and Russia have opted to defend against this threat by promoting a treaty-based approach. In 2008, they released their draft Treaty on Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space and of the Threat or Use of Force Against Outer Space Objects, revamping it in 2014. It has not gotten much traction, given its lack of verification, its failure to address ground-based ASAT weapons systems, and the dual-use nature of space technology. The U.S. refusal, until recently, to offer an alternative also has stymied progress in multilateral discussions on space security.

The United States and its allies have considered the biggest threats to space security and stability to be behavior and actions in orbit. They argue that much of the same technology could have benign usage or bad intent, depending on the actions undertaken by the owner of that technology. The dual nature of much of the technology used for satellite capabilities and launching means it can have civilian or military applications, depending on the mission. That makes it difficult to use a traditional arms control approach in which the technology itself is limited from proliferating further. Instead, it is what is done with that technology that can be perceived as threatening. They assert that, in order to ensure a stable, predictable space environment, the best approach is to develop norms of behavior or identify responsible actions in orbit, because that would not be dependent on specific technology to be effective. There has not been general interest in a legally binding approach to space security, given that the last effective space treaties were negotiated in the mid-1970s.

In December 2020, the UK led a coalition of countries as sponsors of UN General Assembly Resolution 75/36.6 The resolution, which passed resoundingly, called for national submissions to UN Secretary-General António Guterres by May 2021 that would clarify how countries see threats to space security, identify responsible behavior in space, and suggest possible paths forward. The goal was to find commonalities that could break the impasse that for decades essentially had stopped progress in space security discussions in the Conference of Disarmament. Around 30 countries submitted responses, reflecting some convergence around the idea that the deliberate creation of space debris and the uncoordinated close approach to another country’s satellite are irresponsible.7

South Korea on June 21 successfully launched its homegrown space rocket Nuri  (KSLV-II) in the second attempt to put satellites into orbit, a milestone in the country's space program. In this handout image from the Korea Aerospace Research Institute, the space rocket Nuri (KSLV-II) takes off from its launch pad at the Naro Space Center in Goheung-gun, South Korea. (Photo by Korea Aerospace Research Institute via Getty Images)On the other hand, many countries identified acting with due regard and avoiding harmful interference, principles represented in Article IX of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, as responsible behavior. Some countries still pushed for a legally binding response to concerns about space security, but there seemed to be broader support for non-legally binding solutions. Based on the national submissions, Guterres generated a report summarizing the major ideas put forward and recommending an inclusive process to move the discussions forward at the UN General Assembly meeting in fall 2021.8

In December 2021, UK officials, again with a strong coalition of co-sponsors, secured adoption of Resolution 76/231, which called for establishing an open-ended working group that would work on “reducing space threats through norms, rules and principles of responsible behaviour.”9 It is similar to another type of UN entity, the group of governmental experts, in that both are given a very specific mandate and have the goal of producing a final report that is based on consensus. The crucial difference is participation: an open-ended working group is open to all UN member states and sometimes civil society organizations or other relevant actors, with the mission of making the process as inclusive as possible. If the goal is to reach agreement on responsible behaviors in space that reflect the needs of the global community, not just one category of space actors, and to ensure that the approved norms do not unduly burden new actors in space, it is important to represent as many perspectives as possible in the discussions.

This commitment to inclusivity was a lesson learned from the failure of the European Union’s draft International Code of Conduct, which was perceived by non-Western actors as a preexisting document in which they had no input. Similarly, a group of governmental experts met in 2018–2019 to discuss elements of a potential legally binding instrument for the prevention of an arms race in outer space. Due to UN criteria, however, it limited participation to 25 member states. Even so, it failed to reach consensus on its report.

The open-ended working group on space has been tasked to meet twice each in 2022 and 2023 and given the mandate to examine the existing legal and normative framework regarding space threats arising from behavior, discuss threats to space systems and irresponsible actions, and recommend norms, rules, and principles of responsible behavior in space. The report is due to be submitted to the General Assembly in the fall of 2023.10 The resulting norms could then be used as launchpads for UN resolutions. Further down the line, they could even be the basis of legally binding agreements.

The first working group meeting was scheduled for mid-February 2022, but at the planning session the preceding week, it became apparent that there was resistance to holding the group meeting as planned. Countries that voted no on the resolution creating the working group suspected that the whole process was meant to end-run the Chinese-Russian treaty proposal. They argued that the roughly six weeks since the passing of Resolution 76/231 had not given the international community sufficient time to prepare. Recognizing the futility of a diplomatic negotiation in such a situation, the working group chair, Hellmut Lagos Koller of Chile, postponed the first meeting until May amid hopes that that would give interested parties sufficient preparation time.

In the interim, the United States announced that it was committing not to conduct destructive direct-ascent ASAT missile tests.11 This decision reflected how the United States and like-minded nations are approaching space security issues, with a focus on behavior, not capabilities, and on achieving a non-legally binding agreement instead of a formal treaty. Even so, U.S. officials have not ruled out the possibility that this unilateral commitment could eventually evolve into a treaty.

The impetus for the commitment not to conduct ASAT weapons tests was concern regarding the long-lived debris that the tests created. It was foreshadowed in U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin’s July 2021 memo that spelled out five tenets of responsible behavior in U.S. Department of Defense space operations, including limiting the generation of long-lived debris.12

The debris issue also was brought up in December 2021 at the first meeting of the National Space Council, where the Biden administration released its space priorities framework. In remarks at that event, Vice President Kamala Harris criticized the ASAT weapons test conducted by Russia one month earlier that created more than 1,500 pieces of trackable debris, and Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks stated that the Defense Department “would like to see all nations agree to refrain from antisatellite weapons testing that creates debris.”13 Even with this intellectual underpinning, the decision to halt ASAT weapons testing was a big change in that the United States was voluntarily and proactively restricting the possibility of future destabilizing actions in orbit. For many years, the national security establishment had looked askance at anything less than complete freedom of action for the United States in space.

The U.S. testing announcement led the way to the first meeting of the UN space working group in Geneva three weeks later. There was some trepidation beforehand that those who opposed the group’s creation might cause procedural interruptions or otherwise limit discussion, but the meeting went surprisingly smoothly. The one exception was a brief walkout by Western countries when a Russian diplomat used inflammatory language about the Ukrainian government. Mostly, the participating countries seemed invested in having a general exchange of views and discussing speaker presentations on the international legal and normative framework concerning threats arising from state actions.

Underlining the inclusivity for which organizers were hoping, a wide variety of state actors participated in the discussions while civil society representatives listened from the sidelines and made their own statements when time permitted.

The Canadian delegation kicked off the first day of the meeting with the surprising announcement that Canada too would make a commitment not to conduct destructive ASAT missile tests.14 This commitment was endorsed by more than a dozen countries, and Brazil even called for a complete moratorium on all ASAT weapons tests. No other countries officially joined the United States and Canada in this pledge at that time, although New Zealand did in June 2022.15 During the working group meeting, the United States made clear that it hoped moratoriums would become a broadly endorsed norm and be incorporated into whatever principles of responsible behavior might make it into the final working group report.

The focus will shift to threats to space security when the working group opens its next meeting on September 12 in Geneva. It is possible that this week-long session could be more turbulent than the last one given the divisions among the geopolitical superpowers over what threatens space security and stability, particularly concerns that a process centered on non-legally binding norms of behavior will supplant a legally binding approach.

None of this means that the working group is doomed to failure. Simply holding these discussions is broadening awareness globally about the complicated structure of space security and the ways in which the multilateral process can shore it up. Many states without experience in these topics are developing their knowledge and capacity to participate in these discussions and are doing so in an increasingly sophisticated manner that is moving the debate forward. For example, the Philippines introduced a paper about the principle of due regard and its role in responsible space behavior at the May working group meeting.16

The content of the discussions is illuminating too, reflecting a spectrum of responses in terms of what activities countries perceive to be destabilizing in space, what they deem responsible behavior to be, and how those involved in space should be held accountable for their actions. Whether the international community comes to agreement on any of this, it is helpful from a transparency perspective to have these beliefs spelled out and made public.

Although it is not guaranteed that there will be universal agreement on the norms and principles to be included in the final working group report, it is likely that there will be broad concurrence on at least some norms of responsible space behavior. There is nothing preventing countries from taking what they have found useful in these group discussions and incorporating them unilaterally in their space activities, independent of the UN process. In addition, these norms could become the foundation of future UN resolutions and, if widely disseminated, could even lead to legally binding agreements. For example, more states could formalize commitments not to conduct destructive ASAT missile tests. Although some question the benefit of such a pledge, there is power behind it. Even countries that cannot conduct missile tests or never had any intention of doing so can demonstrate that they find such behavior irresponsible due to the unpredictable nature and potential damage of the debris generated. That is how the norm can be formalized and gain acceptance until one day it becomes customary international law. Of course, countries that have tested ASAT weapons systems can reinforce future stability and security by making this pledge as well.

There are other actions states can take and include in the working group report to advance transparency and accountability for activities in orbit while not being too restrictive or burdensome. These include underlining their commitments to the existing legal framework for space activities, such as signing and ratifying the Outer Space Treaty, the Liability Convention, and the Registration Convention; registering space objects, including military ones, with the UN in a timely manner; and providing information about activities in space, including, when possible, military satellite behavior, such as satellite launch notifications, planned satellite maneuvers, and potential close approaches to other satellites.

They could also commit to creating and publicizing protocols guiding uncoordinated close approaches to other countries’ satellites; publishing information about national budgets, policies, and programs related to space; agreeing not to interfere with national technical means of verification; and engaging in best practices to mitigate the creation of space debris.

In short, this working group has the potential to move discussions off the hamster wheel of the treaty/no treaty debate on which the international community has been stuck for years. The group will not be able to resolve all security concerns about space, because no single solution or approach can do that; but it could make progress on some of the most pressing challenges, helping make space safer, more stable, and more predictable for all.



1. CelesTrak, “SATCAT Boxscore,” August 10, 2022, https://celestrak.org/satcat/boxscore.php.

2. Sandra Erwin, “Tracking Debris and Space Traffic a Growing Challenge for U.S. Military,” SpaceNews, August 9, 2022, https://spacenews.com/tracking-debris-and-space-traffic-a-growing-challenge-for-u-s-military/.

3. Brian Weeden and Victoria Samson, eds., “Global Counterspace Capabilities: An Open Source Assessment,” Secure World Foundation, April 2022, https://swfound.org/media/207350/swf_global_counterspace_capabilities_2022_rev2.pdf.

4. Ibid.

5. “Anti-Satellite Weapons,” Secure World Foundation, n.d., https://swfound.org/media/207392/swf-asat-testing-infographic-may2022.pdf.

6. UN General Assembly, “Reducing Space Threats Through Norms, Rules and Principles of Responsible Behaviours,” A/RES/75/36, December 16, 2020.

7. UN Office for Disarmament Affairs (UNODA), “Report of the Secretary-General on Reducing Space Threats Through Norms, Rules and Principles of Responsible Behaviors (2021),” n.d., https://www.un.org/disarmament/topics/outerspace-sg-report-outer-space-2021/ (accessed August 12, 2022).

8. UN General Assembly, “Reducing Space Threats Through Norms, Rules and Principles of Responsible Behaviors: Report of the Secretary-General,” A/76/77, July 13, 2021.

9. UN General Assembly, “Reducing Space Threats Through Norms, Rules and Principles of Responsible Behaviors,” A/RES/76/231, December 30, 2021.

10. UNODA, “Open-Ended Working Group on Reducing Space Threats: Overview,” n.d., https://meetings.unoda.org/meeting/oewg-space-2022/ (accessed August 12, 2022).

11. The White House, “Fact Sheet: Vice President Harris Advances National Security Norms in Space,” April 18, 2022, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2022/04/18/fact-sheet-vice-president-harris-advances-national-security-norms-in-space/.

12. Lloyd J. Austin to secretaries of the military departments et al., “Tenets of Responsible Behavior in Space,” memorandum, July 7, 2021, https://media.defense.gov/2021/Jul/23/2002809598/-1/-1/0/TENETS-OF-RESPONSIBLE-BEHAVIOR-IN-SPACE.PDF.

13. Marcia Smith, “Space Council Condemns Russian ASAT Test, DOD Calls for End to Debris-Creating Tests,” SpacePolicyOnline.com, December 1, 2021, https://spacepolicyonline.com/news/russian-asat-test-draws-more-condemnation-from-national-space-council-dod-wants-to-end-debris-creating-tests/.

14. Jeff Foust, “Canada Joins U.S. in ASAT Testing Ban,” SpaceNews, May 9, 2022, https://spacenews.com/canada-joins-u-s-in-asat-testing-ban/.

15. Mike Houlahan, “Mahuta’s Satellite Test Pledge Launches Policy School,” Otago Daily Times, July 2, 2022, https://www.odt.co.nz/news/dunedin/campus/mahuta%E2%80%99s-satellite-test-pledge-launches-policy-school.

16. UN General Assembly, “The Duty of ‘Due Regard’ as a Foundational Principle of Responsible Behavior in Space: Submitted by the Republic of the Philippines,” A/AC.294/2022/WP._, May 6, 2022 (advanced and unedited version).


Victoria Samson is the Washington office director of the Secure World Foundation, a nongovernmental organization that promotes cooperative solutions for space sustainability.

A new UN working group could break a long-standing impasse on advancing space security.

On Integrating Artificial Intelligence With Nuclear Control

September 2022
By Peter Rautenbach

Although automation and basic artificial intelligence (AI) have been a part of nuclear weapons systems for decades,1 the integration of modern AI machine learning programs with nuclear command, control, and communications (NC3) systems could mitigate human error or bias in nuclear decision-making. In doing so, AI could help prevent egregious errors from being made in crisis scenarios when nuclear risk is greatest. Even so, AI comes with its own set of unique limitations; if unaddressed, they could raise the chance of nuclear use in the most dangerous manner possible: subtly and without warning.

This diagram, from the U.S. Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center, approximates how the various components of the nuclear command, control and communications system (NC3) interrelate.With Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine and the resultant new low in Russian-U.S. relations, the threat of nuclear war is again at the forefront of international discussion. To help prevent this conflict from devolving into a devastating use of nuclear weapons, AI systems could be used to assess enormous amounts of intelligence data exponentially faster than a human analyst and without many of the less favorable aspects of human decision-making, such as bias, anger, fear, and prejudice. In doing so, these systems would be providing decision-makers with the best possible information for use in a crisis.

China, Russia, and the United States are increasingly accepting the benefits of this kind of AI integration and feeling competitive pressures to operationalize it in their respective military systems.2 Although public or open-source statements on how this would occur within their nuclear programs is sparse, the classic example of the Perimeter, or “Dead Hand,” system established in the Soviet Union during the Cold War and still in use in Russia points to high levels of automation within nuclear systems.

In the United States, there is a desire to modernize the aging NC3 system.3 As the 2018 U.S. Nuclear Posture Review stated, “The United States will continue to adapt new technologies for information display and data analysis to improve support for Presidential decision making and senior leadership consultations.”4 There is no direct mention of AI, but this statement is in line with how AI integration with NC3 systems could take shape. Given competitive drivers, the desire for modernization, and the general growth of AI technology, exploring the ramifications of nuclear integration is rising in importance.

Understanding Artificial Intelligence

The term “AI” invokes a myriad of different definitions, from killer robots to programs that classify images of dogs. What binds these computational processes under the umbrella of artificial intelligence is their ability to solve problems or perform functions that traditionally required human levels of cognition.5 Machine learning is an important subfield of this research as these systems learn “by finding statistical relationships in past data.”6 To do so, they are trained using large data sets of real-world information. For example, image classifiers are shown millions of images of a specific type and form.7 From there, they can look at new images and use their trained knowledge to determine what they are seeing. This enables them to be extremely useful for recognizing patterns and for managing and assessing data for “systems that the armed forces use for intelligence, strategic stability and nuclear risk.”8

This ability to find correlations by continuously sorting through large amounts of data with an unbiased eye is of particular relevance to early-warning systems and to pre-launch detection activities within the nuclear security field. For instance, machine learning systems could produce significant benefits by ensuring accurate, timely information for decision-makers and by recognizing potential attacks. These systems could help assess the increasingly sophisticated data being relayed to the North American Aerospace Defense (NORAD) Command in Colorado9 as part of the early-warning systems used to detect incoming nuclear weapons.

First Lt. Ashley Mirsky, 319th Missile Squadron missile combat crew commander (L), and 2nd Lt. Marie Blair, 319th MS deputy missile combat crew commander, in 2016 run through a checklist in a launch control center at F.E. Warren Air Force Base, Wyo. (U.S. Air Force photo by 1st Lt. Veronica Perez)At the same time, unique technical flaws in AI technology stand to create new or rekindle old problems surrounding warning systems. The issue of false positives, or alerting of an attack where there is none, has plagued nuclear security for decades, and there are multiple examples of the near use of a nuclear weapon due to error.10

Current technical limitations in machine learning systems could compound this problem by causing an AI system to act in an unexpected manner and by providing faulty but seemingly accurate information to decision-makers who are expecting these computational programs to work without serious error in safety-critical environments. This is of particular importance when states, including Russia and the United States, depend on a “launch on warning” strategy,11 which requires that some nuclear weapons must always be ready to be launched quickly in response to a perceived incoming nuclear attack.12

Although always dangerous, crisis scenarios such as the war in Ukraine can exacerbate these problems by creating an error-prone environment in which tensions are high and communications between Moscow and Washington effectively break down. By providing faster and potentially more comprehensive information in a manner that attempts to remove human fallibilities such as anger, fear, and adrenaline, AI programs could help safely navigate such crisis scenarios. Even so, the inherent difficulty that AI systems have when interacting with the complex nuclear decision-making process could result in a conundrum in which the tools meant to increase safety actually increase the danger.

Technical Flaws in the Nuclear Context

To understand the technical limitations of machine learning technology, it is important to recognize that this is not a situation in which the machine breaks or fails to work. Rather, the machine does exactly as instructed, but not what is wanted from its programmers. This “alignment problem,” as Brian Christian wrote in his book of the same name, sees those who employ AI systems as being in “the position of the ‘sorcerer’s apprentice’: we conjure a force, autonomous but totally compliant, give it a set of instructions, then scramble like mad to stop it once we realize our instructions are imprecise or incomplete.”13

In the context of nuclear decision-making, an unaligned AI system could have disastrous consequences. These technical hurdles are why the integration with NC3 systems could be dangerous. In the face of complex operating environments, machine learning systems are often faced with the problem of their own brittleness, the tendency for powerfully intelligent programs to be brought low by slight tweaks or deviations in their data input that they have not been trained to understand.14 This becomes an issue when attempting to employ AI in an ever-changing real-world environment. In one case, despite a high success rate in the lab, graduate students in California found that adding one or two random pixels to the screen would cause the AI system they had trained to consistently beat Atari video games to fall apart.15 In another case, simply rotating objects in an image was sufficient to throw off some of the best AI image classifiers.16 An AI system could be told to provide accurate information in a nuclear security context, but due to its brittleness, it either fails at this task or, more dangerously, provides inaccurate information under the guise of accuracy.

The use of data sets to train machine learning programs is another serious vulnerability as inadequate data sets result in these systems being unreliable.17 One major contributing factor to this problem in nuclear security stems from the use of simulated training data. Although there are extensive records associated with the launch of older ballistic missiles, newer, less tested models may require the use of simulation.18 The lack of data in terms of real-world offensive nuclear use is undoubtedly fortunate for the world, but it nevertheless means that much of the data involved in training machine learning programs for NC3 systems will be artificially simulated. The resulting dilemma means that AI systems can be “deceptively capable, performing well (sometimes better than humans) in some laboratory settings, then failing dramatically under changing environmental conditions in the real world.”19

Human Bias in Artificial Intelligence

Furthermore, during the training processes used to create machine learning systems, the bias of the humans doing the training can be unintentionally and easily taught to the AI program. Even if a machine learning system can accurately read the data, any trained human biases within the machine can lead to an over- or undervaluing of any information the system assesses.

A prime example of human bias finding its way into an AI system occurred when Amazon used one of these systems to filter the résumés of potential job candidates, only to shut it down because the system was found to have a significant bias toward male applicants.20 The AI system was trained by observing patterns in résumés of previously successful candidates, most of which came from men.21 As a result, the AI learned to place a higher value on male candidates, which not only reflected the domination of men in the industry but also worked to perpetuate it.22

Support staff with the Air Force Nuclear Command, Control and Communications Center are briefed on the capabilities of the B-52 Stratofortress during a visit to Barksdale Air Force Base, La., in 2014. (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Jeff Walston/Released)One can easily imagine similar problems occurring in AI systems trained to observe the actions of adversarial nations for the purpose of early warning or the pre-launch detection of nuclear weapons. Human bias could sneak into the system, and the data relating to certain actors or variables would cease to accurately reflect what is occurring in the real world. Extra weight could be placed on standard activity and result in an AI warning of a potential incoming nuclear attack. A U.S. president and military commanders would be expecting a balanced, fair calculus when in truth the machine is perpetuating the kind of bias that could lead to catastrophic miscalculation and further the risk of responding to false positives.

A Policy Answer for a Technical Problem

Despite such concerns, it is likely that the integration of AI within the NC3 structure in the United States and other countries will continue. Crucially, states and militaries do not want to fall behind their competitors in the AI race.23 Furthermore, the potential benefits of this integration stand to stabilize many aspects of the nuclear command system.

Although technical solutions may be developed to lessen the impact of these limitations, the sheer complexity of AI machines and the pressure to integrate them with military systems mean that these problems must be addressed now. The heavy incentive for states to start incorporating the technology as soon as possible means they may have to deal with imperfect systems playing critical roles in nuclear command. In the end, however, the real problem is not the AI per se, but that a rushed integration of AI with nuclear systems that does not take into consideration that the technical limitations of current AI technology and the complexity of nuclear security could increase the risk of nuclear use.

Approaching this challenge from a policy standpoint could mitigate the risks posed by this integration. Specifically, that would mean adopting a nuclear policy that expands the decision-making time for launching a nuclear weapon, such as by moving away from launch-on-warning strategies or by “de-alerting” silo-based intercontinental ballistic missiles. By increasing the amount of time to ready nuclear weapons for use, these policies could allow more opportunity for leaders to assess the nuclear security-related information being provided by the AI. Even if policy is not changed, the simple understanding that these limitations exist could lead to higher levels of training and a healthy degree of skepticism among the people who operate and employ these
AI systems.

AI has the potential to drastically improve safety and lower the chance of nuclear use if integrated with NC3 systems. It is essential that governments approach this integration with open eyes and acknowledge that the AI part of the loop is not always or even fundamentally better in its judgment when compared to its human counterparts. This understanding will be key to harnessing AI successfully in pursuit of a safer future.



1. Page O. Stoutland, “Artificial Intelligence and the Modernization of US Nuclear Forces,” in The Impact of Artificial Intelligence on Strategic Stability and Nuclear Risk: Volume 1, Euro-Atlantic Perspectives, ed. Vincent Boulanin (Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), May 2019), pp. 64–65, https://www.sipri.org/sites/default/files/2019-05/sipri1905-ai-strategic-stability-nuclear-risk.pdf.

2. Jill Hruby and Nina Miller, “Assessing and Managing the Benefits and Risks of Artificial Intelligence in Nuclear-Weapon Systems,” Nuclear Threat Initiative, August 26, 2021, p. 3, https://www.nti.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/09/NTI_Paper_AI_r4.pdf.

3. Ibid., p. 11.

4. U.S. Department of Defense, “Nuclear Posture Review Report,” April 2010, p. 58, https://dod.defense.gov/Portals/1/features/defenseReviews/NPR/2010_Nuclear_Posture_Review_Report.pdf.

5. Hruby and Miller, “Assessing and Managing the Benefits and Risks of Artificial Intelligence in Nuclear-Weapon Systems,” p. 5.

6. Vincent Boulanin et al., “Artificial Intelligence, Strategic Stability and Nuclear Risk,” SIPRI, June 2020, p. 9, https://www.sipri.org/sites/default/files/2020-06/artificial_intelligence_strategic_stability_and_nuclear_risk.pdf.

7. Ibid., p. 3.

8. Ibid., p. 11.

9. Hruby and Miller, “Assessing and Managing the Benefits and Risks of Artificial Intelligence in Nuclear-Weapon Systems,” p. 15.

10. Paul Scharre, Army of None (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2019), p. 174.

11. Steven Starr et al., “New Terminology to Help Prevent Accidental Nuclear War,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, September 29, 2015, https://thebulletin.org/2015/09/new-terminology-to-help-prevent-accidental-nuclear-war/.

12. Scharre, Army of None, p. 175; Starr et al., “New Terminology to Help Prevent Accidental Nuclear War.”

13. Brian Christian, The Alignment Problem: Machine Learning and Human Values (New York: W.W. Norton, 2020), pp. 12-13.

14. Abhijit Mahabal, “Brittle AI: The Connection Between Eagerness and Rigidity,” Medium, September 21, 2019, https://towardsdatascience.com/brittle-ai-the-connection-between-eagerness-and-rigidity-23ea7c70cb9f.

15. Douglas Heaven, “Deep Trouble for Deep Learning,” Nature, October 1, 2019, p. 165.

16. Ibid.

17. Michael Horowitz and Paul Scharre, “AI and International Stability: Risks and Confidence-Building Measures,” Center for a New American Security, January 12, 2021, p. 7, https://s3.us-east-1.amazonaws.com/files.cnas.org/documents/AI-and-International-Stability-Risks-and-Confidence-Building-Measures.pdf.

18. Hruby and Miller, “Assessing and Managing the Benefits and Risks of Artificial Intelligence in Nuclear-Weapon Systems,” p. 7.

19. Horowitz and Scharre, “AI and International Stability,” p. 7.

20. Jeffrey Dastin, “Amazon Scraps Secret AI Recruiting Tool That Showed Bias Against Women,” Reuters, October 10, 2018.

21. Ibid.

22. Ibid.

23. Horowitz and Scharre, “AI and International Stability,” p. 5.


Peter Rautenbach, a summer research fellow with the Cambridge Existential Risk Initiative, received a master of science degree in international relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science, where he studied the impact of emerging technology on nuclear deterrence.

AI could improve safety in nuclear command and control systems, but it has its flaws.

Freeze! The Grassroots Movement to Halt the Arms Race and End the Cold War

September 2022

Nuclear Anxieties, Then and Now

Freeze! The Grassroots Movement
to Halt the Arms Race and End the
Cold War

Henry Richard Maar III
Cornell University Press, 2022

Reviewed by David Cortright

Nuclear dangers have increased with Russia’s deadly gambit of using nuclear threats to shield its military aggression in Ukraine. The war began with Russian President Vladimir Putin raising the alert status of Russian strategic forces “to a special regime of combat duty” and threatening states that might consider intervening to help Ukraine with consequences “such as you have never seen in your entire history.” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov declared NATO arms shipments to Ukraine “a legitimate target” for attack, saying the risk of nuclear war is “serious,” “real,” and “cannot be underestimated.”1 In June, while Western leaders met in Germany, Putin pointedly announced the transfer of nuclear-capable missiles to Belarus.2

Some analysts argue that the risk of nuclear weapons use is greater now than during the Cuban missile crisis,3 but the present crisis can also be compared with the nuclear anxiety of the early 1980s. Reagan administration officials spoke of fighting and winning a nuclear war, and the arms race was in full throttle, with each side adding more threatening strategic weapons to arsenals already brimming with tens of thousands of warheads. Deployments of intermediate-range nuclear forces in Europe threatened to turn the continent into an atomic battleground.

Few people remember the extraordinary levels of existential fear that gripped the public in those years and drove millions of people to support the nuclear freeze movement in the United States and disarmament campaigns in Europe. According to a Gallup poll in September 1981, 70 percent of U.S. respondents felt that nuclear war was a real possibility, with 30 percent considering the chances of such a conflict to be “good” or “certain.”4

U.S. President Ronald Reagan and senior officials in his administration stoked these fears with hostile anti-Soviet rhetoric and a policy of rejecting arms control in favor of more weapons. They talked loosely of using nuclear weapons. Secretary of State Alexander Haig told members of Congress that, in the event of conventional war in Europe, the United States might fire a nuclear weapon “for demonstrative purposes.” Reagan discussed the possibility of a limited nuclear war in Europe, telling reporters, “I could see where you could have the exchange of tactical weapons against troops in the field without it bringing either one of the major powers to pushing the button.” The administration created a crisis relocation plan to prepare for possible nuclear attack, urging citizens to build bomb shelters and ordering cities to plan for mass evacuation.

In the face of such insanity, people took to the streets in unprecedented numbers and organized politically to demand a halt to the arms race. Many rallied to the proposal developed by security analyst Randall Forsberg, then a doctoral student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for a mutual, verifiable freeze on the production, testing, and deployment of nuclear weapons by the United States and the Soviet Union. The resulting movement for a bilateral nuclear freeze sparked one of the largest waves of popular protest in U.S. history.

On June 12, 1982, an estimated one million people marched to New York’s Central Park for a rally to freeze and reverse the arms race. The proposition to freeze U.S. and Soviet weapons was on the ballot in 10 states and the District of Columbia and was approved in all except Arizona. The freeze proposition was affirmed by voters or lawmakers in 29 cities, 800 town meetings, and 17 state legislatures. Hundreds of national professional organizations endorsed the freeze, as did 25 of the nation’s largest trade unions. The freeze movement also was supported by many artists and performers and helped to shape popular culture, most dramatically in the broadcast of the 1983 television film on the effects of a nuclear attack, “The Day After,” watched by 100 million viewers.

Demonstrators march toward Central Park during a massive nuclear disarmament rally, when about 750,000 activists gathered to demand a nuclear arms freeze, in New York City on June 12, 1982. (Photo by Lee Frey/Authenticated News/Getty Images)The story of this historic transformation and the rise of the Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign as an activist organization is told well in Freeze! The Grassroots Movement to Halt the Arms Race and End the Cold War. Written by historian Henry Richard Maar III, the book offers a compelling, well-documented analysis showing how the freeze movement fundamentally altered the terms of debate about nuclear weapons policy and had a significant impact on the rhetoric and policies of the Reagan administration. Maar confirms and expands on the analyses of a number of authors, myself included, who argue that citizen activism in the 1980s shifted political decision-making toward support for arms control and nuclear reductions.

Maar adds to scholarship on the freeze era by drawing from declassified archival records of senior Reagan administration officials, including internal staff memos by national security advisers William Clark and Bud McFarlane and White House Communications Director David Gergen. The author quotes the concerns of Clark and others about an “accelerating growth of anti-nuclear sentiment” and “the grassroots strength of the nuclear freeze issue.” The White House mounted a major effort to counter the freeze, Maar reveals, creating a “public affairs group on nuclear issues,” chaired by McFarlane, which sponsored widespread public communications efforts, especially in states where the freeze proposition was on the ballot.

Although the administration publicly criticized the freeze, internally it recognized the need to accommodate the movement. Reagan toned down his rhetoric and abandoned talk of fighting a nuclear war. The administration began to change its policies and announced its willingness to enter negotiations with the Soviets. The initial talks were fruitless, but members of Congress, under pressure from freeze constituents, demanded that the White House show progress on arms control and moderate the U.S. bargaining position. Gradually, the two sides showed greater flexibility, and the talks produced historic arms reduction agreements in the administration’s second term.

Maar deftly captures the essential characteristics of the freeze movement that contributed to its massive scale and political success: the mobilizing and communicative power of the freeze idea, the grassroots origins and nature of the campaign, and the moral legitimacy and respectability that came with support from the religious community. Maar also examines the contentious nuclear freeze debate in Congress and the role of freeze activists in the 1984 presidential election.

The freeze concept gave the disarmament movement a convincing narrative framework for mobilizing public support. Forsberg’s proposal for a bilateral freeze on U.S. and Soviet weapons enabled the movement to transcend the binary logic of the Cold War. The freeze could not be dismissed as unilateralist or pro-Soviet. It was, Maar writes, “at once both conservative and radical,” conservative in not demanding that either side cut its arsenal unilaterally but radical in demanding a halt to the entire system of nuclear weapons testing, production, and deployment.

The freeze concept was user friendly, easily understandable, and readily acceptable to the average citizen. It radically democratized the nuclear debate, transforming it from a highly technical field dominated by white men with advanced degrees into a subject in which every citizen had a stake and could have a voice. Polls at the time showed 70 percent or more of the public in favor of the bilateral nuclear freeze.

The authenticity and political clout of the freeze movement was based on grassroots mobilization. The organizing model was developed by Randy Kehler, an activist with the War Resisters League who had been imprisoned as a draft resister during the Vietnam War and at the time was working at the Traprock Peace Center in western Massachusetts. In 1980, Kehler and other local peace activists placed the freeze proposition on the ballot in three nearby state senate districts. The measure asked voters to instruct state officials to support a resolution urging the White House to propose a bilateral nuclear freeze to the Soviet Union. The measure also called for transferring funds from nuclear weapons development to civilian use. It was approved by 59 percent of voters in electoral districts that went for Reagan in the presidential vote. The results demonstrated the bipartisan appeal of the freeze and the value of a local referendum model.

The Massachusetts votes sparked a grassroots prairie fire of organizing across the country. Referendum campaigns began in California and other states, and nuclear freeze groups popped up in hundreds of cities and towns. In March 1981, activists gathered at Georgetown University for a conference to create the Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign, a loosely structured coordinating body with limited staff, annual conferences, and a national committee of state and local organizers that provided strategic direction for the wider freeze movement.

The most significant constituency for disarmament in the 1980s was the religious community. The National Council of Churches and most major Protestant denominations, progressive evangelicals, and African-American church leaders endorsed the freeze and called for reversing the arms race, as did many Jewish and Muslim voices. This nearly universal call for peace from faith communities gave legitimacy and respectability to the disarmament movement.

The most influential body within the religious community was the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, now the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Maar describes the Catholic bishops as the “moral backbone” of the freeze movement and devotes considerable attention to their groundbreaking 1983 pastoral statement, “The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response,” which criticized elements of the administration’s nuclear buildup.

Although the bishops did not explicitly endorse the freeze proposition, the pastoral statement declared support for “immediate bilateral agreements to halt the testing, production and deployment of new nuclear weapon systems.” That language was identical to the freeze campaign’s founding declaration, as Maar notes.

The freeze campaign became entangled in a frustrating legislative process on Capitol Hill. Forsberg’s call to halt the arms race was not intended as a legislative initiative, least of all the vaguely worded nonbinding measure that came to a vote in Congress. The campaign’s original strategy called for several years of building grassroots political clout in states and congressional districts before proposing freeze legislation or engaging political candidates. When members of the U.S. House and Senate introduced freeze resolutions, however, the campaign had little choice but to go along, although with growing skepticism as the language of the resolution became muddled and contradictory through the addition of qualifying amendments. The House approved the measure in May 1983, but the legislation had no substantive impact on restraining the nuclear buildup.

The freeze campaign also faced challenges when Democratic Party candidates tried to ride the coattails of the popular movement during the 1984 election. All major Democratic Party candidates endorsed the freeze, including presidential nominee Senator Walter Mondale (Minn.). When Reagan trounced Mondale in the election, some interpreted this as a defeat for the freeze movement. Maar adopts this framing and claims that Reagan’s victory caused “irreparable damage” to the freeze campaign, which “lost in 1984” and was left “smoldering in the ashes” of Mondale’s defeat. Such claims about the “waning” of the movement at that time are overstated, but Maar is right to show the difficulty of sustaining grassroots pressure when politicians try to undercut or capture a movement’s popular support.

Reagan won the election in part by coopting the freeze message and portraying himself as a peace candidate. In his 1984 State of the Union address, Reagan famously declared “a nuclear war cannot be won, and must never be fought.” In his address to the United Nations that September, he adopted a tone of moderation and called for the superpowers to “approach each other” for the sake of world peace. As Kehler observed, “[T]he Ronald Reagan elected in 1984 was quite different from the Ronald Reagan of 1980, a leader promising moderation and arms negotiations with the Soviets.” The freeze movement created the political climate for arms reduction, and Reagan adjusted his sails accordingly.

Although the freeze campaign lost some momentum after 1984, the movement as a whole remained vibrant. Membership levels at the Committee for a SANE Nuclear Policy and other groups continued to rise, and legislative lobbying efforts achieved some successes. The Campaign to Stop the MX, which ran parallel to the freeze campaign, helped to force the cancellation of the missile’s mobile basing system in Utah and Nevada and cut the number of missiles from 200 to 40 over the course of an epic five-year lobbying campaign.

The freeze campaign and allied groups achieved legislative success implementing the concept of a “quick freeze.” Emerging from the 1985 national freeze conference, the idea was for Congress to use its power of the purse to halt funding for nuclear weapons development. The strategy was applied successfully, after a multiyear legislative effort, when the House and Senate passed legislation to cut off funds for nuclear weapons testing. This occurred as Reagan and President George H.W. Bush negotiated with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev for the strategic arms reduction treaties that ended the Cold War.

Are there lessons from the freeze movement for today? The salience of nuclear issues has been low in recent decades, but that may change as the consequences of Putin’s nuclear saber rattling become clearer. The nuclear taboo is weaker now, and the risk of weapons use has increased.5 Whatever happens with the war, Russia’s sinister use of nuclear threats to intimidate Ukraine and NATO requires a reckoning with the role of nuclear arms in global affairs and adds urgency to the goal of eliminating these weapons.6

How best can one move toward that essential objective? The freeze movement shows that large-scale citizen mobilization can help to reduce nuclear dangers.7 Maar’s important examination of the freeze campaign highlights the challenges of that effort but also the ingredients that brought success to the movement: a clear mobilizing narrative, the development of creative grassroots strategies, and an appeal to moral values in partnership with the religious community.



1. David Meyer, “Russia Now Warns of 'Considerable' Nuclear War Risk, but Ukraine Says It's Just Trying to Scare the World Off Arming Kyiv,” Fortune, April 26, 2022.

2. “Russia to Send Belarus Nuclear-Capable Missiles Within Months, as G7 Leaders Gather in Germany,” The Guardian, June 25, 2022.

3. Lawrence Korb and Stephen Cimbala, “Why the War in Ukraine Poses a Greater Nuclear Risk Than the Cuban Missile Crisis,” Just Security, April 12, 2022.

4. “Poll Finds 7 Out of 10 Imagining Outbreak of Soviet Nuclear War,” The Washington Post, September 27, 1981, p. 17.

5. Nina Tannenwald, “Is Using Nuclear Weapons Still Taboo?” Foreign Policy, July 1, 2022, https://foreignpolicy.com/2022/07/01/nuclear-war-taboo-arms-control-russia-ukraine-deterrence/.

6. Daryl G. Kimball, “How to Avoid Nuclear Catastrophe—and a Costly New Arms Race,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, March 11, 2022.

7. Steve Ladd, email communication with author, June 5, 2022.


David Cortright is a professor emeritus in the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame.

Written by historian Henry Richard Maar III, the book offers a compelling, well-documented analysis showing how the freeze movement fundamentally altered the terms of debate about nuclear weapons policy and had a significant impact on the rhetoric and policies of the Reagan administration. Maar confirms and expands on the analyses of a number of authors, myself included, who argue that citizen activism in the 1980s shifted political decision-making toward support for arms control and nuclear reductions.

Michael Krepon (1947–2022)

September 2022
By Toby Dalton

Nuclear explosive tests are boom times for nuclear policy analysts, and the tests conducted by India and Pakistan in the spring of 1998 resulted in considerable demand for commentary and content from media outlets around the world. As an admittedly green junior researcher at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (CEIP) that year, I found myself opining in articles and interviews about a region that I was just starting to understand. It was in this context that Michael Krepon sought me out after seeing an article I wrote on how India and Pakistan might emulate the transparency and trust-building process that enabled Argentina and Brazil to end their flirtations with the bomb.

Photo courtesy of the Stimson CenterAfter knowing Michael for the last 20-plus years, I now have a good idea why he called me out of the blue to join an irregular discussion group among younger South Asia watchers. Back then, I could little understand why he would be interested in me or my ideas. By that point, he had written numerous articles on the nuclear challenge in South Asia and the role of confidence-building measures in tempering competition there. What I have observed in the intervening years is that Michael was something of a collector of people. He invested substantial time in mentorship, in seeding ideas, in providing opportunity for young people, and in sustaining connections with scholars around the world. His approach to life, including collecting friends and colleagues, helped sustain his optimism in a field largely characterized by pessimism and the need to avert worst outcomes.

Michael passed away on July 16. He survived cancers on three occasions, but for years had the feeling of “living on bonus time.” He made remarkable use of that time. His career spanned Cold War and post-Cold War efforts to restrain the spread and use of weapons of mass destruction as he worked to end the U.S. production of chemical weapons, advocated for the negotiation of strategic arms control treaties with the Soviet Union and Russia, and campaigned for the permanent extension of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in 1995. Yet, it was his work on South Asia that captures the essence of Michael as a thinker, mentor, and humanitarian.

Well before 1998, Michael identified South Asia as a region in which the risk of nuclear weapons use was growing. Sensing events to come, in 1995 he co-edited a volume of essays, Crisis Prevention, Confidence Building, and Reconciliation in South Asia, in which he cautioned against infatuation with the supposed stabilizing effects of nuclear weapons in a crisis-prone region. “It is odd,” he wrote, “that South Asian strategists who have long rejected the imposition of alien Western constructs should warmly embrace the concept of nuclear deterrence developed at the RAND Corporation and other redoubts of U.S. ‘Cold Warriors.’ In truth the Cold War history of nuclear deterrence was far from stable.”1 He counseled that nuclear stability is only possible if it is paired with confidence-building measures, another “foreign import” from the Cold War.

The topic of confidence-building measures is probably the central through line of Michael’s work on South Asia, a theme to which he returned regularly after the 1998 nuclear tests. In a 2004 essay, he observed that “no one has lost money betting against peacemaking on the subcontinent.… [But] the best chance of defusing nuclear danger and controlling escalation lies in political engagement.”2 That same year, he edited an entire volume on nuclear risk reduction measures that could be applied in South Asia. In the introduction, he advanced a moral-political argument for pairing nuclear deterrence with confidence-building steps. These measures are not “favors to be dispensed by national leaders, they are essential requirements owed by national leaders to their fellow citizens,” he wrote.3 In one of his more recent essays on the topic, Michael neatly summarized the motivation for his decades-long dedication to advancing confidence-building measures: “When governments refrain from adopting useful diplomatic initiatives, it is the responsibility of conscientious analysts to offer useful initiatives that might be considered once political conditions permit.”4

Not content to simply analyze these topics from afar, Michael made periodic visits to South Asia to connect directly with scholars and officials. While posted at the U.S. embassy in Islamabad in mid-2009, I reconnected with Michael over tea at the Serena Hotel. Having recovered from lymphoma, he was resuming his travels in the region. I was surprised to see him, but his energy and enthusiasm were irrepressible. He was in Pakistan to lecture and visit with officials at the Pakistani Strategic Plans Division. After 1998, Michael had hit on the idea of hosting military officers from Pakistan at the Stimson Center, which he co-founded in 1989, as a way to build bridges between the U.S. and Pakistani strategic communities after years of estrangement. Michael no doubt also hoped that some of his ideas on confidence-building measures and the need to find ways to restrain nuclear competition would sink in with his guests. Many of these visiting fellows subsequently rose to prominent arms control and disarmament positions in the Pakistani military and at various think tanks. The U.S. connections to them and their institutions owe much to Michael’s initiative.

Annually from 2011 to 2015, George Perkovich, CEIP vice president for studies, and I traveled with Michael and other colleagues to India and Pakistan as part of a joint project with the Stimson Center to facilitate dialogue on nuclear issues. It was a challenging period to champion messages of restraint given the investments that the South Asian countries were making in nuclear deterrence. This was especially the case in Pakistan, where we were on the receiving end of a litany of complaints about U.S. favoritism toward India and conspiracies about U.S. plans to disarm Pakistan of its nuclear weapons by force. Michael gave as good as he got in these exchanges, reminding his audiences of the dangers inherent in overinvestment in nuclear deterrence without also pursuing risk reduction. Probably his messages sounded sanctimonious, but Michael believed he had history on his side and that Pakistanis and Indians ignored that history at their peril.

Just as critical as engaging senior government officials and military officers on these trips was the time spent with students and young analysts. Michael was ebullient in these settings, encouraging his audiences to think critically about prevailing narratives of nuclear weapons and national security. At the Stimson Center, Michael and colleagues backed up these overseas exchanges with a series of innovative ways to sustain mentorship of young South Asians. They established South Asian Voices, an online platform for analysts to publish independently; hosted visiting fellows from each country every summer; and created online certificate courses on deterrence in southern Asia. These initiatives endure, ensuring that a generation of scholars and analysts from South Asia will have greater connections to and understanding of the United States as a result.

In recent years, Michael’s attention turned to distilling his thoughts and observations on deterrence and arms control. These often took the form of periodic and pithy blog posts on Arms Control Wonk. His last post, on June 26, relayed the news of another cancer diagnosis and the difficult decision not to treat it in hope of gaining more bonus time. He also neatly summarized what should be among the central takeaways from his decades of work, including his experience in South Asia: “Deterrence strategists widely presume that deterrence and reassurance work at cross purposes. Some arms controllers hold a similarly bleak view about deterrence. The historical record demonstrates otherwise—that deterrence and arms control can coexist, and that they must coexist to avoid mushroom clouds.”5

He had expounded on this theme in a 2021 book, Winning and Losing the Nuclear Peace: The Rise, Demise and Revival of Arms Control. The volume is vintage Michael in tone and substance. He pulls no punches in arguing that there is no peace inherent in the possession of nuclear weapons, but rather it is an outcome that can only be reached through a combination of luck and hard, meaningful work by generations of analysts and practitioners. What strikes me in rereading the conclusion of this work is Michael’s optimism in believing in the inevitability of arms control revival, despite increasingly ominous global events. “We will revive arms control because our lives depend on it,” Michael writes. “Those who practiced arms control accomplished great things; they have left more work for us to do. It is now up to us to extend the nuclear peace.”6

Michael is gone, but his ideas and his optimism, his approach to work and life—to see humanity, to nurture relationships with people and the natural world, to build connections—should be admired and emulated.



1. Michael Krepon and Amit Sevak, eds., Crisis Prevention, Confidence Building, and Reconciliation in South Asia (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995), p. 6.

2. Michael Krepon, “The Stability-Instability Paradox, Misperception, and Escalation Control in South Asia,” in Escalation Control and the Nuclear Option in South Asia, ed. Michael Krepon, Rodney W. Jones, and Ziad Haider (Washington: Henry L. Stimson Center, 2004), pp. 23–24.

3. Michael Krepon, ed., Nuclear Risk Reduction in South Asia (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), pp. 2–3.

4. Michael Krepon, “Introduction,” in Off Ramps From Confrontation in Southern Asia, ed. Michael Krepon, Travis Wheeler, and Liv Dowling, 2019, p. 12.

5. Michael Krepon, “A Personal Note,” Arms Control Wonk, June 26, 2022, https://www.armscontrolwonk.com/archive/1216009/a-personal-note/.

6. Michael Krepon, Winning and Losing the Nuclear Peace: The Rise, Demise, and Revival of Arms Control (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2021), p. 530.


Toby Dalton is co-director and a senior fellow of the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Michael Krepon (1947–2022)


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