Arms Control and International Security: Our Vision for a Constructive, Collaborative Disarmament Discourse

Русский Русский

Dr. Christopher Ashley Ford
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation
Conference on Disarmament
Palais des Nations, Geneva, Switzerland
March 26, 2019


(As delivered)

Thank you very much, Mr. President, Excellencies, ladies, and gentlemen, it is a pleasure to be able to speak to you today. As many of you no doubt already know, the United States is presently in the process of developing implementation plans for a path-breaking new initiative that is aimed at bringing countries together in a constructive dialogue, exploring ways in which it might be possible to ameliorate conditions in the global security environment so as to make that environment more conducive to further progress toward — and indeed, ultimately to achieve — nuclear disarmament.

This initiative is a new one, and it represents both a conceptual break from, and an effort to build upon, the remarkable progress that has been made in bringing down our own nuclear arsenal, for example, since the end of the Cold War — a very dramatic reduction that one should never forget has already gotten us to the point of having brought ourselves down to perhaps only about 12 percent of our Cold War peak, that is to say, an 88 percent reduction. Learning insights from that is important and this basic insight, which animates our own initiative, is that these kinds of impressive reductions in nuclear arsenals did not bring about the end of Cold War tensions, but rather instead resulted from them, from the easing of those tensions.

To be sure, this is, not in some respects, a new understanding. In fact, it was recognized explicitly in the text of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) itself more than half a century ago. As you will recall, the Preamble of that treaty calls for easing tension and for strengthening trust between states “in order to facilitate” disarmament. But this insight, I would submit, about the centrality of security conditions is one that some folks may have forgotten during earlier post-Cold War years, during which the nuclear superpowers had the luxury of being able to coast forward in implementing sweeping disarmament steps for a long time merely on the strength of an easing of tensions that had at that point already occurred.

Now, with that fairly obvious understanding, but an important one, firmly in mind, the challenge I would submit that we all confront today is how to imagine the disarmament enterprise continuing to move forward in a world in which the prevailing security conditions have been worsening, rather than improving. In the face of these questions, our new initiative — which we have entitiled, “Creating an Environment for Nuclear Disarmament” (CEND) — this new initiative aims to help the international community find a path forward by setting in motion a “Creating an Environment Working Group” (CEWG) process. Under its auspices, participating countries would work together first to identify a number of key questions or challenges that would need to be overcome along the road to eventual disarmament, and then to explore possible answers to those questions.

Now, we do not anticipate that this will be a magical panacea, of course, for the security challenges of the modern world that would have to be addressed along the path to disarmament are surely many and daunting ones. But, we do firmly believe that it is important to try to find a way forward, and we are convinced that whatever pathway may exist is one that necessarily runs first and foremost through addressing the security challenges that motivate nuclear weapons acquisition and nuclear weapons retention. We are also convinced that this is a challenge that all states need to address together, as Article VI of the NPT makes clear in requiring, for instance, that all NPT Parties pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures for disarmament, rather than addressing itself solely to any particular states or sub-category of states. Indeed, with the global elimination of nuclear weapons being explicitly the ultimate objective, it is clear to us that efforts to achieve this must include NPT non-Parties as well.

Many of you probably know this already, but I do think it is useful to repeat these points here in the Conference on Disarmament — which in so many ways has unfortunately been stymied in its efforts to develop new disarmament initiatives precisely because persisting regional and global tensions continue to drive certain Members to impede progress out of fear that under prevailing security conditions, such agreements would run counter to their perceived national interests. Repeating these points here in Geneva, I think, is also important because recent events — such as the impending collapse of the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty as a result of Russia’s development and deployment of a growing arsenal of treaty-prohibited missiles that threaten the countries of Western Europe and East Asia alike — these events highlight the fact that without addressing some highly problematic trends in the global security environment, it will indeed be very hard, or perhaps impossible, to imagine a future for nuclear disarmament at all.

So it seems clear now that traditional approaches to disarmament can no longer meet the pressing needs of today’s world, nor can some of the more new-fangled approaches that have arisen out of some countries’ frustration with the fact that even more disarmament has not yet occurred. Traditional approaches, at least of the sort which we were fortunate to be able to employ in earlier post-Cold War years, these approaches have largely run out of steam — both because of the fact that the many weapons made unnecessary by the end of Cold War tensions have in fact already now been dismantled, and because conditions in the global security environment are today worsening rather than improving.

Nor does the newer effort of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons itself (TPNW), however desirous one might be of the end envisioned by that Treaty, offer in our view a viable alternative. In part, this is because the TPNW’s very structure assumes that one can declare nuclear weapons away without having first alleviated the problems of the underlying security environment that help drive nuclear weapons choices. But this is also because so much of the TPNW’s advocacy discourse revolves around stigmatizing and demonizing the security choices of deterrence-reliant countries — that is to say, precisely those countries whose cooperation is essential for genuine disarmament efforts to bear fruit.

Please don’t misunderstand me. We fully understand the frustrations that some have expressed as a result of disarmament still seeming so distant more than seven decades since U.S. officials first proposed the bold disarmament initiative of the Baruch Plan to the United Nations.

But precisely because these issues are so important, we believe they deserve to be approached thoughtfully and in a spirit conducive to the kind of dialogue that it will be necessary to have if indeed we are to live up to the NPT Preamble’s exhortation to ease tensions and strengthen trust between states in order to facilitate disarmament. It is in order to set in motion just this kind of dialogue that we have proposed the CEND process, and we very much hope that countries of goodwill will join us in helping make this work. Recreating a security environment in which nuclear weapons states find it in their mutual interest to advance nuclear disarmament will require political will and concerted efforts from all nations. Frankly, I believe that there is likely to be no path forward that does not involve sincere and constructive engagement by a broad range of parties.

So in response to our announcement of the CEND initiative, it has been gratifying that quite a few countries from different regions of the globe have already expressed an interest in joining this effort. I am particularly pleased that our Dutch colleagues have geared up to organize an academic colloquium — which will take place just a couple of weeks’ time — that is specifically designed to generate thoughtful insights and ideas to contribute to this endeavor. With the global disarmament discourse now increasingly coming to recognize and to focus upon the challenges of ameliorating problematic international security conditions, I hope that these initial steps will help catalyze further ones in a sort of “virtuous circle,” perhaps to the point that even outside the specific discussions of the CEWG process, that is the Creating an Environment Working Group process, a thoughtful and constructive new ecosystem, if you will, of complementary and mutually-reinforcing initiatives can develop – upon the fruits of which all of us can all draw in finding better ways to address the security problems that stand in the way of future progress.

Nevertheless, I know that in some quarters our initiative is still regarded somewhat warily. But I do hope that more and more countries will see fit to participate, not least because it is surely some of the countries who are most suspicious of any disarmament initiative proposed by a nuclear weapons state – it is some of those very countries who may have in some regards the most to offer in the kind of constructive dialogue that we envision and that we hope to bring about.

In this respect, I think we can perhaps learn something from the well-regarded International Partnership for Nuclear Disarmament Verification (IPNDV), if you will — which is of course a voluntary, working-group-type process that is now in the second phase of its ongoing effort to explore how it might be possible to verify the disarmament of nuclear weapons pursuant to some potential future disarmament agreement. Much of the value of IPNDV has stemmed from its ability to bring together countries that have very different relationships to nuclear weapons in order to explore that verification problem together, to their mutual edification.

IPNDV, for example, has been helping nuclear weapons possessors better understand the degree to which meaningful verification might actually be possible; it has been helping dispel misconceptions among non-possessors as well about just how difficult verification can be; and it has been helping all involved understand the degree to which such verification can in fact be done without spreading proliferation-sensitive knowledge. These are important lessons, but such constructive lesson-learning benefits hugely from having a good breadth of participation. Weapons states working only amongst themselves might be able to use their unique knowledge to devise very good ways to verify disarmament, for example, but non-weapons states must also be able trust the outcome, and IPNDV’s collaborative exploratory process helps allow these questions to be explored together.

What we envision for CEND and its Working Group is a loosely analogous range of participants, coming together in an initial plenary in order to develop a constructive agenda, and then meeting in a range of working groups to try to address the challenges that they identify as part of that agenda. Just as IPNDV has benefited from a diverse range of participants from across the issues spectrum — weapons states, non-weapons states, nuclear alliance states, non-alliance states, and so forth — so we would also like to see each of the CEND groups include a geographically and politically diverse group of participants appropriate for each question. All participation, of course, will be entirely voluntary, but as your own governments evaluate whether and how you might be able to contribute, we would be delighted to see participants from across all of the world’s relevant political divisions: weapons states, non-weapons states, developed countries, less-developed countries, nuclear alliance states, G-77 states, NPT States Party, non-NPT parties, and so forth. The price of admission, you might say, is no higher than simply having a sincere commitment to this kind of dialogue.

So that’s a recap of our vision for this process, about which I do hope to have more to say in the near future as our thinking matures and more countries become involved. We encourage wide participation, because this will increase the value of the process as a means through which the international community can begin to explore possible ways to overcome the challenges that lie ahead of us if a path is to be found to achieve the world envisioned in the Preamble and in Article VI of the NPT.

To those of you who have come forward already to be a part of this noble experiment, we thank you. To those of you considering doing so, we encourage you to make that interest known. I very much look forward to working with all of you in this great endeavor in the months and years ahead, and it is a pleasure to be able to speak to you here today.

Thank you, Mr. President.

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This translation is provided as a courtesy and only the original English source should be considered authoritative.
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