Practical Steps for Improving U.S. Nonproliferation Leadership

Practical Steps for Improving U.S. Nonproliferation Leadership

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James Clay Moltz

Deputy Director, The James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies

The United States has long been a leader in international nonproliferation policy. Along with the Soviet Union, it spearheaded efforts to form the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1968, and it has been a crucial player in the formation of a variety of other nonproliferation organizations (such as the International Atomic Energy Agency), treaties (such as the Chemical Weapons Convention), and non-treaty efforts (such as the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program and the recent Proliferation Security Initiative). Washington remains an active and interested player today, arguably the most active in focusing attention on problems of nonproliferation enforcement.

At the same time, however, as states ponder the failure of the May 2005 NPT Review Conference in New York, the United States faces mounting international (and some domestic) criticism about not having done enough to support–much less lead–the cause of nonproliferation. Even some backers of the George W. Bush administration wonder whether more could be done to improve communications with other key actors, particularly on matters that would cost the United States little, enhance the U.S. international reputation, and, most importantly, improve U.S. security. In certain areas, the United States seems to be arguing for "double standards" in regard to proliferators (accepting Israel, Pakistan, and India, but criticizing Iran and North Korea). In other areas, Washington has taken stands in treaty discussions to preserve narrow exceptions aimed at furthering U.S. nuclear weapons options, rather than focusing on core, long-term nonproliferation and security goals.

Critics, for example, have found fault with the U.S. failure to ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (one of the agreed-upon "13 Practical Steps" at the 2000 NPT Review and Extension Conference), the U.S. decision to abandon the Biological and Toxin Weapons Protocol, U.S. opposition to enhanced verification mechanisms in arms control treaties (the 2002 Moscow Treaty), and U.S. research into new nuclear weapons (especially "bunker buster" bombs). While none of these stances represent what most Americans would argue are "core" U.S. nonproliferation policies, they are often the measures by which the United States is judged abroad. These criticisms raise a key question: how can the United States revive its leadership in the nonproliferation field?

This issue brief considers how the Bush administration could better achieve its own stated nonproliferation objectives in three critical areas: 1) statements and concepts regarding nuclear weapons; 2) policies toward nonproliferation treaties and other agreements; and 3) the status of the U.S. nuclear arsenal and stockpile. All of the proposed measures would be low cost and would help facilitate Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's goals of military transformation. They would also respond to the two-thirds of Americans who believe nuclear weapons should be abolished,[2] consistent with Article VI of the NPT.

While the United States is not alone in failing to put an adequate emphasis on nonproliferation at the global level, as the world's most powerful state (according to a variety of military, economic, political, and cultural measures), the United States could be a much more effective advocate for nonproliferation policy with only modest policy adjustments, thus enhancing its own security and those of its friends and allies. In the face of 21st century threats, restoring international momentum in nonproliferation policy is likely to be far more important than any possible marginal gains to be had from new nuclear weapons, new tests, or protection of anachronistic Cold War nuclear assets.

While there is an unfortunate international tendency to "blame" the United States for all manner of problems in the nonproliferation regime, a strong case can be made that the United States has a unique responsibility to lead the nonproliferation process, since it is the sole remaining superpower and the world's leading military power. In the past decade, however, failures of international nonproliferation policy under conditions of U.S. "unipolarity" can be seen in several key areas: 1) the recent expansion in the number of nuclear states outside the NPT; 2) the recent reduction in the number of nuclear-capable adherents to the NPT with the first official state withdrawal from the treaty (North Korea); and 3) the recent lowering of the threshold against nuclear testing and possible use.

These trends began during President Bill Clinton's administration and have continued under President Bush. Thus, an overarching question for both Democrats and Republicans is: How might the United States regain the momentum it possessed in the early 1990s, when a number of key states joined the NPT (Belarus, China, France, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine), there was considerable momentum toward a permanent ban on nuclear testing, and other regional initiatives were reducing the "acceptability" of nuclear weapons?

Statements and Concepts regarding Nuclear Weapons

The Bush administration's decision after 9/11 to place the war on terrorism above its nonproliferation goals has exacerbated charges of U.S. "favoritism," even from such U.S. allies as Japan. Specifically, the U.S. decision to waive sanctions on India and Pakistan shortly after the 9/11 attacks and, more recently, even to "reward" these countries with promises of advanced weaponry and civilian nuclear technology assistance[3] make a mockery of the spirit–if not the letter–of the NPT. While administration supporters can fairly note Russia's support for the Indian nuclear program and China's backing of Pakistan's past nuclear developments, U.S. adoption of a "lowest-common-denominator" approach sets a poor example and weakens the regime further, at the very same time when the United States is trying to rally support against other proliferators–such as Iran–whose programs are not only less advanced but also under more extensive and intrusive international controls.

While U.S. policy need not try to "isolate" India and Pakistan economically, neither should it reward these nuclear outliers that continue to defy the NPT by providing military- or nuclear-related assistance. Adopting a new, more restrained policy would allow the United States to show greater consistency with its approach to Iran and North Korea. Similarly, U.S. policy toward Israel should gradually eliminate the military dimension, while ramping up efforts to bring Israel's nuclear policy and continued nuclear expansion (such as its recent decision to deploy nuclear weapons at sea) into international disarmament efforts. In a post-Cold War world, current policies not only harm U.S. national security, but also make long-term nonproliferation goals more difficult to accomplish.

A related point is the long-standing U.S. policy of condoning nuclear proliferation in Israel (and blocking efforts to condemn Israel), despite Israeli non-membership in the NPT. With the end of the Cold War, such policies have become increasingly anachronistic, harmful to, and inconsistent with broader U.S. nonproliferation goals. The problem with this policy is the inconsistent message it sends to the rest of the world: i.e., that WMD proliferation is "acceptable," depending on the proliferating state. Such tendencies–which, unfortunately, are seen among some of the other nuclear states as well–undermine 21st century nonproliferation efforts and, particularly, efforts at making the NPT universal in membership.

Another self-defeating U.S. trend in the post-Cold War period (under both Republican and Democratic administrations) has been the gradual acceptance of a doctrine of nuclear use against those who might threaten the United States with chemical and biological weapons. While initially floated with the aim of deterring Saddam Hussein from using these weapons against U.S. forces or Israel in the 1991 Gulf War, the concept has been enshrined under the current Bush administration as part of national policy.[4] While there are reasons to value the possible deterrent effect of nuclear weapons, such statements are not made in a vacuum and affect the likelihood that states without chemical and biological weapons may be encouraged to obtain them against what they perceive to be a U.S. nuclear threat, while those with chemical/biological capability may be encouraged to acquire nuclear weapons. In essence, putting nuclear weapons back on the table after the Cold War as legitimate weapons of warfare has weakened efforts to eliminate and discredit them in other countries.

Finally, U.S. policy in regard to support for nuclear-weapon-free zones has been self-defeating, focusing almost exclusively on retaining minor exceptions for itself, rather than supporting new nonproliferation commitments by regional states that would serve both international nonproliferation aims and U.S. security goals. Specifically, in regard to a number of zones, the United States has insisted on self-interested rights to transit nuclear weapons through these zones, even when such zones are landlocked and have no seaways.[5] For example, negotiations on a nuclear-weapon-free zone among the five states in Central Asia nearly broke down in the late 1990s due to U.S. insistence that a clause be included in the draft treaty allowing freedom of transit for U.S. nuclear weapons. Eventually, the states agreed to drop a blanket ban on the transit of nuclear weapons through the zone (leaving it to each state to decide), despite the fact that such a clause would have strengthened one of the main benefits to the United States of the proposed regime: namely, keeping foreign (and especially Russian and Chinese) nuclear weapons out of Central Asia. Instead, by insisting on a narrow and doctrinaire point–and one that showed a continued U.S. emphasis on the "value" of nuclear weapons–Washington sent the wrong signal to these states (for marginal benefit) and nearly ended up halting an important nonproliferation initiative in a critical region of proliferation concern. Washington has similarly done little to promote the establishment of a zone free of WMD in the Middle East, while withholding its support for the Southeast Asian Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone because it could deny the United States the right to transit of nuclear weapons through the zone.

Policies toward Nonproliferation Treaties and Agreements

The Bush administration has taken a fundamentally different approach to international nonproliferation treaties and regimes than its predecessors. Rather than focusing mostly on "collective security" and putting considerable stock in multilateral activities and efforts, it has instead concentrated its attentions on U.S.-led initiatives, including with small groups of like-minded states ("coalitions of the willing"). In some areas, such as the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), these new nonproliferation (or counterproliferation) efforts have gained wider acceptance and have added critical new capabilities to address gaps in nonproliferation regimes (such as in regard to transshipment of goods and materials). However, in other areas, Bush administration policies have had an unfortunate tendency to "throw the baby out with the bath water," rather than working to reform agreements and thereby shore up nonproliferation norms. In some cases, there have been costs for U.S. security in terms of the weakening of treaties, international ability to verify compliance, and overall international support.

The U.S. decision to literally walk away from the Biological Weapons Protocol in December 2001 is one example.[6] While the protocol, as written, may have been flawed, the Bush administration alienated other members by the rude manner with which its representative (Under Secretary of State John Bolton) left the meeting. More importantly, it failed to follow up with other mechanisms that might have addressed the weaknesses in the draft protocol. Thus, the net effect was to weaken U.S. security and slow the momentum against biological weapons proliferation. While there have been fewer specific costs from the U.S. decision (at about the same time) to walk away from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, the precedent of the powerful, nuclear-armed United States breaking a long-standing arms control agreement in order to further increase its military capabilities alienated a number of allies and possible partners. Similar international responses have resulted from U.S. plans to deploy weapons in space.

In regard to the Korean Peninsula, a similar U.S. focus on short-term interests has had serious long-term costs. The incoming Bush team miscalculated regarding North Korean attachment to the Agreed Framework and ended up escalating a crisis in fall 2002 with a series of accusations about a suspected uranium enrichment program. North Korea's decision to respond by throwing out International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors, withdrawing from the NPT, and reprocessing the 8,000 spent fuel rods the U.S. Department of Energy had placed into sealed canisters during the 1990s worsened U.S. security and has moved North Korea ever closer to testing a nuclear weapon. Giving up the certainty of having shut down the plutonium program on the principle of "punishing" North Korea for possible cheating in a small (and still unproven) uranium enrichment program seems to have been hasty and ill-advised in retrospect,[7] suggesting to outside parties that the administration simply wanted out of the Agreed Framework at any cost. Unfortunately, this withdrawal by the United States came without an alternative or more effective nonproliferation policy in place. Thus far, the United States has been unable to lead the other countries in the Six-Party Talks to a settlement aimed at replacing the Agreed Framework's verification mechanisms, although all sides recognize that the United States has the most cards in its hands. At the same time, U.S. security has steadily deteriorated with the growth in North Korean access to fissile material and a radical decline in international ability to monitor the North Korea nuclear program, dropping from about 95% certainty under the Agreed Framework to virtual guesswork today.

During the 2004 presidential debates, President Bush stated that the proliferation of WMD is the most serious threat facing the United States. However, the administration decided to send a relatively low-level delegation to the 2005 NPT Review Conference in New York, sending a signal internationally that these issues are instead a minor priority for the United States. The failure of the NPT Review Conference in New York represents another missed opportunity for the United States to exercise leadership toward firmer international nonproliferation policies. While positive steps had been taken in 2004 by the Bush administration to achieve the passage of UN Security Council Resolution 1540- -requiring all states to take measures to keep WMD out of the hands of sub-state actors–its implementation is still not assured. At the NPT meetings, there was an absence of U.S. leadership, contributing to the failure of the assembled states to agree on international condemnation of either Iran or North Korea. Many countries were left with the impression that the NPT had been weakened and that the United States was "asleep at the wheel" for failing to rally other countries toward stricter enforcement of the agreement.[8] Instead, there was backsliding in terms of prior U.S. commitments (such as the 2000 pledge to the "13 Practical Steps") and an implicit effort to discredit the whole notion of international nonproliferation via the UN system. Such short-sighted U.S. policymaking not only left many countries unimpressed and frustrated, but it also served to empower regimes that had sought to block any actions at the meeting (such as Egypt and Iran).

Related efforts to undermine the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty and remove verification procedures from the proposed Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty similarly weaken the very sort of norms the United States–as the most powerful country in the world–should be promoting. Using U.S. strength to enforce norms and encourage consensus solutions to U.S. advantage (as during the 1995 NPT Review Conference) is a better use of U.S. influence than current policies of undercutting treaties, norms, and efforts at international cooperation for verification and compliance in order to achieve narrow victories over principles or loopholes that have less to do with protecting U.S. security.

The Status of the U.S. Nuclear Arsenal

The United States has made considerable progress since 1991 in reducing its nuclear arsenal, despite the slow start under the first Bush administration and a failure of the Clinton administration to undertake a comprehensive review of its stockpile requirements (in part due to apparent obstructionism by the uniformed Pentagon personnel in regard to release of targeting data to then-Assistant Secretary Ashton Carter conducting the review).[9] Still, has this progress been fast enough, and are the right signals being sent to other parties?

The record is mixed. On the plus side, current U.S. plans envisage a further reduction of approximately half in the total nuclear stockpile, or to a figure of about 5,400 deployed and non-deployed nuclear weapons by 2012.[10] However, no strategic rationale has been provided either to NPT members or to the American public as to why such a large number of nuclear weapons remains necessary for U.S. national defense, over a decade after the demise of the Soviet Union. Moreover, in a world where terrorist threats within the U.S. homeland have been identified as the most serious security concern faced by the United States, the continued presence of such a large stockpile of these deadly weapons provides an unfortunate possible target.

On the minus side of the equation are the troubling statements by the Bush administration regarding its other plans for the U.S. nuclear arsenal: specifically, its research on developing a new generation of "bunker buster" bombs, its funding of a new plutonium pit facility, its continued deployment of a costly new submarine-launched ballistic missile, and its efforts to study possible use of nuclear weapons in space for the purposes of missile defense (a concept debated and shelved in the 1970s when the Safeguard system was finally abandoned). These efforts fly in the face of Article VI of the NPT–which requires eventual nuclear disarmament by the weapons states–and encourage other states to consider new uses of nuclear weapons, even as the United States is trying to halt nuclear proliferation elsewhere. U.S. credibility on the issue of nonproliferation is considerably harmed by such statements and research programs, particularly in the face of its existing stockpile of (currently) some 10,000 warheads. As IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei argues, "…you cannot…dangle the cigarette from your mouth and tell everybody else not to smoke. It's not doable."[11]

Other issues related to nuclear forces include the continued U.S. effort to emphasize nuclear submarines, both as a delivery system (SSBNs) and for anti-ship, anti-submarine, and land-attack missions (SSNs and SSGNs). Ironically, nuclear inertia has begun to blind the U.S. Navy from technological developments in the area of air independent propulsion, or the use of external combustion engines (using compressed or liquid oxygen) or fuel cells. Such technologies, now being developed in Germany, Sweden, Russia, and France, are extending the submerged capabilities of conventional submarines and increasing their stealth capabilities, thus putting U.S. assets at risk. However, the U.S. Navy has been reluctant to even consider purchasing or building such vessels for fear of putting at risk the $2.5 billion contracts for current-generation nuclear submarines, although it is leasing one of these boats from Sweden (with crew) to better understand how to fight against them. Ironically, such vessels cost about one-tenth of the price of a U.S. nuclear submarine. Such an obsessive focus on nuclear technology not only sends the wrong message to other states ("nuclear is always better"), but it also risks putting the United States behind in critical missions such as port security for the U.S. homeland, where large nuclear submarines are simply not appropriate. This is an area where Secretary Rumsfeld could save considerable funds and improve U.S. security.

Conclusion and Policy Recommendations

Given the problems outlined above, what remains to be addressed is the most serious question: what might the United States do to remedy these gaps in its current nonproliferation policies? The argument presented above suggests that Washington would do well to continue current policies in areas where new initiatives (such as the PSI) have yielded substantive results. But it also makes clear that the United States is unnecessarily weakening its international influence by trying to protect aspects of its Cold War nuclear arsenal and legacy that are no longer relevant to its security, particularly when compared to an active and effective international consensus over new policies needed to strengthen WMD nonproliferation efforts. It is in these critical areas where new initiatives could reinvigorate U.S. leadership, respect, and international commitments to nonproliferation by sending the "right" message about proliferation. The following list of suggestions is not comprehensive, but rather illustrative of the types of new policy initiatives that could begin to strengthen international commitments to the very nonproliferation objectives that the United States is seeking to promote. Particularly with the end of the Cold War, Washington can no longer assume that states will behave as it wishes, especially in instances where the United States ignores the very nonproliferation guidelines it is preaching. These efforts would be low-cost, low-risk reforms aimed at taking into account post-Cold War improvements in U.S. nuclear security and the greater concern today of WMD falling into the hands of terrorists.

  • Announce that the United States plans to move away from its current hair-trigger, launch-on-warning nuclear posture to one in which all U.S. nuclear forces would be de-alerted. Such a policy could be announced at a major nonproliferation gathering–such as the 2008 NPT Preparatory Committee meeting–as a means of using international public opinion to bring about reciprocity from all other nuclear-armed states.
  • Convene an international conference to address what the Bush administration perceives are "loopholes" in the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty. Simply complaining is not an acceptable–or very effective–U.S. policy, if Washington wants to send a message that it is serious about reducing proliferation. The United States could support such measures as increasing the capabilities of the international monitoring system, running tests of low-yield explosions in various locations (to ensure that they can be detected), and developing a system of immediate sanctions for states that violate the test ban, after passing a UN resolution against all nuclear testing (thus binding states that have not yet signed the treaty).
  • Embark on a program to remove and eliminate U.S. and Russian tactical nuclear warheads from Europe. These weapons are an historical anachronism and today pose more of a threat as terrorist targets than as weapons to deter or defend against a U.S./Russian attack (the concepts of which today are increasingly nonsensical). Following their redeployment back to the United States and (in Russia) east of the Urals, such a move should be followed by talks about their final elimination, possibly aided (on the Russian side) by the U.S. Cooperative Threat Reduction Program or the G-8 Global Partnership.
  • Restart talks on means of strengthening the Biological and Toxin Weapons Treaty. Again, a U.S. policy of simply complaining about gaps is not acceptable for a world leader. The United States should consider possible inspections by NATO-led scientists and/or a system of professional or academic reporting that would increase international access to and knowledge of laboratories and sites. Another option might be an international board of retired scientists, who would serve for life similar to judges–to remove conflicts of interest. Other options should also be considered and debated, but the point would be made that the United States has not abandoned the treaty or trying to come up with methods to enhance its enforcement.
  • Take the lead in reinterpreting Article IV on the NPT to ensure state access to energy resources, but not necessarily nuclear power plants or reprocessing/enrichment capabilities. Given the credibility the United States would gain by announcing a time-bound framework for nuclear disarmament, the United States could lead a movement to shift the norm within the NPT to medical benefits and other energy sources, including oil, gas, renewables, and future alternatives. Such an effort could also help make the United States a leader in emerging technologies, such as fuel cells, which could later be provided by U.S. companies to the world market.
  • Convene relevant international parties (including the IAEA and major producer states) to begin serious negotiations on the consolidation and reduction of international stockpiles of highly enriched uranium (HEU) and plutonium, to be followed by a Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty. The importance of reducing global sites with HEU and plutonium has never been more obvious, and yet the process of negotiating an effective treaty is moribund from a lack of leadership. The concept announced by the Bush administration last year–that no verification mechanisms are needed for such an effort–is short sighted and weakens U.S. credibility as a nonproliferation leader.[12] Instead, means for stronger verification–perhaps through a strengthening of IAEA powers or the creation of a prestigious and impartial international inspectorate– should be discussed and developed. Again, the United States has far more to lose by delaying progress than it has to gain by leading the process of shaping the eventual agreement.
  • Reaffirm U.S. commitment to Article VI of the NPT and state the desirability of moving toward a nuclear-weapon-free world by the middle part of the 21st century. Such a statement would strengthen adherence by other states to the NPT and also weaken past arguments made by India, Pakistan, and Israel about the absence of a time-bound plan within the NPT for disarmament as an excuse for their non-membership in the NPT. The statement should be followed by talks with the existing NPT states to plan for a coordinated and phased drawdown, keeping stability and security as the top priority, as well as by international pressure on India, Pakistan, and Israel to develop a timetable for their nuclear disarmament (and making final disarmament of the permanent NPT weapons states contingent on the latter's full compliance). The exact terms may focus in the initial stages on deployed weapons only, until adequate trust and verification mechanisms could be developed. But the political importance of recommitting the United States to Article VI would be significant and would have powerful implications for shorting up recently weakened nonproliferation norms.

While not comprehensive, these concepts are some options for strengthening U.S. nonproliferation leadership in the nonproliferation field in the aftermath of the failed NPT Review Conference in New York. Taken together, these measures could rally new international commitments to nonproliferation, while also striking a blow against international terrorism–by further reducing the availability of nuclear weapons, materials, and related technology. Finally, such policies would strengthen U.S. alliances, free funds for investment in the U.S. economy and energy infrastructure, and help the United States regain credibility as a nonproliferation leader lost in the failed intelligence claims of the Iraqi war.

In the end, making an effort to strengthen U.S. nonproliferation leadership would go a long way in the service of long-term U.S. security interests. In the face of 21st century threats, restoring international momentum in nonproliferation policy is likely to be far more important than any possible marginal gains to be had from new nuclear weapons, new tests, or protection of anachronistic Cold War nuclear assets.


[1] The author thanks Leonard Spector and Sarah J. Diehl for their comments and suggestions. The views expressed in this essay are those of the author.
[2] Associated Press, "Poll: No Nation Should Have Nuke Weapons," March 30, 2005.
[3] "U.S. is Said to Lift India Nuclear Curbs," The New York Times (national edition), September 19, 2004, p. 4.
[4] See "Nuclear Posture Review [Excerpts],"
[5] During some of the initial negotiations in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, in 1997, the U.S. embassy actually sent an official to the hotel of the author and two non-governmental colleagues–all of whom were providing technical advice on nuclear-weapon-free zones to the governments of Central Asia at the states' request. The official "demarched" the small NGO team and insisted on inclusion of a clause that would allow the United States to transit of nuclear weapons through the zone. Even the U.S. official giving the demarche recognized the absurdity of the U.S. insistence on "freedom of the seas" for nuclear transit in land-locked Central Asia, saying that the order to read the demarche had come from officials in Washington.
[6] See Jenni Rissanen, "Anger After the Ambush: Review Conference Suspended After US Asks for AHG's Termination," Acronym Institute, December 9, 2001,
[7] For two views on the substance of the HEU debate, see Selig S. Harrison, "Did North Korea Cheat?" Foreign Affairs (January/February 2005),, and Mitchell B. Reiss and Robert Gallucci, "Red-Handed," Foreign Affairs (March/April 2005),
[8] For a review of the results and a summary of state viewpoints, see Rebecca Johnson, "Day 26: Spineless NPT Conference Papers Over Cracks and Ends with a Whimper," May 27, 2005, on the Acronym Institute,
[9] On this issue, see Janne E. Nolan, An Elusive Consensus: Nuclear Weapons and American Security after the Cold War (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 1999).
[10] The exact numbers are still classified. For the figures behind this estimate, see John J. Fialka, "U.S. Nuclear-Weapons Stockpile To Be Cut Nearly in Half by 2012," The Wall Street Journal, June 4, 2004, p. A8.
[11] See "Nuclear Proliferation: A discussion with the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency," Stanford Lawyer (Winter 2005), p. 29.
[12] See "A World of Nuclear Dangers," editorial, The New York Times (national edition), September 19, 2004, p. 10.

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