Keynote Address at the Arms Control Association's Annual Meeting

Ladies and gentlemen – thank you very much, Daryl, for the kind and challenging introduction.  It is a pleasure to be here today with you, in particular – a man known across our community as an innovative thinker, not to mention a prolific writer and commentator.   You and your colleagues at the Arms Control Association do so much to keep the focus on the issues so important to everyone here, to hold our leaders accountable, to inspire creative thinking and to press for change. So, we are grateful for your leadership and for the unyielding dedication to global nuclear security.

I discovered recently, in another unrelated aspect of my life, I have come to know well a London-based business man who, it turns out—and this is entirely coincidental—is the grandson of Gerard C. Smith, the former Chair of the Board of the Arms Control Association.   It caused me to do a bit of research, and Gerard C. Smith’s contribution to disarmament and non-proliferation will be well-known to many in this room, particularly those who have been in this business for sixty years.  He was the Chief U.S. delegate to the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks in 1969 and the first U.S. Chairman of the Trilateral Commission, among many other achievements.   He had an extremely distinguished career in public service, and after 1980, when he resigned from the Government for the last time, he retained his interest in and was extremely active in disarmament, strongly opposing President Reagan’s Star Wars program and with George Kennan, McGeorge Bundy and Robert McNamara, I discovered, co-authored an article in Foreign Affairs calling on the US to declare a policy of “no first use” of nuclear weapons.  I mean, this is a snapshot of this man’s achievements, but his tenacity in maintaining the integrity of his arguments, even in unreceptive times, ought I think to be an example to us all in the challenging times that presently we are living through.  We must maintain our optimism and we must redouble our efforts. And as Larry Weiler mentioned, and I agree with this, we have been in tougher times – and in fact, some of you are young enough not to have lived through those tougher times, but they have existed.

It’s also a pleasure to speak with such an engaged and, dare I say, optimistic audience.  We know that the topics you are tackling at today’s annual meeting – from the Iranian Nuclear Puzzle to The Future of the Nonproliferation and Disarmament Regime – have long presented a significant challenge.  That challenge feels particularly acute today.  But we also know that none of us would be in this room if we weren’t determined to make progress on these vexing issues, and if we weren’t optimistic that progress is indeed possible.  

Optimism doesn’t mean we are naïve about the challenges ahead.  The truth is we are at a very precarious moment on a host of nuclear security fronts:

  • Prospects for the P-5 process and next year’s Nonproliferation Treaty Review Conference are not encouraging.   The incremental approach to disarmament, to the bargain that the recognized nuclear weapons states – the United States, the United Kingdom, Russia, China and France – struck over 45 years ago now, is so painfully slow that it too often feels as if we are moving backwards.  And it’s difficult to see a path forward when the five Nuclear Weapon States can’t agree on how to proceed, and the Non-Nuclear Weapon States are angry about the pace of progress toward disarmament.  This situation, in fact, is so bad that the upcoming 2015 NPT Review Conference has neither a convincing agenda nor a leader at this point.  In Geneva, in 2008 when I spoke at the Conference on Disarmament, as I think then the first-ever Defense Minister to do so and probably the only Defense Minister ever to do so, explaining how British policy on disarmament was then evolving, I said – and here I am quoting myself. I apologize for this, but it is intended to make a point rather than convince you of the words:  “As part of our global efforts, we also hope to engage with other P-5 states in other confidence-building on nuclear disarmament throughout this NPT Review Cycle.” This is the important part here: “The aim here is to promote greater trust and confidence as a catalyst in further reductions in nuclear warheads….” Our intention was to create a force for progressive dynamism, it appears that, inadvertently, we have created a cartel.
  • Meanwhile, we have states expanding their nuclear arsenals, surreptitiously seeking nuclear weapons under the guise of a civil energy program and detonating nuclear test devices in the face of international condemnation. Finding a productive course to take with respect to Iran and North Korea is a particularly difficult challenge.
  • We saw approval of the New START Treaty during President Obama’s first term – an important achievement that I am quite sure could not have been realized without the very hard work of many here – but prospects for talks on additional reductions are dim, at the very best.
  • The chilling effect of recent events in Ukraine is that our agenda today is in danger of being put into the deep freeze. Worse yet, the situation not only strains relations between Russia and the United States, it may serve – and is proving to do so for some – to boost the arguments of those who oppose reducing the role of nuclear weapons in NATO’s security construct.
  • Decades after more than 2,000 nuclear tests were conducted worldwide, leaving a ghastly humanitarian and environmental legacy amid growing concerns about the proliferation and security of nuclear weapons, efforts to ratify the ban on nuclear tests are stuck. The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty was adopted and opened for signature in 1996 as a key piece of our global nuclear security architecture. As you all know, since then, 183 countries have signed the Treaty and 162 have ratified – but in the United States, the process has been blocked in the U.S. Congress.   It is blocked elsewhere as well, including in China, importantly, which won’t ratify until and unless the U.S. does.
  • At the risk of utterly depressing everyone here, I must add one more problem to the list – and that’s that all the nuclear weapon states today are now working to modernize their arsenals, sending a powerful and unfortunate message about their lack of enthusiasm for arms control.  The next sentence I’m going to modify, but I’ll read it as written and explain why I’m going to modify it. In a groundbreaking report released earlier this year, the Center for Nonproliferation Studies estimated that the United States alone will spend a staggering $1 trillion over the next three decades modernizing and maintaining its nuclear arsenal. This now requires revision: In an excellent report published only today, the Arms Control Association, Tom Collina, have set out the way to rethink these kinds of plans. This rethink actually – and this is not a criticism of it – only saves $70 billion out of a trillion. It doesn’t significantly reduce the scale of the challenge.  Plans to ramp up modernization fly in the face of the pledges President Obama made in Prague.   As my new colleague Senator Nunn told The New York Times recently, “A lot of it is hard to explain. The president’s vision was a significant change in direction.  But the process has preserved and reinforced the status quo.”

So, yes, much of our agenda is stuck – and we are clearly in an unfortunate place today, having squandered a recent period of opportunity for progress on a variety of fronts, including reductions.

At the same time, we mustn’t allow this negative state of affairs to drain our resolve.   It may seem hopeless today, but it’s important to remember that we will not always be in this moment.  As the situation in Ukraine has demonstrated so clearly, the global security landscape can change unexpectedly and almost overnight.  Fortunately, history has shown us that it also can change for the better.  We can – and we must – work toward the day when it will change to favor our work and the work predicated by the NPT.

So, as we continue to press ahead, I think we can all take some solace in the axiom proffered by my good friend, Dr. Lassino Zerbo, the very able head of the CTBTO:  “It is a well-known fact,” he said in a speech last year, “that frustration often paves the way for innovation.”

Perhaps the best starting place is, in the words of my colleague, Dr. Ian Kearns, the Director of the European Leadership Network (ELN), that we address the issues that are right in front of us:

During the whole of the Cold War, we had in place this sort of military-to-military and other communications for crisis management. We’ve forgotten how to do that, and we need to get back to it so that we can control this situation and that it doesn’t have the unintended consequences that it could have.

Every day, there are reports of events happening on the ground that could escalate. We in the ELN are in the process of compiling these. They are a frightening catalog of incidents involving aircraft, ships and troops on the ground.

  • We must firstly avoid the unintended escalation of the situation in Ukraine and manage the confrontation there effectively and responsibly.  These destabilizing events confirm the need for a new approach to Euro-Atlantic Security, which was the subject of the 2013 report, Building Mutual Security in the Euro-Atlantic Region.  A process, which I had the privilege of co-chairing with Sam Nunn, Igor Ivanov and former German Deputy Foreign Minister, Wolfgang Ischinger.  Though written before Ukraine erupted, the report contains medium and long-term solutions that we still believe can contribute to solutions for the region.   
    Additionally, the July 2014 position paper of the Task Force on Co-operation in Greater Europe, an ELN, PISM, RIAC and USAC initiative, predicted the detrimental effect that unilateral interventions, some of which we have seen, would have on the situation in Ukraine. To help manage the crisis the Report recommended steps, including military and political restraint, increased military-to-military communications and direct dialogue both inside Ukraine and between Ukrainian parties and other actors – all designed to ensure that the actions on the ground did not lead to dangerous escalation.  These recommendations are still valid.
    During the whole of the Cold War, we had in place this sort of military-to-military and other communications for crisis management. We’ve forgotten how to do that, and we need to get back to it so that we can control this situation and that it doesn’t have the unintended consequences that it could have.
    Every day, there are reports of events happening on the ground that could escalate. We in the ELN are in the process of compiling these. They are a frightening catalog of incidents involving aircraft, ships and troops on the ground.
  • We must do everything we can to get a deal done with Iran, or at the very least, an agreement to continue the dialogue maintaining the status quo, and I mean the status quo now.  In the event of a deal, we must ensure that Congress approves the necessary sanctions relief measures.
  • We must turn the humanitarian impacts initiative into a shared enterprise across nuclear haves and have nots rather than a new point of division, by focusing on preventing the worst not only through disarmament, but by de-alerting, by securing materials, by universalizing the additional protocol and by ramping up considerably effective preparations to handle an incident should it happen.  As Dr. Patricia Lewis at Chatham House has written:  “The fact that it has taken decades to discuss the problem (nuclear weapons) create through a humanitarian framework demonstrates how adept our societies are at forgetting, disguising and denying the overwhelming and the terrifying.”
  • We must not forget about tactical nuclear weapons in Europe – we need a more open and honest discussion about how most effectively we ensure European security with capabilities that actually are usable.  The usual claim that alliance cohesion means that we have to stick to the status quo against the desires of the majority is not a good long-term strategy for maintaining cohesion.  Indeed, it guarantees that alliance cohesion will come under major stress in times of crisis.  It is improbable that the fault lines in opinions will not affect a decision whether DCAs should be scrambled and B61s taken out of their vaults.  Russia, in adversarial mode, is utterly adept at dividing the Alliance, particularly the European members of it.   This is a Godsend to them, and we need to address it.

I take heart, too – and you should - because there are also innovative ideas out there about how to tackle many of these issues and there is a great deal of innovative work going on as well at present.

Let’s begin with the P-5 process.  As the 2015 NPT Review Conference approaches, one question many of us have considered for a number of years is how to revitalize the process itself.  Transparency is the key.  I believe we need to open it up and make it more accountable.  And as one of the architects of it, I know where the flaws lie. One way to do that might be to hold a session at the Review Conference, for example, during which nuclear weapon states collectively are quizzed by non-nuclear weapon states on their progress on disarmament and the challenges that they face.  There’s broad agreement that all states need to reduce the salience attached to nuclear weapons, and it might be useful to have more discussions within formal NPT settings about what this actually means.  Those discussions could lead to proposals about what both nuclear and non-nuclear weapon states could do to facilitate it.

A successful 2015 NPT Review Conference also would require countries to take a series of steps before the conference convenes, but we’re running out of time to do that.  Among them, as proposed by the European Leadership Network in a recent statement:

  • Russia, the United States and the UK, as the three NPT depositary states, should issue a statement jointly with the UN Secretary-General, confirming that they will work towards setting up a conference on a WMD-Free Zone in the Middle East.
  • Nuclear weapons states should agree to be more transparent and demonstrate greater commitment to the goal of disarmament.
  • Nuclear weapons states should participate in and help shape the agenda for the third planned conference on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons, set to take place in Austria in December.
  • The United States and Russia should reiterate their willingness to maintain a nuclear arms control and disarmament dialogue despite current tensions in their relationship. And somebody has to make the first move in the relationship.

The prompt-launch posture of U.S. and Russian nuclear forces may be an area ripe for progress, too. A quarter century after the end of the Cold War, each country still deploys hundreds of long-range ballistic missiles – land and sea-based – with roughly 2,000 nuclear warheads promptly set to destroy each other.  Each maintains large nuclear forces on day-to-day alert, ready for launch and capable of hitting their targets in less than 30 minutes.  This launch-on-warning posture is set to ensure that there can be no advantage from a first strike.

But inherent in this posture is the risk of an accidental or unauthorized launch by either side, as well as the risk that a deliberate decision to use ballistic missiles will be made in haste on the basis of faulty or incomplete data.  What’s more, the risks posed by these force postures are increasing as cyber threats and nuclear missile capabilities proliferate in other countries.

So what can be done?  Ultimately, the U.S. and Russia could agree to mutual reciprocal steps to reduce dangers by changing the nature of our force postures.  These could be taken as part of a future process to repair the breach opened between the West and Russia over Ukraine.  In the meantime, I strongly believe that other governments and NGOs must work to increase awareness about this threat and keep the issue visible with governments and publics.  We need to make it possible for Moscow and Washington to see the political and diplomatic benefits, in addition to the security benefits, of acting on this issue.  And we need to underscore to countries that might be considering adopting such force postures in the future that they would decrease their security and have no support in the international community.

Daryl  recently has been promoting another interesting idea in conjunction with the third Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons, which will be held in Vienna in December, and the Review Conference next year.  First, I will repeat that it is important for the P-5 countries to attend that, which they have not yet agreed to do.  In fact, I’ll tell you, from the point of view of the United Kingdom, if the U.S. agrees to go, we will go. I mean, it’s no coincidence that we have not made up our mind for each of the last two conferences until immediately after the United States made its decision. So it’s important – and I’m optimistic and hopeful – that strong voices within the U.S. executive branch are making the argument for this.

This needs to be a cooperative effort. If you want to have nuclear weapons, you have to live with the responsibility and the consequences of them and explain to others how you will deal with that challenge. However these two conferences were resolved in their final messages, and that’s a debate, and whatever others think, both of these conferences concluded that no country in the world can deal with the consequences of the use of nuclear weapons and no country is capable of building the capability to do that. Now either we agree with that or we disagree with it. Those of us who hold nuclear weapons, if we agree with it, we have to explain that to the rest of the world that don’t have these (weapons) why that’s a morally consistent position to be in and why we’re not building the capability to do it. And if we don’t agree with it, then we need to explain why it is wrong. But we are not uninterested in this. We have a responsibility, if we depend for our strategic security on these weapons, to engage with this challenge. Either that is true or it is not – and if it is true, we have to live with that consequence. We need to be there.

Anyway, I have moved away from Daryl’s bright idea. Daryl argues that as the impetus for a global nuclear weapons freeze, the United States and others at the conferences should press states not yet engaged in the nuclear disarmament process to freeze the size of their arsenals and their fissile materials stockpiles as a first step toward multilateral, verifiable reductions.  He makes a compelling case that a freeze could lead to future disarmament.

As for the CTBT, we are a long way away from 1996, when its adoption represented a high-water mark for multilateralism.  There’s no question we have made progress since then, and the treaty has established a de facto global moratorium on testing.  But we need to get the job done – and I’m confident we can do it with a concerted, coordinated effort by governments, civil society and the international scientific community. Today, the CTBTO’s Group of Eminent Persons – senior statesmen, politicians and experts – is engaging with leaders in capitals of states that haven’t ratified to press the case.  All of us, though, can do more to answer arguments against ratification – and we can do it with answers based on not just critical thinking but also on science.  Among the arguments against the CTBT is that verification and monitoring won’t work.  But now we have a state-of-the-art system in place – and important improvements are still being made.  So let me remind everyone here that we have very solid answers to the CTBT critics, and we must dedicate ourselves to providing them and demanding action from them.

So, those are just a few ideas for how to move forward.  Let me also briefly describe one of the projects NTI has been working on recently.  I believe it offers a good example of the kind of innovative and ground-breaking work the NGO community can do, often cooperatively with governments, to make progress on reducing the risks posed by nuclear materials and nuclear weapons.

I am referring to a two-year project entitled Innovating Verification: New Tools & New Actors to Reduce Nuclear Risks.  The project has involved more than 40 technical and policy experts from a dozen countries collaborating to produce innovative new concepts on confidence-building and transparency measures.  In a series of reports issued earlier this year, the project calls for the international community fundamentally to rethink the design, development and implementation of arms control verification.  Participants made recommendations on verifying baseline declarations of nuclear warheads and materials, on how to define and take advantage of societal verification methods and on how to build global capacity.  It was important that the project was undertaken with experts from around the world, because, although it may be a truism, it cannot be said enough when it comes to nuclear security:  global challenges require global solutions.  Not to mention innovative thinking.

That’s what we strive for in all our projects at the NTI, and I know it’s what has made the Arms Control Association a go-to resource for commentary on global nuclear security issues.

Thank you again for inviting me to be with you today, and I look forward now to answering questions and hearing any ideas you may have for how to make progress on these very complex and challenging issues.  My own work in this field would not have been possible without a steady optimism about the possibility for progress—and the dedication of those of you here today gives me yet more cause for optimism.

Thank you very much.

October 23, 2014

NTI Vice Chairman Des Browne delivered the keynote address at the Washington-based Arms Control Association's annual meeting, covering a range of nuclear policy issues.

Des Browne
Des Browne

Vice Chair, NTI