Photo: A glimpse of the 7th European Union Nonproliferation and Disarmament Conference in Brussels. Credit: European Union. - Photo: 2018

Nonproliferation Policy and Priorities – U.S. Perspective

Viewpoint by Dr. Christopher Ashley Ford

The author is Assistant Secretary, Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation. The following are extensive extracts from his remarks at the 7th European Union Nonproliferation and Disarmament Conference in Brussels, Belgium, on December 18, 2018.

BRUSSELS | WASHINGTON, D.C. (IDN-INPS) – A year ago at this European Union conference, I had the honor of speaking on behalf of the new U.S. Administration to outline our emerging approaches to nonproliferation, arms control, and disarmament policy — summarizing critical continuities and highlighting constructive innovations that we were then getting underway in our first year. This year, having moved from the National Security Council staff to the State Department, I’m pleased to be able to outline our policy and priorities in the nonproliferation business.

I appreciate this opportunity to share our views, because so much of this work depends upon partnerships with states around the world — including many of you represented here today — and it’s critical that we understand each other as we work together to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), delivery systems, and advanced conventional weapons, and to meet other security challenges worldwide.

I. Core Missions

First and most obviously, we remain committed to fulfilling core responsibilities in strengthening the global nonproliferation regime, helping partners improve their contributions to this regime, interdicting transactions of proliferation concern and impeding progress on state and non-state actor threat programs, preventing nuclear smuggling, advancing nuclear safety and security, and ensuring that the strongest possible nonproliferation protections are built into the civil-nuclear cooperation agreements we make with foreign partners.

But we are certainly not simply continuing with inherited, baseline levels of activity in these core areas. We are trying to step up our game, such as by reforming how we manage the approximately $250 million my bureau administers in nonproliferation programming, moving it from a system of stove-piped, country-specific allocations to a regionally or globally threat-prioritized approach that will help us ensure that the marginal nonproliferation dollar is always being spent upon the most important as-yet unmet need.

Still less than a year and a half after the passage of the toughest nonproliferation sanctions ever imposed by the UN Security Council — against North Korea — we have also been stepping up our capacity-building work with partner states in cooperative efforts to choke off the revenue sources the DPRK regime uses to support its WMD and missile programs. We are also stepping up our work in the nuclear security arena, in order to help the Nuclear Security Contact Group and the Nuclear Security Division at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) live up to their potential, and to ensure that nuclear security best practices continue to facilitate sharing the benefits of nuclear technology worldwide.

We are also accelerating our Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) diplomacy in anticipation of the 2020 NPT Review Conference — an event which will have special political and symbolic significance on account of that year being the 50th anniversary of the Treaty’s entry into force. This anniversary should highlight for everyone the importance of shoring up the nonproliferation regime against the many challenges it faces, and we are continuing to prioritize doing this critical work.

This is important not only because of the intrinsic security benefits that the nonproliferation regime provides to all states by preventing the further spread of nuclear weapons and its attendant risks of instability and nuclear warfare, but also because the global system of nuclear technology cooperation — a system that has brought all mankind so many benefits for so long, especially in the developing world — depends upon the solid foundation of assurances that the nonproliferation regime provides.

We are highlighting our support for peaceful sharing of nuclear technology in order to remind other states of this critical connection, and of the central importance of nuclear nonproliferation, nuclear safety, and nuclear security as enablers for the continued worldwide spread of these benefits.

II. The Biggest Challenges

Most dramatically, we have accelerated diplomatic efforts to solve the two most dangerous threats to the global nonproliferation regime — the DPRK nuclear and missile advancements and the proliferation challenges presented by Iran. With our continuing pressure campaign against North Korea, coupled with diplomatic outreach to the regime in Pyongyang in order to ensure it implements its commitment to denuclearize, we are engaged in the boldest and most promising effort yet undertaken to solve a proliferation crisis that has been building there for decades.

And with our imposition of the toughest U.S. sanctions ever imposed upon Iran, we are also setting the stage for a diplomatic process that can resolve the crisis created by Iran’s extraordinary range of malign acts in the Middle East and beyond.

This is a very ambitious nonproliferation agenda, for in effect, we are trying simultaneously to pressure and to negotiate comprehensive solutions with two rogue regimes at the same time. But this very ambitiousness is a strength, not a weakness, and it will continue to provide us with opportunities to work together with likeminded partners in order finally to solve these problems and thereby save the global nonproliferation regime.

Since I am addressing you here at the center of the European Union, let me say an additional word about Iran. From the perspective of U.S. policy, it has certainly been a big year, proceeding from our negotiations with E3 partners over the so-called “sunset provisions” of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal, to the cessation of U.S. participation in the JCPOA in May, and most recently to our re-imposition of nuclear-related sanctions lifted or waived under the JCPOA.

I do understand that this has caused some tension with some of your governments. Our moves were necessary ones that will help set us all up for a more comprehensive and enduring successor agreement, however, and I am pleased that we are now back in regular contact and coordination with our European colleagues in responding to the many threats Iran presents.

We and our European friends have had what I see as fundamentally tactical disagreements about precisely how — and when — to take action to curtail these threats, and especially how to address the danger that Iran will expand its nuclear capabilities and thereby shorten the “breakout time” needed to build a nuclear weapon.

But we do not disagree on the goal of bringing about an Iran forever unable to develop nuclear weapons, an Iran that does not torment its region with proxy adventurism, an Iran that does not support terrorism around the globe, and an Iran that does not produce destabilizing missiles and send missile technology to terrorists and militia groups around the Middle East.

On those key objectives we are in emphatic strategic agreement on both sides of the Atlantic, and it is gratifying that we are now back to working together closely on how to bring these things about.

III. A New Strategic Orientation

But I also want to draw your attention to a new and expanding aspect of our work: our contribution to how the United States and likeminded partners around the world are able to cope with the competitive strategies advanced by China and Russia. As we made clear in our National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy, the United States is steadfastly committed to upholding the existing international order against the revisionist powers of the Eurasian landmass.

This is not traditionally thought of as an area of focus for the portions of the U.S. national security and foreign policy bureaucracy in which I work, but as experts in nonproliferation, counterproliferation, national security technology controls, and sanctions enforcement, we really do have a great deal to contribute.

We implement sanctions, for instance, not just to punish Russia’s use of chemical weapons in the United Kingdom but also to deter worldwide engagement with Moscow’s arms industry and intelligence sector. So far, we have been having a good deal of real success in this, already having effectively turned off several billion dollars’ worth of Russian arms transactions.

Moreover, U.S. experience in working against national security threats presented by transfers of technology equips us to draw attention to the ways in which technology transfers to China can undercut economic competitiveness globally, and contribute to Beijing’s destabilizing military buildup. While the effects of such technology transfers are not as blindingly obvious as Russia’s use of chemical weapons, they are disturbingly clear nonetheless – even at the level of open-source analysis – and they are significant.

This is why we are now drawing others’ attention not just to China’s theft of Western technology, but also to China’s systematic diversion of civil nuclear technology – however it may have been acquired – to military programs. China’s transfer of civil nuclear technology to the defense sphere undermines fundamental nonproliferation goals and contributes to regional and global instability, with worrying implications for global peace and security. It also undermines international nuclear cooperation itself. For these reasons, we are seeking to build “coalitions of caution” to raise awareness and develop better approaches and mechanisms with which to meet this threat.

But the new, more strategic orientation that we are bringing to nonproliferation policy is not devoted solely to helping the United States remember the lost arts of great power competition that previous U.S. leaders so foolishly assumed, after the end of the Cold War, would remain forever behind us.

We are also stepping up our efforts to engage with other nuclear weapons possessors — specifically, in Asia — in order to help them better manage their own competitive nuclear relationships. The potential security and stability implications of how those relationships are managed are, of course, profound, and missteps could have truly global repercussions.

Accordingly, we are working to build upon our existing regional security engagements with states locked in their own nuclear deterrent relationships, to expand regional dialogues in ways that advance mutual understanding and critical thinking on issues of nuclear posture, doctrine, crisis stability, and escalation management. In sum, we are working not merely to help our leaders better navigate the current era of great power competition, but also to help others learn how to manage their own competitions more safely.

IV. A New Disarmament Discourse

So let me conclude this survey of the nonproliferation and international security landscape by pointing out another important initiative that we have begun — in this case related to how best to pursue the long-term goal of nuclear disarmament that I know so many of you support so strongly. New thinking on disarmament is badly needed, because in many ways, the global strategic environment today is less conducive to further disarmament progress than it has been in decades.

As Article VI of the NPT makes clear, progress in this arena requires commitment and attention from all states, but it is also true that progress is only possible if all of the “P5” states – that is, the United States, Russia, China, Britain, and France – commit to creating an environment more conducive to such progress than it is today.

Russia’s destabilizing aggression in Ukraine, Georgia, and elsewhere, not to mention its violation of arms control agreements, directly undermine disarmament goals. You here in Europe, at the crosshairs of so much of this Russian activity, hardly need me to point this out. But the problem is unfortunately greater than just the threats presented by Russian revisionism.

In addition, Chinese president Xi Jinping, and the Chinese Communist Party more broadly, have articulated a vision of China’s role in the international community that seeks to right what they consider to be historical wrongs, not least by eventually taking control of all claimed Chinese territories, and potentially including the use of force in pursuit of a grand dream of China’s return to the center of the international system.

To give itself the tools with which to accomplish all this, for more than 30 years China has sustained a robust conventional and nuclear buildup – an effort now articulated in part through its national strategy of “Military-Civilian Fusion,” through which it seeks to develop the most advanced military in the world by 2049.

Together these actions by Russia and China place tremendous strategic pressure upon longstanding U.S. friends and allies in Europe and the Indo-Pacific, and indeed upon all of these countries’ justifiably nervous neighbors. Meanwhile, the rogue regimes of Iran and North Korea, through their own efforts to expand WMD and delivery system capabilities, are increasing the nuclear proliferation pressures facing other states in their regions.

All of this has contributed to creating something of a crisis for the disarmament enterprise, and to the exhaustion of traditional approaches to disarmament. To be sure, these traditional approaches were hugely successful, with the United States and Russia eliminating the vast majority of their nuclear weapons. In our case, for instance, we have cut back by about 88 percent — which means getting rid of almost nine out of every ten nuclear weapons we had at our Cold War peak.

Nevertheless, this fantastic disarmament progress was the result of the superpowers being able to eliminate large nuclear stockpiles made superfluous by the end of the Cold War — an approach that, by definition, could only go so far as long as nuclear weaponry still remained necessary to deter aggression in a complex and troubled world. Such progress also depended upon the world continuing to be the kind of congenial, progressively improving place that we all so much hoped that it would be after the end of the Cold War.

The combination of a deteriorating conditions in the global security environment and the fact that surplus Cold War weapons stocks are now essentially gone, however, has in recent years meant that the disarmament project faces a troubling juncture. How might it be possible to continue to move forward under these deteriorating circumstances? How, despite these challenges, could one still work to make a safe and stable nuclear weapons-free world an eventual reality?

In reaction to this dilemma, some have turned to what is basically magical thinking — an approach willfully blind to the challenges and realities of deterrence and stability in the real world — in the form of a treaty that would simply declare nuclear weapons illegal.

We’ve been very clear about the foolishness of that approach, pointing out that its well-intentioned but poorly reasoned moralism might well end up making the world a more dangerous place more wedded to nuclear weaponry than before. We have also highlighted the ways in which states joining to the self-described Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) are likely to undermine their own interests in profound ways. Indeed, I have described the TPNW as a “well-intentioned mistake.”

But not everyone has fallen for the snake oil cure of the TPNW. Thankfully, there is a better way to advance the cause of nuclear disarmament than such empty and divisive virtue-signaling — and finding a genuinely viable way forward is precisely the purpose of our new initiative.

Our approach, however, is based upon common sense and hard-won experience. Just as it took the waning of Cold War tensions to make possible the dramatic reductions that have occurred in the U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals over the last three decades, one cannot expect to see the achievement of a nuclear weapons-free world without ameliorating those conditions in the regional and global security environments that presently make it so difficult for disarmament progress to continue.

So we have launched a new, global dialogue aimed at finding ways to do this — aiming, as the Preamble to the NPT itself exhorts us, to ease tensions and strengthen trust between states in order to facilitate disarmament.

As I outlined at Wilton Park last week, as part of our expanding initiative on creating the environment for nuclear disarmament we are establishing a new structured dialogue loosely modeled on the International Partnership for Nuclear Disarmament Verification (IPNDV), an important and so far quite successful multilateral effort that brings key states together to help solve specific, practical problems in to how to verify nuclear weapons dismantlement.

Based on the IPNDV model, this new dialogue will establish a new, multilateral working group to help find solutions to certain key practical challenges that stand in the way of achieving a nuclear weapons-free world. This “Creating the Conditions Working Group” (CCWG) will identify propitious lines of effort and bring international partners and stakeholders together to devise answers to each practical challenge, just as IPNDV has been working to identify how to do disarmament verification.

This new, historically-informed effort at multilateral dialogue — explicitly focused upon the practical and prudential real-world challenges of changing the security environment in ways that will make possible further progress on nuclear disarmament and increase the odds of eventual success in eliminating all nuclear weapons in a safe, stable, and sustainable way — is about as far as possible as one could be from the magical thinking of the TPNW, and our new approach offers a far more viable and constructive way forward.

We hope to have implementation planning for the CCWG well underway by the time of the 2019 NPT Preparatory Committee meeting next spring, and to have the working group and its subgroups in full swing before the 2020 Review Conference. And we urge all of you to join us. [IDN-InDepthNews – 30 December 2018]

Photo: A glimpse of the 7th European Union Nonproliferation and Disarmament Conference in Brussels. Credit: European Union.

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate. –

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