A New Approach to an Old Problem

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A general view of participants during an opening session of the Treaty of the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.
A general view of participants during a session of the Preparatory Committee Meeting of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. (UN photo)

A New Approach to an Old Problem

At the end of the Cold War, the international community settled into what some perceived or hoped would be a globally peaceful and stable period. Yet this seemingly calm world order -- the “end of history” or a “pax Americana” -- was short-lived.

Unfortunately, the dramatic reductions in nuclear arsenals that took place during and after the Cold War have stalled, and security conditions have worsened. North Korea has ratcheted up its nuclear program and has been developing and testing nuclear weapons and long-range missiles, presenting a grave threat to the U.S. and our allies. Russia used a Novichok nerve agent in an assassination attempt on a former Russian intelligence official in Salisbury, UK, in March 2018. The Syrian regime continues to gas its own civilians using sarin and chlorine. China’s increasing economic vitality, coupled with its theft of Western technology for use in its military programs is sounding alarm bells throughout the West.

Every year, the global security environment provides the framework for the diplomacy that takes place at the United Nations headquarters either in New York City or in Geneva when the States Party to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty meet to discuss the status of the Treaty. The headlines du jour inform how nations approach conversations about progress in nonproliferation and disarmament, especially in an environment with deteriorating security conditions.

Assistant Secretary for International Security and Nonproliferation Christopher Ford and U.S. Permanent Representative to the Conference on Disarmament Robert Wood speak at the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva. (U.S. Mission Geneva photo)

This week, States Party to the NPT are in New York for the 2019 NPT Preparatory Committee meeting -- the less-formal precursor to next year’s NPT Review Conference, a meeting that takes place every five years. Diplomats are laying the groundwork for next year’s Review Conference agenda.

And at this year’s Preparatory Committee meeting, the United States is rolling out details for a new concept called “Creating an Environment for Nuclear Disarmament.” The goal of the CEND initiative is to put the global community on a more feasible path toward nuclear disarmament.

Nonproliferation has always been both the foundation for achieving nuclear disarmament as well as the core of how it is maintained. It is clear, however, that countries will never feel sufficiently compelled to eliminate their nuclear weapons when other nations are adding to or acquiringtheir own arsenals. Over the years, the five nuclear weapons states under the NPT (the United States, Russia, China, France and the United Kingdom)—the so-called P5 -- have worked to address the difficult issues that challenge disarmament. At the heart of this impasse are three hard-core facts:

  • Success depends upon favorable conditions in the security environment;

  • Disarmament is only possible when weapons possessors feel it feasible, safe, verifiable and sustainable to do so;

  • The only viable path to sustainable disarmament progress is to improve these conditions.

The CEND concept was the basis of the U.S. position paper at the 2018 NPT Preparatory Committee meeting in Geneva. Since then, the United States has engaged our partners and allies, and many have expressed interest in joining our effort. Earlier this month, the Dutch hosted an academic colloquium that generated a wide-ranging dialogue on this issue. We heard excellent insights and ideas from diverse perspectives and we appreciated the earnest efforts to achieve meaningful progress from all those who attended.

Assistant Secretary Ford speaks at the 2018 NPT Preparatory Committee meeting. (U.S. Mission Geneva photo)

At this third Preparatory Committee meeting in New York, we put the CEND initiative into motion when we announced the formation of the CEND working group, which will engage nuclear and non-nuclear weapons states. We will kick off the working group with a plenary meeting in Washington this summer.

CEND is a serious effort that addresses the core challenge of nuclear disarmament: a deteriorating security environment. We are pleased to see growing interest in contributing to CEND, including by many countries that have long been critical of the U.S. position on nuclear disarmament.

CEND participants themselves will determine the group’s mandate and its subgroups, including identifying what specific questions it will explore. The United States has suggested three conceptual approaches:

  • In what ways does the security environment need to change to lessen the chances that nuclear-armed states will want to keep or increase their nuclear weapons?

  • What institutions and processes would bolster greater nonproliferation efforts?

  • In what ways can we reduce the chance of nuclear war among weapons possessors?

Working for progress on disarmament without first addressing the global security environment approaches the problem backwards -- and will not bring us any closer toward nuclear disarmament. In developing the CEND concept, we have heeded Albert Einstein’s alleged definition of insanity: “doing the same thing over and over but expecting different results.” So we are taking a different approach -- one that is focused on dialogue to examine and address challenges and create an environment for nuclear disarmament.

About the Author: Jennifer Bavisotto is a Public Affairs Officer in the Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation at the U.S. Department of State.