Advancing Nuclear Disarmament in an Increasingly Dangerous World

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ISN Assistant Secretary Christopher Ford addresses participants at the CEND plenary in Washington, D.C. in July 2019.
ISN Assistant Secretary Christopher Ford addresses participants at the CEND plenary in Washington, D.C. in July 2019.

Advancing Nuclear Disarmament in an Increasingly Dangerous World

Nearly 30 years after the end of the Cold War, the international community faces deteriorating security conditions across many regions: tensions in the Strait of Hormuz have the global shipping industry on edge; some major powers are rolling out newer and more nuclear weapons while Cold War-era arms control treaties like the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty have collapsed; and saber-rattling in the Korean peninsula undermines peace and security in the Indo-Pacific region. As tensions rise, the prospects for disarmament fall.

This year, however, the United States introduced a bold new initiative in an attempt to rejuvenate nuclear disarmament efforts in the face of deteriorating security conditions.

As diplomats gathered in May for the final Preparatory Committee meeting before next year’s Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference, the United States introduced the “Creating an Environment for Nuclear Disarmament,” or the CEND initiative, which focuses on creating security conditions that are more conducive to nuclear disarmament. The CEND initiative emerged from a recognition of the need to engage the international community in a dialog that examines what realistic steps can be taken to lessen the tensions and threats that make nuclear deterrence so imperative.

Recognizing that success ultimately depends on collective engagement, in July 2019, the United States hosted the CEND Working Group kick-off Plenary meeting. We were pleased to have more than 40 countries participate, representing a broad range of perspectives and regions.

That all five NPT nuclear-weapon states—the United States, China, France, Russia, and the United Kingdom—participated is testament to the strength of this initiative. In addition, participants included countries not party to the NPT, reflecting the need to reach out to all countries that possess nuclear weapons. Clearly, creating conditions conducive to nuclear disarmament is an area where we can find common ground, even with countries with which the United States does not always see eye-to-eye.

To encourage an open exchange of views, the United States asked civil society experts to facilitate the discussions. During the Plenary, participants adopted rules designed to encourage free and open discussion among participants and to respect the private nature of our diplomatic conversations. Those rules worked as envisaged, and participants exchanged ideas and brainstormed solutions guided by three general questions:

  1. How can the international community address the reasons that lead to a country building or increasing its nuclear weapon stockpile?
  2. How can international institutions build trust in nuclear disarmament efforts?
  3. How can we reduce the likelihood of war among nuclear states in the short term?

These topics were deliberately broad to allow for the open and frank discussion that this critical issue requires. We are encouraged by the cooperative nature of the discussions, and pleased that the discussion focused on building a better world together rather than revisiting criticism about the past. Many participants commented that these were the most open and interactive discussions they have had on disarmament-related issues in many years, and were much more valuable than the formal “debates” – which are largely set-piece speeches reflecting well-known positions – that have become the norm within the established multilateral disarmament machinery. The results of the Plenary show that such positive discussion remains possible despite global tensions, and we are encouraged by the potential for progress displayed during this first meeting.

Through the Plenary, we were able to identify a list of international security issues that affect disarmament prospects and establish subgroups to examine a variety of issues in more depth. We hope these discussions will create a positive climate for the 2020 NPT Review Conference, although we intend for the dialogue to extend well beyond the Review Conference. We are committed to continuing to engage with governments that are participating directly in the CEND process as well as those outside of it. We also continue to invite and receive input from disarmament experts across the academic and NGO communities on this important issue.

As global security conditions deteriorate, we need to think realistically and seriously about how to reverse these trends, and how to approach disarmament. Recognizing the linkage between the conditions of the global security environment and nuclear disarmament negotiations and seeking to improve that environment is the only way forward. The CEND Plenary was intended to kick start the conversation, but it is only with international participation that we can effect change and reinvigorate the nuclear disarmament debate.

About the Author: Caleb Yip serves in the Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation.


Caleb Yip

Contributor bio

Caleb Yip is an intern in the Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation. He is a junior at Georgetown University.