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Ambassador Robert Wood: U.S. Perspectives on the Opportunities and Challenges of Nuclear Disarmament
December 17, 2014

U.S. Perspectives on the Opportunities and Challenges of Nuclear Disarmament

Geneva Center for Security Policy, 1:00-2:00 pm Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Professor Mohamedou, thank you for that gracious introduction, and for hosting this event.  It is an honor to join the ranks of distinguished visitors who have spoken at GCSP venues.  Ladies and gentlemen, I also appreciate your interest in American perspectives on the opportunities and challenges of nuclear disarmament.

Disarmament, arms control, and nonproliferation are the focus of my professional life here in Geneva, and nuclear disarmament is under particularly close scrutiny as we approach the 2015 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference, which we refer to in the shorthand of this business as the “NPT RevCon.”  The last NPT RevCon, in 2010, generated a consensus Action Plan for all States Parties.  We put great stock in that historic achievement, we are working on it, and want to see it through.  Acknowledging that the pace of nuclear disarmament is under criticism in some quarters, I would underline that the United States remains firmly committed to achieving the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons – but I would also emphasize that there are no easy solutions to the challenge of advancing nuclear disarmament while also maintaining vital strategic stability and enhancing security for all.

So:  Where are we now?  And most important, where we are going?

As vital as those questions are, it can be easy to lose sight of the significant progress that has been made in this area.  Indeed, in the forums in which I routinely work it is regrettably common for some participants to state flatly that “nothing has happened” or “nothing is happening” on nuclear disarmament.  This is not the case.

How can such misperceptions persist?  It is well known that global stocks of nuclear weapons are at their lowest level in over half a century, far below the levels existing when the NPT entered into force in 1970.  This largely reflects very significant treaty-based arms reductions by the United States of America and the Russian Federation.  The latest such bilateral arms control treaty, the New START Treaty, entered into force on February 5, 2011, and when it is fully implemented in 2018, New START will limit deployed strategic nuclear warheads to their lowest levels since the 1950s.

Behind these headlines is an ongoing, intense web of daily, practical implementation activities that support strategic stability and transparency, which are conducive to future progress in disarmament.  For example, the United States and Russian Federation together continue to implement successfully the New START Treaty.  The two sides have exchanged more than 7,700 New START Treaty notifications through the Nuclear Risk Reduction Centers.  These notifications include biannual New START Treaty data exchanges, which provide a detailed picture of U.S. and Russian strategic forces.  In addition, the Treaty’s on-site inspections continue to enable each side to verify the validity of those data.  These exchanges and inspections, together with detailed discussions in the Bilateral Consultative Commission, help build confidence, stability, and predictability.   Historically, implementation of strategic arms control treaties with the former Soviet Union and Russia has proceeded without interruption even during the most challenging periods in the bilateral relationship.

The United States also has reduced the role of nuclear weapons in its national security strategy as outlined in the U.S. Nuclear Posture Review (NPR).  Specifically, as outlined in the 2010 NPR, the United States will not develop new nuclear warheads, and life extension programs for existing weapons will not support new military capabilities or provide for new military capabilities.  Additionally, as reflected in the NPR, the United States has strengthened the negative security assurances that it provides to non-nuclear weapon states who are party to the NPT, and made clear that the United States would only consider the use of nuclear weapons in extreme circumstances to defend the vital interests of the United States or its allies and partners.

Proceeding further to the heart of the matter, we reported earlier this year that over the past two decades alone the United States has dismantled 9,952 nuclear warheads.  That works out to dismantling an average of more than one warhead per day, every day, for 20 years.  And the work continues.  By the way, the dismantlement of just one nuclear warhead is not an easy process – it is extremely demanding work.

I hope that does not surprise you.  But unfortunately, since taking up my duties as ambassador here four months ago, I have repeatedly heard the claim that, while non-nuclear weapons states have by and large honored their nonproliferation obligations, nuclear weapons states have abdicated their nuclear disarmament obligations.

I will let other Nuclear Weapons States speak for themselves.  I think that the U.S. can be very proud of our own record.  Please consider these facts:

  • Over all, the United States has slashed its nuclear arsenal from its Cold War high by 85%. 85%. That is not a percentage pulled out of a hat. It is not fiction or fantasy.  It is real!
  • Before 1991, the U.S. eliminated an entire category of missiles, scrapping all of its intermediate-range and shorter-range ground-launched nuclear- and conventional-capable missiles and their associated launchers and equipment in accordance with the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty.
  • And just since 1991, the United States has reduced its non-strategic nuclear arsenal by approximately 90%.

When we pledge to continue to pursue nuclear disarmament and to keep faith with our NPT Article VI disarmament obligations, those are not empty words.  Our responsible approach to disarmament has borne fruit in the form of major reductions in nuclear weapons, fissile material stocks, and infrastructure.  Our nuclear complex has been completely transformed from one built for the mass production of fissile material and warheads and the design and testing of new weapons to one dedicated to the maintenance of a steadily shrinking stockpile.

Underpinning all of our efforts, stretching back decades, has been our clear understanding and recognition of the severe consequences of the use of these weapons.  That is the message the United States took to the Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons in Vienna last week.  We participated to reinforce the message that the practical step-by-step path we have followed so successfully remains the only realistic route to our shared goal of a nuclear weapons-free world.  We cannot and will not support efforts to move to a nuclear weapons convention or the false hope of a fixed timeline for the elimination of all nuclear weapons.  We cannot support and will oppose any effort to move to an international legal ban on nuclear weapons.

Looking ahead, it remains the policy of the United States to achieve the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.  And we are facing new challenges as we consider how to responsibly eliminate the last 15% of those weapons.  As we move to smaller and smaller numbers, leading to zero globally, we must in turn become rigorously more and more confident and trusting that all are fulfilling their commitments.

In considering future reductions, the United States believes that the focus must be on responsible measures that can be trusted and verified. We will learn from our past experience and continue to move ahead with each step building on the last.  While there is no pre-determined sequence of steps, and indeed we should pursue progress on multiple paths, there is no way to skip to the end and forgo the hard work of preparing for the technical and political disarmament challenges that lie ahead.  Patience and persistence are needed from all NPT parties both among and beyond the P5.

Earlier this month in Prague, Under Secretary Gottemoeller announced a new International Partnership for Nuclear Disarmament Verification.  We propose to work with nuclear-weapon states and non-nuclear-weapon states to better understand the challenges of verifying nuclear disarmament and to develop solutions to address those challenges.

This new partnership will draw on the talents of experts around the world, both inside and outside government.  It will build on the pathbreaking efforts of the UK-Norway initiative, begun in 2007, to investigate ways to address nuclear disarmament verification challenges.  The Nuclear Threat Initiative will be a prime partner in organizing this exciting new effort.

The United States is committed to a responsible approach to nuclear disarmament in accordance with our obligations under the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.  The United States has made it clear that we are ready to engage Russia to discuss the full range of issues related to strategic stability, and that we should take real and important actions that can contribute to creating a more predictable and secure world.  We hope that these negotiations will take place when the conditions become more favorable for constructive interaction.

Broadening the aperture, I would underline that NPT Parties have committed as a next step in the multilateral nuclear disarmament sphere to negotiations on a treaty banning the production of fissile material for use in nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices, the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT).  This goal was embraced by all NPT Parties.  Indeed, the 2010 NPT Action 15 notes that “All States agree that the Conference on Disarmament should . . . begin negotiation of a treaty banning the production of fissile material for use in nuclear weapons. . . .”

Achieving such a ban would support our collective Article VI obligations.  The United States regrets that the CD remains in deadlock, unable to agree on a Program of Work that takes us forward and puts us on a path toward FMCT negotiations.  It is clear that we still have our work cut out for us.  And it is difficult to have a meaningful discussion, to set the stage for productive negotiations in the CD, without a better grasp of the facts, without recognition of what has been accomplished as well as the challenges that remain.

For the United States, the CD remains an essential multilateral institution for the negotiation of arms control and disarmament agreements.  As a consensus-based body, it is the ideal venue to deal with the most sensitive national security issues multilaterally. While the United States and many other Member States are frustrated by the inability of the CD to get back to the business of negotiating, we need to find creative ways to energize it and put it back to work.

In conclusion, I would emphasize that it is a welcome fact that there remains strong support among governments and publics for nuclear disarmament.  For the United States, the task at hand is to help to channel that support into constructive, effective measures that will strengthen international security while further reducing the number of nuclear weapons.  Indeed, the United States has led the international community in responsibly reducing nuclear arsenals in a safe and practical step-by-step manner, and we remain firmly committed to our obligations under the NPT.   We welcome contributions by all to this important task, but will firmly resist any efforts to oversimplify the path forward and ignore the real security challenges we face along that path.  As President Obama has said, the path to zero will require patience and persistence.  It requires a broad strategy aimed at strengthening the nonproliferation regime, preventing nuclear terrorism, and pursuing concrete steps that build a foundation for future progress and lead in the direction of nuclear disarmament.  Thank you for your attention.