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Remarks at the EU Nonproliferation and Disarmament Consortium
Panel on Arms Control and Global Power Dynamics
December 6, 2023

Remarks at the EU Nonproliferation and Disarmament Consortium

Panel on Arms Control and Global Power Dynamics

As Delivered by Ambassador Bruce Turner

Thanks for this opportunity to speak about a truly important but also very broad topic. The U.S. view is that arms control is always relevant and important, even when we face significant challenges. I have divided those challenges into three clusters: specific proximate causes; shifting global geopolitics; and new technologies, including for disinformation purposes. I’ll then turn to what we can do to address them. I very much look forward to discussion.

So, beginning with proximate causes..

Russia indisputably tops the list with its ongoing and brutal war of aggression against Ukraine, during which it has employed irresponsible nuclear rhetoric, endangered the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, purported to suspend the New START Treaty, and withdrawn its ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty.

Adding its withdrawal from the CFE Treaty, Russia has undermined the key arms control principles of reciprocity, transparency, compliance, and verification, which for decades constituted the bedrock of the Euro-Atlantic security architecture and the global nuclear nonproliferation regime.

Actions from the People’s Republic of China are also concerning. The PRC is rapidly and opaquely building a larger, more diverse nuclear arsenal that will reach, according to our estimates, over 1,000 operational nuclear warheads by 2030. Beijing’s continued refusal to acknowledge this buildup, or its scale, calls into question its intentions. The PRC also remains the only nuclear-weapon State not to have put in place a moratorium on the production of fissile material for use in nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices.

The DPRK, aided and abetted by Russia and the PRC, continues its unlawful nuclear weapon and ballistic missile programs, threatening international peace and security and the global nonproliferation regime. Iran continues to refuse to fully answer questions from the IAEA about indications of possible undeclared nuclear material and activities on its territory, while growing its nuclear program in deeply concerning ways.

Taken together, the activities of these countries have put under stress the NPT as the cornerstone for preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons and the foundation for progress on nuclear disarmament, leading to deepening divisions within and among various groups of states as we look to the next NPT Review Conference in 2026.

Second, Global geopolitics are also shifting as many countries sense an opportunity to expand their influence, leading to a more crowded international field of competing power centers. The PRC is attempting to bend the international rules-based order to its own advantage in order to dominate its region and the Global South, while Russia is challenging it frontally, not hesitating to abuse its veto power to hold multilateral institutions hostage and challenge our ability to manage crises, whether in the Middle East or elsewhere, or globally in dealing with climate change and potential pandemics.

Third, we are confronted with rapidly evolving, game-changing new technologies. Artificial intelligence is on everyone’s mind, to include its role in an already active war of disinformation. Space is becoming ever more congested and contested. Also looming large are the risks of new biological weapons.

The obvious question for all of us is what to do about all these challenges. Part of the answer in our view lies in arms control. As President Biden has said, “No matter what is happening in the world, the United States is ready to pursue critical arms control measures.”

What that means is that we are ready to work constructively with Russia on a pathway back to full implementation of the New START Treaty, and we will continue to seek a post-2026 nuclear arms control framework. Likewise, we continue to seek mutually beneficial bilateral discussion with the PRC on ways to promote strategic stability and reduce tensions.

We also believe it is important to make use of the most appropriate arms control tools for the moment. Comprehensive, legally binding treaties are not the only arms control tools available. When the risk of nuclear conflict is as high as it’s been in many years, we should look to the tools we have to reduce these risks. When the cost of misunderstanding is so high, we can work to improve transparency. This is why we are reaching out to engage both Russia and the PRC, without preconditions.

As the U.S. Ambassador to the Conference on Disarmament and head of the U.S. delegation to the UN First Committee, I want to dwell a bit further on the role of multilateral tools. First, we believe it is urgent that we continue working together to uphold the international order. We must persuade both Russia and the PRC of the value of stability from the existing international rules-based order, including within the UN, and that it is not in their own long-term interest to challenge it at every opportunity.

This requires that we also tend to the institutions involved. Multilateral institutions such as the UN First Committee and the Conference on Disarmament (CD) have important roles to play in the health and stability of the global arms control and nonproliferation regime. Abandoning them to obstruction and paralysis is not a solution.

This does not mean they can or should be insulated from broader events, most notably the ongoing war in Ukraine, but also the Israel-Hamas conflict and tensions between the U.S. and the PRC. But nor can we allow them to be held hostage by Russia, Iran, or anyone else. I am not talking here of doing away with consensus on matters of international security, but the practice of cynically exploiting the rules of procedure to block progress even on non-substantive matters.

There are also other steps we can take, beginning with the need to insist on facts as the basis for discussion. We cannot allow disinformation and fanciful narratives to distort and divert our work.

Second, let’s work on what is realistically possible today in arms control and not make the perfect the enemy of the good. Our focus should include not just broad treaties, but also on more limited, tailored measures that can reduce risks or create norms of responsible behavior. That is why we are pursuing nuclear risk reduction within the P5. Our UN First Committee resolutions addressing the use of radiological weapons this year, and antisatellite testing last year, are other examples.

Emerging technologies are another area where a step-by-step approach might be best. Our Political Declaration on the Responsible Military Use of Artificial Intelligence and Autonomy, and the inclusive international dialogue that was kicked off in New York last month, represent crucial first steps toward building a shared understanding around norms of responsible behavior for the use of these capabilities. Our interest in norms and principles of responsible behavior in space is another example of such an approach.

Third, we need to take some practical steps to unblock our multilateral institutions. In Geneva my team has circulated a set of modest ideas for improving the working methods of the Conference on Disarmament, without altering the Rules of Procedure. The idea is to take some small steps to add continuity to our working methods, make them more efficient, and the CD more interactive.

More broadly, our hope is to get the CD working again. Unfortunately, it’s been more than 25 years since the CD took up a mandate to negotiate an effectively verifiable treaty banning the production of fissile material for use in nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices. Such a treaty would make a significant contribution towards preventing a nuclear arms race and enabling future arms control agreements, and towards advancing nuclear disarmament. At a minimum, we would like to see the CD take the step of negotiating a ban of state use of radiological weapons.

Continued paralysis risks producing maximalist approaches, such as the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, that are detached from the realities of the security environment and will never meet their own objectives.

The Secretary General’s New Agenda for Peace, which my colleague on this panel will likely address, in our view provides vital context, substance, and thoughtful analysis on the challenges currently faced by the international community. The brief makes clear the vital importance of arms control and past efforts to reduce nuclear risks, calling for such work to continue, including through transparency, confidence-building measures, and dialogue. We welcome the inclusion of this element in the brief, and support continued efforts in these directions. We also support the brief’s call for efforts to strengthen the machinery of disarmament.

To conclude,

The United States is and will remain a champion of arms control, disarmament, and nonproliferation efforts, be it the UN, in the NPT review process, in Geneva, or elsewhere. The “global power” dynamics pose challenges, but they must be overcome. One of our greatest strengths xis having friends and partners on these issues. If we do not act now, the road ahead will only become more treacherous.