September 27, 2021

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Reframing Disarmament Discourse

24 min read

Dr. Christopher Ashley Ford, Assistant SecretaryBureau of International Security and Nonproliferation

CEND Leadership Group Meeting

Good day, everyone, and thanks for joining us across the time zones for this virtual meeting of the Creating an Environment for Nuclear Disarmament (CEND) Leadership Group. I know you’ve got quite a bit of work planned, so I don’t want to take up too much of your time.  

 I did want to take this opportunity, however, to thank all of you for your profound contributions to this effort – in helping facilitate the development by CEND partner governments of the Initiative’s lines of inquiry and establishing a program of work for each sub-group. But I would also like to highlight the important point at which we now stand with the CEND Initiative. 

As a scholar of such matters and as a sometime senior U.S. policymaker, I have been concerned for many years about how difficult it has proven to be for so many to “learn to speak disarmament in the language of security” and thereby to open possibilities for a reframed discourse in which dialogue can actually occur on how to create circumstances “in which ‘zero’ would become a feasible and compelling security policy choice for today’s nuclear weapons possessors.” Sadly, for many years all one could do was to lament the lack of a genuinely security-informed disarmament discourse. 

This has been especially the case as the global security environment has worsened as a result of geopolitical revisionism, the continued spread of proliferation threats, and the determination by some nuclear weapons possessors to expand the size of their arsenals in ways both alarming and destabilizing. These dynamics meant that global disarmament dialogue was becoming increasingly detached from reality, with little to say and no meaningful engagement with the real-world national leaders and security establishments of countries without whose involvement and support no meaningful and constructive disarmament agenda could succeed. 

Three years ago, however, we had a chance to help turn this around. Following an internal U.S. government examination of these challenges – what we termed our “nuclear vision review,” which was undertaken with the help and participation of a group of scholars and experts from across quite a wide spectrum of disarmament thought – we called in October 2017 for a new approach to disarmament dialogue. As we declared at the time, we wanted to build “a better way … for developing and implementing a new agenda of genuinely ‘effective measures’ designed to help ease tensions and strengthen trust in the sorts of ways the drafters of the NPT seem to have envisioned all along.”  

In particular, as I phrased it a few months later, if diplomatic dialogue were to have a real chance at working through the many obstacles that impeded disarmament progress, it would need always to bear in mind three inescapable facts”:  

  1. Disarmament movement only becomes available when, and to the degree that, real-world weapons possessors feel that such movement is feasible, safe, verifiable, and sustainable; 
  2. Such movement thus depends hugely upon the nature of, and perceived trends in, the prevailing conditions of rivalry, conflict, and threat in the security environment; and that therefore
  3. The only serious and viable path to making a future nuclear weapons-free world more likely lies through making sustainable improvements in those conditions. 

At the 2018 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty Preparatory Committee, we duly made our invitation to such a new dialogue official, calling for “a constructive discourse on creating conditions to facilitate further progress on nuclear disarmament.” In October of that year, we suggested ideas for a new dialogue process, including the possibility of building some kind of multi-participant engagement” modeled very loosely upon the proven mechanisms of the International Partnership for Nuclear Disarmament Verification. Such a group, we felt, could help “catalyze constructive collective efforts to find ways forward in creating conditions that are more conducive to disarmament movement … structure a sustained approach to engagement of the sort that will help catalyze thoughtful engagement and creative thinking for years to come.” And so CEND was born. 

 Since then, we’ve been gratified by the ways in which an enormously broad array of international partners have stepped up to contribute their thoughts and perspectives to this effort. Far from being a “United States initiative,” CEND is clearly now a global one, with all of its participants deservedly sharing a degree of well-earned collective ownership. From an initial concept and an invitation, the Initiative developed impressively, forming a working group and identifying three broad lines of effort (LOEs).  

Even just articulating those lines of inquiry, I’d submit, was an important step forward, and a critical contribution to a new and more realistic disarmament discourse – but of course, with your help and facilitation, the CEND partner countries has gone even further. The partners have now also crafted terms of reference for each of their LOE-focused subgroups, and have prepared programs of work.  

All of you know this history, of course, as you’ve been intimately involved. But I recap it now in order to highlight the importance of the project to which your thoughtful efforts have been devoted.  

There was a time when critics of the Initiative fretted that it might be some kind of disingenuous game: a smokescreen perhaps, an evasion, a distraction, or simply an excuse for inaction. I don’t begrudge those concerns, for new paradigms are often difficult to swallow, and in truth we all know that there are countries who do sometimes offer superficially plausible but fundamentally unserious arms control or disarmament initiatives as diplomatic weapons. Thankfully, the sustained engagement and thoughtful participation of dozens of countries in the CEND Initiative – countries that together are now setting in place a mechanism for beginning CEND’s substantive inquiries – is now making clear how much real potential this forum has. 

From the beginning, CEND has involved an impressive array of participants. Scores of diplomats from 43 countries have taken part, between them representing every facet of humanity’s fraught engagement with nuclear weaponry. We have had participation by nuclear weapons possessors and non-possessors, NPT and non-NPT countries, P5 states and the Non-Aligned, U.S. “nuclear umbrella” alliance partners and signatories of the “Ban” treaty. We have had participants from north and south, east and west, and from both developed and less-developed countries. 

And our lines of inquiry are now clear, with subgroups now poised to begin work on our three very important LOEs:  

  1. What incentives affect countries’ decisions to possess or to eliminate nuclear weapons, and how one might change those incentives?   
  2. What mechanisms can bolster nonproliferation and disarmament, and might help made disarmament more sustainable once it has been achieved? and 
  3. How should we manage and reduce nuclear risks until such point as nuclear weapons are eliminated? 

And so, make no mistake. We are now at a critical threshold: the point of moving from preparing to doing – which is to say, from laying the groundwork for the deep thinking and far-ranging inquiry that the disarmament challenge demands, to actually setting off down that path of thoughtful exploration. This Leadership Group meeting will finalize planning for taking the first steps along that road, and this is exciting stuff indeed. 

No one should have any illusions that answers will be easy to find, or to implement if we find them. One of the few certainties about this topic, I’d wager, is that real-world policy solutions to disarmament’s challenges are likely to be effective in inverse proportion to their apparent simplicity and clarity. We should surely expect any real way forward to be complex, nonlinear, and uncertain – and to involve taking quite a complicated mix of forward, backward, and sideways steps as wise leaders navigate within a difficult and changing international environment.  

But we are also now finally starting at least to ask and to explore answers to the right sorts of questions, and that is an enormous step in the right direction. For all of its difficulties, this journey is thus an exciting one precisely because CEND partner governments now have the potential through this forum to help solve problems that decades’ worth of received wisdom had run itself aground in trying to address. 

This is great stuff, my friends, and you redoubtable members of CEND’s Leadership Group will continue to be central to this progress. Thank you for being a part of this effort, thank you for the work you’ve done, and thank you – in advance – for all your contributions to what I hope we will accomplish together. 

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