Global Security: Non-Proliferation - Foreign Affairs Committee Contents

 Submission from James M. Acton[190], Associate, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

  1.  On 25 June 2007, at the Carnegie International Nonproliferation Conference in Washington DC, the then Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett launched a new disarmament initiative.[191] Her speech followed a January 2007 article in the Wall Street Journal by George P. Shultz, William J. Perry, Henry A. Kissinger and Sam Nunn which called for practical progress toward a world free of nuclear weapons.[192] Their call has been echoed by the Presidents of France and India, as well as four internationally-respected British statesmen, Douglas Hurd, Malcolm Rifkind, David Owen and George Robertson, who, between them, represent all of the three main UK political parties.[193]

  2.  Most of these initiatives were motivated by the belief that without serious and sustained progress toward disarmament the existing non-proliferation regime is unsustainable. The purpose of this memorandum is to assess the prospects for the UK initiative enhancing the non-proliferation regime and identify ways in which its chances of success can be increased.


  3.  The non-proliferation regime has functioned remarkably effectively so far to curtail proliferation. Since the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) was concluded in 1968, just one state that was a party to the treaty, North Korea, has acquired nuclear weapons. Nonetheless, recent cases of non-compliance, most notably North Korea and Iran, and—just as importantly—the failure of the international community to deal with them robustly have highlighted the need to strengthen the regime.

  4.  This need is made all the more urgent by the prospect of the so-called nuclear renaissance. With increased concern about global warming, fading memories of the Chernobyl accident, and a general trend of rising fossil fuel prices, many states have recently expressed interest in nuclear energy. From February 2006 to January 2007, for instance, at least 13 states in the Middle East alone announced an interest in acquiring nuclear power reactors.[194] For a number of these states, nuclear power also serves as a strategic hedge. If new robust rules to prevent proliferation are not agreed and implemented, it is likely that the nuclear renaissance will be accompanied by further proliferation.

  5.  Broadly, desirable non-proliferation measures fall into three categories:

    a. Physical barriers to proliferation, namely preventing any further spread of enrichment or reprocessing facilities (also known as fuel cycle facilities), which are used in the manufacture of fuel for both nuclear reactors and nuclear weapons;

    b. Political barriers, such as tougher sanctions for non-compliant states and tightening (or at least clarifying) the conditions under which a state is permitted to withdraw from the NPT;

    c. Technical barriers, such as universalizing the Additional Protocol (a legal instrument that gives the International Atomic Energy Agency greater authority) and agreeing further enhancements to the safeguards system.

  6.  Realising any of these objectives will require the cooperation of key non-nuclear weapon states. Many of these states do not regard non-proliferation as a priority. Moreover, they view the non-proliferation measures outlined above as being a burden. Many, for instance, complain (rightly or wrongly) that their nuclear industries are put at a competitive disadvantage by the imposition of IAEA safeguards that are generally not applied on corresponding facilities in nuclear weapon states.

  7.  More fundamentally, many non-nuclear weapon states argue that they have an absolute right to acquire any type of fuel cycle facility, whether or not it is economically viable. In consequence, the states that wish to prevent the spread of fuel cycle facilities have stopped talking about new legal restrictions and have instead sought to create a system of fuel supply assurances in an attempt to make it economically attractive for others to rely on the international market for the provision of nuclear fuel. Nonetheless even this more nuanced approach is still viewed with deep suspicion by many non-nuclear weapon states.

  8.  There is no doubt that much greater efforts can and should be made to persuade key non-nuclear weapons states to support enhanced non-proliferation measures. Yet, it seems unlikely that any degree of persuasion, by itself, could be sufficient to overcome the current antipathy toward enhancing the non-proliferation regime.[195]

Can disarmament be traded for non-proliferation?

  9.  Many non-nuclear weapon states have publicly stated that were the weapon states to make greater progress toward disarmament, they would be more amenable to strengthening the non-proliferation regime.[196] Doubtless, some of these states have little intention of fulfilling it. Nevertheless, there are, on balance, good reasons to believe that a policy of trading disarmament for non-proliferation will be successful. Before outlining the reasons for this, two points of clarification are in order.

  10.  First, this author does not claim that were the nuclear weapons states to disarm, others, like North Korea or Iran, that possess or are looking to acquire nuclear weapons would abandon those weapons or eliminate nascent programmes. Non-proliferation, however, ought to be about more than crisis management. The vast majority of states is not currently seeking nuclear weapons and is in good standing with its non-proliferation commitments. If, in return for greater progress toward disarmament, these states were to agree to tougher non-proliferation rules today, they may be deterred from proliferating tomorrow. It is in this way that disarmament could have a key role to play in strengthening the non-proliferation regime.

  11.  The second point of clarification is that "greater progress toward disarmament" does not mean the immediate or unilateral elimination of nuclear weapons. It does, however, mean more than just paying lip service to disarmament commitments and working in good faith and on a multilateral basis toward a world free of nuclear weapons.

  12.  For many states, such as Argentina, Brazil, and South Africa, the lack of progress by the nuclear weapon states toward disarmament appears to be a genuine grievance. Such states point to the bargain enshrined in the NPT under which they agreed not to develop nuclear weapons (article II) in return for eventual disarmament (article VI) and assistance with the development of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes (article IV). Those states abandoned nuclear weapons programmes—and in the case of South Africa actual nuclear weapons—and with them the political currency that is (unfortunately) accorded to nuclear-armed states. They feel that their decision to abandon their military nuclear programmes and join the NPT lost them power and influence and hence they genuinely value the disarmament they were promised as a means of promoting equity. It is hard to imagine the non-proliferation regime being sustainable over the long term without such equity.[197]

  13.  This argument does not hinge on any legal nexus between non-proliferation and disarmament.[198] Non-nuclear weapon states, for instance, must accept a safeguards agreement with the IAEA regardless of progress toward disarmament; conversely, in a world free from nuclear weapons they would be under no obligation to accept the Additional Protocol, say. This misses the point, however, as does the argument, sometimes deployed, that article VI of the NPT actually requires something short of the eventual abolition of nuclear weapons.[199] The argument made by the non-nuclear weapon states is political, not legal. The NPT would not have been concluded in 1968 without a commitment to disarm. Even more importantly, it would not have been indefinitely extended in 1995 without that commitment being reaffirmed. Many non-nuclear weapon states argue, therefore, that it is unreasonable to expect them to accept additional obligations until the nuclear weapon states have made more progress toward fulfilling their basic undertakings.

  14.  The sense of grievance felt by some non-nuclear weapon states also explains their extreme antipathy to any measures to restrict the spread of fuel cycle facilities.[200] Argentina, Brazil and South Africa have all retained or restarted their enrichment programmes. These programmes are a source of "nuclear currency", partly in the sense that they provide a strategic hedge but mostly because they are a source of international prestige and national pride. Other states are considering acquiring fuel cycle facilities for similar reasons. Making the global nuclear order more equitable through disarmament is a necessary (but probably not sufficient) condition for states to agree new rules to prevent the spread of enrichment and reprocessing technology, or, at least, to choose not to acquire them.

  15.  Just as there appear to be some states for which the lack of progress toward the fulfillment of article VI is a genuine grievance, there are surely others for which it is a convenient excuse for not supporting tougher non-proliferation rules. Yet, even these states might be swayed into accepting enhanced non-proliferation measures in return for disarmament. States that have repeatedly and publicly demanded progress toward a nuclear weapon free world before accepting enhanced non-proliferation measures will find themselves in a very awkward position if the nuclear weapon states do indeed make serious and sustained progress on disarmament. Either they will have to acquiesce to further non-proliferation measures (the preferable outcome) or permit their insincerity to become apparent (a useful outcome for nuclear weapon states as it would strengthen their hand at NPT Review Conferences and in other foray). In the words of one British diplomat, a policy of disarmament "reduces the political space for states to proliferate."

  16.  It would be a mistake to think that negotiating a new disarmament for non-proliferation bargain will be easy. At the 2000 NPT Review Conference the nuclear weapon states agreed to a set of benchmarks for disarmament, known as the 13 Steps. Not only has very limited progress been made on implementing them, but France and the United States (tacitly supported by Russia and China) have effectively renounced the agreement.[201] As recent research by Deepti Choubey has demonstrated, the nuclear weapon states now have a substantial credibility deficit and many non-nuclear weapon states are unwilling to (re)negotiate a formal bargain until they have seen proof of the nuclear weapon states' good faith.[202]

  17.  Demonstrating this good faith in time for the 2010 Review Conference will be a significant challenge (not least because of the short period of time a new US administration will have in office before the conference). For this reason, it would be wrong to judge the feasibility of negotiating a disarmament for non-proliferation quid pro quo by whether the 2010 Review Conference adopts a final document. Although, this is a worthy goal, the agreement of a final document does not necessarily equate with success at strengthening the regime. The 2000 Review Conference, for instance, did adopt a final document but the decision by France and the United States to distance themselves from the undertakings contained therein did great damage to the regime. Conversely, if the 2010 NPT Review Conference does not adopt a final document but involves substantive and productive discussions that start to reconcile interests and map out the path to a more sustainable non-proliferation regime, it should be judged a qualified success. (Moreover, as decisions must be taken by consensus, a single spoiler is enough to prevent the adoption of a final document.)


  18.  France seems to have been directly influenced by the UK initiative. Although, in private, French officials express deep skepticism about the wisdom of a renewed public commitment to work toward disarmament, President Sarkozy gave a speech on 21 March 2008 that was unprecedented for a French leader in his support for the eventual abolition of nuclear weapons.[203] It appears the French government has come to the conclusion that it would be politically embarrassing not to support, at least rhetorically, the elimination of nuclear weapons (although whether France will play a constructive practical role remains to be seen).

  19.  The Bush administration is also skeptical of the UK initiative. Although it has made more of a public diplomacy effort recently, unlike the French government, it has not committed itself to working practically toward a world free from nuclear weapons. However, both Senator Obama and Senator McCain have endorsed this goal and many expect renewed leadership from the US in this area after the election.[204]

  20.  In private, both Russian and Chinese officials and analysts express deep concern that disarmament will actually enhance US power relative to their own. Nevertheless, if a new US administration does shows leadership on disarmament, it will be very hard for Russia or China not to give it, at least, rhetorical support. Although neither state has made as much progress toward disarmament as the US, it is very convenient for them that the US currently draws the majority of criticism from non-nuclear weapon states. They are likely to publicly endorse disarmament efforts to avoid criticism being directed toward them. Given their concerns about disarmament, however, they are almost certain to be much less constructive in discussions and negotiations over practical issues.


  21.  The United Kingdom's initiative has generally been well received by non-nuclear weapon states. Simply by talking openly about the eventual abolition of nuclear weapons, the UK has earned itself credit and established a position of leadership. For instance, at a major disarmament conference earlier this year in Oslo, almost every speaker in the opening session acknowledged UK leadership in this area. Nevertheless, many key non-nuclear weapon states have taken a "wait and see" position and express some skepticism that the UK initiative will actually result in concrete progress.

  22.  There has been some criticism by these states that the UK initiative is heavily focused on process rather than action. Three out of four components of the UK initiative (commissioning a study on the challenges of abolishing nuclear weapons, developing verification technology in collaboration with Norway, and initiating a conference on verification technology with the national laboratories of other nuclear weapon states) are indeed focused on process; whereas just one (promoting confidence building measures between the nuclear weapon states) aims to produce concrete action directly. Progress on this final component, in spite of government officials' best efforts, has been slow.

  23.  In one respect, this criticism is rather unfair since the abolition of nuclear weapons will certainly not occur without establishing processes to map out challenges and develop verification technology. Nevertheless, the perception that the UK is concentrating on process to avoid making more concrete progress could undermine UK leadership.

  24.  The UK should combat this perception by making further incremental, but meaningful steps toward disarmament. It could, for instance, commit to demonstrating, at the earliest opportunity, the verification technology it is currently developing by inviting international inspectors to verify the dismantlement of some or all of the warheads the UK recently committed to remove from its arsenal. Even with greater funding and effort, it will require further research and development before prototype technology is ready, but that should not stop the UK from committing now to use the technology as and when it is ready. Providing no classified information was divulged to uncleared personnel, it would not matter if the technology was not perfect in the first instance. The very act of permitting the verification of warheads would set an important precedent. Moreover, the lessons learned would certainly be useful for further research and development.

  25.  There are other steps the UK could take to indicate its seriousness of purpose. In broad terms it should factor the security benefits of working toward disarmament into decisions about the future of its nuclear weapons much more than it has done in the past. This consideration will be relevant when determining, for instance, the number and armament of a future SSBN class.

  26.  Changing UK nuclear doctrine provides another area in which to demonstrate leadership. Many non-nuclear weapon states see changes to doctrine as a better indicator of commitment to disarmament than simple reductions in the size of an arsenal. In this regard, the United Kingdom should consider restricting and clarifying the circumstances in which it would utilize nuclear weapons, as well as rethinking the necessity of continuous-at-sea deterrence.


  27.  Although there is much the United Kingdom could do in practical terms, while retaining nuclear weapons, to demonstrate that its reliance upon them is not permanent, it would be naïve to suppose that UK actions, by themselves, will be sufficient to induce key non-nuclear weapon states to accept more robust non-proliferation rules. Realistically, the key to strengthening the regime will be a renewed commitment to disarm by the United States and Russia, which between them posses over 90% of the nuclear weapons in the world.[205]

  28.  Given the state of UK-Russian relations, there appears little that the United Kingdom could do to persuade Russia of the importance of making progress on disarmament. In contrast, the UK has much more influence with the United States and should use this influence to encourage the US to adopt more progressive disarmament policies.[206] A programme of engagement with the United States must be well targeted, however. For instance, ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty is probably the single most important step toward disarmament the US could take. However, the barrier to ratification is the politics of the US Senate. Any attempt by the UK to "interfere" with this process could well be counterproductive. Instead, the UK should focus on engaging on aspects of disarmament policy that are primarily controlled by the executive branch. For it to be effective, such diplomacy must be high level.

  29.  Most importantly, the UK should impress upon the US the importance of effective public diplomacy. The UK has earned itself considerable credit by invariably mentioning its commitment to article VI of the NPT in any government document on nuclear weapons. In contrast, documents produced by the US Departments of Defence and Energy rarely mention disarmament. Although these documents are intended for a domestic audience, they are carefully scrutinized by other states and undermine claims made by the US at NPT conferences about its disarmament credentials. The US could do much to convince states about its record on disarmament by raising the subject more domestically.

  30.  If they are not already occurring, the United States also needs to begin serious, high-level but very quiet consultations with key non-nuclear weapon states to determine whether a non-proliferation for disarmament agreement might possible in future. The UK should encourage the US to enter into such a dialogue and could even potentially facilitate discussions.

  31.  Finally, the United States' nuclear doctrine and the structure and composition of its nuclear forces are primarily determined by the President. Again, there is room here for the UK to encourage the US to reduce its nuclear arsenal and moderate its nuclear doctrine. Indeed, a joint UK-US statement on nuclear doctrine could be a potentially significant step.


  32.  Although, it is, of course, impossible to prove that a disarmament for non-proliferation quid pro quo is achievable, there are good reasons for optimism. Crucially, progress in disarmament may induce the vast majority of states—those that are in compliance with their non-proliferation obligations—to support the urgent strengthening of the non-proliferation rules that will be required if further proliferation is to be prevented (even if it would not result in states that have already made the decision to acquire nuclear weapons changing their minds). The costs of such a policy are small, in the first instance, and the potential gains considerable. Moreover, it appears that there is increasing political will to try it. Both US Presidential candidates have endorsed the vision of a world free of nuclear weapons, as has the French government (albeit more reluctantly).

  33.  The crucial question is, therefore, what can be done to increase the chances of success. Although the United Kingdom's disarmament initiative has been generally well received, some states have expressed skepticism about whether it will actually lead to concrete progress toward the abolition of nuclear weapons. The United Kingdom should, therefore, take practical action to demonstrate its commitment to disarmament and further enhance the credibility of its leadership. Potential steps include a commitment to use the verification technology currently being developed and modifying UK nuclear doctrine. Nevertheless, the single most important role the UK can play is to engage with the US and argue the case for renewed US leadership.

19 October 2008

190   Dr Acton is currently an associate in the Nonproliferation Program of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and is co-author of the recent Adelphi Paper, Abolishing Nuclear Weapons. A physicist by training, Acton has worked previously in the Department of War Studies in King's College London and the Verification Research, Training and Information Centre (VERTIC), where he was involved in the UK-Norway initiative to develop technology for verifying disarmament. Back

191   Margaret Beckett, "Keynote Address: A World Free of Nuclear Weapons?", Carnegie International Nonproliferation Conference, Washington DC, 25 June 2007, 

192   George P. Shultz, William J. Perry, Henry A. Kissinger and Sam Nunn, "A World Free of Nuclear Weapons", Wall Street Journal, 4 January 2007, p. A15; George P. Shultz, William J. Perry, Henry A. Kissinger and Sam Nunn, "Toward a Nuclear-Free World", Wall Street Journal, 15 January 2008, Back

193   Douglas Hurd, Malcolm Rifkind, David Owen and George Robertson, "Start Worrying and Learn to Ditch the Bomb", The Times, 30 June 2008,; Manmohan Singh, speech to "Towards a World Free of Nuclear Weapons" conference, New Delhi, 9 June 2008,; Nicolas Sarkozy, "Presentation of SSBM [sic] Le Terrible", Cherbourg, 21 March 2008,,10430.html. Back

194   International Institute of Strategic Studies, Nuclear Programmes in the Middle East: In the Shadow of Iran, Strategic Dossier (London: IISS, 2008), p. 7. Back

195   For a survey of states' views on the subjects of disarmament and non-proliferation that demonstrates the extent of the divide between nuclear weapon states' and non-nuclear weapon states' perceptions see Deepti Choubey, "Are New Nuclear Bargains Attainable?", Carnegie Report, October 2008, Back

196   See, for instance, statement by Ahmed Fathalla to the 2005 NPT Review Conference, New York, 3 May 2005, Back

197   For a more detailed exploration of this argument see William Walker, "Nuclear Enlightenment and Counter-Enlightenment", International Affairs, vol. 83, no. 3, May 2007, pp. 431-53; and George Perkovich, "Principles for Reforming the Nuclear Order", Proliferation Papers, no. 22, Fall 2008, 

198   James M. Acton, "Strengthening Safeguards and Nuclear Disarmament: Is There a Connection?", The Nonproliferation Review, vol. 14, no. 3, November 2007, pp. 525-35. Back

199   Christopher A. Ford, "Debating Disarmament: Interpreting Article VI of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons", The Nonproliferation Review, vol. 14, no. 3, November 2007, pp. 401-28, 

200   George Perkovich, speech to "The Crisis in Nonproliferation: Meeting the Challenge" conference, American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, Washington DC, 8 April 2008,,eventID.1703/transcript.asp. 

201   Rebecca Johnson, "Is the NPT up to the Challenge of Proliferation?", Disarmament Forum, no. 4, 2004, pp. 9-19, Back

202   Choubey, "Are New Nuclear Bargains Attainable?". Back

203   Sarkozy, "Presentation of SSBM [sic] Le Terrible". Back

204   Barack Obama, "A New Beginning", Chicago, IL, 2 October 2007,, John McCain, "Nuclear Security", Arlington, VA, 27 May 2008, 

205   SIPRI Yearbook 2008: Armaments, Disarmament and International Security, (Oxford: Oxford University Press for SIPRI, 2008), Table 8A.1. Back

206   For a detailed survey of "next steps" on the way to a nuclear weapon free world see George Perkovich and James M. Acton, Abolishing Nuclear Weapons, Adelphi Paper 396 (Abingdon: Routledge for the IISS, 2008), Chapter 1. Back

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