Submission from James M. Acton,
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
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.
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.
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, andjust as importantlythe
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
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
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
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
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 programmesand in
the case of South Africa actual nuclear weaponsand 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.
13. This argument does not hinge on any
legal nexus between non-proliferation and disarmament.
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.
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.
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
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'
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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 statesthose
that are in compliance with their non-proliferation obligationsto
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
Margaret Beckett, "Keynote Address: A World Free of Nuclear
Weapons?", Carnegie International Nonproliferation Conference,
Washington DC, 25 June 2007,
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,
Douglas Hurd, Malcolm Rifkind, David Owen and George Robertson,
"Start Worrying and Learn to Ditch the Bomb", The
Times, 30 June 2008, http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/columnists/guest_contributors/article4237387.ece;
Manmohan Singh, speech to "Towards a World Free of Nuclear
Weapons" conference, New Delhi, 9 June 2008, http://pmindia.nic.in/lspeech.asp?id=688;
Nicolas Sarkozy, "Presentation of SSBM [sic] Le Terrible",
Cherbourg, 21 March 2008, http://www.ambafrance-uk.org/President-Sarkozy-s-speech-at,10430.html. Back
International Institute of Strategic Studies, Nuclear Programmes
in the Middle East: In the Shadow of Iran, Strategic Dossier
(London: IISS, 2008), p. 7. Back
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, http://www.carnegieendowment.org/files/new_nuclear_bargains.pdf. Back
See, for instance, statement by Ahmed Fathalla to the 2005 NPT
Review Conference, New York, 3 May 2005, www.un.org/events/npt2005/statements/npt03egypt.pdf. Back
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,
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
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,
George Perkovich, speech to "The Crisis in Nonproliferation:
Meeting the Challenge" conference, American Enterprise Institute
for Public Policy Research, Washington DC, 8 April 2008,
Rebecca Johnson, "Is the NPT up to the Challenge of Proliferation?",
Disarmament Forum, no. 4, 2004, pp. 9-19, Back
Choubey, "Are New Nuclear Bargains Attainable?". Back
Sarkozy, "Presentation of SSBM [sic] Le Terrible". Back
Barack Obama, "A New Beginning", Chicago, IL, 2 October
John McCain, "Nuclear Security", Arlington, VA, 27 May
SIPRI Yearbook 2008: Armaments, Disarmament and International
Security, (Oxford: Oxford University Press for SIPRI, 2008),
Table 8A.1. Back
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