By John Erath
Earlier this month, the Center held its Annual Conference on the theme “Arms Control in a Divided America.” One of the distinguished speakers was Ambassador Susan Burk, who spoke of the advantages of bipartisanship she observed over a long career of government service. Ambassador Burk noted that much of her work was in the traditionally bipartisan area of nuclear non-proliferation and observed that there are possibilities to rebuild a consensus within the U.S. government in this regard. After all, everyone, whether Democrat, Republican or independent, would agree that the country, and the world, would be less secure if more countries are building nuclear weapons — and more secure if fewer actors are doing so. Amid frequent concerns that arms control has lost momentum or is undermined by domestic politics, we may have lost sight of the non-proliferation side of the issue, and that is a mistake.
If we are to be serious about effective and verifiable arms control, future agreements need to be built on a foundation of functioning non-proliferation measures. After all, it becomes increasingly difficult to make the case for reducing any country’s nuclear arsenal when others are building new weapons, and threatening their use. Were there to be agreement between the United States and Russia (and China) to eliminate substantial numbers of weapons, it would be nearly impossible to ratify in the U.S. Senate if Iran and much of the Middle East were weaponizing as rapidly as possible. When one considers the damage to the credibility of arms control done by Russian cheating on the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) and Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaties, and recent news about exotic new Russian weapons or Chinese missile silos, there seems be cause for pessimism.
This would ignore both the achievements and potential of non-proliferation. Although decidedly less glamorous than arms control, halting the spread of dangerous technologies remains necessary. Even during periods of heightened tension, cooperation with Russia continued in this area, albeit not without disagreements. When the Treaty on Non-proliferation (NPT) was negotiated in the 1960s, many experts were predicting twenty or more nuclear powers by the end of the century. Instead, there are nine today in large part due to the international norm of non-proliferation established by the NPT and the international non-proliferation regime. The successes of the regime include South Africa that gave up its nuclear weapons; Brazil and Argentina that abandoned their nuclear weapon ambitions; and Ukraine and other former Soviet states that agreed to join the NPT as Non-Nuclear Weapon State parties after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Other non-proliferation initiatives, such as the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Act and the export control regimes have played important roles in mitigating threats. In the absence of effective curbs on proliferation, it would be difficult to imagine reductions in numbers of nuclear weapons.
If, then, non-proliferation is a complement to effective arms control, what are the most promising areas for limiting the diffusion of nuclear and other dangerous technologies? There are several paths the U.S. government could follow.
- The most significant non-proliferation measure that could be taken in the short term would be a Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty (FMCT) that, as the name would indicate, ban any further production of the necessary bases for nuclear weapons. A verifiable FMCT would set a hard cap on the numbers of nuclear weapons that could exist and give nuclear weapons states confidence to discuss real reductions. The FMCT has been under discussion for years but progress has been blocked by Pakistan, backed by China, presumably while building up stockpiles. Successive U.S. administrations have taken a passive approach while nothing has happened. In the meantime, some governments have prioritized aspirational measures, such as the TPNW over this necessary and concrete step.
- Those states, including the United States, that have not ratified the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) should do so. The ATT has been blocked in the United States by domestic politics based on inaccurate concerns that it could impact gun rights. In fact, existing U.S. regulations already substantially exceed ATT requirements, and U.S. ratification would put pressure on Russia and others to follow suit. Implementation of export controls, such as mandated by ATT would give governments tools to stop transfers of destabilizing weapons and technologies.
- The United States should also ratify the remaining Nuclear Weapons Free Zone (NWFZ) treaties. When the United States ratified the two Protocols to the Treaty of Tlatelolco in 1971 and 1981, respectively, it had determined that it could meet its own security requirements and those of its allies while complying. The United States has signed the relevant protocols to three other NWFZ treaties covering Africa, the South Pacific and Central Asia, but has not yet ratified them. Doing so would not undermine U.S. security or our commitments to allies. It would provide meaningful assurance to non-nuclear states that their regions will remain nuclear free.
Part of getting non-proliferation right will be managing the greatest current proliferation challenge: Iran. Were a regime that has shown no hesitation using terrorism as an instrument of state policy to acquire nuclear weapons, the result would be catastrophic. Many of Iran’s neighbors might consider developing their own deterrents in response. The 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) paused, but did not halt Iran’s nuclear program. Despite its shortcomings, Iran was farther from developing weapons, when the JCPOA was in effect, so it is in everyone’s interest to resume compliance. It is often lost in the debate over the JCPOA’s effectiveness that the Plan contained an intrusive verification regime that could set an example for how to build confidence that arrangements to limit proliferation could work. The JCPOA cannot by itself resolve the proliferation challenge Iran presents — treating it as though it did was part of what built frustration with it — but reviving the JCPOA, and its verification provisions, represents the best available way forward. It should be followed upon with other measures to encourage better Iranian behavior, but reestablishing compliance will be the first step.