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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 11, December 1996

ACDA Director comments at nuclear disarmament seminar

Address by John Holum, Director of the US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, to an international seminar on 'Nuclear Disarmament After the Indefinite Extension of the NPT,' Kyoto, Japan, 2 December 1996


"At last year's NPT Review and Extension Conference, Vice President Gore reaffirmed the United States commitment to the goals of NPT Article VI, including a world without nuclear arms. And this 24 September, after he signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty at the United Nations, President Clinton said the test ban 'points us toward a century in which the roles and risks of nuclear weapons can be further reduced, and ultimately eliminated.'

So let us begin this seminar on 'Nuclear Disarmament after the Indefinite Extension of the NPT' with a clear understanding: we share the same ultimate goal.

What we have not shared, to date, is a common vision of how to get there. So...let me share with you the United States view of the best way for us all to progress toward this common goal.

The starting principle is simply stated. We will achieve nuclear disarmament in the years to come by using the same method that has produced such great strides forward in the past decade: progress in a series of discrete steps by the nuclear-weapon States, each building on its predecessors, and carefully calibrated to the realities of the international security environment at the time.

This premise is based on a reality I consider indisputable: real gains in arms control and disarmament depend not on morality, altruism, or leverage, but on what is possible at a given moment as a matter of security. For this reason, progress is greater and faster when we aim for practical increments rather than great leaps.

This may seem counterintuitive, but it is nonetheless so. It follows because those responsible for their nations' defense inevitably plan conservatively. Because the stakes of guessing wrong are so high, and because the lead times for modern weapon systems are so long, uncertainty leads to more defense, for an extra margin of safety.

As a result, defense planners and the national leaders they serve cannot and will not bet on an undiscernable future.

On the other hand, it is also true that given a leadership commitment to disarmament and to its ultimate goals, the process can proceed rapidly - so long as it is divided into digestible pieces. ... [This can] generate possibilities unimaginable before.

This approach not only makes sense as a matter of logic, it faithfully describes what actually happens in practice.

The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty helped pave the way for START I, which in turn opened the door to START II. Now, just a few years later, nuclear weapons play a smaller role in United States security strategy than ever before. Compared to the mid-1980's, the United States has three-fifths fewer total nuclear warheads deployed - disarmament on a massive scale.

And now a permanent NPT and a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty are yielding a clearer picture of a secure future, in which further nuclear reductions can confidently be pursued.

The CTBT is also a concrete example of how and why disarmament proceeds. We can all recall the suspicions of some that if the NPT were made permanent, the nuclear-weapon States would lose interest in the test ban. That concern was mistaken on two counts - first, because it cast the NPT as a favor to the nuclear-weapon States, rather than a security instrument for all. And second, it assumed that uncertainty about the NPT's future would elicit more disarmament. In fact, confidence about the NPT have fostered further disarmament - and the nuclear-weapon States' efforts for the test ban intensified after the NPT was extended.

The CTBT, in turn, will produce a new reality of its own. And so President Clinton broke new ground at the United Nations in September, in defining the kinds of further steps he envisions when Russia ratifies START II. In October in Moscow, Secretary of Defense Perry forecast that after START II is ratified, we can and should move promptly to negotiate START III, with lower levels.

My own view is that we have not yet fully grasped all the implications of these successes, or moved to seize all the possibilities. Fundamental doctrines rarely change overnight. What is already clear, however, is that the methodical approach that has yielded this progress must not be abandoned - certainly not now, just as step by step has become stride by stride. ...

Supporters of nuclear disarmament thus must take care what they ask for. To demand complete elimination of nuclear arms according to a fixed calendar is to throw sand into the gears of disarmament. It is a formula not for pressing ahead, but for standing still and resuming a sterile argument that leads nowhere. For it challenges not only existing weapons, but an unshakeable premise of defense planning.

Perhaps it should be otherwise, perhaps all should take chances for peace. But I am not arguing what is right or wrong. I am simply stating what is. ...

A related issue is, where should nuclear disarmament be pursued?

I suppose it is not surprising that everyone wants to negotiate about someone else's arms, not their own. Now there is great enthusiasm for the proposition that there should be multilateral negotiations about the nuclear-weapon States' weapons - indeed, that in the world's one true multilateral negotiating body, the Conference on Disarmament, all else should be stalled until such negotiations are accepted.

The old familiar error reappears - the notion that if there is just enough political pressure, arms will disappear at an even more satisfying pace.

As a staunch friend of the CD, let me say that nuclear disarmament there would be an inappropriate forum taking up an unamenable subject. It is no act of friendship to elevate expectations for a forum far beyond its capacities. Climbing down from Cold War peaks of nuclear weapons has been an intricate process, involving careful bilateral trade-offs, specialized verification, and a constant and shifting menu of sensitive national security calculations. There is no realistic prospect that the CD could manage such an effort. And given the CD's recent history, I must ask as well, do we really want to make all further nuclear disarmament progress subject to the CD's rule of consensus?

But, we're told, the CD would not negotiate the treaties, but merely ventilate the issues - and tell the nuclear-weapon States how to proceed. Well, the CD is a negotiating body. As to further NWS nuclear disarmament, if it is a negotiation, the CD is ill-suited to do it; on the other hand, if it's not a negotiation, we should not water down the CD mission.

Last year's NPT conference itself recognized the practical realities. The program of action declares that the test ban and the fissile cutoff should be completed by the Conference on Disarmament. But it says efforts to reduce nuclear weapons should be pursued 'by the nuclear-weapon States.' Those are the right assignments.

This emphatically is not an assertion that nuclear disarmament is the business only of the nuclear-weapon States. On the contrary, there is ample room for careful thought and constructive opinion by others about how disarmament should proceed.

The Canberra Commission, the Stimson Center and Atlantic Council reports and others reflect careful, useful thinking about nuclear disarmament. In Geneva, a number of nonaligned countries have outlined their view on the elements of further disarmament, which we have also examined carefully.

The NPT review conferences are the paramount official international venue at which the five nuclear-weapon States are specifically answerable for their progress in nuclear disarmament. This is for good reason: Article VI of the NPT expresses in treaty text the nuclear-weapon States' obligation to pursue nuclear disarmament.

And, of course, we are routinely called to account elsewhere, including the United Nations First Committee, in the CTBT review conferences once that Treaty is legally effective, and in numerous unofficial conferences and for, like this one. ...

The NPT's Article VI has it exactly right: it places nuclear disarmament unmistakably in the larger disarmament context. And it imposes this broader obligation not on the nuclear-weapon States alone, but on all States Parties. For it is simply a fact that to sustain today's trend of steep nuclear reductions, the world must sustain and strengthen a powerful nonproliferation regime.

For these reasons, efforts to treat the NPT review process as a single-minded referendum on the nuclear-weapon States' progress in nuclear disarmament are not well-conceived.

The United States supports implementation of last year's NPT decisions. We are treating the PrepCom meetings as both substantive and procedural. But we must remember that just as the focus of Article VI is far broader than the nuclear-weapon States' obligation to pursue nuclear disarmament, so the NPT is far broader than Article VI. Hence, we should work to ensure that both the PrepCom process and Treaty Review are balanced, and treat all aspects of the NPT with equal thoroughness. ...

International efforts to rid the world of chemical and biological weapons are also parts of the broader disarmament context in which Article VI places nuclear disarmament. Even the International Court of Justice advisory opinion on nuclear weapons refers to 'weapons of mass destruction of every type.' The fact is that chemical and biological weapons inevitably affect security calculations in regions of tension.

The United States will play an active role in the ongoing efforts to bring the Chemical Weapons Convention into force as soon as possible and to strengthen compliance with the Biological Weapons Convention.

Regional efforts are enhancing the environment for nuclear disarmament in a variety of ways - the most obvious being nuclear-weapon-free zones. Already, half the world's land area is nuclear free by international agreement. The United States and other nuclear-weapon States have embraced the South Pacific and African Nuclear Free Zones. And the United States continues to hope the Southeast Asia Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone Treaty can be brought into conformity with our long-standing criteria for supporting such zones.

All these arms control, disarmament and nonproliferation priorities obviously stand on their own merits. But what I want to stress here is their direct and unbreakable bearing on the goal of eliminating nuclear arms.

Making speeches, writing reports, passing resolutions, haranguing diplomats and officials - these are all familiar ways to press nuclear disarmament. But there are other, much more effective ways to effectuate it. All those whose leadership and dedication extended the NPT - all those who joined in achieving the comprehensive test ban, and who now seek its entry into force - those who labor diligently in Vienna to strengthen nuclear safeguards - the experts in many countries who work to strengthen verification technologies for all weapons of mass destruction - those who after 20 long years finally achieved the Chemical Weapons Convention, and are determined to bring it into force with the United States and Russia as original members - our representatives in Geneva who will find a way to make the biological weapons convention more enforceable - everyone who seeks in the regional setting to advance security in ways other than arms - all of these are not just talking about but actually achieving nuclear disarmament, because they are building the security environment in which it can happen.

And I must also say that all those who seek on whatever grounds to impede or derail this vital work, no matter how loudly and often they insist that nuclear disarmament must go faster, are among nuclear weapons' dearest friends. ...

True friends of disarmament will succeed not by shouting demands, but contributing ideas; not by legislating abstract programs and timetables, but bending to the task, in Geneva and Vienna and New York and every other venue where the hard daily work of arms control is done; by reducing tensions as well as armaments in their regions; in short by removing, one by one, every last impediment to the elimination of nuclear arms. ..."

© 1999 The Acronym Institute.

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