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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 77, May/June 2004

Incorporating Environmental Considerations into Arms Control

Alexander H. Joffe


In the wake of the Cold War, increasing attention has become focused on the environmental consequences of WMD production. As part of the overall reduction of strategic forces the United States and the Former Soviet Union (FSU) began to address, in quite different ways, the various environmental problems created by decades of manufacturing, storing, and testing chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons. For a variety of reasons, however, environmental considerations have not yet been incorporated into arms control thinking.

In December 2003, the UN General Assembly considered the First Committee (Disarmament and International Security) resolution on "Observance of Environmental Norms in the Drafting and Implementation of Agreements on Disarmament and Arms Control", now in its ninth year. The United States was the sole country to vote against, whilst Britain, France, Israel and Micronesia abstained. The negative vote signalled a hardening of Washington's position from previous years when, though expressing scepticism about the resolution's approach, the United States had abstained.1

The prospects for lessening US opposition to explicitly linking environmental issues and arms control are presently minimal. The upcoming election is unlikely to change this, even given the explicit concerns of both the Bush administration and Kerry campaign regarding the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Part of the problem is the highly sceptical stance taken by the Bush administration with respect to arms control agreements and international enforcement generally. Another part, however, lies in the inherent weaknesses of existing arms control regimes and procedures, and the fact that the arms control community has failed to make a convincing case for this linkage.

A strong case can and should be made that the environmental consequences of WMD production, particularly nuclear, form an important dimension for future arms control, particularly given growing concerns regarding radiological weapons, the so-called 'dirty bombs'. Nuclear wastes and by-products should be treated as part of the larger fuel cycle, which itself needs more institutional oversight within arms control agreements. Similar, although more technically complex, linkages can also be made for chemical and biological weapons production.

Politics in the Present and the Short Term

In contrast with the past 50 years, the presidency of George W. Bush has given the appearance of diverting sharply from previous trends in arms control. The rhetorical place of arms control within American policy has been much reduced and a variety of unilateral steps taken, including continued construction of the Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) system, following withdrawal from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. Existing multilateral institutions and agreements have similarly been deemphasised.2 Bilateral agreements, such as the 2002 Strategic Offensive Reductions (Moscow) Treaty and the successful efforts to remove highly enriched uranium from Bulgaria in December 2003 have been made the centrepiece, while new multilateral arrangements have been constructed around the principle of counterproliferation, of which the Proliferation Security and Global Threat Reduction Initiatives are a prime example.3

The rationale behind the Bush administration's efforts stems from the belief that existing multilateral regimes and institutions are inadequate to cope with WMD threats from emerging state actors and terrorist groups, and these constrain American flexibility to address new problems.4 The record of this administration is mixed. On the one hand, problems such as North Korea have not been resolved, largely due to the intractable Kim Jong Il regime and unwillingness of China to exert pressure on its erstwhile ally.5 On the other hand, the successful US-UK negotiations to disarm Libya have made it possible to unravel the Pakistani, Iranian, and North Korean proliferation sources in a more public manner.6 In contrast, and as if to confirm the Bush administration's scepticism, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and European Union (EU) have continued to be dragged along by Iran's delays and lies. The obvious fears on the part of Europe are that direct condemnation will bring an end to the semblance of Iranian cooperation and - possibly - economic opportunities. IAEA condemnation of Iran is still insufficient, and there still appears virtually no chance of international sanctions.7

Armed intervention was of course undertaken in Iraq, justified in terms of fears that WMD production had been revived by Saddam Hussein's regime, and that these weapons posed a threat to the United States, both directly and through terrorist intermediaries. Now critics of the Bush administration cite the apparent lack of WMD stockpiles in Iraq as evidence that aggressive counterproliferation is a failure. Blame for the lack of progress on other fronts is often understood as a result of either American interference (as with Iran) or lack of engagement (as with North Korea).

Despite the success of the American-designed arms control system from the 1960s onwards,8 the Bush administration is convinced that existing arms control regimes and institutions are inadequate. Having demonstrated its independence from an international system that increasingly seems explicitly designed to limit American flexibility, even as it depends absolutely on American leadership, military protection and financial support, a second Bush administration could consider being more conciliatory in arms control negotiations. In this line of reasoning, the administration has both exposed the need for American leadership, and explored the limits of unilateral action. For their part, European disunity on most issues, including foreign affairs, the lack of meaningful indigenous defence capabilities, and escalating threats from terrorism and WMD, indicate strongly the need for greater coordination with the United States.

The strategic considerations, however, are not always primary. For example, European states and populations are currently unprepared for the practical and, frankly, psychological consequences of a Bush victory in the November elections. This alone could set back arms control and other multilateral projects. Moreover, a victory by Senator John Kerry, however satisfying it might be for Europe, is unlikely to produce significant changes in US policy in the short term.

Kerry, whose prescriptions for security cooperation are already largely in place, has frequently voiced dismay with the unilateral aspects of American foreign policy under Bush, but in fact their differences are in tone rather than substance.9 A Kerry administration might be willing to participate more intensively in the traditional international forums that European states in particular value so highly.

These will not necessarily produce results, especially when they entail implicit or explicit challenges to American political and economic needs. But on matters of substance any American administration will find its flexibility limited and its responsibilities looming large. Kerry will be unable to simply cut and run from Iraq, for reasons of domestic politics and international credibility. And if he does not already know it, Kerry will also quickly realise that the UN, NATO, or any other international forces lack both the will and the capability to offer meaningful help policing Iraq. This realisation, along with an increasingly vast cultural divide between the United States and post-national and increasingly pacifist Europe,10 will not enhance any new administration's desire to conciliate on arms control.

These inevitable political developments must be coupled with other factors, not least the conceptual division of all thought regarding international relations, including arms control, into pre- and post-9/11 phases. To this must be added other factors, such as increasing American public distrust of the United Nations as an institution, generated by the exposure of massive corruption in the pre-war Iraqi Oil for Food Program, the IAEA's failures with Iran, and the utter lack of engagement with genocide in the Sudan. The political impact of 'Generation-X' and 'Generation-Y' (born post ca. 1960 and 1980, respectively), whose attitudes are often socially liberal but politically conservative (sometimes called 'South Park Republicans'), with strong disdain for 'political correctness,' must also be taken into account.11

Young Americans are, in significant numbers, highly patriotic; that is, they believe in the national project and its ideals, a fact that produces bewilderment and bemusement among many Europeans. They may, in fact, be more inclined to use force to solve dangerous problems than their baby boomer parents and grandparents. All of these factors and more must be taken into account when contemplating the place of environmental issues in arms control in the early 21st Century.

Designing a Successful Approach

A successful approach to incorporating environmental concerns into arms control thinking must be predicated on several basic ideas, revolving around practicality, logic, and modesty. These are critical not simply for convincing the American public and policymakers, but for an enduring and revitalised 21st Century arms control system.

1. Any successful approach must be constructed first at the bilateral level. Whatever the case for sweeping multilateral agreements, even at their best they are slow to construct, ratify, implement, and verify. The recent experience of bilateral agreements that have secured weapons and weapons-grade materials in states of the Former Soviet Union, as well as the Libyan disarmament negotiations, have been conducted relatively quickly and with a minimum number of parties involved. Whatever the preliminaries regarding Lockerbie, Libyan disarmament was the result of a strategic decision by Gadafy and the core agreement was negotiated in just nine months. Extraneous politics and actors did not intrude on this process.

At least some of the failure to gain American support for UNGA resolution 58/45 on environmental norms stems from its stipulations that require that "environmental and sustainable development considerations are taken into account in relation to scientific and technological progress applied to international security, disarmament and related spheres."12 Connecting sustainable development with WMD environmental issues overreaches the bounds of logic and practicality by linking a concrete problem with a vague social-economic agenda.

Part of the American objections may also have stemmed from the fact that the resolution was introduced by Malaysia on behalf of the Non-Aligned Movement, a group of states viewed as consistently hostile to American policy. The US likely saw the resolution as another effort by non-democratic states to force a linked political and economic agenda on an international institution. While the United States is highly conciliatory toward the majority of NAM states individually, it is unlikely to accede to ill-defined and open-ended efforts that could threaten both political and economic interests.

A bilateral approach, or one with a limited number of partners that have precisely defined interests, such as the agreement between the United States and the Russian Federation to return Russian-origin research reactor fuel to Russia, has the best chance of being successfully negotiated and implemented.13 Recent Cooperative Threat Reduction (Nunn-Lugar) authorisations, for example, include specific prohibition on funds being used for environmental restoration,14 but early agreements concluded with various states, such as Belarus, indeed included such explicit allocations.15 This is a precedent that could be built upon. Recent debates regarding liability and insurance related to disarmament efforts include explicit environmental concerns and could profitably inform arms control negotiations.16

2. To be successful, the arms control community must begin thinking and negotiating about the entire WMD production cycle, a concept that must be extended to include waste products.17 Controls over the numbers of nuclear weapons have long been in place, including supply-side oversight of nuclear fuel, honoured all too often in the breach; and in recent years a number of international protocols and arrangements such as the Nuclear Suppliers Group have begun to address fissile material production, dual use technology, and safeguards to prevent diversion of fuel.18 Currently most arms control thinking ends with spent fuel and reprocessing questions, but the 'back end,' high level and solid wastes, decommissioned reactors, and other by-products, have received far less attention.19

The question of Russian naval reactors, for example, has languished even as thefts of radioactive metals, equipment, and nuclear materials have escalated. Other agreements, such as the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), address similar questions, with more vagueness regarding the problems of dual use and diversion and with little attention to waste products. At the same time, however, within societies at large, the problems of nuclear, chemical and biological wastes are increasingly important social and environmental questions.

The logic of an arms control approach which promotes controls over the entire nuclear fuel cycle and chemical production processes is obvious; these produce materials or toxins that can be used as weapons. The timing of such an approach is especially advantageous when concerns regarding proliferation, diversion, and terrorism have reached high levels of governmental and public awareness. The threat of dirty bombs in particular has helped focus attention on unsecured nuclear facilities and the underground market in nuclear materials. Chemical weapons disposal, former military bases and illegal drug production have also generated awareness about chemical contamination.20 Similar concerns have emerged regarding medical wastes and unsecured complexes associated with bioweapons development and testing, such as Vozrozhdeniye Island.21

The arms control community must therefore make strategic alliances with environmentalists, but without letting their message be co-opted by the latter. To invoke the example of the NAM resolution on environmental norms, joining the question of environmental consequences of WMD production with sustainable development is counterproductive, since at the very least it opens arms control proposals to accusations of hidden agendas. The NAM's overall anti-globalisation orientation is one thing, but many NGOs are viewed as also having an explicit anti-American message. For US policymakers, these linkages will simply invalidate the arms control message.

Part of the problem here is to find serious partners in the environmental community. The current weakness of the global, especially American, environmental movement is beyond the scope of this essay, but part of the problem stems precisely from the issues of rhetorical and practical overreach. As a look at the websites of the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) or Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) reveals, the groundwork of calmly making the case for linking arms control and environment is too easily overwhelmed by a plethora of warnings about global warming, antibiotic resistance, and mercury levels in tuna.

The current weaknesses of multilateral arms control agreements and institutions are similar to those experienced by NGOs: namely organisational insecurity; inter-group competition for responsibilities and financial support; overlapping concerns and jurisdictions; and difficulty contending with opportunistic local actors.22 The result is fatigue and confusion on the part of the public and governments, both with regard to the arms control message and the messengers.

3. For these reasons, any linkages between arms control and environmental concerns are more likely to succeed if they are demand led, that is to say, made by parties wishing to enter into agreements with the United States or the international community. This contrasts strongly with the supply-side approaches that have characterised arms control agreements since the beginning, wherein suppliers or their international proxies oversee materials to try and prevent diversion.23 Attempts to exert international controls on the nuclear fuel cycle in this manner have proven ineffective in cases where parties such as Iran are determined to cheat or blackmail for concessions of different sorts. But even for states that might otherwise be interested in giving up their WMD capabilities or in pulling back from threshold status, agreeing to demand-side arrangements means internationalising oversight of sensitive industries. When environmental questions are factored in, this oversight potentially spreads throughout local economies.

If uniform environmental stipulations are imposed by international organisations it represents a potential obstacle for states that might otherwise wish to become signatories. Thresholds for compliance may simply be too high for states to bear, economically and politically. There are also obvious differences in the technical and logistical challenges of securing and cleaning up chemical and biological - as opposed to nuclear - production processes, particularly given the nature of medical and petrochemical industries with dual-use facilities, widespread geography and diffuse economic significance. Addressing these on an ad hoc basis, focusing on specific facilities and processes, is more reasonable than mandates that require oversight of industries as a whole.

The scope and details of local environmental problems are also unlikely to be defined as clearly and practically by outsiders as by the requesting state. Even states that express little outward concern over WMD related environmental problems have often collected copious data demonstrating their impact.24 If environmental concerns are made by the demand side, there is also much less threat to local sovereignty and authority. Demand-side requests also represent a useful opening gambit in terms of negotiating funding for environmental clean up, while sponsoring states or institutions can reply with cost-sharing and oversight requests. In the Vinca case, for example, the ad hoc negotiations over compensation were supplemented at the last minute with funds for spent fuel remediation, and provided critical encouragement to the agreement over fuel from the Vinca reactor.25

In order for such a demand-side approach to work, however, there must be extensive groundwork. It might be suggested that here is where alliances between arms control and environmental groups will be most profitable in the short term. The most effective strategy would be for the arms control community to engage with various local environmental groups in states on the threshold of WMD capabilities, or states that wish to rid themselves of various WMD legacies, to exert pressure on local governments and raise public awareness. At least some of the impetuses for addressing questions such as Chernobyl, Soviet-era naval reactors and Cold War military legacy problems in FSU states such as Kazakhstan have come from below.26 These efforts must be intensified, and focused on specific problems.


Incorporating environmental concerns into arms control thinking will be a long and painstaking process. Whatever the larger architecture and mechanisms of 21st Century arms control will be, it is important to start with modest and attainable goals.

The message to the arms control community should be simple: wastes are also weapons. The scientific and technological capabilities to address these problems have been demonstrated and the question is one of motivation. Making environmental issues a demand-side concern will be one important method. The approach outlined here therefore requires the arms control community to undertake new types of engagement with new partners. Making information available at the local level is one of the keys. The task of disseminating information is made difficult in many cases by tight controls over the Internet and restrictions on the activities of foreigners and NGOs in countries like Iran. Obviously local dissemination of information is impossible in North Korea. But getting the message across through a variety of means, to both the mass media and educated elites, requires adopting a variety of strategies that will vary greatly from country to country. Raising environmental issues in international forums among specialists may be less helpful than raising awareness among people who reside next to weapons plants, and who, perhaps, will be able to exert some increasing amounts of pressure on their governments.


1. UNGA res. 58/45. See Rebecca Johnson, "Troubled and Troubling Times: The 2003 UN First Committee Considers Disarmament and Reform, Disarmament Diplomacy 74 (December 2003), especially pp 32-33. Available at http://www.acronym.org.uk/un/2003un01

2. See the National Strategy to Combat Weapons of Mass Destruction, December 2002, available at http://www.state.gov/t/np/c12265.htm.

3. See the statements at http://www.state.gov/t/np/rls/fs/23764.htm and http://www.state.gov/t/np/rls/fs/23764.htm and http://www.energy.gov/engine/content.do?PUBLIC_ID=

4. See for example the comments of U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Nonproliferation John S. Wolf, Arms Control Today, June 2004, http://www.armscontrol.org/act/2004_06/Wolf.asp.

5. Lew Kwant-chul, "Don't Just Trust, Verify-Dismantling North Korea's Nuclear Program," Arms Control Today, May 2004, pp 15-19. Cf. James Clay Moltz and C. Kenneth Quinones, "Getting Serious about a Multilateral Approach to North Korea http://cns.miis.edu/pubs/npr/vol11/111/111moltz.pdf," Nonproliferation Review, 11 (2004) pp136-144.

6. Sharon Squassoni, "Closing Pandora's Box: Pakistan's Role in Nuclear Proliferation," Arms Control Today, April 2004, pp 8-13.

7. George Perkovich and Silvia Manzanero, "Plan B: Using Sanctions to End Iran's Nuclear Program," Arms Control Today, May 2004, pp 20-25.

8. Ariel E. Levite, "Never Say Never Again: Nuclear Reversal Revisited," International Security 27 (2003), pp 59-88.

9. See http://www.johnkerry.com/issues/foreignpolicy/.

10. See for example Robert Kagan, "Power and Weakness," Policy Review 113 (2002). http://www.policyreview.org/JUN02/kagan.html

11. See Brian C. Anderson, "We're Not Losing the Culture Wars Anymore," City Journal (Autumn 2003), http://www.city-journal.org/html/13_4_were_not_losing.html.

12. http://www.acronym.org.uk/un/2003un01.htm#47

13. See http://www.nnsa.doe.gov/docs/PR_R-04-116­MOUbilateralUSRUssiaAgreement(S-04).htm.

14. E.g., National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 1998, Title XIV--Cooperative Threat Reduction With States Of Former Soviet Union, Sec. 1403. Prohibition On Use Of Funds For Specified Purposes., (3). Provision of assistance to promote environmental restoration. Available at http://www.fas.org/nuke/control/ctr/docs/hr1119.html.

15. http://minsk.usembassy.gov/html/restoration.html

16. R. Douglas Brubaker and Leonard S. Spector, "Liability and Western Nonproliferation Assistance to Russia: Time for a Fresh Look?" Nonproliferation Review 10 (2003). pp 1-39.

17. Alexander H. Joffe, "Environmental Security and the Consequences of WMD Production: An Emerging International Issue." Disarmament Diplomacy 54 (February, 2001) pp 16-19. http://www.acronym.org.uk/54joffe.htm.

18. http://www.armscontrol.org/factsheets/NSG.asp

19. http://world-nuclear.org/education/ne/ne5.htm. James Clay Moltz, "Russian Nuclear Submarine Dismantlement and the Naval Fuel Cycle," Nonproliferation Review 7 /1(2000), pp 76-87.

20. Alexander H. Joffe, "Drug Production and the Environment in Lebanon" Middle East Intelligence Bulletin 2/9 (2000). http://www.meib.org/articles/0010_l1.htm.

21. Jonathan B. Tucker, et al, "Biological Decontamination of Vozrozhdeniye Island: The U.S.-Uzbek Agreement," CNS Briefing Series, 2002, http://cns.miis.edu/pubs/dc/briefs/011802.htm.

22. Alexander Cooley and James Ron, "The NGO Scramble Organizational Insecurity and the Political Economy of Transnational Action," International Security 27.1 (2002) 5-39. See also the comments of Mitchel B. Wallerstein, "Whither the Role of Private Foundations in Support of International Security Policy? http://cns.miis.edu/pubs/npr/vol09/91/91wall.pdf" Nonproliferation Review 9/1 (2002), pp 83-91.

23. Lawrence Scheinman, "The Nuclear Fuel Cycle: A Challenge for Nonproliferation http://www.acronym.org.uk/dd/dd76/76ls.htm," Disarmament Diplomacy 76 (2004), pp 7-21.

24. E.g., Nikolai N. Egorov, Vladimir M. Novikov, Frank L. Parker, and Victor K. Popov, editors, The Radiation Legacy of the Soviet Nuclear Complex, (London, Earthscan, 2000).

25. Philipp C. Bleek, "Project Vinca: Lessons for Securing Civil Nuclear Material Stockpiles http://cns.miis.edu/pubs/npr/vol10/103/103bleek.pdf," Nonproliferation Review 10/3 (2003) pp1-23.

26. See for example the resources at http://aralsea.org/, http://cns.miis.edu/cns/projects/nisnp/training/training.htm, and http://www.bellona.org/. See also Russell J. Dalton, Paula Garb, Nicholas Lovrich, John C. Pierce, and John M. Whiteley, editors, Critical Masses: Citizens, Nuclear Weapon Production, and Environmental Destruction in the United States and Russia, (Cambridge, MA, MIT Press, 1999).

Alexander H. Joffe, Ph.D. directs the West Asia Environmental Security Project in New Rochelle, New York. He is also a lecturer at Purchase College of the State University of New York, and an associate of Global Policy Exchange, Ltd., of Alexandria, Virginia, an organisation that focuses on the role of culture in international affairs.

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