Signs of Life in Nuclear Diplomacy: A Look Beyond the Doom and Gloom

Signs of Life in Nuclear Diplomacy: A Look Beyond the Doom and Gloom

In the past few years, several troubling developments—from a renewed arms race between the United States and Russia to North Korea’s development of a missile capable of striking the U.S. homeland—have fueled an apocalyptic tone among nuclear policy practitioners. As a first-time observer of the Preparatory Committee (PrepCom) on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 2018, I quickly became aware that a deep cynicism had permeated most every corner of the international discourse. It came as a surprise, then, that a number of states seemed to coalesce around an initiative launched by the United States in 2014: the International Partnership for Nuclear Disarmament Verification (IPNDV). Notwithstanding pronouncements in Washington about the death of nuclear arms control, this fledgling initiative is evidence of newly fertile ground.

To be fair, PrepCom participants had every reason to succumb to the prevailing doom and gloom. Decades of gridlock over the NPT Review Process created a growing sense that nuclear powers did not intend to honor their “good faith” promises to reduce strategic stockpiles. And then there were the disillusioned nuclear have-nots, driven by the stagnation of nuclear arms control to take measures into their own hands to advance disarmament. Their frustration culminated in the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, through which they sought to institute a ban on nuclear weapons—notably without the support of a single state possessing them.

A glance at U.S.-Russian relations revealed an equally dismal picture. On the eve of the 2018 PrepCom, Washington and Moscow engaged in a caustic debate about U.S. ballistic missile defenses in Europe, Russia’s shielding of Syria following the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons, and alleged violations on either side of various arms control agreements. Beyond that, disputes persisted among PrepCom participants over NATO nuclear sharing arrangements and Israel’s nuclear weapons program, among other controversies. Given all of this, it was refreshing to encounter a shared sense of enthusiasm about IPNDV.

Since its establishment, IPNDV has provided a forum for an unprecedented number of countries with and without nuclear weapons to discuss the technical obstacles to disarmament. It is the most transparent and inclusive multilateral initiative of its kind, bringing together experts from over twenty-five states’ foreign, defense, scientific, and energy ministries. To be clear, IPNDV is aspirational, seeking to spark dialogue that may someday bring about concrete measures in nuclear diplomacy. Yet, in this polarized environment, any modest step toward shared understanding is noteworthy. As a new PrepCom commences this month and states meet in 2020 for the politically fraught Review Conference on the NPT, IPNDV is positioned to serve as a source of unity amidst overall discord.

Throughout the Cold War, the nuclear disarmament process was opaque, dictated largely by the policies and security needs of preeminent global powers. In a small break from those decades of concealment, IPNDV is one of the first initiatives to give non-nuclear weapon states a seat at the table (some notable predecessors include the United Kingdom-Norway Initiative and the Quad Nuclear Verification Partnership.), encouraging collaboration to innovate techniques for verifying the dismantlement of nuclear warheads. This focus on warheads is an ambitious undertaking; for the entire history of disarmament, states have largely verified the dismantlement only of nuclear delivery systems, or the missiles, submarines, and aircraft capable of carrying nuclear weapons to their targets. It is far less technically challenging, and the information sensitivities far fewer, to verifiably dismantle delivery vehicles as compared to warheads. Thus, thousands of “bombs” remain intact, not subject to inspection by treaty partners.

Proponents of warhead dismantlement opine that, without verifying the dismantlement of nuclear warheads themselves, the task of disarmament remains woefully incomplete. In a world of hundreds rather than thousands of nuclear weapons, disarmament would increasingly need to account for the dismantlement of individual warheads, as a handful of clandestinely held weapons could—in theory—drastically alter the outcome of conflicts. Thus, they claim that IPNDV is doing the hard work of engaging states on issues that will someday be of vital importance to multilateral disarmament processes.

Optimists remind naysayers that nuclear disarmament occurred unexpectedly during some of the tensest years of the Cold War and can occur now. In 1987, Reagan and Gorbachev famously concluded the now-teetering Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), which allowed the first on-site inspections in the context of U.S.-Russian bilateral arms control. At the time, the INF ushered in unprecedented leaps in verification. Indeed, such a proposal would have been dismissed as a pipedream in the early years of the Cold War, yet subsequent treaties continue to build upon the transparency pioneered by the INF.

On the flip side, skeptics view warhead verification as a distant or even entirely implausible outcome. Veteran negotiators of U.S.-Russian arms control agreements point out that the political environment necessary for verified warhead dismantlement may never come to be, especially given each country’s concerns about sensitive weapons design information. Moreover, technical experts still quarrel over whether the requisite technology exists—or ever will—despite years of research and development toward this end by weapon states. And if the United States and Russia have made strides in nuclear disarmament without inspecting warheads, they ask, why start now?

Pessimists further assert that IPNDV can have little impact, given the souring of relations among major powers and the initiative’s limited scope, as non-nuclear weapon-states cannot participate in classified discussions of weapons design information. According to critics, non-weapon states have no place in the disarmament process, as they lack the technical expertise and hard-won political experience thought to qualify stakeholders. Perhaps due to these tensions, China and Russia recently ended their participation in IPNDV, feeding perceptions that it is failing to reach critical members of the nuclear elite.

 

IPNDV’S Undeniable Benefits

IPNDV’s most ardent supporters and consistent detractors each raise valid points, but the initiative creates several benefits that should be lauded. First and foremost, it cultivates empathy and rigorous discussion of nuclear issues in a space that often lacks both. For non-nuclear weapon states, IPNDV presents a chance to witness just how challenging nuclear arms control can be. Though nuclear abolitionists often speak as if disarmament could occur overnight, treaty negotiations and verification are laborious and historically have taken years—even when propelled by strong political will. An up-close look at the technological barriers to specific tasks like warhead verification can help non-weapon states to better appreciate the difficulty of disarmament.

Conversely, for weapon states, IPNDV creates a forum for discussing the technical questions, concerns, and ideas of nuclear have-nots. Participants attest to the fact that non-weapon states offer vast technical expertise that could ultimately support nuclear verification activities. While a non-weapon state may lack some nuanced understanding of nuclear weapons design, it may yet be a pioneer in radiation detection or surveillance technologies that are just as central to the overall verification system.

Critically, IPNDV also allows states to take a step back from the protracted disputes that mire the broader discourse. The initiative is distinctly less political than many other multilateral fora, and its sobering technicality brings discussions back to the nitty gritty of nuclear verification.  Whereas the NPT and the nuclear “ban treaty” are engulfed in politicized controversies, states can engage openly through IPNDV, as its technical goals are shared at least in some way by all participants. In a time when consensus is uncommon, we ought to remember the value of a forum that can bypass today’s politics in search of future technical solutions.

The 2019 NPT PrepCom opens at the United Nations on April 29, ahead of the much anticipated 2020 Review Conference. As states discuss the fate of nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation, observers will wait with bated breath to see whether the breakdown of the INF treaty, among other gloomy developments, has confirmed the end of an era of nuclear arms control. From outside of the PrepCom tent, prospects for cooperation appear bleak.

A look inside, however, reveals a kindling of multilateralism. As at the 2018 PrepCom, IPNDV participants will gather in New York to showcase their efforts and outline future plans. If only incrementally, IPNDV is motivating a difficult conversation precisely when it is most difficult; it has the important potential to act as an impetus for future cooperation on nuclear disarmament.

 

Kayla T. Matteucci is the recipient of the 2019-20 Fulbright United Kingdom Open Award, which will facilitate her study of nuclear warhead verification alongside government and academia in London. She is the 2018-19 James C. Gaither Junior Fellow in Nuclear Policy at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, as well as an Adjunct Research Associate at the Institute for Defense Analyses. Matteucci is a graduate of Fordham University. Her prior experience includes work at Sandia National Laboratories, the Council on Foreign Relations, and the United Nations.

Kayla T. Matteucci is the recipient of the 2019-20 Fulbright United Kingdom Open Award, which will facilitate her study of nuclear warhead verification alongside government and academia in London. She is the 2018-19 James C. Gaither Junior Fellow in Nuclear Policy at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, as well as an Adjunct Research Associate at the Institute for Defense Analyses. Matteucci is a graduate of Fordham University. Her prior experience includes work at Sandia National Laboratories, the Council on Foreign Relations, and the United Nations.