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– Gary Samore
Former White House Coordinator for Arms Control and WMD Terrorism
U.S. Hosts Nuclear Disarmament Working Group

September 2019
By Shannon Bugos

Aiming to break loose stagnant progress toward nuclear disarmament, officials from more than 40 nations agreed to an initial framework of a U.S. initiative during a two-day meeting in Washington ending July 3. The U.S. State Department hosted the plenary meeting for participants of its Creating an Environment for Nuclear Disarmament (CEND) initiative.

The officials discussed “ways to improve the international security environment in order to overcome obstacles to further progress on nuclear disarmament,” according to the State Department’s media note released on the first day. As stated in a summary report of the working group obtained by Arms Control Today, three particular topic areas were identified: the reduction of the perceived incentives for states to acquire or increase their nuclear stockpiles, the involvement of multilateral institutions in nuclear disarmament, and potential interim measures to reduce risks related to nuclear weapons.

Christopher Ford, U.S. assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation, opened the session saying he wanted the process “to be as free and open an engagement as possible…. While no one should be asked to abandon strongly held policy views, I would encourage you to focus more upon how we can build a better world together than upon trading recriminations about the present.”

The United States first proposed the CEND initiative at the May 2018 meeting of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) Preparatory Committee, held in advance of the NPT’s 2020 review conference. (See ACT, July/August 2019.) U.S. officials characterized the initiative as an effort to hold a dialogue on the “discrete tasks” necessary in order “to create the conditions conducive to further nuclear disarmament.”

The recent meeting, consisting of about 100 representatives from nuclear- and non-nuclear-weapon states, as well as non-NPT nations, was randomly divided into three groups and rotated through each of the three topic areas. Afterward, a subject matter expert in each group summarized the areas of convergence that emerged from each session.

On the issue of reducing incentives to acquire or retain nuclear weapons, the participants agreed to future discussion of the need for states to clearly articulate the full scope of threats they perceive from others, according to the summary report. Additionally, the officials agreed on their desire to buttress existing arms control, nonproliferation, and security mechanisms, as well as compliance with them. Some participants, for example, expressed support for two existing agreements: the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which curbed Iran’s nuclear program, and the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which they encouraged the United States and Russia to extend.

The summary reported that the discussion of the role of multilateral and other types of institutions found general agreement that the CEND initiative could provide “an innovative format for strengthening existing forums.” Other areas of convergence included the need to reaffirm the importance of the NPT as the “cornerstone” of the global nonproliferation and disarmament architecture and to develop a list of practical measures, such as negotiating and implementing confidence-building measures, to improve the security environment.

Lastly, the risk reduction discussion identified the need to manage and prevent conflict from escalating to nuclear war, according to the summary report. Increased dialogue and communication were noted as potential areas for future work, particularly in respect to having nuclear-armed states provide greater detail on what is feasible for nuclear risk reduction. The most discussed options among participants for specific risk-reduction measures included improving crisis communication channels, standardizing pre-launch notifications to prevent misunderstandings, and eliminating certain categories of nuclear weapons or launch systems.

The next meeting of the CEND initiative has not been announced, but some reports have indicated it will take place later this year in Europe. Finland, the Netherlands, and South Korea will serve as co-chairs of the three discussion subgroups, and three additional co-chairs are expected to be named.