The Goal Remains the Same

Twice in our history, a nuclear weapon was used in war. In the 71 years since then, despite tensions, threats and close calls, no nation has repeated the act. The devastation and destruction that nuclear weapons can wreak underpins our efforts to ensure they are never used again. Still, it would be unwise to assume the status quo will never change, particularly since we all face the threat of nuclear terrorism -- an evil not easily countered by classic nuclear deterrence. 

That is why President Obama directed this Administration to work on creating the conditions for the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons. It is a goal, as Secretaries Schultz, Kissinger and Perry, and Senator Nunn have said, in keeping with our nation’s moral heritage. 

Our efforts over the past eight years have borne fruit, but we know that we have so much more to do. Our north star in this process is and will continue to be the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). 

The United States understands and shares the frustration with the pace of nuclear reduction negotiations, but we are certain that the treaties, agreements and processes that have brought us this far back from the nuclear brink will take us further. 

The United States decided not to support the United Nations General Assembly First Committee Resolution L.41, passed on October 27, calling on the General Assembly to commence negotiations next year on a treaty that seeks to ban nuclear weapons. 

We opposed it because we assessed that the Resolution would not help move disarmament efforts forward. Successful nuclear reductions will require willing and active participation from all nuclear weapon states, proven and robust verification measures, and security conditions conducive to further reductions. The resolution simply does not address those three factors. 

A view of the United Nations General Assembly First Committee meeting at the UN headquarters in New York, New York, on October 27, 2016. [ICAN photo]

We face a strategic landscape that continues to pose challenges, and continues to evolve. In this environment U.S. nuclear weapons still play an essential role in in deterring a large-scale nuclear attack against the United States and our allies. They assure allies that our extended deterrence guarantees are credible -- enabling many of them to forgo developing nuclear weapons themselves. 

We know that most support for Resolution L.41 was based on noble intentions, but there is no short cut to a nuclear weapons-free world. The reason disarmament is difficult is not because there is a legal gap in the NPT. Disarmament is difficult because we have already finished the “easy part”. Of course, achieving an 85 percent reduction in global nuclear stockpiles was not easy, but it was compared to the task ahead: verify the reduction and elimination of delivery systems, individual warheads, materials and potentially even their components in multiple nations and then create and sustain intrusive monitoring.  

Everything going forward will be harder, require more patience, cooperation, compromise and most importantly, more trust. A treaty cannot force or demand trust. It must be built and reciprocated.

That is why the United States will not participate in what we see as a premature negotiation of a nuclear weapons ban treaty. That does not mean we question the intentions of those with whom we disagree on process. (We hope all parties will afford every nation the same courtesy). Nor does it mean that we will stop our work to fulfill our disarmament obligations under the NPT -- far from it. We will continue to focus on efforts that will help us eliminate nuclear weapons in a proven, stable and irreversible way so that the arms races of yesterday will never be repeated. 

Our priorities are supporting and sustaining key agreements, like the New START and Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaties; strengthening the NPT; improving strategic stability with the Russian Federation and China; implementing the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran; working with allies and partners to address the North Korean nuclear program; pushing for negotiations on a treaty that would halt production of fissile material for use in nuclear weapons; securing the entry into force of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty; expanding programs to combat nuclear terrorism; and developing technologies that will help us verify nuclear reductions in the future. 

We will work with every nation that is committed to achieving progress on these priorities, but we will insist that words are not enough. Every nation interested in building a nuclear weapons-free world must invest time, expertise, resources, and political capital in both broad strategy and the unheralded work of everyday implementation efforts. 

In his 2009 Prague speech, President Obama cautioned that the road ahead of us was long and that we would encounter doubt and obstacles along the way. At some points in our process, we might not be able to see any viable paths ahead. Rather than despair, it is our duty to cut new paths or be prepared when a path presents itself. Things may start small, but they can grow. We can help the process by sustaining cooperation at a technical level, as well as maintaining a corps of negotiators with real-world experience and advanced listening skills. We need to expand our dialogue on these issues and encourage open communication with all relevant partners from governments, civil society, academia, and the technology sector. We must also look for real and lasting ways to build the mutual trust necessary for future negotiations. 

Now is the time to refocus on the fact that we have a shared goal: to ensure nuclear weapons are never used again. 

About the Author: Thomas Countryman is the Acting Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security at the U.S. Department of State.  

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Brian C.
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Washington, USA
November 1, 2016
The unheralded work
Flags of countries of the world flutter outside the United Nations headquarters in New York. [AP photo]
October 31, 2016

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