Creating the conditions and environment to never disarm

Nagasaki, before and after the atomic bombing.

Thoughts on the 74th anniversary of the Hiroshima Nagasaki attacks

By Tariq Rauf


August 6 and August 9 mark the 74th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. No sentient human being who has met or seen the hibakusha (survivors), or visited the hypocentres in the two cities, or seen the photographic evidence of the destruction of these two Japanese cities, can avoid being shocked and horrified by the devastation that nuclear weapons inflicted.

Up until now, Hiroshima and Nagasaki mercifully remain the only instances in which nuclear weapons have been used in war; however, it has been the hope that the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki serves as a constant reminder why preventing the further use and proliferation of such weapons – and why nuclear disarmament leading eventually to a nuclear-weapon-free world – is of utmost importance for the survival of humankind and planet Earth.

A world without nuclear weapons still remains a far-off goal and the world continues to be burdened with nearly fifteen thousand nuclear warheads and some two thousand metric tonnes (two million kilogrammes) of weapon-usable highly enriched uranium and plutonium.

Collapse of Nuclear Arms Control

Unfortunately, the vision of ridding the world of nuclear weapons is receding as the nuclear arms control architecture patiently built up over the past 50 years is collapsing before our eyes. On August 2, 2019, the US formally withdrew from the 1987 Treaty on Shorter- and Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) – foreshadowed in July 2019 by the Russian Federation suspending its compliance with the treaty . Under the INF Treaty, by May 1991, 2692 ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges between 500 and 5500 kilometres had been eliminated, 1846 by the USSR and 846 by the US under mutual verification—and nearly 5000 nuclear warheads removed from active service.

This leaves only one nuclear arms reduction treaty in force between Moscow and Washington—the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START)—that was signed on 8 April 2010, entered into force on 5 February 2011 and by 4 February 2018 both Russia and the US had verifiably met the central limits of 1550 accountable deployed strategic nuclear warheads and 700 deployed launchers (land- and sea-based intercontinental ballistic missiles and long-range bombers). In fact, on 1 July 2019, under New START, Russia had 524 deployed launchers carrying 1461 nuclear warheads, and the US had 656 warheads on 1365 launchers.

New START will expire on 5 February 2021, unless extended by Presidents Putin and Trump. Should New START not be extended, it will leave Moscow and Washington without any bilateral nuclear arms control treaty for the first time in over a half-century and likely lead to a dangerous new nuclear arms race. For the first time in the history of Soviet/Russian-US nuclear arms control not only are existing agreements being dismantled but the two sides have not been engaging on new measures for nearly a decade now; and both sides are modernizing nuclear arsenals and have lowered the threshold of nuclear weapon use in their declaratory and operational policies.

Furthermore, the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) has not entered into force 23 years after it was opened for signature; the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) has exacerbated differences between States, as the 38 States that continue to rely on nuclear deterrence strongly object to the efforts of the vast majority of UN member States as regards implementing effective measures for nuclear disarmament. The negotiation of global treaties on the verified production ban on fissile material for nuclear weapons and on the non-weaponization of space have not started, and many other nuclear disarmament commitments remain unfulfilled while at the same time nuclear dangers are increasing.

In addition, the architecture and fundaments of bilateral and multilateral nuclear arms control have been eroded by the US withdrawal in 2002 from the crucial Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, and by the failure of the five nuclear-weapon States—China, France, Russia, UK and US—to fully honour the commitments on nuclear arms reductions agreed in the framework of the 1995/2000/2010 NPT review conferences. One also may note that the EU/E3+3-Iran Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) has been abandoned by the US leading to Iran stepping out of constraints on uranium enrichment, thereby further destabilizing the security situation in the region of the Middle East and raising the prospect of yet another war.

Doctrines of some nuclear-armed States now posit first or early use of nuclear weapons. The US Defence Department’s new nuclear weapons guidance, Nuclear Operations (11 June 2019) clearly posits that “using nuclear weapons could create conditions for decisive results and the restoration of strategic stability.” For its part, Russian military doctrine envisions “escalation to de-escalate” in countering superior NATO conventional forces, that is early but limited use of nuclear weapons . In South Asia, both India and Pakistan also contemplate use of nuclear weapons in a regional conflict. It is highly disturbing that when nuclear weapon use is discussed, the vocabulary used is often sanitized with the destruction by thermonuclear war and resulting humanitarian and environmental consequences downplayed and replaced by antiseptic concepts of nuclear deterrence.

Worrisomely, it is the view of many erstwhile statesmen, such as William Perry, former US defence secretary, among others, that in today’s world the dangers of inadvertent, accidental or even deliberate use of nuclear weapons is higher than it was during the height of the Cold War. The Gorbachev-Reagan understanding of December 1987 that a “nuclear war cannot be won, and must never be fought” is no longer in the forefront of the minds of today’s leaders and nuclear war planners. At a meeting in Rome last June that I attended, Perry noted that, “This year they set the clock (which puts into context how close we are to nuclear catastrophe) at two minutes to midnight; closer to catastrophe than any year of the Cold War except 1954, one of the darkest years of the Cold War, when it was set at the same level.”

We might well ask why we find ourselves in such a dire predicament, especially since there was much talk about a peace dividend and new world order at the beginning of the 1990s when the Cold war ended and there was the promise of reducing the role of nuclear weapons in international security, the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) was extended indefinitely in 1995, the CTBT completed in 1996, the five nuclear-weapon States had agreed to an “unequivocal commitment” to nuclear disarmament and a plan of action to that effect at the 2000 and 2010 NPT Review Conferences, respectively? The principal reason is that the NPT nuclear-weapon States have not fulfilled their nuclear disarmament commitments as agreed under the Treaty and at the 1995/2000/2010 review conferences—albeit, both Russia and the US claim that they have reduced their nuclear arsenals by about 80% over their Cold War heights—but both are busy modernizing their nuclear arsenals and lowering the threshold of nuclear war.

Creating the Environment for Nuclear Disarmament?

 The NPT will mark its 50th anniversary in 2020 and alarm bells already are ringing warning about impending failure of next year’s crucial review conference. Returning to nuclear disarmament in the context of the NPT, the field is now crowded with several competing approaches: the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) NPT States favour a three-phase time bound “plan of action”, in contrast the Western States stand by a “step-by-step” approach which has been slightly modified by a cross-cutting group called the Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Initiative (NPDI) that calls for “building blocks”; while another such group, the New Agenda Coalition (NAC) supports a “taking forward nuclear disarmament” approach; Sweden has proposed “stepping stones”; and the US recently advanced the concept of “creating the environment for nuclear disarmament” (CEND)

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. These different approaches clashed at the 2018-2019 sessions of the Preparatory Committee and likely these competing views will be manifest at the 2020 NPT Review Conference—that will mark the 50th anniversary of the NPT.

CEND: Butterflies and Unicorns

On 2-3 July, the US held the first meeting of the CEND Working (CEWG) in Washington—42 countries took part, including Austria, Brazil, Canada, China, Egypt, France, Germany, India, Israel, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, Republic of Korea, Russia, Sweden, Switzerland, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom and United States. Many went because they did not want to say “no” to the US in the “age of Trump”, others though sceptical did not want to be left out, and some were loyal troopers intoxicated by the promise of CEND as a “God send” to rescue the NPT.

The stated purpose of the CEWG was to consider (a) “reducing perceived incentives for states to retain, acquire, or increase their holdings of nuclear weapons; (b) multilateral and other types of institutions and processes to bolster non-proliferation efforts and build confidence in, and further advance, nuclear disarmament; and (c) interim measures to address risks associated with nuclear weapons and to reduce the likelihood of war among nuclear-armed States,” as the traditional, numerically-focused “step-by-step” approach to arms control had gone as far as it can under today’s conditions.

Discussions in the CEWG among diplomats were held in three working groups led by non-governmental experts in a format resembling a graduate seminar. Finland, the Netherlands and South Korea undertook to chair future working groups and to hold CEWG meetings. Reportedly, the CEWG was less confrontational than might have been expected, given that China and the Russian Federation both were present, but the meeting was somewhat unstructured, focused more on process than substance and among the 90-plus delegates there were not many high-level officials.

A sober assessment of the CEND/CEWG approach suggests that this initiative is geared to transfer the focus and responsibility for the “environment” and “conditions” for nuclear disarmament from the nuclear-armed to the non-nuclear-weapon States. As noted above, in both the US and Russia, the focus is on low yield usable nuclear weapons, and on the use of such weapons in regional and other conflicts. Yet, these issues are not the focus of CEND/CEWG. Furthermore, in conversations with senior diplomats, it has been personally confirmed to me that CEND is based on a tabula rasa approach, casting aside the various measures agreed by consensus at the 1995, 2000 and 2010 NPT review conferences, thus starting from a clean slate. Thus, the CEND/CEWG as presently formulated is serving the cause of “creating conditions to never disarm”.

In 2000 and 2010, NPT States parties agreed on “practical steps for the systematic and progressive efforts” on nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament, including inter alia: (1) the principle of irreversibility of nuclear disarmament, nuclear and other related arms control and reduction measures; (2) an unequivocal undertaking by the nuclear-weapon States to accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals leading to nuclear disarmament; (3) further efforts by the nuclear-weapon States to reduce their nuclear arsenals unilaterally; (4) increased transparency with regard to nuclear weapons capabilities; (5) further reduction of non-strategic nuclear weapons; (6) concrete agreed measures to further reduce the operational status of nuclear weapons systems; (7) diminishing role for nuclear weapons in security policies to minimize the risk that these weapons will ever be used and to facilitate the process of their total elimination; (8) in implementing the unequivocal undertaking by the nuclear-weapon States to accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals, these States commit to undertake further efforts to reduce and ultimately eliminate all types of nuclear weapons, deployed and non-deployed, including through unilateral, bilateral, regional and multilateral measures; (9) rapidly moving towards an overall reduction in the global stockpile of all types of nuclear weapons; (10) address the question of all nuclear weapons regardless of their type or their location as an integral part of the general nuclear disarmament process; (11) discuss policies that could prevent the use of nuclear weapons and eventually lead to their elimination, lessen the danger of nuclear war and contribute to the non-proliferation and disarmament of nuclear weapons; and (12) reduce the risk of accidental use of nuclear weapons; and further enhance transparency and increase mutual confidence.

These items need to be on the agenda for the CEWG if it is to have any credibility, and States taking part need to discuss and agree how to implement these measures and to devise additional measures to reduce nuclear weapons and their attendant dangers. Woolly discussions on incentives to retain nuclear weapons cannot serve to rescue the 2020 NPT conference or promote nuclear disarmament. And, the NPT review process is the proper and appropriate process in which to discuss nuclear disarmament measures among NPT States and the Conference on Disarmament (CD) in Geneva is mandated under UN auspices to discuss and negotiate nuclear arms control measures involving all nuclear-armed and nuclear-reliant States, as well as all other States. The political will to move forward on nuclear disarmament in the NPT and CD contexts cannot be invented or created through the CEND/CEWG process.

I have rather uncharitably (but accurately) characterized CEND/CEWG as being “based on dreaming of butterflies and unicorns to appear magically and sprinkle fairy dust leading to an uncharted new world of nuclear arms control, that has left unquestioningly loyal allies, who have docilely backed the “step-by-step” or “building blocks” or “stepping stones” approaches, directionless and squirming in the confusing cesspool of unilateralism and the collapse of a rules based global order.”


The discussion above has highlighted the deteriorating state of international security and the steady erosion of the multilateral nuclear arms control architecture. The existing nuclear arms control mechanisms, such as the Conference on Disarmament and the NPT review process are stalemated because of irreconcilable differences, lack of vision, leadership and political will. As a result, by and large, diplomats no longer have the experience and skills to negotiate nuclear arms control measures in real time, there is a noticeable loss of civility in diplomatic discourse, and the international system based on the precepts of the UN Charter and a rules based multilateral order is eroding given thuggish behaviour by major powers and the powerlessness of other States.

Nearly 15,000 nuclear warheads in nine nuclear-armed States are deployed at more than 100 locations in 14 States, and the dangers of nuclear weapon use are increasing. Despite five nuclear security summits, 83% of the world’s nuclear material remains in various military uses completely outside the ambit of any transparency, accountability or international monitoring—this comprises, nearly 1,400 tonnes (or 1,400,00 kg) of weapon-grade uranium and 500 tonnes (or 500,000 kg) of weapon-usable plutonium good for 130,000 nuclear warheads; remember the significant quantity is 25 kg of HEU and 8 kg of plutonium for one nuclear warhead (though in practice warheads can be made with as little as 8-10 kg HEU and 3-5 kg Pu). Placing one’s faith in the butterflies and unicorns of CEND/CEWG is not the way forward to save the world from the dangers of nuclear destruction!

Tariq Rauf is a Vienna-based nuclear arms control specialist, who was Head of Verification and Security Policy Coordination, Office reporting to the Director General at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) from 2002—2011/2012, in which capacity he was the Alternate Head of the IAEA NPT Delegation. He is a director of Atomic Reporters. The views expressed in this paper are purely personal.