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Opening Remarks in Celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the NPT


Below appear the remarks Assistant Secretary Ford delivered at the Conference in Celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the NPT at the United Nations in New York City on March 5, 2020.  They may also be found on the website of the State Department's Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation.

Welcome everyone, particularly those who have come from far away to be here.

Next month, we will convene again here in New York for the 10th Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT).  Today, however, we are here to celebrate a pivotal antecedent moment: the point at which that Treaty first entered into force.

And to kick us off, I would first like to read a statement that the President has offered on this momentous day.

Our President gets it exactly right: this anniversary is indeed a very big day for a very important treaty.  Half a century ago this very day, U.S. President Richard Nixon, Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin, and British Prime Minister Harold Wilson – as well as a number of additional world leaders – signed instruments of ratification in their capitals, bringing the NPT into force.

As March 5 dates go over the course of history, the year 1970 was a good one.  Other important fifths of March over the centuries have included the opening of the Third Lateran Council, the first arrival of smoking tobacco in Europe, the Treaty of Basel between France and Prussia, the patenting of the stapler, and – of course – the first Oxford-versus-Cambridge track meet.

Those were all notable days, I suppose.  On the fifth of March 1970, however – exactly 50 years ago – mankind took an extremely important step forward in reducing the risk of nuclear war by bringing the NPT into force in order to stop the spread of nuclear weapons capabilities and forestall the dangerous cascade of proliferation that could have destabilized the entire global environment and led to catastrophic nuclear confrontations.

All countries and all peoples in the world today are the beneficiaries of that vital step.

  • Every last one of us has benefited hugely from there not having been that cascade of proliferation, and of there not having been a nuclear war arising from the further injection of nuclear weaponry into more and more of the world’s volatile confrontations and rivalries.
  • Billions of people have also benefited from the broad peaceful applications of nuclear technology – in medicine, agriculture, industry, science, and power generation – that have been made possible by the nonproliferation assurances provided by the Treaty and the nonproliferation regime that has been built upon its foundation.
  • And billions more, we hope, will be able to benefit to the degree that the world’s weapon possessors are able to learn the NPT’s lesson about easing tension and strengthening trust in order to facilitate disarmament as they pursue effective measures to avoid arms races and to make disarmament possible.

So I’ll stack that fifth of March up against any in history – which makes it a special delight to welcome you here on this anniversary, to recall the effort it took to negotiate the NPT, to achieve its near universality and its indefinite extension, and to build up and reinforce the broader nuclear nonproliferation regime in the face of numerous crises, challenges, and opportunities.  It is also a fitting time to appreciate how profoundly the NPT has affected the world for the better over five decades, a reflection that can and should lead us all to recommit ourselves to ensuring that it can enjoy another half century of success at the very least.

We will begin our events today with a conversation between me and former U.S. Senator Sam Nunn of Georgia, who – as all of you are no doubt well aware – has been a leading figure in nuclear policy throughout his political career and in his active public life since retiring from politics.  Together, we will reflect on the impact and enduring importance of the NPT.

After that, I will hand over the reins to Ambassador Jeff Eberhardt, the current U.S. Special Representative for Nuclear Nonproliferation, to take the helm for three panels focused on NPT history and one on the NPT’s future.

But first let me say a few words about why this event means so much to me.  I have been an aficionado of NPT history since I served as Special Representative for Nuclear Nonproliferation during the George W. Bush Administration, and as a diplomat who remains deeply involved in nonproliferation, arms control, and peaceful nuclear uses policy, it is hard not to see the myriad ways that the NPT offers vital professional lessons for us today.

We are able to celebrate this anniversary today, in part, because the United States and the Soviet Union were able – at the height of the Cold War in the mid-1960s – to put aside their antipathies enough to be able to collaborate on the critical shared interest of nonproliferation and by leading the complex multilateral negotiations that led to the NPT.  Their success was not a foregone conclusion, and there were surely voices urging them not to try. Thankfully, however, they did try, and the rest is history. Whether it is with respect to forestalling a new strategic arms race or resolving longstanding regional proliferation challenges, leaders in today’s world can learn lessons from this history about the importance of coming to the table for direct negotiation.

Today’s treaty negotiators, I’d submit, can also learn lessons from the NPT’s drafters about care and caution.  The negotiators of the NPT were careful not to overreach and load it down with commitments whose time had not yet come and the pursuit of which might have scuppered the whole undertaking.  They knew that the NPT would help pave the path toward nuclear disarmament, but they could not then – just as we cannot now – predict all the twists and turns in that path, and in their immediate negotiations they wisely chose not to make the unachievable “perfect” the enemy of the achievable “good.”

They were also careful not to under-reach.  There was talk of something short of a treaty, with mere parallel declarations by the nuclear powers that they would not disseminate nuclear weapons or the necessary means and knowledge to make them, and by non-nuclear powers not to acquire nuclear weapons or control over them.  Thank goodness the negotiators were more ambitious than that, for such a timid approach would have left subsequent generations without essential tools to combat nuclear proliferation.

When negotiation of the NPT’s safeguards provisions became complicated, moreover, there was talk of a treaty without verification measures.  We have seen in subsequent decades just how important international safeguards have proven to be in providing assurances of states’ compliance and in responding to non-compliance, so we should be glad that the negotiators stuck to their guns in that respect, too.

And while European security issues dominated the complex NPT negotiations – including how the Treaty’s nonproliferation provisions in Articles I and II meshed with the common security policies of the North Atlantic Alliance – the resulting Treaty was designed to be applicable globally.  We should be glad of that as well.

The fruits of all that wisdom, prudence, and effort is a Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty that has grown to serve the world community well for five decades – a Treaty that forms the core of a non-proliferation regime that has repeatedly proven its ability to adapt and learn, to respond to challenges, and to correct weaknesses exposed by those challenges.

I call that a wonderful fifty years, and it is a great pleasure to welcome you here to celebrate this auspicious occasion.

Thank you.

-- Christopher Ford

About Dr. Ford

Dr. Christopher Ford took office in January 2018 as the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation. In October 2019, he was delegated the authorities and responsibilities of the Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security. Previously, he served as Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for WMD and Counterproliferation on the U.S. National Security Council staff, and before that as Chief Legislative Counsel for the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Chief Investigative Counsel for the Senate Banking Committee, Republican Chief Counsel for the Senate Appropriations Committee, Senior Fellow at Hudson Institute, U.S. Special Representative for Nuclear Nonproliferation, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, Minority Counsel and then General Counsel to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, and Staff Director of the Senate's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. A graduate of Harvard (summa cum laude), Oxford (as a Rhodes Scholar), and the Yale Law School, Dr. Ford was also ordained by Roshi Joan Halifax of the Upaya Zen Center as a lay chaplain in a lineage of Soto Zen Buddhism. He was a jujutsu student of the late Grandmaster Dong Jin Kim of the Jigo Tensin Ryu lineage, and is a member of Dai Nippon Butoku Kai with Sandan (3rd degree black belt) rank. Dr. Ford served from 1994 until 2011 as an intelligence officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve, and is a member of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Chatham House, and the Council on Foreign Relations. In September 2017, he was promoted by Queen Elizabeth II of England to the rank of Commander in the Most Venerable Order of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem. Dr. Ford is the author of the books "China Looks at the West: Identity, Global Ambitions, and the Future of Sino-American Relations" (2015), "The Mind of Empire: China's History and Modern Foreign Relations" (2010), and "The Admirals' Advantage: U.S. Navy Operational Intelligence in World War II and the Cold War" (2005). He also co-edited "Rethinking the Law of Armed Conflict in an Age of Terrorism" (2012). For a list of his publications, see The views he expresses on this website are entirely his own, and do not necessarily reflect those of anyone else, nor those of the U.S. Government.
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