New Paradigms Forum Proliferation Issues and Much More …


Negotiating the NPT, 50 Years On: Some Lessons for the Future


Below follow Assistant Secretary Ford's remarks to the conference on “Negotiating the NPT, 50 Years On: Some Lessons for the Future,” held at the U.S. Department of State on June 28, 2018.  (Coincident with the conference, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo -- joined by his British and Russian counterparts, Boris Johnson and Sergey Lavrov -- released a Joint Statement by the Foreign Ministers of the Depository Governments for the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.)  Dr. Ford's remarks can also be found on the website of the Department's Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation.

Good afternoon. I hope everyone has been enjoying the conference as much as I have. On this Golden Anniversary of the opening for signature of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), it’s wonderful to see such an august group come together to explore the history of this important instrument, so that such insight can inform how we ensure that the Treaty continues in the future to provide the myriad benefits that it has for the last 50 years.

It is also a pleasure to be on a panel with such high-powered colleagues. My own background with these issues is of comparatively recent vintage – only going back a decade or so – and thus it pales in comparison to the deep experience of Sir Malcolm [Rifkin] and Ambassador [Sergei] Batsanov. I hope, however, that I can offer at least a few insights as we consider what lessons to draw for tomorrow from the NPT debates of decades past.

To that end, I would suggest that the story of how it was that we got an NPT in the first place offers several lessons as we struggle with the challenges of international security and nonproliferation today and in the years ahead.

1. Nonproliferation and International Peace and Security

First and foremost, I would suggest that a clear-eyed look at the Treaty’s origins should focus us anew upon its drafters’ core insights about the critical importance of nuclear nonproliferation as a sine qua non for international peace and security. This is a commonsense insight, but one too often overlooked in the press of events.

Nuclear deterrence is an important component of the international security environment and will likely remain so for the foreseeable future, but thoughtful people have never deluded themselves that its maintenance is anything but challenging, or that the cost of its failure could be catastrophic. This is true, moreover, even when the deterrence relationship is merely bilateral. When more than two “players” become involved in this grim “game,” the potential for problems grow at an alarming rate.

A nuclear deterrent dyad has but one axis along which nuclear relationships occur – and along which potential problems of misperception, miscalculation, or escalation must be managed if nuclear war is to be avoided. But a triad presents three such axes, while four parties have six axes of interaction, and five parties have ten. As the number of players increases arithmetically, in other words, the number of nuclear relationships that have to be managed without calamity increases geometrically. This makes proliferation a recipe for disaster, vastly increasing the risk of nuclear war.

This was quite clear to the drafters of the NPT as they struggled with negotiating the new treaty in the mid-1960s. The Cuban Missile Crisis between the Soviet Union and the United States in October 1962 had dramatically illustrated the crisis management challenges involved even in a bilateral nuclear standoff. Two years later, the global nuclear environment had become still more complicated, with the test of a nuclear weapon by the People’s Republic of China – a government that had recently broken with its Soviet ally and now postured belligerently against Washington and Moscow alike, and which actually advocated nuclear proliferation, denouncing NPT negotiations as a “hoax” of superpower “collusion.”

Moreover, as I recounted in my opening remarks to the NPT Preparatory Committee meeting last April in Geneva, U.S. intelligence analysts – like other experts at the time – expected in the early 1960s that the trend of additional countries acquiring nuclear weapons would only continue. It was very clear, as U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA) Director William Foster told the UN First Committee in 1965, that “[t]he probability of nuclear weapons being used will almost certainly increase as the number of fingers on the trigger increases.” But such an increase was what everyone expected.

This grim combination of circumstances formed the backdrop against which the drafters of the NPT sat down to do their work, and it offers us today perhaps our most important lesson as we look to the future. We should be thankful that, for the most part, the expected cascade of proliferation has not occurred – and we should remember that it did not do so, in part, precisely because the nations of the world were able in the 1960s to recognize these dangers and take steps together to help forestall them.

As we approach the 50th Anniversary of the NPT’s entry into force in 2020, we need to remain focused upon these risks, for the nonproliferation regime does not maintain and enforce itself, and the task of standing firm against proliferation is no less challenging today than it was when the Eighteen-Nation Disarmament Committee (ENDC) began its work on the NPT in 1965. So I offer this as a first lesson.

2. Nonproliferation as a Security Benefit for All

A second lesson from the NPT’s negotiation lies in the drafters’ clear emphasis upon the fact that nonproliferation is a security benefit for all. In recent years, some have tried to depict the NPT as an iniquitous bargain that preserves nuclear weapons benefits for some while denying them to others. This interpretation, however, is both unfair and misleading, for it misstates the reality of the situation and ignores the compelling points frequently made and widely understood during the ENDC negotiations about how a nonproliferation regime would protect the security of all States Party – both non-nuclear weapons states and weapon states alike.

These security benefits resulted from possessors’ obligation not to transfer nuclear weapons capabilities to non-possessors, coupled with the reciprocal exchange of non-possession commitments by those non-possessors. Together, these complementary promises served to prevent the injection of nuclear weaponry into regional rivalries and disputes – to the benefit of every state and the international community as a whole.

This security benefit was clearly understood and repeatedly articulated during the negotiations that produced the NPT. ACDA Director Foster, for instance, emphasized to the UN First Committee and the ENDC that the further spread of nuclear weapons would be at least as serious a threat to non-weapon states as to the nuclear powers themselves – and perhaps more so. The same point was made by U.S. Ambassador Goldberg to the ENDC and to the UN General Assembly, when he pointed out that non-possessors had more to lose from seeing nuclear weapons end up in the hands of a regional rival or neighbor than did the existing weapons states, making nonproliferation of special benefit to non-weapons states.

Similarly, Secretary of State Dean Rusk explained to Congress in 1966 that the further spread of nuclear weapons would increase the danger of nuclear war and diminish the security of all nations, not just some nations. Such proliferation, he told Congress’s Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, would add “a new and dangerous dimension” to existing disputes between nations. If one party to a regional dispute sought nuclear weapons, he noted, its neighbor might feel compelled to seek such weaponry itself, or even to wage preventative war to prevent its rival from getting them first. Rather than seeing proliferation turn regional problems into nuclear conflicts, the Treaty’s drafters sought to foreclose such catastrophes through nonproliferation. As President Lyndon Johnson put it in his message to the ENDC in 1967, the proposed treaty would free non-weapon states from “the fear that non-nuclear neighbors may develop such weapons.”

Nor was this just a point of U.S. emphasis. Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin, for instance, sent a message to ENDC urging support for a nonproliferation treaty because “[u]nless an end is put to the proliferation of nuclear weapons throughout the world, the danger of the outbreak of a nuclear war will increase many times over.” The Soviets, too, emphasized – as their representative to the UN General Assembly noted in 1966 – that nuclear weapons proliferation threatened all countries, nuclear weapon states and non-weapon states alike. As Soviet Ambassador N.V. Roshchin stressed in 1967, the draft NPT “d[id] not concern only the nuclear powers but all countries in the world. … [E]veryone’s security depends very much on the solution of the nonproliferation problem.” That same year, a group of experts convened by UN Secretary General U Thant pointed out that proliferation would create tension and instability, increasing the danger of war by accident or miscalculation.

So this is another key lesson, for the dangers that would be presented by proliferation are no less today than they were during the 1960s when the security benefits of a nonproliferation treaty to all states were so clearly apparent. Do not let anyone tell you that the NPT provides security benefits only to one category of state or another, for that is false and always has been. The NPT provides security to all States Party, and we must remember that.

3. Additional Benefits

That said, security is not the only benefit the NPT provides. As we look to the future, we should remember that it has been clear all along that nonproliferation is a foundation upon which additional benefits can be built. This is my third lesson.

In particular, during the ENDC negotiations, it was an important selling point for the embryonic NPT – as William Foster put it upon the United States’ introduction, jointly with the USSR, of a full draft text in August 1967 – that the proposed Treaty would “stimulate widespread, peaceful development of nuclear energy.” Because it would surely be difficult to imagine possessors being willing to share peaceful nuclear technology if they did not have assurances against its misuse for weapons purposes, peaceful uses of nuclear energy depend upon the solidity of nonproliferation guarantees. Nonproliferation rules, as Foster recognized, would thus “promote the sharing of the peaceful benefits of nuclear energy,” allowing developing nations to participate in “expanding international cooperation in the field of peaceful nuclear activities” and thereby making possible “economic gains which they could not realistically have hoped to achieve on their own.” As President Johnson emphasized to the ENDC, a nonproliferation regime would free nations to devote their efforts to “developing strong, peaceful programs.”

Nor was that all, for it was clear at the time that the NPT would also, in Foster’s words in August 1967, “improve the chance for nuclear disarmament,” “reduce tensions” that would otherwise be inflamed by the spread of atomic weaponry, and constitute “a major step toward a more peaceful world.” The importance of nonproliferation rules as a foundation for disarmament progress is also simple common sense, but this is a point too often obscured in later disarmament debates. After all, one could hardly expect existing possessors to give up their weapons unless it were clear that the nonproliferation regime would keep other countries from getting them.

Accordingly, nonproliferation is not only the “primary purpose” of the NPT and “the core of the treaty” – as William Foster and the Canada’s General E.L.M. “Tommy” Burns respectively put it in 1967 – but it is also the foundation for making further progress on disarmament. This is a lesson that we should remember today, especially when there are so many who pretend – not merely wrongly, but also dangerously, I would think – that nonproliferation and disarmament are competing equities to be bargained against each other.

4. Pragmatic Diplomacy

A fourth lesson from the creation of the NPT is of the importance of prudence and pragmatism in multilateral nuclear diplomacy. Since the dawn of the nuclear age, there has been a temptation to respond to the unique and worrisome challenges of managing nuclear risks by proposing dramatic and utopian, but unworkable, solutions. The thorny problems of nuclear weaponry have all too frequently elicited sweepingly ambitious responses that surely feel satisfyingly visionary to propose – and which are no doubt useful as virtue-signaling – but which far outrun what is actually possible. Such proposals may in fact make real progress harder by establishing the unachievable “perfect” as an obstacle to pursuing the good things that may lie within reach.

The drafters of the NPT, however – and especially the ENDC’s co-chairs, the United States and the Soviet Union – were wise enough to resist such counterproductive enthusiasms and avoid turning the NPT’s text into a veritable “Christmas Tree” strung with appended additional elements that would otherwise have sunk the entire effort beneath their collective weight. The co-chairs worked tirelessly to keep things focused on the single, achievable step that was so critical: stopping the further spread of nuclear weapons.

This overarching objective of nonproliferation had been set out early, in the “Irish Resolution” of December 1961 at the U.N., which called for “an international agreement containing provisions under which the nuclear States would undertake to refrain from relinquishing control of nuclear weapons and from transmitting the information necessary for their manufacture to States not possessing such weapons, and provisions under which States not possessing nuclear weapons would undertake not to manufacture or otherwise acquire control of such weapons.”

These complementary nonproliferation obligations – non-transfer by weapons possessors and non-possession by other states – thankfully remained the conceptual lodestar for all subsequent ENDC negotiations.

In 1965, the UN Disarmament Commission adopted a resolution urging that special priority be placed upon negotiating a nonproliferation agreement, and in August 1965 the United States duly submitted a draft text to the ENDC – a draft based, appropriately, upon the Irish concept. The Soviet Union submitted a similar but competing draft to the UN General Assembly the following month. Over the next several years, despite continual pressure to add additional elements to the mix, the co-chairs managed to keep ENDC negotiations focused fairly narrowly upon preserving global peace and stability and preventing nuclear war by keeping there from being, as William Foster had put it, more fingers on the nuclear trigger. This steadiness of purpose in the face of pressure to reach past the achievable is my fourth lesson.

5. The Sovereign People

A fifth lesson of the NPT, at least from an American perspective, suggests the value – as Executive Branch officials negotiate international instruments with profound national security implications – of ensuring appropriate involvement and support from the elected legislators who represent the sovereign People whose security depends upon diplomats getting such things right.

The NPT is a treaty, of course, duly submitted to the U.S. Senate for its advice and consent, and thereafter ratified and in force as the law of the land pursuant to Article VI, Section 2, of the U.S. Constitution. But the Johnson Administration’s willingness to work with Congress during the ENDC process to ensure that the legislature understood and supported the emerging treaty went well beyond simply submitting it for a Senate vote in 1968.

The U.S. delegation to the ENDC actually included Congressional advisors, and the idea of negotiating a nonproliferation treaty received strong political support from a Senate resolution passed by a unanimous vote in 1966. The U.S. position in the negotiations also drew political strength, at home, from the fact that one of the NPT’s core provisions – the non-transfer obligation of Article I – had a loose U.S. legal analogue in Section 92 of the Atomic Energy Act of 1954, which prohibited anyone in the United States from contributing to the development of nuclear weapons except pursuant to the authorities expressly given in that Act.

The NPT, in other words, was not something unpopular and untoward that a President attempted to force down the throats of a reluctant legislature, or which he tried to bring into being by evading the treaty-ratification prerogatives of the U.S. Senate. To the contrary, Congress was to one degree or another carefully involved all along, and the importance of the negotiating objective was clear to all. As a result, the Johnson Administration was rewarded with strong legislative buy-in and enduring political support for nonproliferation. We Americans should remember this success as we struggle with proliferation challenges in the present day.

6. Overcoming Differences to Cooperate on Shared Interests

A sixth and final lesson can be found in the remarkable and decisive role of the United States and the USSR as co-chairs of the ENDC process and joint authors of the 1967 draft that led to the final text of the Treaty. That year 1967 was, I should remind you, a year deeply mired in Cold War tensions. That year, the United States had the largest number of nuclear weapons it would ever possess – a shocking total of more than 31,000. The Vietnam War was also in full swing, and proxy conflicts between the Eastern and Western blocs were heating up around the decolonizing Third World. Israel and the Arab states fought the Six-Day War, and China exploded its first Hydrogen Bomb. Meanwhile, within the Warsaw Pact, unhappiness in Czechoslovakia with Soviet domination would result, within a year, in Leonid Brezhnev’s invasion and suppression of the Prague Spring. It was a tense and dangerous time.

And yet, despite the bitterness of the East-West divide and the ominous nuclear shadow that hung over global politics, Washington and Moscow found it possible to recognize their shared interest – and the world’s shared interest – in stemming the further proliferation of nuclear weapons. These Cold War rivals found it within themselves to sit down, to engage with a wide range of diplomatic partners, and to cooperate effectively and decisively in hammering out the Treaty that today stands as the cornerstone of the global nonproliferation regime.

This willingness to come together – despite poisonous differences and fiercely competitive global postures – to help save the world from the dangers of instability, conflict, and nuclear war that would result from the spread of nuclear weapons, should be a lesson for us today. And it should be a model, for such cooperation on shared nonproliferation interests is today no less necessary, and no less important.


The speakers on this panel represent the three Depository States of the NPT system: the United States, Russia – the juridical successor to the Soviet Union – and the United Kingdom. These states were the first three possessors of nuclear weapons in human history. As NPT Depositaries, they are also powers with a special symbolic and political responsibility to the nonproliferation regime they helped create.

I have suggested these six lessons from negotiation of the NPT in the spirit of helping us grapple with the proliferation challenges of the present day, half a century after the Treaty was opened for signature. Those challenges are many, but so have been the achievements of the nonproliferation regime over those several decades. Upon introducing the draft text of the NPT in 1967, ACDA Director Foster predicted that the resulting treaty would be a boon not just for its signatories but also “for our children and our grandchildren.”

He was right about that, and we are those children and grandchildren today. I hope we will be able to draw upon lessons from the NPT’s history as we approach the proliferation challenges of the 21st Century, so that the Treaty can find itself as valuable after another half century as it has been for the last one.

Thank you.

-- Christopher Ford

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