A Hopeful Sign from the U.S. Department of State About Disarmament

By Joanne Dufour

According to a press release from the United Nations Office in Geneva, Part I of the Conference on Disarmament held on March 26, 2019 concluded with a proposal from the United States. Its “Create an Environment for Nuclear Disarmament” initiative hopes to bring together as many countries of the world as wish to participate: both nuclear and non-nuclear nations, to develop actions implementing Article 6 of the Non Proliferation Treaty. This provision of the NPT called upon those nations with nuclear weapons to undertake a process of serious disarmament. While this statement presented by U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Dr. Christopher A. Ford never seemed to make the nightly news, it was an impressive diplomatic proposal included in the Department of State documents under the title of Creating an Environment for Nuclear Disarmament, better known with the new acronym “CEND”. The title of Dr. Ford’s address reads “Our Vision for a Constructive, Collaborative Disarmament Discourse” and a video and transcript can be found at the State Department’s website. Take a listen. You might be favorably surprised with Dr. Ford’s tone, language, and message.

Remarks from Dr. Chris Ford, Assistant Secretary of State at Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, March 26, 2019.

When was the last time you heard anyone in public office, especially at the federal level even mention the word “disarmament”? Certainly not since the time of this blog which has essentially featured those voices in favor of and working towards that goal. But here was an Assistant Secretary of State appointed last year by President Trump to this position. Is something happening? The UN in Geneva’s press release cites a number of diplomats who spoke favorably of this initiative when it was proposed, but it appears not to be taken very seriously.

Consider the following from his March 26 speech, “ I think we can perhaps learn something from the well-regarded International Partnership on Nuclear Disarmament Verification (IPNDV) (developed during the Obama administration)— a voluntary, working-group-type process now in the second phase of its ongoing effort to explore how it might be possible to verify the dismantlement of nuclear weapons pursuant to some potential future disarmament agreement. Much of the value of IPNDV has stemmed from its ability to bring together countries that have very different relationships to nuclear weapons in order to explore that verification problem together, to their mutual edification.” Please see a list of the countries involved in IPNDV. Take a look also at Dr. Ford’s more recent remarks from April 30 where he suggests a process similar to the convention that banned chemical weapons. (See the Disarming Our Planet blog on chemical weapons for more on that process.)

Those we have cited on this blog have recently offered their responses. Two of these sources are skeptical, citing valid criticisms, along with suggestions and hope:

An article from the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists highlights “the risk that the United States and other nuclear weapon states will use the process of Creating an Environment for Nuclear Disarmament to deflect pressures to take concrete action on disarmament.”

Meanwhile, an editorial by Ray Acheson of Reaching Critical Will notes that “Implementation of the NPT, including article VI, has never been predicated on first establishing conditions or an environment deemed appropriate by the nuclear-armed states. The leap backwards from decades of agreed commitments is an affront to all of the efforts made over the years in the NPT, and to the United States’ own allies that support the step-by-step approach.”

But what about the possibility of taking this effort seriously? Yes, it might have its drawbacks, but for the U.S. to utter this proposal at this time is amazing in my humble opinion. Yes, it should have been worked through U.S. allies and presented differently, but the verification group cited includes U.S. allies. And we have already learned that that approach has not been followed by the current President. Maybe we should give Dr. Ford a chance and applaud his efforts (before the Executive actually reads the speech and changes his mind about this appointment.)