New York meeting on the Erosion of Arms Control

On 17 October 2019, Pugwash and the Permanent Mission of Brazil to the United Nations co-organized a side event in the margins of the First Committee of the 74th UN General Assembly, titled “Erosion of the Arms Control Architecture: Threats, Challenges, Prospects”, at the UNHQ. The side event was attended by more than 40 individuals, including many members of delegations participating in the First Committee. The event was opened by an introduction by Paolo Cotta-Ramusino, Secretary-General of Pugwash, and included panel presentations by Nina Tannenwald (Brown University), Andrey Baklitskiy (PIR Center), Anne Kemppainen (Delegation of the European Union to the United Nations) and Paul Meyer (Simon Fraser University), moderated by Sérgio Duarte, President of Pugwash.

Speakers highlighted the need to reverse the negative trends in the current state of the arms control and disarmament framework. It was recalled that during the cold war, a mutual understanding of the dangers of nuclear warfare underpinned the commitment of both the US and the Soviet Union to disarmament and non-proliferation. For this reason, even when both countries were fighting a proxy war in Vietnam War, they were able to negotiate important arms control agreements, such as the SALT treaties and ABM. Recent years, however, have witnessed not just the slowing down of the post-cold war momentum in arms control and disarmament, but a sharp collapse of the architecture that had been negotiated over many years. In the overall panorama, an emphasis on unilateralism, the revival of discredited doctrines, the risk that nuclear weapons become part of “normality”, and the actual danger of a nuclear confrontation have become apparent.

The risk of a world without a functioning arms control regime is increasingly a reality, as nuclear-weapon states gradually abandon all restraints on their behaviour. Calls were made for the convening of a fourth Special Session on Disarmament, with speakers noting an urgent need to restore disarmament diplomacy and overhaul the disarmament machinery. One participant emphasized that all states must be convinced that a rules-based international system serves their interests. In this connection, participants were reminded that many of the major agreements in the field of arms control and disarmament emerged from the United Nations General Assembly, unconstrained by rigid rules and habits of consensus. Middle powers were called upon to take a leadership role in this regard.

Speakers agreed that the Nuclear Weapon States (NWS) should seek agreement on no-first use of nuclear weapons and join efforts to reduce the risk of nuclear confrontation. One important measure would be for the NWS to reaffirm the Reagan-Gorbatchev dictum that a “nuclear war cannot be won and must not be fought”, which, astonishingly, seems to be a tall order, as some of those States attempt to revive long-discredited notions of limited nuclear use. Such a commitment could be made at the 2020 NPT Review Conference and would in itself create an environment for progress in disarmament and nuclear risk reduction.

The view that the United States and Russia should revive bilateral diplomacy and resume dialogue on all aspects of strategic matters was widely shared. With regard to the bilateral relationship between them, the opinion was voiced that the reason for the current disagreement is of a political nature, since there is no technical problem to be solved. The need for an extension of the New START agreement in order to permit the negotiation of further reductions that would preserve nominal parity of nuclear forces was emphasized, as well as the importance of a commitment on no new deployments of intermediate range missiles. One participant asserted that even if an extension of New START proves not to be feasible, both the US and Russia can state their intent to act in accordance with it, and supplement such statements with the adoption of voluntary transparency and confidence-building measures, such as nuclear risk reduction centres (“nuclear hotlines”).

The promotion of transparency and confidence-building measures between the major nuclear powers was emphasized as a crucial ingredient for strategic stability. The central challenge of engaging China in trilateral negotiations with the US and Russia was highlighted, given that almost all of its nuclear capabilities are based on short- and intermediate-range missile. Equally, it was also noted that the tension between India and Pakistan is cause for serious alarm and must be urgently addressed to prevent further deterioration and military escalation.

More generally, leaders of NWS should be especially attentive to avoid inflammatory rhetoric in their public pronouncements. Participants stressed the need for strengthening public perception on nuclear risk as a means to increase pressure on the NWS governments to reengage in nuclear disarmament negotiations, and utilize this renewed commitment to address other issues in international security. It was noted that in the absence of a global movement in favour of nuclear disarmament, the NWS feel no pressure to restrain themselves and to adopt postures in the interest of humankind. It is incumbent on civil society and journalists to keep the issue high on the global agenda.