Nuclear Proliferation and Arms Control

Nuclear Proliferation and Arms Control

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Lori Esposito Murray, adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, discusses nuclear proliferation and arms control, as part of CFR’s Religion and Foreign Policy Conference Call series.

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Lori Esposito Murray

Adjunct Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations


Irina A. Faskianos

Vice President for National Program and Outreach, Council on Foreign Relations

FASKIANOS: Good afternoon from New York and welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations Religion and Foreign Policy Conference Call Series. I’m Irina Faskianos, vice president for the National Program and Outreach here at CFR. As a reminder, today’s call is on the record, and the audio and transcript will be available on our website,, and on our iTunes podcast channel Religion and Foreign Policy.

We’re delighted to have Lori Esposito Murray with us today for a discussion on Nuclear Proliferation and Arms Control. Lori Esposito Murray is an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Prior to coming to CFR, she held the Distinguished National Security Chair at the U.S. Naval Academy. She previously served as a consultant to President George W. Bush’s Commission on Weapons of Mass Destruction and U.S. Intelligence Capabilities. Dr. Murray was special advisor to President Bill Clinton on the Chemical Weapons Convention. She was also responsible for multilateral negotiations on nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons issues at the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. She is also currently an adjunct professor at the University of Connecticut and president emeritus of the World Affairs Councils of America.

Lori, thanks very much for being with us. I thought we could begin with you giving us an overview of nuclear arms control and nuclear policy, and tell us why you think we are really at the crossroads now.

MURRAY: Well, thank you, Irina. Thank you for the invitation. And I’d like to thank everyone participating in the phone call given the importance of this issue and the work many of you have done.

2019 is a very important year. And one of the major trends that has put us at a crossroad is the fact that both nuclear arms control policy and nuclear arms policy is hitting major decision points. And what is at stake is the historic progress that U.S. and Russia have made since 1986 in terms of deep reductions. In 1986 we were at the level of seventy thousand nuclear weapons worldwide. Over 95 percent of those were U.S. and Russia. And today, because of the arms control process and because of unilateral strategy decisions made by both the U.S. and Russia, we are down to fifteen thousand nuclear weapons worldwide. That’s an 80 percent reduction in the number of nuclear weapons.

And in 2019 we are standing at a crossroad. The threats are changing. We’re seeing the rise of great-power competition, which is making nuclear deterrence once again take center stage, because nuclear deterrence was seen as much more effective against major powers, major states, and not as effective against terrorist threats. So you see nuclear deterrence as a policy taking center stage again. We have advancing technologies: hypersonics going fifteen times the speed of sound, advances in both offense and defense technologies, AI is playing a critical role in that as well. And this is all happening while the arms control regime is collapsing.

We have seen the end of the INF agreement. And New START, which brought us down to fifteen hundred deployable—1,550 deployable nuclear weapons apiece between us and Russia, is ending in February of 2021, and it doesn’t look like it will—that an extension is pending, or even less likely is a follow-on agreement. And so this is a really critical turning point, both in terms of U.S. and Russia policy and global policy on arms control. And you know, keep in mind that U.S. and Russia still possess 90 percent of the nuclear weapons worldwide. And at a time when the arms control regime’s collapsing and the proliferation threat is rising, with North Korea, Iran, and every other nuclear power including India and Pakistan modernizing their nuclear weapons.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Let’s open it up to questions.

OPERATOR: At this time we will open up the floor for questions.

FASKIANOS: Lori, while we wait for questions to queue up, can you talk a little bit about the flashpoints we’re seeing now with Iran, North Korea, and India/Pakistan?

MURRAY: Yeah, those are the three major flashpoints. And just the fact that we’re facing three major flashpoints all at the same time involving nuclear weapons also highlights how we really are at a turning point in terms of the significance of these weapons systems once again, and also their destabilizing nature.

With North Korea we’re on a particular timeline. Kim Jong-un has said that he would give the Trump administration till the end of the year, and that’s kind of been lost in all of the news coverage of President Trump being invited to Pyongyang possibly, and what’s going to be the follow up after Hanoi, and is denuclearization the policy we should be pursuing. In fact, there’s a timeline there that Kim Jong-un has set out that is just a couple of months away.

Of course, in Iran, since the Trump administration pulled out of the Iran deal in May of 2018, we have seen increasing tensions with Iran as the president’s maximum pressure strategy really had a powerful effect on crippling the Iranian economy. Prior to the Iran situation, in terms of sanctions it was dogma that to do sanctions you really needed multilateral support, and what the president has shown with our policy on Iran is that the U.S. alone, with secondary sanctions and given its economic power, can really bring down an economy. We’ve isolated Iran from the international financial markets. Their currency has lost 60 percent of its value against the U.S. dollar. We’ve cut their oil exports dramatically. And this is actually against a very powerful coalition of countries—Russia, China, EU, Germany, France, Britain, all parties to the Iran deal who wanted to see it succeed. And this has led to increased tensions in the Gulf, which actually accelerated, of course, just a couple of months ago with the drone strikes and the commandeering tankers, as Iran has gotten more and more aggressive. And now, of course, we’re facing the situation of what’s happened to the Saudi oil facilities and just raising it to a very significant flashpoint.

And then, of course, in India and Pakistan, the Kashmiri area has actually intensified over the past two years. But a major and significant turning point happened when Modi announced on August 5, or it was announced on August 5, that they were going to actually no longer recognize the autonomy of the Indian side of Kashmir, and once again turning that situation into a powder keg.

So those are the three major areas facing us today, dealing with the nuclear weapons issue.

FASKIANOS: Terrific. Next question, please.

OPERATOR: We’ll take our next question from Charles Strohmer with Wisdom Project.

STROHMER: Well, hi. Thanks for taking my call and I appreciate your time with us here.

So have you heard of any calls for disarming multilaterally, moving beyond just arms control to maybe getting countries to disarm multilaterally sort of at the same rate, reducing the threats, full access, policing, things like that to bring about peace, rather than just sort of maintaining the status quo where a few countries have nuclear weapons?

MURRAY: So could I just ask for a clarification? Disarming multilaterally including nuclear weapons and conventional weapons, or just on the nuclear side?

STROHMER: Good question. Well, can we start with nukes, or do they have to be included?


STROHMER: Can we do one without the other? I don’t really—

MURRAY: Yeah, OK. On the nuclear issue, there are two major multilateral efforts. Of course, one is the nuclear ban treaty. And that was open for signature in 2017. And it currently needs fifty nations to ratify or accede to it, and the nuclear ban treaty actually bans nuclear weapons the way the chemical weapons treaty bans chemical weapons, and the way we have a norm on the biological weapons of a ban.

But in September 2017, the nuclear ban treaty was opened for signature. You needed fifty nations to ratify or accede to it. And right now there are seventy signatories but of that, only twenty-eight nations are actually state parties that actually ratified or acceded to it. So that’s one effort. And actually, that’s an effort that the religious communities have been very involved in, including at the highest level of Pope Francis actually participating in helping to frame that agreement.

And then the other effort is the one that President Trump has announced that he’s interested in, and Secretary Pompeo has actually been pursuing, in terms of seeing if there was any interest with a Russia-China-U.S. multilateral approach to the problem of these intermediate nuclear forces after we got into the Nuclear Forces Agreement, to try and handle the issue multilaterally with Russia and China. The Chinese have indicated that they have no interest in doing that at this point. That was their first response. But it is an effort the administration is continuing to see if it could roll out.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: We’ll take our next question from DeAnne Butterfield with Friends Committee.

BUTTERFIELD: Hi. Thanks a lot. My question is about sanctions. The narrative is very confusing because sanctions are supposed to be a way to get the adversary to the negotiating table. But what’s evolving is that sanctions are just there as an offensive strategy for I don’t know what kind of ends. And so we know that when sanctions don’t work, the call is for more sanctions. And when military action doesn’t work, the call is for more military action. But when people say diplomacy doesn’t work, then the call is for sanctions and military action. What suggestions do you have to frame the sanctions tool, connecting it back to diplomacy?

MURRAY: That is an excellent question. And that is really the dilemma of sanctions policy. And I would actually argue that we are right now in an important, defining moment in the maximum sanctions pressure with Iran. And to your point, we put the pressure on, we hit the economy pretty significantly, and then it’s a matter of capturing a diplomatic moment in terms of recognizing it on the part of the U.S., as well as getting Iran to recognize that this is a moment that we’ll really need to talk. And what’s interesting is I think that has actually been recognized, you hear President Trump talking more frequently about wanting to talk to the Iranians. But you have President Macron actually playing an intermediary role at the G-7, where Foreign Minister Zarif was actually in Paris, and he was going to move the Iranian crisis forward in terms of diplomacy.

We have seen sanctions work in terms of diplomacy. And that was with the original Iran deal. It was in 2012 that President Obama got the European allies to really intensify sanctions, hit the oil sector of Iran, also go after the banking sector. The impact was pretty sharp and severe, and we moved to negotiating the Joint Comprehensive Agreement with Iran. So, we have seen just recently sanctions work. But in order to work, you have to provide a de-escalation ladder that will allow diplomacy to take its course. Otherwise, as you were saying, you’re just in this spiral of more and more sanctions, which don’t necessarily lead to regime change. And even if they do lead to regime change, you’re just leading to chaos.

And the last thing we need is another black hole of a country in the Middle East after we’ve watched what’s happened in Syria, and Libya. We’re also watching what’s happened in Venezuela, you know, as far as what’s become of the world. And, you know, it’s important to try and capture and utilize the leverage that does get you toward a different kind of solution, because sanctions in and of themselves are not a policy. They’re a leverage to a policy.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: We’ll take our next question from Daniel Hall from SGI-USA.

HALL: Hi. Thank you. My question was actually related to one that was already asked. I wanted to know if you thought that with the breakdown of bilateral arms control agreements and negotiations that multilateral instruments, such as the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, might become more attractive to nation-states that have not yet ratified. Or is it simply going to propel them to hold onto their weapons more strongly and to their nuclear umbrella protections more strongly? And on that, as a follow up, what is the role of civil society in pushing those nations that have not ratified this treaty yet—in pushing them into doing so?

MURRAY: Thank you for that question on the prohibition treaty, which is really important in terms of the role it plays. I do think, unfortunately, the changing threat, the rise of competition among Russia and China, the increasing tensions in the Middle East, North Korea’s pursuit of its nuclear weapons program, and then what seems to be almost a breakdown that’s happening between India and Pakistan, that unfortunately the importance of nuclear weapons and the increased role for nuclear weapons in deterrence is going to be where we are heading. So increasing the role of nuclear weapons in deterrence policy, and the importance of nuclear deterrence policy is the reality of where we’re heading as a global community.

But, having said that  if you look back to the 1980s, the civil society pressure, and the pressure that the treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons places as a balance or as a pullback on that is extremely important. In the 1980s, as we were pursuing and dealing with the competition in Europe with intermediate-range systems, and the Russian—and the Soviet Russian deployments, there was a tremendous amount of civil concern, protest in Europe, in the United States. And that played a large role terms of opening the door for diplomatic solutions.

And what you saw Reagan and Gorbachev do then was eventually, after the Reykjavik summit let to the INF agreement, and then to the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty process, which brought us down 80 percent, as I was mentioning, which contributed in large part to bringing us down to 80 percent in nuclear weapons between the U.S. and Russia. I mean, there were some unilateral decisions we made, but the arms control process was an important part of that.

So civil society and public pressure is really important, I think, in terms of providing an opening for diplomatic solutions. And what I’m really concerned about now is however many years since the collapse of the Soviet Union there has been very little attention paid to nuclear weapons. And so we’re dealing with several generations of Americans and global citizens who are really not aware, or have not been thinking about nuclear weapons, and why nuclear weapons are different, and why we should be concerned about them.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: We’ll take our next question from Satpal Singh with State University of New York.

SINGH: Thanks for taking my question. And I have this question on what role can leaders of faith play in mitigating the increasing threat? What approaches can be fostered? And are there any attention being paid by leaders of faith beyond what folks that you mentioned did? And it’s also related to question that some of the major conflict facts, for example, in India and Pakistan—come from religious sentiments. So what is being done and what can be? Thanks.

MURRAY: I’m sorry, you were breaking up a little. I just want to make sure I understand the question. You were mentioning that religious sentiment has played a role in the conflict with India and Pakistan, and what can be done about that?

SINGH: Yeah. What role can faith leaders and religious leaders, play in mitigating threats, not only on religious conflict but in general, across the board?

MURRAY: Right. As I said, I think the 1980s show—is a perfect example of how the U.S. and Russia, the superpowers, were moving away from diplomacy and arms control. And it was the religious leaders who played a very important and significant role globally in terms of raising awareness and concern about what direction we were heading. And needless to say, when dealing with a situation like India-Pakistan, where religion actually plays a role in the tensions, I think there’s a very significant role in that particular issue.

But I also think globally and worldwide the most important number-one agenda that we should be focusing on right now is extending New START, and just keeping those deep reduction levels in place. That sounds like a very baseline thing to be working for. Unfortunately, it’s something that could so easily happen. But it’s actually at risk. And I think focusing on extending New START and keeping the level of reductions that we’ve achieved between the U.S. and the Russians in place on the strategic systems is something that is the most important short-term issue to focus on.

And then in terms of these other flashpoints, as well as the larger global issues, I think keeping the pressure on to make sure the answer here is using either military power or sanctions power to open up leverage for diplomacy. And that’s where the religious community can really be putting pressure and direction, to say: Use this—you’ve got this leverage. If you’re moving in these—or, if we’re moving in these very tense directions, it’s critical that we take the opportunity to deal with this diplomatically.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: We’ll take our next question from Thomas Walsh with Universal Peace Coalition.

WALSH: Hi. Thank you for today’s discussion and fielding these questions.

I wanted to bring up the issue about cyberwarfare, both as carried out by nuclear powers that are also  developing a kind of mutually assured destruction capacity, some argue is as dangerous as the nuclear threat, that could impact our grids and water and power, that sustain people’s lives, even if it takes a longer period of time. How that factors into your thinking about this topic. And then, secondly, apart from the nuclear power club are cyber criminals or kind of asymmetrical pieces that could invade nuclear systems and create disastrous consequences. So I guess I’d just like if you could expand the discussion into that area a little bit.

MURRAY: Sure. I really see the cyber challenge and threat is really, I think, on several distinct levels. I mean, one is the cyber criminals, as you mentioned, or the cyber individual hackers. It’s a tool that anybody could use. Then there’s state-sponsored criminal activity, espionage. And then you move into the top tier, which is when you have state-sponsored massive attacks—cyberattacks on critical infrastructure, that could really bring down a society—whether that’s a financial structure, or the electrical grid, you know, on a massive level.

And I think when you’re looking at cyber I would like to make a distinction if you’re looking on that massive level, in terms of comparing it to nuclear. I think cyber effects are catastrophic. I think nuclear is existential. And that’s a critical difference between both of these capabilities. That nuclear still holds the existential threat to humanity, because of the devastating destructive power of these weapons. But cyber becomes existential when you combine it with nuclear. And that if you overtake or challenge the command and control system of nuclear weapons, or if you attack nuclear civilian power plants on a massive level, causing ten, twenty, thirty Chernobyls all at once.

And so I think when you combine the cyber with nuclear, you get to an existential potential. And that’s what I think, as an international community, we have to deal with the cyber on all levels, and also cyber as a catalyst for an escalating conflict. But I think the principal focus should be on setting rules and norms, or—in terms of behavior as far as cyber and nuclear weapons, as well as trying to defend against that. And, you know, by enhancing the security of both our civilian nuclear facilities as well as our command and control of our military nuclear facilities, weapons.

And so that’s basically how I look at it. And I think we should really start with an effort immediately at the top, and particularly if AI becomes—plays more of a role in command and control—to start trying to get global norms at that highest level of a massive cyberattack. And then work to develop norms in terms of the other areas as well.

WALSH: As you were speaking, which I very much appreciate, just the issue emerged in my mind was about whether, say, the U.S. and Russia have the capacity—or if they have each planted malware in each other’s nuclear systems in such a way that it would disable their capacities and, therefore, intensify threats, or something. I think what you call the existential and the more humanitarian disaster aspect are becoming more and more intertwined.

MURRAY: Right, which is where cyber can actually threaten a nuclear—or, actually plays a part in the use of nuclear weapons, especially as we are modernizing these nuclear systems, you know, and digitizing the nuclear systems. And this is something that Strategic Command and the Pentagon are very aware of, in trying to figure out how do you modernize and try to ensure the security of your systems as you modernize them? But it is a very, very serious issue.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: We’ll take our next question from Mary Yelenick with Pax Christi International.

YELENICK: Yes. Thank you very much.

I was wondering if you could elaborate a bit on the use of the word “deterrence.” You’ve used it several times. And you say that you suspect that the policies are going to be moving more in that direction. It seems that there’s an argument that the existence and the recent proliferation of nuclear weapons among formerly non-nuclear nations suggestions that there’s an incentive for those non-nuclear nations to acquire nuclear weapons—and witness North Korea. They’re paid attention to finally when they have a nuclear weapon. And witness what happened in Iraq. When Saddam Hussein got rid of his nuclear program, he was attacked. So how does the existence of a nuclear weapon in a country operate as deterrent? Thank you.

MURRAY: So, thank you. I mean, deterrence will always be a part of human society, deterrence in general, in terms of how people relate to each other and countries relate to each other. You know, deterrence is just a part of how human society relates. But nuclear deterrence, I just want to separate that out.

The nuclear deterrent is becoming more significant or regaining its significance with the rise of great-power competition. Because nuclear deterrence is seen as more effective against nation-states, is that you can deter nation-states with the threat of a nuclear weapon, as opposed to when we saw the top threat over the past several years as being from terrorism. That it’s very hard to deter a terrorist with a nuclear weapon. They’re much more amorphous. They don’t control territory and are harder to find. And so deterrence is challenged by—and not as effective against terrorism. But it is effective against a nation-state.

And so that’s why I was saying you’re going to see the relevance of nuclear deterrence reinvigorated as we move into this era of great-power competition, you know, which we’re already in. But to your larger point of, you know, North Korea, it’s part of the reason—and almost all analysts agree on this—the reason why Kim Jong-un is developing nuclear weapons is to ensure that he’s not invaded. And so for security. There are other reasons why he’s developing nuclear weapons, which is obviously prestige, as you mentioned. So that, here he is, one of the poorest nations in the world, you know, that countries are—countries and all three major powers are paying attention to, U.S., Russia, and China. All three leaders are meeting with him. And so you get the prestige that comes with it.

But I think we can deal even as it becomes more important among—in terms of its relevance in the great power competition—I still think, and we’ve proven this over the years, that you can ensure other countries that their security does not require nuclear weapons. And if you look at the Non-Proliferation Treaty, how many countries are in the Non-Proliferation Treaty? I mean, there were 192 state parties with a handful of those being the nuclear powers. And we, as a global community, have managed to effectively ensure the security and convince most nations that they don’t need nuclear weapons for prestige, for development, for security. And so we have been successful at that, even while nuclear weapons have played a role among the great powers.

But I also want to empathize, because there’s so little credit given to the U.S. and Russia since 1986 to today in terms—it was in February of this past year that we hit the low-level reductions in the New START process. And there’s so little credit give to the U.S. and Russia for going from seventy thousand nuclear weapons worldwide to fifteen thousand over that time period. And so we’ve seen significant progress, even among the two major possessors of nuclear weapons, and the continue to be the two major possessors nuclear weapons, having 90 percent of the nuclear weapons between us and the Russians.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: We’ll take our next question from Dennis Frado with Lutheran Office for World Divinity.

FRADO: Yes. Thank you, Dr. Murray.

Acknowledging what you just said about progress in nuclear arms reduction with New START, I wanted to ask your views on how we can get the U.S. and Russia back to the bilateral negotiations in relation to the INF treaty, now that the U.S. has walked away from it. And is there a role for civil society in that specific case? Thanks.

MURRAY: Yes. There is an important role for civil society. And the onus is really on Vladimir Putin. And you know, in 2007 he announced at the Munich Security Conference that he no longer saw the INF Treaty as viable and started a process then to get out of the INF by developing, testing, and deploying the INF systems. And President Obama raised this to the highest level. He wrote a letter to President Putin directly saying how important it was that he come back into the INF agreement, and the significance of the agreement. And we met over thirty times with the Russians since then trying to address this issue.

And so it’s very hard to stay in an agreement when another country has actually started deploying those weapons systems. And so here’s where civil society pressure  can play a really important role, because it’s very hard—we weren’t able on a diplomatic level, on the highest level in our government, to convince the Russians that they needed—that they shouldn’t be moving in that direction. And I think this is where civil society on a global level, putting pressure on all of the major powers regarding these issues—is extremely important in terms of raising it on their priority level, and making it an issue that they have to respond to. I think you have a very, very important role to play.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: We’ll take our next question from Ronald Stone.

STONE: Thank you, Dr. Murray. Which countries do you suspect are working on nuclear weapon development, beyond our disputes with Iran?

MURRAY: Beyond Iran and North Korea? Well, is really the challenge of dealing with Iran and North Korea. How those situations unfold and where we end up is going to have a significant impact on how other countries look at nuclear weapons, particularly in those regions. And in terms of North Korea, if North Korea continues to develop and maintain its nuclear weapons, you’re going to see pressure from within Japan and within South Korea, and it’s already happening in terms of debates, as to whether they should be actually possessing their own nuclear weapons, as opposed to relying on the United States for its deterrent nuclear capability. And so you’re going to see proliferation pressures developing.

And the same thing in Iran. If Iran develops a nuclear weapons capability, you’re going to see pressure within Saudi Arabia, which we’re already seeing in terms of pressure develop nuclear weapons, where the Saudis have already said if Iran develops a nuclear weapon, they’re going to develop a nuclear weapon. So this isn’t just guesswork. Countries are already talking about that. And you can see the proliferation push that happens, particularly with those two countries, since North Korea has already developed a nuclear-weapons capability and, you know, Iran has the potential to develop one pretty quickly, and just the pressure point they’re going to put on the whole proliferation issue.

I do want to say, particular—there have been a number of questions about the role of civil society. I just want to add that one of the most important things that civil society can do to was the education level on these issues and the focus on these issues, and educating the American public and your communities about nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons have really disappeared from discussion in the United States after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1992. The Soviet threat went away, and so did the nuclear threat, although the nuclear weapons were still there.

STONE: In our community, Daniel Ellsberg’s new book, The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner, has inspired some Presbytery action and public discussion in Pittsburgh. I wonder, would you be willing to comment on the wisdom of that book, and particularly his strong advocacy of a no-first-strike commitment?

MURRAY: You know, actually, I haven’t read the book. I read a book review a while ago. And so, having not read the book, I’m, you know, a little reluctant to comment on it. (Laughs.) You know, I know there are a lot of people, particularly on talk shows, who do comment about things they don’t read. (Laughs.) I hold to that standard as a—

STONE: As a professor, I respect your reluctance.

MURRAY: (Laughs.) Thank you.

STONE: Some of the religious communities that I mentioned have been urging adoption of a no-first-strike policy, as have major theologians and some of our churches. Would you comment on the contribution of pressure on the no first strike?

MURRAY: So regarding no first strike, there are a number of countries that have no-first-strike policy, including the Indians and the Chinese. From my view, the problem with the no-strike—no-first-strike policy is that even though a country may announce it, you still have to doubt it and incorporate that doubt into your strategic policy.

So to me, it’s a little bit of a conundrum in terms of what it really does mean and whether it’s really effective and whether the U.S., if it announced a no-first-strike policy—whether it would actually abide by it. And does it really help you in terms of trying to convince other nations not to attack you first if you have a no-first-strike policy?

So I see that’s a little bit more complex. On the surface I think it’s very appealing. But even watching it in practice with both the Indians and the Chinese, it’s very hard to take it seriously that, particularly when you’re looking at things, tensions increasing in the regions or among countries just how to factor that in and whether you can really factor it in and take it seriously.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Thank you for that. And let’s go to our next question.

OPERATOR: We’ll take our next question from Joseph Paul Martin with Barnard College.

MARTIN: Hello. I hope you can hear me. I never know exactly.

My question is, then, what’s the agenda for dealing with nonstate actors that have weapons or the threat of weapons of mass destruction?

MURRAY: Nonstate actors—the critical agenda there—and this was actually started by President Obama and raised to the highest level—he held four summits while he was president, one every two years, and had over forty leaders of nations come to these summits, with the last one being in Washington, on nuclear security.

And the whole point of nuclear security was to try and either lock down or secure these materials or remove them from countries. And when the process started, there were close to fifty countries with weapon-grade nuclear material. And at the end of his eight years, that was cut by half where countries actually agreed to remove the nuclear material from their nation-state. And Ukraine was one of those, and that happened before the Russians actually invaded, before Putin invaded Ukraine.

So the policy—since deterrence was seen as not being effective, the policy really switched to trying to lock down control or remove the material, weapons-grade material. And it’s absolutely critical that we continue that effort, which has now moved to a high-level group globally and is not having the same impact or effectiveness as it did during the Obama years, since it has fallen off the priority list. It’s still among our efforts that we’re doing, but it’s fallen down in terms of priority list in terms of U.S. diplomacy and leadership.

FASKIANOS: Great. Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: We’ll take our next question from Doug Hostetter with Pax Christi International.

HOSTETTER: Hi, Dr. Murray. Thank you very much for taking the time to meet with us.

I have actually a two-part question. One, there are a number of weapons of mass destruction; chemical and biological. And they have been made illegal by international law because of the fact that they are, in fact, weapons of mass destruction and would violate the rules of law. Can you explain to me why nuclear weapons have not been included in prohibitions so far?

And then the second part of my question would be you’ve worked for several American administrations. And I wonder whether you think that the United States government would actually abide by the treaty for the prohibition of nuclear weapons if it actually became international law.

Thank you.

MURRAY: So on the first question as to why nuclear weapons haven’t been included in a ban until this point, it’s interesting. It’s taken years on the biological and chemical issues. And the biological-weapons issue is basically a norm, not really a treaty. And focusing on the chemical and biological weapons pretty much grew out of World War I, with the concerns and use of particularly chemical weapons during World War I. And you had the Geneva Convention.

And so you basically had a norm. And it took years. We still don’t have a convention on biological weapons that’s verifiable, with verification provisions. But we do have the Chemical Weapons Convention. And that took years to negotiate. It’s a comprehensive treaty. You know, it bans chemical weapons. It has extensive verification procedures and we’ve seen the removal of thousands of tons of nuclear weapons—worldwide under the Chemical Weapons Convention.

And so, as I said, this has been a process. The Chemical Weapons Convention was ratified in 1997, I believe, and came into force in 1997, which isn’t really that long ago. And so, looking at it in terms of a timeline, nuclear weapons have been seen as much more important, I think, in terms of deterring nuclear war and much more significant in terms of military planning, in terms of deterrence. And I think that is why nuclear weapons have not been at the front end.

But if you think about how long it’s taken to do the other two—and we still don’t have a verifiable convention on bio—if you look at it that way, it doesn’t seem as skewed as if you look at it through the timeline perspective.

Does that help?

HOSTETTER: Yeah, yeah.

And the second question, if, in fact, the treaty of prevention of nuclear weapons became international law, do you think the United States government would abide by it?

MURRAY: You know, I think there were some very serious concerns about a ban and the effectiveness of the ban and the verification of a ban that is actually not only held by the U.S., but that it’s actually an issue with Russia, with China, with the P5—Britain, France, the U.S.—in terms of concerns about the viability and effectiveness of the treaty if you were going to go to a complete ban.

So I think there are serious concerns about it in terms of its security and verifiability. And I am, you know, just cautious about whether we will actually get to the point where you’re going to get particularly the P5 on board the ban treaty.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: We’ll take our next question from Daniel Hall with SGI USA.

HALL: I wanted to ask a follow-up question to build on the discussion you’ve been leading on deterrence. Ever since the invention of nuclear weapons, deterrence has played a role in trying to create stability. However, the record of catastrophic use of nuclear weapons, either through intention or accident or miscalculation, has presented itself as a reality. Deterrence is not a guarantee that nuclear weapons and nuclear catastrophe can be avoided.

And now that we are in this current situation with the development of cyber warfare, AI, hypersonic missiles, and with proliferation, a greater opportunity for nonstate actors to get access to nuclear weapons, is there an argument to be made that continuing down a path of nuclear deterrence is actually riskier than moving down a path of disarmament? And if so, why is that sense of risk and concern not more normalized within the security and foreign-policy status quo? Because I don’t hear that sense of concern or urgency or the growing-risk part of the calculation often come out in the public discourse.

MURRAY: Yeah, thank you. It’s an excellent question. It’s actually at the heart and soul of this whole issue.

And I actually have a little bit different perspective on deterrence than what you just outlined, which is that the U.S. has never really totally relied on deterrence, as a sole policy. We’ve always incorporated arms control. Even at the outset, when, in the Truman administration, after—right after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we had the Baruch Plan and went to the U.N. with the Baruch Plan, which was a disarmament plan for nuclear weapons, and actually looked at creating a fuel bank for civil nuclear facilities, an international fuel bank, but to get rid of nuclear weapons. And it’s really fascinating, because I think nuclear weapons are the only weapons in our arsenal that, when they were introduced into the arsenal, so was arms control from the get-go.

What’s interesting is there was a very important turning point in terms of the seriousness of the need for diplomacy, arms control, to complement the deterrence policy in the Eisenhower administration. It was President Eisenhower who was utilizing brinkmanship. He solved—actually got the armistice in North Korea by threatening the use of nuclear weapons. Faced with the shelling of Formosa in 1956, he threatened the use of nuclear weapons.

And he began to seriously think that purely relying on deterrence and brinkmanship was really, as you were saying, very destabilizing and dangerous. And  that’s where you saw, once he had an opportunity with the death of Stalin and Khrushchev coming into power, that he actually started the spirit of Geneva and of the test moratoriums and trying to improve U.S.—or trying to add a diplomatic dimension to the U.S.-Soviet relations, because deterrence and brinkmanship alone were an extremely dangerous policy.

And so throughout the ’60s, the ’70s, and the ’80s, we have always combined this effort at arms control, and in the Reagan administration it became reductions, as I said, which led us to these historic reductions between the U.S. and Russia in the number of nuclear weapons worldwide. And we have always combined this arms control with a deterrence policy in order to provide more stability.

And what concerns me now—and which is why I see 2019 as a real turning point in terms of nuclear policy—is we are going back to a period where we are completely relying on nuclear deterrence and we are—the arms-control piece and the stability piece of our—the diplomatic piece of trying to deal with the existential nature of these weapons is collapsing.

And that’s why I think it’s really critical, and this is where the role for civil society is extremely important in terms of both educating the American public and activating the American public to be aware of the seriousness of this issue and to try to ensure that our policy is not strictly a nuclear-deterrence policy, that our policy is one that looks for more reductions, more stability, and less proliferation.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. I’m going to try to squeeze in one final question.

OPERATOR: We’ll take our next question from Jonathan Frerichs with Pax Christi International.

FRERICHS: Yes. I’m calling from outside the U.S. with Pax Christi in Geneva. And I just wanted to follow up on a thread running through the discussion. Thank you very much for sharing your wisdom.

What bears down on me from overseas is the strength of the two-tier system, the two classes, the nuclear powers and all the rest. And I think that the Ban Treaty breaks through that in a certain way.

I’d like to ask what ways do you see to change that mindset, which so often is just assumed as a given in the American disarmament community. And then what is the capacity of the Ban Treaty to actually show that we are all in the same boat by essentially saying Article 6 needs to be implemented, and here’s an extra push.

So if you could answer on both of those, I would be very grateful. Thank you.

MURRAY: So regarding the Ban Treaty—and the great-power competition, which is beginning to define this era that we’re in, or that it defines the new era we’re in, really involves—specifically involves China and Russia. And I think you just can’t deal with U.S. policy in the abstract. You have to deal with U.S. policy in the context of defense, deterrence, threats. And so the policy of China and Russia are absolutely critical in terms of how the U.S. looks at these issues on a top tier, and then the growing nuclear threat.

We seem to ignore the fact that India and Pakistan have the fastest-growing nuclear arsenals worldwide, and not only the fastest-growing, but extremely sophisticated in terms of advanced technologies. I mean, India has just tested an anti-satellite system, and they are a society that is very much accomplished in terms of advanced technologies and becoming more and more accomplished.

And so you need to look at this in terms of the whole vector of nuclear powers and nuclear weapons and how they react to each other in order to, I think, move the issue forward—from what has happened?

FRERICHS: Why isn’t that exactly the same as the sort of downward spiral we entered into in the—in the 1950s in the nuclear-arms race and the prospects, in this globalized, interdependent, interly-vulnerable world, that we can do the same thing based on big-power mentality? Surely there can be a debate in the biggest power of all that this is not a very productive road to go down.

MURRAY: You know, it has been. And what really frustrates me is that there’s very little acknowledgement or credit given to the U.S. and to Russia for the 80 percent reductions in their nuclear weapons over the past years since 1986, and significant, significant progress. And, you know, more has to be done, but we know how to do it and we’ve been doing it together with the other possessor of 90 percent of the nuclear weapons worldwide.

We need to engage the Chinese. Although they’re far below the U.S. and Russia, they’re launching a major modernization of their entire military, which includes their nuclear capabilities. And we need to engage them in this process and have them understand the importance of arms control, stability, the significance of these weapons. And, you know, and most critically, I think, India and Pakistan, as the next-largest possessors of nuclear weapons—they’re both at 120 nuclear weapons apiece and the fastest modernization.

So tremendous progress has been made. We know how to do it. The U.S. and Russia know how to do it. Extending New START should be a very simple follow-on in order to hold the line so we can figure out how to deal with more advanced technologies as well as systems that aren’t included in the strategic limits. And you would think that that would be, you know, an easy next step to take. It doesn’t require any renegotiation. It doesn’t require Senate ratification because it’s part of the treaty.

So we know how to do this. There are steps we can take to move us toward a more stable world where the role of nuclear weapons is reduced. And we just need to reinvigorate the diplomatic process.

FASKIANOS: Well, we are unfortunately out of time and over time. So I regret that we can’t take any of the remaining questions. But Lori Esposito Murray, thank you very much for sharing your valuable insights with us today, and to all of you for your terrific questions and comments. We look forward to continuing the dialogue.

We encourage you to follow Lori Esposito Murray’s work on these issues. We also encourage you to follow CFR’s Religion and Foreign Policy program on Twitter at @CFR_Religion for announcements about upcoming events and information about the latest CFR resources. And you can always email us at [email protected] with any suggestions on future calls or events.

So thank you again to Lori and to all of you.

MURRAY: Well, thank you.


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