from International Institutions and Global Governance Program

Reinventing Nuclear Disarmament and Nonproliferation as Cooperative Endeavors

An inflatable nuclear missile balloon stands at the ready before a protest held by the group Global Zero in McPherson Square in Washington, DC, on April 1, 2016. Win McNamee/Getty Images

Differences between nuclear and nonnuclear weapons states could seriously weaken the nuclear regime. Recasting disarmament as a common endeavor that addresses each country’s legitimate interests and priorities would improve its prospects.

April 21, 2021

An inflatable nuclear missile balloon stands at the ready before a protest held by the group Global Zero in McPherson Square in Washington, DC, on April 1, 2016. Win McNamee/Getty Images

This Global Governance Working Paper is a feature of the Council of Councils (CoC), an initiative of the Council on Foreign Relations. Targeting critical global problems where new, creative thinking is needed, the working papers identify new principles, rules, or institutional arrangements that can improve international cooperation by addressing long-standing or emerging global problems. The views and recommendations are the opinion of the author only. They do not necessarily represent a consensus of the CoC members, and they are not the positions of the supporting institutions. The Council on Foreign Relations takes no institutional positions on policy issues and has no affiliation with the U.S. government.

The Challenge

Łukasz Kulesa

Deputy Head of Research, Polish Institute of International Affairs

Although virtually all countries—including the 191 states that are parties to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT)—support the goal of complete nuclear disarmament, many disagree on the best way to achieve it. Two positions have emerged, with the five nuclear weapons states of the NPT (the United States, China, France, Russia, and the United Kingdom) and their allies on one side and supporters of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW, in force as of January 2021) on the other side. The nuclear weapons states and their partners promote a gradual approach to disarmament and emphasize the continued importance of nuclear deterrence for their security, whereas supporters of the TPNW push for the abolition of nuclear weapons and an unconditional rejection of nuclear deterrence.

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Nonproliferation, Arms Control, and Disarmament

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Nuclear Weapons

The broader increase of tensions between major powers and recent actions by some nuclear weapons states—including Russia’s continued development of new nuclear weapons technology [PDF], the collapse of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, the United Kingdom’s decision to increase the cap on its nuclear warheads, and the inability of the United States and Russia to agree on further nuclear reductions beyond the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START)—have made a number of observers skeptical regarding the prospects, or indeed wisdom, of nuclear disarmament. North Korea’s advanced nuclear weapons program and Iran’s expansion of its nuclear activities beyond the limits of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) add to the list of challenges.

A complete breakdown of the nonproliferation regime is unlikely. However, external crises and differences between nuclear weapons states and nonnuclear weapons states could seriously weaken the regime. A climate of mistrust will complicate the reduction of nuclear stockpiles, damage efforts to reduce nuclear risks, and impede a collective international response if, or rather when, a new nuclear proliferation threat arises. This in turn also increases the danger of one of the possessors actually using nuclear weapons.

Still, not all news is bad. The NPT Review Conference—which takes place every five years and charts the course for both nonproliferation and disarmament efforts—was postponed from April 2020 to August 2021. This delay created some breathing room to revive the nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation agenda.

The recent five-year extension of the U.S.-Russia New START treaty also bodes well for the future. The Joe Biden administration is likely to put the United States on the path to arms control dialogue with Russia and to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in the U.S. security strategy. One should also expect a more constructive U.S. approach toward its NPT obligations than the one demonstrated by the Donald Trump administration, as well as some willingness to reduce tensions over the TPNW.


To reverse the deterioration of trust and strengthen both nonproliferation and disarmament efforts, nuclear weapons states and nonnuclear weapons states should pursue the following recommendations.

More on:

Nonproliferation, Arms Control, and Disarmament

Global Governance

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Treaties and Agreements

Nuclear Weapons

All NPT parties should recommit to the treaty’s goals. A high-level recommitment to the goals of the NPT would benefit the regime itself and the upcoming review conference. The treaty is often described as the cornerstone of the nuclear order. It provides a variety of goals: non-dissemination of nuclear weapons, technology, materials, and know-how by the possessors paired with commitment by nonnuclear participants to refrain from developing or acquiring these weapons; agreement by all parties to cooperate on peaceful uses of nuclear energy and technology; and commitment to disarmament. Article VI pledges “to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament.” These three pillars of the NPT are mutually reinforcing—and a lack of progress or setback in one area will inevitably harm other parts.

Given the disagreements over the relative importance of specific pillars (with some countries calling for concentrating on preventing nuclear proliferation and others on disarmament), NPT parties should focus their attention on areas of agreement. These points include the basic rationale underpinning the treaty (namely, avoiding the danger of nuclear war), the logic of its comprehensive three-pillar construction, and its continued relevance fifty-one years after entry into force. A joint recommitment declaration made by heads of state before or at the beginning of the review conference would provide a useful guideline for their diplomats: to work constructively toward strengthening the regime and to not obstruct its operations for parochial reasons, such as scoring points in bilateral or regional disputes. The leaders from the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (the United States, China, France, Russia, and the United Kingdom, known as the P5) could spearhead such a statement by committing themselves to the Ronald Reagan–Mikhail Gorbachev principle that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”

The P5 should announce new nuclear risk reduction measures. Over the past few years, the five NPT nuclear weapons states have declared interest in nuclear risk reduction measures but taken limited action. It is time to move from words to more concrete deeds. The UN Institute for Disarmament Research suggests a variety of risk reduction measures. These measures range from a simple increase of transparency on nuclear stockpiles and doctrines, agreements between nuclear states on better political-military and military-to-military communication, and notifications of nuclear-related activities, all the way to restraint pledges and changes in operational procedures (for example, lowering nuclear forces readiness or slowing down decision-making on missile launches) to prevent incidents or accidents.

It is time to move from words to more concrete deeds.

Before the NPT Review Conference in August 2021, the P5 should announce a set of risk reduction measures. These would most likely be modest, perhaps focusing on improving dialogue among themselves and providing more transparency on stockpiles, but they should move beyond re-listing their past achievements. Commitments [PDF] to not increase the number of nuclear weapons systems and to refrain from nuclear testing would be much more significant, especially given concerns about the growing size of some nuclear arsenals and U.S. allegations about Russia’s nuclear testing record. If the P5 is unable to produce a joint statement, individual nuclear weapons states should move ahead with unilateral or bilateral risk reduction pledges and actions. This activity could challenge others to follow suit.

The United States and Iran should restore the JCPOA, and all NPT members should work toward universalizing some provisions of the deal. The JCPOA was an agreement reached in 2015 to address concerns that Iran could break from the NPT and build nuclear weapons. The agreement elegantly addresses this threat without infringing on Iran’s right to enjoy the benefits of peaceful nuclear use. Reaching an agreement required painfully negotiating a mix of voluntary restraints on Iran’s nuclear activities and an increased level of scrutiny from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). However, roughly a year after the United States unilaterally withdrew from the agreement in 2018, Iran gradually ceased to comply with specific elements of the JCPOA. As of March 2021, the proliferation risks resulting from the advancement of the Iranian program and its limitation of IAEA activities in the country have increased substantially. Despite the arrival of the new Biden administration, no clear diplomatic prospects for a revival of the agreement have emerged.

The JCPOA remains an experiment in managing the relationship between the nonproliferation and peaceful uses pillars of the NPT regime. If it fails, one can expect an increase in dual-purpose nuclear programs—with ostensibly civilian aims, but designed to leave open a quick route to nuclear weapons capabilities should such a decision be made. If the JCPOA holds, it not only would reduce the nonproliferation challenge specific to Iran but also should provide a powerful incentive to universalize voluntary restraints on sensitive nuclear technologies, such as uranium enrichment, reprocessing of nuclear fuel, plutonium extraction, and dual-purpose research; it would also support the case for increasing the verification capacity of the IAEA.

Nuclear weapons states should recognize the TPNW’s contributions to the NPT regime. The TPNW is based on a humanitarian discourse highlighting the catastrophic consequences of any use of nuclear weapons. Unlike the NPT, which accepted the existence of five nuclear weapons states and aimed to integrate them within the regime (albeit with disarmament obligations), the TPNW rejects nuclear weapons and the practice of nuclear deterrence. Nuclear weapons states and their allies covered by a nuclear umbrella, such as North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) members, predictably opposed the TPNW, alleging that it could undermine the existing nonproliferation and verification regimes.

Prolonging this confrontation is in no one’s interest. The TPNW creates specific obligations for its members—but it does not generate universal legal norms. At the next NPT Review Conference, recognizing the TPNW’s entry into force and its contribution to the goals of the NPT is the obvious starting point. All sides would benefit from scaling down their confrontational narratives. The TPNW should be seen not as an alternative or threat but as a valuable addition to the NPT regime. Some of the questions the humanitarian discourse poses—such as how to assist victims of nuclear explosions, weapons production, and tests—should be taken up in the NPT forum. At the same time, members of the TPNW should be ready to work with NPT countries that do not share their views to identify the next steps for a gradual approach to disarmament. They should also promote the highest possible nonproliferation standards among themselves, particularly the Additional Protocol to IAEA safeguards agreements, and work to address the TPNW’s own verification and enforcement challenges.

The United States and Russia should agree on new nuclear arms reduction objectives. As possessors of over 90 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons, the United States and Russia have a special responsibility. Although the gradual reduction in their arsenals falls short of NPT disarmament obligations, critics should not dismiss the progress they make. Universal nuclear disarmament is difficult to imagine without prior minimalization of U.S. and Russian nuclear stockpiles.

Following the swift extension of New START, both sides should get ready to resume strategic stability talks. They should agree at an early stage that further reductions of nuclear weapons will constitute the main objective of discussions, even if they plan to cover a broader set of issues (including some conventional weapons and cyberspace). Presidents Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin should publicly direct their negotiating teams to strive for meaningful nuclear reductions involving categories not included in previous agreements, particularly the so-called nonstrategic nuclear weapons and non-deployed warheads kept in storage.

The TPNW should be seen not as an alternative or threat but as a valuable addition to the NPT regime.

Policymakers and experts should identify options to bring China and other countries into the nuclear arms control regime. While some experts may have exaggerated the challenge by raising alarm over the allegedly fast-growing Chinese nuclear arsenal, China’s lack of transparency and modernization efforts justly fuel anxiety. So far, the United States’ attempts to work with China bilaterally or initiate trilateral U.S.-China-Russia negotiations have been rebuffed, with China arguing that its arsenal is much smaller than the United States’. However, the United States and Russia will have difficulty making greater nuclear reductions in the absence of more clarity about the trajectory of the development of China’s nuclear arsenal. Russia has also raised questions about the inclusion of France and the United Kingdom in the reductions process.

A simple extension of the bilateral U.S.-Russia framework to China does not appear to be feasible. Negotiators could start by identifying a practical arms control agenda that would be attractive to China, probably involving questions of regional military balance and the U.S. military presence in Asia. Another option would be to broaden the group participating in the dialogue on further reductions. For example, once the United States and Russia make headway toward their new bilateral agreement, they could announce their intention to formally invite China, France, and the United Kingdom to talks.

Parties to the NPT and nuclear-armed states outside the NPT should jointly develop a credible road map to nuclear zero. Any decisive movement toward nuclear disarmament would require including nuclear-armed states that are not party to the treaty—India, Pakistan, and Israel (noting the latter’s policy of neither confirming nor denying possessing nuclear weapons)—as well as addressing the special case of North Korea. Skeptics question the merits of even discussing global disarmament in the era of great power competition and increasing tensions between some nuclear-armed states. However, an in-depth examination of political, strategic, legal, economic, technical, and military conditions for nuclear disarmament could demonstrate the seriousness of the nuclear-armed states’ disarmament pledges and offer them an opportunity to discuss what a viable alternative to current deterrence policies could look like.

Discussions could be held under the auspices of the Creating an Environment for Nuclear Disarmament (CEND) initiative, launched by the United States in 2018. CEND has hosted representatives from more than thirty countries (including the P5, India, Israel, and Pakistan) for informal discussions. Although it remains to be seen whether the Biden administration will continue to support the initiative, CEND or its successor could identify the broader conditions that would stabilize the international security environment enough for the nuclear weapons possessors and their allies to formulate a global road map regarding stages and sequencing of nuclear disarmament. Designing new weapons of mass destruction–free zones in different parts of the world could be part of such an exercise.


These recommendations could help recast nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament as common endeavors that recognize and address each country’s legitimate interests and priorities. The current regime will not survive if it is seen as a vehicle to protect the nuclear status quo for a few nuclear weapons states that only pay lip service to disarmament. Through their actions, those countries have to convince others that they mean business. The regime will also not be sustainable if some nonnuclear weapons states use it only to pressure nuclear weapons states to disarm, ignoring the reasons behind their reliance on nuclear deterrence. A comprehensive and balanced agenda is the only way forward.

This paper benefited from numerous comments and suggestions from Council of Councils members, in particular Selim Yenel (Global Relations Forum), Brian Blankenship (Council on Foreign Relations), Mark Fitzpatrick (International Institute for Strategic Studies), Rajesh Basrur (S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies), Garcia Moritan (Argentine Council for International Relations), Jo-Ansie van Wyk (South African Institute of International Affairs), Sergey Kulik (Institute of Contemporary Development), Patricia Zúñiga-Bello (Mexican Council on Foreign Relations), Tae-Hyung Kim (East Asia Institute), Corentin Brustlein (French Institute of International Relations), Riccardo Alcaro and Ettore Greco (Institute of International Affairs), Yu Tiejun (Institute of International and Strategic Studies, Peking University), and Mathias Spektor (Getulio Vargas Foundation).

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