The “step-by-step” process of nuclear disarmament: Quo vadis?

April 24th, 2013

Below is the text of remarks by Angela Kane, UN High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, at a panel entitled “Next Steps in Nuclear Disarmament: Where do we go from here?” at the 10th International Security Forum, hosted by the Geneva Center for Security Policy on 24 April, 2013

1I think it is appropriate, as the start of any speech dealing with a step-by-step process of nuclear disarmament, for me to take the first step by thanking our gracious host, Ambassador Fred Tanner, and all the co-sponsors of this 10th International Security Forum. I am grateful you decided to include this important issue on your agenda.

Excellencies and distinguished guests, it has now been 75 years since Winston Churchill offered his fable of a disarmament conference attended by animals in a zoo. The choice of the first weapon to be eliminated depended on the vulnerabilities of each respective animal. The rhinoceros wanted to eliminate claws, while defending horns as defensive—and the bear preferred hugs as a method of resolving disputes.

Anybody who has attended multilateral disarmament negotiations would recognize his point. Today, some States stress the importance of progress in nuclear disarmament. Others are promoting nuclear security or non-proliferation as higher priorities. Still others call for a ban on space weapons. And some urge limits on conventional arms.

There is certainly a rich history of step-by-step proposals for nuclear disarmament. Efforts have long been underway at the UN to pursue what have been called “partial measures” contributing to this goal. These have brought us the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the Chemical and Biological Weapons Conventions, the Partial Test Ban Treaty, five nuclear-weapon-free zone treaties, and other treaties limiting the deployments of nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons today are about a quarter their number during the height of the Cold War. So hasn’t this approach been a great success?

Not quite. Nuclear disarmament has remained—at best—a distant goal. Roughly 20,000 nuclear weapons still exist despite these partial measures. Nuclear deterrence remains a security doctrine in countries comprising most of the world’s population. Some nuclear weapons modernization plans extend decades into the future. Even now, not a single nuclear bomb or warhead has been verifiably destroyed under any treaty, despite the NPT’s duty to undertake disarmament “negotiations” in good faith. And most nuclear-weapon States still oppose a nuclear weapons convention.

With this mixed record, it’s understandable that some might question whether the step-by-step approach will result in zero nuclear weapons . . . or zero disarmament.

In her 1977 book The Game of Disarmament, Alva Myrdal described the process by which the Superpowers had engaged in nuclear arms discussions that bore very little connection to disarmament. In her words, “The history of disarmament should have been a series of positive, purposeful, effective steps toward the goal which is acclaimed by everybody. We are still waiting for a first decisive, or even a serious, step to be taken.”

I am dwelling on this history of nuclear disarmament initiatives because neither the step-by-step nor the comprehensive approach has given us a nuclear-weapon-free world. We see instead an endless debate over conditions, divergent priorities, and red lines, as the world approaches the seventh decade of its precarious nuclear age.



Many of the most difficult obstacles to overcome in achieving nuclear disarmament remain reminiscent of the hurdles encountered in the past. From the Baruch Plan/Gromyko Plan era, we see a continuing debate over the proper role of verification in disarmament and its sequencing relative to reductions.

From the comprehensive disarmament proposals considered here in Geneva in 1955, we find a legacy of disputes over the various stages of disarmament and the relationship between nuclear disarmament, conventional arms control, and reductions in military budgets and personnel. Many of these issues re-surfaced in the McCloy/Zorin joint statement issued by the United States and Soviet Union in 1961. That statement included a provision that “the disarmament programme should be implemented in an agreed sequence, by stages until it is completed, with each measure and each stage carried out within specified time-limits.” Today, the very notion of time-limits has itself become somewhat of a taboo to some States.

And from the General Assembly’s first Special Session on Disarmament in 1978, we see another sequencing of steps with “general and complete disarmament under effective international control” identified as the “ultimate objective”, and nuclear disarmament and the prevention of nuclear war described as “the highest priority”.

I view this brief survey as helpful in interpreting new prescriptions of a step-by-step process. One might even include the 64-point Action Plan adopted by the 2010 NPT Review Conference as embodying one such approach—one having the distinct advantage of offering an oversight and review process to monitor implementation of the various steps and thereby to strengthen accountability.

By comparison, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s five-point nuclear disarmament proposal of 24 October 2008 offered a more holistic approach, one avoiding any specific sequencing of steps. In his view, simultaneous efforts were needed on many fronts. These included consideration of ways to strengthen the rule of law as it applies to disarmament, whether through the pursuit of a nuclear weapon convention or a framework of separate mutually reinforcing instruments with the same goal. His proposal also mentioned the need to address “complementary measures” including conventional arms, missile defence, and space weapons.

Despite their own negotiating difficulties, holistic approaches can address the wider security context of disarmament, and can thereby be helpful in overcoming some of the deadlocks found in Churchill’s zoological disarmament conference—those endless debates over sequencing, priorities, double standards, and other such quarrels that have plagued the UN disarmament machinery in the unruly age of “partial measures”. At least with these holistic approaches, the end is clear and means are tied to that end.


3There is of course no need to choose between a step-by-step process and a more comprehensive approach. Concrete progress in one domain can “spill over” into the other. This is all part of a broader process of building mutual trust and confidence. Some of this is best done bilaterally. Yet other issues might best be pursued through plurilateral or multilateral approaches, such as the pursuit of a fissile material treaty.

My point is that progress is needed on many fronts if there is to be any chance of achieving an international consensus, which is needed in establishing truly global norms. Simply insisting on Step A as an absolute priority over Step B—when there are large constituencies in the world seeking to achieve the goals of Step B—is a sure recipe for deadlock. Just look at the Conference on Disarmament.

I have come to the conclusion that there is a place for both comprehensive and step-by-step approaches, provided that the latter are backed by accountability measures. The best step-by-step approach is one that is explicitly tied to disarmament and backed by regular reviews of how the steps are being implemented. The worst such approach offers a partial measure as either an end in itself, or a means to achieve some other policy goal.

It is always wise to keep in mind the objective of any great enterprise. As the great American baseball player, Yogi Berra, once advised: “If you don’t know where you are going, you’ll end up someplace else.”