Negative Security Assurances as Practical Steps towards a World Without Nuclear Weapons

October 9th, 2017


On October 5, 2017, the Permanent Mission of Germany, in conjunction with the Geneva Centre for Security Policy (GCSP) hosted a panel discussion entitled “Negative Security Assurances as Practical Steps towards the Final Goal of Global Zero/A World Without Nuclear Weapons” as part of the 72nd Session of the General Assembly First Committee Side Events. Marc Finaud, Senior Program Advisor at GCSP and the moderator of the panel, began by expressing that this was the right time to return to a discussion of negative security assurances (NSAs) because of the recent passage of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), the situation in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, and the upcoming 2018 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Preparatory Committee.

In her remarks, Ambassador Susanne Baumann, German Deputy Federal Commissioner for Disarmament, Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, stated that the First Committee is overshadowed with serious concerns about the global nonproliferation regime, and that the NPT is facing a “huge midlife crisis” just before its 50th anniversary.  She asserted that NSAs could play an even more important role if they are strengthened, but that they must remain an intermediate step toward the goal of disarmament, and not a final end state.

Executive Director of the British-American Security Information Council (BASIC) Paul Ingram opened the panel discussion by stating that it is absolutely unacceptable for states with nuclear weapons to threaten use against states without them, which is a strong norm that most of the world already adheres to.  He argued that this NSA should go beyond the NPT and should be universal, regardless of whether a country is a treaty signatory or not. Ingram characterized this NSA as achievable, and one that recognizes the security concerns of all involved, and indicated his belief that NSAs in general are an area in which real progress can be made. He noted that the security concerns of states that do not have nuclear weapons are often directly related to states that have nuclear weapons, and in that vein, the DPRK should be challenged to issue NSAs to the Republic of Korea (ROK) and Japan.  Ingram also stated that there are good reasons to have ambiguity with regard to nuclear policy and red lines, but also that nuclear deterrence requires clarity and signaling to be effective.  States receiving positive security assurances from states with nuclear weapons want clarity, because clarity translates to credibility, and likewise, states receiving negative security assurances need to feel confident that they will not be attacked unless they cross certain lines.  He closed by saying that while negative security assurances are not the final step to ultimately achieving a world free of nuclear weapons, they are the first step, and could perhaps eventually lead to a treaty on no first use, which would further reduce the political role of nuclear weapons.

The second panelist, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Associate Dr. Togzhan Kassenova, began her statement by indicating that NSAs are not simply abstractions, and that non-nuclear weapons states (NNWS) sincerely care about them.  She expressed that when the USSR collapsed and her native Kazakhstan was considering what to do with the nuclear weapons on its soil, one of the key points of discussion within the Kazakh government was the lack of legally binding security assurances.  Once Kazakhstan obtained them, she said, it was a clear turning point in its denuclearization.  Kassenova expressed that the timing of reviving the conversation on negative security assurances is both good, given the heightened sense of nuclear insecurity and the desire to move forward, and complicated, given the recent opening for signature of the TPNW.  She indicated that the countries who led the ban treaty efforts should be commended for creating an environment in which such a discussion is possible. Kassenova stressed that nuclear states must get involved in discussions regarding NSAs, given that those states will be the ones issuing the NSAs.  She concluded by saying that while she would love to see unconditional NSAs, she does not think it is possible in the current security environment, but that perhaps the threshold of NSAs could be raised such that only existential threats remain outside of them.

Jon Wolfsthal, Nonresident Scholar with the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the final panelist, opened by saying that during the Obama Administration’s nuclear posture review, it was decided that the US would not threaten a NNWS with its nuclear arsenal.  Wolfsthal emphasized that NSAs given to NNWS are important incentives for countries to remain non-nuclear, and that he agreed with Paul Ingram’s assertion that nuclear armed states don’t worry about attacks from NNWS.  Wolfsthal indicated that while the Obama Administration believed that ambiguity in nuclear policy should be reduced, he felt that the current administration does not feel comfortable with as much clarity in this domain from a military strategy point of view.  Wolfsthal closed by expressing that perhaps discussions about NSAs and No First Use policies might need to go hand in hand, since this is likely to be a much more attractive conversation to nuclear weapons states if they have guarantees about when others would use those weapons.

Text and photos by Margaret Rowland