Keynote Speech to the 2016 Deterrence and Assurance Conference

Ambassador Adam Scheinman
Special Representative of the President for Nuclear Nonproliferation, Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation
University of Nebraska at Omaha
Omaha, NE
March 4, 2016

As prepared

Thank you Dr. Benjamin-Alvarado for that very kind introduction, and let me say how pleased I am to have the opportunity to discuss the President’s nuclear agenda and in particular future consideration of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).

Allow me to open with two bottom lines.

The first is that a CTBT ratified by the United States and in force globally is in the U.S. national security interest. We can maintain a reliable deterrent without nuclear testing, the treaty is effectively verifiable, and it will constrain nuclear weapon programs in other countries. The benefits are evident and outweigh any perceived risks.

The second is that we are realistic about prospects for U.S. ratification and have no set timeframe for pursuing the Senate’s advice and consent. Instead, our aim is to re-introduce CTBT to the American public and generate discussion on the treaty and its merits.

But before turning to specific arguments relevant to a CTBT, I think it would be useful to step back and consider the totality of the Administration’s agenda to reduce nuclear threats.

The concepts underlying our approach are not new. They reach back over decades and rest on three pillars: nuclear deterrence, arms control, and nonproliferation. Each is a tool for addressing the central fact that while nuclear weapons assure our security, they are also the greatest potential threat to the nation and the world. The challenge is to integrate these pillars as reinforcing elements of a comprehensive strategy.

The Prague Agenda

President Obama called for just such a comprehensive approach in a major speech he delivered in Prague in April 2009. There, he outlined a broad agenda intended to get ahead of rising nuclear dangers.

The Prague speech blended aspects of vision and realism—where we want to go and how we get there. It set a clear direction for U.S. policy: pursuit of the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons. The President made clear, however, that this is a long-term, generational challenge and our reliance on nuclear weapons for security must continue so long as others had them.

Translating ambition into action, the President laid out a prudent and serious agenda of concrete, actionable goals. Those included:

Reducing the role and numbers of nuclear weapons in our military strategy;

Reaffirming the authority of international nonproliferation rules by challenging those that violate them—i.e., Iran and North Korea;

Securing vulnerable nuclear materials to protect against acts of nuclear terrorism; and

Creating new frameworks for peaceful nuclear sharing that do not increase proliferation risks.

Good progress has been made on this agenda. Let me note a few highlights.

First, the United States and the President himself launched a head-of-state Nuclear Security Summit process in 2010, bringing urgent, high-level attention to the dangers of nuclear terrorism. These bi-annual summits involve about 50 nations and international bodies and have made significant, measurable progress.

Thousands of kilograms of fissile materials have been removed or eliminated; reactors using highly enriched uranium have been shut-down or converted; and more and more states are joining the international nuclear security regimes. To book-end this effort, the President will host the fourth—and final—summit in Washington later this month. In the years ahead, international initiatives and organizations will carry forward this important work.

Second, last summer we completed negotiations to end Iran’s nuclear challenge and stop it from acquiring nuclear weapons. The agreement—the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—closes off Iran’s pathways to a nuclear weapon, includes robust monitoring provisions, and most importantly deals with the single greatest threat to stability in the Middle East.

The final chapter yet to be written and Iran’s full and faithful implementation of its commitments will be the object of intense international scrutiny for years to follow. But we should recognize that the JCPOA imposes real constraints on Iran’s nuclear program and has the potential to resolve one of the most serious challenges to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in its 46-year history.

Third, we have reduced the role and numbers of nuclear weapons. The 2010 U.S. Nuclear Posture Review clarified that the principal role of nuclear weapons in our defense strategy today is to deter use by others against the United States and our allies. And, of course, in 2010 we completed landmark negotiations with Russia on the New START Treaty that when fully implemented in two years will reduce U.S. and Russian deployed strategic nuclear weapons to levels not seen since the late 1950s.

The President made clear we can go further, and in 2013 offered to pursue another one-third reduction of deployed strategic nuclear weapons in negotiations with Russia. Unfortunately, Russia has yet to take us up on the offer and has instead introduced road blocks through its actions in Ukraine and its violations of existing arms control treaties.

And fourth, we are advancing new forms of civil nuclear cooperation, to include approval of a nuclear fuel bank to operate under the auspices of the International Atomic Energy Agency. By making nuclear fuel available to states facing an interruption in supply, the fuel bank reduces the incentive states may have to pursue national enrichment or reprocessing programs. Such programs are dual-use in the most literal sense; they can produce the ingredients for nuclear reactor fuel or for nuclear weapons.

Next Steps and Nuclear Debates

These Prague agenda achievements are significant and contribute to the world’s nuclear safety and security. But there is more that needs to be done, and more that could be done even in today’s difficult international environment.

A top arms control priority is launching multilateral negotiations on a treaty ending production of fissile material for weapons. This treaty need not await a new round of U.S. and Russian nuclear reductions. By ending the build-up of nuclear weapons stockpiles anywhere in the world, this treaty would halt the arms race underway in South Asia and help set the foundation for deeper reductions of nuclear weapons down the road.

Bringing the CTBT into force is another priority we can work on now. This treaty will constrain the qualitative improvement of nuclear arsenals that exist and make it more difficult for others to join the nuclear club. The combined effect of a cutoff treaty and CTBT would be substantial. Both are needed if we are to advance step-by-step toward a world without nuclear weapons.

I’ll return to the CTBT in a moment, but I thought it would be useful to note that the U.S. approach to nuclear disarmament—one that is incremental and paced by what’s achievable under current conditions—is not accepted by all states around the world. In fact, a large segment of UN members reject the security rationale for nuclear deterrence. They argue that nuclear weapons pose such unacceptable risks to humanity that their lawful possession is unacceptable, their use inconceivable, and therefore they should be abolished now.

This so-called “humanitarian campaign” has attracted significant global attention among governments and civil society. I don’t doubt the sincerity of those who favor unconditional nuclear disarmament or view its achievement only as a matter of political will. Many states friendly to the United States endorse the aims of the humanitarian campaign. But the advocates miss a fundamental point, which is that before nuclear disarmament can make the world safe, the world must be made safe for nuclear disarmament.

Nuclear disarmament is an end-point, not the pathway for getting there. To reach the zero goal, one would have to know that cooperation not competition, conflict, or uncertainty defined great power relations; that the UN Security Council could effectively enforce compliance against cheaters; that regional disputes that have given rise to nuclear proliferation had been fully resolved; that the technical means for verifying zero were available; etc. These are hugely demanding conditions. We should work to create them, but clearly they do not exist today.

This is not an argument for inaction or complacency. It is an argument for keeping our eye on the ball and for continuing to take steps to reduce nuclear dangers where we can. Retreat from the goal or our disarmament commitments under the NPT is not an option, not if the international consensus against nuclear proliferation is to hold.

The United States understands better than anyone that nuclear weapons are a special category of weapon and pose unique dangers. This is why we have continued to adjust our nuclear posture since the Cold War’s end. The U.S. stockpile today is 85 percent lower than the Cold War high. It is why we are transparent about our nuclear weapons program and why we make massive investments to ensure they remain safe, secure and under effective control. And it is why we have said it is in the global interest that the record of non-use of nuclear weapons—now at 71 years and counting—be extended forever.

It is also why we pursue nuclear arms control—not as an end to itself, but in relation to our deterrence requirements and the general strategic environment. Some view nuclear arms control and nuclear deterrence as contradictory aims. They are not; each contributes to strategic stability, a situation in which no state has an incentive to launch a nuclear attack. Arms control provides predictability, mutual confidence, and cooperative verification. Arms control makes deterrence more stable; it reduces those threats that deterrence aims to contain. These aspects are linked at the hip.

For many, however, aspirations for nuclear disarmament are running well ahead of what’s achievable now. In the current configuration of the world, there is simply no chance that states with nuclear weapons would agree to proceed to abolition. In the interest of responsible policy, it is important that the drumbeat for “lower numbers, faster reductions” not become distanced from security and stability considerations.

With CTBT, we have an instrument that extends the principle of security-based arms control. What we don’t have is a treaty in force.

Making a Case for CTBT

A little history on CTBT: it is now twenty-four years—1992—since the United States last conducted a nuclear weapons test. It is twenty years since CTBT negotiations concluded and the treaty opened for signature. We led those negotiations, and we were the first to sign—President Clinton held the pen. And it was seventeen years ago—1999—that the Senate voted against ratification.

We think it is time to revisit this treaty. We are realistic about prospects, and as I said at the outset we have no set timeframe for pursuing Senate action. Instead, our goal is to lay the groundwork for eventual ratification by re-introducing CTBT to the American public and updating a conversation on the treaty’s merits.

Others have said, and I’ll re-state, that our task is not to prove why a vote against the treaty in 1999 was wrong, but why support for the treaty now is right.

So let me lay out some of the arguments.

First, a CTBT in force would advance U.S. security interests. A legal instrument would strengthen the barrier to the resumption of nuclear testing and constrain the nuclear weapons build-up underway in Asia. Unlike the trend line in other nuclear weapons possessing states, Pakistan, India, China and North Korea are expanding their programs.

While it is true that a state could build crude, first generation nuclear weapons without nuclear testing, it would have trouble going farther and would likely not know the yield of the weapon it had built. For states with limited testing experience, like North Korea, a treaty would place a brake on progression to boosted or thermonuclear warheads that could be mounted on an ICBM. And established nuclear weapon states could not be confident in new nuclear weapons that deviate significantly from previously tested designs.

Other than North Korea, only India and Pakistan have tested nuclear weapons since the CTBT opened for signature. Because India’s nuclear deterrent is focused on China not just Pakistan, and because China’s deterrent focuses on the United States and Russia, a global CTBT remains the best tool available to bring an end to nuclear testing in Asia and elsewhere.

Israel, which has signed but not ratified the CTBT, recently indicated again support for a moratorium on nuclear testing in the Middle East. India and Pakistan unilaterally observe a testing moratorium, as do the five NPT nuclear weapon states. These moratoria are helpful, but they are reversible and not a substitute for a legal treaty-based and verified commitment.

So point one is that a CTBT in force advances our security interests.

Point two is that the verification system is far more advanced today than when the Senate last looked at the treaty in 1999. At that time, the treaty’s verification regime was mostly a concept. There was natural skepticism in its ability to deliver.

Today, that system is technically mature and tested. The centerpiece is its International Monitoring System (or IMS), a network of more than 300 sensors spread across about 90 countries worldwide. Now more than 90% complete, this network is able to detect low-yield explosions. We know it works: all four North Korean nuclear tests were detected by the IMS, including its most recent explosion in January.

A treaty in force provides the added dimension of on-site inspections in the event of a suspicious explosion. This is a tool not available to the United States or the international community in the absence of a treaty.

The capabilities of the treaty’s verification system, combined with existing U.S. national means of verification, vastly surpass the monitoring capabilities we relied on during the Cold War. They are such that no potential violator could have high confidence that a nuclear weapons test of military significance to the United States would escape detection.

So point two is that the treaty is effectively verifiable.

Point three is that we can maintain a safe, secure and effective nuclear arsenal without nuclear testing. From 1945 to 1992, the United States conducted more than 1,000 nuclear explosive tests. This was how we confirmed new warhead designs.

Under a testing moratorium and anticipating CTBT, we transitioned to a science-based approach to ensure the stockpile without testing. There was considerable skepticism as to whether the program would work.

Twenty-years later, we know that it has delivered and even surpassed expectations. The Stockpile Stewardship and Maintenance Program carried out by the Department of Energy and the National Labs combines a massive improvement in computing capabilities with world-class experimental facilities to monitor our warheads, resolve technical problems that are identified, and perform life extension programs for warheads that remain in the stockpile well beyond their intended shelf-life. In fact, because of these programs more is known today about how nuclear weapons work than was understood in the period of nuclear explosive testing.

Our commitment to the stockpile stewardship program is firm and well established. It is resourced at about $85 billion over ten years and, unlike many issues in Washington, enjoys bipartisan support.

Like the treaty’s verification system, our stockpile stewardship program is performing better than foreseen when the Senate voted on the CTBT in 1999. These points together make the technical case for CTBT that wasn’t present before.

The fourth point is that support for CTBT would strengthen U.S. leadership on nonproliferation. Under the NPT, we accept a legal obligation to work toward nuclear disarmament. The NPT provides no direction on the “what,” “how” or “when,” but CTBT is unanimously viewed as a step that counts toward the goal. U.S. leadership on nonproliferation and our posture on CTBT are not separable aspects.

All of our major allies in Europe and Asia, that is all that rely on extended nuclear deterrence, have ratified the treaty and expect us to follow. They want us in the CTBT because they understand that a CTBT in force is needed to sustain broad international support for the NPT and nonproliferation goals – that other pillar of U.S. nuclear strategy that I mentioned at the top. As we have seen in recent years, support for those goals is not assured and could fray over time.

But the CTBT will not enter into force without us. 183 states have signed and 44 specified states must ratify. We’re one of eight states yet to do so. While others need not wait on the United States, it goes without saying that it is easier to encourage action by the example we set.


So those are the points I would make in support of a CTBT. As noted, we are in no rush and we are realistic about prospects this year. This process will take time and is a matter that we hope the next Administration and Congress will continue to discuss. And we hope our educational efforts this year will contribute to an assessment of the treaty that is thorough, objective, and facts-based.

A fair treatment of the treaty requires that we avoid the extremes. A CTBT is not a proliferation panacea; it cannot by itself eliminate nuclear threats. At the same time, with CTBT, we are not betting on peaceful and harmonious international relations. That would be a really bad bet.

Instead, we would be betting on a treaty that improves our standing in the world…that can help avoid costly nuclear arms races…that has clear political and military advantages…and that comes at no cost to our deterrence and security commitments to friends and allies.

Thank you.