Stemming the Nuclear Tide: The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty at 45

Rose Gottemoeller
Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security 
Australian National University
Canberra, Australia
March 5, 2015

As Delivered

Thank you for the introduction and for inviting me to be here today. Special thanks to the hosts of this lecture, Professor Marnie Hughes-Warrington and Emeritus Professor Robert (Bob) O’Neill, for inviting me to speak to you this evening. Thanks also to Associate Professor Brendan Taylor, Head of the Strategic & Defense Studies Center, Professor Michael Wesley, Director of the Coral Bell School of Asia & Pacific Affairs, and Professor Veronica Taylor, Dean of the College of Asia and the Pacific, who oversee the Robert O’Neill War Studies Lecture Series. Other distinguished faculty and staff, and students, thank you for your kind welcome and for having me on campus.

This university is recognized as one of the world’s top institutions for research, teaching and scholarship. From leading experts on world affairs to scientific breakthroughs, the ANU community continues to shine.

I am so happy, and a bit overwhelmed, to be giving this lecture in honor of Robert O'Neill. I first met Bob in 1985, when I went to the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London as a young researcher on Soviet long-range, land-attack cruise missiles. Hmm, I am still working on cruise missile problems from that part of the world--how did I get stuck?

It certainly wasn't Bob's doing. When I met first met him, he was the tall, intellectual, and--I thought--somewhat forbidding Australian Director of the IISS. How quickly I found out I was wrong on one count! Within a week, he had invited the entire class of research associates to his house in Islington, where he, Sally and their two girls laid out a warm and happy meal on a cold November night. A lot of wine flowed, I do recall.

That night I dropped the "forbidding" descriptor forever and picked up another one – leader. That meal was the first step in forging a disparate bunch of experts from all over the world into a research group that produced some fine products and strong alumni. Robert O'Neil was at the heart of it--a strong intellectual leader to whom I owe so much in my career. Thank you, Bob, for your friendship, your advice, and your guidance over all these years.

Today, I would like to talk with you about the cornerstone of international arms control and nonproliferation efforts, the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). It is actually an auspicious day for this, as today marks the 45th anniversary of the entry into force of the Nonproliferation Treaty. The “grand bargain” of the NPT set an enduring standard that is as relevant today as it was at the Treaty’s inception. That bargain comprises three reinforcing aspects wherein nuclear weapon states pursue disarmament, non-nuclear weapon states abstain from the pursuit of nuclear weapons and all countries are able to access the benefits of peaceful nuclear energy. For 45 years, the regime has thrived. When faced with challenges, NPT Parties have worked together to make the entire nonproliferation regime stronger. Beginning with 62 signatories, the Treaty is now nearly universal – and universality remains our ultimate goal.

The Treaty has stemmed the tide of proliferation; it has facilitated cooperation among its States Party; and it has institutionalized the norms of nonproliferation and disarmament. The three pillars of the Treaty provide its stability, its endurance. Each pillar is as important as the others. Each pillar reinforces the others, and each State Party can help strengthen all three.

Looking at the success of the NPT, it is easy to forget that the world once faced the unpredictable and harrowing prospect of dozens of nuclear weapons states. It is easy to forget that nuclear war was once a daily fear for people around the world. While some people in this room – like me – might remember it vividly, most people on this planet don’t remember how close we came to ultimate destruction. They don’t remember that for 13 long, tense days in October 1962, Soviet missile placements in Cuba we stood at the edge of the nuclear abyss.

In some ways, that shouldn’t be too surprising. It’s now been over 50 years since the Cuban Missile Crisis. Faced with the prospect of nuclear war, leaders in Washington and Moscow stepped back from the brink and set about the task of reducing both the tension in our relationship, and the threats posed by our respective nuclear arsenals. Together, these leaders created a “Hotline” between the Kremlin and the White House, allowing for direct, immediate communications between our leaders. Within a year, the United States and the Soviet Union negotiated, signed and ratified a Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (LTBT), which went into force just four months later. The LTBT outlawed nuclear explosive tests on land, in the sea, in the atmosphere and in space. This was a tremendous step in the right direction and one that helped create the political conditions to conclude the NPT.

At the U.S. signing of the NPT in 1968, President Lyndon Johnson proclaimed that “[a]fter nearly a quarter century of danger and fear – reason and sanity have prevailed.” The NPT, he said, was “evidence that amid the tensions, the strife, the struggle, and the sorrow of [those] years, men of many nations [had] not lost the way—or…the will—toward peace.”

Indeed, if the LTBT was the turning point away from the unthinkable, the NPT was proof that the world was committed to creating a safer and more secure world.

Now 45 years after the Treaty’s entry into force, we find ourselves in a completely different security paradigm. The threat of nuclear war has been eclipsed by threat of nuclear terrorism – an amorphous, ever-changing threat that has no home address. As the world works to further reduce and prevent the spread of stockpiles of nuclear weapons and to provide the best nuclear security, the NPT remains an essential tool.

In late April, the 190 Parties to the Treaty will meet in New York to discuss progress on advancing the commitments laid out in this essential agreement, as well as the challenges to its viability.

For its part, the United States is fulfilling its commitments to all three pillars of the NPT.


No nation has provided as much time and as many resources to preventing the spread of nuclear weapons as the United States. We are the single largest supporter of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and we put an extremely high priority on promoting and facilitating nuclear safety and security programs around the world. We have worked to strengthen the IAEA’s safeguards system for verifying peaceful nuclear programs, and championed the Additional Protocol as the accepted standard for verifying the absence of clandestine nuclear programs. And we allow the IAEA to apply the same verification measures to our own civil nuclear programs that we call on others to adopt. Our support for the IAEA also includes leading a global effort to secure nuclear material in order to prevent nuclear terrorism. The United States knows that nuclear security and nonproliferation efforts are never "finished." As long as nuclear and radioactive materials exist, they require our utmost commitment to their protection, control, accounting, and disposition.

The United States also has been hard at work implementing a comprehensive system of export controls for material, equipment, and technology that could be used for nuclear explosive purposes and we will continue to expand on other cooperative threat reduction activities. At the same time, we are helping to strengthen multilateral nonproliferation efforts such as the Proliferation Security Initiative and the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism, and encouraging their growth. On the regional level, we are working to provide security assurances for nuclear weapons free zones across the world, with a current focus on achieving a Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapons Free Zone (SEANWFZ). And we strongly support the proposed conference to discuss a WMD-free zone in the Middle East.

Finally, the United States is working with our P5+1 partners to seek concrete, verifiable steps to ensure that Iran’s nuclear program is exclusively peaceful. And, we are working with partners in the Six-Party Talks to seek the denuclearization of North Korea and its return to the NPT and IAEA safeguards.


The U.S. commitment to disarmament is clear. It is unassailable. Since the entry into force of the NPT, the United States has reduced its nuclear stockpile by more than 80%. In Prague in 2009, President Obama made clear the U.S. commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons. The Administration’s efforts since then have converted his vision into actions. The New START Treaty just celebrated its fourth birthday, and is being well-implemented by both the United States and Russia. Current tensions with the Russian Federation highlight the importance of the security, stability, and predictability provided by verifiable mutual limits on strategic weapons.

President Obama stated U.S. willingness to negotiate reductions in both non-strategic and strategic nuclear weapons with Russia. In June 2013, in Berlin, the President proposed a reduction of up to one-third of our deployed strategic warheads from the level established in the New START Treaty. That offer, which was a good one, is still on the table. Progress requires a willing partner and a conducive strategic environment.

To pave the way to lower numbers in the future, the United States is putting its best and brightest to work on creating new verification and monitoring techniques. As part of this effort, the United States has created, in partnership with the Nuclear Threat Initiative, the International Partnership for Nuclear Disarmament Verification. Starting at our first meeting in a few weeks, we will work with both nuclear and non-nuclear weapons states, as well as non-governmental organizations, to discuss technical issues associated with verifying nuclear disarmament and to consider possible solutions to those problems.

Peaceful Uses

The third pillar of the treaty – the peaceful uses of nuclear energy – is perhaps less heralded, but it is no less important. This pillar aids in addressing modern challenges such as climate change, food, water and energy security, and sustainable development. The United States is a stalwart supporter of the astonishingly varied peaceful uses of nuclear energy and technology, and we are helping to advance projects that are making a real difference in countries throughout the world. This includes projects to advance human health, combat cancer and infectious diseases such as Ebola, support water resource management, ensure food security, protect the environment, promote nuclear safety and security, develop nuclear power infrastructure, and develop uranium resources.

P5 Process

International cooperation is vital to the success of these efforts. We will continue to work with the other four nuclear-weapon states as defined by the NPT – China, France, Russia, and the United Kingdom – to advance our common goals of nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation. The P5 Process, as it has come to be known, is a multilateral discussion forum among the P5 covering a broad range of international security and stability topics, including our progress in implementing the Action Plan from the 2010 NPT Review Conference. It has been heartening to see countries like China adding to the discussion in a constructive and creative manner. The regular interaction, cooperation and trust-building activities are providing the foundation on which future P5 multilateral negotiations on nuclear disarmament will stand.

Australian Contributions to the NPT

As we look forward to April, the United States is thankful to have Australia as a partner. Through efforts like the Canberra Commission, Australia has long been leader on these issues in both word and deed and there is no doubt that Australia will be a key player in ensuring a successful NPT RevCon.

Ambassador Peter Woolcott ably chaired the first session (2012) of the Preparatory Committee (PrepCom) for the 2015 RevCon – setting the stage for practical progress. His successor, Ambassador David Stuart will chair Main Committee III at the upcoming RevCon, working on issues including peaceful uses of nuclear energy and Treaty withdrawal.

Australia spearheaded the International Commission on Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament, a joint initiative of the Australian and Japanese Governments. The goal of the ICNND was to reinvigorate international efforts on nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament. The ICNND concluded its two-year mandate on July, 30, 2010, which led to the creation of the Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Initiative (NPDI) – a cross-regional, ministerial-level group initiated by Australia and Japan focused on practical steps to achieve progress on the 2010 NPT Action Plan. I had the honor of speaking to an NPDI Ministerial Meeting in Hiroshima last April.

Australia has also been a leader in technical contributions to the Treaty, like with production of medical isotopes using only low-enriched uranium (LEU). Australia has demonstrated worldwide leadership in the production of molybdenum-99 (Mo-99 or “molly-99”) without the use of highly enriched uranium (HEU). Due to this radioisotope’s nearly ideal properties for imaging the heart and other internal organs with minimal dose to the patient, Mo-99 is the leading medical isotope around the world, used in over 30 million medical diagnostics procedures annually – about 50,000 per day in the United States alone.

With its modern, LEU-fueled “OPAL” research reactor and LEU-based targets for producing Mo-99, Australia (along with South Africa) is a one of the leading contributors to the global supply of this vital isotope from non-HEU sources, and is poised to ramp up to become a significant worldwide contributor overall in the coming years.

Australia’s technical progress in this area has set a critical example for other producers and demonstrates that nonproliferation priorities can be woven directly into peaceful nuclear activities and that financial and technical hurdles can indeed be overcome.

As a leading supplier of uranium, Australia has outsized influence in promoting best practices in nuclear exports, practices that include requirements for IAEA safeguards, nuclear security, and other critical nonproliferation conditions.

The United States and Australia have both provided strong support for the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and the creation of a Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT). As the United States works to complete its ratification process for the CTBT, we look to partner with Canberra on further development of the Treaty’s International Monitoring System and efforts to move towards the Treaty’s entry into force. We and the Australians in the FMCT Group of Experts are equally committed to finally spurring the negotiations of such a Treaty in the Conference on Disarmament.

CTBT and FMCT share a long pedigree. Both are needed to support more ambitious disarmament steps and more immediately to end the nuclear arms build-up in Asia. These treaties remain an important part of our dialogue within the P5 and discussions with India and Pakistan.

Australia’s work on the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism’s (GICNT) Nuclear Forensics Working Group and general strong support of GICNT activities, particularly in Southeast Asia, has been a key part of reducing the nuclear terror threat.

Of course, as many of you know, Australia’s work on international security issues is not limited to nuclear issues. Australia was essential in the “end-game” of negotiations on both the Arms Trade Treaty and the Chemical Weapons Convention.

Australia also served as an example for the globe, proposing the first meeting of countries with export controls to harmonize national licensing measures for chemical and biological agents, following the use of chemical weapons during the Iran-Iraq War. This meeting later became the Australia Group – now a group of 41 countries and the European Union that are working towards minimizing the proliferation of chemical and biological materials and weapons technology. Australia serves as the Chairman of the annual meetings hosted by the French government in Paris. To mark the 30th anniversary of the establishment of the Australia Group, Australia will host the next annual meeting in Perth. I truly want to thank Australia for all your CW efforts. It was the Australia Group’s legacy that allowed us to be so successful in taking 1,300 tons of chemical weapons and precursors out of Syria last year.

The United States knows that Australia will be strong, smart, principled ally at the upcoming RevCon and for that we are grateful.

Challenges Ahead

As I said, the NPT is facing challenges and the United States is aware of criticisms it will face in April. There are those that think the United States is not moving fast enough to fulfill our disarmament commitments. The record, as evidenced by a more than 80% reduction in stockpile numbers since the entry into force of the NPT, refutes that notion. In hard numbers, the United States had 26,008 nuclear weapons in our active stockpile in 1970. In 2013, the active stockpile consisted of 4,804 warheads. That is still too many and we know it. We continue to drive downwards, but occasionally we will find ourselves on a plateau. That is not a failure; that is the reality of how any process works.

The United States and the Russian Federation continue to possess over 90% of the world’s nuclear weapons, so further bilateral reductions between our nations is the next logical move. That is why, as I said, President Obama proposed a next round of strategic reduction talks between the United States and the Russian Federation.

Unfortunately, Russia’s actions in Ukraine have made it difficult to engage with Russia on the full range of issues affecting strategic stability. This is unfortunate, as there are real and meaningful steps we should be taking that can contribute to a more predictable, safer security environment.

Addressing current Russian actions is an ongoing process. With specific regard to the Russian GLCM that is an Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) violation of the, we will keep pushing the Russian government to return to verifiable compliance with its obligations, as the Treaty is in our mutual security interest and that of the globe. We have been clear with Russia that our preference is to resolve this issue diplomatically and not risk a return to the action/reaction dangers of the past. The United States appreciates the support of Australia as we deal with these issues.

The United States is also aware of whispers to scrap the NPT or the 2010 Action Plan in the hopes that an outright ban on nuclear weapons can be negotiated and brought into force at this time. That desire is short-sighted at best and reckless at worst, as the NPT has served to protect and promote stability for over four decades. It is poised to do so into the future.

For the advocates of moving ahead to a ban at this moment, it is important to remember that the United States shares the ultimate goal of the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons. We are aware that the “nuclear sword of Damocles,” as so eloquently described by President John F. Kennedy, still hangs above the head of every man, woman and child on this planet. That concept has weighed heavy on the hearts and minds of U.S. leaders since the dawn of the nuclear age. Our deep understanding of the humanitarian consequences has been and will always be inseparable from our nuclear policy.

Moreover, as we weather new and enduring pressures to the nonproliferation regime, we must be doing the hard work to make the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons possible. Those who are truly interested in disarmament should be working just as diligently to make sure that we have the tools we need to verify any future agreement, as they are in working on creating the agreement itself. As I have said before, it is not enough to have the political will to pursue this agenda; we have to have a practical way to pursue this agenda.

Putting aside the real and difficult work that must be done at the NPT RevCon in order to push for a nuclear weapons convention or fixed timeline for the elimination of all nuclear weapons is not an efficient way to use the time there. The nonproliferation regime faces clear and present dangers that would make a world free of nuclear weapons more elusive. For example, non-compliance by some NPT parties and the potential abuse of the Treaty’s withdrawal clause make the international security environment more chaotic and arms reductions less likely.

Those who support disarmament must also acknowledge that not every nation is ready or willing to pursue serious arms control and nonproliferation efforts, least of all a total ban. Some countries have slipped backwards from their historical leadership of the NPT regime. Together, we must push those nations to accept their global and ethical responsibilities. Together, we must put aside disagreements over process and remember that we share the same end goal. Together we must strengthen and support all three pillars of the Treaty that has brought us this far.

The Road Ahead

When he signed the NPT, President Johnson said that “[d]iscussion of this most complex subject will not be easy. We have no illusions that it will be. I know the stubborn, patient persistence that it has required to come this far. We do not underestimate the difficulties that may lie ahead.”

“Man can still shape his destiny in the nuclear age” he said. “Toward that goal—the day when the world moves out of the night of war into the light of sanity and security—I solemnly pledge the resources, the resolve, and the unrelenting efforts of the people of the United States and their Government.”

President Obama and the United States continue to honor this pledge today.

Before I conclude, I would be remiss if I didn’t recognize the important contributions made by former Foreign Minister and ANU Chancellor Gareth Evans. A venerated Australian leader and a passionate advocate for arms control and nonproliferation, Gareth is, like me, an optimist. While he has acknowledged, that achieving the peace and security of a world without nuclear will be, in his words, “an incredibly hard slog.” He, nevertheless, believes that with the right tools and the political will, we are capable of reaching our goal.

The United States agrees.

Thank you to Gareth Evans and to Australia for your leadership. And thank you to Robert O’Neill for bringing me to this podium, both literally, through your invitation and figuratively, through your years of mentorship and support. Finally, thank you all for your attention. I look forward to your questions.