A police officer attends the opening ceremony of the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism conference in Miami, Florida, June 11, 2007.
Carlos Barria / Reuters

On Monday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will travel to New York to convince the world that the United States is working toward a world free of nuclear weapons. He has a stronger case than you might think.

The occasion is the review conference for the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), which has been convened every five years since its entry into force in 1970. World diplomats will work to ensure that the treaty’s basic bargain is still sound: as long as the five original nuclear powers work to eliminate their nuclear arsenals, the rest of the world’s states promise not to develop their own. This year, the nonproliferation regime faces a major test: Fed up with the slowest nuclear arms reductions since the end of the Cold War, a coalition of states are moving to draft a global ban on nuclear weapons. In response, the United States will attempt to assure the world that it is making progress toward a world free of nuclear weapons. In fact, the Obama administration’s record on disarmament has been strong, but it will have to work harder to revitalize the fragile NPT.

The wording of Article VI of the NPT makes compliance with the treaty seem more complex than it is. The tortuous wording—nuclear weapons states will “pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating the cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament”— has led some analysts to argue that the United States is only committed to undertake periodic arms control negotiations, not necessarily to actually eliminate its arsenal.

An anti-nuclear weapons protest rally and march in New York, May 2, 2010.
An anti-nuclear weapons protest rally and march in New York, May 2, 2010.
Chip East / Reuters

This view is wrong for three reasons. The first is that the nonnuclear weapon states understand the NPT differently. If they believe the United States has abandoned the goal of a world without nuclear weapons, the treaty could collapse and lead to a cascade of proliferation that spreads around the globe. The second reason is that the subsequent review conferences have unambiguously committed the nuclear states to disarm: The last Review Conference, in 2010, produced an Action Plan that commits the nuclear-weapon states to an “unequivocal undertaking…to accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals.” The third reason is that the Obama administration clearly endorses the obligation to disarm.

To keep the NPT strong, the United States must prove that it is working toward disarmament by pursuing arms control with the Russians, by simplifying its arsenal, and by laying the groundwork for a future disarmament treaty.

FOR THE RECORD

Although critics and advocates of nuclear disarmament are loath to admit it, the U.S. record on disarmament is strong. Since its Cold War peak in the 1960s, the United States has reduced its stockpile by over 85 percent—from more than 30,000 warheads to 4,804 in 2013. And, unlike Russia and China, the country has largely halted development of new warheads. The U.S. arsenal is also remarkably simpler than it used to be. The country’s byzantine Cold War stockpile included nuclear artillery, tactical ground-based missiles, depth charges, anti-aircraft missiles, and demolition mines; today, the United States has only four means of delivering a nuclear explosive: aircraft can launch cruise missiles or drop bombs and ballistic missiles that can be launched from submarines or from silos in the continental United States.

Pentagon planners have repeatedly adapted to the retirement of systems that were once thought to be necessary for deterrence, including the submarine-launched cruise missile and the multiple-warhead Peacekeeper ICBM (the last remaining silo for which was dismantled in February). Aside from some 200 B61 gravity bombs stationed in Europe, the United States is almost completely out of the tactical nuclear weapons business. Things could have been much different: The U.S. arsenal could still be large, complex, and developing by the year. Instead, successive presidents have understood that a smaller arsenal is in the United States’ interest, inside and outside of the NPT.

A US Air Force missile maintenance team removes the upper section of an intercontinental ballistic missile with a nuclear warhea
A U.S. Air Force missile maintenance team removes the upper section of an intercontinental ballistic missile with a nuclear warhead at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Montana.
Airman John Parie / USAF

Although the Obama administration has continued this trend, a number of issues have slowed disarmament progress. Numerical reductions in the stockpile have been slower under Obama than at any time since the Reagan presidency. However, the fault lies not solely with the United States: Washington has asked Moscow to negotiate a further one-third cut in deployed strategic weapons, but has been refused.

Most importantly, the administration has not made the hard choices necessary to shape, structure, and limit the Pentagon’s plans to modernize the arsenal. Without guidance from the White House to restrain vast new spending plans, the structure of the next nuclear arsenal will be set by congressional infighting. The rest of the world will rightly question why the United States should spend $1 trillion over the next 30 years on an arsenal it has promised to eliminate and why U.S. defense officials announce that nuclear deterrence is “DOD’s highest priority mission. No other capability we have is more important.”

COMMITTED

Disarmament proponents should understand that the United States really is a partner in ridding the world of nuclear weapons. However, they should also understand that the United States will not and should not disarm unilaterally: A world without nuclear weapons is only possible if the United States can trade its arsenal for its adversaries’. They should reward the United States for its progress by pushing other countries, namely Russia, to disarm. Russia should face real costs for resisting further reductions, for refusing to simplify its complex arsenal of tactical weapons, for violating the Intermediate Nuclear Forces treaty, and for issuing thinly-veiled nuclear threats to cover its aggressive actions in Ukraine. These policies should be met with clear international disapproval and should discourage countries from underwriting an arms industry that supports nuclear coercion. China, likewise, should be encouraged to provide more information on the structure, posture, and doctrine of its nuclear forces.

Still, there is more the United States can do to demonstrate its commitment to disarmament to strengthen the NPT regime.

First and foremost, the White House should develop a plan to curtail its modernization efforts. Some of these are necessary to ensure that the arsenal remains safe to operate, but the current plans are too expensive and are far in excess of the nation’s strategic needs. The plans to build 12 new ballistic missile submarines, for improving hundreds of B61 gravity bombs, and for developing a new nuclear cruise missile could each be scaled back without sacrificing the country’s ability to deter its adversaries. Certainly, the president should resist the efforts of analysts who have called for the United States to update the U.S. nuclear forces to make them suitable for fighting a limited war.

Second, the president should appoint a government-wide coordinator for disarmament efforts. Since the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency was folded into the Department of State in 1999, no single official has been responsible for coordinating interagency policy on disarmament. The State Department officials who worry about the Article VI commitment have little influence over the Defense and Energy Department offices that manage the arsenal. As a result, disarmament policy is vague and sometimes contradictory. A disarmament coordinator could manage these efforts, gather and release information, and weigh in on the diplomatic consequences of the country’s nuclear policies.

Third, the United States can take steps to demonstrate its commitment to disarmament that do not require reductions in the weapons systems. The State Department’s new multilateral disarmament verification initiative, which will convene technical working groups to develop new ways to verify nuclear arms reductions, is an excellent example. In addition, Washington could collate and release nuclear data, construct new nuclear facilities that meet emerging international transparency standards, and make weapons easier to inspect. All these efforts would help show other countries that the United States has no interest in cheating on a future disarmament regime.

Finally, the United States should continue to work with the growing international movement that is concerned with the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons. The simple statement—“The United States recognizes the environmental and other impacts of nuclear testing.  We recognize from our own history that traces of radioactive and cancer-causing particles found their way into our children.”—that U.S. officials delivered to a recent meeting in Vienna was enormously helpful for acknowledging global concerns about U.S. policies. The more the United States works with this movement, the less likely it will become an alternative to the NPT regime.

After 45 years, the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty remains a cornerstone of the global order, but powerful forces are shaking its foundation. It sometimes seems as though international security is a sterile domain of self-interest and power politics. But morality, religion, and fairness still restrain nuclear proliferation around the world. By continuing to live up to its Article VI commitments, the United States can keep the pressure where it belongs: on recalcitrant nuclear states and potential proliferators. A fair nuclear regime is a more durable regime; as diplomats struggle this month in New York, the United States should rededicate itself to living up to its end of the bargain and keeping the NPT strong into its 50th year.

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  • ADAM MOUNT is a Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
  • More By Adam Mount