Taking the Pulse at the Inaugural Meeting of the CEND Initiative

July 15, 2019
William C. Potter*

The first plenary meeting of the “Creating an Environment for Nuclear Disarmament” Working Group convened at the US Department of State on July 2, 2019. Approximately 100 delegates representing 42 states attended.[1] Although this meeting constituted the launch of a potentially significant global dialogue on nuclear disarmament, relatively little information has yet been provided about what transpired during the two-day session.[2] This brief essay is a first effort to shed more light on the launch of the US initiative and the direction it may take in advance of the 2020 Review Conference of the Treaty on the Non-proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). Hopefully, it will stimulate commentary from other participants, who can supplement the information provided below without breaching the Chatham House rule under which the meeting was held.[3]

The Origins

US Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Ford first broached the idea of a new US initiative for a global dialogue on nuclear disarmament at a luncheon presentation at the CNS NPT Diplomatic Workshop in Annecy, France, in March 2018.[4] His remarks foreshadowed the more public announcement at the 2018 NPT Prep Com in Geneva of what was initially billed as an initiative focused on “Creating the Conditions for Nuclear Disarmament.”[5]

The enterprise did not proceed as quickly as some expected, possibly due to bureaucratic infighting within the Department of State. However, by early 2019, the US government rolled out a renamed initiative: “Creating the Environment for Nuclear Disarmament,” or CEND. The slight, but not inconsequential, name change was in response to criticism by a number of non-nuclear-weapon states, who regarded “conditions” as implying conditionality. Dr. Ford described the key elements of the initiative in remarks delivered at the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva in March 2019,[6] and the ideas underlying the initiative were further discussed at a by-invitation-only “academic colloquium” hosted by the Dutch Mission to the United Nations in mid-April in Geneva.[7] The CEND rollout continued at the 2019 NPT Preparatory Committee (PrepCom) Meeting in New York, where the United States submitted a working paper[8] detailing its operationalization—which included convening a meeting of the Creating an Environment Working Group—and further discussed the initiative at a side event on the margins of the PrepCom.

Although some NPT delegations welcomed the initiative, many states—including several traditional US allies— privately expressed skepticism about the endeavor. In the words of one official, whose country was not invited to the July CEND Plenary, “You can call a cat a dog, but that won’t fool a mouse.” This skeptical perspective about the new US approach to disarmament also was reflected in most public commentary on the subject.[9] Consequently, expectations for the July meeting generally were not high.

The First Plenary

Perhaps the first sign that skeptics may have miscalculated was news in mid-June that Russia planned to attend the CEND Plenary. The often undiplomatic exchanges between the United States and Russia at the 2019 NPT PrepCom, as well as the flurry of mutual accusations of bad faith and duplicity related to disputes over the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty, extension of the New Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty, and compliance with the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty, might have led one to anticipate a Russian boycott of any US-led disarmament initiative. However, not only did Russia respond positively to the US invitation, but it sent one of the two largest foreign delegations to the meeting. Significantly, it was headed by Vladimir Yermakov, director general of the Department for Non-Proliferation and Arms Control, and typically a harsh critic of US policy.[10]

It appears that the United States extended invitations to approximately four dozen countries, making an effort to secure representation from different regions and political groupings. Significantly, invitees were not limited to NPT states parties: India, Israel, and Pakistan were among the diverse group of states that received invitations to participate in the Plenary. Indeed, the list of invitees (or at least the list of actual attendees) resembles those who also participated in the Nuclear Security Summit process between 2010 and 2016. Unlike that process, which featured heads of state and other very senior government representatives, states contacted for the CEND meeting were invited to send participants at the level of heads and/or deputy heads of arms control and disarmament offices.

Consistent with the US working paper circulated at the 2019 NPT PrepCom, the diplomatic note inviting government attendees to the July kick-off meeting suggested that discussions focus on three clusters of issues:

  1. Measures to modify the security environment to reduce incentives for states to retain, acquire, or increase their holdings of nuclear weapons;
  2. Institutions and processes nuclear-weapon states and non-nuclear-weapon states can put in place to bolster nonproliferation efforts and build confidence in nuclear disarmament; and
  3. Interim measures to reduce the likelihood of war among nuclear-armed states.

Accompanying each of these broad clusters of issues were a number of subsets of possible topics for discussion.

The Plenary was organized around these three general topic areas. More specifically, participants were divided into three groups, and rotated over the course of two days from one topical session to the next. All delegations, regardless of size, each had the opportunity to discuss the same general themes. The other constant was the presence at each topical session of a subject matter expert facilitator drawn from civil society. As indicated in Dr. Ford’s opening remarks at the Plenary, Dr. George Perkovich of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace moderated the first subgroup addressing the topic of reducing perceived nuclear-weapons incentives; Dr. Heather Williams of King’s College London facilitated  discussion in the subgroup on multilateral and other institutions and processes; and Dr. Sico van der Meer of the Clingendael Institute chaired the third subgroup on interim measures.

Under-Secretary of State Andrea Thompson and Assistant Secretary Ford gave opening remarks at the Plenary, but most of the two days of the meeting were devoted to discussions in three sub-groups. In another apparent procedural effort to solicit new ideas and encourage open discussion, the Plenary made use of two professional facilitators from the Department of State’s Foreign Service Institute. According to some of the participants with whom the authors spoke, this approach had the positive effect of creating an environment that more closely resembled a graduate school seminar than a diplomatic negotiation. It also created some distance between the conference organizers and the other discussants, which was appreciated by the delegates, including those for whom a graduate school environment was not necessarily one with which they were comfortable.

At a short concluding Plenary session, each of the three civil-society facilitators summarized the discussions that transpired in their groups. The authors are unaware of any particularly contentious issues that emerged, and participants appear to have followed Dr. Ford’s admonition at the opening session to point one’s finger toward ideas rather than at one another. The absence of acrimony is noteworthy, given the presence of representatives from states that rarely interact, much less constructively. In this respect, there is an interesting parallel to the deliberations that took place during the Nuclear Security Summits.

The presence of representatives from India, Israel, and Pakistan ensured that subgroup discussions were not limited to NPT review process issues. Although a number of “front burner” issues were discussed, no single topic dominated any session.

At the concluding, short Plenary session, the moderator raised the issue of expanding the list of country and civil-society participants. Representatives from Russia and China reportedly indicated that they could not support the proposal, as they had no instructions about the matter, and the moderator did not press the issue further.

Going Forward

No date or venue was announced for the next meeting of the CEND Working Group, although it is anticipated that another meeting will be held before the end of the calendar year, perhaps in the November timeframe. Although no venue was identified, some attendees at the July meeting believe that the next gathering will be held in Europe.

Participants do not appear to have been given any guidance about what to do between now and the next meeting, whenever and wherever that may be. What is known is that the United States would like to have co-chairs in place for each of the three subgroups in advance of the next meeting. Finland, the Netherlands, and the Republic of Korea have volunteered to assume that responsibility, but three additional co-chairs are still needed, preferably from states that are less closely aligned with the United States.

It is unlikely that the inaugural meeting of the CEND Working Group changed the views of any states regarding the degree to which the present international environment is conducive to nuclear disarmament, or how US withdrawal from existing arms-control undertakings might impact that environment. That being said, if the intent of the kick-off meeting was to begin a discussion about challenges to the global security environment and what must be done to ameliorate them, the inaugural meeting was a good start. All countries present contributed in a constructive fashion, and even skeptics of the process were inclined to give credit to the United States for creating an environment conducive to meaningful discussion, if not actual disarmament.

*The author expresses his thanks to Sarah Bidgood and Gaukhar Mukhatzhanova for their input to the essay, which is part of a larger CNS study on the impact of the CEND on the NPT review process.


[1] According to the list of participants circulated at the meeting, the states present were: Algeria, Argentina, Australia, Austria, Brazil, Canada, Chile, China, Colombia, Costa Rica, Egypt, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, India, Indonesia, Ireland, Israel, Japan, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, Mexico, Morocco, Netherlands, New Zealand, Nigeria, Pakistan, Philippines, Poland, Republic of Korea, Romania, Russia Federation, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, Ukraine, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom, and United States.

[2] The most useful description of the meeting is provided in the text of opening remarks by Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Ford, available at https://www.state.gov/inaugurating-a-new-and-more-realistic-global-disarmament-dialogue/. The best informed publication in advance of the meeting is Daryl G. Kimball, “U.S. to Host Disarmament Working Group,” Arms Control Today, July/August 2019 at https://www.armscontrol.org/act/2019-07/news/us-host-disarmament-working-group .

[3] The Chatham House rule is not intended to stifle discussion of what was addressed at a meeting but to preserve the privacy of the identity of speakers and their affiliations. See  https://www.chathamhouse.org/chatham-house-rule.

[4] “Creating the Conditions for Nuclear Disarmament: A New Approach,” Remarks by Assistant Secretary Christopher Ashley Ford, at the CNS Nonproliferation Workshop, March 17, 2018, Annecy, France: https://www.state.gov/remarks-and-releases-bureau-of-international-security-and-nonproliferation/creating-the-conditions-for-nuclear-disarmament-a-new-approach/

[5] “Creating the Conditions for Nuclear Disarmament,” Working Paper submitted by the United States of America, Second Session of the Preparatory Committee for the 2020 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, 18 April 2018 available at: https://s3.amazonaws.com/unoda-web/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/1806176E.pdf.

[6] https://www.state.gov/our-vision-for-a-constructive-collaborative-disarmament-discourse. An audio version of his CD remarks are available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G136p-ah3fI . For a discussion of Ford’s presentation, see Lyndon Buford, Oliver Meier, and Nick Ritchie, “Sidetrack or kickstart? How to respond to the US proposal on nuclear disarmament,” The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists (April 19, 2019), at https://thebulletin.org/2019/04/sidetrack-or-kickstart-how-to-respond-to-the-us-proposal-on-nuclear-disarmament/ .

[7] Although the meeting was touted as an academic colloquium, the only academics and representatives from civil society appear to have been several session moderators. The authors are unaware of any published account of the meeting or its participants.

[8] “Operationalizing the Creating an Environment for Nuclear Disarmament (CEND) Initiative, Working Paper submitted by the United States of America, Third Session of the Preparatory Committee for the 2020 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, 26 April 2018,  available at https://s3.amazonaws.com/unoda-web/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/NPT_CONF.2020_PC.III_WP.43-WP.43-Papersmart-US-Working-Paper_2019-PrepCom_CEND.pdf .

[9] For an early, detailed critique see Rebecca Davis Gibbons, “Can This New Approach to Nuclear Disarmament Work? War on the Rocks (January 23, 2019) at https://warontherocks.com/2019/01/can-this-new-approach-to-nuclear-disarmament-work/ . A more positive assessment is provided by Brad Roberts, “On Creating the Conditions for Nuclear Disarmament: Past Lessons, Future Prospects,” The Washington Quarterly (Summer 2019), pp. 7-30.

[10] As head of the Russian delegation to the 2019 PrepCom, Yermakov had castigated the US for denying visas to some members of the delegation and suggested the possible need to select an alternative venue for the 2020 NPT Review Conference.

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