2019 Moscow Nonproliferation Conference: The big losers were the no-shows

The week of 4 November 2019 RI President Peggy Mason attended the 2019 Moscow Nonproliferation Conference, the 10th consecutive year it has taken place. Click here for the conference agenda.

It was organized by the Center for Energy and Security Studies (CENESS) in cooperation with a number of Russian and international partners, including the European Leadership Network. Mr. Anton Khlopkov, CENESS Director, Member of the Advisory Board under the Security Council of the Russian Federation, and member of the U.N. Secretary General’s Advisory Board on Disarmament Matters (ABDM) ably chaired the two-day meeting:

The timing of the Conference (November 7-9, 2019) has a special significance: the absence of dialogue on the world’s most pressing nuclear issues, such as Russia-US arms control, uncertain prospects of the JCPOA, growing tensions in the Middle East, the lack of progress of the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula are putting in danger the integrity of the NPT — the central building block of the international security architecture.

Convening the 2019 MNC on the eve of the 2020 NPT Review Conference is an opportunity to take a look back at this Review Cycle and assess the current state of affairs, discuss the main challenges, threats and come up with possible solutions.

Despite high-level representation from many quarters, including a keynote address by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, the United States government refused to send a delegation.  It is therefore fitting to once again recall the words of one of the conference sponsors, the European Leadership Network:

It is possible to negotiate with adversaries without condoning unacceptable behaviour. Leaders must relearn the skills of past decades in finding ways to reduce shared nuclear risks in the absence of wider trust.

Ambassador Mason was a panelist in Plenary Session II: The 1995 Review and Extension Conference: Lessons for Today. She identified the following key factors in the successful indefinite extension of the NPT in 1995.

  • The overriding conviction that indefinite extension was in the security interests of the states concerned, given the fundamental role played by the treaty in stemming the spread of nuclear weapons;
  • A positive geopolitical context that included significant nuclear arms reductions by the USA and Russia, progress towards the achievement of a comprehensive test ban treaty (CTBT) and agreement on a negotiating mandate for a treaty on the cut-off of fissionable material for nuclear explosive purposes (FMCT); and
  • Key pledges by the 5 nuclear weapons states party to the NPT (United States, Russia, UK, France and China) on principles and objectives for full treaty implementation, a strengthened treaty review process and the next steps towards a possible nuclear weapons free zone in the Middle East.

The biggest lesson from the success of the 1995 conference is the importance of creative, sustained good faith, diplomacy across political and geographic groups*. It is quite frankly the antithesis of the current approach, where building bridges between groups is replaced by NPT non-nuclear weapons states like Canada hunkering down with the western nuclear weapons states in the NATO caucus. – Ambassador Mason

Despite the absence of official U.S. government representatives, a total of three plenary and concurrent sessions on the Korean Peninsula were quite productive, aided by the participation of former American officials and leading think tank members.

Suzanne DiMaggio, Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, had this advice regarding a possible further USA-DPRK Summit (summarized in a series of tweets she sent out during the conference):

Suzanne DiMaggio  @suzannedimaggio

Second, if we’re going to have any chance for progress, Washington & Pyongyang need to establish a direct channel that would enable steady and reliable communications as a priority. The time for third party mediators should come to an end.

Third, we need working level talks. [U.S. Special Rep for North Korea] Biegun has met w/ North Korean officials a total of 7 days over the past 1.5 years. Without ongoing talks, this process is doomed to fail. Summitry alone won’t work.

This year’s conference also featured the first ever plenary focused on Parliamentarians: Preserving Arms Control Agreements and the Nonproliferation Regime: Do Parliamentarians Have a Role?

In discussion time Ambassador Mason posed a question to panelist Madame Daniela de Ridder, Deputy Chair of the German Parliamentary Committee on Foreign Affairs.  She began by referencing the unanimous recommendation of the Canadian House of Commons Standing Committee on National Defence regarding the urgent need for Canada to initiate a nuclear disarmament dialogue within NATO.

She went on to note the U.S. intention to replace the old B61 nuclear gravity bombs that are currently deployed in the five NATO “basing countries” (Belgium, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, and Turkey — all of which are non-nuclear weapons state parties to the NPT) with new, upgraded nuclear weapons with lower yield and greater precision, thus creating, in the words of a past American Congress, “the illusion of usability”. Then Mason stated:

Such a destabilizing move surely should be the subject of debate and concern in the Parliaments of all NATO countries who are also non-nuclear weapons state parties to the NPT….So my question for Madame de Ritter is: what role do you see for the German Parliament?

In response the German parliamentarian underscored her belief in the importance of greater parliamentary debate on these issues, together with more public education on the dangers of nuclear war and more parliamentary exchanges between countries like Germany and Canada.

Perhaps the most sobering of the panel discussions was that on “Strategic Stability in South Asia: Challenges and Prospects”. No new ground was broken or even broached, with Indian and Pakistani panelists each assigning blame to the other for increased tensions. Most worrying of all was the frequent reference to possible use of nuclear weapons on the sub-continent should a crisis escalate out of control.

This tweet from Indian participant Dr. Manpreet Sethi of the Centre for Air Power Studies illustrates the problem:

Manpreet Sethi  @manpreetsethi01

As #moscownuke2019 nonproliferation conference gets underway, every Pak intervention pleading for international help from all speakers to get their dialogue going with India…. No takers forthcoming though!! How many times can one cry nuclear wolf???

If India and Pakistan could confine their nuclear conflagration to each other’s countries, that would be horrific enough, but since the rest of us literally cannot escape the fallout, a plea for “international help”, whatever the motivation, merits careful consideration.

The final plenary of the conference on Saturday evening, JCPOA: Possible Steps to Prevent Further Escalation and Sustain the Deal, featured the Russian and Iranian Deputy Foreign Ministers and the Director General of Arms Control and Disarmament in the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs.  Once again, the absence of official American participation spoke volumes about the Trump administration’s disinterest in constructive international engagement.

Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi of Iran underscored his country’s appreciation for the support they had received from Russia and China since the unilateral American abrogation of the Iran nuclear deal in May 2018. There was discussion of the steps taken by Iran away from the JCPOA in an effort to pressure the EU to help alleviate the damage being caused to the Iranian economy by America’s resumption of unilateral economic “sanctions”, unsupported by international law. Technical experts noted that, despite the Iranian “steps away”, they were still in compliance with their fundamental obligations under the nuclear agreement.

Ambassador Mason summed up the Moscow meeting:

All in all, and despite the regrettable lack of official American presence, it was a timely and highly constructive conference. In this era of increasing polarization, the focus went beyond assigning blame to identifying realistic, practical steps that could be taken to promote greater dialogue and understanding in relation to some of the most fundamental and pressing international security challenges now facing the global community. The big losers were those countries who refused to attend.


For a discussion by three conference participants of the goal of nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament, see Aljazeera Inside Story for 9 November: Is nuclear non-proliferation still a realistic goal?

*For a closer look at the multilateral diplomacy that contributed to the success of the 1995 Review and Extension Conference, through such informal mechanisms as the Mason Group, see: The NPT’s Indefinite Extension: the future of the global non-proliferation regime (Tariq Rauf and Rebecca Johnson, The Nonproliferation Review, Vol 3, 1995 – Issue 1).

Whither Canada?

The original version of this blog erroneously stated that there was no official representative from Global Affairs present. We are delighted to correct the record and report that Cheryl Cruz, Deputy Director (Nuclear NACD Policy) of the Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Division of Global Affairs was indeed a delegate to the conference.

Photo credit: pbs.twing.com (the Kremlin)

Tags: 1995 NPT Review and Extension Conference, 2020 NPT Review Conference, Ambassador Peggy Mason, Bundestag, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Centre for Energy and Security Studies (CENESS), Committee on Foreign Affairs, European Leadership Network, Germany, India, India Centre for Air Power Studies, Iran nuclear deal, Korean Peninsula, Moscow nonproliferation, stability in South Asia, Suzanne DiMaggio