Nuclear policy
Steven Pifer
News Type

On Tuesday [June 4], the House Subcommittee on Strategic Forces debated the draft Fiscal Year 2020 National Defense Authorization Act.

It voted out, on party lines, language that prohibits deployment of a low-yield warhead on the Trident D5 submarine-launched ballistic missile.  That makes sense:  The rationale for the warhead is dubious, and the weapon likely would never be selected for use.

Read the rest at The Hill


Hero Image
All News button
Steven Pifer
News Type

This piece originally appeared at Brookings.



The Trump administration has finished off the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, a treaty mortally wounded by Russia’s deployment of a banned intermediate-range missile. That leaves the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) as the sole agreement limiting U.S. and Russian nuclear forces.

New START has less than two years to run. At the February 15-16 Munich Security Conference, a senior Russian official reiterated Moscow’s readiness to extend the treaty. The administration, however, continues its odd reluctance to take up that offer. House Democrats should use their power of the purse on the issue.


Signed in 2010, New START limits the United States and Russia each to no more than 700 strategic ballistic missiles and bombers, and no more than 1,550 deployed strategic warheads. Those limits took full effect in February 2018. Both sides have complied, although technical questions have arisen. Russian officials question the way in which the U.S. military converted some launchers so that they would not count.

By its terms, New START runs until February 5, 2021. It can be extended for up to five years by simple agreement between the U.S. and Russian presidents.

When asked about extension in 2017, administration officials said they would wait to complete the nuclear posture review and to see if the Russians met the New START limits. Both of those boxes were checked more than a year ago. Administration officials now say they are studying extension but see no need to rush.

New START extension is in the U.S. interest.

First, extension would constrain Russian strategic nuclear forces until 2026. It makes little sense to let the treaty lapse in 2021, when Russia has hot production lines churning out new missiles, submarines, and bombers.

Second, New START extension would not impact U.S. strategic modernization plans. They are sized to fit within New START’s limits. Moreover, the United States will not start producing significant numbers of replacement missiles, submarines, and bombers until the second half of the 2020s.

Third, extension would continue the flow of information that the sides share with each other about their strategic forces. That comes from data exchanges, notifications, on-site inspections and other verification measures, all of which end if New START lapses. Making up for that loss of information would require a costly investment in new national technical means such as reconnaissance satellites.


Extension should be a no-brainer. However, in a White House that operates on its own facts and at times with an indecipherable logic, extension is not a given.

President Trump does not seem to understand much about nuclear arms control. During his first telephone conversation with President Putin, Trump reportedly dismissed New START as a bad deal done by his predecessor. He has taken delight in undoing the accomplishments of President Obama (witness the Iran nuclear accord).

National Security Advisor Bolton shows disdain for arms control and has criticized New START. One of its faults, according to Mr. Bolton: It provides for equal limits on the United States and Russia. He felt the treaty should allow the U.S. military to have more. (U.S. diplomats would have had an interesting time trying to negotiate that.) Asked about New START extension, Mr. Bolton notes two alternatives: renegotiation and a new treaty modeled on the 2002 Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT).

Renegotiation would allow U.S. officials to try to improve New START, perhaps with more intrusive verification measures, or even broadening the agreement to cover non-strategic nuclear weapons. Moscow, however, would seek changes as well, such as constraints on missile defenses—anathema to Washington.

Renegotiation would prove difficult, take considerable time, and have at best uncertain prospects for success. A wiser course would extend New START and then seek a renegotiation or a new follow-on treaty.

As for SORT, negotiated by Mr. Bolton, it limited deployed warheads only. Mr. Putin accepted that in 2002, but Russian officials have long since made clear that limits should apply to warheads and delivery vehicles, as they do in New START.

SORT, moreover, was “sort of” arms control. Lacking agreed definitions, counting rules or monitoring measures, it was unverifiable. In doing their own counts on the honor system, the U.S. and Russian militaries may not have even counted the same things.

Neither Secretary of State Pompeo nor Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan has shown interest in championing New START. The uniformed military leadership argued the treaty’s value in the past, but Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Joseph Dunford recently has hedged.

While ratification of a treaty requires consent from two-thirds of the Senate, the president alone can decide to leave a treaty. The Trump administration did not consult with either Congress or allies on withdrawal before Trump announced his intention to pull out of the treaty last October.


While the Trump administration shows little interest in arms control, it does want funding to modernize U.S. strategic forces. Democrats should recognize that and force the White House’s hand.

The U.S. strategic triad is aging. Ballistic missile submarines are the leg of the triad most in need of urgent replacement. They should be funded. Replacing intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) or building the B-21 bomber, however, are less urgent needs. As they work on the appropriations for the 2020 defense budget, House Democrats should make clear to the White House and the Pentagon that money for ICBM modernization or the B-21 would need to be paired with extension of New START. That will get attention.

Retaining a strategic triad makes sense (though the need for 400 deployed ICBMs is debatable). Retaining New START makes sense as well. House Democrats should simply insist on a trade.

Hero Image
All News button
Steven Pifer
News Type

Today, January 14, marks the 25th anniversary of the Trilateral Statement.  Signed in Moscow by President Bill Clinton, Russian President Boris Yeltsin and Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk, the statement set out the terms under which Ukraine agreed to eliminate the large arsenal of former Soviet strategic nuclear weapons that remained on its territory following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Among other things, the Trilateral Statement specified the security assurances that the United States, Russia and Britain would provide to Ukraine eleven months later in the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances.  Unfortunately, Russia grossly violated those assurances in 2014 when it used military force against Ukraine.

Soon after regaining independence, Ukraine’s leadership indicated its intention to be a non-nuclear weapons state.  Indeed, the July 16, 1990 declaration of state sovereignty adopted by the Rada (parliament) adopted that goal.  Kyiv had questions, however, about the terms of the elimination of the strategic weapons.

First, eliminating the intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), bombers, ICBM silos and nuclear infrastructure would cost money.  Ukraine’s economic future in the early 1990s was uncertain (the economy ended up declining for most of the decade).  Who would pay for the expensive elimination process?

Second, the strategic nuclear warheads had economic value as they contained highly enriched uranium.  That could be blended down into low enriched uranium to fabricate fuel rods to power nuclear reactors.  If Ukraine shipped warheads to Russia for dismantlement, how would it be compensated for the value of the highly enriched uranium they contained?

Third, nuclear weapons were seen to confer security benefits.  What security guarantees or assurances would Kyiv receive as it gave up the nuclear arms on its territory?

These questions were reasonable, and Kyiv deserved good answers.  In 1992 and the first half of 1993, Ukrainian and Russian officials met in bilateral channels to discuss them, along with other issues such as a schedule for moving warheads to Russia.  In parallel, U.S. officials discussed similar issues with their Ukrainian and Russian counterparts.

However, in September 1993, a Ukrainian-Russian agreement dealing with the nuclear issues fell apart.  Washington decided to become more directly involved out of fear that a resolution might otherwise not prove possible, giving birth to the “trilateral process.”  Discussions over the course of the autumn led U.S. negotiators in mid-December to believe that the pieces of a solution were ready.

In a negotiation in Washington in early January 1994, U.S. Ambassador-at-large Strobe Talbott, Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Valeriy Shmarov and Deputy Foreign Minister Borys Tarasyuk, and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Georgiy Mamedov and their teams finalized answers to Kyiv’s three questions, and wrote them into what became the Trilateral Statement and an accompanying annex.

The United States agreed to provide Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction funds to finance the elimination of the strategic delivery systems and infrastructure in Ukraine.  Specifically, $175 million would be made available as a start.

The three sides agreed that Russia would compensate Ukraine for the value of the highly enriched uranium in the nuclear warheads transferred to Russia for elimination by providing Ukraine fuel rods containing an equivalent amount of low enriched uranium for its nuclear reactors.  In the first ten months, Ukraine would transfer at least 200 warheads, and Russia would provide fuel rods containing 100 tons of low enriched uranium.

The sides laid out in the Trilateral Statement the specific language of the security assurances that Ukraine would receive once it had acceded to the Non-Proliferation Treaty as a non-nuclear weapons state.  Although Kyiv had sought security guarantees, Washington was not prepared to extend what would have been a military commitment similar to what NATO allies have; the assurances were the best that was on offer.

Two issues—the date for transfer of the last nuclear warheads out of Ukraine and compensation for the highly enriched uranium that had been in tactical nuclear warheads removed from Ukraine to Russia by May 1992—nearly derailed the Trilateral Statement.  The sides, however, agreed to address those in private letters.

Presidents Clinton, Yeltsin and Kravchuk met briefly in Moscow on January 14, 1994 and signed the Trilateral Statement.  That set in motion the transfer of nuclear warheads to Russia, accompanied by parallel shipments of fuel rods to Ukraine.  The deactivation and dismantlement of missiles, bombers and missile silos in Ukraine began in earnest with Cooperative Threat Reduction funding.

In December 1994, Ukraine acceded to the Non-Proliferation Treaty and received security assurances from the United States, Russia and Britain in the Budapest Memorandum.  France and China subsequently provided Kyiv similar assurances.

Ukraine fully met its commitments under the Trilateral Statement.  The last nuclear warheads were transferred out of Ukraine in May 1996.

The other signatories met their commitments—with one glaring exception.  In 2014, Russia used military force to illegally seize Crimea, in violation of its Budapest Memorandum commitments “to respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine,” and “to refrain from the threat or use of force” against Ukraine.  Russian security and military forces then instigated a conflict in the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine, a conflict that has claimed more than 10,000 lives and continues to simmer.

At the time, the Trilateral Statement was seen as a major achievement in Washington, as it eliminated hundreds of ICBMs and bombers and nearly 2,000 strategic nuclear warheads that had been designed and built to strike the United States.  Not surprisingly, in light of Russia’s aggression, many in Ukraine now question the value of the Trilateral Statement and Budapest Memorandum.  They argue that, had Ukraine held on to at least some nuclear weapons, Russia would never have dared move on Crimea and Donbas.

That argument is understandable and perhaps correct (although alternative histories are not always easy to envisage).  However, had Ukraine tried to keep nuclear weapons, it would have faced political and economic costs, including:

·      Kyiv would have had limited relations, at best, with the United States and European countries (witness the virtual pariah status that a nuclear North Korea suffers).  In particular, there would have been no strategic relationship with the United States.

·      NATO would not have concluded a distinctive partnership relationship with Ukraine, and the European Union would not have signed a partnership and cooperation agreement, to say nothing of an association agreement.

·      Kyiv would have received little in the way of reform, technical or financial assistance from the United States and European Union.

·      Western executive directors would have blocked low interest credits to Ukraine from the IMF, World Bank and European Bank of Reconstruction and Development.

To be sure, one can debate the value of these benefits.  But those who now assert that Ukraine should have kept nuclear arms should recognize that keeping them would have come at a steep price.  Moreover, in any confrontation or crisis with Russia, Ukraine would have found itself alone.

Hero Image
All News button
Visiting Scholar at The Europe Center, 2018-2019

Dr. Anna Péczeli is a visiting scholar at The Europe Center (TEC) at Stanford University. She is also a research fellow at the Centre for Strategic and Defence Studies at the National University of Public Service in Budapest, Hungary. In 2016 - 2017 she was a Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC) at Stanford University. Previously, she was an assistant lecturer at Corvin us University of Budapest, an adjunct fellow at the Hungarian Institute of International Affairs, a visiting research fellow at the Peace Research Institute Frankfurt, and a visiting Fulbright fellow at the Nuclear Information Project of the Federation of American Scientists in Washington, DC. Dr. Péczeli earned a Ph.D. degree in International Relations from Corvinus University of Budapest, her research focused on the Obama administration’s nuclear strategy – the review of nuclear guidance, and the extent t o which the legacies of the Cold War still define U.S. nuclear planning. Dr. Péczeli is a member of the G7 Berlin Group – International Coalition for CBRN Security Culture; the European Defence and Security Network (sponsored by the European Parliament); t he CSIS Project on Nuclear Issues (PONI); the EU Non - Proliferation and Disarmament Consortium; and chair of the Executive Board of the International Student/Young Pugwash (ISYP) group.


INF Public Panel Discussion

President Trump announced on October 20 that the United States will withdraw from the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. That will end one of two agreements that constrain U.S. and Russian nuclear force levels, the other being the New START Treaty. What does the president’s decision mean for arms control, for European security and for an already troubled U.S.-Russia relationship?



Steven Pifer
William J. Perry fellow, Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies

Steven Pifer is a William J. Perry fellow at Stanford’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies (FSI), where he is affiliated with FSI’s Center for International Security and Cooperation and Europe Center.  He is also a nonresident senior fellow with the Brookings Institution. Pifer’s research focuses on nuclear arms control, Ukraine, Russia and European security. A retired Foreign Service officer, his assignments included deputy assistant secretary of state, U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, and special assistant to the President and senior director for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia on the National Security Council. He also served at the U.S. embassies in Warsaw, Moscow and London as well as with the U.S. delegation to the intermediate-range nuclear forces negotiations in Geneva.



Kristin Ven Bruusgaard
MacArthur Postdoctoral Fellow, CISAC

Kristin Ven Bruusgaard is a MacArthur Nuclear Security Postdoctoral Fellow at CISAC. Her research focuses on Russian nuclear strategy and on deterrence dynamics. Dr. Bruusgaard has previously been a research fellow at the Norwegian Institute for Defence Studies (IFS), a senior security policy analyst in the Norwegian Armed Forces, a junior researcher at the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment (FFI), and an intern at the Congressional Research Service (CRS) in Washington, D.C., and at NATO HQ. She holds a Ph.D in Defence Studies from Kings College London, an M.A. in Security Studies from Georgetown University, and a B.A. (Hons) from Warwick University. Her work has been published in Security Dialogue, U.S. Army War College Quarterly Parameters, Survival, War on the Rocks, Texas National Security Review and Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

Michael McFaul
Director of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies
Director of the Ford Dorsey Master's in International Policy

Michael McFaul is the Ken Olivier and Angela Nomellini Professor of International Studies in Political Science, Director and Senior Fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, and the Peter and Helen Bing Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, all at Stanford University. He was also the Distinguished Mingde Faculty Fellow at the Stanford Center at Peking University from June to August of 2015. He joined the Stanford faculty in 1995. He is also an analyst for NBC News and a contributing columnist to The Washington Post. McFaul served for five years in the Obama administration, first as Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Russian and Eurasian Affairs at the National Security Council at the White House (2009-2012), and then as U.S. Ambassador to the Russian Federation (2012-2014).

Kathryn E. Stoner
Deputy Director of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies
Deputy Director of the Ford Dorsey Master's in International Policy

Kathryn Stoner is the Deputy Director at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University and a Senior Fellow at the Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law, as well as the Deputy Director of the Ford Dorsey Master's in International Policy at Stanford University. She teaches in the Department of Political Science at Stanford, and in the Program on International Relations, as well as in the Ford Dorsey Program. Prior to coming to Stanford in 2004, she was on the faculty at Princeton University for nine years, jointly appointed to the Department of Politics and the Woodrow Wilson School for International and Public Affairs. At Princeton she received the Ralph O. Glendinning Preceptorship awarded to outstanding junior faculty. She also served as a Visiting Associate Professor of Political Science at Columbia University, and an Assistant Professor of Political Science at McGill University. She has held fellowships at Harvard University as well as the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, DC.


Steven Pifer William J. Perry fellow, Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies

Steven Pifer is an affiliate of the Center for International Security and Cooperation as well as a non-resident senior fellow with the Brookings Institution.  He was a William J. Perry Fellow at the center from 2018-2022 and a fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin from January-May 2021.

Pifer’s research focuses on nuclear arms control, Ukraine, Russia and European security. He has offered commentary on these issues on National Public Radio, PBS NewsHour, CNN and BBC, and his articles have been published in a wide variety of outlets.  He is the author of The Eagle and the Trident: U.S.-Ukraine Relations in Turbulent Times (Brookings Institution Press, 2017), and co-author of The Opportunity: Next Steps in Reducing Nuclear Arms (Brookings Institution Press, 2012).

A retired Foreign Service officer, Pifer’s more than 25 years with the State Department focused on U.S. relations with the former Soviet Union and Europe, as well as arms control and security issues.  He served as deputy assistant secretary of state in the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs with responsibilities for Russia and Ukraine, ambassador to Ukraine, and special assistant to the president and senior director for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia on the National Security Council.  In addition to Ukraine, he served at the U.S. embassies in Warsaw, Moscow and London as well as with the U.S. delegation to the negotiation on intermediate-range nuclear forces in Geneva.  From 2000 to 2001, he was a visiting scholar at Stanford’s Institute for International Studies, and he was a resident scholar at the Brookings Institution from 2008 to 2017.

Pifer is a 1976 graduate of Stanford University with a bachelor’s in economics.


Affiliate, CISAC
Affiliate, The Europe Center
Clifton Parker
News Type

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the worry in the West was what would happen to that country’s thousands of nuclear weapons. Would “loose” nukes fall into the hands of terrorists, rogue states, criminals – and plunge the world into a nuclear nightmare?

Fortunately, scientists and technical experts in both the U.S. and the former Soviet Union rolled up their sleeves to manage and contain the nuclear problem in the dissolving Communist country.

One of the leaders in this relationship was Stanford engineering professor Siegfried Hecker, who served as a director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory before coming to Stanford as a senior fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation. He is a world-renowned expert in plutonium science, global threat reduction and nuclear security.

Hecker cited one 1992 meeting with Russian scientists in Moscow who were clearly concerned about the risks. In his new book, Doomed to Cooperate: How American and Russian scientists joined forces to avert some of the greatest post-Cold War nuclear dangers, Hecker quoted one Russian expert as saying, “We now need to be concerned about terrorism.”

Earning both scientific and political trust was a key, said Hecker, also a senior fellow at Stanford’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies. The Russians were proud of their scientific accomplishments and highly competent in the nuclear business – and they sought to show this to the Americans scientists, who became very confident in their Russian counterparts’ technical capabilities as they learned more about their nuclear complex and toured the labs.

Economic collapse, political turmoil

But the nuclear experts faced an immense problem. The Soviets had about 39,000 nuclear weapons in their country and in Eastern Europe and about 1.5 million kilograms of plutonium and highly enriched uranium (the fuel for nuclear bombs), Hecker said. Consider that the bomb that the U.S. dropped on the Japanese city of Nagasaki in 1945 was only six kilograms of plutonium, he added. Meanwhile, the U.S. had about 25,000 nuclear weapons in the early 1990s.

Hecker and the rest of the Americans were deeply concerned about the one million-plus Russians who worked in nuclear facilities. Many faced severe financial pressure in an imploding society and thus constituted a huge potential security risk.

“The challenge that Russia faced with its economy collapsing was enormous,” he said in an interview.

The Russian scientists, Hecker said, were motivated to act responsibly because they realized the awful destruction that a single nuclear bomb could wreak. Hecker noted that one Russian scientist told him, “We arrived in the nuclear century all in one boat, and a movement by anyone will affect everyone.” Hecker noted, “Therefore, you know, we were doomed to work together to cooperate.”

All of this depended on the two governments involved easing nuclear tensions while allowing the scientists to collaborate. In short order, the scientists developed mutual respect and trust to address the loose nukes scenario.

The George H.W. Bush administration launched nuclear initiatives to put the Russian government at ease. For example, it took the nuclear weapons off U.S. Navy surface ships and some of its nuclear weapons off alert to allow the Russians to do the same. The U.S. Congress passed the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction legislation, which helped fund some of the loose nuke containment efforts.

While those were positive measures, Hecker said, it was ultimately the cooperation among scientists, what they called lab-to-lab-cooperation, that allowed the two former superpower enemies to “get past the sensitivity barriers” and make “the world a safer place.”

Since the end of the Cold War, no significant nuclear event has occurred as a result of the dissolution of the Soviet Union and its nuclear complex, Hecker noted.

Lesson: cooperation counts

One lesson from it all, Hecker said, is that government policymakers need to understand that scientists and engineers can work together and make progress toward solving difficult, dangerous problems.

“We don’t want to lose the next generation from understanding what can actually be done by working together,” he said.  “So, we want to demonstrate to them, Look, this is what was done when the scientists were interested and enthusiastic and when the government gave us enough room to be able to do that.”

Hecker said this scientific cooperation extended to several thousand scientists and engineers at the Russian sites and at U.S. nuclear labs – primarily the three defense labs: Lawrence Livermore, Los Alamos, and Sandia national laboratories. Many technical exchanges and visits between scientists in Russia and the United States took place.

He recalled visiting some of the nuclear sites in Russian cities shrouded by mystery. “These cities were so secret, they didn’t even appear on Soviet maps.”

Change of threat

When the Soviet Union collapsed, the nature of the nuclear threat changed, Hecker said. The threat before was one of mutual annihilation, but now the threat changed to what would happen if nuclear assets were lost, stolen or somehow evaded the control of the government.

“From an American perspective we referred to these as the ‘four loose nuclear dangers,'” he said.

This included securing the loose nukes in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe; preventing nuclear materials or bomb fuel from getting into the wrong hands; the human element involving the people who worked in the Soviet nuclear complex; and finally, the “loose exports” problem of someone trying to sell nuclear materials or technical components to overseas groups like terrorists or rogue nations.

For Hecker, this is not just an American story. It is about a selfless reconciliation with a longtime enemy for the greater global good, a relationship not corrupted by ideological or nationalistic differences, but one reflective of mutual interests of the highest order.

“The primary reason,” he said, “why we didn’t have a nuclear catastrophe was the Russian nuclear workers and the Russian nuclear officials. Their dedication, their professionalism, their patriotism for their country was so strong that it carried them through these times in the 1990s when they often didn’t get paid for six months at a time … The nuclear complex did its job through the most trying times. And it was a time when the U.S. government took crucial conciliatory measures with the new Russian Federation and gave us scientists the support to help make the world a safer place.”


All News button
Steven Pifer
News Type

In his blog posting SORT vs. New START: Why the Administration is Leery of a Treaty, Steven Pifer continues with his previous posting Presidents, Nuclear Reductions and the Senate.  He points to the ratification experience between George W. Bush's 2002 Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT) and Burak Obama's 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) as the basis for the Obama administration fear that the Republican majority Senate would not consider a treaty for further nuclear reductions on its merits.

All News button
Steven Pifer
News Type

President Barack Obama desires to further reduce nuclear arsenals below the levels set in the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) and Republicans and former officials of the George W. Bush administration assert that this can only be done through a new treaty.  Steven Pifer, director of the Brookings Arms Control Initiative, in his blog posting Presidents, Nuclear Reductions and the Senate, points out that nuclear reduction efforts have not always been accomplished through treaties requiring ratification by the senate.  History shows that past presidents, including Republicans, have used alternative methods that did not require a 2/3 majority vote by the Senate. 

All News button
Francesca Giovannini
News Type
“The era of procrastination, of half measures, of soothing and baffling expedience, of delays, is coming to a close; in its place we are entering a period of consequences.” -- Winston Churchill

Since its inception, the European Union has come under criticism that it has consistently shied away from taking full-fledged global political and security responsibilities despite its role as an economic powerhouse on the world stage. The EU, its critics argue, has been content to linger in the protective limbo provided by the United States and NATO, while conveniently voicing some ethical disagreements against the unilateral posture of its trans-Atlantic defender, without ever formulating any specific alternatives.

For the last three decades of the 20th century, the European Union largely looked inward to the management of its complex and never-ending integration process. At best, it sought bland diplomatic engagement with its unstable southern and eastern neighbors, while relying on American leadership elsewhere. As a result, the EU has taken a backseat on significant issues, including the global fight against terrorism and the handling of the Middle East peace process, over which American interests has largely predominated.

In the realm of nuclear politics, too, the EU has played “catch-up” to the United States, even though some of its members had thriving nuclear power-generation industries, and the second-largest nuclear exporter in the world – France – was one of its core founders. Tom Sauer, a European scholar based at the University of Antwerpen, argued: “Europe, in contrast to the United States, acted for a long time as if it were living on another planet. Each time the European States seemed to catch up in the field of non-proliferation, the United States moves to a higher gear. Europe always ran behind. When the European Community (EC) member-states decided to ratify the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), in the mid 1970s, the U.S. was already pushing for stricter control in the frameworks of the nuclear supplier groups. When the EC agreed with the Nuclear Supplier Group (NSG) guidelines, the Carter administration had further hardened its policies. When the EC gradually established non-proliferation policy in the ‘80s and in the ‘90s, the U.S. changed the analytical framework by introducing the concept of counter-proliferation. The latter placed more emphasis on military instruments in the fight against terrorism”.

The EU’s reluctance to take a more muscular role in global nuclear governance is rooted in both institutional deficiencies and acute political disagreements among its member-states.  First, the enlargement process, which has brought 27 countries together under a single European flag in a 40-year-long transition period, has demanded significant effort for internal institution-building and policy harmonization, which in turn has reduced the ability of the EU to formulate foreign policy strategies and to engage proactively with the rest of the world.

More important, at the political level, reaching consensus on the features and contours of a European nuclear policy has proven particularly contentious and divisive for the EU and its member-states. Establishing an EU nuclear strategy entails tackling a series of complex issues, nuclear disarmament in particular, on which Europeans have held highly disparate views even before the eastern enlargement process of 2004. And at present, the EU comprises two nuclear weapons states (France and the UK) that remain skeptical on the possibility of moving toward the total elimination of nuclear weapons, five other countries that are currently hosting NATO nuclear-armed bases (Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium and Greece) and harbor substantial disagreements on the future of such weapons, and a widely diverse bloc of countries adamantly opposed to nuclear weapons (notably Sweden, Germany, Spain), nuclear energy for peaceful use (Italy) or both (Austria and Ireland).

Given these political constraints, EU policy-makers have consistently acted upon a “lowest common denominator” rationale, and have adopted a low-key position on nuclear-related matters to avoid stirring unnecessary controversies among member-states. This has inevitably translated into modest positions, timid decisions and compromised policies.

Things have started to improve, at least on the front of nuclear proliferation. In the 1990s, two important achievements altered the institutional landscape of nuclear cooperation within the European Union. First, France’s late accession to the NPT (which the country ratified in 1992) finally freed the EU to develop common positions within major international nuclear forums, giving it credibility and influence as a single unified actor.   Second, the discovery in 1991 of Iraq’s clandestine nuclear program provided much-needed impetus for the three main European nuclear exporters – Germany, the UK and France – to align their efforts to develop EU dual-use-technology export-control regulations. That policy adopted in 1994 and revised and strengthened in 2000 and 2009, was the first substantial political step taken by the EU both to acknowledge the significant threat posed by nuclear proliferation and to prevent further cases of nuclear proliferation in its neighboring area and beyond.

Building on these important achievements, the EU took on a more explicit global outlook during the first decade of the new century. A string of initiatives – the adoption in 2003 of the EU strategy against proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (henceforth EU WMD Strategy, an enhanced European role in the Iranian nuclear crisis (2003 to present), and the launch of an EU-designed and -led nuclear security agenda (2010) – underscore a significant change within the European Union in its approach to responding to and preventing proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

First, a clear shift within the European Union has given security considerations primacy over economic calculations in exporting and trading dual-use technology.  Throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s, both Germany and France, in particular, were engaged in nuclear exporting without sufficient appreciation of the potential risks associated with the spread of nuclear technology. But increasingly in the ‘80s, and much more explicitly since the ‘90s, after severe proliferation crises in Iraq, Libya and North Korea, these countries have assumed a much more responsible and cautious position as nuclear exporters. The turn toward nuclear cooperation based on security factors was made explicit in the 2003 EU WMD strategy through the establishment of the so-called “proliferation clause”. The clause states that any EU trade agreement with a non-EU third party will be halted if the contracting party is in breach of one or more international nuclear non-proliferation treaties and agreements.  Such a breach would automatically lead to cancelation of the agreement and cessation of all cooperation.

Second, the EU has shifted its focus from a regional to a global nuclear approach. In its 2003 EU WMD strategy, the EU clearly states that “proliferation of WMD is a global threat which requires a global approach”. While priority will still be given to nuclear non-proliferation in European neighborhoods (the Middle East, Central Asia and North Africa in particular), the EU’s commitment to halt and prevent proliferation is global. To signal its willingness to act as a global player, the EU has embraced the U.S.-led global counter-proliferation strategy as well as America’s global nuclear-security agenda to fight nuclear terrorism. In addition to lending its support to U.S. measures such as the  Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) and UN Resolution 1540  (the preliminary draft of which was produced through Franco-American cooperation), the EU has also launched parallel initiatives such as the Chemical-Biological-Radiological-Nuclear (CBRN) Risk Mitigation Centres of Excellence. This project, perhaps the most ambitious nuclear-security initiative ever launched at the global level, authorizes six regional centers around the world to provide capacity-building training programs for emerging countries to develop appropriate border and export control policies in the fight against nuclear terrorism and to minimize illicit smuggling of sensitive dual-use technology to both non-state actors and rogue states.

The third EU shift has been from a soft-power approach to a harder, more coercive approach to WMD proliferation. The EU’s WMD strategy introduces the concept of “effective multilateralism” and explicitly states that “when measures – such as political dialogue and diplomatic pressure – have failed, coercive measures under Chapter VII of the UN Charter and international law could be envisioned”.  The shift in rhetoric has been matched by actions. In the handling of the 2003 Iranian crisis, the EU’s main approach had been one of constructive engagement, but increasingly, and particularly from 2008, during the tenure of the EU Presidency by France, the EU has shifted to a much harder stance, calling for and adopting a broad range of economic sanctions.

The costs of global nuclear leadership

Although the changes in the EU’s nuclear approach are significant – and welcome – in an era of increasing nuclear-technology diffusion, they have nonetheless generated some negative consequences that have been acknowledged only marginally by EU officials. Such externalities must be tackled and resolved if EU global nuclear engagement is to remain credible and sustainable over time. Four types of negative externalities can be identified.

The first are political consequences. The increasing engagement of the EU in global nuclear governance has deepened the divide between the main European nuclear players and the rest of the member-states by institutionalizing de facto an EU Directorate comprising France, Germany and the United Kingdom. While the directorate had always been at work within the EU, particularly in matters related to foreign and security policy, for several years it has remained an informal arrangement, usually disguised within bilateral or trilateral talks among the “Big Three”. Yet, the establishment of the EU3+3 (the three EU states plus the United States, Russia and China) to lead Iran negotiations has provided a quasi-officialization to its existence, engendering resentment from other European players and raising questions about its legitimacy within the European Union institutional architecture. Although the majority of the EU member-states seem to be willing to cooperate under an EU Directorate, a few have at times voiced their dissatisfaction. For instance, Italy, the fourth-largest economy within the European Union, openly complained about the Big Three’s handling of the Iranian nuclear row and about its exclusion from the negotiations. Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi clearly highlighted Italians’ disapproval during a 2007 interview with the German Newspaper Die Welt, when he stated, “Tehran and Rome are significant business partners and I have not realized why Italy, as an important European player, should not enter negotiations with Iran over the nuclear issue." To mitigate internal friction, the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy (Javier Solana of Spain through 2009, succeeded by Catherine Ashton of the UK) has been invited to lead negotiations to ensure coordination between the Big Three and the rest of the Union. But tensions will likely flare up again as the EU continues to deepen its engagement with nuclear issues in the future.

The second issue is institutional.  As EU involvement in nuclear governance increases, so does the level of tension between the European Council and the European Commission. In the current European institutional hierarchy, the Council defines the general political direction and priorities of the EU, and the Commission is in charge of producing actual legislation, fitting within the political framework provided by the Council and subsequently approved by the European Parliament. For several years before the Treaty of Lisbon entered into force in December 2009, the main responsibility for crafting an EU nuclear policy was assigned almost exclusively to the European Commission through two different Departments: Energy and External Relations. Now, however, with the strengthening of the European Council and the establishment of the post of High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs & Security Policy and of an EU diplomatic staff – the External Action Service – EU nuclear policy has been fragmented and dispersed between the two institutions raising challenges of coordination, duplication and institutional competition.  Above all, the institutional clash resulting from the expanding role of the EU in nuclear governance is something of a paradox.  On the one hand, the EU has begun work on nuclear issues because of the deepening of its regional integration process, and on the other, the very process risks undermining the sustainability of the EU nuclear approach in the long run.

The third negative externality is geo-political. If nuclear governance is to be successful and sustainable, it cannot be merely reactive, responding after the eruption of nuclear crises. Rather, it must address the root causes of proliferation, such as instability, insecurity, prestige or status-seeking aspirations among countries engaged in WMD development and/or acquisition. This means that global nuclear politics should never be disjoined from broader security and development policies.  For this reason, in order to maintain a critical linkage between its nuclear policies and its broader security and defense approach, the EU released in 2003 the EU WMD Strategy in conjunction with its first European Security Strategy. The proliferation of weapons of mass destruction was defined as an international security threat as grave as terrorism, organized crime, state failure, energy insecurity and climate change.

Although the impelling necessity for the EU to adopt a strategic-thinking culture is frequently discussed and acknowledged by EU officials and diplomats of EU member-states, very little has been done in this regard so far, and the negotiations with Iran have exposed, even more seriously, EU naiveté and incongruence in articulating its strategic long-term vision on world politics.  Sauer, for instance, has remarked that the assumption by the EU of a leadership role in the Iranian crisis was initiated with too much confidence, without proper preparations and without a realistic estimate of the potential political backlash for the EU deriving from the failure of such negotiations. 

In this regard, the future engagement of the European Union in emerging proliferation crises could produce serious political backlashes for the EU unless such an engagement is prepared and takes place in the broader context of a consistent and forward-looking defense and security policy. Engaging with nuclear crises on ad-hoc basis will only contribute to bring attention to the actual lack of strategic thinking of the EU as whole.

Finally, there is what I call reputational and identity externalities. As the EU shifts toward a more coercive approach to halt nuclear proliferation – as in the case of Iran – the original view of an EU based on multilateralism, dialogue, economic cooperation and soft power is called into question. The aura of neutrality, impartiality and goodness that the EU has used to distinguish itself from the United States in foreign policy also is fading away, with important repercussions. A deeper engagement in global nuclear politics and great-power politics in general, inevitably entails bold actions, taking sides and sometimes opting for unpopular decisions, such as using military means to prevent rogue countries from acquiring weapons of mass destruction. This may clash with the fundamental idea of the EU as it has been cast for the past two decades. Can we – as Europeans – bear the prospect of an EU more willing to act boldly and strategically in the pursuit of a specific global nuclear order?

EU aspirations in the era of global nuclear leadership

These externalities exist and must be managed, if not completely resolved, through a skillful process that involves transparency, political boldness, strategic insight and, above all, leadership among European Union members and institutions.

At the political level, it is important for the Big Three countries to recognize that their power on the global stage is only as strong as the level of support they get from the other EU member-states. This means that nuclear politics within the EU cannot become an issue managed by a mini-club of countries. In order to avoid marginalization, the EU must be able to engage all members in nuclear discussions. One possible route to that end would be to establish a subcommittee within the European Council exclusively mandated to handle and facilitate nuclear discussions. This could prove tricky, at least in the beginning, because a number of countries within the EU would probably seize the opportunity to raise the controversial issue of nuclear disarmament in Europe that a few members, including the Big Three, oppose. If nuclear policy is to become a true European priority, discussions around nuclear disarmament will have to be undertaken sooner or later. The willingness of the European Council to tackle these sensitive issues in a democratic and participatory way, instead of simply avoiding them altogether, will in time pay off in terms of acquired strength, credibility and legitimacy.

Institutionally, it is essential that the EU can rely on a clear organizational structure mandated to design, manage and lead nuclear efforts in a consistent fashion. The inter-institutional difficulties in coordinating nuclear policies are affecting the ability of the EU to implement nuclear policies and must be resolved. In this regard, the recent establishment, upon French recommendation, of the position of Principal Adviser and Special Envoy for Non-Proliferation and Disarmament within the EU is welcome.  The Envoy will advocate EU nuclear policies in front of the international community, and will also play a key role in facilitating information sharing and policy design among the different institutions of the EU. The Special Envoy’s office must be given adequate resources (both technical and human) and some discretionary autonomy to avoid being completely hijacked by factional politics and member-states’ single-minded interests.

Geostrategically, it is imperative that the EU become much better at using international forums as well as at cooperating with regional and inter-regional institutions. Here, too, the EU can also aspire to be an institution-builder. Given the cosmopolitan nature of the EU’s foreign policy establishment and its global economic outreach, the EU should maintain an informal discussion network with key powers in the regions where it is establishing its Centres of Excellence. This would provide an outstanding opportunity for the EU to develop ties with key regional players and to acquire a more comprehensive and global perspective on nuclear governance.

A more effective EU engagement with the world would also build credibility at home. In the eyes of its European constituency, a globally active, strategically engaged EU could be more “justified” in taking bold actions beyond Europe. However, global engagement must be explained to all Europeans more effectively than the EU has done so far. Europeans can understand that the fight against nuclear proliferation is a vital one that goes to the core of both security and economic interests of the Union, as long as European institutions are willing to work transparently and coherently.

These policy strategies will not be implemented easily, and they will require committed leadership. Stepping into the global arena of nuclear politics demands courage and forward-looking vision. The procrastination that the EU has displayed in nuclear politics has not paid off. Risks have increased, as have insecurity and instability. Since 2003, the EU has demonstrated its willingness to engage more proactively with nuclear governance and to take some risks. Sustaining that change of heart demands further assumption of responsibilities as consequences unfold and externalities emerge. If the EU is able to face head-on the costs of global nuclear engagement, it will step into the 21st century as a true global power.


Francesca Giovannini is a Post-Doc MacArthur Nuclear Fellow jointly appointed to CISAC and the Europe Center. She earned a PhD from the University of Oxford and has two Master Degrees from the University of California Berkeley. From 2000 to 2005, Francesca served the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the United Nations in Gaza, Turkey and Lebanon. 

All News button
Subscribe to Nuclear policy