Foreign Minister of Sweden, Margot Wallström, launches ‘Stepping Stones’ Approach to Nuclear Disarmament

The Government of Sweden has launched a new approach to nuclear disarmament: a Stepping Stones Approach. This is an implementation strategy for the ‘step-by-step’ approach to nuclear disarmament that breaks down stalled major goals into smaller, more manageable stepping stones ‘that can be taken even when trust is at its lowest.’

BASIC co-developed the framework with Sweden, and this year has a supporting project with roundtables and publications.

Foreign Minister Margot Wallström, speaking at the Non-Proliferation Treaty Preparatory Committee at the United Nations in New York on Tuesday 30th April, affirmed that the elimination of nuclear weapons is the joint responsibility of all states, but that it can only be achieved by building trust, with brave political leadership, and by delivering in good faith on existing commitments.

A Stepping Stones Approach involves states exploring paths to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in their security doctrines, rebuild ‘habits of cooperation,’ increase the transparency of arsenals and fissile material stocks, and identify measures to reduce the risk of use.

Stepping Stones: Panel Discussion

An expert panel explored key objectives and questions about the Approach at a Prep Com side event on Monday 29th April chaired by Paul Ingram, Executive Director of BASIC. He opened by describing the Stepping Stones Approach as an attempt to engage all shades of opinion in a pragmatic and inclusive agenda of action, focused on achievable objectives.

Izumi Nakamitsu, United Nations Under-Secretary-General and High Representative for Disarmament Affairs welcomed the initiative and pledged the support of the United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs (UNODA). In a time of extremely low trust, it is necessary to try new inclusive approaches that can both rebuild trust and make progress in its absence.

Andrés Jato, Head of the Department for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation of the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Sweden, outlined that this is a diplomatic initiative with the express purpose being to mobilise political support and as a strategy to implement existing disarmament commitments. While the focus will be on nuclear disarmament, it will involve all three interdependent pillars of the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Marion Messmer, Nuclear Policy Analyst at BASIC, explained that the Stepping Stones Approach will build capacity in the disarmament community and serve to overcome polarisation and mistrust between Nuclear Weapon States (NWS) and Non-Nuclear Weapon States (NNWS). The Approach is designed to be flexible, insofar as it can be explored in multilateral and bilateral fora in both formal and informal ways. She gave two examples.

‘Declaratory policy’ comprises a Government’s official policy statements on when they would consider the use of nuclear weapons. There is room for NWS to signal that they possess nuclear weapons only for nuclear deterrence and that they have lower salience in their security doctrines. One stepping stone towards this would be to tighten the caveats to existing negative security assurances (NSAs), the commitments NWS make to NNWS that they will never threaten them with nuclear weapons, and move to abandon the right to threaten or use nuclear weapons in response to a chemical or biological weapon attack. While chemical and biological weapons are also weapons of mass destruction, their effects are much smaller scale than nuclear weapons or so difficult to attribute that states would never have sufficient confidence to warrant a credible nuclear response.

Transparency measures comprise the exchange of information and dialogue on the doctrines, policies, and behaviours of nuclear possessor states. There are small things that can be done today: bringing the NNWS into the ‘P5 Process,’ expand NWS reporting on nuclear disarmament, and extensive dialogue to develop clarity on the purposes of new nuclear-capable systems, especially those which have dual-use applications.

Rear Admiral John Gower, an independent consultant at Mimir Consulting and former Assistant Chief of Defence Staff (Nuclear & Chemical, Biological) at the UK Ministry of Defence, said that urgent action is required to reduce tensions that could lead to nuclear weapons use. He strongly endorsed the Stepping Stones Approach, as both realistic and as providing a foundation of stability an confidence for further steps. With the breakdown of landmark arms control treaties like the INF and potentially New START, he fears that within months or years there may be that there is no international regulation of nuclear arsenals.

Audience Discussion

Officials and experts in the audience were invited to contribute their reactions and questions. Generally there seemed to be a positive though at times guarded reaction to the proposals.

Vanessa Wood, Counsellor Disarmament at the Australian Mission to the United Nations in Geneva, thanked the panel for their contributions and for their optimism. Spending time in the non-proliferation community, she added, can sometimes create a habit of thinking about the reasons things cannot be achieved, rather than what can be done. A Stepping Stones Approach could help refocus attention on actionable proposals and improve atmospherics at diplomatic meetings.

Tom Coppen, from the MFA Netherlands, said that a Stepping Stones Approach carried the hallmark of BASIC’s creative, out-of-the-box thinking, and offered the Dutch Government’s support to take these ideas further.

Paul Meyer, former Canadian Ambassador to the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, suggested that the Approach risks reinventing the wheel and that the international community doesn’t need ‘new and novel departures where we have unfinished business.’ Rather, what is needed is a clear-eyed analysis of impediments to existing measures and solutions to overcoming. The Stepping Stones Approach would need to focus upon implementation.

Douglas Roche expressed his feeling that overly focusing on tiny steps will amount to lessening of our ambitions for a nuclear weapons-free world. Rear Admiral Gower responded that the 13 Steps and 64-Point Action Plan demonstrate that identifying subordinate objectives within the NPT framework is an accepted practice and can help create political momentum to bring larger goals to within reach.

Next steps

The Stepping Stones Approach will be formally launched in Stockholm on the 11th June, at the high-level meeting of a number of Foreign Ministers, with other activities throughout the year in the run up to next year’s NPT Review Conference.

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