The international debate over nuclear weapons is dominated by well-established and often trenchant positions that appear irreconcilable. At the same time, the key decisions over nuclear postures are determined largely by national security assessments within possessor states, with minimal influence from the wider international community of states.
The degree to which the possession of nuclear weapons confers power within that international community remains controversial. Nevertheless, the belief in the continued value of nuclear weapons in delivering deterrence and strategic stability remains strong within those states that still possess overwhelming influence across all measures within the international community. Whilst limited pressure can be applied from outside, genuine progress on nuclear disarmament will require the involvement of some or all of those possessor states in a cooperative process involving vision, commitment, and patient and inclusive negotiation. And key decision-makers within those states are the political and military leaderships, constituencies only indirectly aware of international negotiations and driven by a variety of competing objectives.
The Stepping Stones Approach seeks to engage all members of the international community in a cooperative and inclusive process that nudges the nuclear possessor states away from arms racing dynamics and in a more positive direction, with the intention of reducing the salience of nuclear weapons in postures, achieving incremental disarmament and progressively building up the capacity for further steps. The emphasis is on the direction of travel and the achievement of concrete steps towards disarmament.
It would be a mistake to see this as a middle-of-the-road position. Rather, it is seeking a broad and inclusive approach, focusing on a pragmatic negotiated implementation process that can involve a wide variety of perspectives, from those committed to achieving radical and fast-tracked disarmament to those reluctantly attached to nuclear deterrence as a practice necessary to achieve strategic stability. By seeking early incremental stepping stones in the direction of achieving progress on the established disarmament agenda, it attempts to break the current deadlock frequently characterised by positional statements in support of proposals, but blocked by some possessor states who see the initiative as requiring too big a leap of faith that weakens their strategic position.
Such stepping stones would possess the following characteristics:
- Dynamic flow. Each would be seen by some or all of the international community as contributing to an incremental move in support of nuclear disarmament by building trust and confidence, or capacity, or by reducing nuclear salience or risk. It is this dynamic approach that distinguishes the Stepping Stone Approach from other more established practices. These tend to require substantial mutual steps that block nuclear weapons development or deployment and drive disarmament. They rely upon all states involved to see their own benefit in that particular mutual restraint, and are therefore often high bars for movement.
- No strategic security sacrifice. All states involved would be able to deliver the stepping stone without requiring them to accept any significant shift in their strategic situation in relation to another state with whom they are in strategic competition. Indeed, it may not be necessary for the state or states involved in taking the step themselves to consider it a significant step themselves, but it could show good will to other members of the international community.
- No conditions necessary. Similar to the previous criterion, each step would be possible without requiring a prior improvement in the international security context.
- Value. The value of each step therefore is in its signaling credible intent towards agreeing further (undefined or adaptive) stepping stones on the journey as much as its direct contribution to lowering nuclear salience, risk or tensions. Stepping stones are themselves important contributions to creating the environment for nuclear disarmament and ought to feature in the ‘Creating the Environment for Nuclear Disarmament’ process advocated by the US State Department.
- Flexible. Steps could be unilateral, bilateral or multilateral, involve formal or informal agreement, or indeed no agreement at all.
The Swedish Government launched a new initiative at the 2019 NPT Preparative Committee in April 2019 that seeks to unlock disarmament diplomacy using the Stepping Stones Approach. This briefing outlines some of the thinking that supports this approach. It does not directly reflect the views of the Swedish government, though is strongly influenced by them.