The Debate

Updating ‘Trust But Verify’ for 21st Century Arms Control

A new initiative will help us adapt an old formula for a new generation of nuclear arms control agreements.

Updating ‘Trust But Verify’ for 21st Century Arms Control

Then U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev having their first meeting in the Oval Office at the White House in December 1987.

Credit: Reagan Library

“Trust, but verify.” This phrase, once cited by President Ronald Reagan in the context of 1980’s arms control agreements with the Soviet Union, has come to define the international community’s approach to developing arms control treaties and agreements.

From its earliest efforts at arms control in the midst of the Cold War, the United States has weighed the degree of verification intrusiveness it could accept on its side against the verification uncertainty it could tolerate on the other side. The goal today, as it was then, is to employ verification solutions that are powerful enough to reliably detect and deter would-be cheaters, without compromising our own security.

These verification regimes form the backbone of arms control treaties and agreements. For example, the New START Treaty text is 17 pages long, but annexes that cover the monitoring and inspection procedures, and define the measures necessary to ensure compliance and stability, contain more than 350 pages.

Of course, the arms control agreements of tomorrow will be different in scope and scale. As arsenals shrink, verification or monitoring to ensure compliance with disarmament goals will require a wider array of capabilities and platforms. “Trust, but verify” remains the goal, but verification will become more difficult.

Fortunately, past cooperative efforts between nuclear weapon states (NWS) and non-nuclear weapon states (NNWS) provide a foundation on which to collaboratively build these verification and monitoring capabilities, and to construct bigger and better verification regimes. Those efforts helped to inspire a new initiative focused on developing the tools and technologies necessary to verify the reduction and eventual elimination of nuclear weapons—the International Partnership for Nuclear Disarmament Verification (IPNDV).

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The initiative was announced in Prague, the same city where President Obama in 2009 articulated his vision to seek “the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.” The IPNDV is the first collaboration of its magnitude, pooling expertise from more than 25 countries to address verification challenges that serve as a roadblock to eventual nuclear disarmament.

The IPNDV serves as a vehicle to aid the important and necessary political dialogue on disarmament and arms control by establishing a forum for technical exchange and discussions between countries with nuclear weapons and those without them. As formidable and intractable as disagreements may seem in the international political environment, the IPNDV creates a forum where states can address their shared disarmament goals, working as partners rather than rhetorical adversaries.

Weapons states do not hold a monopoly on good ideas or solutions for verifying nuclear disarmament. The diverse makeup of the Partnership—which includes countries from Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and North and South America—underscores that point.

The IPNDV’s three working groups have established the basis for the Partnership’s work over the next two years. The groups will closely coordinate their work as they examine monitoring and verification objectives (Working Group 1), the role of on-site inspections (Working Group 2), and the role of technology (Working Group 3).

Work will initially focus on the dismantlement phase of the nuclear weapons life cycle. Working Group 1 will focus on what objectives are needed to produce confidence in the nuclear warhead dismantlement process. Guided by these objectives, Working Group 2 will study the mechanics of on-site inspections to strike the delicate balance between promoting confidence and protecting sensitive national security and proliferation-sensitive information. Working Group 3 will survey existing technologies and identify what innovations are needed to plug technological gaps.

The working groups form the engine behind the idea. They will meet in Geneva in the latter part of February to review initial progress and determine next steps. Given the amount of intellectual capacity, diversity and creativity present among these groups, the potential for innovation is enormous.

The responsible, deliberate approach to disarmament does not always grab headlines, and neither will a long-term investment in verification research and development. The challenges to developing new and innovative verification capabilities are viewed by many as insurmountable. That the solutions have not yet been discovered, should act to only strengthen our resolve to meet these challenges.‎ The IPNDV can help us harness the power of collaboration and begin to dissemble the technical barriers that stand between us and the future we all seek. Through the Partnership, we can establish the technical foundations that will allow us to “trust, but verify” the next generation of nuclear arms control agreements.

Frank A. Rose is the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Arms Control, Verification, and Compliance.