The Stockholm Initiative for Nuclear Disarmament: Prospects for the Upcoming Amman Ministerial

The Stockholm Initiative for Nuclear Disarmament

The Stockholm Initiative for Nuclear Disarmament: Prospects for the Upcoming Amman Ministerial

By Dina Saadallah, Security analyst and a GCSP alumna

The Stockholm Initiative for Nuclear Disarmament was launched by Sweden, with 16 foreign ministers from non-nuclear-weapon states (NNWS) meeting in Stockholm in June 2019 to “discuss how nuclear disarmament diplomacy can be advanced” by using a constructive, innovative, and creative approach that is able to respond effectively to the challenge presented by nuclear weapons. The ministers met again in Berlin in February 2020 and virtually in June 2020, and a new gathering is planned in Amman, Jordan, in early 2021 to promote the group’s proposals and strategise for the upcoming Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference.

However, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) itself is in question. The treaty’s upcoming Review Conference (postponed to 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic) is expected to be characterised by deep divisions among the nuclear-weapon states (NWS), and between them and the NNWS, which are deeply disappointed with the lack of progress towards nuclear disarmament despite commitments laid down in the NPT and made at past NPT review conferences. Meanwhile, a number of states have joined the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) as a means of expressing their desire for a world free of nuclear weapons and their belief in the need for a legal instrument to formalise and implement this desire together with the NPT. This has led the NWS to accuse these states of threatening consensus within the NPT process. Another source of frustration is the enduring stalemate in the establishment of a zone free of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East (WMDFZME), which was decided on in the 1995 NPT Middle East resolution that created an inextricable link between the NPT’s indefinite extension and the creation of such a zone. The UN General Assembly opened a parallel track to the NPT on the WMDFZME, but thus far has held only one successful session in November 2019 (the second session has now been postponed to 2021).

The Stockholm Initiative and the ministerials

The Stockholm Initiative emerged from the current deadlock on the issue of nuclear weapons as a hopeful new joint effort aimed at easing countries into an accelerated approach to nuclear disarmament diplomacy based on the so-called Stepping Stones Approach to Disarmament (SSA). This concept aims at bringing a sense of originality and pragmatism to the often-archaic nuclear disarmament debate. The Stockholm Initiative comprises NNWS, some of whom are close allies of the US and advocates of nuclear deterrence, and other fully fledged leaders in the TPNW movement. Jordan is the only Arab state in this group and has the opportunity to lead disarmament diplomacy in the Arab world and encourage the NWS to participate in a constructive process that will strengthen global security.

The first Stockholm Ministerial on Nuclear Disarmament and the NPT took place on 11 June 2019. It included representatives of 16 member states that were chosen specifically for their regional and ideological diversity, and their commitment to peacebuilding. The main objectives of the meeting were to reaffirm the value of the NPT and increase the chances of a constructive NPT Review Conference. Participants were aware of the challenges, yet also chose to draw attention to the undeniable successes of the NPT: those of reducing the size of nuclear arsenals globally through the START 1 treaty, lowering tensions by creating nuclear-weapon-free zones such as the Central Asian Zone and African Zone, and the signing of treaties to limit the proliferation of nuclear material such as the one that established the Nuclear Suppliers Group. The Stockholm Initiative states that “together we must ensure the future of this landmark treaty” (i.e. the NPT).

According to the Initiative, a real and current danger exists of “a potential nuclear arms race” that would adversely impact the global security landscape. In early 2019 the US left the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. The Stockholm Declaration mentioned three other principal arms control concerns. The first is the imminent expiry of the New START Treaty in February 2021, which is the last remaining limitation on the size of US and Russian nuclear weapon arsenals. The second is the Iran nuclear deal, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA): the US withdrew from the JCPOA in 2018, causing a rift with the other parties, including its European allies, and a suspension of Iran’s compliance with the nuclear limits laid down for it in the JCPOA, which could trigger nuclear weapons proliferation in the Middle East. The third is the lack of progress on creating a WMDFZME, which has been on the agenda since 1974.

The 16 ministers agreed to “reach out to the wider NPT community” in their respective regions and to use the SSA as a blueprint to guide their disarmament diplomacy.

The Berlin Declaration on “Advancing Nuclear Disarmament, Securing Our Future” of 25 February 2020 reaffirmed the 16 states’ support of the NPT, and stressed that commitments made by consensus in previous NPT review conferences remained relevant and “must be implemented”. It included an annex listing 22 “stepping stones” and areas in which further proposals could be developed. On 9 June 2020, on the first anniversary of the Stockholm Declaration, and through a virtual Ministerial meeting, the Jordanian foreign minister, Dr Ayman al-Safadi, offered to host the next ministerial meeting in Amman later in 2020, prior to the anticipated NPT Review Conference in early 2021.

The Stepping Stones Approach to Disarmament

The Stockholm Initiative’s work is based on the Stepping Stones Approach to Nuclear Disarmament developed by the UK-based think tanks British American Security Information Council (BASIC) and Emergent Change as a pragmatic, multilateral, collaborative strategy to implement long-held disarmament commitments made at the NPT review conferences. It involves small, incremental steps that build momentum and trust in a context that is by nature intolerant of large concessions.

The SSA is designed to moderate ambitions and take account of the current security environment. It is aware of the confluence of the challenges spread across multiple security arenas. The SSA is a dynamic road map of “stepping stones”: from one stone, multiple small stones can help negotiators jump to the next large one, while the objective remains that of advancing towards nuclear disarmament. Such progress cannot occur without addressing other security concerns such as those generated by cyber vulnerabilities, environmental change, and new missile technologies, and without building cooperation and strategic dialogue among NWS and NNWS. The value of the SSA lies in its ability to anticipate warning signs of potential sticking points, achieve progress by reacting flexibly to challenges as they arise, and create a widely representative process that includes players from various backgrounds, in an attempt to limit strategic surprise.

How would an SSA impact efforts to create the WMDFZME, for example? There are two potential opposing approaches to this issue: assertive advocacy versus the inclusion of all regional states. The SSA studies the advantages and disadvantages of each approach in the context of the objective (creating the WMDFZME) and avoiding the default outcome of a failure to agree (increased nuclear proliferation). The SSA then identifies the weak early-warning signs that precede the manifestation of the various disadvantages. For instance, over-assertive advocacy without careful enforcement stimulates dishonesty and cheating, polarisation, and pushback from powerful states. The SSA seeks to identify suitable “stepping stones” that address these warning signs. With regard to the WMDFZME, this involves opening new UN tracks, emphasising flexibility in the approach and establishing back-channel talks.

The SSA provides a practical approach to implementing existing disarmament commitments such as the “64-point Action Plan” agreed by consensus at the 2010 NPT Review Conference and the “13 Steps'' that concluded the 2000 NPT Review Conference. Workshops have taken place attended by diplomats and officials in order to shed light on the methodology and application of the SSA, most recently a private multinational diplomatic workshop at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy in March 2020, and online since.

The upcoming Amman Ministerial: SSA strategies for the NPT Review Conference and a potential new diplomatic identity for Jordan

Jordan has a positive relationship with Sweden: both are small nations that implement carefully designed, pragmatic approaches to diplomacy. Jordan has a long history of acting as a peace mediator amid the challenges facing the region, and is a key US ally in the Middle East. The Amman Message of 2004 is a testament to Jordan’s commitment to promoting religious tolerance and dialogue. In recent years Jordan has become more actively involved in international global disarmament efforts. It chaired the meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s Board of Governors in 2018, and headed the first session of the UN Conference on a WMDFZME in November 2019. Jordan has been particularly involved in the Stockholm Initiative. The first national-level SSA workshop took place in Amman on 15 January 2020, arranged in collaboration with the Swedish and German embassies. The workshop was attended by participants from various military, security and diplomatic backgrounds who took part in a diverse discussion on the application of the SSA to the national and global spheres.

Recent strategic regional shifts have complicated Jordan’s diplomatic calculations, however. The process to normalise relations between the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, on the one hand, and Israel, on the other hand, could sideline Jordan’s diplomatic identity as a mediator in the region. The SSA offers an opportunity for Jordan to reinterpret its diplomatic identity, allowing the country to play a more proactive role in support of global nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament by spreading the message of the SSA. Jordan could spearhead discussions with regional states and advocate a Middle East conference on the SSA. Jordan could also make use of the SSA outside the disarmament realm. In the wider Arab-Israeli conflict the SSA could present an opportunity to help mediate relations with Israel in a way that does not abandon the Palestinians; and, further, to establish a grouping made up of states that practise religious and civil tolerance and share a common approach to security. Jordan could organise a conference in which Arab and Israeli diplomats, academics and experts discuss visions that move beyond hostile positions towards realistic security frameworks in the region.

The Amman Ministerial will be an opportunity for Jordan to promote the SSA and send a direct message to regional states. Jordan has a role to play with its Swedish and German counterparts in developing tactics among the 16 Stockholm Initiative states for the upcoming NPT Review Conference. These tactics should include approaches to two key issues:

  1. how best to resolve the disagreement over the status of past disarmament commitments, so that the international community can move towards re-establishing a constructive and reasonably ambitious agenda for disarmament in a way that is governed by a real sense of accountability; and
  2. how to make progress on the WMDFZME file in a realistic, inclusive way that bears in mind regional sensitivities, without propelling the process prematurely, and while aiming to lower tensions with Israel.


The Stockholm Initiative is opening space for innovative dialogue on the NPT and the value of its continuation. The third Initiative ministerial taking place in Amman will be an important recognition of Jordan’s role in the global arena of disarmament diplomacy. Because of its strategic position, the country is already carrying more than its weight in addressing regional challenges that have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Whether there is enough time, intention, and will among the 16 Stockholm Initiative ministers to lead to their deliberations having a significant impact on disarmament diplomacy will depend on their ability to apply the principles of the SSA effectively. Any enduring lack of cooperative strategic diplomacy would threaten the NPT’s survival.

Dina Saadallah is a security analyst and a GCSP alumna.

Disclaimer: The views, information and opinions expressed in the written publications are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect those shared by the Geneva Centre for Security Policy or its employees. The GCSP is not responsible for and may not always verify the accuracy of the information contained in the written publications submitted by a writer.

Dina Saadallah is a security analyst and a GCSP alumna (Virtual Learning Journey: Strategic Foresight: Tools and Techniques for Planning in Uncertain Times - 07-30 September 2020)