How an international NGO in Vienna provides a safe space for diplomacy on nuclear issues.

“Diplomacy,” said Winston Churchill, “is the art of telling plain truths without giving offense.” Britain’s wartime prime minister understood better than most how diplomats frequently needed to avoid straight talk in order to maintain good relations. This is especially true when diplomacy and dialogue are conducted in the public arena.

However, in order to be effective, the most important diplomacy often needs to be carried out behind closed doors, where issues can be discussed more openly and opinions changed without losing face. Which brings us to the sensitive and complex terrain of nuclear weapons and Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation (VCDNP).

American Laura Rockwood has been on the front line of these discussions since she became executive director of the VCDNP in 2015.

“Diplomats regularly come to the Center and ask us to convene meetings among different countries in a safe space,” she said, a place “where they can discuss controversial issues and rely on the fact that they will not be quoted.”

Located in the new Andromeda Tower just outside the grounds of the Vienna International Center, the VCDNP is among the very few international NGOs in Vienna that have the freedom to convene opposing sides without the normal political baggage of international meetings. The Center has hosted numerous such talks, for example, between former officials from the US and Russia.

VCDNP is a relative newcomer in disarmament policy. Established in 2010 on the initiative of the Austrian Foreign Ministry, it is operated by the James Martin Center for Non-Proliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute in Monterey, California.

Besides hosting off-the-record talks, the VCDNP also organizes public meetings, provides independent analysis, and trains and educates diplomats.

“Diplomats are often expected to become experts very quickly when they are posted to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) or the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO),” Rockwood explains. VCDNP courses help them become familiar with the complex subject matter quickly.

Recent developments have once more underlined the importance of diplomacy in the nuclear arena.

“Nuclear weapons possess a destructive power that cannot be compared to any other type of weapon – whose use would lead to the annihilation of hundreds of thousands if not millions of people,” says Ulrich Kühn, senior research associate at the VCDNP, the University of Hamburg, and NY’s Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “Therefore, all states are responsible for seeing that those weapons are reduced or never used.”


One means of reducing and controlling nuclear weapons is through arms control treaties. For example, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF Treaty ) signed by US President Ronald Reagan and Soviet Secretary General Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987, eliminated all short- and medium-range nuclear missiles and launchers during the Cold War.

So when US President Donald Trump announced on Oct. 20 that he was planning to withdraw from that treaty because of alleged Russian noncompliance, he prompted an outcry from nuclear experts worldwide. “If the US carries out its threat to withdraw om the INF Treaty, I can see a nuclear arms race coming up soon in Europe and East Asia,” Kühn says.