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The latest review cycle of the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), extended multiple times because of the Covid-19 pandemic, reached an unsatisfactory conclusion on 26 August. Despite last-minute negotiations and the evident willingness of other states parties to agree on a final outcome document, the Russian delegation blocked agreement. In particular, Russia reportedly objected to draft text regarding the status of Ukrainian power facilities under Russian control.
Given the global state of affairs, the failure of the 10th NPT Review Conference (RevCon) to find consensus did not come as a surprise; RevCon President Gustavo Zlauvinen acknowledged in retrospect that the prospects were ‘very slim’. Yet the challenges facing the NPT lie much deeper than the current tensions over Ukraine. A consensus outcome would only have provided a temporary reprieve from myriad problems that will ultimately need to be addressed outside of NPT meetings.
The enduring challenge of disarmament
While there is near-universal consensus on the need to uphold the NPT, states parties are increasingly frustrated with the stagnation in implementation of the treaty’s disarmament pillar. Despite their stated support of the ‘cornerstone’ of the global non-proliferation and disarmament regime, the P5 (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States—the five NPT-recognized nuclear weapon states, and the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council) have done very little by way of concrete steps towards nuclear disarmament.
This problem is highlighted by repeated failures either to reach consensus at the five-yearly RevCons or to implement commitments that helped to ensure at least a semblance of success during those meetings in 1995, 2000 and 2010. As New Zealand’s Disarmament and Arms Control Minister Phil Twyford noted at the latest RevCon, on matters of substance such as ‘significant stockpile reductions and efforts to reduce reliance on nuclear weapons . . . there hasn’t been much progress to report in the last 20 years’. Notably, the draft final document circulated on 25 August centred primarily on endorsing the treaty’s three pillars—non-proliferation, peaceful uses and disarmament—without significantly adding new commitments.
For a while, there had been indications that things might be changing in the disarmament landscape. Last year, after having finally extended the 2010 Russian–US Treaty on Measures for the Further Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms (New START), Russia and the USA resumed Strategic Stability Dialogue with the stated intention ‘to lay the groundwork for future arms control and risk reduction measures’. And in January 2022 the P5 issued a joint statement affirming that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought and expressing their intention ‘to create a security environment more conducive to progress on disarmament . . . to avoid military confrontations, strengthen stability and predictability, increase mutual understanding and confidence, and prevent an arms race that would benefit none and endanger all’.
However, the reality that has unfolded since makes such statements ring hollow. The war in Ukraine has spotlighted the central role that nuclear weapons continue to play in the security strategies of not only nuclear weapon states but also their allies. It has also raised the possibility of escalation and direct confrontation among nuclear-armed states. In addition to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s implicit nuclear threats and decision to put his nuclear forces on ‘special combat readiness’, nuclear-related risks have been highlighted by the ongoing conflict near and around the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, and in shows of force such as US nuclear-capable bomber deployments in neighbouring NATO territory.
The urgency of action to preserve and strengthen arms control
For many, heightened awareness of the spectre of nuclear war has only added further urgency to revitalizing arms control and disarmament. As UN Secretary-General António Guterres warned at the opening of the RevCon, ‘humanity is just one misunderstanding, one miscalculation away from nuclear annihilation’—a fact that should lead to ‘new commitments to shrink the numbers of all kinds of nuclear weapons’.
Indeed, it is imperative that Russia and the USA begin long-overdue discussions about a follow-up to New START, which expires in 2026. In advance of the RevCon, US President Joe Biden had expressed a desire to ‘expeditiously negotiate’ a new framework; Russia for its part highlighted the need to begin negotiations ‘as soon as possible’. However, as Russia has proposed discussing all capabilities, conventional as well as nuclear, in these negotiations, it seems unlikely that they can take place without substantial progress in the Russian–US Strategic Stability Dialogue, which was paused by the USA after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Given US strategic considerations, this may require concurrent progress in China–USA bilateral dialogue as well, as those two sides had agreed to at their November 2021 meeting.
Even if the Russian–US arms control deadlock continues, there is a need to prevent the current situation from deteriorating further. One priority in this regard is to ensure the viability of existing instruments regulating nuclear weapons, especially as global arsenals are expected to grow over the coming decade.
New START is the only remaining treaty that sets verifiable limits on the size and composition of the Russian and US arsenals; it also provides transparency that serves the purpose of risk reduction. In line with other obligations under New START, Russia in April 2022 notified the USA of the test launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile, an event that otherwise might not have been perceived as ‘routine’ given the timing.
It is therefore concerning that Russia announced on 8 August its decision to temporarily exempt the inspection activities under New START. Its statement cited US sanctions that limited flights for Russian inspectors (a characterization the USA has disagreed with), as well as ongoing risks linked to the Covid-19 pandemic, which had driven a mutual agreement to pause inspections from 2020. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov noted that the suspension decision came because the USA had notified Russia of its intention to conduct an inspection, which he called ‘an outright provocation’ in the current circumstances. It is incumbent on both sides to resume on-site inspections as circumstances permit and ensure that such technical processes and legal obligations do not fall by the wayside.
A more expansive effort is needed on risk reduction
While Russia and the USA have a special responsibility to take forward arms control and disarmament given the large size of their nuclear arsenals, this does not free other nuclear weapon states from their respective responsibilities. One area that falls short of disarmament but on which all of the P5 agree is the need for risk reduction. Thus far, however, they have only agreed to ‘recommit to appropriate measures to reduce strategic risks’, without identifying the specific steps they would be ready to take together.
France, the UK and the USA submitted a joint working paper at the RevCon that can provide benchmarks for their own actions in this area. In it, they committed to transparency of nuclear policy, doctrine and budgeting, as well as of modernization plans; to work towards the establishment of secure crisis communication channels; and to take actions to ‘prevent accidents, incidents and unauthorized detonations’. These should be operationalized concretely, with benchmarks established and progress measured against them.
Even in the absence of meaningful action by nuclear weapon states, non-nuclear weapon states should take the initiative to push the risk reduction agenda forward. The Stockholm Initiative—which consists of 16 non-nuclear weapon states—is perhaps the most likely forum to undertake such work. The initiative’s working paper, submitted to the RevCon, lists measures all states can undertake outside the NPT context, for instance convening a high-level international conference on nuclear risks.
The NPT states parties should also continue to build on other efforts initiated over the course of this review cycle, including the Creating an Environment for Nuclear Disarmament (CEND) initiative. These can provide a forum or dialogue which, apart from implementing measures that would directly reduce nuclear risks, could help to restore habits of cooperation in the nuclear space.
Efforts to strengthen the NPT through the TPNW
Several states concluded during the previous review cycle that the NPT’s disarmament pillar alone does not set a strong enough norm against nuclear weapons, and that new legal instruments are needed to increase pressure on the nuclear weapon states to move towards nuclear disarmament. This led to the negotiation of the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW).
In June 2022 the first Meeting of States Parties to the TPNW adopted the Vienna Declaration and 50-point Vienna Action Plan, which described the comprehensive legal prohibition the treaty had established as ‘a necessary and effective measure’ to implementing the disarmament pillar of the NPT; they aim at ‘further stigmatizing and delegitimizing nuclear weapons and steadily building a robust global peremptory norm against them’.
The P5 and their allies continue to be critical of the TPNW—with, for example, France arguing that it creates an ‘alternative, incompatible and incomplete norm’ that undermines the existing non-proliferation regime. For TPNW supporters, however, the recent RevCon’s failure to reach a consensus final outcome document further underlines the importance of the TPNW.
Taking disarmament forward
While the outcome of the RevCon is unfortunate, the four weeks of discussions and negotiations should not be cast aside. The NPT states parties can use the content of the near-consensus draft text as a basis for a discussion cycle. The provision to establish a working group to make recommendations to improve ‘effectiveness, efficiency, transparency, accountability, coordination and continuity’ underlines the appetite for bolstering the review process itself.
Still, efforts to strengthen the NPT cannot be limited to seeking temporary successes in the form of consensus documents while ignoring the overall health of the treaty, which is intertwined with movement towards the transformational goal of nuclear disarmament. Non-nuclear weapon states can play a role by facilitating dialogue, by keeping up normative pressure and, in the case of nuclear umbrella states, by seeking to reduce their own reliance on nuclear weapons. However, the onus is ultimately on the nuclear weapon states to muster the political will for meaningful action. Such action should be taken not just for the sake of the NPT but for the collective interest in the survival of mankind.
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