Bleak prospects for the ‘cornerstone’ Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty

The United States is attempting to shift gears when it comes to nuclear disarmament. But, Paul Meyer writes, if it truly wishes to improve the international security environment, it should start by implementing its own existing commitments.

By: /
May 16, 2019
NPT review conference
US Assistant Secretary for International Security Christopher Ford, right, listens to US Ambassador to the Conference on Disarmament Robert Wood during the second preparatory session of the 2020 Non-Proliferation Treaty review conference in Geneva, April 23, 2018. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) is set to mark the 50th anniversary of its coming into force at its 2020 review conference. Whether this will be an occasion for celebration or lamentation is an open question: Will the progress made in global nuclear governance over half a century be jeopardized by irresponsible state action now?

The 190 states that are party to this cornerstone of the global security order met in New York recently, between April 27 and May 10, for the final preparatory session before the May 2020 review conference. The mood was decidedly downbeat at the session and “external events,” as a senior UN official present said, weighed “heavily on these proceedings.” Strong disagreements among participating states prevented a consensus endorsement of the chair’s concluding recommendations, which had to be issued under his personal authority.

The failure of the last review conference in 2015 will put additional pressure on the 2020 gathering to produce some form of agreement that will demonstrate that the three “pillars” of the NPT — nuclear non-proliferation, nuclear disarmament and peaceful uses of nuclear energy — are being implemented in a balanced fashion. However, without a radical re-prioritization of the NPT on the part of key states, the current foreign policy context suggests that the prospects for success are bleak. In the absence of such remedial action, the threat to the continued viability and authority of the treaty is great.

This list of problems the NPT faces is lengthy, varied and growing. Among the most prominent: the failure of the five nuclear weapon states to fulfill their nuclear disarmament commitments set out in Article VI of the treaty and their unchecked engagement in what can only be described as a new nuclear arms race; the recent US and Russian withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty; and lack of apparent interest to extend the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which would mean the end of any legally-binding constraints on their nuclear arsenals.

In addition, what had been heralded as a successful multilateral diplomatic effort to curtail the Iranian nuclear program, the so-called JCPOA agreement, is now imperiled by the US withdrawal. Its aggressive imposition of sanctions on other states trading with Iran has now prompted an Iranian reaction that threatens to kill the deal entirely.

There are several other serious problems including the defection of North Korea from the NPT and its overt development of nuclear weapons., and the rift between supporters and opponents of the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which the former say complements the NPT and the latter says undermines it.

Combine these with the continued lack of progress to universalize the NPT (India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea with their nuclear weapons remain outside), and it is a wonder that the NPT retains any credibility as a framework for global nuclear governance.

Abandoning the step-by-step approach for…the impossible?

At this critical juncture for the NPT, the United States has decided to turn its back on implementation of commitments agreed to at past review conferences in favour of a re-imagining of the enterprise as one of “let’s pretend we can fashion a better world.”

Using its leverage as a sort of hegemon for the NPT, the US has set out a future course of action for the treaty parties that constitutes a major departure from previous nuclear policy orthodoxy. The new US approach was unveiled initially in a working paper entitled “Creating the Conditions for Nuclear Disarmament,” submitted to the April 2018 NPT preparatory gathering. Its contents were elaborated on by its author, Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Non-proliferation Christopher Ford, in remarks delivered on April 30 at a side-event during the recent NPT proceedings.

"The US initiative, with its dismissal of the “step-by-step” approach as unrealistic and ineffectual, pulls the rug out from underneath its nuclear-dependent allies."

Ford essentially argued that the traditional “step-by-step” approach with a focus on nuclear arms reduction between the US and Russia had failed in that bilateral context, and had also ignored the nuclear build-ups of China, India and Pakistan. A new discourse was necessary that would be more realistic than the old in addressing the “conditions” that would be conducive to further disarmament.

These conditions, as detailed in the 2018 working paper, range from relatively modest measures such as adoption of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s additional protocol to strengthen international safeguards agreements, to fundamental transformations of inter-state relations until they are no longer “driven by assumptions of zero-sum geopolitical competition but are instead cooperative and free of conflict.”

To put it in other terms, when the lion lays down with the lamb, and milk and honey flow, we might hope to see some disarmament.

The fact that the Article VI commitment on cessation of the arms race and the negotiation in good faith of nuclear disarmament is not conditioned in this or in any other way does not seem to have concerned Ford. Nor did the fact that the US approach is at odds with the successive, specific steps towards nuclear disarmament agreed to at the 2000 and 2010 review conferences. The NPT’s legal and political commitments on nuclear disarmament, agreed to by all states parties, is apparently only so much “old think” to Washington. Ford also presented another paper outlining how the US initiative — now renamed “Creating an Environment for Nuclear Disarmament” (an example of “green washing” perhaps) — was to be implemented.

Although lip service was paid to establishing a “diverse” international working group to pursue the initiative, the US clearly wishes to remain in the driver seat and will be the one to decide which states are invited to the inaugural meeting to be held in Washington this summer. The limited number to be included will be asked for their views on the US ideas, but with a secretariat from the State Department and clear control of the agenda, this will likely produce a “Made in America” process, with participation limited to suitably deferential allies and partners. It will serve US interests in providing a distraction from the deeply disturbing deterioration in implementation of NPT-originated commitments and will enable the US to point to a “process” and “fresh thinking” in the runup to the 2020 review conference.

Some shiny tinsel in the window, however, doesn’t hide the fact that the US initiative, with its dismissal of the “step-by-step” approach as unrealistic and ineffectual, pulls the rug out from underneath its nuclear-dependent allies, including Canada, who have dutifully argued that “step-by-step” is the only practical way to make progress on nuclear disarmament. What contortions are they now going to have to go through to align themselves with the new gospel from Washington? Having been supporters of an NPT-centric approach to global nuclear governance, rooted in treaty obligations and the political commitments made at successive review conferences, these non-nuclear weapon states will be hard pressed to acknowledge that this focus was misguided. Which among them will be brave enough to speak truth to power and point out that if the US wishes to improve the current security environment, it could start by returning to compliance with existing international commitments?

Ignoring this diplomatic legacy to embrace a discussion group on remedying the ills of the world, before realization of nuclear disarmament can be contemplated, will expose participating states to domestic criticism and deflect from more relevant preparatory work. Such side-shows, alas, will also further erode the credibility of the NPT as the central framework for global nuclear affairs.

True friends of the NPT will, in the leadup to 2020, need to decide whether to keep the focus on implementation of the goals and commitments endorsed by the treaty, or to turn their back on this and embrace the new faith of “environment” creation. The NPT’s future viability could largely depend on their choice.

A fuller assessment of the US initiative is available in the author’s “Creating an Environment for Nuclear Disarmament: Striding Forward or Stepping Back?” published in the April issue of Arms Control Today.