For decades, the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) has been hailed as the cornerstone of the global non-proliferation regime. Those outside the NPT have been blamed for causing it harm. However, the main challenges to the treaty lie within – from states that withdrew, or may withdraw, from the NPT; from states that have cheated, or may cheat, on their non-proliferation commitments; and most importantly, from the five nuclear weapon states (NWS) recognised by the NPT. These states who also constitute the permanent five members of the UN Security Council or the P-5 have created a wobbly treaty structure by promoting uneven pillars of non-proliferation and disarmament. While this issue has long led to differences between the NWS and the non-nuclear weapon states (NNWS), the P-5 managed to tide it over by projecting an expedient united front at past NPT review conferences (RevCons).
2022, however, proved to be different owing to the severely stressed relations between big powers, their high mutual threat perceptions, and their ongoing nuclear weapons accretion and modernisation. It is ironic that the tenth RevCon, which should have been an opportunity for celebrating the historic landmark of 50 years of the nearly universal treaty, was instead marred by a sense of gloom and doom. After several postponements due to the pandemic, the RevCon, unfortunately, got timed with the Russia – Ukraine conflict. In his address to RevCon on Aug 1, 2022, Rafael Mariano Grossi, Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), described it as a “moment of uncertainty, anxiety, fear, and distress”. When he exhorted the States parties to recommit to the noble principles of the NPT, he was not unaware of the shadows hanging over the future of the treaty.
The RevCon ended without a consensual final document. A large part of the blame for this has been placed at the doorstep of Russia since it refused to accept references to its actions with regard to the Ukrainian nuclear power plant at Zaporizhzhia. However, while this turned out to be the last straw, there is no denying that the NPT became a victim of two developments – a hostile environment amongst the NWS and the many internal divisions amongst the member states.
NPT optimists contend that, the lack of consensus on a final document notwithstanding, the very fact that States parties riven by deep frictions in bilateral relations could meet on one platform should itself be read as a success. At least, they say, nations made use of the forum to air their positions, views, and demands. NPT pessimists, however, fear that the downslide of the treaty may not be far given the multiple rifts amongst stakeholders – between NWS and NNWS, within the NWS, and within the NNWS. Indeed, the structural fault lines of the NPT are many, and they run deep.
It would, of course, be premature to conclude that the inability of a couple of RevCons to produce consensual documents threatens the existence of the NPT. Given the treaty’s large membership, consensus building can be expected to be a difficult exercise, especially so in a polarised political environment with a heightened emphasis on narrow national interests. Therefore, more than the issuance of a final document, what should count as the measure of success of the treaty should be the language that goes into the document, the debates around relevant issues, and the manner in which implementation of action points is conceived. Fortunately, there is much in the draft final document that reflects the commitment of nations to the three pillars of the treaty. The problem lies in the troubled relations amongst the NWS, a problem that will not allow progress to be made.
In fact, differences amongst the P-5 were evident in their statements at the RevCon. For instance, France, the United Kingdom, and the United States issued a working paper that sought to distinguish “irresponsible” offensive nuclear threats of Russia from the “responsible” nuclear threats for “defensive” purposes by their own nations. This obviously was political point scoring and did nothing to address the concern over growing nuclear rhetoric and brinkmanship around the threatened use of nuclear weapons. In another instance, China criticised the United States for its “negative moves on disarmament, including its obsession with major power strategic competition, attempts to seek absolute strategic advantage, strengthen military alliances, stir up bloc confrontation on the eastern and western sides of the Eurasian continent, and press ahead with the forward deployment of nuclear missiles and other strategic forces.” The US countered by pointing out that China was “accelerating the expansion of its nuclear arsenal” and refusing to hold substantive dialogue on nuclear disarmament. China dismissed these as “groundless accusations” and brought up instead its opposition to the Australia – UK – US (AUKUS) nuclear-powered submarine agreement and even warned Japan and other countries against seeking NATO’s nuclear-sharing arrangements in the Asia-Pacific.
Plainly, the NWS indulged in shadow boxing and barb throwing with a blatant disregard for their commitments to disarmament. Rather, the use of nuclear weapons/status by Russia for the purpose of nuclear coercion and deterrence and its threat to the civilian nuclear infrastructure in a war zone, and the inability of the RevCon to do anything about it, could not have been reassuring for the NNWS. Those facing hostile relations with NWS could be compelled to re-examine their security policies. Given the overall rise in perception of the salience of nuclear weapons, more states may begin to lean towards nuclear possession, too. This may manifest itself in the form of nuclear weapons sharing – a la similar arrangements with NATO allies; positioning of nuclear weapons in foreign territories – a la the desire expressed by South Korea to receive US tactical nuclear weapons; or efforts at nuclear weapons acquisition – a la North Korea.
The most worrisome development for the NPT could be if States parties become less and less interested and invested in its future. Until now, the US (with its allies) and the USSR/Russia have shared common interest in holding up the NPT. But, with their having fallen out, who can do the heavy lifting of sustaining the treaty? Will any of the P-5 have the political foresight to turn the tide? Or will they, caught as they are in their offence-defence games, end up throwing away the achievements of the treaty’s non-proliferation framework and safeguards mechanism? It needs to be recognised that the IAEA comprehensive safeguards, linked to the NPT, today include 179 states, with 138 of them also having the Additional Protocol in force. IAEA oversight spreads over as many as 1,300 facilities and locations and provides an assurance of non-proliferation. More than 180 countries have remained non-nuclear for five decades and are legally committed to do so under the NPT.
The need of the hour, therefore, is for the NWS to realise that a situation where their own nuclear weapons programmes remain unbridled, where they blatantly undertake nuclear coercion and brinkmanship, callously disregard negative security assurances, and resort to strategies that create nuclear risks as a way of enhancing deterrence and weakening faith in the nuclear taboo, is untenable. Non-proliferation is not sustainable without progress towards nuclear disarmament. If the NWS do not help the NPT to regain its stability by balancing these two dimensions, which itself will require mending their own relations, the NPT could suffer collateral damage from the great nuclear game unfolding before our eyes.
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Image: Rafael Mariano Grossi, Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), addresses the opening meeting and commencement of general debate of the Tenth Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (1-26 August). UN Photo/Loey Felipe.