These days the world is consumed by worry and concern related to the global COVID-19 outbreak. In due time, one would wish to see a more encouraging outcome than the one recorded with relation to that other threat to human life and the security of nations which is nuclear weapons.
As it stands, on the 75 years of their existence nuclear weapons continue to pose the ultimate threat to the world, and the treaty-based responses devised over the years to curb and eliminate that threat are falling victim to great power competition.
If and when the pandemic is fully overcome, the world emerging from it will have witnessed a paradigm shift whereby the Sino-U.S. rivalry will be shaping the debate and structuring politics and economics.
This future fight shapes up to be more about achieving and expanding one’s technological superiority including military modernization as an instrument of power and less about attaining ideological domination.
Regardless of whether the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) gets to be extended or is allowed to expire, the grand Russo-U.S. arms control measures, a fixture of the past several decades of disarmament, will probably become a thing of the past ― until a realization comes, amid or after a period of volatility, that to avert a terrible catastrophe new bargains involving and accommodating multiple actors and addressing a complexity of challenges need to be negotiated.
As positions have clearly hardened over recent months, the immediate post-COVID-19 environment will likely be less amenable to strategic dialogue of whatever shape and form between and among nuclear-weapon states.
And it will remain such until a new generation of policymakers and thinkers enters the stage and, with their fresh minds, takes a long and hard look at the terms of the debate and comes up with novel ideas on strategy and peace.
As of today, however, in the face of the fundamentally changed policy tenor in Washington, Moscow and now in Beijing, every effort should be made to preserve the global non-proliferation and disarmament regime enshrined in the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT).
International cooperation and civil society engagement in these areas should not be overwhelmed by major power rivalry. Otherwise it will be an all-bets-are-off world with increased risks of a nuclear war. How such a war can be “limited employment” and what “winning” it involves is anyone’s guess.
In this respect, the first order of business should be to make good use of the year left before the pivotal 10th NPT Review Conference which was postponed, possibly until early 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and agree on steps to be taken to ensure its productive outcome.
The most important step that could positively affect the general climate in the run-up to the conference would be extension of the New START prior to the conference.
With little time left for devising any broader agreement, to expect China, as the U.S. does, to sign on to a revised U.S.-Russia arrangement and thus to appear to budge under pressure would be akin to doing away with the New START and would complicate the development of a prospective multilateral arms control mechanism.
The demise of the New START would be the worst signal to send to a NPT Review Conference on nuclear weapon states’ commitment to nuclear disarmament and would, in fact, mark the official beginning of a new nuclear arms race.
The crumbling of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) as a result of the resumption of nuclear testing by nuclear-weapon states ― if and when it happens ― will mean putting wind in the sails of such an arms race. Therefore every effort should be made to salvage this important treaty.
On the disarmament front, it should be reminded again and again, pre-conference, that nuclear disarmament is not a wish but a legally binding obligation under Article VI of the NPT that requires compliance.
Nuclear weapon states are often heard leveling accusations at each other of not complying with provisions of such-and-such treaty or agreement. In truth, their own decades-long non-compliance with the NPT disarmament provision explains to a large extent the persisting frustrations and cleavages within the NPT that undermine its effectiveness.
For the majority of non-nuclear-weapon states, in particular for the Non-Aligned Movement, the NPT is not an instrument providing for an indefinite possession of nuclear weapons by a few countries, but it is about getting rid of them while at the same time not spreading them.
The existing nuclear-weapons-free zones and Mongolia, with its nuclear-weapon-free status, pursue exactly that goal. Their further cooperation and coordination in the run-up to the Review Conference should contribute to raising their visibility as an important disarmament actor whose example could be replicated elsewhere, notably in Northeast Asia.
In the present circumstances of heightened tension, another unsuccessful NPT Review Conference a year from now will be a serious blow to the regime. It is important that member states come together to prevent such an outcome.
Tuya Nyamosor is former foreign minister of Mongolia. She is currently affiliated with the School of International Relations and Public Administration (SIRPA) at the Mongolian National University. She is also a member of the Asia-Pacific Leadership Network for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament (APLN). Her article was published in cooperation with the APLN.
This article was first published in The Korea Times on 3 June 2020 and is part of dedicated, regular column with analysis by APLN members on global issues. You can access the original post here.
Image: Unsplash stock, James Yarema.