Walking Away From NPT: Be Careful What You Wish For
The Korea Times Column

Walking Away From NPT: Be Careful What You Wish For

For many of us, a new year signifies a fresh start. It’s a time to assess our health, kick bad habits and begin good ones. The same could be applied to the global nuclear regime. In reviewing its health, how do we tackle its current ailments?

The year 2022 has kicked off with the Review Conference (RevCon) of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) being postponed for the third time because of the pandemic. As argued by Tariq Rauf, the former head of Verification and Security Policy Coordination at the International Atomic Energy Agency, this latest delay may be a blessing in disguise. When considering the health of the NPT, we can see that there has been no concrete progress on disarmament ― neither general nor nuclear.

Since the last RevCon in 2015, we have witnessed changes to nuclear postures, advancing nuclear modernization programs, growing nuclear stockpiles and the development of new weapon systems ― all of which increase the salience of nuclear weapons and the prospect of nuclear use. The Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty has been abrogated and jettisoned.

There has been backtracking on the political commitments agreed to at the 2000 and 2010 NPT Review Conferences ― ostensibly because of the return to great power competition and the attendant deteriorating international environment. There is still no progress on the ban on the production of fissile material, a weapons of mass destruction-free zone in the Middle East, nor any progress on bringing the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty into force.

Had RevCon gone ahead as planned, these issues ― and the frustrations and disagreements they provoke ― augur badly for the health of the treaty and the success of RevCon. NPT insiders anticipated an antagonistic, fractious meeting with the possibility of unhappy states walking out of proceedings. Unless the nuclear weapon states (NWS) make concrete and substantive progress on nuclear disarmament, the prospects for a successful RevCon remain bleak.

Some look to the ailing health of the soon-to-be 52-year-old treaty and argue that it is no longer fit for its purpose, that it legitimizes the continued possession of nuclear weapons by the five NWS and that the global community should ditch the NPT.

We should be careful what we wish for. Despite its limitations and weaknesses, the NPT is one of the rare and powerful examples of states cooperating to address a global, existential, collective-action problem: curbing the spread of nuclear weapons. Tackling anthropogenic “wicked problems” such as nuclear weapons and climate change is neither simple nor easy.

Will walking away from the most subscribed, arguably most successful, global treaty solve the problem of incentivizing meaningful progress on nuclear disarmament? The pandemic has shown the inability of states to collaborate to take swift and effective multilateral action during times of global crisis. Is now the time to test the limits of international cooperation and risk the gains from the past 50 years?

Let’s not forget that despite the NPT coming into force in 1970, France and China did not accede to it for another 22 years. We are playing a dangerous game if we believe that we can quickly or easily revise or renegotiate the NPT. Moreover, walking away may have unintended adverse effects. It may exacerbate existing security concerns, and incentivize latent nuclear countries to develop nuclear weapon capabilities to hedge against perceived military threats.

Instead of dismissing the treaty as obsolete, we, and most importantly the NWS, should work harder at addressing its shortcomings. That the NPT is inherently inequitable and discriminatory was part of the treaty when it was negotiated and a compromise enabling a multilateral treaty of this significance to come into force. As frustrating as it is, the NPT serves our collective interest.

To help restore legitimacy, faith, confidence and trust in the NPT, the NWS must halt and reverse recent developments. We have seen a positive first step with the joint statement issued by the five NWS this week, which should be applauded. However, deeds must accompany words. The disarmament rhetoric demands disarmament in reality.

And despite the fears that the newly entered-into-force Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) will undermine the NPT, it may be helpful at a time when faith in the NPT is weak. Although none of the NWS has signed up to the treaty, it nonetheless provides a legal and legitimate forum for discussing the implementation of banning nuclear weapons.

It offers a sense of agency and engagement in disarmament diplomacy from the non-nuclear weapon states party to the treaty and disillusioned with the NWS. It should be considered as a complementary normative partner to the NPT. Indeed, with the timing of the first meeting of state parties of TPNW taking place in March, before RevCon, discussions could usefully feed into the RevCon negotiations.

As we look ahead to a new year, instead of abandoning the NPT, we ― and most notably the NWS ― should commit to a new year’s resolution to do more to bring it back to good health.

Shatabhisha Shetty is the executive director of the Asia-Pacific Leadership Network for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament (APLN). Her article is published in cooperation with the APLN (www.apln.network).


Disclaimer: The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Asia Pacific Leadership Network or any of its members.

This article was published in The Korea Times on 5 January 2022 as part of a dedicated, regular Korea Times column with analysis by APLN members on global issues. You can find the original post here.


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