Amid Ukraine War, Gap between Nuclear Weapon Haves and Have-Nots Needs Urgent Attention
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Amid Ukraine War, Gap between Nuclear Weapon Haves and Have-Nots Needs Urgent Attention


APLN member C. Uday Bhaskar argued that the need to quarantine the nuclear weapon to its core mission of deterrence is critical and urgent.

The international conference to review the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) could be one of the most important yet most bitterly contested global meetings in recent years.

The deliberations of the nearly month-long 10th NPT Review Conference starting today in New York will affect how nuclear weapons will be managed in the decades ahead. The choice is between the world moving towards some degree of consensual nuclear restraint, or lurching into a discordant and brittle contest over these weapons of mass destruction.

The war in Ukraine, and Moscow’s signal that it could consider using the dreaded nuclear option if it felt its core national interests were threatened, has renewed anxiety over the possible use of nuclear weapons. North Korea recently issued a nuclear threat, accusing the US of raising tensions on the Korean peninsula.

Adding to global unease is the United States’ posture over Taiwan, prompting China to warn that it should not “play with fire”.

The global political leadership’s inability to arrive at any meaningful collective response to issues from international trade conflict and climate change to the Covid-19 crisis suggests the nuclear issue will remain intractable, and that the image of a slow-motion train crash may not be misplaced.

The nuclear non-proliferation treaty came into being in 1970. Then, the US and Soviet Union, as Cold War superpowers which were the first to acquire nuclear weapons, arrived at a strategic determination that the nuclear club should remain exclusive and that no other nations ought to acquire this capability.

At the time, there were five known nuclear weapon states – the US and Russia, as well as Britain, France and China – and these became known as N5. As these countries became permanent members of the UN Security Council or P5, N5 and P5 became co-terminus. After the 1991 Gulf war, the nuclear regulatory template was tightened, and by 1992, all declared nuclear weapon states were signatories.

Discrimination is at the core of the non-proliferation treaty, which divides the world into nuclear haves and have-nots. The treaty’s nuclear weapon states persuaded most other nations to renounce their right to acquire this capability while committing themselves to disarmament, providing guarantees for civilian nuclear cooperation and extending a nuclear umbrella to allies.

Thus the supreme irony that Japan, the only nation to have been targeted by a nuclear weapon (the US attack on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945) is protected by such a US umbrella.

Although some nations, including India, Pakistan and Israel, have remained non-signatories, the non-proliferation treaty has acquired near-universal status. But the chasm remains.

The treaty’s nuclear weapon states have paid lip service to nuclear disarmament, ignoring criticism from anti-nuclear activists, including the Global Zero movement, which campaigns for a world free of nuclear weapons – an elusive Holy Grail.

The treaty provides for reviews every five years and its non-nuclear weapon state members have been increasingly dismayed by the N5’s reluctance to honour their commitment. What is significant about this review conference is the emergence of a group of nations which have piloted a new nuclear weapon ban treaty at the UN.

Called the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), the legally binding international agreement brings into focus some of the most critical global security issues – the catastrophic consequences of nuclear weapons and the often ignored humanitarian dimension.

In a rare but significant castigation, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres at the TPNW meeting last month denounced nuclear weapons as a “global scourge” and a “deadly reminder of countries’ inability to solve problems through dialogue and collaboration”.

The TPNW has 66 states and 86 signatories and this group will lock horns with the nuclear weapon states which remain sceptical about disarmament. The divide within the N5 will further exacerbate matters at the NPT Review Conference.

The war in Ukraine has revealed the depth of animosity and hostility between the US and its allies against Russia, and this is further compounded by US-China tensions. The US and Russia have the largest nuclear arsenals, followed by China, whose arsenal is at a distant third – but ramping up.

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is expected to address the NPT Review Conference and this will be deeply symbolic, given that he represented Hiroshima as a legislator. Japan has an anomalous position, wherein Tokyo remains wedded to nuclear disarmament but is constrained to accept the US nuclear umbrella for its security.

The global nuclear reality is that the nuclear weapon states refuse to reduce the salience of nuclear weapons in their security doctrines and, on the contrary, are increasing the size and lethality of their arsenals.

The post-Cold War lesson internalised by vulnerable nations is that the possession of nuclear weapons is an insurance against regime change, and that Iraq and Ukraine are illustrative examples. Hence Iran and North Korea pose a challenge to the binary of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, and thus Kishida’s determination to serve as a bridge between nuclear-weapon states and non-nuclear-weapon states in striving for a world without nuclear weapons may remain unrealised.

Major-power dissonance is growing across the spectrum and the sagacity of leadership is inversely proportional to the scale of the challenge. Short-term domestic agendas are driving decision-making and, in this disturbing geopolitical flux, the need to quarantine the nuclear weapon to its core mission of deterrence is critical and urgent. One can only hope that the 10th NPT Review Conference does not crash and burn.

Illustration: Craig Stephens

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