The NPT: A Make or Break Review Conference in 2020?

Remarks by Paul Meyer, Strategies for Advancing towards a World Without Nuclear Weapons, Canadian Pugwash Group side-event, NPT PrepCom, May 1, 2019, New York

The Nuclear Nonproliferation 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 a real question. While there have been numerous challenges for the NPT over the course of the last 50 years and since the treaty’s indefinite extension in 1995, I believe it is fair to say that the current context is the most threatening one ever faced with the potential to strike at the continued viability and authority of the treaty.

This list of problems is lengthy, varied and growing. Among the most prominent: the deep failure of the NWS to fulfill their Article VI disarmament commitments and their unchecked engagement in a new nuclear arms race under the guise of “force modernization” ; the US and Russian withdrawal from the INF Treaty, and lack of apparent interest to extend the New START accord; the US withdrawal from the JCPOA nuclear deal with Iran threatening the viability of that promising multilateral effort to limit the Iranian nuclear program; the defection of North Korea from the NPT, its overt development of nuclear weapons and delivery system and the failure of a US-led effort to negotiate Korean denuclearization; the rift within NPT members between NWS and their allies on one hand and non-nuclear weapon states on the other that has opened up with the conclusion of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), the failure to bring the CTBT into force and the more brazen failure to even begin negotiation of an FMCT despite decade long commitments to achieve this, and last if not least, the perennial failure to convene a conference on a Middle East WMD-free zone despite repeated promises to do so. Combine this was the continued failure to universalize the treaty and indeed the effort by several NWS to reward India for its rejection of the treaty via nuclear cooperation agreements, and it is a wonder that the NPT retains any credibility as a framework for global nuclear governance.

While the TPNW has enabled many non-nuclear weapon states to regain a sense of agency in defining a new route to achieve the Art VI goal of nuclear disarmament, it has also sparked some action on the part of the NWS. After a couple year break the P5 resumed their annual meetings with a session in Beijing at the end of January. Their commitment to transparency had degenerated further as no public statement was released, reflecting the extent of disagreement amongst them. They weren’t even able to trumpet some further additions to their celebrated glossary of nuclear terms.

The United States has for its part set out a proposed future course of action for the NPT that constituted a major departure from previous orthodoxy. Unveiled initially in a working paper entitled “Creating the Conditions for Nuclear Disarmament” submitted to the 2018 NPT PrepCom, its contents were elaborated on by its evident author, Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation, Christopher Ford in remarks made at a Wilton Park conference in December.

Ford essentially argued that the traditional “step-by-step” approach with a focus on nuclear arms reduction between the US and Russia had failed and it 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 enumerated in the working paper range from specific measures such as adoption of the Additional Protocol for safeguard, 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”. That is, when the lion lays down with the lamb and milk and honey flow in the land, we might hope to see some disarmament.

The fact that the Art VI commitment is not conditioned in this or any way, does not seem to have concerned Ford. Nor did the fact that the US approach is incompatible 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 in his December remarks outlined the process that would be utilized to undertake the new “conditions” endeavor. It would mirror that employed in the earlier US-led International Program on Nuclear Disarmament Verification, with an international working group whose members would be chosen by the US on the basis of their commitment to the new approach and capacity “to provide constructive contributions”. This WG would be overseen by a US secretariat and should be fully operational by the 2020 RevCon. Ford was here yesterday at the PrepCom presenting a new Working Paper #43 entitled “Operationalizing the CEND Initiative”. In did not provide much new information beyond stating that the initial plenary of the CEND will be held in Washington this summer. Despite the reference to diversity it still seems that the US will make the decisions on who to invite to this meeting which would have “limited participation”.

It appears that in subsequent test marketing of the new approach with the P5 and allies there was opposition to using the term “conditions” and so the initiative has been re-branded as “Creating the Environment for Nuclear Disarmament”. The evident risk that the nuclear club apparently saw was that if one specifies conditions there is a remote chance that they can be fulfilled, and one would then be obligated to do something on nuclear disarmament. Much preferable is the completely vague and subjective term “environment”. Any NWS can then stick their hand out the window and conclude that the “environment” is not conducive for nuclear disarmament.

Fudge factor aside, 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 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 the Washington? Having been supporters of a NPT-centric approach to global nuclear governance, rooted in treaty obligations and the collective political commitments made at successive Review Conferences, these NNWS will be hard pressed to acknowledge that this focus was misguided and they had been mired in a “sterile discourse” on implementation. Jettisoning all this to embrace an open-ended discussion group on remedying the ills of the world, before realization of nuclear disarmament can be contemplated, will certainly expose them to domestic criticism and further erode the credibility of the NPT as the framework for global nuclear affairs.

Friends of the NPT will, in the leadup to 2020, need to decide whether to work within 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 will depend on their choice.