A challenging nuclear disarmament landscape for 2020

Cesar Jaramillo Current Publication, Featured, Nuclear Weapons, Ploughshares Monitor

By Cesar Jaramillo

Published in The Ploughshares Monitor Volume 40 Issue 4 Winter 2019

The next year will be critical in the attempt to achieve a world free of nuclear weapons—and the outlook is hardly promising. The global nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation regime, already at the breaking point, will certainly face various overlapping challenges.
Here are some focal points that Project Ploughshares will be following closely:

NPT Review Conference

The last Review Conference of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), held in 2015, failed to agree on a consensus outcome document, typically seen as a minimum measure of success. Largely the result of disagreements over stalled progress on the pursuit of a zone free of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in the Middle East, the inability to produce a consensus document was a broader sign of the profound inadequacies of the global nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation regime.

Governmental and nongovernmental stakeholders concede that the NPT, long considered the bedrock of this regime, has been instrumental in limiting the proliferation of nuclear weapons and regulating the peaceful uses of nuclear energy. But because the treaty has not made headway on nuclear disarmament, some now question the efficacy of the treaty. Indeed, some see the treaty itself as a stumbling block in achieving complete nuclear disarmament.

The 2020 Review Conference may prove to be the most challenging ever, nearly half a century after the treaty’s entry into force. At the heart of widespread discontent about the NPT is this failure to deliver nuclear disarmament.

WMD-free Zone in the Middle East

At issue are the proposed process and timeline for convening a conference to advance the goal of a WMD-free zone in the Middle East. The draft outcome document, never approved at the 2015 RevCon, called for UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to convene a Mideast conference on this issue by March 2016. This date already represented a lengthy delay from 2012, the date set out in the outcome document that was unanimously agreed to at the 2010 NPT RevCon.

Even earlier, at the 1995 RevCon, a key resolution was negotiated that called for “practical steps” toward a WMD-free zone in the Middle East. At the time, this resolution was widely considered critical for the indefinite extension of the NPT.

Under the 2015 plan, no state would be in a position to block the conference. While all states in the region would be urged to participate, the conference would proceed even if one or more states decided not to attend. Israel, however, has insisted on strict consensus as a prerequisite for moving forward. This approach effectively gives it a veto to block the process. And why is Israel so keen on preventing the conference? Perhaps because, at such a gathering, it would be compelled to come clean about its never-confirmed nuclear-weapons program.

It is safe to assume that this issue will come up at the 2020 Review Conference. As no side appears to have altered its views, it is not easy to see where there is room for compromise and agreement.

Entry into force of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW)

The adoption o the TPNW in July 2017 reflected a recognition by some states and civil-society organizations that an explicit ban on nuclear weapons constitutes an integral part of the normative framework necessary to achieve and maintain nuclear abolition.

It also reinforced the new political reality. Founded on the humanitarian imperative for nuclear abolition, it confirmed that the NPT, as structured and implemented, did not constitute a credible path to abolition.

On the other hand, nuclear-armed states and their allies—including the United States and most other NATO members, such as Germany and Canada—have actively opposed this effort and have openly tried to undermine its rationale. But a clear majority in the international community is determined to continue advancing the TPNW effort, with its entry into force and universalization top priorities.

According to the treaty’s provisions, the TPNW will officially enter into force once it is ratified by 50 states. By December 2019, 80 states had signed on to the treaty and 34 states had ratified it. At the present rate, it seems likely that the treaty will enter into force in 2020. Such an achievement will bring further attention to the deep global divisions and frustration that prompted the negotiation of the TPNW in the first place.

The disruptive power of the Trump administration

The impact of the Trump presidency on nuclear disarmament efforts merits dedicated scrutiny and analysis. Three recent key developments acted to further complicate an already complex landscape.

Key development #1 Early in 2018, the U.S. Nuclear Posture Review, the first by the Trump administration, was released. This document, widely seen as one of the key blueprints of U.S. nuclear policy, encapsulating how Americans understand the role of nuclear weapons, is deeply troubling. It explicitly expands the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. policy by expanding the number of scenarios in which nuclear weapons can be utilized, including as a response to such nonnuclear threats as cyber.

The review does not mention the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty. It specifically states that the United States will not ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

The Nuclear Posture Review reads like a guide on how NOT to pursue nuclear disarmament. A chilling message from a nuclear superpower.

Key development #2 In May 2018, President Trump himself announced the withdrawal of the United States from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), also known as the Iran nuclear deal. This decision was widely criticized by technical and policy experts, mainly because the United States could not point to a single instance when Iran did not comply with the terms of the deal.

The deal, negotiated in a difficult political environment, in the face of stringent opposition, was widely acknowledged to be a solid deal that worked—and the most that could be achieved at the time. The alternative could easily have been military confrontation in a very volatile part of the world.

That volatility is once again on the rise. In May of this year, Iran announced, in contravention of a United Nations Security Council Resolution and the JCPOA, that it might stop complying with some of the terms of the JCPOA because the remaining parties to the plan had not provided assurances that Iran would be allowed to conduct legitimate commerce without fear of reprisal from U.S. sanctions.

Key development #3 This past February, the Trump administration announced its intention to withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty signed in 1987 by the United States and the Soviet Union. This announcement rattled both American and Russian disarmament communities. There are currently no efforts to renew the new START treaty between the United States and Russia. With the collapse of the INF, there may soon be no major strategic arms-control agreements involving nuclear forces between the two nuclear superpowers.

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