From Abolition to Retention? The Morning after the Failed NPT Review Conference

Tasneem Jamal

Ernie Regehr

The Plougshares Monitor Summer 2005 Volume 26 Issue 2

The failure of the 2005 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference was as predictable as it is disturbing. There is no doubt that it reflects a dangerous erosion of consensus on one of the most fundamental security challenges of the age – assuring the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons – of which the three primary elements are preventing the spread of nuclear weapons to hitherto non-nuclear weapon states (NNWS), keeping nuclear materials out of the hands of non-state groups, and persuading nuclear weapon states (NWS) to honour their disarmament obligations.

The failure to agree on next steps in meeting this threefold challenge does not alter the fact that there remains an overwhelming, though not total, consensus among states that nuclear weapons are a dangerous threat to humanity and need to be eliminated and universally prohibited. Indeed the NPT is a legally binding instrument that embodies that consensus, but the Treaty faces urgent compliance questions, and thus growing doubts that the global consensus against nuclear weapons will hold.

The compliance concerns extend to all three non-proliferation objectives, but what was confirmed again at the May Review Conference is that they are inter-linked and, as NGO disarmament advocates and most NNWS have been insisting all these many years, that the absence of demonstrable progress on the disarmament agenda is indeed undermining progress on the other two fronts.

But it is not the pace of reductions to nuclear arsenals that is at the core of disarmament non-compliance. As the US and Russia are fond of reminding us, there have been significant reductions from the Cold War peak of close to 70,000 warheads worldwide to current levels of about 30,000, of which less than half are actually deployed (what is rather less impressive is the fact that there have been virtually no reductions from1968 levels, when the nuclear powers first agreed to the NPT and to pursue disarmament in good faith). But in 2002 the US and Russia did sign the Treaty on Strategic Offensive Reductions (known as the Moscow Treaty) to further reduce their strategic arsenals, each from about 4,000 to less than 2,200 warheads by 2012.

While we would all obviously welcome much brisker progress toward disarmament, even the current modest pace of nuclear reductions would be more welcome if it were not accompanied by doctrines and modernization programs that clearly signal a commitment to the indefinite retention of nuclear weapons and a rejection of total nuclear disarmament.

In other words, the abolitionist norm of the NPT is being pushed aside by increasingly bold reassertions of nuclear retentionist doctrines, and unless the NWS take specific steps to demonstrate an unambiguous retreat from nuclear retentionism, the NPT will not survive and the struggle to prevent the horizontal spread of nuclear weapons and materials will be lost.

Challenging the nuclear retentionists

This nuclear retentionism was on full display at the failed Review Conference in the form of the continued denial of the disarmament commitments that all NWS accepted in 1995, when the Treaty was indefinitely extended, and in 2000, when all states parties to the NPT agreed on a comprehensive program of disarmament in the form of “13 practical steps.” Of course the retentionist agenda is championed by the United States, but it is also supported, or at least accepted, by the other NWS and by the NNWS allies of the US. The Director of the US Arms Control Association, Daryl Kimball, commented after the Review Conference that it had “reinforced the view of the majority of countries that the United States and the other nuclear-weapon states do not intend to live up to their NPT-related nuclear disarmament commitments” (Johnson 2005).

To reverse this perception, and thus to restore confidence in the NPT, will require early action on at least the following four measures, which would not accomplish full disarmament compliance but would demonstrate a shift away from nuclear retentionism:

  • Reconfirm extension of the moratorium on warhead testing until the Comprehensive Test Ban  Treaty (CTBT) becomes law;
  • Start negotiations on a Treaty to ban any further production of fissionable material for weapons purposes and address the problem of existing stocks;
  • Return to the principle of irreversibility in disarmament; and
  • Reduce the political/military role of nuclear weapons through doctrinal and deployment shifts. 

The failure to act on these measures will only place the nuclear abolitionist commitment of the NPT in further doubt.

Steps 1 through 6 and Step 9e of the 13 practical disarmament steps agreed to in 2000 (see sidebar below) codify these four measures. Steps 1 and 2 are the agreement on early ratification of the CTBT and to abide by a testing moratorium until the treaty comes into force. The United States is not only refusing to ratify the treaty, but is also indicating that it may end its moratorium on testing – testing being a clear signal of the intention to retain and go on developing nuclear weapons. Steps 3 and 4 contain the commitment to negotiate a treaty on fissile materials and to establish a nuclear disarmament subsidiary body at the UN Conference on Disarmament (CD) in Geneva. Blame for the failure to implement these measures must also go to China, which has linked its support for negotiations on a fissile material cut-off treaty (FMCT) to parallel talks on other nuclear disarmament issues and on a treaty to prevent the weaponization of space – both of which have been refused so far by the US.

The United States and Russia bear joint responsibility for non-compliance on the commitment to irreversibility in disarmament agreed to in Step 5. The 2002 Moscow Treaty, while providing for significant reductions in deployed weapons, offers no guarantees that any of the weapons withdrawn from deployment will actually be destroyed and not kept for redeployment at some future time – again, a clear signal of a nuclear retentionist posture.

Action on these elements of the essential disarmament agenda as developed in 1995 and 2000 would provide concrete evidence that the unambiguous nuclear abolition pledge made by the NWS in Step 6 was being taken seriously. This step is the famous, and now infamous, “unequivocal undertaking” to “accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals.” The explicit rejection of the first five steps, accompanied in the case of the United States by newly articulated nuclear use doctrines, renders this Step 6 commitment, to put it gently, unreliable.

The abandonment of all of these measures amounts to the abdication as well of the final basic measure referred to above – the commitment to work toward a “diminishing role for nuclear weapons in security policies” as articulated in Step 9e. And blame for the explicit rejection of this core nuclear disarmament step must go well beyond the official nuclear weapon states to be shouldered also by the non-nuclear weapon states that are the NATO allies of the United States. Since making the commitment in 2000, they have repeatedly and collectively declared NATO’s intention to retain nuclear weapons indefinitely. The NATO nuclear doctrine states that “the Alliance will maintain for the foreseeable future an appropriate mix of nuclear and conventional forces based in Europe and kept up to date where necessary….” NATO states then add the explanation that “nuclear weapons make a unique contribution in rendering the risks of aggression against the Alliance incalculable and unacceptable [and] thus, they remain essential to preserve peace.”

Again, this retentionist agenda in NATO is in direct violation of the NPT’s abolitionist objective and critically undermines global confidence in the NPT. Just as the international community has lost confidence in Iran’s commitment to the Treaty, given its clandestine pursuit of enrichment and reprocessing technologies and notwithstanding its repeated proclamations of unfailing fidelity to the Treaty, so too has the international community lost confidence in the NWS commitment to the Treaty, given their rejection of core disarmament principles and notwithstanding their repeated declarations of fealty to the Treaty.

Getting disarmament back on track

What has to change on the disarmament side of the NPT is not a mystery. Nuclear weapon states and their allies have to make an unequivocal break with their nuclear retentionist doctrines and practices and start keeping their promises – and the immediate agenda remains as it was outlined and agreed to at the 2000 Review Conference.

It is true that all this is easier said than done, but for starters it must be said again, and then done in measurable and accountable steps. A declaration by the United States administration that it will in all circumstances maintain the nuclear test moratorium, even if it can’t persuade Congress to actually ratify the CTBT, would be a simple but important step.

It is particularly ironic that it is a China-US standoff in the CD that is holding up efforts to negotiate an FMCT since such a treaty is as much a non-proliferation as it is a disarmament measure. Substantive differences between the US and China on the issue are slight, and with a modicum of political will, or goodwill, the deal could be in place – namely, FMCT negotiations in parallel with broader disarmament and space security discussions. In any case the five official nuclear weapon states have already put in place a moratorium on fissile material production,1 and the US and China should share a keen interest in the primary objectives of an FMCT – persuading India, Pakistan, and Israel to halt the production of fissile materials for weapons purposes, and establishing a ban on any unsafeguarded enrichment of uranium and reprocessing of plutonium.

The United States and its non-nuclear weapon state allies within NATO could send a major signal of a retreat from nuclear retentionism with a simple declaration to change NATO’s nuclear doctrine. Instead of saying that NATO must retain nuclear weapons because “they remain essential to preserve peace,” NATO states should declare what they have already committed to in the NPT, namely, that it is the elimination of nuclear weapons that is essential to preserving peace, not only for NATO states but for the entire world. If they were then to follow up this assertion with the removal of the few hundred US nuclear bombs that remain on the territories of European non-nuclear weapon states parties to the NPT,2 they would demonstrate that they mean what they declare, in both the NPT and NATO contexts.

Russia and the United States would make a particularly persuasive retreat from nuclear retentionism if they were to agree that all warheads and delivery systems that are to be taken out of deployment in fulfillment of the Moscow Treaty would be destroyed, and that the agreed reductions would therefore be made permanent. They could add credibility to those commitments by announcing a realistic timetable for their implementation.

These basic measures would leave a great deal of disarmament work yet to be accomplished, but they would make it unambiguously clear that the disarmament course is on a track toward the abolition of nuclear weapons, not simply a more efficient management of consolidated and modernized existing arsenals.

Proliferation challenges

Getting the nuclear disarmament process back on track would, of course, not automatically solve the horizontal proliferation challenges. Proliferation pressures in any one state emerge out of particular national and regional circumstances, but the more nuclear weapons are legitimized by the rest of the world, the more a potential proliferator can claim legitimacy for its own nuclear ambitions. So getting disarmament back on track and reasserting the abolitionist norm would dramatically improve the political climate within which non-proliferation measures are pursued.

Again, the main elements of the non-proliferation agenda are well known, and widely agreed, though not as firmly established as the disarmament agenda. There is broad recognition of the importance of tightened export controls on nuclear materials, and of increased transparency and monitoring of nuclear facilities to prevent the diversion of nuclear materials to weapons programs. In that regard, the “additional protocol,” a supplement to International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Safeguard agreements expanding the scope and effectiveness of inspections, demonstrates a serious effort to improve compliance, and is gradually becoming the verification standard for confirming compliance with the NPT’s non-proliferation provisions (even though the pace at which it is being adopted is not what it should be).3

While there is also growing support in some circles for the idea that the weapons-sensitive elements of the nuclear fuel cycle – the enrichment of uranium and the reprocessing of plutonium – should be placed under international control, this idea is still resisted by many developing states that fear it could limit their access to nuclear technology for peaceful uses.

The US and non-proliferation

Effective non-proliferation is impeded as much by disagreement over methods as by lack of consensus regarding objectives. A significant factor in the failure of the Review Conference is the fear that the Bush Administration no longer considers the NPT to be the primary or even a significant bulwark against proliferation. In addition to becoming more overt about its own nuclear retentionism, US non-proliferation strategy is now less about preventing the spread of nuclear weapons, period, than about keeping nuclear weapons out of the hands of certain states it regards as rogues.

Joseph Cirincione of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (2005) explains the shift in this way:

Previous U.S. presidents treated the weapons themselves as the problem and sought their elimination through treaties. President Bill Clinton, for example, warned in November 1998 of the threat “posed by the proliferation of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons and the means of delivering such weapons” (italics added). President Bush framed the issue differently in his 2003 State of the Union address: “The gravest danger facing America and the world is outlaw regimes that seek and possess nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons.” The Bush administration thus changed the focus from “what” to “who.” This corresponds to a strategy that seeks the elimination of regimes rather than weapons.

Thus Pakistan, Israel, and India are accepted as de facto nuclear weapon states, but Iran and North Korea are to be stopped. It’s not that the White House welcomes the three de facto NWS; rather it believes that their acquisition of nuclear weapons is secondary to other strategic considerations regarding them – and, as we have seen, US self-defined strategic interests tend to trump multilateral commitments.

Some analysts conclude that, in addition to its selective non-proliferation, the US has shifted from non-proliferation to counter-proliferation – a strategy that combines the pursuit of defences against proliferators (ballistic missile defence) with the threat of military action in response to suspected proliferation activities (including the threatened use of nuclear weapons against possible proliferators). Counter-proliferation thus shifts the focus away from the pursuit of multilateral cooperation and agreements to prevent the spread of nuclear materials and technology, and pays less attention to the build-up of a gradually maturing system of scrutiny that can provide reliable assurance that such materials are not being diverted for weapons purposes.

In counter-proliferation diplomacy is not abandoned; rather it is refocused on bilateral negotiations, or on joint negotiations by selective groups, backed by the overt threat of force and, as we have seen in Iraq, the resort to force outside the authority of the international community. For the US, the states that are the focus of its counter-proliferation are determined less by the degree of the risk of proliferation they represent and more by the nature of their relationship to the United States.

An American administration actively committed to preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons is to be welcomed, and it is also clear that effective non-proliferation must include the expectation that non-compliance with global norms will produce severe consequences. But the non-proliferation effort cannot be led by a single state, however powerful, and especially when that state has lost the confidence and respect of much of the world. The ongoing American commitment to retaining and refining its nuclear arsenal, as well as its use of force in Iraq to sideline rather than strengthen and support the global non-proliferation monitoring and inspection system, currently make the United States a poor candidate for giving leadership to the international nuclear non-proliferation effort.

Looking for leadership

Rescuing the NPT and returning the international community to a path of both disarmament and effective non-proliferation require the collective leadership of states committed to both. The New Agenda Coalition (NAC), a small group of middle power and smaller states (Brazil, Egypt, Ireland, Mexico, New Zealand, Sweden, and South Africa) performed this leadership function extraordinarily well in the run up to, and at, the 2000 Review Conference, serving as a disarmament/non-proliferation challenge team. NAC is now thought to have run its course as a collective force. While individual NAC states remain committed to the full implementation of the NPT, a new configuration of challenge states is now needed.

Proposals vary. Some have suggested that the NAC group could now be joined by the progressive wing of NATO, forming a group that could more effectively challenge NATO’s retentionist doctrine and apply more effective pressure on the three NWS that are part of NATO. Others point to the powerful political and moral legitimacy that would be enjoyed by a grouping of the states that have at one time actively pursued the capacity to acquire nuclear weapons but have explicitly rejected that option (including, for example, Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Japan, Libya, South Africa, Sweden, and others).

One suggestion for the kind of work such a group should undertake comes from the Middle Powers Initiative in its recent NPT Briefing Paper, Deadly Deadlock, by Douglas Roche (2005, 20.5):

[A] group of like-minded States, from all regions, could now start new work to identify the legal, political and technical requirements for the elimination of nuclear weapons. Examples of such work would include establishment of verification capabilities, fissile material and nuclear weapons inventories, nuclear material controls, strengthening and expanding NWFZs, national abolition legislation like New Zealand’s, and NATO nuclear-sharing issues.

A particular challenge for such a group should be the development of a clear strategy to lure nuclear weapon states away from their retentionist presumptions and to get them to offer concrete evidence of their commitment to the abolitionist norm of the NPT.

  1. The moratorium is positive, but hardly magnanimous, since they all have surplus stocks, and the US and Russia have enough fissile materials to make many thousands of nuclear bombs (Albright & Kramer 2004).
  2. Current estimates are that as many as 480 American non-strategic nuclear weapons remain stationed in six NATO states (Norris & Kristensen 2004).
  3. The IAEA Board has approved additional protocols for 108 states; 98 of these have been signed, and 67 ratified.


13 Practical Steps
The following text is excerpted from the 2000 NPT Review Conference Final Document.

The Conference agrees on the following practical steps for the systematic and progressive efforts to implement Article VI of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons and paragraphs 3 and 4(c) of the1995 Decision on “Principles and Objectives for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament”:

  1. The importance and urgency of signatures and ratifications, without delay and without conditions and in accordance with constitutional processes, to achieve the early entry into force of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty.
  2. A moratorium on nuclear-weapon-test explosions or any other nuclear explosions pending entry into force of that Treaty.
  3. The necessity of negotiations in the Conference on Disarmament on a non-discriminatory, multilateral and internationally and effectively verifiable treaty banning the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices in accordance with the statement of the Special Coordinator in 1995 and the mandate contained therein, taking into consideration both nuclear disarmament and nuclear non-proliferation objectives. The Conference on Disarmament is urged to agree on a programme of work which includes the immediate commencement of negotiations on such a treaty with a view to their conclusion within five years.
  4. The necessity of establishing in the Conference on Disarmament an appropriate subsidiary body with a mandate to deal with nuclear disarmament. The Conference on Disarmament is urged to agree on a programme of work which includes the immediate establishment of such a body.
  5. The principle of irreversibility to apply to nuclear disarmament, nuclear and other related arms control and reduction measures.
  6. An unequivocal undertaking by the nuclear-weapon States to accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals leading to nuclear disarmament to which all States parties are committed under Article VI.
  7. The early entry into force and full implementation of START II and the conclusion of START III as soon as possible while preserving and strengthening the ABM Treaty as a cornerstone of strategic stability and as a basis for further reductions of strategic offensive weapons, in accordance with its provisions.
  8. The completion and implementation of the Trilateral Initiative between the United States of America, the Russian Federation and the International Atomic Energy Agency.
  9. Steps by all the nuclear-weapon States leading to nuclear disarmament in a way that promotes international stability, and based on the principle of undiminished security for all:
    (a) Further efforts by the nuclear-weapon States to reduce their nuclear arsenals unilaterally.
    (b) Increased transparency by the nuclear-weapon States with regard to the nuclear weapons capabilities and the implementation of agreements pursuant to Article VI and as a voluntary confidence-building measure to support further progress on nuclear disarmament.
    (c) The further reduction of non-strategic nuclear weapons, based on unilateral initiatives and as an integral part of the nuclear arms reduction and disarmament process.
    (d) Concrete agreed measures to further reduce the operational status of nuclear weapons systems.
    (e) A diminishing role for nuclear weapons in security policies to minimize the risk that these weapons ever be used and to facilitate the process of their total elimination.
    (f) The engagement as soon as appropriate of all the nuclear-weapon States in the process leading to the total elimination of their nuclear weapons.
  10. Arrangements by all nuclear-weapon States to place, as soon as practicable, fissile material designated by each of them as no longer required for military purposes under IAEA or other relevant international verification and arrangements for the disposition of such material for peaceful purposes, to ensure that such material remains permanently outside of military programmes.
  11. Reaffirmation that the ultimate objective of the efforts of States in the disarmament process is general and complete disarmament under effective international control.
  12. Regular reports, within the framework of the NPT strengthened review process, by all States parties on the implementation of Article VI and paragraph 4 (c) of the 1995 Decision on “Principles and Objectives for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament,” and recalling the Advisory Opinion of the International Court of Justice of 8 July 1996.
  13. The further development of the verification capabilities that will be required to provide assurance of compliance with nuclear disarmament agreements for the achievement and maintenance of a nuclear-weapon-free world.


Albright, D. & Kramer, K. 2004, “Fissile Material: Stockpiles still growing,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, November/December, pp. 14-16.

Cirincione, J. 2005, “A New Non-Proliferation Strategy,” a paper presented to the Conference on Transatlantic Security and Nuclear Proliferation, Rome, June 10-11.

Johnson, R. 2005, “Day 26 Briefing: Spineless NPT Conference Papers Over Cracks and Ends with a Whimper,” Acronym Institute, May 27.

Norris, R. & Kristensen, H. 2004, “U.S. nuclear weapons in Europe, 1954-2004,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, November/December, pp. 76-77.

Roche, D. 2005, Deadly Deadlock, Middle Powers Initiative Briefing Paper, June.

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