The state of the nuclear disarmament/abolition regime

Cesar Jaramillo Featured, Nuclear Weapons, Ploughshares Monitor

By Cesar Jaramillo

Published in The Ploughshares Monitor Volume 40 Issue 2 Summer 2019

The last of three meetings in preparation for the 2020 Review Conference of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), was held April 29-May 10 in New York.

The fault lines in the architecture of the whole nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation regime seem to be growing deeper, more profound. There was evidence of strong divisions and increasingly divergent views on the best approach to nuclear disarmament.

In recent years, the measure of success for NPT review conferences has been the consensus outcome document to which all States Parties to the Treaty agree. Although it tends to be in lowest-common-denominator language, such a document can still be seen as evidence that states are able to find some common ground with regard to the nuclear disbarment and non-proliferation regime.
However, we left the 2015 Review Conference with no outcome document. Almost at the last minute, the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada blocked consensus. It was clear that such a move was the result of concerns that had been expressed by Israel (which is not a party to the NPT), related to the specific references in the outcome document to the need to hold a conference on a Middle East zone free of weapons of mass destruction—which includes nuclear weapons.

Will there be an outcome document in 2020? It is not easy to be optimistic.

Identifying the players

First, let’s correct any misconception that there are only two significant groups at NPT meetings: the few states that have nuclear weapons and remain reluctant to give them up, and the vast majority of states that are all pulling in the same direction toward nuclear abolition.

In reality, there is a third group: nonnuclear-weapons states that one would hope would be aligned with those pulling for nuclear abolition, but whose policies more closely align with those of nuclear-armed states. These nonnuclear-weapons states are members of nuclear alliances, such as NATO—the North Atlantic Treaty Organization—or have individual nuclear-security arrangements with states that possess nuclear weapons.

This group of states is critical in generating conditions that will lead to disarmament. But they have been, in their policies and their doctrine and their public statements, unwilling to categorically reject nuclear weapons. They lend cover to states with nuclear weapons, claiming that such weapons are necessary for their protection. They give value to the concepts of extended nuclear deterrence and nuclear umbrellas. One of these states is Canada.

Setting the stage for 2020

Divisions between nuclear-dependent states and their nuclear-armed allies, on the one hand, and states demanding concrete progress toward abolition, on the other, will undoubtedly be easily detected at next year’s review conference.

Adding a new level of complexity to all the arguments and counterarguments will be a very significant, still relatively recent development: the historic adoption of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). This very welcome policy instrument was created by an international community that was impatient, fed-up, frustrated by years of inaction on the nuclear-disarmament front—and, in some instances, not only inaction but actions that went in the opposite direction, that actually moved us further away from nuclear abolition.

Now, states that want nuclear abolition, working in close partnership with several civil society organizations from around the globe—including the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons—have the TPNW to act as a catalyst and a rallying point. This treaty acknowledges both the painstakingly slow pace of progress on nuclear abolition on the part of nuclear-weapons states, but also the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any nuclear-weapons use.

States with nuclear weapons still consider the TPNW something they can reject, dismiss, or ignore. They claim that the TPNW is a divisive agreement. So, disagreements around the TPNW will likely also be front and centre at next year’s Review Conference.

Other complications

Other issues could derail the conference and make a consensus document elusive in the end.

One is the pursuit of a Middle East zone free of weapons of mass destruction, which the international community has been committed to since 1995. This is an issue of great importance to some states—in the region, but beyond it as well. To date, the international community has not delivered. A meeting to kickstart the process was to have been held by 2012, but never happened. It is possible that this issue alone could delay progress at the 2020 conference.

Finally, we see a troubling international strategic environment. Many analysts and observers have commented on a breakdown in international arms control, particularly in relation to the two main nuclear powers, Russia and the United States.

Sources of optimism

The environment for the 2020 NPT Review Conference is not promising. But there is good news.

The good news is that there are many highly committed individuals, civil society groups, and progressive states that are working nonstop to achieve nuclear abolition and disarmament. They are providing—and will offer in 2020—clear, sophisticated, coordinated, even elegant pushback to many of the flawed, faulty arguments from nuclear-weapons states and their allies. There are solid, compelling cases to be made that counter the misleading rationalizations and justifications that are given for the perpetuation of nuclear-weapons possession. At key forums, we are seeing this positive pushback—astute, intelligent advocacy to rid the world of nuclear weapons.

This is the way it is. We’re in the middle of a high-stakes humanitarian and political struggle for the abolition of nuclear weapons. No easy wins, but potentially catastrophic failure could result.

The meeting next year will be a key test of the health of the NPT regime, which is, in the assessment of Project Ploughshares, quite fragile. But we will not and cannot and shall not despair. We will continue pushing for concrete progress, both within the NPT and by virtue of complementary instruments, including the valuable Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. We will push ahead on every front where nuclear security can be achieved, where the normative regime can be strengthened, and where actual change can come about from these interactions.

Spread the Word