How Does the Worsening Security Environment Impact Nuclear Disarmament?

On August 26, 2022, the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) Review Conference (RevCon) ended without a consensus final document, the so-called hallmark of success. The NPT came into force in 1970 and is considered to be the cornerstone of nonproliferation, and in many ways, nuclear arms control. It creates a legally binding framework to prevent nuclear proliferation, promote cooperation on the peaceful uses of nuclear energy, and further the goal of complete nuclear disarmament. The failure to achieve a consensus final document over “political language” highlights the importance of the security environment and the impact of strategic competition between nuclear weapon states on the nonproliferation and disarmament regime’s ability to make progress. But not all state parties are convinced by the argument that the security environment is the problem, and such a narrative ignores growing friction between nuclear weapon states and nonnuclear weapon states which support initiatives for complete and irreversible disarmament. In the end, the security environment, specifically the war in Ukraine and Russian control of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, were to blame for the inability to achieve a consensus final document.

Q1: What is the NPT RevCon? What happened at this RevCon?

A1: When the treaty entered into force, Article VIII called for a review conference every five years to assess the procedural and substantive aspects of implementation. The 1995 RevCon indefinitely extended the treaty with a total of 191 state parties.

The 2020 RevCon was delayed by the Covid-19 pandemic, and finally rescheduled for August 1–26, 2022, at the UN headquarters in New York. After four weeks of negotiations, the conference was unable to achieve a final substantive document by consensus, as Russia claimed the document contained paragraphs that were political in nature and did not represent a balance of positions among the state parties. While Russia emphasized during the closing session that multiple delegations felt the document did not represent a balance of positions, all other speakers in the closing session stated they would have aligned with the final document. It is believed state parties failed to reach consensus over the war in Ukraine and language surrounding the situation at the Ukrainian Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant.

RevCons are in a unique position to look both backward and forward—assessing historic implementation and substance as well as suggesting further progress and areas of discussion. However, since the indefinite extension in 1995, state parties have become more polarized on issues, especially related to disarmament. Nonnuclear weapon states’ increased dissatisfaction on disarmament progress is evident in country statements given at RevCon as well as through their support of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), which came into force in 2021 and calls for a legally binding framework to prohibit nuclear weapons by state parties. And following the inability to agree to a consensus final document at the NPT, many nonnuclear weapon states, including supporters of the TPNW, argued that when faced with a dangerous security environment, RevCon achieved nothing.

Q2: What role did the current security environment play in the outcome?

A2: As China stated in the final plenary session, “The NPT is not operating in a vacuum.” Today, the greatest risk of miscalculation, accident or purposeful use of nuclear weapons is in Europe as a result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Russian forces have occupied the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in Ukraine since March, but in the lead up to RevCon were accused of turning it into a military base to launch rockets and missiles. These actions have drawn widespread condemnation from the United States and its allies, as well as the International Atomic Energy Agency over fears of a radiological accident at the plant. This current security environment impacted the inability to agree to a final document because Russia was unwilling to agree to language that condemned or delegitimized its invasion of Ukraine.

Most of the NPT state parties wanted strong condemnation of Russia’s occupation of Zaporizhzhia, calling for control to be returned to “Ukraine’s competent authorities,” but were willing to accept weaker language to achieve consensus. In the draft final document, the RevCon president chose to highlight concern over safety and security of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant but did not name Russia. It is believed this was one of five paragraphs within the final text which Russia objected to for being “political” in nature, claiming some delegations came to RevCon to push political views and settle scores with Russia.

Once Russia broke consensus, over 40 state parties made statements expressing their dissatisfaction with how the conference had ended. Having observed many of these statements, some of which are available to read here, there was as noticeable division between those who chose to use this platform to talk about disarmament and those who reaffirmed their condemnation of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The impact of the invasion of Ukraine was clearly demonstrated in statements made by nuclear weapon states. France delivered a statement on behalf of 56 states and the European Union deploring Russia’s “dangerous nuclear rhetoric” and “seizure of Ukrainian nuclear facilities.” Before walking out of the closing session, the Russian delegation blamed Ukraine for the failure of RevCon and accused Ukraine of shelling its own nuclear power plant, clearly showing the detrimental impact the security environment had on RevCon.

On the other hand, nonnuclear weapon states and many civil society organizations that support the TPNW believe the time is ripe for disarmament and it is the nuclear possessors and their allies that struggle to relinquish their reliance on nuclear weapons. Mexico made a statement on behalf of TPNW state parties confirming the TPNW-supporting states’ commitment to fully implementing NPT obligations, but voicing dismay over the use of the security environment to uphold security based on nuclear deterrence. The statement went further, announcing, “We will not rest until the last state has joined the TPNW, the last warhead has been irreversibly dismantled and destroyed and nuclear weapons have been totally eliminated from the Earth.” Moreover, the New Agenda Coalition, a ministerial-level group of states within the NPT including Brazil, Egypt, Ireland, Mexico, and South Africa, expressed disappointment in a “lack of ambition” and calling on the nuclear weapon states to “fulfill their pledges on the elimination of nuclear weapons” without mention of Ukraine.

Q3: What does this shifting security environment mean for the future of the NPT and other multilateral institutions?

A3: Failure to reach a substantive end document raises questions and concerns about the future of multilateral consensus-based institutions as well as the NPT review process and the future of arms control writ large.

The deteriorating security environment and Russia’s objection to “political language” in the draft final document raises concerns over the future of multilateral consensus-based institutions. If Russia continues to play a more antagonist role, can consensus be reached in any multilateral institutions? If consensus can never be reached, does that mean the institutions are defunct? Moreover, the growing polarization between nuclear weapons states and TPNW supporters may impact future RevCons if middle ground cannot be found. While consensus may have been the gold standard of the Cold War and post-Cold War era, consensus in today’s security environment may be impossible to achieve. More thought is needed on how multilateral institutions should understand and achieve consensus in the face of deliberate spoilers and continued polarization.

Furthermore, concluding without a final document could pose an obstacle to future RevCons. The perception of a consensus final document as “success” leads many observers to declare this RevCon has “failed.” This is not necessarily the case. In fact, there was consensus on all three pillars of the NPT—Russia’s objection was to political language. As it stands, the NPT remains the cornerstone of nonproliferation and nuclear arms control. While there are justifiable objections by nonnuclear weapons states, the NPT provides a clear and verifiable framework toward nuclear disarmament. The lack of a final document should not lead observers or states to question the validity of the NPT; instead, it should prompt thinking on how to add to the nonproliferation and arms control regime to strengthen the treaty.

Q4: How should state parties approach the new review cycle, which is set to start in 2023? How should the security environment be considered in the next review cycle?

A4: With little time between the end of this RevCon and the beginning of the new review cycle, state parties should capitalize on the momentum created and captured in the draft final document. Although RevCon ended without a final consensus document, the conference demonstrated a dedication to collaboration, progress, and compromise by a majority of states amid heightened international tensions. The endorsements under Article X of the text should continue to act as a reference point for states as they enter the new review cycle. The most enthusiastic progress was made on Pillar 3, peaceful uses of nuclear energy, where state parties sought to develop a better balance between rights and obligations regarding peaceful uses, making a breakthrough by linking peaceful uses to the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals. In the midst of a challenging security environment, focusing on progress within peaceful uses may be an easier way to demonstrate commitment to the NPT.

Future RevCons could consider ways to present a summary document regarding the security environment as well as a final document, passed by consensus, which addresses the technicalities of NPT. This would offer the RevCon president and delegations the ability to address the security environment and political aspects of the negotiations but prevent the consensus final document from being held hostage over “political language.” Alternatively, RevCon presidents can mirror the 2010 RevCon outcome where the backward-looking review was written as a president's report while the forward-looking action items were endorsed by the conference. These alternative options are not necessarily popular among all states in the NPT. The TPNW-supporting states, for example, do not believe states can de-link the backward- and forward-looking aspects of a review, which makes the job of the president particularly challenging. What is important is that the RevCon president and the delegates prepare to be flexible to mitigate the impacts of the security environment.

Equally important, however, state parties will need to balance between security environment and disarmament. If nuclear weapons states and their allies place too much emphasis on the security environment over disarmament obligations, the polarization within the NPT is likely to expand as disarmament advocates grow tired of hearing the same excuse at every RevCon. One suggestion for a sign of good faith would be for some (or all) of the possessor states to observe the TPNW’s next meeting of state parties.

The narrative that the lack of a consensus final document spells the doom of the NPT should be pushed back on. There is still plenty of work to be done, but the NPT provides a forum to conduct the work and build on expertise for future agreements.

Alice Spilman is a visiting fellow with the Project on Nuclear Issues at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Suzanne Claeys is a program manager and research associate with the CSIS Project on Nuclear Issues.

Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Suzanne Claeys
Associate Director and Associate Fellow, Project on Nuclear Issues

Alice Spilman

Visiting Fellow, Project on Nuclear Issues