A Transatlantic Approach to Keep the NPT Relevant
April 30, 2015
The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) has been a cornerstone of the international security architecture for the past 45 years. Even if unable to prevent proliferation in all instances, it has been an efficient framework and internationally agreed baseline, as the ongoing negotiations with Iran continue to demonstrate. Meanwhile, steep reductions in nuclear arsenals have taken place since the end of the Cold War. This has shown that the NPT remains the relevant framework to address nuclear disarmament when the strategic environment has made it acceptable to nuclear weapon states. The NPT has finally offered to non-weapons states the opportunity to peacefully use nuclear energy and has mostly protected the parties’ interests, which was reflected in the 1995 indefinite treaty extension.
As the parties travel to New York for their five-year review conference, the “RevCon” from April 27 to May 22, the continued legitimacy of the NPT is subject to three contradictory (some would argue schizophrenic) dynamics. These contradictions run the risk of pushing the NPT further away from the strategic reality it should be tackling. The United States, France, and the United Kingdom (the P3) share a common interest in defending a realistic vision of how to pursue the NPT objectives. The P3 must rally their allies and partners around this vision to ensure that the NPT continues to be an efficient international tool for security and stability.
First, the strategic reality of an increased reliance on nuclear weapons requires a realistic vision, rather than radical initiatives unlikely to achieve disarmament.
While the P3 have pursued a concrete, step-by-step path to nuclear disarmament since the end of the Cold War, the majority of other nuclear weapon states, including both parties (Russia and China), and nonparties to the NPT (Pakistan, India, North Korea), are still expanding the scope of their nuclear military programs. This expansion has been quantitative through an increase in stockpiles of weapons, qualitative through the diversification of their means of delivery, and doctrinal as certain states contemplate a lower threshold for the use of nuclear weapons. Thus, even if the global number of nuclear weapons in the world is much lower today than it used to be due to large reductions in U.S. and Russian arsenals, the number of countries relying on nuclear weapons for their security remains historically high.
More than ever, this trend requires a realistic path to stabilize potential arms races, to enhance crisis stability, and to achieve arms control measures, including eventual measures aimed at disarmament. As stated in Article VI of the NPT, the “cessation of the nuclear arms race” remains as important as nuclear disarmament itself. Unfortunately, a part of the nuclear world, mostly led by Western nations, such as Austria and Ireland, or Non-aligned Movement States and nongovernment organizations, has increasingly become frustrated by the slow pace of nuclear disarmament. In response, these actors have embraced a more radical vision of nuclear disarmament based on the potential humanitarian consequences that the use of nuclear weapons could have. Nuclear weapons should therefore be banned first, they argue, before concrete ways to actually get rid of them would be agreed.
However well-meaning, this vision threatens the NPT by de facto delegitimizing it as the relevant framework to achieve disarmament. It also fails to offer an explanation regarding how a ban would actually achieve concrete results without the endorsement of the countries possessing weapons. In this sense, it fundamentally contradicts the “trajectory” described by U.S. president Barack Obama in his 2009 Praha speech as a realistic path toward a “world without nuclear weapons.” Originating in the West, this movement applies political pressure on the P3, rather than on the countries that are expanding the scope of their nuclear military programs. It therefore misses its intended target.
In 2010, NPT parties agreed to an Action Plan that remains today the only realistic long-term pathway toward achieving the treaty’s objectives, reflecting a step-by-step approach. This plan was adopted by consensus, and the P3 should continue to defend it against requests for significant amendments. The plan outlined significant, realistic, and relevant steps, among others the negotiation of a treaty banning the production of fissile material for military purposes (a Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty or FMCT) and the entry into force of a comprehensive treaty banning the testing of nuclear weapons (the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty or CTBT). Discussions should rather focus on the constraints preventing their implementation, such as Pakistan’s opposition of an FMCT.
Discussing the terrible consequences of nuclear weapons is stating the obvious since it is those very consequences that constitute nuclear deterrence’s core ability to prevent wars among nations. It will however not make these weapons disappear, nor address the ongoing and real security challenge of countries moving away from deterrence to more offensive nuclear doctrines. Finally, disarmament can only be possible if it yields a nondiminished security to disarming countries; humanitarian-driven disarmament doesn’t address this core requirement.
Second, the parameters for a comprehensive agreement recently announced in Lausanne between the P5+1 countries and Iran doesn’t make proliferation a threat of the past.
For almost two decades, international concerns regarding nuclear proliferation have focused on Iran and North Korea, for good reason. Now that a comprehensive agreement with Iran appears within reach after more than 10 years of largely unproductive negotiations, many NPT parties may be keen to underline the reasons why such a deal would resolve concerns regarding Iranian nuclear ambitions. With no other obvious candidates for the acquisition of nuclear weapons beyond North Korea—a lost case for nonproliferation—and Iran, some NPT parties may make the case during the RevCon that the threat to the NPT is due to a lack of progress toward disarmament rather than preventing further proliferation.
Even if an agreement is reached with Iran that prevents an Iranian nuclear weapon for more than a decade, Iranian intentions over the long term remain uncertain. While a proliferation cascade of nuclear weapons in the Middle East may be unlikely as long as Iran complies with its obligations, some countries might seek to hedge against these long-term Iranian intentions. Developing enrichment capacities could well be a way to do that for countries like Saudi Arabia, or others. The P3 will bear a special responsibility to argue for continued vigilance over proliferation, including one of sensitive fuel cycle activities, and eventually oppose it.
More broadly, the P3 will also need to think about the best way to operationalize positive precedents for nonproliferation that the Iran deal may yield (the universalization of the Additional Protocol, for instance); try to mitigate the effects of less positive ones (for instance, the way militarization activities monitoring will be dealt with remains rather mysterious in the Lausanne framework agreement and could still potentially set a weak precedent); or eventually close the loopholes in the nonproliferation regime that the crisis with Iran has exposed.
Third, the evolution of the strategic landscape around the NPT is driving Moscow and Beijing away from their Western P3 partners when cooperation between them is increasingly necessary.
Despite having significantly reduced its nuclear arsenal since the end of the Cold War, Russia is increasingly seen as a potential nuclear security threat to European security rather than as a partner, following the ongoing crisis over Ukraine. President Vladimir Putin’s recent admission that Russia had been prepared to put its nuclear forces on alert in order to back the annexation of Crimea in 2014 not only contradicts the Kremlin’s December 2014 military doctrine but also fuels concerns that Russia may use its nuclear weapons coercively in the future. Russian compliance with several arms control agreements remains in doubt, particularly the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) agreement, and Moscow continues to refuse to contemplate further reductions of its nuclear arsenal beyond the limits set by the bilateral New Start treaty signed with the United States in 2010. It argues that such reduction would make Russian nuclear forces vulnerable to U.S. strategic conventional capacities such as missile defense systems.
The Chinese government, on the other hand, is insufficiently transparent about its nuclear forces and doctrine and remains therefore an unpredictable player in the nuclear area. Notably, Chinese views about what role nuclear weapons play in Chinese security alongside rapidly developing conventional capabilities remain unclear. Still, Beijing is expanding the scope of its nuclear military program, notably by developing a second-strike submarine capability. Altogether, this does not signal the likelihood of a country relying less on its nuclear weapons in the near future. China remains skeptical about the negotiation of an FMCT, unwilling to ratify the CTBT, and does not see reductions to its arsenal to be a relevant step until the U.S and Russian arsenals have been cut to a level close to that of the Chinese.
Confronted with these trends, the P3 finds itself in an awkward situation. While committed to a necessary modernization of their nuclear deterrents as long as nuclear weapons will continue to exist, the United States, the United Kingdom, and France have taken the most determined and irreversible steps toward nuclear disarmament. The P3 continues to promote unity with Russia and China about NPT matters. This makes sense from a political point of view, and such a process can still achieve limited but concrete results. For instance, the five countries have been working on a common understanding, a so-called glossary of key nuclear-related notions, to help strengthen their dialogue about those issues.
But by defending unity, the P3 also distracts political pressure for disarmament away from the countries taking the most counterproductive stances against it. This applies to Russia and China, but also to non-NPT nuclear powers. The P3 might better protect the NPT’s relevance by stating more clearly why they are not the main impediment to further steps in nuclear disarmament, which will only become possible in the future if other weapon states can change their perceptions about the security environment and constraints ahead of them.
Dealing with these three dilemmas and keeping the nuclear world together around the relevance of the NPT for international security and stability is the daunting task of the transatlantic nuclear community. In doing so, the P3 itself isn’t short of contradictions—the United States for instance remains unable for domestic reasons to ratify the CTBT—or tactical disagreements. But the P3 generally shares the same vision of why the Action Plan compromise reached by the NPT parties in 2010 remains the proper course of action. It therefore needs to do more to engage allies and partners to support this approach more convincingly, especially among those countries that benefit from security guarantees or extended deterrence from the United States and whose obligations in that regard would be at odds with a convention banning nuclear weapons.
None of these challenges can be dealt with at this RevCon only, as they are long-term issues for the subsequent revision cycles. But the 2015 RevCon matters greatly as it can either further aggravate those symptoms or keep the NPT parties on a realistic course to protect the treaty over time and eventually fulfill its long-term objectives.
Simond de Galbert is a visiting fellow with the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.
Commentary 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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