The NPT in 2015 and the humanitarian initiative

Comments, NPT

Is the current inequitable global nuclear order sustainable? If not, does it matter? What are the implications for the NPT, and how does the so-called humanitarian initiative feature in the dynamics of its 2015 five-yearly review meeting?

The 2010 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) review conference was widely seen as a success—symbolized by the Obama Administration’s impressive diplomatic engagement beforehand, such as the United States President’s Prague speech. The outcome of the 2010 NPT meeting included a 64-point action plan and agreement on progressing a zone in the Middle East free of weapons of mass destruction. Meanwhile, the New START treaty was successfully negotiated, important changes occurred in the context of the United States nuclear posture review, and the “P5” nuclear dialogue process gathered momentum.

Fast forward to today, and there has been little in the way of significant progress on the disarmament side since 2010, particularly in terms of developing a framework of ‘effective measures’ relating to nuclear disarmament, to use the language of the treaty’s Article VI (and the title of this website).

it is difficult to envisage a successful review conference in 2015 on a par with 2010. Nevertheless, what does it matter if the NNWS are frustrated?

This lack of progress has, over this NPT review cycle, amplified non-nuclear weapon states’ (NNWS) frustration, and a narrative of the NPT regime at risk of collapse. With that as our starting point it is difficult to envisage a successful review conference in 2015 on a par with 2010. Nevertheless, what does it matter if the NNWS are frustrated? So what if 2015 doesn’t reach a consensus outcome? So what if some states become even more disillusioned with the politics of the NPT? I offer two perspectives in response to these questions.

First, one could say “don’t worry”. The NPT is still widely regarded as a fundamental pillar of global nuclear order. We can all acknowledge the inequity at its heart, but the treaty regime is acceptable enough to a majority of states and the prospect of an irredeemable erosion of the NPT’s political authority is fanciful.

The argument might continue that “business as usual” based on a slow step-by-step disarmament process and the disciplinary containment of suspected nuclear weapon programmes is politically sustainable. As such, the 2015 NPT review conference can continue to serve a useful purpose in the following ways:

  • As a venue for beating the nuclear-armed states (diplomatically speaking) with a disarmament stick;
  • As a procedural focal point for nuclear-weapon state (NWS) dialogue;
  • As a forum for reiterating enforcement of the non-proliferation norm; and
  • For providing reassurance of continued support for legitimate peaceful uses of nuclear technology.

For the five NPT NWS this perspective implies a strategy of stage-managing a month of diplomatic nuclear theatre as effectively as possible. No doubt there will be plenty of consultation to ensure these five delegations are on message to serve that purpose, particularly the United States, France, and the United Kingdom. Stage-management in this sense could be expected to include repetition by these governments of previous promises and unequivocal commitments, based on rolling over—but not building on—the 2010 NPT action plan (and certainly not entertaining binding or time-bound commitments); collectively reframing the success or otherwise of the negotiations with Tehran, and finessing expectations of movement towards a Middle East WMD-free zone.

The response to the ‘so what’ question presupposes that the NPT’s quinquennially disaffected member states can be sufficiently assuaged for this, and foreseeable, five-yearly review cycles.

The response to the ‘so what’ question presupposes that the NPT’s quinquennially disaffected member states can be sufficiently assuaged for this, and foreseeable, five-yearly review cycles. It presupposes that the absence of decisive movement towards nuclear disarmament by the nuclear-armed will not adversely affect the credibility and therefore effectiveness of the treaty regime over time. It presupposes that this is the best of all possible nuclear futures: learn to live with a more complicated world of nuclear multipolarity and keep your fingers crossed that the theory of nuclear deterrence will work impeccably in the messy real world of political crises and accidents precisely when it needs to and on a permanent basis. These are important assumptions.

That is the first perspective: that things will turn out all right on the night. The second response to the “so what” question invites us to take the prospect of NPT rebellion more seriously and to begin to think through what the oft-foretold collapse of the NPT or mass disengagement might actually look like

That is the first perspective: that things will turn out all right on the night. The second response to the “so what” question invites us to take the prospect of NPT rebellion more seriously and to begin to think through what the oft-foretold collapse of the NPT or mass disengagement might actually look like, what it might mean, and what the response could be. There is a good case that it should be taken seriously because NNWS are beginning to exercise some collective political agency out of despair about the lack of disarmament progress. They are doing this by reframing the continued existence of nuclear weapons as an unacceptable humanitarian risk. It is a narrative that has gathered momentum since the adoption of the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions and it is one that seeks to delegitimize nuclear weapons as instruments of civilised statecraft. The most recent political step in this process was the Third Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons in Vienna in December 2014. This deep dissatisfaction is based on the many thousands of nuclear weapons that remain in existence and the fact that the logic of nuclear deterrence remains relatively undisturbed—despite the changes in nuclear weapons policies since the end of the cold war. Supporters of this reframing point to the absence of qualitative changes in nuclear policies and practices after the 13-steps agreed by consensus at the 2000 NPT review meeting.

It is hard to say where this process will lead. Suffice to say that a number of NNWS and global civil society organizations are seeking to leverage widespread perceptions of the illegitimacy of nuclear weapons—and make it have political consequences. In part this is about highlighting the disparity between the nuclear-armed states’ commitments to the rule of law, human rights, and the institutions of international order on the one hand, and the devastating, indiscriminate, unmanageable consequences of massive nuclear violence on the other. The purpose seems to be to generate a crisis of legitimacy around nuclear weapons to try to precipitate some significant change in global nuclear politics and the policies and practices of the nine nuclear-armed states. Some are concerned that this will inevitably challenge the NPT, whether it is intended to or not. But the purpose is to complement—not undermine—the treaty. This perspective has now gathered pace and has been joined by the legal proceedings brought by the Marshall Islands against the nine nuclear-armed states in the International Court of Justice.

If the legitimacy of the NPT’s basic bargain erodes then so might habitual and consensual compliance with its norms.

Again, we can ask “so what”? NNWS and civil society cannot legislate for disarmament, however well meaning, and they cannot compel it, since these are sovereign capabilities subject to sovereign decisions. It does count, however, if it’s accepted that the politics of legitimacy matter. Why? Because acceptance of a nuclear order that discriminates between nuclear haves and have nots (and the have lots) requires it to enjoy a sufficient level of legitimacy, and for many NNWS that now requires delivering on promises of substantial progress towards nuclear disarmament. If the legitimacy of the NPT’s basic bargain erodes then so might habitual and consensual compliance with its norms. We don’t know how this might manifest itself, but as consensual compliance loses traction, compliance has to shift to coercion or provision of enough incentives for continuous, self-interested compliance by others. This can be costly and difficult, and is probably unsustainable. If the legitimacy of the NPT dissolves then the legal, justifiable and consensual foundation for the norm against nuclear proliferation might go with it.

Some nuclear weapon states recognize the NPT’s legitimacy deficit and feel periodically compelled to demonstrate sufficient compliance with their nuclear disarmament commitments in order to reproduce the principle of mutual obligation and the legitimacy of the Treaty’s ‘grand bargain’. Afterwards, it’s essentially back to “business as usual”. After four five-yearly review cycles since the indefinite extension of the NPT in 1995, it would appear that a growing number of NNWS are unwilling to play that game for yet another round.

it’s time to start thinking more thoroughly about qualitative changes in nuclear policies and practices that significantly reduce the value of nuclear weapons in national security strategies and to engage with non-nuclear weapon states on this.

How might the nuclear weapon states respond? If they’re worried that the NPT’s legitimacy is shaky and they think the political consequences are disturbing, then it’s time to start thinking more thoroughly about qualitative changes in nuclear policies and practices that significantly reduce the value of nuclear weapons in national security strategies and to engage with non-nuclear weapon states on this. This includes, in the first instance, perennial NPT issues like nuclear weapon de-alerting, universal legally binding negative security assurances, the modalities of no first use, and so on. Limited qualitative changes like these are routinely dismissed as incompatible with prevailing conceptions of nuclear deterrence, “minimum” or otherwise. But then that is the point for many NNWS: to nudge, cajole, and perhaps even compel the nuclear-armed states to move across the spectrum of nuclear deterrence from maximum postures of the Cold War at one end toward no nuclear weapons at the other. This type of engagement would require a different sort of “thinking the unthinkable” in terms of what might be done by the nuclear-armed to demonstrate seriousness of purpose on nuclear disarmament on a genuine path to zero nuclear weapons.

Nuclear-weapon-states could engage in that process as a group or collaboratively with NNWS on these issues, perhaps by initially engaging with a re-tasked Open Ended Working Group (OEWG) on proposals to take forward multilateral nuclear disarmament negotiations established by the UN General Assembly in 2013.

This might be difficult for the nuclear-weapon states. Nevertheless, sustainable management of global nuclear risk means we are going to have to get there eventually, and preferably much sooner rather than later if the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of nuclear violence are to be avoided.

Dr Nick Ritchie is a Lecturer in International Security at the University of York, and an advisor to UNIDIR’s project on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons.