The great NPT pillar fight: Round 1

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High Stakes for the 2015 NPT Review Conference: Pillar One v. Pillar Two

By Tim Caughley

A perennial issue at NPT Review Conferences lies in political tensions stemming from the three pillars of the Treaty—nuclear disarmament, non-proliferation and peaceful uses of nuclear energy. One dynamic in recent years has involved questions whether Iran’s incipient nuclear industry has peaceful purposes (third pillar) or military ones (second pillar). The focus of this post, however, is on a different and rather more engrained issue involving the first and second pillars.

That issue is, in effect, the clash of wills between those nations for whom nuclear disarmament (pillar one) is currently a more pressing issue than non-proliferation, although it would be simplistic to see it as a straight choice. For many NPT parties, it is the lack of commitment by nuclear weapon states to make concrete, time bound efforts towards the elimination of nuclear arsenals that is itself fundamentally undermining the imperative for non-proliferation.

It has long been recognized that the ‘most effective guarantee against the danger of nuclear war and the use of nuclear weapons is nuclear disarmament and the complete elimination of nuclear weapons’ (UNSSOD-1, para 56). Pillar one of the NPT is rooted firmly in this sentiment. Pillar two rests essentially on the same premise. In other words, the risks of nuclear war and of the use of nuclear weapons increase commensurately with the spread of possession of those armaments. Certainly, the strenuous arguments mounted by the five NPT nuclear-weapon-possessing states (NPT5) against proliferation are based at least partially on that argument.

The NPT5 may have various other reasons for laying emphasis on the importance of preventing further proliferation of nuclear arms. These may include diverting attention from criticisms they face under pillar one for the grudging pace of nuclear disarmament, to protecting the power and influence that they perceive derives from the comparative exclusiveness of the nuclear-armed ‘club’. If there is any validity in this latter point, it gives rise to an inherent contradiction to their stance alongside non-nuclear-weapon states in trenchantly opposing proliferation. For so long as there is even the perception of a ‘club’ of nuclear-armed states, other states may harbour ambitions to join that elite.

By the same token, the risk of proliferation is compounded when nuclear-weapon states assert that their continued possession of those arms is warranted by security considerations. Ambiguity often surrounds that rationale: are they talking in terms of their national security or as self-appointed arbiters of international security? In either case, they invite the retort that their assertion risks inciting proliferation. If an ingredient in the recipe for security is a nuclear arsenal, then won’t other states aspire to those weapons?

Traditionally, debates of this kind at NPT Review Conferences produce no winners. An uneasy truce is generally reached in a final document in which all pillars receive more or less equal emphasis. Exceptionally, the 2005 Review Conference was unable to reach any final outcome. The underlying cause was the inability to find acceptable balance in an era of insecurity post 9/11 where proliferation concerns were, in the view of non-nuclear-weapon states, distracting the Conference from coming adequately to terms with the rate of nuclear disarmament, a pedestrian pace that was itself exacerbating the global security environment.

The security environment in which this year’s Review Conference takes place is also unsettled. The situation in Ukraine, a country that renounced nuclear weapons, has added a new element to the mix of issues surrounding nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation. Conflict between that country and a nuclear-armed neighbour provides a salutary reminder of the risks of use of nuclear weapons and the devastation that would affect humanity well beyond the territories of the combatants. But more than the situation in Ukraine, it is the intensifying focus on the humanitarian consequences of the use of nuclear weapons that is likely to feature prominently at the Review Conference.

These comments will be continued in a subsequent posting on this site with a focus on the humanitarian approach to nuclear weapons.