A battle of narratives


After eight days of diplomatic manoeuvring at the 2015 NPT Review Conference, the expectation gap about the NPT’s ability to deliver nuclear disarmament shows no sign of decreasing.

By Magnus Løvold and John Borrie

In the months leading up to the 2015 Review Conference in New York, many observers believed that the chances for achieving a consensus outcome document were, on balance, slim. The last Review Conference in 2010 was widely seen as a success as States Parties, to the surprise of many, managed to overcome the crisis created by the failed Review Conference in 2005. In the NPT’s 2010 final outcome document, States Parties agreed upon a 64-point Action Plan containing a wide range of commitments across the NPT’s three pillars.

Five years after the adoption of the 2010 Action Plan, most of its nuclear disarmament-related actions remain largely unimplemented. The situation has fuelled the frustration of many non-nuclear-weapon states (NNWS) with the glacial pace of nuclear disarmament. Moreover, this is set against the context of the NPT5’s on-going nuclear weapons modernization programmes—which, incidentally, juxtapose oddly with their declarations of commitment to the goal of a nuclear-weapon-free world.

Eight days into the 2015 Review Conference, the expectation gap created by the perceived inadequate implementation of the 2010 Action Plan, has shown no sign of diminishing. While welcoming non-proliferation efforts such as the recent framework agreement between the E3+3 and Iran, most NNWS continue to criticize, more or less harshly, the NPT5 for their failure to implement the disarmament commitments in the 2010 Action Plan. Apparently fearing that the plan might become another excuse for preserving the nuclear status quo for the foreseeable future, leading members of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) brusquely rejected the NPT5’s view of this plan as a “road-map for long term action”. Instead, the NAM tabled a revised version of their ambitious—some would say overambitious—15-year plan for the complete elimination of nuclear weapons.

As pointed out by John Borrie, Tim Caughley and Nick Ritchie in a recent UNIDIR-ILPI publication, despite their differences on various issues, historically the NPT5 have usually found the wherewithal to stick together as a group in the NPT in view of their common interests as nuclear-weapon-states. Nevertheless, in light of increasing frictions within the NPT5 group—especially related to differences over Ukraine—it seems unlikely that the NPT5 will be in a position to offer the NNWS much in terms of disarmament besides a simple rollover of the 2010 Action Plan. Russia’s blunt rejection of US Secretary of State John Kerry’s proposal to reduce the number of deployed strategic nuclear warheads below the level set by the New START Treaty is indicative of the limited scope of action at the 2015 Review Conference for further bilateral reductions at the present time.

Bridging this expectation gap will be a challenging task in the coming weeks. Looking forward, one fundamental question nuclear-armed and non-nuclear armed NPT States Parties alike will have to come to terms with is whether the NPT and the mechanisms outlined in the 2010 Action Plan in itself can still provide a credible narrative for the achievement of a world without nuclear weapons.

One fundamental question […] is whether the NPT […] in itself can still provide a credible narrative for the achievement of a world without nuclear weapons.

Highlighting the ‘considerable reductions’ in nuclear warheads since the end of the Cold War as evidence of the NPT’s ability to deliver nuclear disarmament, the NPT5 see no reason to divert from the path outlined in the 2010 Action Plan and their vaunted ‘step-by-step’ approach to the disarmament obligations in NPT’s Article VI. All of the five nuclear-weapon states, whatever their differences, also have a strong interest in preserving a regime that anoints their nuclear weapons with legitimacy, while closing the doors to others. As such, the NPT5 clearly have reasons to fear initiatives or actions on nuclear disarmament that go beyond the consensus-bound environment of the NPT.

The disarmament narrative promulgated by the NPT5 is a hard sell to many NNWS. While members of the NAM, for instance, have previously showed a willingness to trade away their nuclear disarmament ambitions for other, more immediate, objectives—such as the decision to convene a conference on a WMD Free Zone in the Middle East made at the 2010 Review Conference—other states and groups of states might be less susceptible to such trade-offs.

The three conferences on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons have so far received considerable attention at the 2015 Review Conference and contributed to an emerging majority narrative around the notion that something meaningful has to be done after the Review Conference to address the multiple humanitarian risks posed by nuclear weapons. Informed by this notion, the Irish Foreign Minister, Mr. Charles Flanagan, called for a discussion on the six-nation New Agenda Coalition’s (NAC) outline of possible legal instruments to implement the disarmament obligations contained in Article VI of the NPT. Implicitly challenging the NPT5’s ‘stay the course’ narrative of NPT-based disarmament, Flanagan also pointed out that ‘not a single nuclear weapon has been disarmed under the NPT or as part of any multilateral process, and […] there are no structures in place for this to happen’.

Click here to read ILPI-UNIDIR NPT Review Conference paper 3 on Effective Measures.

It is still too early to tell whether States Parties will be able to agree on a common narrative for the achievement of a world without nuclear weapons when the 2015 Review Conference comes to a close on 22 May. It is not even halfway through the Review Conference, and history suggests that a deal of some kind—progressive or not—may happen fairly late in the show. Whatever the outcome, what is clear is that the expectation gap created by the inadequate implementation of the 2010 Action Plan to date will not be bridged before States Parties come up with a credible narrative of how a world without nuclear weapons can come about.