Is the NPT being Overtaken by Events?

1 May 2008

Rebecca Johnson

What security role does the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) play nowadays and can it be strengthened to address real world nuclear challenges more effectively? These are questions that should be asked when states parties and NGOs meet in Geneva on April 28 for the next Preparatory Committee (PrepCom) meeting for the 2010 Review Conference.

With the Chair of the 2008 PrepCom, Ambassador Volodymyr Yelchenko of Ukraine, hoping to devote more time to substantive issues than was possible at the 2007 PrepCom, where a stand-off over the agenda paralyzed the meeting for several days, what will be the priority political, substantive and procedural issues discussed? Five core issues are likely to come up in different forms:

  • Resolving current nuclear proliferation concerns and preventing new ones arising, with Iran the current big worry as North Korea's programme is now being dismantled;
  • Nuclear disarmament and concerns that new nuclear weapons and doctrines are being introduced under cover of much-heralded reductions;
  • A growing clamour for the expansion of sophisticated nuclear energy technologies and the building of advanced programmes in hitherto non-nuclear countries;
  • Universality, a traditional cornerstone of Arab concerns about Israel and the failure to bring a nuclear weapon free zone in the Middle East to the starting block, but now with the additional destabilizing challenge of the US-India nuclear deal; and
  • Institutional 'deficit' - the lack of structures or mechanisms for NPT parties to address compliance, implementation, accountability and withdrawal issues directly or effectively.

Working papers on all these issues were submitted during the 2007 PrepCom, and further arguments, developments and ideas are to be expected in 2008. But where do all these aspirational and (more or less) practical suggestions and proposals go? Some carry forward consensus agreements from previous NPT Review Conferences, such as the 'Thirteen Steps' on disarmament. Some are endorsed by consensus or near-consensus resolutions of the UN General Assembly, but still they don't seem to be able to be taken forward in the NPT context. Indeed, many are dismissed as ideologically or politically motivated, and so dismissed out of hand by Western governments that like to think of themselves as pragmatic. As governments prepare their statements and people gather in Geneva for the 2008 PrepCom, they need to ask what it's all for. The NPT review process comes across more as theatre than real security building - a lot of sound and fury signifying... well, if not nothing, then what?

Because the second PrepCom has fewer issues requiring actual decisions, many diplomats are sounding up-beat about the prospects of the 2008 meeting. However, the prospects for success at the 2010 review conference are more challenging, and there is already considerable discussion of what needs to be done to ensure a successful review conference in 2010. Leaving aside for the moment the important question of what constitutes 'success' in NPT terms, underlying these discussions is anxiety about whether the NPT regime will 'survive' another failure like the 2005 Review Conference.

Some are sanguine - less inclined to worry because they believe that the regime survives because it is in the security interests of a great number of countries, regardless of what happens in the meetings and review process. Some seem to regard the meetings as more of a hindrance than a help, perhaps because the strengthened review process has resulted in more opportunities for the arsenals and policies of those continuing to possess nuclear weapons to be scrutinised and for pressure to be exerted for better progress towards nuclear disarmament.

Others - including many who advocated in 1995 and 2000 for the review process to be strengthened and made more relevant - worry that the meetings do little more than air grievances and expose the NPT's structural problems, making it especially difficult to address real world problems or manage meaningful agreements on contested issues.

In recent years, it has become clear that the NPT as currently interpreted and implemented lacks the institutional rules, practices and powers to deal effectively with proliferation challenges. When North Korea announced its withdrawal in 2003, there was no role for NPT parties, and the Security Council appeared paralyzed. Unable even to address whether Article X could be legitimately evoked for withdrawal by a state that was already being suspected and investigated for noncompliance, the NPT meetings were reduced to dodging the problem by having the Chair take custody of North Korea's name plate. The solution might have been expedient at the time, but it exposed the Treaty to ridicule. Similarly, the 2005 Review Conference failed to address noncompliance and nuclear insecurity because it couldn't agree a phrase on its agenda. Diplomats and academics who track these things closely can point out that procedure is politics and the agenda was contested because some of the nuclear weapon states wanted to roll back or weaken decisions and agreements undertaken in 1995 and 2000 and others wanted to stop this happening. But to people around the world, trying to prevent the spread and development of new and further nuclear weapons, such failures and stalemates look like dereliction of duty by the supposed guardians of international security. And again in 2007, the meeting agenda was held to ransom because a state wanted to avoid being held accountable for not fully and transparently implementing its NPT obligations.

Diplomacy is, of course, an art of the possible. More fundamental questions lurk below these debates: what is the future of nuclear weapons and is the NPT being overtaken by events?

Two very different futures beckon on the horizon, depending on which way we turn.

In one, the nuclear possessors continue to rely on and value nuclear weapons, though some may continue to cut the size of their overgrown cold war arsenals. Iran continues to pursue uranium enrichment and Israel perhaps seeks legitimacy along the lines of the US-India nuclear deal. In that scenario, other states - starting probably in the Middle East, but no-one should discount significant political players like Brazil or Japan reassessing their policies as well - may conclude that being ignored among the majority of non-nuclear weapon states is no longer in their national interest. The NPT's high level of participation would undoubtedly act as a brake for some, but if a few states managed to withdraw without becoming politically isolated or incurring crippling penalties for their nuclear or defence industries, then it would not take long for the Treaty's credibility to erode beyond repair.

The alternative scenario is altogether more cheerful. Though the second, January 2008, Wall Street Journal essay from George Shultz, William Perry, Henry Kissinger and Sam Nunn and a stellar cast of US academics and former policymakers, was more cautious than the ground-breaking first article the 'Four Horsemen' published in January 2007 (both reproduced below), it continued to propound the theme that nuclear disarmament is in US as well as global interests and that the United States should take the lead in showing the way to a world free of nuclear weapons.

It is not that these former Secretaries and legislators are saying anything very new. Their 'to do' list, including further and deeper reductions in arsenals and US ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), has long been advocated by NGOs and most states in the "international community". Their eight recommendations in many ways rework the "Thirteen Steps" from the 2000 NPT Review Conference for a conservative US audience.

The Hoover/Nuclear Threat Initiative (also known as 'Reykjavik Revisited', as Shultz and others hark back to the visionary almost-deal between Presidents Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev in 1986) may become the tipping point not because of what it says, but because of who says it. As with Nixon going to China, when powerful sceptics or vociferous opponents of an idea come round to realizing that it's the right thing to do, they face less opposition - in large part because they were the opposition (or at the very least, their earlier views had underpinned and sustained the opposition). When the main architects of the cold war nuclear arms race start extolling the virtues - and, more importantly, the practicality - of a world free of nuclear weapons, nuclear disarmament takes on a fashionable, do-able lustre, even for long-time 'realists' who made substantial careers in the past out of sneering at those 'idealistic' enough to argue that deterrence did not require weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and the world would do better without nuclear arms.

If the political agenda shifts towards nuclear disarmament rather than attempts to maintain the current nonproliferation regime, other things become more possible too, including ways to engage the NPT holdouts, India, Israel and Pakistan. Devaluing nuclear weapons' currency as an instrument of security or status would even make a zone free of WMD in the Middle East appear more feasible. The terrifying prospects of an eroded NPT and potential nuclear free-for-all, starting in the Middle East, have undoubtedly contributed to the new found enthusiasm of many born-again nuclear abolitionists. But are they really committing themselves to building a world without nuclear weapons, or are they still hoping to remain nuclear 'haves' in a world with fewer nuclear threats?

Soon after Prime Minister Gordon Brown spoke in Delhi of Britain being "a leading nation in negotiating nuclear arms reductions", UK Defence Secretary Des Browne confirmed to Parliament that the arsenal of 160 warheads (down from a ceiling of 200) promised as part of the Trident renewal package in the December 2006 White Paper, had been achieved. Speaking on February 5, 2008 to the Conference on Disarmament, Browne further proposed that the UK would "host a technical conference of P5 nuclear laboratories on the verification of nuclear disarmament before the next NPT Review Conference in 2010". The purpose would be to "enable the five recognised nuclear weapons states to reinforce a process of mutual confidence building: working together to solve some of [the] difficult technical issues".

A few weeks later, French President Nicolas Sarkozy pledged to reduce the airborne component of the French nuclear arsenal "by one-third", even as he dedicated the fourth of France's Triomphant-class nuclear submarines, Le Terrible. As a gesture of increased transparency, Sarkozy announced that the reductions would bring the overall French arsenal down to 300 nuclear weapons, half its cold war maximum. He also proposed "an action plan to which I call on the nuclear powers to resolutely commit by the 2010 NPT Conference". This included CTBT ratifications and entry into force, together with the controversial further step of closing the nuclear test sites, as France has done at the Pacific atolls of Moruroa and Fangataufa. Sarkozy also listed negotiations on a fissile materials ban, greater transparency measures and "negotiations on a treaty banning short- and intermediate-range surface-to-surface missiles".

The latter appears to endorse Russia's proposal to internationalize the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, as put forward by President Putin in October 2007. In his statement to the CD on February 12, 2008, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov elaborated on this proposal and submitted a paper on "Basic elements of an international legally-binding arrangement on the elimination of intermediate-range and shorter-range (ground-launched) missiles, open for broad international accession". Like Sarkozy, Lavrov also addressed the need "to create favourable conditions for a successful 2010 [NPT] Review Conference". Russia's plan includes a "new, fully-fledged agreement on further and verifiable reduction and limitation of strategic offensive arms" to replace START I, due to expire in 2009. Stressing strategic stability, Lavrov also announced that together with China, Russia was formally submitting to the CD a "draft Treaty on the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space, the Threat or Use of Force Against Outer Space Objects (PPWT)".

There is much to be welcomed in these initiatives from some of the nuclear powers. The problem is that they still go hand in hand with deep-seated reliance on nuclear weapons. The numbers might be coming down (too slowly for many of their citizens and the non-nuclear countries), but the currency is kept far too high. Sarkozy, for example, still argued that France's doctrine of deterrence required both air-based and sea-based nuclear weapons. Though noting that French nuclear weapons cost half the budgets allocated to justice or transportation, he claimed it was worth it, warning that "All those who would threaten our vital interests would expose themselves to severe retaliation by France resulting in damages unacceptable to them, out of proportion with their objectives. Their centres of political, economic and military power would be targeted on a priority basis." This doesn't sound like a willingness to fulfil France's 2000 NPT review conference commitment to "accomplish the total elimination" of its nuclear arsenal any time soon.

The 2000 NPT Review Conference was widely judged a "success", but if its agreements can be ignored or rolled back with impunity, what is the point of working towards agreements to make the 2010 Conference a success?

Sarkozy wanted French nuclear policy to be more closely integrated with NATO, and spoke of a mutual approach on nuclear policy with Britain. Both nuclear arsenals are portrayed as being for the defence of Europe. Though not formally included in documents from the Bucharest Summit, the new buzzword among NATO's nuclear aficionados is 'tailored deterrence'. Following on from the 2002 US Nuclear Posture Review and subsequent national security strategies, one version of 'tailored deterrence' reduces but retains a role for nuclear weapons but uses a mix of nuclear and conventional weapons and other military tools to target deterrence to a range of threats, from emerging state and non-state adversaries to other nuclear-armed states. By contrast, Britain and France both continue to equate nuclear weapons with deterrence, but will consider varying yields, target sets, missions etc. to fit different adversaries. They claim their deterrence has always been 'tailored' in this calibrated way.

But still the nuclear powers reject the kind of deterrence they expect non-nuclear countries to rely on. Tailoring deterrence for a full range of threats can be accomplished without nuclear weapons, using a mixture of hard and soft power, national and international law and courts, stigmatization of certain weapons and uses as crimes against humanity, and other psychological, cultural and communications factors.

It almost sounded as if the UK government grasped this when Browne spoke to the CD of the "vision of a world free of nuclear weapons". But for all the talk of being seen as a disarmament laboratory, Britain, like the other nuclear weapon states, is still clinging to nuclear weapons.

As long as that cold war reliance on nuclear weapons persists, it is difficult to see how the NPT will ever be universalized or fully implemented. This is the dilemma that is driving states to seek security solutions outside the NPT framework. The 2010 review conference will be "successful" only if it provides confidence in the achievability of disarmament and security without nuclear weapons.

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