The problem with suppressing controversy in the Non-Proliferation Treaty

By Andrea Berger | May 19, 2017

If there were only three words that delegates used to informally describe the atmosphere at the 11-day long 2017 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Preparatory Committee meeting in Vienna, they were “business-like,” “efficient,” and “vanilla.” While they may sound like faint praise, they mark no small accomplishment; from May 2 to May 12, the Dutch chair, Henk Cor van der Kwast, skillfully guided countries through an agenda comprised of ordinarily testy subjects. The plenary room saw surprisingly little debate on disarmament initiatives and on the call for the Middle East to be a zone that is free of weapons of mass destruction.

Yet beyond the plenary chamber it is clear that not all is well with the treaty, and some contentious issues could escalate to the point where they collide in the next year. Egypt  and a group containing 12 members of the League of Arab States issued separate statements on a Middle East zone free of weapons of mass destruction, hinting at divisions playing out elsewhere. The struggles of the Non-Aligned Movement to articulate its own view on the Middle East—which occurred on the sidelines of the Preparatory Committee—were a reminder of persistent splits in that group as to how to move forward the nuclear-weapons-free zone initiative.

More than 100 countries are also currently negotiating a legally binding prohibition on nuclear weapons, to the chagrin of states that still subscribe to the logic of nuclear deterrence. NATO states in particular understandably feel that the ban initiative takes aim at the alliance, because some ban advocates seek to create practical challenges for NATO’s planning, joint exercises, and burden-sharing arrangements. To deflect criticism that their efforts are hostile toward any one group, or that they detract from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), prohibition proponents made a concerted effort to moderate their statements on the subject in the Preparatory Committee plenary room. Most avoided confrontational language and emphasized that the ban treaty complements and reinforces the NPT.

Domestic political developments in the United States cemented the muted tone. Bar North Korea, the US delegation had few issues to articulate policy on, as a result of the Trump administration’s ongoing Nuclear Posture Review—the 12-month process that translates a US president’s vision into a grand comprehensive nuclear strategy for the next 5-to-10 years.

The result of these intersecting dynamics is that grievances are being kept from public view— for now. Debates are moved to closed chambers, or even to non-governmental side events.

And arguments are deferred.

To an extent, this is a positive development. It reflects a consciousness amongst NPT member states that they should “do no harm” to the treaty, particularly on the eve of its fiftieth birthday in 2020. The representatives of several states quietly add that now is not the time to argue over divisive issues.

But an approach based on suppression and delay is unsustainable. Disagreements over the Middle East are sure to eventually spill over into NPT plenary rooms, threatening progress. Egypt walked out of the 2013 Preparatory Committee over the matter of a Middle East nuclear-weapons-free zone, which also caused the 2015 Review Conference to implode at the 11th hour. Further posturing should be expected, as the debates within the League of Arab States and the Non-Aligned Movement foreshadow.

Frustrations about the lack of progress toward an outright prohibition on nuclear weapons will re-emerge more quickly. A draft treaty text is expected to be released by the Costa Rican chair of the negotiations before the end of May. It will be debated over three weeks in June and July, with the aim of agreeing on a final text by 7 July. Many expect any agreed treaty to be submitted as a resolution in the UN General Assembly in the fall for adoption by majority vote.

The most probable outcome is a simple and lean treaty whose focus is on establishing norms against nuclear weapons, and which therefore includes only a handful of core prohibitions and little—if any—verification beyond existing International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards. But while a simple treaty may be achievable by July, it may not be gratifying for signatory states for very long. That is a problem for all who wish to promote the health of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and its review process, regardless of one’s view on a nuclear weapons ban. The push for a legally binding prohibition on nuclear weapons stems from mounting concerns among non-nuclear weapons states that disarmament is proceeding too slowly, particularly in light of perceived increases in nuclear risks. A treaty, if agreed, will allow its advocates to claim a notable political victory. They will undoubtedly trumpet their success at the next Nuclear Non-Proliferation Preparatory Committee, in spite of the restrained tone in 2017 and the dissenting views of the nuclear-armed and their allies. Wars of words are sure to follow.

But even among the group of ban advocates themselves, elation with a lean treaty could be short-lived. The nuclear deterrence policies of non-signatories, particularly NATO states, are unlikely to materially change, absent political shifts in the countries in question. Neither, therefore, will the disgruntlement that motivated countries to negotiate the prohibition in the first place. If the ban treaty effort is currently seen as an outlet for frustration, another outlet will be needed soon.

Moreover, during the first round of ban talks in March, several dozen countries advocated for a more comprehensive treaty that does not just prohibit nuclear weapons (the “what”), but also spells out frameworks to verifiably eliminate them (the “how”), should a nuclear possessor wish to join the treaty. As they will not get their wish with such a lean treaty, these same countries are likely to swiftly begin asking about the next steps—such as subsidiary protocols and elimination frameworks. The planned High Level Conference on Nuclear Disarmament, to be held in 2018, could become a platform for advancing these proposals, fracturing non-nuclear states and further irritating those already uncomfortable with the trajectory of disarmament initiatives.

All the while, the Trump administration will be rethinking at least two of the key principles underlying the 2010 Review Conference Action Plan—which have held that the role of nuclear weapons in national doctrine should be reduced, and that the size of national arsenals should shrink. Should the Trump administration change course on either of these core principles as part of its Nuclear Posture Review, the consequences for the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty would be significant. Many would likely argue that any such shift represents a damaging breach of Washington’s obligations under the treaty’s Article VI, which calls on signatories “to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures” to stop the nuclear arms race and to advance nuclear disarmament at an early date. From a procedural perspective, most NPT members also currently appear to believe that the 2010 Action Plan should continue to serve as the framework under which to measure progress in 2020. That approach would be rendered impossible if Trump’s policies shatter agreement on the disarmament portion of that plan. Other multilateral agreements championed in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, such as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran, colloquially known as the “Iran Agreement,” could be abandoned by Washington too.

These three points of escalation could occur in close succession around the time of the 2018 Preparatory Committee. This means that next year’s conference chair, Poland, has been dealt a difficult hand. Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty member states, with the help of the non-governmental community, must give greater forethought to how they will manage debates, ease frustrations, and build agreement when these deeply divisive issues permeate NPT chambers. Extensive regional consultations by the Polish Preparatory Committee team, comparable to those undertaken by the Dutch, will be imperative. Right now, there are few good ideas about how to manage the problems ahead.

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