Despite what my roundtable colleague Polina Sinovets has suggested, a treaty to ban nuclear weapons will not erode the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). To the contrary, over the short term a ban treaty would help the NPT survive. Over the long term, it would help the NPT fulfill its promise of nuclear disarmament. A ban treaty, far from undermining the NPT, would build on the earlier treaty. The NPT itself is unambiguous about the necessity of general nuclear disarmament—and unambiguous that a new treaty to accomplish that aim must be negotiated.
To be sure, the ratifiers of the NPT anticipated that nuclear weapons would be retained for some unstipulated duration. But almost 50 years on, it is past time for the disarmament commitments spelled out in the treaty’s Article VI to be honored. In 1995, when the NPT was extended indefinitely, the obligation of all treaty members to negotiate a new treaty on general and complete disarmament was reconfirmed. Certainly my own country, South Africa, would not have lobbied for the extension if the nuclear weapon states had not provided an assurance that they would negotiate “with determination” toward global denuclearization. Something similar could likely be said of all the 122 states that, along with South Africa, voted at the United Nations in October in favor of negotiating a ban treaty.
If the NPT hadn’t been extended in 1995, negotiations probably would have begun on an alternative treaty that provided a date for the implementation of general and complete disarmament. To borrow the words of Sinovets, this would have been necessary to avoid a “truly Hobbesian nightmare in which everyone fights everyone.” The years since 1995 have thus been a grace period for nuclear weapon states—and for those who think that extended deterrence works. I don’t think it works. It merely delays the resolution of conflicts. Plus, what happens if the nation under whose nuclear umbrella you seek protection suddenly becomes best friends with your enemy? For Sinovets’s Ukraine, where NATO aspirations are strengthening, that seems a pertinent question.
The real threat to the NPT is not the proposed ban treaty. It is that nuclear-armed nations, and nations with which they are entwined through collective security arrangements, will fail to pursue disarmament in good faith. Over time, this could cause states to withdraw from the treaty. During these uncertain times in world politics, such erosion may well accelerate—unless all parties can move forward to implement the NPT’s disarmament provisions.
One way forward is to pursue a ban treaty. Although the ban treaty will likely be negotiated outside the NPT’s review conferences, the negotiators can—and, I suspect, will—explicitly refer to the NPT in the text of the ban treaty. This will ensure a strong legal link between the two treaties, accompanying the normative link that already exists. Any concern that the NPT’s rules will no longer apply if the ban treaty succeeds are therefore unwarranted.
And if the ban treaty fails? Well, first it’s necessary to define failure. As I wrote in my first-round essay, I see the ban treaty as an interim piece of political work that will help achieve a world without nuclear weapons in the long run. In that context, if the broad coalition of states and civil society organizations that support the ban treaty were to walk away from the process, the treaty would have failed. But that is unlikely to happen. Even if it does—and if states decide to leave the NPT in the aftermath of the ban treaty’s failure—they will do so because nuclear weapon states still refuse to disarm. So the ban treaty, whether it succeeds or fails, won’t erode the NPT. The nuclear weapon states are doing an excellent job of eroding it on their own.