Towards RevCon: The need for a truly global non-proliferation dialogue
Nuclear weapons are an existential threat to mankind. While eliminating these weapons for the survival of humanity appears to be a straightforward solution, the strategy of mutually assured destruction and nuclear deterrence prevents such a solution from becoming a reality, and nuclear weapons continue to feature in conversations about international security. So then, what can we do about nuclear weapons?
The challenges associated with nuclear weapons can be resolved with purposeful and inclusive negotiation on a global platform for non-proliferation dialogue. The upcoming Review Conference (RevCon) on the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), coupled with the first meeting of the states party to the Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), provides a unique opportunity for world leaders to resolve their complex political stances on nuclear weapons and advance the discourse on non-proliferation.
The paradox of nuclear weapons
The possession of nuclear weapons is believed to increase global security through the principle of nuclear deterrence, which is based on the threat of mutually assured destruction (MAD). Most states rely on MAD and deterrence to prevent a nuclear war, instead of accelerated and consequential efforts toward trust-building, nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament. The need for states to possess nuclear weapons with no intention of ever using them is a paradox that needs to be called out and addressed.
Reliance on nuclear deterrence has in part led to horizontal and vertical proliferation of nuclear weapons, both increasing the global number of warheads, as well as the number of states that possess nuclear weapons. This strategy means that states with nuclear weapons are unwilling to give their weapons up for the sense of security they provide, and the states that do not possess them wish to develop them or be part of nuclear alliances to amplify their own security. This is evident through recent nuclear proliferation efforts by the United Kingdom (UK), India and China.
Despite the trust in nuclear deterrence, state leaders have also sought assurance and security through bilateral and multilateral negotiation and cooperation. This has led to the initiation of multilateral dialogues about nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament ever since the amplification of nuclear proliferation during the Cold War period.
Is NPT the non-proliferation champion?
Non-proliferation negotiations eventually led to the The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (or NPT), which came into force in 1970. The NPT, hailed as one of the biggest successes of the non-proliferation regime, required the NPT recognised Nuclear Weapon States (NWS) - the US, UK, France, Russia and China - to agree to engage in efforts to achieve General and Complete Disarmament (GCD) under Article VI of the Treaty. On the other hand, the Non-Nuclear Weapons States (NNWS) agreed to refrain from developing them and to limit the use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.
Today, the NPT has near universal membership. However, there are obstacles to progress towards global disarmament catalysed by discussions at the NPT RevCon. Two such major obstacles for the NPT are:
the inequalities and exclusivity of the NPT: and,
the lack of mutually agreed verification measures.
Inequalities of the NPT
The categorisation of states into NWS and NNWS was solidified through the NPT by qualifying states who had conducted nuclear tests before 1 January 1967 as NWS. This categorisation of states formally solidified the nuclear haves and have-nots. Certain states have maintained ambitions to acquire nuclear weapons and/or disagree with the discriminatory structure of the treaty. This has resulted in India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea - which departed from the treaty in 2003 - acquiring nuclear weapons after 1967, while remaining outside the NPT.
Therefore, a major weakness of the NPT is the non-participation or exclusion of certain states now globally accepted to be in possession of nuclear weapons, including India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea. Among these states, Israel has been silent, and refuses to discuss their nuclear capabilities. North Korea is trying to use their nuclear regime as diplomatic leverage in international negotiations and remains a difficult rogue state. India and Pakistan disagree with the discriminatory structure of the NPT and refuse to join the treaty as NNWS, even though their nuclear capabilities are globally recognised.
Such obstacles point to a need for reform and change within the NPT and the disarmament discourse at large. However, even if the discourse is made more inclusive, there is also a lack of consensus on verification measures, which is preventing major progress in the disarmament regime.
Global Disarmament Verification measures
Ever since the Cold War, global disarmament efforts have come to a standstill when verification measures are negotiated. Such disagreements are reflective of global distrust between states and a resistance to liberal internationalism. There have been several verification systems and proposals introduced and negotiated as part of a nuclear disarmament regime. However, these negotiations have failed to reach an agreement on acceptable verification measures that can enforce equal standards and foster trust between nations.
Institutions like the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC) have illustrated the possibilities of verification in states like Iraq and Iran in the past. Such verification capabilities would need to be extrapolated on a global scale for Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) and nuclear weapons inspections via the cooperation of nuclear and non-nuclear states with relevant international institutions. The application of country and capability specific agreements (much like existing ones with the IAEA) could avoid criticisms that universal measuring of enrichment capabilities is a disproportionate and discriminatory response.
However, another roadblock is the lack of a single platform for all states to mutually agree to any solutions. Although different multilateral platforms have emerged over time, the complications involved in the non-proliferation discourse have led negotiations to deadlocks within these frameworks. A similar fate is being predicted for the NPT as states depart from the terms of the agreement to achieve their objectives through international, regional and bilateral negotiations.
The Way Forward
Disarmament negotiations need to direct efforts toward inclusivity and global trust building. For example, regional instability and distrust in the Middle East is being tackled by negotiations and discussions about a Nuclear Weapons’ Free Zone. While there is similar distrust between states in the South Asian region, a bilateral nuclear disarmament agreement between adversaries like India, Pakistan and China is unlikely due the international and regional levels of threat perception alongside the rise of China. Therefore, a Nuclear Weapons Free Zone perhaps does not provide the universal applicability needed for an effective solution when international powers like the US refuse to commit to limitations to their own nuclear capabilities, and non-NPT states like India and Pakistan do not have to adhere to international non-proliferation commitments.
Another step in the right direction is the Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) which was championed by NNWS and entered into force in January 2021. However, this new addition to international law, declaring nuclear weapons illegal, is mainly symbolic and normative, since no NWS has signed the Treaty (and instead actively resist it). It has also established another pocket of dialogues in the disarmament discourse, with a different set of states, further contributing to the lack of a universal multilateral platform and preventing nuclear disarmament from being discussed between all nuclear and non-nuclear powers on a global scale.
Progress could still be made through amendments in the NPT to include new NWS. However, such reform is also likely to face resistance from the existing NNWS. The admission of new NWS will be identified as double standards within the treaty and bring into question the lack of consequences for the states that acquired nuclear weapons in violation of NPT commitments. The NPT’s universality and effectiveness is in question and it will have to see major changes to return to a status of an effective near-universal non-proliferation platform.
Such difficulty in amending existing structures for universality has led to calls for a possible shift in the platform for a global disarmament discourse. Other possible platforms could be the UN General Assembly or the Conference on Disarmament (rendered ineffective by the political stalemate in the UNCD). However, any reform or shift needs to be accompanied by the consolidation of all progress made by existing attempts at arms control into the new platform, despite the resistance from certain states. There needs to be greater tolerance to listen to the concerns of states and revive strong diplomacy and negotiations to reach a middle ground. This was recently shown to be possible through the Paris Agreement, a nearly universal climate agreement.
The technical roadblocks to nuclear non-proliferation could also be addressed through the advancement of negotiations for an international and legally binding agreement on General and Complete Disarmament (GCD), as already agreed to and mandated under Article VI of the NPT. Such negotiations must, however, extend the dialogue to include the views, concerns and demands of all states at the same negotiation table. It would also need an organised procedure to address and resolve the different concerns around non-proliferation in separate and targeted sets of negotiations to the greatest extent possible. Proposals for a model GCD treaty based on existing structures must be actively entertained. Such a model can be found in the work of organisations like the Strategic Concept for the Removal of Arms and Proliferation (SCRAP Weapons) and previous proposals by different NPT state parties.
The TPNW is a testament to the growing international momentum towards nuclear disarmament. However, the normative effect of the TPNW needs to be accompanied by the willingness of states to accept the decision of over 85 signatories and 50 plus state parties to dispose of nuclear weapons and undertake efforts to pursue GCD. Despite the opportunity for change, the NPT RevCon will likely still avoid serious discussions concerning the TPNW or the inclusion of nuclear states outside the NPT. The meeting of TPNW state parties would not have all states at the same table either.
Different pockets of non-proliferation discussions have led to the lack of a global platform for nuclear disarmament negotiations. This must be resolved through amendments and reforms within the existing non-proliferation structures. Additionally, reforms need to be accompanied by the empowerment of an international verification institution (a role that can be played by the IAEA). Western and non-Western, nuclear and non-nuclear states must also display greater willingness to negotiate their nuclear power and allow international inspections for greater trust-building. Regional and bilateral agreements can play a pivotal role in such international ambitions.
There is a dire need for states to shift their nuclear strategy from a reliance on absolute and assured destruction to one that is rooted in cooperation and trust, ultimately eliminating the possibility and threat of nuclear annihilation.
Anant Saria is a Postgraduate in International Studies and Diplomacy from SOAS, University of London. His experience includes research in Arms Control, Strategic Studies, Defence Studies and Open Source Research. He also has interests in humanitarianism, the world order and international governance and postcolonial analysis of contemporary international relations.