For most of May, the 189 nations that have signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) held their every-five-year conference to review how the treaty is doing. The conference ended without a closing statement.

The media focused on the most dramatic reason for that failure, a complex set of maneuvers around a possible conference to discuss a WMD-free zone in the Middle East (Washington Post, AP, Reuters, Bloomberg).

The easy story is that Egypt offered a plan for a Middle East conference, the United States, Britain, and Canada rejected it because of Israel’s interests, and, because consensus is necessary, no statement was possible. But that story misses a number of points, including that  old and deeply embedded problems, of which this conflict is one, are compulsively repeated at every conference.

The NPT came into force in 1970, and the 1995 Review Conference agreed that it will continue in force indefinitely. It limits nuclear weapons to five states (P5) – the United States, United Kingdom, France, Russia, and China – and the other signatories agree not to develop nuclear weapons in return for peaceful nuclear energy and the promise of the P5 to work toward nuclear and general disarmament. India, Israel, and Pakistan never signed and have nuclear weapons. North Korea withdrew from the treaty in 2003 and has nuclear weapons.

The Non-Aligned Movement

One of those old problems is that The Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) often acts as a bloc in NPT conferences. The NAM predates the NPT, having begun in 1955, as the Cold War was heating up. This group of nations wanted their policies to be independent of both the United States and Russia. It was partly a response to colonialism by newly independent countries – India, Pakistan, and Indonesia in particular. The group today includes 115 countries.

However relevant the NAM may have been during the Cold War, times have changed. Russia does not share the Soviet Union’s ideology, and China has replaced it economically as a competitor to the United States. Within the NPT, the NAM presses the P5 to move more quickly on nuclear and general disarmament, as stated in Article VI of the treaty. That India and Pakistan remain outside the NPT and are engaging in their own nuclear arms race undermines the NAM’s moral standing in this argument. This year, Iran holds the rotating chair; Javad Zarif’s comments quoted by Dan Zak were made in this capacity.

Nongovernmental Organizations

Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) also play a role in the Review Conference. They testify, buttonhole delegates in the corridors, and provide talking points. Many of them began during the fearful days of the 1980s, or got a boost from them. At that time, both the US and USSR looked like they might use their nuclear arsenals. In such circumstances, strong pronouncements may be useful. Unfortunately, too many NGOs have maintained those strong stands rather than working to build consensus on incremental action. They also press the P5 on disarmament.

The interaction is fully stylized. A number of countries and the NAM accuse the United States and Russia of not disarming quickly enough. An argument ensues about the exact meaning of the wording in Article VI,

pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament

whether this is what the P5 has done, and how quickly the process is to take place. Russia and the United States point out that they have decreased their numbers a long way from the 70,000 maximum. Nothing changes.

New Approaches Needed

New approaches are needed to avoid this stylized posturing. Recently, there have been two: a lawsuit at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) by the Marshall Islands and the Humanitarian Initiative.

The Marshall Islands lawsuit was that the nine nuclear-armed states are not respecting their responsibilities imposed by Article VI, even on the states that have not signed the NPT. It has been given a perfunctory judgment in the ICJ, was dismissed in US courts, and did not accomplish its purpose. It was the subject of a small amount of discussion at the Review Conference.

The Humanitarian Initiative Against Nuclear Weapons has garnered more support. Unfortunately, it does not seem to have its own website that I can direct you to, which is symptomatic of its diffuse approach, despite having held three conferences. Wikipedia has an article, to which the usual Wikipedia cautions apply.  The International Campaign To Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) has been active. According to ICAN, the Austria Pledge has been endorsed by 107 states.

The Initiative’s emphasis is on the humanitarian disaster that would result from nuclear detonations, whether in war or by accident. The damage and human suffering would be beyond the capacity of relief organizations to deal with. For this reason, the use of any nuclear weapon may be a violation of the laws of war. The Austria Pledge is to encourage the nuclear weapons states to live up to their Article VI obligations and for the pledging nations to make “efforts to stigmatise, prohibit and eliminate nuclear weapons in light of their unacceptable humanitarian consequences and associated risks.”

This fits well with the approach of many NGOs: Nuclear weapons are to be abjured, abolished, removed, nullified, banned, and expunged. Now. The institutions that would remove and defang them are to be defunded now, because they are capable of building the evil devices. I am generalizing; some NGOs hold fully to this goal, and others emphasize parts of it. None that I am aware of have put together a step by step political program toward eliminating nuclear weapons.

The Austria pledge attempts to stigmatize nuclear weapons, which may be a step toward mobilizing public opinion. But Japan’s quandry with regard to the pledge indicates the need for a political and incremental approach. The world’s only victim of nuclear attacks relies on the nuclear weapons of the United States for its protection; it assures that protection by the United States by stockpiling plutonium that might be made into Japanese nuclear weapons. Although Japan has had a significant voice in the disarmament movement, signing that pledge, which might bring into question its nuclear relationship with the United States, is a step too far. Those advocating nuclear abolition must find a way to solve this conundrum.

Middle East WMD-Free Zone

Another repetitive topic at NPT conferences is the proposal for a Middle East WMD-free zone (MEWMDFZ). Arab states use their proposal to attack Israel. Israel’s protectors (the US and UK) within the NPT push back. Nothing changes. That is what happened last week.

In 2010, something did change. The Review Conference produced a proposal for a Middle East WMD-Free Conference that the United States was able to support. However, efforts to mount a conference were sabotaged by Israel. Egypt, in response, demanded a new formula for such a conference which would remove the three earlier convenors – the United States, the United Kingdom, and Russia.  It is hard to see how a MEWMDFZ conference could succeed without them.

New Politics, Not Less Politics

The development of the NPT required a great deal of political horse-trading. Much of the old politics continues. Matthew Harries recapitulates those politics and shows how they have contributed to today’s stalemate. He suggests less politics in the future, however. I disagree.

Rather than insist directly on full disarmament, an incremental program could bring together states with diverse interests in nuclear weapons. It should lay out a path to a clear goal, starting from our current world, recognizing that nuclear weapons are valued for prestige and defense. The most immediate goal might be development of a timetable for disarmament; or of conditions leading to full disarmament. It would include plans for engaging and mobilizing the public, for focus by individual nations and NGOs on various parts of the plan, and identification of immediate common state interests that can be used to form political alliances to move the agenda forward.

Many steps or partial goals are possible. For example a possible sequence: 1) national nuclear strategies that de-alert missiles and deemphasize nuclear weapons; 2) a formal agreement among nuclear weapon states not to use nuclear weapons in warfare; 3) a general treaty banning the use of nuclear weapons; 4) a treaty analogous to the Chemical and Biological Weapons Conventions, requiring that nuclear weapons be eliminated. Daryl Kimball gives a different set of possibilities:

Moscow and Washington could announce they will implement New START cuts early and immediately begin talks on a follow-on treaty that would take into account other types of strategic weapons. China could freeze the overall size of its nuclear arsenal as long as the United States and Russia continue to reduce theirs. This would help establish the conditions for a series of high-level summits on multilateral, verifiable nuclear disarmament involving the world’s seven acknowledged nuclear-armed states and leading non-nuclear-weapon states.

However, this puts the onus fully on the P5, rather than using other political methods to move them. The demand that the P5 move first has been one of the repeated weak points in NGO strategy.

Russia’s aggression in Ukraine and the willingness of its leaders to use nuclear threats make this a difficult time to talk about nuclear and general disarmament. Bold initiatives are needed in all areas to move forward.


Photo from The Guardian.

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