The NPT Turns 50: A Mid-life Crisis?

The NPT Turns 50: A Mid-life Crisis?

On March 5, the (Nuclear) Non-proliferation Treaty will turn 50-years old. Whether this will be an occasion for celebration or lamentation is an open question. The NPT’s once-in-five-year review conference will take place at UN HQ, April 27-May 22, and coming after a failed 2015 review conference many observers view the upcoming meeting as crucial for The Treaty’s future.


With 190 states parties, the NPT is the preeminent international security agreement, the “cornerstone” of the global nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament regime. Yet this treaty is currently facing the most serious challenge to its authority since its inception.

The problems facing the NPT are legion. The re-emergence of great power rivalry is undermining its foundations of international cooperation in managing global nuclear affairs.

A significant schism has opened up amongst the NPT parties over how to fulfil The Treaty’s commitment on nuclear disarmament. For decades, the nuclear-weapon states (NWS) have determined the scope and pace for implementing this obligation. They point to the major reduction of nuclear arsenals since the height of the Cold War. However, these reductions have since petered out, and all of the NWS have embarked upon extensive modernization programs for their nuclear forces. Measures for advancing disarmament agreed by consensus at the 2000, and 2010 review conferences are being ignored by the NWS.


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Frustration on the part of many non-nuclear weapon states (NNWS) over the failure to implement their disarmament obligation finally boiled over in the 2013-2017 timeframe. It began with three conferences that highlighted the “catastrophic humanitarian consequences” of any nuclear weapon detonation. Soon after these concerns were given diplomatic expression as a multilateral effort to negotiate a treaty to prohibit nuclear weapons. By 2017 a UN General Assembly-authorized negotiation was underway (although boycotted by the NWS and their allies) which yielded the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. The Treaty not only prohibited nuclear weapons but also their use or threat of use, striking directly nuclear deterrence policies. Although immediately rejected by the NWS, proponents of The Treaty see it stigmatizing nuclear weapons and encouraging their eventual elimination. The supporters also view this treaty as compatible with the NPT and representing a viable route to disarmament. The Treaty currently has 81 signatories and 35 ratifications (out of the 50 necessary for entry into force), and as it was adopted by 122 states, its supporters can claim to represent a “moral majority” of NPT members.

If the rift between supporters and opponents of the ‘ban treaty’ was already a challenge to the spring review conference, the deterioration of the international security context exacerbates the problem. Some of the key arms control agreements governing strategic relations are being dismantled in addition to failing to fulfil long-standing promises to bring the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty into force and initiate negotiation of a Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty. Especially disruptive was the  US’s withdrawal from the 2015 “Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action” (JCPOA) the nuclear deal with Iran.

If the rift between supporters and opponents of the ‘ban treaty’ was already a challenge to the spring review conference, the deterioration of the international security context exacerbates the problem.

As the JCPOA was widely seen as a successful diplomatic solution to the long-standing concerns with Iran’s nuclear program, the attack on its viability threatens to put the Iranian issue back on the NPT review conference’s “to do” list.  Alongside the unresolved nuclear weapon program of North Korea, the NPT’s sole defector, Iran is now signalling its own NPT withdrawal option. No doubt the continued failure to achieve the Middle East WMD-Free Zone as agreed back in 1995 as part of the indefinite extension of the NPT, will again threaten efforts to reach consensus at this review conference as it did at the last one.

While most of the NWS continue to champion a “step-by-step” approach to disarmament, despite the fact that the NWS seems to be stepping back rather than forward, the United States has recently called this stance into question. The new US approach reverses the logic of disarmament set out in successive NPT review conference outcomes, whereby the implementation of specific disarmament-relevant actions would result in an improved international security environment, by asserting that these improvements must come first before progress on disarmament can be achieved.

First expressed in a working paper to the NPT’s 2018 Preparatory Committee meeting the US has subsequently renamed the initiative “Creating the Environment for Nuclear Disarmament” (CEND). An initial meeting was held last July with 42 countries represented. At a follow-up meeting, the architect of the CEND, Assistant Secretary of State, Christopher Ford, outlined the following questions for the group:

  1. “how to ameliorate conditions in the security environment so as to shape the incentives felt by national decision-makers in more disarmament-conducive ways.”
  2. “exploring the institutional framework that the world may need in order to move forward toward disarmament”
  3. “how to address the challenges of deterrence, crisis management, accident avoidance, and the development and implementation of transparency and confidence-building measures during whatever period remains before us in which nuclear arsenals continue to exist”.

While this is a series of questions worthy of any graduate IR seminar, it ignores the disarmament related actions agreed to at the 1995, 2000 and 2010 review conferences. Was the collective diplomatic effort of 190 states parties just so much “false consciousness” to be cavalierly set aside? If these agreed outcomes can be so readily ignored by leading NPT states, why bother meeting to try to agree on new ones? The convening authority of the US is such that many allies of the US will dutifully show up to the CEND working groups, but for others, the exercise is a serious distraction from the core business of the NPT and delivering on the commitments already entered into under its auspices.


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The seriousness of the current situation was highlighted in a recent speech in Ottawa by Izumi Nakamitsu, the UN’s High Representative for Disarmament Affairs: “The norm against the use of nuclear weapons and the collective goal of a nuclear-weapon-free world are threatened in ways not seen since the height of the Cold War.” Decrying the backsliding that has occurred on disarmament commitments undertaken in the framework of the NPT, she stressed that such commitments “need to be honoured. Failure to do so fundamentally weakens the Treaty”. Referencing the importance of a success at the upcoming NPT review conference, she said: “I trust that Canada will take a leading role in this respect”.

The papering over of fundamental fault lines in the NPT’s condition is not a sustainable strategy.

If the Canadian Foreign Minister’s speech delivered two days later on the country’s foreign policy priorities is anything to go by, such a role may not be forthcoming. One searches in vain for any reference to arms control and disarmament in his address. Rather, François-Philippe  Champagne doesn’t seem to consider it any more of a priority than did his predecessor, Chrystia Freeland. Neither participated in ministerial meetings hosted by Sweden in June, 2019 and by Germany on February 25 as part of a sixteen nation gathering dedicated to addressing the crisis the NPT is facing.  Canada was present at the Berlin meeting and endorsed a  joint statement which called upon the nuclear-weapon states to demonstrate compliance with their prior NPT obligations in an effort to salvage the review conference.

Some observers are already proposing damage limitation strategies for the review conference which envisage non-consensual outcomes. The papering over of fundamental fault lines in the NPT’s condition is not a sustainable strategy. A hollow “renewal of vows” is not going to keep this diplomatic union alive. The NPT needs a concerted effort by all its states parties to demonstrate that its commitments will be respected and implemented, or it risks having its authority melt away. An NPT golden anniversary at which the protagonists are ignoring or talking past one another does not augur well for the permanence of the undertaking.

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