"I find hope in the work of long-established groups such as the Arms Control Association...[and] I find hope in younger anti-nuclear activists and the movement around the world to formally ban the bomb."

– Vincent Intondi
Professor of History, Montgomery College
July 1, 2020
Future Prospects for the NPT

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Deepti Choubey

For the fourth time in 40 years, the parties to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) accomplished the difficult task of reaching consensus on steps to strengthen the treaty at the end of their review conference in May. At the review conference—the eighth since the NPT came into force in 1970—the 172 states in attendance universally adopted a 64-point action plan and steps toward creating a zone free of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in the Middle East.

There have been a number of complaints, many of them legitimate, about what it does and does not contain. Nevertheless, it did succeed in capturing the commitment of all states to the principles and objectives of the treaty. Considering the damage the nonproliferation regime has endured in the last decade, that commitment was not a foregone conclusion.

In the run-up to the conference, there were many disagreements among participating countries. States still found a way to negotiate constructively and employed pragmatic approaches to issues such as North Korea’s withdrawal and nuclear testing, Iran’s noncompl iance, steps toward the WMD-free zone in the Middle East, and further progress on disarmament, any one of which could have scuttled the proceedings.

Despite the continued tension between nuclear-weapon-state demands for additional nonproliferation commitments and non-nuclear-weapon-state demands for more disarmament progress, states were willing and able to compromise on a complex agenda of issues and come to unanimous agreement. In an era where multilateralism has been called into question, states overcame seemingly endemic and expected dysfunction, particularly on issues as polarizing as nonproliferation and disarmament. The adopted final document—which also includes a 122-paragraph review of the operation of the NPT submitted under the auspices of the president of the review conference, Libran Cabactulan of the Philippines—should be considered an incremental success.

Adopting a final document, which requires consensus, has been the traditional measure for judging the success of a review conference. This practice, which requires every state to agree, can create the conditions for extremely weak results. The 2010 final document could certainly be stronger, but it could be much weaker. It is not a lowest-common-denominator document. It includes a recommitment to the basic bargain of the NPT, in which nuclear-weapon states agree to work in good faith toward nuclear disarmament, to transfer neither nuclear weapons nor the wherewithal to make them to non-nuclear-weapon states, and to recognize the “inalienable right” of non-nuclear-weapon states to have access to nuclear energy for peaceful uses. In return, non-nuclear-weapon states promise not to acquire nuclear weapons. The section that reflects the conclusions and recommendations for follow-on action includes the 64-point plan on these three pillars of the NPT—nonproliferation, disarmament, and peaceful uses of nuclear energy—and proposed steps for implementing the resolution from the 1995 NPT Review and Extension Conference calling for a WMD-free Middle East. All of these elements advance the agenda further than the previous two conferences did and lay the groundwork for future progress.

The action plan is a significant achievement. For the first time, states are asked to take specific actions in support of the three pillars. The wording of these points reflects the intent that they serve as a scorecard for measuring progress and an assurance that there will be accountability at future meetings. Transforming the lofty goals of the NPT debates into concrete benchmarks is a necessary step toward future progress.

For those who fear the nonproliferation regime is fraying, the results of the 2010 NPT Review Conference serve as a temporary reprieve. It is incumbent on all states to determine how best to build on the incremental success of the final document. Looking toward 2015, one can see major obstacles that weigh heavily on the future prospects of the NPT and that states and civil society will have to be overcome. These challenges relate to harmonizing other nonproliferation regime mechanisms with the demands of the final document, creating more equitable accountability among and between nuclear-weapon and non-nuclear-weapon states, and reforming reflexive positions to better reflect the 21st-century security environment.

Harmonizing With the Regime

An NPT review conference is akin to a pit stop in a race. It is a chance to take stock, fix any weaknesses, and plot a path forward. As such, a review conference is a once-every-five-years opportunity to stabilize and strengthen the nuclear nonproliferation regime. The conference is charged with evaluating how well the terms of the NPT have been implemented and tackling unfinished business. Evaluating what happens at the pit stop sheds light on the challenges ahead and indicates the commitment to finishing the race.

In the run-up to NPT review conferences, there is a tendency to cast them as make-or-break moments for the nonproliferation regime. Although this tendency is understandable, as it is meant to create a sense of urgency for states to act, it is a mistake. The review conference is not a panacea to cure all that ails the nonproliferation regime. Rather, the NPT provides the international legal framework in which real work is done to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and facilitate peaceful uses of atomic energy, while the review conference assesses how well that legal framework is functioning. Practical outcomes, however, are determined in the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the Nuclear Suppliers Group, the UN Security Council, and countless episodes of bilateral diplomacy and commercial transactions. With the adoption of a final document, states must determine how best to leverage the areas of agreement to advance specific policy initiatives within the broader nonproliferation regime.

There were efforts, particularly from Western states and other developed countries, to include stronger language to enforce compliance, strengthen verification standards, and prevent withdrawal. There is some helpful language addressing these issues in the final document, but the review conference is not the last chance for states to tackle these concerns. For instance, as compliance issues have plagued the regime in the past decade, Action 26 of the final document is noteworthy because it underscores the importance of compliance to “the Treaty’s integrity and the authority of the safeguards system.” Action 27 calls on states to cooperate with the IAEA and to resolve cases of noncompliance “in full conformity with the IAEA statute” and individual legal obligations. No matter what other text the final document could have included, the IAEA Board of Governors and UN Security Council will continue to be largely responsible for, respectively, identifying and punishing noncompliance.

Additional protocols, which gave the IAEA increased inspection authority in countries that have brought them into force, are addressed in Action 28. The final document encourages all states that have not brought into force additional protocols to do so “as soon as possible” and to implement them provisionally until then. Notably, Action 32 recommends the evaluation of safeguards and supports decisions by IAEA policy bodies aimed at strengthening the effectiveness and improving the efficiency of safeguards. It will be up to states on the IAEA board and those who participate in the relevant policy bodies to transform these sentiments into concrete results that tighten the verification system, but the final document provides an additional springboard from which to do so.

States must also determine how much political weight to give Cabactulan’s statement. It does not count as negotiated or binding text, but it does reflect issues where there was wide agreement or where agreement remained elusive. It may be possible to use Cabactulan’s statement, as a reflection of the status of debates, to push for solutions to outstanding issues in other forums. An issue that could benefit from this approach is the NPT’s Article X, which describes the procedure for withdrawing from the treaty. States were unable to come to agreement on how to address concerns about abuse of the withdrawal provision. Instead, Cabactulan’s statement captures some aspects of the debate, including that “many states underscore that under international law a withdrawing party is still responsible for violations of the NPT committed prior to its withdrawal.” It also notes that “numerous states” reaffirmed the responsibility of the UN Security Council to act in response to a country’s withdrawal. To the extent that these statements can be seen as a reflection of political will from many, if not all, states, efforts to address withdrawal concerns can be bolstered. Despite the failure to include binding language on this issue in the final document, there is nothing to stop nuclear supplier states from taking up the suggestion of “incorporating dismantling and/or return clauses in the event of withdrawal.”

Another example of how to ensure the final document has real-world impact relates to nuclear security issues. For the first time in the treaty’s 40-year history, parties recognized nuclear security as an important aspect of the nonproliferation regime and agreed on steps to prevent the theft of nuclear material and to address the threat of nuclear terrorism. This acknowledgment can be largely credited to the work of President Barack Obama in convening 46 leaders for a nuclear security summit this past April. The objective of the summit was for diverse states to come to a common understanding of the threat and to commit to responding to it. The commitments countries made at the summit are voluntary, but the NPT action plan’s inclusion of points specific to nuclear security issues gives the countries that attend the 2012 nuclear security summit in South Korea an opportunity to transform voluntary commitments into more binding ones.

Beyond the actions required in the final document, the political weight of Cabactulan’s statement can contribute positively to efforts to strengthen specific rules to prevent nuclear terrorism, enhance verification, and enforce compliance.

Shared Accountability

Despite the review conference’s adherence to rules that require consensus and therefore enable any one country to have a strong influence on the results, there continues to be a disproportionate emphasis by non-nuclear-weapon states and civil society on the role of the United States in comparison with other nuclear-weapon states. The volte-face of the United States, as heralded by Obama’s April 2009 Prague speech, has garnered understandable attention when viewed in the context of the setbacks confronting the nonproliferation regime over the last decade. Obama’s call for “the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons” created the expectation among non-nuclear-weapon states and civil society that the United States would commit to and push others for swift progress on disarmament. Many diplomats at the review conference repeatedly invoked the desire to deliver a tangible outcome and referenced the positive negotiating atmosphere created by Obama. Building on the consensus reached in May, however, will require states to create momentum of their own rather than relying solely on the United States. Disproportionate focus on the United States is detrimental to the longer-term goals of the NPT.

For instance, further progress on disarmament will require other nuclear-weapon states, as well as the nuclear-armed states outside of the treaty, to engage each other in a confidence-building process that can lead to multilateral arms control. The United States can create conditions that influence the calculations of these states, but it cannot compel action by itself. A singular focus on U.S. policies also lets the other nuclear-weapon states off the hook and allows them to cling to what may be purely rhetorical positions on disarmament. For instance, the United States had fewer redlines than most of the other nuclear-weapon states at the review conference. Asked about deadlines for the nuclear test ban entering into force or conclusion of a treaty banning fissile material production for weapons, Susan Burk, the Obama administration’s lead official for the NPT review conference, said on June 17, “I think we could have agreed to those deadlines because we’re supportive of the initiative, but for whatever reason, they were not advanced.”[1]

At the review conference, China and Russia reportedly raised objections to certain disarmament steps—China on a moratorium on fissile material production and Russia on efforts to mention tactical nuclear weapons. Non-nuclear-weapon states and civil society have a strong role to play in ensuring more equitable accountability among nuclear-weapon states, particularly regarding disarmament commitments. Action 5 of the final document is a good first step as it requires the acknowledged NPT nuclear-weapon states to “promptly engage” each other with a view toward accelerating concrete progress on the steps leading to nuclear disarmament. These states have also committed to report on their progress at the 2014 NPT Preparatory Committee meeting and to adopt standard reporting forms. This is another step forward in demanding accountability from nuclear-weapon states on their part of the NPT bargain.

The need for equitable accountability applies not only to nuclear-weapon states and disarmament commitments, but also to the dynamic between nuclear-weapon and non-nuclear-weapon states when it comes to disarmament progress versus the adoption of additional nonproliferation obligations. Some commentators have claimed that U.S. progress on disarmament made in the year since Obama’s Prague speech was pocketed by non-nuclear-weapon states with nothing given in return.[2] This assessment is discouraging for advocates of disarmament and nonproliferation in nuclear-weapon states as it creates the perception that “nothing is ever enough” and dampens the incentive for swift action. Non-nuclear-weapon states that are interested in further progress on disarmament should realize the challenges such advocates within governments face when making arguments in favor of disarmament action.

A complicating factor is the strategy of a few non-nuclear-weapon states to refuse to adopt additional nonproliferation obligations, as a way to create pressure on the nuclear-weapon states for disarmament. This approach is flawed for several reasons. Withholding adoption of an additional protocol, for instance, actually inhibits the prospects for disarmament. Nuclear-weapon states will not fully disarm unless they can be assured that verification standards can ensure there is no cheating within non-nuclear-weapon states. Moreover, when officials from non-nuclear-weapon states cannot articulate what nuclear-weapon states would need to do to prompt those non-nuclear-weapon states to take further action on nonproliferation, they inadvertently aid disarmament opponents by seeming to validate the type of criticism cited above. In short, treating nonproliferation progress and disarmament as a trade-off rather than as mutually reinforcing goals undermines the regime overall and raises questions about the motivations driving this dynamic.

Reforming Reflexive Positions

If this dynamic persists, it stands to reason that prospects for strengthening the nonproliferation regime will depend on disarmament progress. If this is true, efforts must be redoubled to reformulate conceptions of disarmament and how it relates to other security interests. For instance, a troubling aspect of the Obama administration’s Nuclear Posture Review Report is the concept of extended nuclear deterrence as a nonproliferation strategy. The report’s authors seem to assume that, without the “nuclear umbrella,” allies may develop nuclear weapons.[3] This argument seems too facile. Without extended nuclear deterrence commitments, would allies so easily turn their backs on their treaty commitment not to develop nuclear weapons? Are conventional deterrence commitments made by the United States insufficient for addressing the threats of today’s security environment? Non-nuclear-weapon states that are covered by extended nuclear deterrence commitments must forcefully address these issues. Casting extended nuclear deterrence as a nonproliferation strategy locks in a status quo. The United States will have to contend with pressure not to take further steps toward disarmament for fear of undermining assurances to allies. Without steps beyond the modest ones already taken, however, the prospect of deeper reductions and meaningful disarmament diminishes. If allies are unable to contradict the conventional wisdom that underlies the concept of extended nuclear deterrence as a nonproliferation strategy, these non-nuclear-weapon states will be responsible for a status quo that will stall disarmament and undermine other nonproliferation efforts. The currently ongoing revision of NATO’s Strategic Concept is one opportunity to update thinking on how best to defend against 21st-century threats. The next round of U.S.-Russian negotiations after the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty will also bear on this debate.

Another issue that will require new and better strategic thinking is how best to proceed with efforts to make the Middle East a WMD-free zone. The steps proposed to that end were one of the most controversial aspects of the 2010 NPT Review Conference. The final document calls on all states in the region to participate in a conference in 2012 based on the terms of the 1995 resolution. The United States announced after the conference that it, Russia, and the United Kingdom, along with the UN secretary-general, will co-sponsor the meeting, determine a country to host it, and identify a person to organize it.

Much of the media coverage after the conclusion of the review conference focused on how the final document, in particular, the conclusions and recommendations for follow-on action section, references Israel, but not Iran. Israel is referenced in the section proposing steps to implement the Middle East WMD-free zone, whereas Iran escaped mention as noncompliant with its NPT obligations. The reactions to this aspect of the document have been overblown. The actual reference to Israel is just that, a reference. It is not new language. The text states, “The Conference recalls the reaffirmation by the 2000 Review Conference of the importance of Israel’s accession to the Treaty and the placement of all its nuclear facilities under comprehensive IAEA safeguards.” The review conference is not the place to resolve specific cases of noncompliance, such as Iran. Instead, it is an opportunity to create or further strengthen rules more generally. The action plan does include steps on noncompliance more generally. As concerns emerge about compliance in other states—Myanmar (Burma) and Syria are current examples—come 2015, the lack of a state-specific reference to noncompliance will be an advantage for holding other states of concern accountable.

If negotiators had known that the review portion of the document would be submitted by Cabactulan as a last-minute compromise, it might have been possible, and certainly appropriate, to name Iran in that section. In reality, if named, Iran would have likely derailed the final document and thereby the real, although small, progress made at the conference. Israel, which is not a party to the NPT and did not attend the conference, could not block its being mentioned, and other states were not prepared to derail the whole review and undermine the treaty over the mentioning of Israel by name. The United States expressed its “deep regret,” and Israel expressed similar sentiments about the inclusion of the language. Washington was alone in fighting to keep Israel from being specifically named. As a result, the United States found itself in the position where it alone would have blocked final consensus on the document over this issue. In the end, by allowing the reference to Israel, the United States effectively put Iran in the position of being the only potential spoiler.

These dynamics further underscore how much has changed geopolitically in the Middle East. The conditions under which Israel first developed nuclear weapons, such as conventional force inferiority in comparison to its neighbors, no longer exist. Egypt and other states may want to use a conference in part to criticize Israel’s nuclear weapons program. At the same time, however, the language of the document calls on all states in the Middle East to participate. This would include a number of states that do not recognize Israel and in the past have not been willing to sit with Israeli officials in formal settings, including Iran, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and Syria. Hence, although such a conference would pose challenges to Israel, it would require Iran and major Arab states to recognize Israel de facto. Many hurdles will have to be overcome in the next two years to begin such a conference, but if the conference is viewed strategically and handled carefully, it could advance the cause of peace and security in the region.

If Israel and its neighbors truly want peace, they will have to put aside old scorecards and create new benchmarks. For instance, to the extent Arab states and Israel share concerns about Iran’s nuclear ambitions, the process of establishing a WMD-free zone in the Middle East can become a new tool for addressing them. The steps leading to the enactment of such a zone could require intrusive inspection regimes, confidence-building measures, and other steps that would strengthen the nonproliferation regime. If Israel and Arab states can adjust their strategic mind-set, the proposed steps could be an opportunity to alleviate the current stalemate and cooperate to address shared threats.

Finally, it is up to all states to ensure that the hard-fought consensus of the review conference does not become meaningless through a lack of implementation. There is a long race ahead, and starting immediately, all states have obligations. Their actions to fulfill these obligations will be measured, and they will be held accountable. They should start now to resolve the challenges identified and not wait until 2015 when another reprieve may be less likely.

Deepti Choubey is deputy director of the Nuclear Policy Program for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.


1. Susan Burk, comments at “The 2010 NPT Review Conference: What Happened and What Next?” Washington, D.C., June 17, 2010.

2. See, for example, Christopher Ford, “Assessing the NPT Debates So Far,” New Paradigms Forum, May 24, 2010; Christopher Ford, “The 2010 NPT Review Conference Final Document,” New Paradigms Forum, June 1, 2010.

3. The Obama administration’s Nuclear Posture Review Report articulates how strengthened bilateral and regional security relationships “can serve our nonproliferation goals…by reassuring non-nuclear U.S. allies and partners that their security interests can be protected without their own nuclear deterrent capability.” U.S. Department of Defense, “Nuclear Posture Review Report,” April 2010, p. xii.