“For 50 years, the Arms Control Association has educated citizens around the world to help create broad support for U.S.-led arms control and nonproliferation achievements.”

– President Joe Biden
June 2, 2022
Nuclear Disarmament and Nonproliferation in Times of the Coronavirus Pandemic
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June 2020
Rüdiger Lüdeking

Just a few weeks ago, no one could have imagined that the crisis sparked by the spread of the coronavirus would have such a far-reaching impact on daily life. The effects on almost all spheres of life as well as on global politics are severe. The broader effects of the pandemic cannot yet be conclusively assessed, but it is fair to say it adds to the already overburdened global agenda.

To battle coronavirus disease, Iran converted the fairground of Iranmall, Tehran's largest shopping mall, into a hospital. The pandemic offers insight into the consequences of other global threats, such as climate change or nuclear war. (Photo by Majid Saeedi/Getty Images)As the Science and Security Board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists warned in January of this year, even before the coronavirus pandemic entered the public consciousness, there are two simultaneous, existential threats—climate change and the possibility of nuclear war—that put humanity closer to disaster than ever before since the end of the Second World War. The Bulletin’s Doomsday Clock has been set to just 100 seconds to midnight. Even more importantly, the international community and world leaders have been complacent in the face of this dire state of affairs and have failed to address these two key challenges together and effectively. The trend toward national isolationism and inadequate international cooperation has exacerbated the terrible impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Climate change is the subject of intense political debates and an impressive engagement and commitment on the part of civil society, and in the past few weeks, there have been increasing warnings not to lose sight of this topic despite the COVID-19 pandemic. In contrast, the growing danger of nuclear war is being largely ignored by the public and by most policymakers. In the 1980s, which seems as though it was a long time ago, the perceived threat posed by nuclear weapons was the subject of an unprecedented civil society mobilization, especially in my home country of Germany.

Just as the possibility of deadly disease outbreaks such as Ebola appeared to be an abstract and far-off danger, especially to people in Europe and other industrialized and wealthy nations, many today see nuclear weapons and the possible outbreak of nuclear war only as a theoretical danger that does not directly affect their daily lives. Unsurprisingly, little attention was paid to the 50th anniversary of the entry into force of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) on March 5, 2020, the treaty that commits 191 states to achieve total disarmament and to prevent the further spread of nuclear weapons. Likewise, the news about the postponement of the NPT review conference announced at the end of March was largely ignored by the public.

Setbacks to Stability

Regarding the threats posed by nuclear weapons, such carelessness or complacency can no longer be afforded. The rapid change and fragmentation of international relations, return to great power politics, and reawakening of nationalism in key countries create the potential for conflict. The NPT is not just a matter for government experts and a small group of scientists. The intensifying rivalry among the United States, Russia, and China, which has resulted in a new qualitative nuclear arms race, can no more leave us indifferent than the nuclear weapons ambitions of individual countries in conflict-prone regions outside Europe.

Particularly since President Donald Trump took office, the United States has pushed ahead with its nuclear weapons program. It is no longer just a matter of modernizing existing systems, but also of developing and introducing new systems, especially of lower yields, in order to expand and render more flexible nuclear options in a regional context. Recent estimates suggest the cost of the U.S. nuclear weapons program could be a staggering $500 billion between 2018 and 2028.

Russia, not surprisingly, does everything in its power not to lag behind the United States. In recent years, President Vladimir Putin has pushed Russia to make significant efforts to develop new delivery systems for nuclear weapons. These range from a new heavy, land-based intercontinental ballistic missile to various hypersonic weapons systems to a nuclear-armed strategic torpedo and a cruise missile with intercontinental range. These developments were triggered by the Russian interest in evading U.S. missile defenses and ensuring a second-strike capability.

The two nuclear superpowers’ push to further upgrade their already massive nuclear weapons capacities is liable to undermine strategic stability and lower the threshold for the use of nuclear weapons. The latter also applies in view of the fact that the United States and Russia in their doctrines assign an increased role to nuclear weapons and do not rule out the first use of these weapons in a regional conflict.

There have also been major setbacks recently regarding the nonproliferation of nuclear weapons, the second key objective of the NPT. North Korea’s ongoing ballistic missile tests reaffirm its leadership’s determination to expand its nuclear weapons capabilities while talks with the United States on denuclearization and peace remain stalled.

Perhaps of even more immediate concern for European security and the NPT is the crisis provoked by the unilateral U.S. withdrawal in 2018 from the Iran nuclear deal. When the agreement was concluded in 2015, it was clear to all Western parties that it would not resolve every problem posed by Iran, particularly its behavior in the Middle East. Rather, the aim was to subject Iran’s nuclear activities to strict verification measures and to prevent Iran from being able to produce the necessary quantities of highly enriched uranium for nuclear weapons undetected within a short period of time.

President Donald Trump displays his order reinstating sanctions against Iran after announcing the U.S. withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal on May 8, 2018. The move was one of several agreement withdrawals that have undermined strategic stability. (Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)The concrete gain in security achieved by the 2015 multilateral agreement has recklessly been called into question by the U.S. withdrawal. In addition, at least for the time being, the prospect of gradually building trust with Iran has been destroyed, trust that will be necessary to achieve viable solutions to other questions of stability in the Middle East. Instead, U.S. policy has strengthened the conservative and clerical forces in Iran who are opposed to domestic reforms and international engagement.

If the Trump administration tries in the coming months to reimpose UN nuclear sanctions on Iran that were waived when Iran implemented the 2015 deal, hard-liners in Tehran might feel encouraged to press for the pursuit of a nuclear weapons program and the withdrawal from the NPT. This would have fatal consequences for security in the Middle East and could trigger a domino effect. States such as Saudi Arabia could be forced to reconsider their renunciation of nuclear weapons.

Toward a Successful NPT

It would have been up to the 10th NPT review conference, which was to take place in New York from April 27 to May 22, to address these developments. It was generally expected that this conference would be very contentious because of stark differences between and among key groups of NPT states-parties, in particular the frustration of the non-nuclear-weapon states over the lack of progress in nuclear disarmament and the growing tensions between the United States and Russia and China. The postponement, however, frees up time to work toward a more productive review conference, but only if key states are prepared to meet several necessary prerequisites for success.

First, the U.S. leadership must be convinced that a successful conference is in their interest and that they can make a decisive contribution to that success through a constructive and results-oriented posture and a spirit of compromise. Unfortunately, the current administration has relied so far on national egotism in international relations and is trying to dodge any multilateral commitment and responsibility. Instead of dialogue and disarmament and arms control agreements, the Trump administration, as was often the case during the administration of President George W. Bush, relies on a unilateral, confrontational approach to conflict resolution and military superiority as a guarantee of security. Fueling the nuclear arms race through the modernization of its own nuclear arsenal, as well as the unilateral withdrawals from the nuclear agreement with Iran in 2018 and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty with Russia in 2019, place high burdens and strains on the NPT review process.

In addition, by beginning a dialogue process on the conditions for nuclear disarmament, known as the Creating an Environment for Nuclear Disarmament initiative, the United States is clearly attempting to gain time and call into question the disarmament steps agreed by previous review conferences. The prospect of achieving a more constructive U.S. stance may be slim even if Trump is defeated in the November election by former Vice President Joe Biden and the NPT review conference is held after Inauguration Day on January 20. Nevertheless, despite its declining relative power in international relations, a more constructive U.S. role is key to the success of the NPT because the United States remains the pacesetter and linchpin for more effective global disarmament and nonproliferation policies.

Second, the contracting states must find new common ground and unity. The NPT remains an indispensable framework for nuclear disarmament, nonproliferation, and peaceful uses of nuclear energy. Nuclear- and non-nuclear-weapon states share an interest in effectively preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons. In the absence of more effective and constructive leadership from Washington and given the Trump administration’s erratic nonproliferation policy, it is important for a range of other relevant and influential states to pursue joint efforts to forge agreement on key NPT issues.

In addition, there is a need for constructive openness and painstaking management regarding the establishment of a Middle Eastern zone free of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction, which has always been a politically charged and particularly sensitive issue of crucial importance to NPT implementation. Unfortunately, divergent views on the approach and policies to be adopted toward that end, as well as growing divisions in the region, have made it more difficult than ever to achieve early results. Although there is agreement that such a zone cannot be imposed from outside the region, all states should support in a constructive spirit the pursuit of the process started with the first conference regarding the zone, which was held in New York in November 2019. In addition, they should urgently call for steps to be undertaken to build confidence in the Middle East. One such step could consist of the ratification of the Chemical Weapons Convention by Egypt and Israel and the intensification of investigations into the persistent allegations of the use of chemical weapons in Syria.

Finally, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, adopted by 122 states in 2017, has proven to be particularly divisive. This division of the international community must be overcome. The treaty expresses understandable frustration with the lack of progress in nuclear disarmament, but does not provide a basis for greater consensus at this time because it is rejected by all nuclear-weapon states and a number of important non-nuclear-weapon states. Furthermore, there are fundamental questions regarding its design, including ensuring a stringent verification regime, and its integration into the existing regime of disarmament and nonproliferation of nuclear weapons. Instead, it would be important to agree on an incremental approach consisting of meaningful concrete next steps on nuclear disarmament and nuclear risk reduction, which must not be too ambitious given currently unfavorable conditions. Germany has long been an advocate of the incremental approach, and within the so-called Stockholm Initiative, Germany and 15 other non-nuclear-weapon states from all continents agreed on a list of such steps at a ministerial meeting in February in Berlin. The credibility of the disarmament process hinges on the readiness in particular of the nuclear-weapon states to make a move forward in embracing and implementing such steps. For example, the start of negotiations on an internationally verifiable fissile material cut-off treaty could create long overdue momentum and help the NPT to get back on track.

Third, the United States and Russia must serve as role models and take the lead in nuclear disarmament. Together, the two countries have more than 90 percent of the world's nuclear weapons, more than 6,000 each. The Trump administration’s insistence on China's involvement in any disarmament agreement has little or no chance of success in the near term given the still comparatively small Chinese arsenal of some 300 nuclear warheads. Instead, to underscore their commitment to nuclear disarmament, the United States and Russia should announce that they will extend the bilateral limitations set by the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which is due to expire in February 2021, and launch new bilateral talks designed to reach agreements on strategic stability and arms control, including numerical limitations of nuclear warheads and delivery systems, new weapons systems such as hypersonic missiles, conventional precision weapons, missile defense, and cyberthreats. This would be a signal of paramount political importance. Especially after the end of the INF Treaty, new restraint arrangements on the development and deployment of medium-range systems would be of major significance and constitute an important step toward rebuilding confidence between the two sides.

Fourth, the five nuclear-weapon states must jointly demonstrate their willingness to meet their NPT disarmament obligations. Due to major differences, measures and possibly unilateral steps regarding the transparency about potentials and doctrines should be seriously considered. In addition, it is in the mutual security interests of the five NPT nuclear-armed states to agree to measures to reduce the risk of accidental or unauthorized use of nuclear weapons and to prevent an uncontrolled escalation. The so-called P5 process accompanying the review process could become the nucleus of a discussion and negotiation forum for the nuclear-weapon states on strategic stability, including geostrategic issues, new weapons, and threat perceptions, as well as regional stability and balance of power questions.

Fifth, the NPT review conference should not be overloaded. After the failure of the 2015 review conference to reach an agreed outcome and disappointments about the failure to fully implement commitments agreed at the conferences in 2000 and 2010, the first step must be to reaffirm the foundations of the international nuclear order as defined by the NPT.

The focus should be on the credible renewal of the “deal” on which the treaty is based: nuclear disarmament in exchange for nonproliferation and renunciation of nuclear weapons. This requires a clear political signal from the nuclear-weapon states that they remain committed to the goal of nuclear disarmament. In recent months, the five nuclear-weapon states have discussed the possibility of affirming a fundamental insight that U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev underscored at their summit in 1985: “A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” At first glance, this seems to be simple and straightforward, enunciating what seems to be common sense. Yet, apparently not all nuclear-weapon states are willing to go along with such a reaffirmation, which sheds light on and is indicative of the current state of relations among them.

Takeaway Lessons

The coronavirus pandemic, which understandably is dominating the public debate, should reshape perceptions and responses to other transnational challenges. It provides lessons that need to be taken to heart and that should have an impact on the way in which nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation are addressed in the future.

The coronavirus crisis was initially largely underestimated. Likewise, the danger of nuclear war is currently almost completely ignored. The experience of the past few weeks should raise awareness not only of the danger of pandemics, but also of other global challenges that have so far been in the slipstream of attention. There should be room again for the insight that the danger of nuclear war, particularly in view of growing rivalries between the major powers, is not abstract but real and existential.

After the global coronavirus crisis has been overcome, it will be necessary to clarify what needs to be done to be better prepared in the future, to effectively prevent a pandemic outbreak and keep the effects under control. A passive, wait-and-see attitude according to the motto “everything will be fine” should now be discredited. Preventive security policy, disarmament, and arms control efforts, which must always be seen as “proactive conflict prevention,” should become more of a focus.

It should be clear to all states, especially the United States, which has been among the worst hit by the virus, that national “go it alone” efforts are inappropriate and far less efficient. In a globalized world, global challenges can only be met effectively through cross-border, multilateral cooperation.

As of today, the medium- to long-term consequences of the coronavirus pandemic cannot be predicted in detail. Yet, it is already clear that immense financial expenditures will be necessary to remedy the economic damage caused. The question arises whether, in view of this, the nuclear powers still want to proceed with or can afford an expensive arms race or whether, as at the end of the Cold War, they want to take the path of containing great power competition through arms control and disarmament agreements.

It is by no means certain that a new window of opportunity for international cooperation and for nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation will follow from sober and rational reflection and new imperatives after the coronavirus crisis. Some might say that this is just a pious wish. Maybe it is more likely that once the pandemic is overcome, there will be a relapse into old and well-known behavioral patterns. Nevertheless, every effort should be made to use the crisis as an opportunity to create a new momentum for a successful NPT review conference.

The tough lessons of the pandemic for international relations are a wake-up call. Even if the prospects are poor, patience, perseverance, and persistence have always been a requirement of multilateral diplomacy. It was only toward the end of East-West confrontation that the arms control policy seeds sown in previous years of sustained and unwavering efforts could bear fruit. Germany, which was at the dividing line between East and West, has been fully aware of the importance of dialogue and cooperation for overcoming the Cold War. That is why it should not let up in its commitment to disarmament and arms control.

Rüdiger Lüdeking served in the German Federal Foreign Office for more than 38 years before retiring in 2018. Among other positions, he served as Germany’s permanent representative to the Office of the United Nations and to other international organizations in Vienna, including the International Atomic Energy Agency, as director of nuclear arms control and nonproliferation at Foreign Office, and as deputy commissioner of the Federal Government for Disarmament and Arms Control.