By Daryl G. Kimball
States-parties to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) will convene in January for meetings that will shape the future of international arms control at a time when nuclear restraints are under severe stress and the outcome of the event is highly uncertain.
After multiple delays due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the president-designate of the 10th NPT review conference announced in November that the meeting will finally be held Jan. 4–28 at UN headquarters in New York.
The conference caps a five-year cycle of meetings in which states-parties review compliance with the treaty and seek agreement on steps to overcome new challenges to preventing the spread of nuclear weapons.
The conference outcome is still very much in flux, according to diplomatic observers and participants. The president-designate, Argentine diplomat Gustavo Zlauvinen, and his three co-chairs are facilitating talks with more than 100 states-parties on a wide range of topics. Reaching consensus on a final document and action plan will be challenging, hinging on a handful of key issues, observers say.
The Disarmament Deficit
Ahead of the conference, tensions among the five nuclear-armed NPT members have risen as costly Chinese, Russian, and U.S. programs to modernize their nuclear arsenals speed ahead. These developments, along with the dissolution of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and the failure of the United States and China to ratify the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, have increased frustrations over the failure of the nuclear-armed states-parties to meet their NPT disarmament obligations. As a result, a central conference issue will be reversing this trend.
As Izumi Nakamitsu, the UN high representative for disarmament affairs, described the situation in October, “Announcements and allegations related to growing nuclear arsenals and new means of delivery have caused disquiet not only amongst the other nuclear-weapon states, but also among non-nuclear-weapon states who see such developments as incompatible with the obligations contained in Article VI of the NPT.”
The NPT obligation to "pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date may have seemed quaintly outdated a decade ago, perhaps, [but] now seems worryingly relevant,” she said.
Another focus will be whether the conference will reaffirm the political commitments agreed by consensus at the 1995, 2000, and 2010 conferences, which all produced a final document.
In 1995, states-parties extended the treaty indefinitely on the basis of a package of decisions that included specific actions on disarmament and on establishing a “zone free of nuclear weapons as well as other weapons of mass destruction” (WMD) in the Middle East. At the 2000 NPT Review Conference, states-parties went further, setting forth 13 “practical steps” on disarmament. The 2010 NPT Review Conference consensus document identified 22 “actions” to pursue nuclear disarmament.
Some NPT nuclear-armed states argue that some outcomes of past NPT conferences have been overtaken by events, are no longer valid, or must be updated.
The vast majority of the non-nuclear-weapon states take the opposite view. As Swedish Foreign Minister Anne Linde told the Conference on Disarmament in February 2020, “The disarmament-related commitments and obligations from past review conferences, notably in 1995, 2000, and 2010, remain valid. Several are still outstanding and should be implemented urgently.”
One goal that remains valid is pursuing steeper reductions in and maintaining verifiable, legally binding limits on the world’s two largest nuclear arsenals. Russia and the United States, which agreed at the 11th hour to extend the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) until February 2026, will likely tout their renewed strategic stability dialogue and plans to seek a new agreement to supersede New START.
The United States will also likely cite its decision to disclose the number of nuclear warheads in its arsenal as a contribution toward greater transparency. The Oct. 5 declassification announcement indicates that the total number of “active” and “inactive” U.S. warheads is 3,750 as of September 2020.
U.S. officials have said little about what specific commitments they might endorse at the conference. Some decisions may hinge on the administration’s Nuclear Posture Review, which is not expected to be released until after the conference concludes.
Asked by Arms Control Today what the U.S. message at the conference will be, Anthony Wier, deputy assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation, said in an email, “We are deeply committed to restoring U.S. leadership on arms control and nonproliferation and to working closely with our partners and allies to address 21st Century challenges. At the NPT RevCon, the United States will do just that.”
He stressed that “a successful outcome will require each of us to be flexible” and said the United States will “work constructively with all NPT parties to achieve a positive outcome, one in which we reaffirm our commitment to the treaty.”
“The world is far more stable, secure, and prosperous today than before the NPT entered into force. We must preserve and prolong these benefits of the NPT, and strengthen the NPT itself,” Wier added.
With discussions moving slowly at best, several states have advanced proposals to encourage dialogue on disarmament and reducing nuclear risks. Among these is the 16-nation Stockholm Initiative, which emphasizes the value of “further work by the nuclear-weapon states on nuclear risk reduction, including more robust bilateral and multilateral dialogue and policies and doctrines that could reduce the role of nuclear weapons in security policies, prevent escalation leading to the use of nuclear weapons, and lessen the danger of nuclear war.”
Ahead of the conference, representatives of the five NPT nuclear-armed states will meet in Paris on Dec. 2 for their annual P5 Process meeting, which was established in 2007. The agenda includes nuclear doctrines and strategic risk reduction. At the group’s meeting in 2020, the United States balked at a proposed joint declaration that “a nuclear war can never be won and must never be fought.” At their summit last June, U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin affirmed that statement. Diplomatic sources told Arms Control Today that the P5 Process group is working on a joint statement on nuclear risk reduction that references the Russian-U.S. statement.
As Nakamitsu noted in October, “Of course, while nuclear risk reduction can and should be a facilitator of nuclear disarmament steps, it cannot substitute for such steps.”
In recent months, other groups of states, including the Stockholm Initiative, the New Agenda Coalition, and the Non-Aligned Movement, issued statements and working papers that suggest how the conference can advance disarmament. Whether the delegations can converge around modest steps that build on previous conference statements could determine the success or failure of this one.
The Nuclear Ban
NPT states-parties are also expected to debate how to deal with the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), which enjoys strong support from most NPT states-parties but not from the nuclear-armed states and many of their allies.
Diplomats told Arms Control Today that it makes sense for the conference to acknowledge that the TPNW has entered into force and is viewed by its supporters as a contribution to fulfilling the NPT obligations. Participants likely will press for language reinforcing the 2010 consensus that expresses “deep concern at the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons and reaffirm[ing] the need for all states at all times to comply with applicable international law, including international humanitarian law.”
There are indications that a few NPT nuclear-weapon states, all of whom criticized the TPNW in the past, may temper their opposition in the interest of reaching agreement on other more substantial issues.
At a Sept. 29 forum sponsored by the Geneva Center for Security Policy, Bonnie Jenkins, U.S. undersecretary of state for arms control and disarmament, said in answer to a question about the TPNW that the United States “still has concerns about the treaty, but we are also not telling countries that they shouldn’t sign and we’re not nearly as assertive as we were in the past about it.”
Sweden, which is not a TPNW party but plans to attend the first meeting of the TPNW states-parties in 2022 as an observer, is among those urging an end to polarizing tactics over the treaty. “It is essential that the upcoming NPT review conference does not turn into an argument for or against the TPNW,” Linde told Arms Control Today in May 2021.
“Digging ourselves deeper into trenches will not solve anything. Rather it may risk having a negative spillover effect on other issues,” she said.
Meanwhile, disagreements persist about the process of establishing a Middle Eastern WMD-free zone, despite a decision by the UN General Assembly to convene a UN-sponsored meeting on the issue in 2019.
Establishing such a zone has long been a priority for states in the region concerned about Israel’s nuclear arsenal. But disputes over the agenda and format of meetings have stymied progress.
At the 2015 NPT Review Conference, the United States vetoed the draft final conference document because it called for the UN secretary-general to convene a conference by March 1, 2016, aimed at “launching a continuous process of negotiating and concluding a legally binding treaty” establishing a WMD-free zone in the Middle East. (See ACT, June 2015.)
The U.S. delegation, however, “was unable to accept an early deadline” for holding an initial conference on the zone and it objected to “Egypt’s insistence on deleting from the mandate the key phrase that the conference be held ‘on the basis of arrangements freely arrived at’… [which was] necessary not only to make an initial conference acceptable to Israel, but also for the credibility of any process that followed an initial conference,” according to former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Tom Countryman. (See ACT, May 2020.)
Following the impasse, Arab states encouraged the UN General Assembly in 2018 to convene a conference on the establishment of the zone. The first session was held in November 2019. The second session is scheduled for Nov. 29–Dec. 3 in New York.
Zlauvinen told a gathering of diplomats on Oct. 27 that his consultations indicate that key states-parties remain divided as to whether the UN-convened meeting on the zone could advance genuine progress. “Aside from nuclear disarmament, this is the second most important challenge we face at the review conference,” he said.
The NPT conference typically involves hundreds of representatives from most of the 191 states-parties to the treaty, as well as nongovernmental organizations and meeting support personnel.
Even after three pandemic-related delays, the virus continues to complicate the work of conference delegates. Most premeeting consultations between the conference president and states-parties are usually in person, but global pandemic travel restrictions have relegated the bulk of this work to video calls.
Although the meeting will be held at the United Nations, diplomats will not have normal use of the building, and organizers have mandated that national delegations be smaller than usual.
The U.S. delegation has also been hampered by the fact that the special representative nominated by Biden to lead the team, Adam Scheinman, who also performed that function for the 2015 conference, has not yet been confirmed by the U.S. Senate.
The review conference marks the 50th anniversary of the NPT’s entry into force. As Zlauvinen said on Oct. 27, “[O]ne way that governments can show their strong support for the treaty is by attending at least the first few days of the conference at the highest levels.” He noted that he cannot dictate who those officials might be but made clear that “heads of state or foreign ministers would be more than welcome.”
The U.S. State Department’s Wier did not rule out that Biden or Secretary of State Antony Blinken might address the conference.
Before the conference was delayed last year, Zlauven said almost 40 foreign ministers and six or seven heads of state or government had been expected to attend.