By William C. Potter
When more than 100 delegations assembled in Vienna this summer for two sets of meetings to review the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), expectations among most diplomats were low.
There was good reason for skepticism given the failure of the 10th NPT Review Conference in August 2022, the second consecutive conference that was unable to produce a consensus final document. More significantly, the international environment was even less welcoming than the previous year as Russia continued to wage its brutal war on Ukraine, Chinese-U.S. relations plummeted to their lowest level in decades, and prospects faded for resolving nuclear challenges in the Middle East and on the Korean peninsula.
It was a surprise, therefore, that the one-week meeting of the working group on further strengthening the NPT review process got off to a good start. Most delegates abandoned their standard practice of reciting highly scripted and predictable remarks in favor of more spontaneous, interactive deliberations. Delegates even appeared to listen to one another at the meeting, the first of its kind in the history of the NPT review process. Could it be that states were sufficiently frightened by a world in disarray that they had awakened from sleepwalking toward a nuclear catastrophe? Might they demonstrate the common sense and flexibility necessary to strengthen one of the few remaining international bulwarks against the spread of nuclear weapons? The short answer is no, but the manner in which negotiations collapsed at both events—the working group meeting and the first preparatory committee meeting for the 11th NPT Review Conference scheduled for 2026—is even more disturbing than their barren outcomes and bodes poorly for the future of multilateral nuclear diplomacy.
Searching for Solutions
The working group, which met July 24-28, was mandated by the 2022 review conference to “discuss and make recommendations to the preparatory committee on measures that would improve the effectiveness, efficiency, transparency, accountability, coordination, and continuity of the review process of the treaty.”1 The intent was not to renegotiate the 1995 decision to strengthen the review process, but to improve how the review process operated in order to make it more effective and efficient.2
Effectiveness and efficiency meant different things to different parties. Nevertheless, it quickly became apparent that although many states criticized the lengthy amount of time typically allocated to national statements at the opening of review process meetings and recognized the utility of appointing presiding officers earlier in the review cycle, their highest priority was enhancing accountability on the part of the nuclear-weapon states.
It was to be expected that non-nuclear-weapon states would attach importance to the need for NPT members to implement all past commitments, especially those related to nuclear disarmament. What was less obvious prior to the working group meeting was that France, the United Kingdom, and the United States, which with China and Russia are the five NPT-designated nuclear-weapon states, also would be amenable to reserving time at future meetings to discuss reports by the nuclear-weapon states about their nuclear weapons capabilities and doctrines.
Many different formulations for reporting were broached, but the one that enjoyed the most support was captured in the second draft set of recommendations submitted on the penultimate day of the meeting by Jarmo Viinanen, the Finnish chair of the working group. It proposed that the nuclear-weapon states should use a standard reporting template that identifies the number, type, and status of nuclear warheads and their delivery systems, as well as measures that had been taken to reduce the salience of these weapons in nuclear doctrines and policies.3
Although most states were comfortable with proposals to enhance accountability through greater transparency and standardized national reporting, disagreements arose about the appropriate frequency and scope of formal reporting, the application of reporting to all or selected treaty parties, and the desirability of having outside experts, including from civil society, comment on national reports and the implementation of past commitments. Russia, for example, maintained that each nuclear-weapon state should have the right to set limits on transparency with respect to reporting and argued that reporting should apply to all states regardless of their nuclear weapons status. It also objected to the proposed use of expert panels or, for that matter, any engagement by civil society in what it characterized as a treaty review process reserved for NPT states-parties. Too much interactive dialogue, Russia asserted, could lead people to “get off topic.” Russia also proclaimed, to the bemusement of many delegates, that other states did not appreciate the substantial financial burden frequent national reporting would place on Moscow.
Several other states also expressed reservations related to enhanced transparency and inclusivity in the reporting process. China, for example, argued that a state did not achieve disarmament by means of reporting, prompting Egypt to respond that although that might be true, so is the fact that disarmament is dependent on reporting. That said, Egypt joined Russia in opposing the use of outside experts and expressed concern that the working group should not overshadow the preparatory committee. In addition, Iran objected to any reference to the issue of inclusivity, which it asserted was extraneous to the treaty.
By the last day of the working group meeting, on July 28, Viinanen had submitted two versions of draft recommendations to the preparatory committee.4 In addition, at the afternoon session, he submitted a paper titled “Draft Decisions.”5 Many countries took exception to the title because they were not prepared for the working group to make any decision and objected to the omission of anything on transparency and accountability. The general sentiment was that one of the preceding documents on draft recommendations better captured the range of opinions that had been expressed during the group’s deliberations.
Progress, Then Frustration
At this point, the generally positive atmosphere that had characterized the first four days of the working group meeting gave way to frustration and recrimination as many delegations realized that there was little time left to make substantive recommendations before the preparatory committee meeting began its work the following Monday.
In response to this stalemate, a savvy young diplomat from the Philippines offered a proposal to try to preserve the earlier momentum. It recommended that time be reserved in future review process meetings to consider national reports, in particular those of the nuclear-weapon states, and to engage in discussions on the basis of the proposals that had been raised in the working group.6
A diverse group of states, including Austria, Egypt, Ireland, Malaysia, Mexico, the Netherlands, and the United States, supported the general approach articulated by the Philippines. China indicated support for a “simplified version” of the proposal, while not specifying exactly what would be acceptable. The Russian delegation, however, remained a key outlier, arguing that it could not endorse the proposal because it was too late to receive instructions from Moscow.
Regrettably, the full record of these exchanges and those made earlier during the meeting are incomplete and impossible to document because the working group conducted its business, including the debate over the need for enhanced transparency, in private.7 What can be reconstructed is that as delegates approached the anticipated conclusion of the working group meeting, there was hope that a near consensus might yet emerge based on the Philippines proposal, as modified by Brazil, Canada, and Ireland.
Following a lengthy suspension of the meeting during which the heads of many key delegations huddled in the back of the conference hall with others looking on, four states produced a joint recommendation that time be reserved in future review process meetings for the consideration of national reports, in particular those of the nuclear-weapon states regarding the implementation of their NPT disarmament commitments. Moreover, they proposed that subsequent preparatory committee meetings in the current review cycle should continue these discussions with the objective of agreeing on recommendations to improve “the effectiveness, efficiency, coordination, continuity, transparency and accountability of the review process.” This would be based on a balanced consideration of the proposals presented during the working group meeting, including those in Viinanen’s second draft set of recommendations.
When the meeting resumed, most states still in the room welcomed the joint proposal as a compromise that preserved a record of many proposals to strengthen the review process without endorsing any specific recommendations. Even Iran, which had raised numerous procedural objections throughout the meeting, appeared to sense the shifting mood and did not object to the joint proposal.
Late that evening, Viinanen asked if delegations could accept the text proposed by the four states. The attention of all delegates was focused on the head of the Chinese delegation, Li Song. With much suspense, he announced that he had received permission from Beijing to accept the joint statement if specific reference to the conference document was omitted. This formula, although less than ideal, appeared to have the support of all delegations except Russia, which insisted that it could only endorse the joint proposal if it were substantially revised. At that point, Viinanen, recognizing the late hour and the fact that the heads of many delegations had already left the room, concluded that it would be impractical to continue further negotiations. He announced that he would issue a working paper containing draft recommendations under his own authority, and without further objections, the draft procedural report of the working group was adopted.8
The 2023 NPT Preparatory Committee
If the one-week working group meeting combined elements of meaningful dialogue and obstructionist behavior, the two-week preparatory committee meeting that followed was an exercise in futility that weakened the review process. Indeed, had it preceded the working group meeting, it is conceivable that the nearly 100 often repetitive statements during the general debate might have spurred NPT states-parties to adopt at least a few specific recommendations to reduce the inefficient use of time during meetings.
Instead, for the first nine days, the captive audience had to endure stale arguments that would make ChatGPT sigh. Many heads of delegations were pleased to excuse themselves from the meeting and conduct business elsewhere, and the most stimulating discussions about pressing nuclear dangers and how to deal with them typically were found at side events organized by civil society. The surreal quality of the preparatory committee debate led one diplomatic newcomer to the review process to ask, “What is the purpose of this exercise?” It was not an easy question to answer.
Even under the best of circumstances, review process deliberations tend to be tedious and only loosely connected to the most pressing nuclear challenges. At times, outside observers might be excused if they were to infer from the intensity of the debate that the most significant issues at stake were the time slot reserved for the Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization, the amount of time set aside for interactions with civil society, and the degree to which the meeting chair was an instrument of a particular regional or political grouping.
The preparatory committee meeting in Vienna was no different in this regard. Thus, various delegations complained about the unraveling of arms control agreements, the need to preserve the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, the dangers of nuclear sharing, and the risks posed by attacks on civilian nuclear facilities.9 Little new was said, however, regarding the urgency of nuclear risk reduction, the actions required to halt the erosion of norms against nuclear weapons use, and the possibility of narrowing the gulf that separates the majority of states that view their security as threatened by the existence of nuclear weapons and those nuclear-weapon states and their allies that regard nuclear deterrence as indispensable for the preservation of international peace and stability. If anything, these issues received less consideration in Vienna than they had at the ill-fated NPT review conference in 2022.
To some extent, the uninspired debate can be attributed to the shorter-than-usual time available for preparation by delegates due to the accelerated review process schedule, after the more than two-year delay in holding the last review conference. It also reflects disagreements among states as to the primary purpose of preparatory committee meetings and the degree to which the first two sessions of every review cycle should include substantive negotiations on specific recommendations.
The overall dysfunctional nature of the latest preparatory committee meeting also was a result of the inability to compartmentalize nonproliferation negotiations from the acute political polarization apparent in almost all international forums. It is striking, for example, how traditional nonproliferation cooperation between Washington and Moscow, including in the NPT review process, is now nonexistent. Although its demise preceded Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine and was especially noticeable at the 2018 NPT preparatory committee meeting, there is no longer any pretense of convergent interests on the part of France, the UK, and the United States on one hand and Russia and China on the other hand.
Today, Moscow also appears to attach less importance to the NPT review process than in the past as indicated by the relatively low rank of Russian diplomats in attendance. The head of the delegation was an acting deputy department director, while the very experienced Russian NPT diplomat, who is Moscow’s permanent representative to international organizations in Vienna, chose to go on vacation during the preparatory committee meeting.10 Although the presence of senior diplomats by no means assures a successful outcome, their absence complicates the ability to negotiate timely compromises.
Even more important to a successful negotiation than the engagement of senior diplomats is the presence of diplomats with a deep knowledge of review process negotiating history. This institutional memory of what worked and what did not is largely absent today because very few delegations possess members who were present at the 2010 or 2015 NPT review conferences, much less earlier ones. As such, diplomats often appear to be repeating statements made by their predecessors without an understanding of the flexibility in positions that made possible past compromises on very difficult disarmament, nonproliferation, and regional security issues.11
Also absent today is the presence of cross-regional groupings able to broker compromise language acceptable to the major NPT stakeholders. The New Agenda Coalition, which effectively played this role at the 2000 NPT review conference, remains active, but it is no longer able to bridge increasingly wide divides between and within regional and political groupings on disarmament issues. The broker role was difficult enough when there were relatively well-defined groupings with identifiable interests, but it is nearly impossible in an environment in which the nuclear-weapon states are extremely fragmented, with a much more assertive China, and the Non-Aligned Movement has more members and observers armed with nuclear weapons than any other grouping.12
The Chair’s Prerogative, or Not
No preparatory committee meeting has blessed a chair’s factual summary since 2002, when the innovation was first introduced at the mandate of the 2000 NPT review conference. Instead, the standard practice when consensus is unattainable has been for chairs to issue a summary of the meeting as a working paper on their own authority rather than as conference papers. This approach is not confined to the NPT review process, and the issuance of recommendations in the form of personal working papers is widely regarded as the prerogative of any chair at multilateral negotiations.
This practice was challenged in Vienna by Iran, which accused Viinanen of displaying a Western bias and promoting a summary that was neither factual nor impartial. Russia also objected to what it saw as an imbalance in the summary and a failure to note how NATO states allegedly used the meeting to advance political goals unrelated to the review process. China aligned itself with these critics and questioned if the chair had the authority to make recommendations to the next preparatory committee, although it did not explicitly deny the chair’s prerogative. That action fell to Iran, which announced that it would block the listing of the chair’s factual summary in any fashion, personal working paper or otherwise.
In fact, states-parties could have called Iran’s bluff and forced a vote on the matter, which Iran certainly would have lost. Yet, that would have brought into question the circumstances under which the tradition of consensus decision-making should be abandoned, and Viinanen was not prepared to venture into that uncharted territory. Instead, he acquiesced to Iran’s demand and withdrew his proposal to issue a factual summary under his own authority.13
Viinanen sought to downplay the harmful effects of this action by arguing that just as he had the prerogative to issue a working paper, he also had the authority not to do so, but the damage had been done. The 2000 NPT review conference mandate for preparatory committees to produce factual summaries was ignored. This outcome set an extraordinarily dangerous precedent by which one defiant state could negate the will of the conference majority and erase the record of what had transpired.
It remains to be seen if Iran’s ability to disrupt this year’s meeting will empower other outlier states to hold future multilateral negotiations hostage. Alternatively, perhaps this experience will spur a more serious debate about the circumstances under which states should be prepared to vote at NPT meetings and the merits of adopting a more liberal interpretation of what constitutes consensus.
The latest setback also could have the positive effect of encouraging states at future meetings to seek agreement on a much smaller set of new measures that are responsive to the most severe contemporary nuclear threats instead of endlessly debating a lengthy catalogue of recommendations that differ only marginally from those of the past. Were that to occur and if states emulated the positive interactive debate that occurred during much of the working group session, perhaps the Vienna meetings ultimately will contribute to strengthening the review process.
2. Thomas Markram and Gaukhar Mukhatzhanova, “Further Strengthening the NPT Review Process: Reflections and Recommendations,” Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation and James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, May 2023, https://vcdnp.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/06/NPT-SRP-paper-full-with-covers.pdf.
plans related to the modernization of nuclear weapons, and related changes to their nuclear capabilities; the number, type (strategic or non-strategic) and status (deployed or non-deployed) of nuclear warheads; the number and type of delivery vehicles; the measures taken to reduce the role and significance of nuclear weapons in military and security concepts, doctrines and policies; the measures taken to reduce the risk of unintended, unauthorized or accidental use of nuclear weapons; the measures taken to de-alert or reduce the operational readiness of nuclear weapons systems; the number and type of weapons and delivery systems dismantled and reduced as part of nuclear disarmament efforts; the amount of fissile material for military purposes.
Working Group on Further Strengthening the Review Process of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, “Draft Recommendations to the Preparatory Committee That Would Improve the Effectiveness, Efficiency, Transparency, Accountability, Coordination and Continuity of the Review Process of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons,” NPT/CONF.2026/WG.I/CRP.2/Rev.1, July 28, 2023, para. 18, copy on file with author.
5. Working Group on Further Strengthening the Review Process of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, “Draft Decisions,” NPT/CONF.2026/WG.I/DEC.1, July 28, 2023, copy on file with author. There is no official record of this document or the second “Draft Decisions” paper that proposed to continue discussions on strengthening the review process at the first session of the preparatory committee for the 11th NPT Review Conference in 2026. See Working Group on Further Strengthening the Review Process of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, “Draft Decisions,” NPT/CONF.2026/WG.I/July 28, 2023, copy on file with author.
[t]he working group recommends that, consistent with the decision to improve the effectiveness, efficiency, coordination, continuity, transparency and accountability, as well to dedicate time in the formal meetings of the review cycle and to consider national reports of States Parties in particular nuclear weapons states in a manner than enables questions to be raised and clarifications to be made on the content of national reports, the Preparatory Committee engage in outcome-oriented discussions on the basis of a balanced consideration of all the proposals presented in the working group, including on formats and modalities.
7. For a list of the working papers submitted to the working group, see Reaching Critical Will, “Working Group on Further Strengthening the Review Process of the Treaty,” n.d., https://reachingcriticalwill.org/disarmament-fora/npt/2023/working-group (accessed September 20, 2023).
8. The chair’s working paper contained 26 recommendations, many of which mirrored those contained in the earlier draft documents, as well as recommendations broached in the article by Markram and Mukhatzhanova (See endnote 2). As a chair’s working paper rather than a conference paper, it lacked the imprimatur of the working group. See Preparatory Committee for the 2026 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, “Working Paper Submitted by the Chair of the Working Group on Further Strengthening the Review Process of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons: Recommendations to the Preparatory Committee That Would Improve the Effectiveness, Efficiency, Transparency, Accountability, Coordination and Continuity of the Review Process of the Treaty,” NPT/CONF.2026/PC.1/WP.34, August 3, 2023.
9. For a useful summary of the debate on these issues, see Gabriela Iveliz Rosa Hernández, Jupiter Kaishu Huang, and Daryl Kimball, “NPT Meeting Underscores Chronic Divisions,” Arms Control Today, September 2023.
13. Although Iran almost certainly would have lost a vote on the right of the preparatory committee chair to issue a working paper on his own authority, many states likely would have been reluctant to force a vote because they recognized that, in the future, they might be in the minority. Several key diplomats who were furious about Iran’s behavior nonetheless indicated privately that they were reluctant to call for a vote because of the precedent it would set.
William C. Potter is founding director of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. He has participated as a delegate at every nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty review process meeting since 1995, including the two held in Vienna in July-August 2023.