from The Internationalist and International Institutions and Global Governance Program

The NPT Review Conference: Setting Realistic Expectations

April 29, 2015

A mushroom cloud rises over Nagasaki, Japan, on August 9, 1945.
Blog Post

More on:

International Organizations

Nonproliferation, Arms Control, and Disarmament

Diplomacy and International Institutions

International Law

Coauthored with Naomi Egel, research associate in the International Institutions and Global Governance program at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Although ongoing negotiations with Iran have captured global attention, they are not the only critical nuclear meeting underway. On Monday, UN member states launched the latest five-year review conference (RevCon) of the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). This core legal instrument of the nonproliferation regime provides the basis for international efforts to prevent nuclear proliferation. But expectations are modest. Unlike the last RevCon in 2010, no breakthroughs are on the horizon. Still, the month-long meeting in New York offers an opportunity to develop a plan for further progress during the next five-year cycle that will strengthen the basic bargains at the core of the NPT.

The NPT, which came into force in 1970, rests on three mutually reinforcing pillars. States without nuclear weapons agree not to acquire them. The five officially recognized nuclear weapons states (the United States, Russia, China, France and Great Britain) agree to move toward disarmament. And nonnuclear weapons states should be granted access to civilian nuclear technology for peaceful energy development. This essential bargain is inherently fragile, and the challenges are growing, as our newly updated Global Governance Monitor: Nuclear Proliferation, details.

Four non-recognized nuclear weapons states (India, Israel, North Korea, and Pakistan) are known to possess weapons, and recognized nuclear weapons states are generally perceived to be dragging their feet on disarmament. Moreover, the spread of ostensibly peaceful nuclear technology brings new proliferation dangers.

Despite these underlying tensions, the last RevCon in 2010 achieved historic results. Parties approved a 64-part action plan [PDF] to advance progress in all three areas of nonproliferation, disarmament, and peaceful uses of nuclear energy. Particularly noteworthy was the endorsement of a conference to discuss the establishment of a weapons of mass destruction (WMD)-free zone in the Middle East.

Progress in advancing these goals, alas, has been uneven. The deadline for the Middle East conference has come and gone. More significantly, the deterioration of the U.S.-Russia relationship has curtailed bilateral progress on disarmament by the two nations with (by far) the biggest nuclear arsenals. Although both countries continue to comply with the 2011 New Start treaty (which limits each country to 1,550 deployed strategic warheads by 2018), prospects for a follow-on treaty are dismal, and Russia has cancelled cooperative nonproliferation initiatives. A hostile Russian statement [PDF] on the first day of the review conference reinforced these tensions.

This perceived inertia comes at an awkward time. The last five years have witnessed the rise of a vigorous humanitarian disarmament initiative, a broad movement of nonnuclear weapons states and civil society actors frustrated by the slow pace of disarmament. Many of its members call for a total ban on nuclear weapons, akin to the Chemical Weapons Convention or the Mine Ban Treaty. The United States and other P5 members adamantly oppose such a ban.

The major global bright spot has been the negotiation of a framework agreement between Iran and the P5+1 (the permanent five Security Council members plus Germany). If the preliminary terms are fully implemented, this accord will grant Iran gradual relief from sanctions and access to peaceful nuclear energy in return for internationally monitored limitations on its nuclear enrichment activities and its full compliance with the NPT. Beyond reducing the specific threat posed by Iran, U.S. officials regard the framework agreement as a demonstration that noncompliance with the NPT can be addressed.

Given this context, achieving a consensus outcome document will be a tall order. That should not stop U.S. negotiators from doing all they can to strengthen the three pillars of the nonproliferation regime, including by advancing the goals outlined in the 2010 action plan and securing agreement on other critical issues where progress is possible.

  • Reinvigorate commitment to the NPT: The United States should redouble efforts to close the loophole under Article X of the NPT that enables parties to withdraw scot-free after they have violated treaty provisions, as North Korea did in 2003. Working with other permanent Security Council members, the Obama administration can ensure that there is no “get out of jail free” card in the future, by passing a resolution mandating automatic sanctions on countries that abuse Article X. The United States should also work with its partners in the Nuclear Suppliers Group to agree to cease exports of all nuclear related materials (including for peaceful purposes) to any such country.

  • Continue to advance old, but valuable ideas: In parallel with these steps, the United States should promote steps toward disarmament that enjoy broad support, despite longstanding challenges. The Obama administration should continue to endorse universalization of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, notwithstanding continued Congressional resistance to approving U.S. ratification of this treaty. It should also continue advocating the negotiation of a Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty (FMCT), despite the high hurdles (notably Pakistan’s opposition).

  • Support the IAEA: The United States can also build international goodwill by enhancing the third pillar of the NPT, expanded access to peaceful nuclear energy, which benefits more parties than any other provision. On Monday, Secretary of State John Kerry made a welcome gesture in this direction, announcing that the United States will donate an additional $50 million to the IAEA’s peaceful uses initiative. The Obama administration should build on this initiative by agreeing to increase funding to advance the IAEA’s work in areas such as promoting global health and boosting agricultural yields. At the same time, the United States must continue to encourage all countries to implement the Additional Protocol, a safeguards agreement that allows IAEA inspectors enhanced access to make sure states are not developing clandestine nuclear weapons programs.

  • Consolidate nuclear security gains: At the RevCon, the United States should take advantage of the opportunity to strengthen the relationship between the NPT regime and the biennial Nuclear Security Summit (NSS) that the Obama administration began in 2010. While there are advantages to the informal, flexible NSS format, there is a danger that momentum will slow and progress will be lost when a new U.S. administration takes office. To consolidate the gains it has spearheaded, the United States must create an enduring mechanism to advance nuclear security after the NSS summits end in 2016. The way to do so is by strengthening the IAEA’s own nuclear security mandate, giving it both the responsibility and adequate funding it needs to coordinate and implement the myriad initiatives promoted and developed by the NSS process.

While expectations are modest, the overall state of the nuclear nonproliferation regime is strong. The NPT is necessarily a delicate balance between the haves and have nots, between the goals of nuclear nonproliferation, disarmament, and peaceful access. It is not perfect. But nor is it replaceable. Despite ongoing challenges, the nuclear nonproliferation regime—with the NPT at its core—has been largely effective, as our Global Governance Monitor lays out. The challenge for U.S. negotiators over the next month is to advance these conflicting goals within the limits of the possible.