Global Memos are briefs by the Council of Councils that gather opinions from global experts on major international developments.
Ukraine's Ambassador to the United Nations Sergiy Kyslytsya sits with his hand on his head gazing downward at the UN General Assembly during the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty review conference in New York City on August 1, 2022
REUTERS/David 'Dee' Delgado

After a month of negotiations, the tenth review conference (RevCon) of the parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) concluded on August 26 without a consensus final document, raising concerns about weakening efforts to promote nuclear nonproliferation, disarmament, and the peaceful use of nuclear energy. It also marked the first time two consecutive RevCons have failed to produce such a document.

In this Council of Councils global perspectives series, five experts analyze what this failure means for the future of nonproliferation and disarmament and what might be done to strengthen the nuclear regime. Although the meeting could be considered a failure given the goal of producing a consensus document to review implementation of and advance the NPT’s objectives, some take solace in the fact that the normal work of improving nuclear safeguards and ensuring access to the benefits of the peaceful uses of nuclear energy remains strong.

The World is in for a Dangerous Nuclear Decade


The failure to reach consensus on a final document is only to be expected given Russia’s ongoing war on Ukraine, especially its irresponsible use of the grounds around the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, which made it impossible to achieve common positions. Indeed, agreed final documents are the exception rather than the rule at NPT RevCons. They did get relatively close but Russia vetoed the statement in the final hour. Fortunately, no mass walk-out by delegations—which marred the 2015 RevCon—or other notable theatrics detracted from the proceedings.

Instead, the RevCon advanced its normal work on improving nuclear safeguards and the ensuring access to the benefits of the peaceful uses of nuclear energy, and discussed prospects toward disarmament. Realistic expectations largely prevailed, and the parties worked together to ensure the continued functioning of the regime. A good deal of impatience remains among Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons supporters on the lack of progress on nuclear disarmament, but it is tempered by realism. In the meantime, real fears are growing that China’s nuclear build-up and Russia’s nuclear saber-rattling, as well as potential North Korean nuclear testing and the failure of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, may lead to increased nuclear arms racing around the world.

To avoid a renewed nuclear arms race, a sea-change from China and Russia is needed—but not only from them. As long as they and similarly minded countries such as Iran and North Korea seek to disrupt global security, revise the global rules-based order, and threaten their neighbors, the prospect for further nuclear arms limits is scant. In the meantime, India and Pakistan both seek strategic advantage in nuclear arms, and the threat of a new nuclear arms race in the Middle East has increased. The West needs to work with its allies and friends around the world to push back against revisionism and aggression and to restore deterrence and seek to maintain peace. This could require adjustments in alliances, as well as sharing technologies to deter or defeat common adversaries. Risk reduction tools such as National Risk Reduction Centers, accords known as Prevention of Incidents On and Over the Waters Outside the Limits of the Territorial Sea agreements, and reinforced confidence- and security-building measures will be needed across Europe and Asia to prevent or manage conflict. The world is in for a dangerous decade.

NPT RevCon Ends in Failure


To mitigate the disappointment of failing to adopt a consensus final document, some die-hard believers were quick to claim that success need not be defined in terms of a final document. However, the hard reality is that growing differences among the major powers (the United States, China, and Russia) and between the five nuclear-weapons states and nonnuclear weapons states, are making the strains within the NPT increasingly visible.

The final straw was the inability to find language addressing the nuclear safety crisis at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine, under Russian occupation since March. However, even had this obstacle been overcome, other warning signs were numerous, and fifty-two years after entering into force, the compromises inherent in the fabric of the NPT need to be revisited. The NPT was originally packaged as a balance of nonproliferation, nuclear disarmament, and the peaceful use of nuclear science and energy, and, over the years, only the nonproliferation element has become stronger.

Political leadership was absent at the RevCon. All the nuclear-weapons states could manage was a reiteration of the 1985 Reagan-Gorbachev declaration that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought. The statement remains valid but sounded hollow in the face of rising nuclear rhetoric and the continued pursuit by major powers of modernization plans for their nuclear arsenals.

The U.S.-Russia bilateral arms process is just holding, but the New START Treaty expires in 2026 and prospects for follow-on negotiations are bleak. China has studiously refrained from participating in any arms control talks with the United States, and that was before tensions between the two reached a new high given the recent Taiwan Straits crisis.

An uncomfortable political reality among the four nuclear-weapons states outside the NPT—India, Israel, North Korea, and Pakistan—is also palpable. How to work with these countries to achieve the NPT’s nuclear disarmament obligations remains a thorny issue.

When the NPT was negotiated in the 1960s, nuclear science and technology was still in its infancy. Today, neither the science nor the associated technology is as remote or esoteric. New developments in space and cyber technologies, missile defenses, development of hypersonic delivery systems and conventional prompt global strike capabilities are generating new complexities and blurring the dividing line between nuclear and conventional use on a battlefield. None of these issues was adequately addressed at the RevCon.

Unless the NPT states face these realities and generate the political will needed, the frailties of the NPT will take their inevitable toll.

African Countries Should Strengthen Their Collective Voices


The outcome of the tenth NPT RevCon was disappointing, especially considering the more successful first meeting of states parties to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons that took place in June 2022. Russia stands out as the outlier in terms of the outcome of this RevCon. For the most part, African states supported the substantial aspects of the final document, watered down as it was.

NPT member states, individually or collectively, typically submit working papers or present statements to the RevCon to convey their position on certain aspects of the treaty, policy directives, and suggested action points. In this regard, African states could have played a stronger role and elevated their presence at the RevCon. They need to back up their normative collective commitment to the NPT by also submitting working papers and statements. Only a handful delivered statements. Just three submitted national reports on the action plan of the 2010 RevCon. Algeria was the only state to submit an individual working paper and in fact submitted three.

Clearly, the continent opted for a more multilateral approach to express its views:  most states supported positions presented in collective working papers as part of the New Agenda Coalition, the Non-aligned Movement, and Zangger Committee. Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, and Mauritania were among the states submitting joint working papers on nuclear disarmament. Ethiopia supported the Stockholm Initiative’s working paper on a nuclear risk reduction package.

Niger joined several European states to produce a working paper on a framework for the peaceful use of nuclear cooperation. Nigeria’s involvement entailed submitting two working papers jointly with its fellow members of the Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Initiative. Namibia joined a group of states submitting a working paper on gender mainstreaming in the NPT. Cape Verde and Morocco were part of a group of sixty-seven states delivering a statement on gender during the general debate. Egypt was one of four states submitting a joint working paper on nuclear technologies for heritage science.

Participation by individual African states in the proceedings of the three main committees was also low. Only four African states addressed plenary meetings. This, then, creates the imperative and an opportunity for the African Group to strengthen its collective voice on multilateral nuclear disarmament, nonproliferation, and peaceful use of nuclear energy. 

Consensus Was Surprisingly Close


On August 26, Russia was the only country that objected to the draft final document of the NPT RevCon. It most likely opposed paragraph 34 of the document, which (without naming Russia responsible) expresses “grave concern for the military activities conducted near or at nuclear power plants and other facilities or locations subject to safeguards under Ukraine’s comprehensive safeguards agreement, in particular the Zaporizhzya nuclear power plant.” Ukraine notably agreed to this neutral language, but Russia could not stomach even indirect indications that its actions have caused grave nuclear dangers. Still, given the circumstances, it is not surprising that this was the breaking point.

The biggest surprise may not be that the conference ended without an agreement, but how close the participants reportedly got to one. The RevCon confirmed long-standing disagreements on a number of issues, mainly the progress (or lack of it) on nuclear disarmament, nuclear policy of nuclear-weapon states, nuclear sharing, nuclear declaratory policy and negative security assurances, and verification standards. New disagreements also arose, including concerns with Australia’s acquisition of nuclear submarines. The diplomats reportedly managed to find compromise on all these issues. Many nongovernmental organization representatives described the resulting draft as bland to the point of irrelevance. Still, given the range of disagreements, it seems remarkable that consensus was apparently within reach. In addition, the meeting’s failure to adopt the outcome document does not spell the end of the regime. The next review cycle is planned to conclude with the 2026 RevCon.

The bad news is that the cracks over nuclear disarmament may endanger the foundations of the NPT. Despite their profound differences, the five nuclear-weapon states (the United States, China, France, Russia, and the United Kingdom) and their allies essentially rely on nuclear weapons for existential deterrence, which limits the constraints they are willing to accept. This limited approach was thoroughly rejected by a large group of NPT states, including members of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. The disagreement could result in a permanent stalemate of review cycles. If the NPT review evolves into an empty diplomatic ritual, it will jeopardize the norms of nonproliferation and nonuse of nuclear weapons embodied in the NPT. In the next four years, charting the way toward additional U.S. and Russian nuclear reductions, and China expressing more interest in nuclear arms control, may help address this problem.