The Disarmament Puzzle at #NPT2015

On a stairway above first avenue in New York City, opposite the United Nations, is a wall into which are carved the famous words from the Book of Isaiah: “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not lift up sword against nation. Neither shall they learn war anymore.”

After Week 2 of the 2015 Review Conference on the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), these words seem both hopeful and ironic. Serious divisions are evident between the non-nuclear weapons states (NNWS) and the nuclear weapons states (NWS) about the pace of disarmament, whether nuclear weapons states have implemented the undertakings made at the 2000 and 2010 review conferences, and how disarmament should be further advanced. These divisions could doom prospects for a consensus at this year’s meeting, and will have to be overcome – or at least set aside or minimized – if consensus is to be found.

What is striking about this year is that even as strategic tensions (especially between Russia and NATO) are increasing and there are serious fears that the disarmament process is in “reverse”, there are suggestive new proposals being advanced, including some kind of a “nuclear weapons ban” treaty, that may prise open the deadlock in the years to come. This week’s blog looks at those ‘big’ disarmament proposals, and also suggests that NPT members should be taking a much keener interest in questions of nuclear posture, policy and doctrine that are a silent cancer at the heart of the disarmament process.

Some context

Article VI of the NPT is vaguely worded and obligates “each of the Parties to the Treaty…to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament”. However, along with peaceful uses and nonproliferation, disarmament is regarded as one of the “three pillars” of the NPT and its most important. Since the NPT was extended in 1995, member states have been working hard to emphasise the importance of the disarmament obligation, to give it more definition and structure, to indicate a path to disarmament that reduces the possibility of nuclear use and is attentive to the security dilemmas that arise with nuclear weapons, and – most recently – to connect the obligation to international law and an awareness of the devastating humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons testing and use. This effort is ongoing and is visible in a number of Working Papers at this year’s Revcon.

The 2000 Revcon was notable for laying out 13 ‘practical steps’ towards disarmament, which included 6 steps ‘by all the nuclear-weapon States leading to nuclear disarmament in a way that promotes international stability, and based on the principle of undiminished security for all’. These included efforts by the NWS ‘to reduce their nuclear arsenals unilaterally’, ‘further reduction of non-strategic nuclear weapons’, ‘measures to further reduce the operational status of nuclear weapons systems’, ‘diminishing role for nuclear weapons in security policies to minimize the risk that these weapons will ever be used and to facilitate the process of their total elimination’, and ‘engagement as soon as appropriate of all the nuclear-weapon States in the process leading to the total elimination of their nuclear weapons’.

The 2010 Revcon echoed the 2000 language by noting ‘the reaffirmation by the nuclear-weapon States of their unequivocal undertaking to accomplish, in accordance with the principle of irreversibility, the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals leading to nuclear disarmament, to which all States parties are committed under article VI of the Treaty’. It also referred to the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons and grounded disarmament obligations further in international humanitarian law and the 1986 International Court of Justice opinion on the Legality of the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons. Most significantly, it looked ahead to new legal instruments that could build more strongly on Article VI, by noting ‘the proposals for nuclear disarmament of the Secretary-General of the United Nations to inter alia consider negotiations on a nuclear weapons convention or agreement on a framework of separate mutually reinforcing instruments, backed by a strong system of verification’ and by ‘affirm[ing] that the final phase of the nuclear disarmament process and other related measures should be pursued within an agreed legal framework’.

Gaps in the regime

As this analysis by the British American Security Information Council shows, multilateral disarmament (of the kind that will be needed to get to zero) is enormously strategically complex, and the current mix of approaches is not working. Paul Ingram suggests there that the current deadlock will not be broken until states ‘change their attitudes towards nuclear weapons and raise their sights to include other means to achieve reductions in parallel’. This article focuses on possible legal means that are being discussed at #NPT2015. However, there are two major problems with the way the NPT works and how both civil society and member states are approaching the disarmament question.

The first is that some states who have nuclear weapons are missing. The Treaty defines a nuclear weapons state as one which ‘manufactured and exploded a nuclear weapon or other explosive device prior to 1 January 1967’. This has ensured that Israel, Pakistan and India are excluded, leaving them outside NPT processes, normative pressures, and IAEA safeguards. This is a major flaw in the non-proliferation regime that few have an answer to. (I felt this keenly last week, during an event organised by the NWS to showcase their new Glossary of Key Nuclear Terms a valuable trust- and confidence-building initiative that will also help future arms control negotiations. I asked if it would be either feasible or advisable to involve the other nuclear powers in such a process. While officials rightly responded that it would make a difficult consensus even more difficult, they referred to India, Pakistan and Israel in hushed euphemisms such as “that category of states”, and darkly hinted that to entertain the idea would damage the NPT.

The second problem is that, even as the 2010 Revcon noted ‘the need for further progress in diminishing the role of nuclear weapons in security policies’ and the NWS proclaim their policies to be ‘deterrence’, this is not actually the case. A proper practice of nuclear deterrence that contributes to strategic stability, and can plausibly make a short-run contribution to international security, is one in which adversary states should only fear retaliation if they strike first. It should be what Bernard Brodie explained in The Absolute Weapon, an approach to war whose only purpose is to prevent war. To achieve this kind of deterrence requires that states declare three things: that the “Sole Use” of their capability is to deter nuclear attack; that there will be “No First Use” of nuclear weapons; and to offer assurances to non-nuclear states that they will never be targeted or attacked (“Negative Security Assurances” or NSAs). However only China has declared a no first use policy, and its defense white paper calls for “nuclear-weapon states [to] negotiate and conclude a treaty on no-first-use of nuclear weapons against each other.”

Neither France, Russia, the US nor the UK currently have a sole use or no first use policy. Russia, France and the US include missions in their nuclear doctrine to deal with conventional attack and the use of chemical or biological weapons. The UK policy states that ‘we deliberately maintain some ambiguity about precisely when, how and at what scale we would contemplate use of our nuclear deterrent’, although in 2010 it clarified its policy to state that it would ‘only consider using nuclear weapons in extreme circumstances of self-defence, including the defence of our NATO Allies, and in accordance with our international legal obligations’. Both India and Pakistan contemplate using nuclear weapons to deal with conventional contingencies. Pakistan has also placed nuclear weapons under the operational command of dispersed military units, and there were serious fears of escalation into nuclear war during the “Twin Peaks” crisis of 2001-2, after two major terrorist attacks on India which had their source in Pakistan.

Thus, in sum, four of the five NPT nuclear weapons states have a range of potential nuclear missions, including to deter or respond to large scale conventional attack and chemical or biological weapons use, and will not issue a “no first use” reassurance. India and Pakistan also have a range of nuclear missions amid enormous bilateral tension. In short, what most of the nuclear weapons states in fact have – which only India is frank in admitting – are “nuclear defence” policies. There are no signs of deterrence breaking out any time soon.

Breaking the deadlock

There is enormous frustration at #NPT2015 about disarmament and the NWS. This is visible in statements and working papers by the 120 states in the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), the 6 states of the New Agenda Coalition (NAC), the 12 states in the Nonproliferation and Disarmament Initiative (NPDI), and many more. This frustration focuses both on the stalling of arms control negotiations between the US and Russia, the reluctance of other NWS to join multilateral negotiations until those two states have reduced their forces to comparable levels, and the force modernisation programs of all the NWS which have budgets in the tens of billions and extend out 20 years or more. This is perceived as making a mockery both of the broad interpretation of Article VI to mean that disarmament should occur (much) sooner rather than later, and of fears that delay will fuel proliferation and only increase the risk of nuclear weapons being used, with devastating consequences. As the NAM stated, this lack of progress ‘could undermine the object and purpose of the Treaty and the credibility of the non-proliferation regime’. In this context, the view put by the French President François Hollande that the total elimination of nuclear weapons remains a “long-term goal, when the strategic context allows” is an unbearable provocation.

At the 2015 Revcon, the NPDI group are merely urging the NWS to continue bllateral disarmament negotiations and reduce the role of nuclear weapons in their security policies. Civil society groups are unimpressed with what they perceive to be a weak stance that will do little to advance progress. In contrast, the NAM is arguing the ‘urgent necessity of negotiating and bringing to a conclusion a phased programme for the complete elimination of nuclear weapons with a specified time frame’ and urges the ‘Conference on Disarmament to immediately establish, as the highest priority, a subsidiary body to negotiate and conclude a comprehensive convention on nuclear weapons to prohibit their possession, development, production, acquisition, testing, stockpiling, transfer, use or threat of use and to provide for their destruction.’

In a very interesting development, the New Agenda Coalition (NAC) has published a working paper that urges serious consideration of what “effective measures” in Article VI mean. In their view, that means new international legal agreements: ‘states parties must now engage in serious discussions on the legal framework for a world without nuclear weapons and advance the necessary preparatory work’. The legal measures they advance are four: a “comprehensive nuclear weapons convention” of the kind advanced by the NAM; a simpler “nuclear weapons ban treaty”; a “framework comprising mutually supporting instruments”; or a hybrid of the first three options.

Because the Conference on Disarmament is moribund, and a Nuclear Weapons Convention is generally thought of as a comprehensive legal framework for a world on the path to total nuclear disarmament, it is seen as less politically relevant. However there is surely great value in early efforts to explore what such a convention should do and say.

In the short-term, the ban treaty idea is arousing more excitement. It is seen as a simple treaty that (like the chemical and biological weapons conventions) would lay out the moral, legal and strategic reasoning for a ban, and be open to the signature of all states. It was suggested to me by one NGO that NWS could join it by negotiating individual protocols that set out their concrete plans to eliminate their nuclear arsenals. Such a convention could also support non-proliferation objectives if states such as Iran, which is this year’s chair of the NAM delegation, join the convention early. It would add to pressure on the NWS to pursue disarmament, and provide a framework for the other nuclear states to engage in dialogue.

The NWS are very cool on the ban proposal, and it was put to me by one senior NWS diplomat that a ban treaty could be very dangerous for the nonproliferation regime if it does not support the nonproliferation architecture of the NPT, and if some existing NNWS members of the NPT failed to join. In such a case, it would effectively function as ‘a referendum on the NPT’ in which some states voted ‘no’. It will be fascinating to see if #NPT2015 adopts language that supports any of the NAC proposals and how debate develops over the next few years.

What the 2015 Revcon is less likely to address is the role of nuclear doctrine in increasing (or lowering) the risks of nuclear weapons use. While recent Revcons have actively talked about the safety benefits of de-alerting nuclear forces (by increasing decision-times before launch and de-targeting weapons), at #NPT2015 neither member states nor civil society have focused on the threat to strategic stability represented by these expansive nuclear doctrines. The NAM is the exception here, reminding the conference in its working paper on disarmament of action 5 (c) of the 2010 Final Document (‘To further diminish the role and significance of nuclear weapons in all military and security concepts, doctrines and policies’).

It is arguable that a general adoption of “no first use” and “sole use” policies would contribute greatly to reducing the likelihood of nuclear weapons being used and be of great benefit to international security. In turn, they could contribute to reducing tensions, building trust, and pave the way for further disarmament. We find this neglect puzzling. In our view, international society has a legitimate interest in how states target, posture, deploy, and plan to use their forces. The humanitarian initiative rightly emphasises elimination as a goal, but is more immediately concerned to prevent the use of nuclear weapons.

In this light, a fifth new treaty concept may be worth exploring. This treaty would be a ‘mini-lateral’ treaty open to all states who possess nuclear weapons, and might be called “The Treaty on Nuclear Strategic Reassurance and Disarmament”. It would have a few simple clauses that see its signatories agreeing to: adopt sole use and no first use policies; provide negative security assurances to non-nuclear weapons states; actively pursue nuclear disarmament negotiations in good faith with a view to the complete elimination of their weapons at an early date, according to the principles of transparency, verifiability and irreversibility; and to commit to good faith efforts to engage in practices of dialogue and trust building to increase understanding and reduce strategic tensions between them. A further clause could see non-members of the NPT commit to joining the NPT as non-nuclear weapons states at an early date.

Such a treaty will be resisted by the nuclear states in the short-term. However with further thought they should see the immediate security benefits it provides, by stabilising nuclear relationships and creating a far more conducive context for meaningful multilateral disarmament. While it would remain delinked from the NPT it would also support its fundamental objectives. It would be a powerful medium-term tool while we remain ever aware, in the words of the non-aligned states, of ‘the threat to humanity posed by the continued existence of nuclear weapons…the total elimination of nuclear weapons and the legally binding assurance that they will never be produced again is the only absolute guarantee against the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons’.

Anthony Burke is Associate Professor/Reader in International and Political Studies at UNSW Australia, Canberra. He is a visiting fellow at the ICCS and a co-investigator with Nicholas Wheeler and Scott Wisor on the “Nuclear Ethics” project. His most recent book is Ethics and Global Security: A Cosmopolitan Approach (with Katrina Lee-Koo and Matt McDonald, Routledge 2014).

Image source: UGM-27 Polaris Submarine Nuclear Missile. Flickr/ Kelly Michals

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