Nuclear Futures after the #NPT2015

Watching global governance fail is a sobering thing. The 9th Review Conference of the NPT ended late in the evening of Friday 22 May with no final outcome document – no frank assessment of progress, no benchmarks, and no plans. At a time when there are serious fears that disarmament processes are in reverse, and strategic tensions between India and Pakistan and NATO and Russia are increasingly worrying, international society came up empty. Great power veto and the most narrow self-interest was allowed to ride roughshod over the interests of humanity and the security of the planet.

On Thursday evening there was a draft document that, while weaker than what many states and NGOs wanted, and weaker than the 2010 outcome, was the basis for a working consensus. A day later, the UK, US and Canada had vetoed its adoption because of their objection to Egypt’s proposal for a conference on a Nuclear Weapons Free Zone in the Middle East, which Israel – currently the region’s only nuclear weapons state – does not want discussed. Thus we were witness to the bizarre spectacle of a major global treaty review being blocked in the interest of a state which was not even a member of that treaty. While it may be possible to question the realism or effective value of the Egyptian proposal, for a handful of states to use it as a pretext to block progress on the complex gamut of nonproliferation challenges was a striking display of diplomatic vandalism.

The ICCS’s final article from the #NPT2015 conference looks at the final non-outcome and its background, and considers some of the immediate and future issues the NPT regime will face in its wake.


The Middle-East was not the only source of tension in the month-long meeting. The review conference also exposed a widening rift with the NWS and NNWS over disarmament and the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons, which we covered in earlier weeks. This dispute was visible in the final week as the NWS sought to weaken and remove text in the draft final outcome relating to these questions.

On many key points, the 2015 draft outcome had weaker language than the 2010 outcome. And, as this analysis shows, this year the NWS were actively seeking to weaken previous drafts of the outcome drafted in Main Committee I (the Revcon’s working committee on disarmament). Whereas in 2010 the NWS committed to ‘unequivocally accomplish, in accordance with the principle of irreversibility, the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals leading to nuclear disarmament’ the draft merely ‘notes the reaffirmation by all States parties of their commitment to the full and effective implementation of article VI of the Treaty’ – at a time when there is intense dispute over how to interpret Article VI, with some NWS, especially the French, asserting that disarmament is a long-term goal that is dependent on favorable geopolitical circumstances.

Despite energetic efforts by the NWS in the final week to water down the draft, it still contained strong language on disarmament and evidence of a profound struggle over its meaning. The sardonic clause in the draft that ‘the Conference recognizes that the indefinite extension of the Treaty at the 1995 Review and Extension Conference did not imply the indefinite possession of nuclear weapons by the nuclear-weapon States’ betrays this division.

The most important inclusion in the draft was reference to the terrible humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons use and testing, and the three major global conferences on the issue leading up to the Revcon, which France and Russia in particular were unhappy about. Even more striking were the references, in paragraph 154 of the draft, to the need to ‘identify and elaborate effective measures for the full implementation of article VI, including legal provisions or other arrangements that contribute to and are required for the achievement and maintenance of a world without nuclear weapons’. The draft further recommended ‘that the United Nations General Assembly establish at its seventieth session an open-ended working group’ to consider such ‘legal provisions [which] could be established through various approaches, including a stand-alone instrument or a framework agreement’. In short, the draft was urging consideration of a ban treaty or a nuclear weapons convention, to fill what Austria on the final day (on behalf of 51 states) called the “legal gap” for the “prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons”.

Paragraph 154 of the draft also listed some clear demands on the NWS for more rapid progress on disarmament and safer nuclear weapons policies. Among other things, the paragraph called ‘upon all nuclear-weapon States, in implementing their unequivocal undertaking, to reduce further and eliminate, in a transparent, irreversible and verifiable manner, all types of nuclear weapons, strategic and non-strategic, deployed and non-deployed’ – reminding the NWS once again of the need to eliminate battlefield or ‘tactical’ nuclear weapons, which currently do not figure in the START treaty. It also urged the US and Russia to negotiate a new arms control agreement and make deeper cuts, and address ‘all issues related to strategic stability’ (this being code for missile defense).

Similarly, in a way that echoes our concerns in our second #NPT2015 blog, it called on the NWS to ‘continue to review their military and security concepts, doctrines and policies over the course of the next review cycle, with a view, to reducing further the role and significance of nuclear weapons therein’. In short, it asserted that international society has an interest in how states deploy and posture their forces and insists that they remove them more and more from their military planning.

Yet this draft is now a kind of ghost, left to wander the halls of UNHQ as a wraithlike spectre of the global governance that wasn’t. We must remember that, at the end of four weeks and the expenditure of millions of dollars on salaries, hotel rooms, security, entertainment, and limousines, no text was adopted. Given the evident hostility of the NWS to ideas like the nuclear ban treaty, it is worth wondering whether the Middle-East nuclear weapons free zone merely provided a convenient pretext to bury the final outcome completely.

Lingering issues

In the closing session, the 51 governments that spoke through Austria remarked that ‘the exchanges of views that we have witnessed during this review cycle demonstrate that there is a wide divide that presents itself in many fundamental aspects of what nuclear disarmament should mean. There is a reality gap, a credibility gap, a confidence gap and a moral gap’.

This is not the only gap to have been exposed in New York this year. In our view, the 2015 review conference continued to expose a range of serious problems with the regime, not all of which have been fully recognised. They include:

  • The “bargain” at the heart of the regime, which trades nuclear disarmament for nonproliferation responsibilities, is fraying further. While there is no effective progress on disarmament, efforts to strengthen the machinery of nonproliferation will remain stalled and will be in ever greater danger of going into reverse. Meanwhile there is little progress on legal efforts to prevent the production of fissile materials for weapons or divert existing stocks to peaceful purposes, and the 2015 draft again urged states to begin negotiations on an FMCT. The 2015 draft merely ‘noted’ another useful brick in the nonproliferation wall – efforts to create an international nuclear fuel ‘bank’ with a reserve of low-enriched uranium in Russia (what are termed ‘multilateral approaches to the nuclear fuel cycle’) – but defensively insisted on the ‘inalienable right of States parties to the NPT to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes’. The agreement with Iran, and the US-India nuclear cooperation deal and exemption granted by the Nuclear Suppliers Group ( which left 8 reactors outside IAEA supervision and safeguards), have only entrenched this so-called ‘inalienable right’ in a way that is very damaging for global security. Mark Fitzpatrick of the International institute of Strategic Studies argues that the India cooperation agreement deepened Pakistan’s desire to block negotiations on the FMCT and spurred it to further develop theatre nuclear weapons.
  • The absence of four nuclear weapons states from the treaty – or any other significant legal framework – is arguably the biggest threat to the regime. Aside from Israel’s evident spoiling at the Revcon, North Korea’s program remains very concerning, and the efforts to build weapons and delivery systems in India and Pakistan are turning into a destabilising spiral. Furthermore, even after India’s former Congress Party Prime Minister called for a global “no first use” agreement, the new leading party (the BJP) and some strategists are conducting a worrying debate about potential revisions to India’s nuclear doctrine. Yet there are no serious proposals under discussion to fix this problem. Along with our concerns about the destabilising character of many nuclear doctrines, this is why the ICCS has proposed the “Treaty on Nuclear Strategic Reassurance and Disarmament”.
  • There is little serious consideration of the long-term – that is, how we can actually reduce arsenals, strengthen global governance, and move to something like nuclear zero. The nuclear ban idea is aimed solely at filling the legal gap, but provides no blueprints for how deeper disarmament and new nonproliferation arrangements could combine with strategic concepts to make a world with few or no nuclear weapons stable and secure. NGOs and the states behind the humanitarian initiative are not talking about such a process, and neither are the nuclear states. Yet good ideas are there for the taking. The 2009 report of the International Commission on Nuclear Nonproliferation and Disarmament put forward a plan for the first stages of such a process, and the IISS has published at least three major papers (in 2008, 2010, and 2011) on the strategic challenges of getting to zero.

Nuclear ethics beyond #NPT2015

In our first blog we remarked how the humanitarian impacts initiative has dramatically transformed the moral and political landscape around nuclear weapons. It challenges us to re-examine the ethical debates around the use, and threat of use, of nuclear weapons, along with the human and environmental impacts of the entire complex that developed and sustains nuclear weapons systems. This is what made the views of the Pacific Island nations, such as the Marshall islands and Palau, so important at #NPT2015.

The failure at the 2015 review conference now confronts us with the need to think about the ethics of how the faltering system of global nuclear governance affects global security – the security not of this or that state, but of humanity and the planet. The nuclear weapons states, and many others, are still seeing the question through the lens of their own national security and pursuing policies that gravely threaten the security of the rest. Yet as Hedley Bull remarked some 25 years ago, arms control should promote ‘universal purposes and not merely bilateral ones’, which we interpret now to mean that the nonproliferation regime must be reformed so as to serve the global security interest. It is this complex mix of ethical, governance and policy problems we will be working through over the next 18 months.

The 2015 failure also highlights an immediate ethical question. The “P5” nuclear powers – who are also the permanent members of the UN Security Council – are often considered to have ‘special responsibilities’ for international peace and security. Yet their conduct this last month suggests that they are also wont to treat such responsibilities with disdain. Surely there is an ethics of responsible global governance when the stakes are so high?

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