The Tenth Review Conference of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) has been delayed—again. Delegates from 191 countries would have gathered last week to conduct their review of the treaty—the cornerstone of a global regime aimed at preventing the spread of nuclear weapons and working toward their elimination—but for yet another postponement caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

If pandemics could have unintended good consequences, the latest delay to the review conference (RevCon) might provide a test case: a January 2022 RevCon would have been an acrimonious affair. Perhaps by August, when the conference is now tentatively scheduled, member states will generate enough reciprocal goodwill to yield a constructive outcome.

RevCons—normally held every five years—are meant to enable states and NGOs to take stock of any challenges to the NPT regime and ideally agree on steps to address them. There are plenty of challenges—and the prospects of states agreeing on steps to address them are increasingly far-fetched. Since the last NPT review in 2015, for example, North Korea expanded and diversified its nuclear weapons arsenal; former president Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the Iran nuclear deal; and China, Russia, and the United States seeded a new arms race through their weapons modernization programs. In short, both the nonproliferation and disarmament remits of the NPT are under serious pressure.

Jamie Kwong
Jamie Kwong is a fellow in the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
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Beyond these troubling developments and trends, the main problem is the fundamental divisions between treaty members over priorities. If key states do not agree on basic priorities, they will be unable to cooperate on specific measures to uphold, let alone strengthen, the NPT regime.

The RevCon delay gives member states an opportunity to redress their competing priorities. To be clear, it is unrealistic to expect a resolution in the next eight years, much less eight months. But treaty members can take tangible actions to reduce the divides, prepare for a productive RevCon, and chart a successful way ahead for the NPT. In no area will this be more important than disarmament. Focusing on addressing disarmament divides and, relatedly, advancing risk reduction can inspire a forward-looking approach that could revive the NPT regime.

Disarmament Discord

The NPT consists of three interlocking bargains—nonproliferation of nuclear weapons, eventual disarmament by states with nuclear weapons, and peaceful nuclear energy cooperation—designed to satisfy the interests of all member states. Differences in how member states prioritize these various remits are growing. Diverging priorities related to the disarmament commitment are especially contentious.

Non-nuclear-weapon states (NNWS) are altogether dissatisfied with the lack of progress toward the NPT’s goal of eliminating nuclear weapons. The countries recognized by the NPT as nuclear-weapon states (NWS)—which also happen to be the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and are thus often referred to as the P5—argue that the geopolitical security environment precludes significant disarmament progress. While they have reaffirmed their commitment to the NPT disarmament goal and stated plainly that the treaty contributes to creating the conditions needed for further progress, many NNWS view these as hollow words lacking concrete follow-through.

This divide is fraying the NPT regime. Despite dedicated efforts to overcome it (such as the Japanese Group of Eminent Persons), mounting tensions between the two sides preoccupy most NPT discussions, to the detriment of the other work streams. Tangible steps should be taken now to help reduce tensions and ensure they do not boil over at the RevCon.

Minimally, member states can agree on temporizing language that addresses the relationship between the NPT and the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW)—a separate UN treaty banning nuclear weapons that entered into force last year. For members of the TPNW, the treaty is a significant contribution to the NPT’s disarmament remit, born of their frustrations with the lack of disarmament progress. Meanwhile, the P5 and many of their allies oppose it. They tend to argue that the TPNW is an unrealistic approach to disarmament that threatens to disrupt the NPT regime.

Some civil society experts have already suggested useful language for a final RevCon document that could satisfy both sides: recognize the TPNW’s entry into force while clearly reaffirming the centrality of the NPT to the disarmament and nonproliferation regime. Agreeing to such language between now and August would ensure that the RevCon does not degenerate into a fight over terms. Agreeing additionally to continue work both in and outside of the NPT process on practical steps that further the aims of both treaties would do even more to put the two sides on good footing heading into the RevCon.

Risk Reduction at the RevCon

The disarmament tension at the RevCon can be further relieved if the P5 commits to undertake risk reduction measures. NPT discourse leading up to the delayed RevCon placed increased emphasis on “reducing the risk of nuclear weapon use” as a practical way to make incremental progress toward disarmament. Risk reduction now features on the agendas of many NPT-adjacent forums comprised of both NWS and NNWS, such as the Stockholm Initiative for Nuclear Disarmament, the Creating an Environment for Nuclear Disarmament initiative, and the P5 Process.

However, some NNWS fear that a collective focus on risk reduction—especially by the P5—is just the latest effort to avoid taking the drastic steps needed to achieve disarmament. They suspect that in making advances on risk reduction efforts, the P5 will try to claim more meaningful progress toward disarmament than would be merited. After all, would risk reduction really make a difference if at the same time the NWS continue to modernize and grow their nuclear programs with plans to sustain them for the foreseeable future?

Action must therefore be taken to demonstrate that risk reduction is not a diversionary agenda but rather contributes to disarmament. The P5 in particular should plainly state at the RevCon that progress on risk reduction is a useful and critical interim measure that will advance, but not replace, their disarmament obligations. It helps that they released a statement last week affirming that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” It also helps that they submitted a working paper on risk reduction last month. The paper provides some additional insight into the P5 Process risk reduction agenda, most specifically as related to crisis communication channels. It also highlights the importance of mechanisms to prevent crisis. Yet, it falls short on concrete commitments and actions. Using the RevCon to specifically identify which mechanisms the P5 will pursue (such as joint early warning centers or so-called keep-out zones) would be constructive. Even better would be making time-bound pledges to implement various risk reduction measures.

NNWS can help by facilitating further progress on risk reduction and managing their expectations of what can feasibly be accomplished in the next eight months and at the RevCon. They should also similarly commit to tangible work in the next review cycle. Participants of the Stockholm Initiative, for example, can facilitate the implementation of their nuclear risk reduction package. Others can identify and act on ways NNWS themselves can reduce the risks of nuclear weapons use (such as limiting the salience of nuclear weapons in defense alliances). Undertaking these efforts would demonstrate a willingness by both sides to work toward effective compromise. It will also help to promote a more productive way ahead for the NPT.

A Forward-Looking Approach

While such concrete work is critical to ensuring disarmament divisions do not harm the NPT regime, states must also adopt a practical, forward-looking approach. The tenth RevCon is not the end-all of the NPT. Member states would do well to think beyond this RevCon and work to set a good tone, garner positive momentum, and develop a substantive agenda for the next review cycle—which, given the RevCon postponements, is also likely to be delayed. That agenda could include topics such as more tangible work on risk reduction, the conditions needed to achieve greater strategic stability, and reducing the role of nuclear weapons, as members work to align their priorities.

Such an approach would pave the way for medium-term progress that can go beyond the more modest expectations of what might be achievable in the next eight months. This should be a priority that NPT members can agree on. If members are willing to clearly signal in words and deeds their commitment to charting a constructive way ahead for the NPT, all parties could regain confidence that their interests will be served by upholding its three basic bargains.

No doubt, treaty members have a tough job ahead of them. But undertaking these efforts to address fundamental divisions in the lead up to, at, and beyond the RevCon might just help to revive the NPT regime.