The Non-Proliferation Treaty at 35: A To-Do List

Next week states will begin gathering in New York for a review of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. With the US and Russia both committed to modernising their stockpiles and relations between the two at their lowest ebb for a generation, Elizabeth Zolotukinha predicts a contentious meeting.

The upcoming Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) Review Conference to be held from 27 April to 22 May 2015 in New York promises to be contentious for at least two reasons. First, the non-nuclear signatories of the NPT have recently become increasingly dissatisfied with the perceived slow rate of disarmament by the nuclear-capable members and have attempted to force the nuclear powers to move faster on disarmament. Second, Washington’s recent decision to modernise its nuclear weapons complex, the first such move since the creation of the current nuclear forces during the Cold War, has sparked a debate about the depth of the US commitment to the NPT. This uncertainty has been compounded by a similar decision in Moscow.

Currently there are 191 States Party, of which 93 are NPT treaty signatories. The accord represents the only binding commitment in a multilateral accord to the goal of disarmament by the six nuclear-weapon states and, by extension, the remaining 185 signatories are expressly prohibited from possessing nuclear weapons. Conferences to review the operation of the treaty, have been held at five-year intervals since the treaty went into effect. Each conference has sought to find agreement on a final declaration that would assess the implementation of the accord’s provisions and make recommendations on measures to further strengthen it. Historically, these have been relatively staid events. Recently, however, this has changed.

Non-nuclear members of the NPT cite several factors to support their dissatisfaction at the slow disarmament rate by the nuclear powers. First, despite the accord’s commitment to disarmament, the “relatively sluggish reduction rate” in American and Russian nuclear arsenals suggests that the number of nuclear weapons held by those nations is merely plateauing, not heading towards zero. This is an especially worrying indicator for the contingent since Washington and Moscow are viewed as having the responsibility to lead by example in the disarmament sphere, since together they possess two of the largest nuclear weapons stockpiles in the world.

Of even greater concern to the non-nuclear members of the NPT are the Russian and especially the US military modernisation programmes. These developments risk undermining the NPT as it re-asserts the importance of nuclear deterrence in the current strategic environment.

Moscow’s military modernisation programme, though impressive in theory, may still encounter several stumbling blocks, not least financial ones. Success is not assured – the Kremlin’s past attempts to update its armed forces have floundered. However, the possibility that Moscow could succeed in the endeavour has alarmed the NPT’s non-nuclear signatories. The US, by contrast, fields the largest nuclear force in the world and has recently committed $348 billion USD over the next 10 years to updating all three legs of its nuclear triad, including land-based missiles, submarine-launched missiles, and long-range bombers. Reports suggest that its modernisation effort is likely to cost $1 trillion USD over the next 30 years.

Together, these campaigns risk increasing Washington and Moscow’s desire to actually use the resulting more accurate conventional and nuclear weapons and systems. The improved accuracy of such weapons not only jeopardises mutual assured destruction (MAD), but also “potentially undermines the foundation of the tradition of non-use of nuclear weapons.” This is so because increased accuracy compromises the moral abhorrence at the high and indiscriminate casualty rates traditionally associated with the use of nuclear weapons. In this context, nuclear deterrence shifts from being near obsolete to critical.

To avert such a scenario, the NPT must be strengthened. Achieving consensus on the issues of disarmament and military modernisation will be key at the upcoming NPT review conference. However, doing so will not be easy.

Progress on these issues in the upcoming forum is far from guaranteed. First, the US has largely ignored past attempts to discuss disarmament within the NPT review conference framework. Second, Russia is highly unlikely to agree to curtail its military modernisation programme, publicly or privately. The initiative is a central tenet of current Russian policy. Moreover, its very existence – regardless of success or failure – provides Moscow with an invaluable, if highly irresponsible, rhetorical device. Irrespective of the outcome of the initiative, Russian leaders will be able to use aspects of the program to alarm the West. Finally, there is a lack of consensus on these issues among the nuclear-capable States Party of the NPT. An uphill battle is on the cards.


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