By Dr Manpreet Sethi*
The Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) undergoes a review conference (RevCon) every five years. In the current cycle, this was planned for April-May 2020. Due to the pandemic, it had to be re-scheduled to January 2021, then to August 2021, and has since been moved to sometime next year. It was unfortunate that such a delay became inevitable, at a time when the treaty was to celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2020. It would also have been the 25th anniversary of the indefinite and unconditional extension of the treaty, which was granted in 1995.
In the long-run, however, this rescheduling may actually turn out to be fortuitous given the fractious political atmosphere that was then prevalent between states parties. While the tide has of course not turned yet, the ominous political mood has lightened a bit with President Biden in the White House. He is trying to mend fences with both US allies and adversaries and has also reaffirmed American support for multilateralism. Though the journey to good relations between major nuclear powers still looks long and arduous, one can at least expect the RevCon to take place in a more constructive atmosphere than would have been possible in 2020.
In fact, the shadow of the then fractious atmosphere was apparent in the third preparatory committee (PrepCom) meeting for the RevCon in 2019. Tasked with the preparation of a consensus report with recommendations for the RevCon, the PrepCom could only manage a Chair’s Working Paper. This was due to the US refusal to agree to all recommendations, especially those on disarmament. Indeed, differences of perspective do exist among NPT member states over treaty priorities and how to achieve them. These are exacerbated by the polarised major power relations, and manifested in a doddering arms control architecture and technological offence-defence developments.
If the tenth RevCon in 2022 has to have a chance at success, it is important that the time gained due to the postponement is used constructively to build bridges over issues on which states are most divided. And these are not few.
The 1995 RevCon had been able to win an indefinite extension of the NPT on the promise of working towards three objectives: early conclusion of a Middle East WMD free zone; strengthening of IAEA safeguards and treaty review process to reinforce non-proliferation; and realisation of concrete steps towards nuclear disarmament. Except for some movement on non-proliferation, none on the other two objectives has been achieved. Rather, the Middle East nuclear landscape has only become more difficult.
The Iranian nuclear knot that the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) had sought to unentangle, tightened in 2018 when former US President Trump withdrew from the agreement. A hardened Iranian position since then has not made a return to the JCPOA easy. Meanwhile, bitterness between Iran and Israel has grown. The risk of nuclear proliferation in the region has risen given Saudi Arabia and Turkey’s not-so-hidden nuclear ambitions. Therefore, turbulence the Middle East is likely to predominate the forthcoming NPT RevCon.
On disarmament, meanwhile, it is ironic that though the Ban Treaty entered into force in 2021, the world is no closer to the elimination of nuclear weapons. Rather, the nine nuclear-armed states’ nuclear arsenals appear more disposed towards nuclear modernisation. Each of them has rejected the Ban Treaty as an ineffective instrument to achieve nuclear disarmament. While they are united in their opposition on this matter, their own dyadic relations reflect deep mistrust.
There are also gaps between nuclear weapon states (NWS) and non-nuclear weapon states (NNWS). The latter are frustrated at NWS’ lack of movement on disarmament even as they are subject to new restrictions on non-proliferation through instruments such as the Additional Protocol, prohibitions on development of enrichment and reprocessing technologies, etc. Given this reality, the chasm on non-proliferation and disarmament will be another rancorous issue at the RevCon. In fact, enhanced confidence on the basis of the Ban Treaty will make the NNWS less tolerant of a lack of movement on disarmament by NWS.
The real challenge will now be in trying to reconcile the objectives of the two treaties. While the NPT is predominantly skewed in favour of non-proliferation, the Ban Treaty is inclined solely towards disarmament. For both to be sustainable, however, a balance between them is imperative.
The many challenges dotting the nuclear landscape permit low expectations from the RevCon. The conference could be considered a success as long as it gets by without a showdown, even if it fails to generate a final consensus document. All member states do recognise the worth of the NPT, but an inability to address contemporary nuclear risks is causing frustration and could lead to a reduction in faith in its utility.
The NPT can ill-afford this. At 50 years and with a record membership of states, the treaty should have been bubbling with confidence. While it has a fair amount to show on non-proliferation and peaceful uses of nuclear technology, the boat could be rocked by the growing impatience with lack of progress on disarmament. The NWS can—or should—no longer take this lightly. Their complacency triggered the Ban Treaty. This, however, was a constructive channelling of the NNWS’ energies and efforts. A continued business-as-usual approach by NWS bereft of any vision on disarmament could next cause a less benign move, such as an exodus from, or erosion of, the NPT. This would be to nobody’s benefit.
Adopting a forward-looking agenda at the next RevCon—one that can reinvigorate the NPT—is in the interest of all its 190 member states, as also of non-members.
*Dr Manpreet Sethi is Distinguished Fellow, Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS), New Delhi.