The Ninth Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) has opened in New York. Representatives of NPT member nations meet once every five years to discuss the current state of nuclear arsenals and prospects for reducing them, the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons and the development of peaceful nuclear energy. Despite the relative success of the previous conference that took place in 2010, experts are now forecasting a lack of progress at best and the start of a crisis for control over nuclear weapons and non-proliferation in the worst-case scenario. Deadlock in the implementation of key provisions of the NPT has been cited as the main reason.
The causes of this deadlock are political and cannot be overcome except by returning to the initial understanding of the specific nature and purpose of the nuclear arms control process. Since the time they appeared, “doomsday weapons” have had a sacral nature and cannot be compared with other type of weapon. The vast majority of nations believe that nuclear arsenals should be reduced and their proliferation should be prevented because nuclear arms have exceptionally destructive power and even a “limited” nuclear war is guaranteed to result in a global environmental disaster.
The multilateral regimes of control and non-proliferation begin experiencing a crisis at the moment when these fundamental motives for nuclear disarmament erode away under the influence of secondary political controversies. Such tensions between the USSR and then Russia and the U.S. have spawned the theory, for instance, about the “stabilizing role of nuclear weapons.” In turn, this claim, which is fundamentally impossible to verify in practice, provides powerful trump cards to potential proliferators: if mutual assured destruction plays a stabilizing role in Russian-U.S. relations, why can’t it perform the same function at a regional level, for instance in the Middle East? Recognizing the contradictory positions of the two nuclear superpowers, the world’s second economic superpower – China – is not likely rushing to announce the existence of mutual assured destruction in relations with the U.S.
Just as destructive for the NPT are the implications from attempts to use nuclear arms in order to force other nations to take specific actions through “brinkmanship.” Such brinkmanship, according to the claims of its proponents (in North Korea and several other countries), is supposed to force other world powers to the negotiating table with the power that is unhappy about the current “geopolitical” status quo. In reality, besides impacting the nuclear arms control process, such direct and indirect threats inflict enormous damage on the reputation of the country that issued them. Virtually everyone in the world recognizes the defensive function of nuclear weapons: they are capable of dissuading a potential adversary from destroying the armed forces of a nuclear power on its territory. However, nobody is willing to recognize the offensive nature of nuclear weapons, i.e. “nuclear blackmail” (for example, in the form of nuclear coverage for offensive operations). The response to such actions is international isolation of the blackmailer or – in the long term – a nuclear arms race with the prospect of the collapse of the NPT.
Another factor in the crisis with nuclear control is the “blending” of nuclear weapons with any other types of weapons and demands for their simultaneous reduction or restriction. Russia’s concerns in this regard are understandable, however Russia’s arguments about the danger of conventional precision-guided weapons for strategic stability apparently are not making the desired impression on most countries – not too many countries fear sudden mass disarming strikes from the U.S. and/or its allies. The problem of missile defense as an offensive weapon does not have the potential to unite a wide range of influential countries either since few of them believe that global missile defense is a realistic project and, more importantly, view it as a major threat to their security. Nuclear weapons are unique in terms of their destructive power and its implications and for this very reason representative conferences are held regularly to discuss ways to reduce them. Arranging a similar conference on the theme of missile defense or conventional high-precision weapons and including commitments to reduce them in Article VI of the NPT probably is hardly realistic.
For now the agreement of the six major powers with Iran on the curtailment of its nuclear program – an enormous achievement of the multilateral non-proliferation policy – has not been finalized and may cause additional tension to the same extent as strengthening the non-proliferation regime. Potential proliferators are already “probing” the price that the world leaders of the non-proliferation regime are prepared to pay for guarantees of the peaceful nature of national nuclear programs.
Finally, the currently popular global discussions about a “new world order” emerging under the conditions of “growing chaos” and the appearance of numerous new “threats” are not helping to strengthen control over arms and non-proliferation. Such reasoning from the mouths of representatives of great powers that primarily shape the world order force medium-sized and even small countries to at least considering developing national dual-purpose nuclear programs.
For these (and other long-standing) reasons, it will be difficult to achieve new compromises in matters of nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation at the 2015 review conference. In the current conditions, certain non-nuclear nations will ask rhetorically: if the great powers are attempting to convert the possession of nuclear weapons into political (and “geopolitical” dividends”, then why can’t non-nuclear countries immediately “capitalize” on their rejection of nuclear weapons? In an attempt to derive the relevant benefits, non-nuclear nations may once again step up hints (read: threats) about the possibility of launching a uranium enrichment program or the construction of nuclear power plants.
The nuclear non-proliferation regime and the nuclear arms reduction process are akin to a bicycle: with no forward movement, they tilt and start to fall. If the progressive trend fizzles out under the influence of (geo)politics, regress will set in immediately and national military-industrial complexes or pure demagoguery will have the upper hand in the global discussion about the future of nuclear arms.
Mikhail Troitskiy, PhD in Political Science, Associate Professor, MGIMO University, RIAC Expert.