US President Donald Trump wants to increase military spending, including a costly upgrade to the country's nuclear arsenal to meet the threat from so-called "revisionist" powers, Russia and China. But the move could pose significant risks to the American economy.Image: iStock/curraheeshutter
The US threatened China with nuclear attacks during the 1950s. Image: iStock

This is crunch time for the global nuclear order. On Tuesday, US President Donald Trump announced his country’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal and reimposition of sanctions. Soon, he is expected to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong-un for a summit that will have implications for that country’s nuclear program.

With Trump surrounded by hawkish advisers – such as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton – the odds are good that efforts to denuclearize will continue to suffer setbacks. For this reason, it is more important than ever that the international community upholds existing treaty obligations, starting with the 1968 nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). But to do that, tough conversations must be had.

Multilateral agreements are always prone to gaps in application; the international non-proliferation regime is no different. For example, while neither Israel nor India has signed the NPT, both states are considered responsible members of the nuclear-weapons club. Israel has never been sanctioned for its bomb, and India has a waiver from the Nuclear Suppliers Group, as well as several civil nuclear agreements with the United States, Australia, Canada and Japan.

Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, on the other hand, are tolerated but not accepted; North Korea’s de facto nuclearization is considered intolerable; and Iran’s nuclear program was curbed before a weapon could be developed, though Trump has now put that accomplishment in doubt.

Amid this imperfect framework, many countries have become frustrated by the refusal of NPT signatories to discuss their own disarmament

Amid this imperfect framework, many countries have become frustrated by the refusal of NPT signatories to discuss their own disarmament. Article VI of the NPT obliges parties to pursue “in good faith” negotiations to disarm, but the nuclear-weapons states that have ratified the treaty do not interpret this as a prohibition on their possessing a nuclear arsenal. Rather, buoyed by the doctrine of deterrence, they argue that reductions would weaken global security.

Perhaps not surprisingly, non-nuclear-weapon states see things differently. And, last year, they committed their views to a supplementary treaty at the United Nations. To date, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) has been signed by 58 countries and ratified by eight, and if it ever comes into force will ban the use, threat of use, or possession of nuclear arms.

Better known as the “ban treaty,” the TPNW is an important step toward the establishment of a new international norm. It is also a logical consequence of the NPT’s failings. But because the ban treaty goes beyond the NPT in two key respects, it has also drawn heavy opposition. The ban treaty would prohibit so-called nuclear sharing arrangements, whereby allies of nuclear weapon states could store weapons on these states’ territory. Moreover, it undermines the logic of deterrence by making the “threat of use” illegal.

If the global non-proliferation regime is to remain viable, the competing visions reflected in the NPT and the ban treaty must be reconciled. For that to happen, the international community needs to agree on a strategy to achieve an international order in which the reduction of nuclear stockpiles reinforces, rather than jeopardizes, regional and global security.

No doubt these will be difficult discussions, but the alternative is far worse than a few bruised egos. Some experts have suggested that hardline opposition to the ban treaty could prompt a backlash from countries that have grown disillusioned with the NPT, leading to widespread withdrawal from the 1968 treaty. Needless to say, this would be hugely counter-productive. Not only would it destabilize the existing nuclear order and heighten many countries’ sense of insecurity, it would also deepen armed states’ attachment to the bombs they already have.

Its flaws notwithstanding, the NPT has brought years of nuclear stability. Even countries that have refused to sign the treaty have a stake in its survival, with or without the ban treaty, given the serious global security implications of its unraveling. Therefore, all sides must urgently rediscover their common interest in practical and effective disarmament.

The two treaties can converge in a framework that minimizes nuclear threats in the near term; reduces the number of nuclear weapons in the medium term; and aspires to the complete, verifiable, and irreversible elimination of nuclear weapons in the long term. This approach was outlined in 2009 by the International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament; a version of it must be resurrected now.

Trump’s announcement on Tuesday very likely signals the demise of the Iran nuclear deal. But regardless of what becomes of Iran’s nuclear program, or of North Korea’s for that matter, a weakening of the NPT – the bedrock of the global nuclear order for a half-century – represents the biggest threat of all.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2018.

Ramesh Thakur

Ramesh Thakur, a former assistant secretary general of the United Nations, is director of the Center for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament at Australian National University.

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