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The discreet silence on the NPT

A. Vinod Kumar is Associate Fellow at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • March 02, 2015

    Roughly two months from now, over 190 member states will assemble in New York for the 9th Review Conference (RevCon) of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), and the fourth since its indefinite extension in 1995. As a quinquennial event, the RevCon is supposed to review the functional health of the Treaty, resolve its shortcomings and update it according to the times, in order to progress towards its objectives. However, unlike the previous RevCon in 2010, and many earlier versions, there is no hype or happening this time around – either in the non-proliferation circuit, prominent world capitals or among civil society groups – on the state of the Treaty, the prospective nature of debate at the RevCon, the future course of action that has to be agreed upon or other systemic issues that had traditionally confronted the Treaty’s functioning.

    This is in sharp contrast to the cacophony witnessed during the months running up to the 2010 RevCon. What does this signal? Does this indicate that the Treaty is now in the pink of health? Or does it suggest the advent of a post-proliferation world? Assuming that many deficiencies of the Treaty continue to persist, will there be a fresh impetus for structural reforms? Or does the current lull indicate continuance of the status quo? Above all, will the coming RevCon slip into a ritualistic event with no concrete outcomes expected?

    A vision gone astray

    The 2010 RevCon came after a decade of tumultuous developments coinciding with or accentuated by the George W. Bush presidency. The non-proliferation regime was in a state of perpetual crisis with recurring cases of deviance by countries like Iran, which seemed to be on the verge of going nuclear, an ever-defiant North Korea, which exited the Treaty and tested nuclear weapons in 2006 and 2009, and the looming threat of terror groups accessing resources for weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Bush’s vision of tackling this spectrum through a new framework of proactive counterproliferation initiatives, with emphasis on coercive use of force, had put immense stress on the regime, with traditional mechanisms like the NPT being relegated to irrelevance.

    Barack Obama took over the US presidency a year before the Revcon with the promise of reversing the much-criticized Bush Doctrine and reinstating the centrality of the NPT-oriented order. In a landmark speech at Prague in April 2009, Obama rekindled hopes for the total elimination of nuclear weapons, though prevising its improbability in his lifetime, by promising to revive and strengthen all those means and measures that will lead towards this objective.1 He vowed to strengthen the NPT by garnering “more resources and authority for international inspections” and providing for “real and immediate consequences for countries caught breaking the rules or trying to leave the treaty without cause” – the apparent reference being to North Korea and Iran.2

    The Prague moment symbolised the Obama administration’s impendent crusade on the NPT, though ending with a dismaying outcome at the 2010 RevCon. Months before the event, then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had promised a 21st century version of the NPT, even indicating that India will be a full partner at the high table.3 Obama stretched this imagination further when he chaired a special session of the UN Security Council (UNSC) that passed Resolution 1887. Among other things, this resolution exhorted states to “pursue negotiations on effective measures relating to nuclear arms reduction and disarmament,” and for “a Treaty on general and complete disarmament.”4 Many construed this reaffirmation of Article VI as not just an indicator of Obama’s resolve to revive the NPT, but also probably propose a new standalone disarmament or elimination treaty at the 2010 RevCon.

    No such revolution happened, however. Instead, the US delegation spearheaded efforts to dilute the recommendations of the RevCon’s Main Committee for a new disarmament plan, which included “convening an international conference in 2014 to finalise a roadmap for the complete elimination of nuclear weapons within a specified timeframe by means of a universal, legal instrument.”5 The P-5 forced a Subsidiary Revision to remove all timelines and discard the conference plan, and instead confined the language on their commitments to “promptly engage” to “accelerate concrete progress on steps leading to nuclear disarmament.” The US action not just subverted the disarmament momentum at the RevCon but also punctured Obama’s grand vision. That no subsequent initiatives were made to redeem the Treaty, or for that matter the CTBT or FMCT, underlines the insurmountable gap between ideational posturing and actual policymaking. No wonder then that the US has no particular agenda or promising initiative to put forward on the eve of the 2015 RevCon.

    The US Bureau of International Security and Non-Proliferation webpage lists three documents to highlight Washington’s contribution to the upcoming RevCon: the joint statement of the London P-5 Conference of February 2015,6 a Report of the USA Pursuant to Actions of the 2010 RevCon,7 and a speech by the Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security, Rose Gottemoeller, at Prague in December 2014.8 All three have one common character – emphasising the commitment of the United States, and the Nuclear Weapon States, to the NPT. The P-5 document goes a step forward to underline their commitment to the 2010 RevCon’s Action Plan (a document which they diluted), the long-term disarmament measures enshrined in that document, as well as of earlier RevCons. The Report to the 2010 Action Plan largely acts as a face-saver by describing the reductions of America’s nuclear arsenal, shifting to a credible deterrent with the lowest number of nuclear weapons and reducing the role of nuclear weapons in the US defence posture. The Report lists the trimming of the stockpile to around 82 per cent since the NPT’s entry into force; capping the stockpile to no more than 1550 warheads deployed (in sync with the New START); restricting the arsenal to 400 deployed ICBMs, 240 SLBMs and 60 nuclear bombers; de-MiRVing (ICBMs carrying only single war-heads), and so on.

    Gottemoeller’s speech is, however, a testimony to why the US approach is the most practical way towards disarmament. Affirming that only “multiple concurrent paths” could lead to the goal of total elimination, Gottemoeller insisted that the US reliance on calibrated steps, including NPT, CTBT and FMCT, is the most realistic route, instead of “amorphous” efforts like the Nuclear Weapons Convention (NWC) or a “fixed timeline for elimination.” Though given as a message to the Vienna Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons, this was a rare articulation of the US rejection of the NWC and other alternative routes suggested by countries like India. Gottemoeller also announced a new initiative – the International Partnership for Nuclear Disarmament Verification – probably the only significant US intervention in the run-up to the RevCon, but without expounding upon its utility.

    Reforms or status quo?

    With Washington’s inclination to avoid a repeat of the 2010 atmospherics, it is increasingly certain that the 2015 RevCon might end up as a ritualistic affair. Another harbinger of this probable outcome is the Draft Recommendations of the 2014 Preparatory Committee (PrepCom), which is a banal reiteration of the Action Plans of previous RevCons, including the key exhortation to “accelerate concrete progress on steps towards disarmament” and pursue other measures, most of which were in discussion for the last few decades.9 It is hence no surprise that no concrete proposals are now being discussed to deal with the perennial issues affecting the Treaty’s structure. While Iran is being dealt with through extra-diplomatic endeavours of the Western security conclaves, North Korea’s nuclear behaviour will gain attention only when it engages in its next round of brinkmanship. The threat from the non-state spectrum is being tackled through the Nuclear Security Initiative and adjunct mechanisms such as the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism (GICNT). Structural issues like universalization, nuclear weapon-free zones, additional protocol, test ban and ending fissile production, among others, are now being largely confined to draft recommendations and Action Plans.

    Does all this augur well for the Treaty? The collective silence of the guardians (and the state-parties) by no means signifies the Treaty’s good health, especially when they continue to emphasise upon the slow pace of disarmament and enduring pressures on the non-proliferation regime. That things have remained static for the past five years is testament to the fact that the 2010 RevCon was the best (and a squandered) opportunity to restructure the Treaty according to the times. The lack of determination among state parties to pursue realistic reforms and the historic burden of sustaining an imbalanced treaty have had an impact on the Treaty’s health.

    While remaining as the cornerstone of the regime, the Treaty’s inability to progress towards the enshrined goal of total elimination bespeaks the fundamental dichotomy that flows from its genesis – can the NPT facilitate a post-proliferation world in which total abolition and elimination could be pursued or will it hold fort by enforcing the non-proliferation norm and anchoring the calibrated steps towards this objective? Notwithstanding Gottemoeller’s assertion, the unceasing stresses on the Treaty, coupled with the lack of progress on calibrated measures, and the propensity of the guardians to seek solutions outside the NPT system, probably explain the discreet silence of the state parties and what might be in store at the RevCon.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India