Nuclear states must engage with the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, Declan Penrose writes.
In late November 2021 Germany announced that it would observe the meeting of states parties to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). This is significant because Germany is now only the second NATO member to apply for observer status for the TPNW after Norway did the same in October 2021.
The US has placed enormous pressure on all NATO allies to boycott the TPNW, making this a significant change in momentum. Germany will remain part of NATO’s nuclear sharing agreement and hosts US nuclear bombs, so clearly they are not anywhere near signing up to the TPNW. Yet, the NATO boycott being broken after years of strict compliance should not be ignored. It should especially not be dismissed by the P5, who would be wise to end the boycott and finally show some good faith towards their NPT disarmament obligations.
The P5 and NATO often state that they believe the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) to be the cornerstone of the global nuclear order. They claim to fear that the TPNW could undermine the NPT and crumble the global nuclear order, leading to the proliferation of nuclear weapons, rather than global disarmament. This is a far-fetched scenario, not least because a great amount of effort was made to ensure that the TPNW did not undermine the NPT. The TPNW was not created to destroy the NPT, it was born out of frustration with the NPT’s inability to force the nuclear states to make meaningful progress towards total disarmament.
The NPT has largely been a successful non-proliferation treaty and is a key reason why only nine states own nuclear weapons today. This is where we must recognise that non-proliferation and disarmament are two different things, regardless of where you stand on these treaties. Non-proliferation is the limiting of the production and spread of nuclear weapons any further, while disarmament is the total eradication of nuclear weapons.
The NPT is, at its core, a non-proliferation treaty and not a disarmament treaty, Article VI of the treaty is only a general obligation to seek disarmament. As shown by all the previous NPT review conferences, the NPT seems incapable of making concrete progress towards disarmament. The power of the NATO and P5 states, along with the inability to reach consensus at review conferences, means currently the NPT shows no sign of actively working towards Article VI.
Having another treaty, designed solely to bring about nuclear disarmament, alongside the NPT allows the NPT to focus on proliferation and the sharing of positive nuclear technology. The TPNW can solve this issue and be there when the nuclear states finally decide that enough is enough.
Ignoring the TPNW and dismissing disarmament discourse risks NATO and the P5 being omitted from these important conversations. The TPNW shows that many of the non-nuclear states are willing to work around states that are unwilling to either relinquish their arsenals or encourage others to do so. Instead of being able to hold constructive conversations about disarmament between the nuclear haves and the nuclear have-nots, both sides are now talking past each other. This is because the nuclear have-nots have had their concerns dismissed, forcing them to seek change by universalising the norm against nuclear weapons.
By not involving themselves in these discussions, NATO and the P5 limit the chance of disarmament being negotiated with their concerns being considered. Dismissing the TPNW increases the perception that these states are not interested in disarmament and use the NPT to maintain their monopoly on nuclear weapons (Biswas 2014). This perception undermines the NPT and any faith that the nuclear states are acting in good faith towards nuclear disarmament. If the nuclear states are serious about wanting a world without nuclear weapons and want their concerns about the process listened to, then they must explore all potential paths to disarmament, including the TPNW.
The current situation has created an ‘us vs them’ dynamic between disarmament advocates and the nuclear weapons states, despite their NPT Article VI commitments. This division is only being amplified by the P5 and NATO boycotts of the TPNW talks because their excuses are not supported by the evidence. Are the tensions between the nuclear states rising? Yes, no one is denying that. Does it appear likely that nuclear disarmament can be achieved immediately? No, there is a lot of work to be done.
But is the current strategy of engaging in a nuclear arms race doing anything to de-escalate these tensions? Is the UK breaking its NPT obligations in 2021 by increasing its nuclear warhead cap by 40% a good look? Why undermine non-proliferation through the AUKUS deal when China will perceive it as an act of aggression? Is China’s increase of its arsenal and building hundreds of new silos sensible when it will only increase western fears of potential Chinese aggression? The current status quo of responding to escalation with more escalation has created a positive feedback loop that shows no sign of stopping.
The nuclear states need to be brave enough to not meet fear with fear and instead seek de-escalation. This is counter-productive, wastes enormous amounts of money that could be used to better the lives of citizens and increases the risk of nuclear war. Engaging with the TPNW and each other must be attempted before more money and trust is lost, and before tensions eventually spill over.
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