“I long ago took to heart the words of Omar Bradley, spoken virtually a half century ago, when he observed, having seen the aftermath of the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, thus: ‘We live in an age of nuclear giants and ethical infants. We live in a world that has achieved brilliance without wisdom, power without conscience. We’ve unlocked the mysteries of the atom and forgotten the lessons of the Sermon on the Mount. We know more about war than we know about peace, more about killing than we know about living’.” — USAF General (ret’d) George Lee Butler, former C-in-C, United States Strategic Command
It is not surprising that the Tenth Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference ended in disarray and failed to agree on a final outcome document, as it was marked by false narratives.
Given the deteriorating international situation since 2015 — the resurgence of nuclear weapons in the defence postures of the NWS and their allies; the Russian aggression against Ukraine, continuing delays in achieving a Middle East zone free of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction; the heightened awareness of the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons; the continuing opposition to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW); and the new challenge to IAEA safeguards posed by the AUKUS agreement to equip Australia with nuclear-powered submarines — the review conference obviously could not emerge from the swamps of disagreements.
Whether the review conference had been held in April-May 2020 as originally scheduled, or postponed due to Covid to August 2020, then to January 2021, August 2021 and January 2022, it would have failed anyway to agree on a final document.
Today, more than 27 years after the historic decision to extend the NPT indefinitely and the solemn commitments undertaken by the nuclear-weapon States (NWS) and the other States parties, the number of nuclear weapons has gone down to about 13,500 — with 90 per cent held by the Russian Federation and the United States. But General Lee Butler’s lament still holds true. He was one of the nuclear war planners who evaluated all 12,500 targets in the US’s single plan for using nuclear weapons and reduced them to 3,000 targets. Unfortunately, this target list does not seem to have been reduced further.
Pacta sunt servanda
In making the NPT of indefinite extension in 1995, many delegations emphasized that this decision did not allow for the indefinite possession of nuclear weapons by the NWS. This is conveniently forgotten by some diplomats who are the successors of the delegates at the 1995 NPT Review Conference.
They should review the writings of their betters and predecessors, such as Ambassadors George Bunn and Roland Timerbaev, respectively the US and USSR negotiators of the NPT, “Nuclear Disarmament: How Much Have the Five Nuclear Powers Promised in the Non-Proliferation Treaty?”. Times may change but solemn treaty-related commitments of States endure — pacta sunt servanda, a concept sadly alien to some policy makers in some of the NWS and their allies.
Nuclear disarmament has been at a standstill. Existing treaties are at risk or have been dismantled. Development is underway of new missions for nuclear weapons and lowered threshold of use. Threats of use of nuclear weapons have been sounded and have been formalized in the strategic policies especially of the Russian Federation and the United States.
Especially since the 2015 NPT Review Conference failed, follow-on commitments to the 1995 NPT Review Conference agreed in 2000 and 2010 have largely been sidelined. Belligerent and unhinged attacks are made on proponents of fulfilling past commitments, as faith is being placed in rainbows, butterflies and unicorns of such false narratives as “creating the environment for nuclear disarmament,” “building blocks” and “stepping stones” that call for reducing risks than nuclear weapons elimination.
Implementing actual reductions in nuclear weapons has been replaced by risk reduction, supplemented by calls for no first use of nuclear weapons, and for sole purpose. All such calls effectively camouflage the nuclear disarmament deficit, have the effect of affirming nuclear deterrence and the role of nuclear weapons in international security, and cannot lead to one less nuclear weapon in today’s teeming arsenals.
Nuclear risk reduction seemingly is a new discovery for its proponents. In fact, nuclear risk reduction also goes back decades and several agreements are in place that need to be recalled and observed, such as: the hot line between Moscow and Washington; the nuclear accidents agreement; prevention of nuclear war; notifications of missile launches and strategic exercises; prevention of dangerous military activities; prevention of incidents at sea; and de-targeting and information sharing, among others.
Starting in 2018, sensing that the larder was bare on fulfilling nuclear disarmament commitments, the European Union launched an initiative to portray the NPT as bringing beneficial, peaceful uses of nuclear energy to NPT non-nuclear-weapon States Parties (NNWS). This false narrative was meant to encourage them to continue supporting the Treaty despite their disappointment about the continuation of nuclear arsenals and the revived threats of their use.
According to this false narrative, the technical cooperation and assistance activities of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) are relevant to the implementation of Article IV of the NPT and, further, that these activities are not well known in developing countries and need to be promoted.
In fact, the IAEA is not a party to the NPT, nor does Article IV of the Treaty refer to the Agency as the delivery mechanism for cooperation in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy (PUNE). The Agency’s PUNE activities pre-date the NPT by decades and are available to all Member States regardless of being party to the NPT.
Currently there are nearly 1100 IAEA technical assistance and cooperation projects underway in more than 130 countries, hence it is a far cry that such activities are not well known!
Ambassador Christopher Westdal (Canada’s head of delegation to the 1995 and 2000 NPT review conferences, with whom I worked on the strengthened review process and the outcome documents) used to quote William the Silent, a figure in Dutch history, who said that, “It is not necessary to be hopeful to persevere.” We need that attitude as we look to the Eleventh NPT review conference in 2026.
Perseverance in protecting the NPT and consensus commitments requires a number of steps, such as:
(1) escaping the politically toxic environment at the United Nations in New York and convening future review conferences in Vienna (as I have argued);
(2) rising above the current conflagration of views over Ukraine to insulate the NPT review process and strengthen the implementation and credibility of the Treaty;
(3) rethinking the role of nuclear weapons and resurrecting such concepts as “our common future”, “human security”, “cooperative security”, “common security”, “collective security” (not the NATO version) that were advanced in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s to achieve a more secure world; and
(4) implementing the strengthened review process for the Treaty as structured in 1995 and 2000, rather than tinkering at its margins. The problems are not with the review process but with the policies and behaviour of States.
Sometimes the most penetrating wisdom comes from the “mouths of babes.” A child at the United Nations kindergarten in New York aptly observed: “Why would a country that makes atomic bombs ban fireworks?” Let’s focus on reducing and eliminating nuclear weapons, rather than puttering about on risk reduction and sole purpose! ?
Tariq Rauf is former Head of Nuclear Verification and Security Policy at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna, and former Alternate Head of the IAEA Delegation to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT) review conferences. He has attended all NPT meetings as an official delegate since 1987. Personal views are expressed here. email@example.com.