Amid Ukraine war, gap between nuclear weapon haves and have-nots needs urgent attention
- The NPT Review Conference should address concerns over the failure of nuclear weapon states to make progress on disarmament
- A new treaty, which aims at the complete elimination of nuclear weapons, adds to the pressure on NPT signatories to act more decisively in the right direction
The international conference to review the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) could be one of the most important yet most bitterly contested global meetings in recent years.
The deliberations of the nearly month-long 10th NPT Review Conference starting today in New York will affect how nuclear weapons will be managed in the decades ahead. The choice is between the world moving towards some degree of consensual nuclear restraint, or lurching into a discordant and brittle contest over these weapons of mass destruction.
The global political leadership’s inability to arrive at any meaningful collective response to issues from international trade conflict and climate change to the Covid-19 crisis suggests the nuclear issue will remain intractable, and that the image of a slow-motion train crash may not be misplaced.
Discrimination is at the core of the non-proliferation treaty, which divides the world into nuclear haves and have-nots. The treaty’s nuclear weapon states persuaded most other nations to renounce their right to acquire this capability while committing themselves to disarmament, providing guarantees for civilian nuclear cooperation and extending a nuclear umbrella to allies.
Although some nations, including India, Pakistan and Israel, have remained non-signatories, the non-proliferation treaty has acquired near-universal status. But the chasm remains.
The treaty’s nuclear weapon states have paid lip service to nuclear disarmament, ignoring criticism from anti-nuclear activists, including the Global Zero movement, which campaigns for a world free of nuclear weapons – an elusive Holy Grail.
The treaty provides for reviews every five years and its non-nuclear weapon state members have been increasingly dismayed by the N5’s reluctance to honour their commitment. What is significant about this review conference is the emergence of a group of nations which have piloted a new nuclear weapon ban treaty at the UN.
In a rare but significant castigation, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres at the TPNW meeting last month denounced nuclear weapons as a “global scourge” and a “deadly reminder of countries’ inability to solve problems through dialogue and collaboration”.
The TPNW has 66 states and 86 signatories and this group will lock horns with the nuclear weapon states which remain sceptical about disarmament. The divide within the N5 will further exacerbate matters at the NPT Review Conference.
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is expected to address the NPT Review Conference and this will be deeply symbolic, given that he represented Hiroshima as a legislator. Japan has an anomalous position, wherein Tokyo remains wedded to nuclear disarmament but is constrained to accept the US nuclear umbrella for its security.
Major-power dissonance is growing across the spectrum and the sagacity of leadership is inversely proportional to the scale of the challenge. Short-term domestic agendas are driving decision-making and, in this disturbing geopolitical flux, the need to quarantine the nuclear weapon to its core mission of deterrence is critical and urgent. One can only hope that the 10th NPT Review Conference does not crash and burn.
Commodore C. Uday Bhaskar is director of the Society for Policy Studies, an independent think tank based in New Delhi