Looking forward to the NPT RevCon and beyond

Former Head of the Disarmament Department in Austrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs
December 20, 2021

Gauging the challenges to overcome at the NPT RevCon in January 2022, it is clear that the disarmament pillar will be difficult. This is not unlike at previous RevCons, but this time also the non-proliferation pillar will be the fore for differing views, especially regarding Australia’s purchase of US nuclear-propelled submarines. In the peaceful nuclear activities pillar, the attempts to “green-wash“ nuclear energy production will be countered by many countries that point to the non-sustainable nature of nuclear energy production, its long-term effects, and the risks inherent in it.

In the context of nuclear disarmament, the NPT really is the cornerstone, since it remains the only legal instrument in which the Nuclear Weapon States have taken the obligation to disarm. It is not the fault of the NPT that Art. VI implementation has not been achieved yet and it does not seem likely that we can expect major progress soon.

The main function of any review conference is to concentrate again on the treaty and discuss the state of implementation and decide on an outcome document with an action plan.

We should build on the previous outcome documents. It is like building a house. We have a basement and perhaps also a ground floor, but now we have to build the first floor. If anyone wants to take away bricks of the already accomplished work, such a state party would damage the stability and jeopardize the possibility to build an additional floor.

The previous outcome documents are valid and are not creating a problem, but the failure of in particular the Nuclear Weapon States to comply with their content.

Non-compliance should not be rewarded with taking away from the commitments the Nuclear Weapon States have taken. They entered into those commitments after careful deliberation and on their own decision. They are bound by them, and I cannot see any chance for advancing nuclear disarmament when we would absolve them from taking action accordingly.

The commitments of the previous outcome documents remain valid with a reaffirmation, but equally also without a reaffirmation. If we can find consensus language on an unequivocal reaffirmation, then it would make sense. Any formulation that would weaken previous commitments should not be accepted. In that case, it would be preferable not to have a “reaffirmation” language. But the real issue is the implementation of the past commitments, not their reiteration without any concrete plans with timelines.

We should be concerned about calls not to try to achieve a substantive outcome document adopted by consensus. This would be tantamount to declaring defeat before we have even tried.

A mere summary of what has been said by the various states parties would just be an attempt to get over the RevCon and any commitments perhaps offered by individual states would lack the binding nature of an outcome document adopted by consensus.

So we should try hard to achieve an outcome document that adds an additional layer to the previous ones. But which areas are the most promising ones with a view to achieving consensus?

Certainly, one promising area is risk reduction.

There is no doubt that risk reduction per se is not disarmament. But in a world where our lives are threatened by nuclear weapons, all of us want to reduce the likelihood of a nuclear weapon explosion as much as possible.

The only way to achieve complete risk reduction is the elimination of nuclear weapons combined with a prohibition norm so that they will not be built and deployed again.

Permit me here a small excursion to answer the question of whether the TPNW constitutes a problem for the NPT RevCon. In my view certainly not, because a prohibition norm is indispensable for the full implementation of Art. VI. Therefore this norm has always been part of the step-by-step approach. The TPNW’s relationship to the NPT is as the CTBT’s. The language of the NPT and Art. VI in particular is very short. Therefore further treaties are required for the implementation. E.g. there is a number of them regarding peaceful uses. An Austrian working paper will elaborate more on this theme at the RevCon. But what creates a problem for the NPT is the unnecessarily negative reaction to it by the Nuclear Weapon States and a number of umbrella states.

Myths have been created such as that the TPNW would be stigmatizing the Nuclear Weapon States and not only their weapons. How baseless such attempts to disparage the TPNW become evident by reading its text which builds on cooperation with the Nuclear Weapon States. Equally – and against the statements of those who criticize the TPNW without haven read it – the verification of the elimination is contained in the treaty the details have to be elaborated with the relevant Nuclear Weapon States in a spirit of cooperation. It would be understandable that the Nuclear Weapon States express that they are not yet ready to join now, which is respectable as long as they undertake efforts to get away from basing their security on nuclear weapons. But their crusade against the prohibition norm reveals that they are in reality against the implementation of Art. VI. After the first shock that also Non-Nuclear Weapon States have a say on nuclear disarmament, it seems to me that since the entry into force the adversaries of the TPNW have started to climb down from the barricades. So, I am optimistic that consensus language on the TPNW for the looking back part of the outcome document is achievable as long as it reflects facts as its entry into force and continued opposition by a number of states.

In the rather numerous bridge-building initiatives quite a good and substantial dialogue is going on among the participants. An excellent way to deescalate is the participation as observers at the First Meeting of States Parties of the TPNW.

Let me get back to risk reduction:

Even limited risk reduction measures can somewhat reduce the risks inherent in nuclear weapons as long as they are not merely of a declaratory nature.

Declaratory measures can be valuable when they are followed by concrete consequences such as reducing at least certain types of nuclear weapons or taking them off alert status for example.

Declaratory measures are only trusted when the behavior of the relevant Nuclear Weapon States changes and this is translated into hard facts.

On the other hand, a declaratory measure can become not trustworthy. As an example, imagine a Nuclear Weapon State has declared no first use but then builds additional nuclear weapons.

Risk reduction should not become a means to avoid nuclear disarmament by propagating the continued existence of nuclear weapons. This is what most countries associate with “strategic risk reduction”.

The idea that nuclear weapons can secure a strategic balance implies the desirability of their future existence, contrary to Art. VI. Furthermore, it seems that the US and RU do not share a common view on what “strategic balance” is, nor a common assessment as to whether and to what degree this state is achieved. And how should a balance be found in a multipolar world? So, we should rather use the words peace and security as an objective instead of strategic balance.

The risk lies in the existence of nuclear weapons, so genuine risk reduction starts with acknowledging that nuclear weapons cannot bring security.

Risk reduction thus demands to walk away from the assumption that security should be built on nuclear deterrence for the future which is tantamount to keeping the risk of nuclear war.

This is also the only logical pathway to achieve the implementation of Art. VI.

A central theme for nuclear disarmament in the coming years will be a critical examination of nuclear deterrence and how to replace it.

Switzerland’s working paper on risk reduction supported by many other countries will be a major contribution of the Stockholm Initiative to a successful outcome of the RevCon.

So I really hope that the outcome document will contain a new meaningful commitment on nuclear risk reduction which will be measurable by concrete actions in the years to come.

Another area of hope for a prospective additional layer constitutes disarmament education.

There is no big resistance to language on disarmament education, but again it should be followed by concrete action. 

A first step could be to commission a study on how nuclear weapons and their risks and humanitarian consequences are taught in states parties to the NPT, but also non-state parties. Are the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons explained with testimonies of hibakushas, are myths being spread like that they have finished World War II? Are the impact of nuclear weapons use on climate and food security part of the school curricula, is the destructive power of the existing nuclear weapons mentioned. Is the disarmament obligation under Art. VI of the NPT at all transmitted to the young generation?

In spite of all the negative developments since 2015, I am not overly pessimistic. But there are a number of serious challenges to the implementation of the NPT that we had to witness:

– the destruction of pillars of the nuclear arms architecture;

– the nuclear weapons program of the DPRK;

– continuing concerns regarding the nuclear file of Iran and lack of implementation of the JCPOA, still no return of the US to it;

– ongoing modernization of nuclear arsenals and in two nuclear weapons States even a declared will to increase the number of nuclear weapons;

– persistent sabotaging of all attempts of putting the nuclear disarmament machinery into result-oriented use.

These challenges need redoubled efforts to stop and counteract them.

But I think we should maximize the positive developments over the last years and turn them into launchpads for real progress:

– New START levels have been reached and this treaty has been extended for 5 years. The US and RU have started talks with a view to discuss possibilities for further bilateral disarmament, including broadening the scope of issues. These talks have not yet led to negotiations, but this could become a commitment at the RevCon.

– It was a big relief when the new US administration stopped the questioning of the former outcome documents heard on many occasions by representatives of the Trump administration. The Berlin Declaration of the Stockholm Initiative offered excellent language countering the Trump narrative. Luckily its inclusion into the outcome document should not pose a major problem at the RevCon anymore, but it will make sense to see it there for the future.

– The Reagan-Gorbatchev statement was repeated by Presidents Biden and Putin. From my chats with colleagues from the Nuclear Weapon States, I take it that this will be broadened to all 5 Nuclear Weapon States at the RevCon. This could be the beginning of measures to put flesh on the bones of this declaratory statement by concrete actions related to nuclear arsenals.

An issue that is not sufficiently discussed and underexploited in my opinion is the impact of new technologies on nuclear weapons.

Let us take cyber. I assume some of you have read the NTI report on “Cyber and nuclear weapons” that came to the conclusion that nuclear deterrence has become unreliable due to the possibility of hacking into nuclear weapons command and control systems. It lies in the nature of such attacks that malware secretly introduced in such systems is not revealed until a major conflict with possible nuclear weapon use has evolved.

While this can be perceived as an extremely worrying development by those who want to cling to NW for the future, it offers also a fact-based reason for questioning the concept of nuclear deterrence and finding more reliable and less inhumane means of deterring aggression.

Most of us regret that hypersonic missiles that could deliver nuclear weapons are developed in a number of Nuclear Weapon States and even in the Non-Nuclear-Weapon States. It is a new arms race aimed at a more rapid provision of death, leaving almost no time for communication and deliberation and thwarting missile defense endeavors. If these weapons are developed in a way to maximize their potential, they would constitute a perfect first-strike weapon. Needless to mention that the danger of their intended or unintended use heightens the threats nuclear weapons already now pose to mankind. They also would make nuclear deterrence pointless when whoever triggers first has achieved his objective of dispensing huge scale destruction and death.

These are just two of more fact-based reasons why the extrapolation of the cold war concept of nuclear deterrence has been overtaken by events. So all of us would benefit from collaborative efforts to overcome this construct of past decades. After all, we will never make progress, as long as nuclear weapons and some of their allies, in reality, do not wish for the elimination of nuclear weapons, because they want to build their security also in the future on their continued existence.

Clearly, a central collaborative effort of the NPT States parties should be to discuss how to replace nuclear deterrence.

Not only for me it remains an enigma that the 5 Nuclear Weapon States did not embark on developing together a joint plan on how to proceed and attain nuclear disarmament in so many decades. This could be another collaborative effort to be undertaken until the next RevCon.

After the stasis in the implementation of Art. VI for so many years, we need new avenues and more ambitious goals. If we cannot make progress in doing so at the RevCon, we do not live up to our obligations under the NPT. To lower the bar almost to zero would be a disservice to the NPT, mankind, and our planet.