Are Russia and NATO trying to wreck the NPT?

AP Photo/Yuki Iwamura
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken addresses the 2022 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) review conference, in the United Nations General Assembly on Aug. 1, 2022.

Since it was adopted more than 50 years ago, the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) has been described as the cornerstone of international efforts to limit the danger of nuclear war, its preservation a key, shared policy objective of the P5, the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. In the lead-up to this year’s NPT Review Conference, which opened Monday in New York, Russia and NATO are putting the treaty at risk.

The NPT was conceived as a grand bargain between nations who did not have nuclear weapons and promised not to develop them and the P5, who did have them in 1968 and promised, in Article VI of the treaty, to undertake good faith negotiations to eliminate their nuclear arsenals.

In the five decades since, these five nuclear-armed states have continued to insist that other signatories to the treaty honor their commitment not to build nuclear weapons, but they have never seriously considered meeting their obligations to disarm.

Tension over this blatant failure to uphold their end of the bargain has been growing for years and helped fuel the 2017 adoption by 121 non-nuclear-armed states of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, a new treaty consistent with Article VI and intended to pressure the countries that have nuclear weapons to meet their obligations to get rid of them.

The gap between the promises of the P5 and their behavior has grown into a chasm since the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Russia has made repeated threats to use nuclear weapons and NATO — representing France, the United Kingdom and the United States — has replied with nuclear threats of its own.

Responding to this escalating danger of nuclear war, 18 Nobel Peace Laureates issued a statement in April urging Russia and NATO to pledge publicly that they will not use nuclear weapons under any circumstances in the current war. The statement was endorsed by more than 1 million people after it was posted to the Avaaz website. The response from Russia and NATO was a thunderous silence. 

It is now clear: Not only will they not begin negotiations to eliminate their nuclear arsenals, as they promised decades ago; they will not even pledge not to start World War III. The world cannot ignore the terrible danger of this moment. We are living through a potential planetary near-death experience where a few people have the power to destroy civilization and the rest of us are reduced to pleading with them not to do it. This is not normal, and it is not necessary.

The world must demand that Russia and NATO state unequivocally that they will not use nuclear weapons. And we must go beyond the immediate crisis in Ukraine and make sure we are never in this situation again.

Nuclear weapons are not a force of nature over which we have no control. They are machines that we have made with our own hands, and we know how to take them apart. We must take advantage of the increased awareness of the nuclear danger to bring about fundamental change in nuclear policy and eliminate these weapons before they eliminate us.

For decades, leaders of the nuclear-armed states have promoted the myth of “deterrence,” as though these weapons possess some magic power that assures they will never be used. 

The current threats by Russia and NATO reveal the truth: Nuclear-armed states possess these weapons to threaten and bully the rest of the world — and they are prepared to use them. As former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara famously observed, we have not avoided nuclear war because of sound doctrine or wise leaders or infallible technology. “We lucked out,” he said. “It was luck that prevented nuclear war.”

It is hard to imagine how Russia and NATO imagine that they will convince the rest of the world to continue to abstain from acquiring nuclear weapons while they themselves threaten to use them. If they do destroy the NPT regime, the danger of nuclear war will become more acute. 

But even if the rest of the world continues to act responsibly, the possession of these weapons by the current nuclear-armed states poses an unacceptable risk to humanity. Here in the United States, we need to support the Back from the Brink campaign’s call for the U.S. to commence negotiations with the other eight nuclear-armed states for a verifiable, enforceable, time-bound agreement to eliminate their nuclear weapons. We either get rid of them or accept that, sooner or later, our luck will run out and the weapons will get rid of us.

Ira Helfand, M.D., is immediate past president of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, which was a recipient of the 1985 Nobel Peace Prize, and a member of the International Steering Group, ICAN, the recipient of the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize.

Tags NATO Nuclear weapons Russia Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons Ukraine war

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