Our deep divide over nuclear disarmament

Pundits and scholars have warned about the impending collapse of the nuclear nonproliferation regime since the advent of the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). Fortunately, with the help of U.S. leadership, the nuclear nonproliferation regime has survived 50 years since the NPT opened for signature in 1968 and there are the same number of nuclear states today as there were 30 years ago (nine, having swapped South Africa for North Korea).

Today, pessimism about the future of the nuclear nonproliferation regime is again on the rise. This time, the cause for sounding the alarm is the deepening divide within the NPT community over the lack of progress on nuclear disarmament.

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Most of the world’s states are non-nuclear members of the NPT. The NPT did not prohibit nuclear weapons, but it required the five states that possessed them at the time of the treaty’s drafting to agree to eventually get rid of their arsenals. The NPT’s Article 6 commits all parties, including the five nuclear weapons possessors in the treaty, to “pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament.” Many non-nuclear states see nuclear-related developments around the world through the lens of this Article 6 commitment.

Frustration over lack of disarmament progress was already at an all-time high in the summer of 2017 when 122 states came together to adopt a new international agreement, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). With a sense that there was no way to make progress on nuclear disarmament through established channels such as the NPT, a group of states and advocates decided to establish a new treaty banning all nuclear weapons-related activities. The TPNW was never expected to cause immediate disarmament — none of the nuclear-armed states supported its adoption — but it is meant to delegitimize nuclear weapons and to create a norm against their possession.

The deep divide within the NPT community over disarmament will make it difficult, if not impossible, to make progress on U.S. non-proliferation goals in the near term and eventually may cause the treaty to lose relevance as non-nuclear states reconsider the treaty’s value. 

The situation has worsened over the past year as the United States has shown a lack of regard for nuclear arms control. While the purpose of arms control is distinct from that of disarmament, U.S. leaders traditionally have linked their progress on nuclear arms control agreements to their Article 6 commitment. Members of the NPT will see a rejection of arms control as a rejection of pursuing disarmament.

A seeming disinterest in arms control is evident in President TrumpDonald John TrumpGOP divided over impeachment trial strategy Official testifies that Bolton had 'one-on-one meeting' with Trump over Ukraine aid Louisiana governor wins re-election MORE’s refusal to talk to the Russian government about extending the 2011 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) for another five years when it expires in 2021. Putin has offered to extend the treaty on multiple occasions. In addition, some members of Congress have indicated concern over extending the treaty. Rejecting the extension of New START not only has significant strategic repercussions including reduced intelligence collection and the potential for nuclear arms racing, it signals to the NPT community that the United States no longer is in the business of trying to set limits on nuclear weapons.

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Perceptions that the United States no longer cares for arms control were compounded on Dec. 4 when Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoFive takeaways from ex-ambassador's dramatic testimony Pompeo: No US response ruled out in Hong Kong Ousted ambassador describes State Department in 'crisis' in dramatic impeachment testimony MORE announced that the United States would withdraw from the 1987 Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) in 60 days if Russia did not come back into compliance. While the blame for cheating on the INF treaty resides squarely with the Russians for deploying banned missiles, other states likely will hold the United States responsible for causing the collapse of the treaty by withdrawing. They may question whether the United States made enough effort to try to resolve the crisis within the bounds of the treaty.

Many will see this action as the U.S. reneging on another nuclear agreement. Some may even wonder if the United States wants to withdraw in order to build up its own intermediate range nuclear missiles. The U.S. withdrawal from the INF, for better for worse, will be perceived as another sign that U.S.-Russian arms control is dead and that the NPT nuclear weapon “haves” are doing little to comply with their Article 6 commitment.

Today the nuclear nonproliferation regime that has served U.S. interests for 50 years is at real risk of faltering, as the United States and Russia are not pursuing additional disarmament and do little to maintain the existing arms control architecture. The regime has allowed the United States to promote nonproliferation in a way that is more legitimate and less costly than alternatives, including inducements, sanctions and even war. While it is unlikely that non-nuclear states will start exiting the NPT soon, they will be more likely to see it as a failed bargain and will be less interested in cooperating with U.S. nonproliferation goals, such as strengthening the withdrawal clause of the NPT or promoting universal adoption of stronger IAEA safeguards.

The nuclear nonproliferation treaty is unlikely to be a useful mechanism for promoting nuclear nonproliferation in perpetuity if the majority of its membership no longer buys the basic bargain: that those without nuclear weapons will not acquire them, those with nuclear weapons will take efforts to get rid of them.

Rebecca Davis Gibbons is a research fellow at the Project on Managing at the Atom at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center. She previously was a visiting assistant professor of government at Bowdoin College.