The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, Joe Biden and the Approaching NPT Review

Photograph Source: Hajime NAKANO – CC BY 2.0

“I definitely feel that the development and use of nuclear weapons should be banned. It cannot be disputed that a full-scale nuclear war would be utterly catastrophic. Hundreds and millions of people would be killed outright by the blast and heat, and by the ionizing radiation produced at the instant of the explosion . . . Even countries not directly hit by bombs would suffer through global fall-outs. All of this leads me to say that the principal objective of all nations must be the total abolition of war. War must be finally eliminated or the whole of mankind will be plunged into the abyss of annihilation.”

Dr. Martin Luther King, 1957

The Tenth Review of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty begins August 1, 2022 at the United Nations in New York City. The NPT is the landmark 1968 nuclear arms control treaty that remains the only multi-lateral treaty in force. The NPT is signed by 191 nations.

Only Israel, North Korea, India, Pakistan and South Sudan have refused to sign the NPT. Iran has signed the NPT but is regularly accused of non-compliance. South Africa to date is the only NPT signatory to have dismantled their own nuclear arsenal.

For its part the United States though a principal negotiator in the drafting of the NPT has delayed and obstructed various efforts over many years to strengthen the treaty and fulfill the spirit and letter of the NPT: The complete elimination of nuclear weapons.

The NPT’s architecture rests on three pillars; The non-proliferation of nuclear weapons and technology, The right of nations to develop peaceful nuclear power, And the reduction and elimination of nuclear weapon arsenals. The original term of the treaty was twenty- five years, expiring in 1995.

Increasing frustration among non-nuclear signatories of the NPT toward recalcitrant nuclear armed nations has caused a rift in the arms control community. Currently the five largest nuclear armed states, the U.S., Russia, United Kingdom, France and China, the P-5 nations, are retooling their nuclear arsenals and modernize their delivery systems. Resentment about hypocrisy and this double standard have grown more acrimonious at successive NPT Reviews since 1995.

The NPT was extended indefinitely only after the P-5 nuclear armed nations agreed to consider a nuclear weapons free zone, NWFZ, for the Middle East, and to adopt the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. Through obfuscation and delays by the P-5 a nuclear weapons free zone for the Middle East has not succeeded.

The Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty has been observed since 1996, but was never ratified by the U.S. Senate.

Other Nuclear Weapons Free Zones, protecting one-half the world’s people have developed on different continents in spite of or because of the failure of the NPT to outlaw and eliminate nuclear weapons stockpiles, and despite intense pressure from the U.S. to quash them.

Whether President Biden’s agenda included mention of the Nuclear Weapons Free Zone for the Middle East during his recent trip to Saudi Arabia could not be confirmed by the U.S. State Department for this article.

And non-nuclear weapon states and non-governmental organizations have pleaded to the International Criminal Court that nuclear weapons, their use, or even the threat of using nuclear weapons is illegal. Indeed, the International Criminal Court found in 1996 that the threat of using nuclear weapons and in most every case the use of nuclear weapons are illegal.

Calls from non-aligned and non-nuclear states for a “negative security strategy” for nuclear weapons policy, such as “no first use” of nuclear weapons, or no use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states have been roundly rejected by the nuclear powers, especially the U.S.

Defying logic, the nuclear weaponed powers assert that negative security policies like no first use weaken their nuclear deterrence. But if “deterrence” prevents a first strike attack by an adversary, then maintaining a first strike prerogative contradicts the function of deterrence. As many former Secretaries of State and military leaders have testified, “nuclear weapons are worthless and we should get of them”.

Of course, the United States is not a member of the ICC and has ignored its ruling on nuclear weapons. That does not mean the Court’s determination that nuclear weapon are illegal is moot.

Assertions by top U.S. nuclear arms negotiators that “the NPT is solid enough” to survive yet another contentious failed five-year Review sound cynical. Hopefully the U.S. delegation at the NPT Review this August can represent a more positive position than those offered during previous Reviews. Given the brutal invasion of Ukraine by Russia nuclear arms control will be more difficult but will be even more crucial today.

U.S. State Department Under Secretary for Arms Control, Bonnie Jenkins will have to answer some tough questioning from the international community at the upcoming NPT Review. Why does the U.S. still oppose a “no first use” of nuclear weapons policy? Why has the U.S. repeatedly and punitively opposed Nuclear Weapons Free Zones historically and now in the Middle East? Why is the U.S. budgeting nearly $1 Trillion for the modernization of its nuclear arsenal?

Why does the U.S. still oppose the U.N. Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, TPNW, despite its commitment under Article VI of the NPT to eliminate American nuclear weapons?

Ambassador Jenkins can come prepared to this NPT Review with a different and imaginative approach to nuclear arms control. Non-nuclear armed states should not be expected to support a treaty to eliminate nuclear weapons while their nuclear armed cohorts continue to expand their nuclear arsenals.

Were Ambassador Jenkins at a minimum to promise that the U.S. would not attack with nuclear weapons any non-nuclear armed country it would be a small step toward meeting its treaty obligations. Such a promise would reverse decades of self-defeating and contradictory presentations by American representatives at previous NPT Reviews.