NPT News in Review, Vol. 16, No. 2

Editorial: Moving the nuclear football, from 1946 to 2019
2 May 2019

Ray Acheson

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What does it mean to make a commitment? As one of arguably the most basic of human interactions, to most of the world’s population it entails an agreement, an obligation, or a duty; a dedication to follow through on a promised activity. But apparently this definition does not hold for the nuclear-armed states—the governments of which continue, year after year, review cycle after review cycle, to change the goalposts or the move the football (the nuclear football, if you will), like Lucy does with Charlie Brown. (For those not following the NPT Preparatory Committee on Twitter, you may have missed Wildfire’s extensive history of the NPT in Peanuts cartoons, which is worth checking out.)

Cartoons aside, the “commitments” made by the nuclear-armed states for the past 50 years have seriously suffered from lack of implementation and impressive backtracking. The commitments made in exchange for extending the Treaty indefinitely in 1995 were not fulfilled by 2000, but the nuclear-armed states nevertheless agreed to 13 practical steps for nuclear disarmament then, which came to form the backbone of commitments over the next twenty years. Despite rolling back on some of those and failing to implement the rest over the next ten years, they agreed to 22 disarmament actions in 2010. Five years after not complying with those, they walked away from the 2015 Review Conference without any new commitments but instead with vague assertions that all of the previous commitments were aspirational and certainly not timebound. Now, on the eve of the 2020 Review Conference, one of the nuclear-armed states (the United States) has asserted that all of these past commitments are out of date and out of step with today’s “international security environment”—this apparently being a specific, discrete artifact that is unconnected from this state’s own behaviour and entirely related to the poor behaviour of others. Meanwhile, China informed the Preparatory Committee that the five NPT nuclear-armed states have been working hard to update their “glossary of key nuclear terms”—which they have now spent nearly ten years working on despite it not being a commitment anyone made anywhere and that it seems to be distracting from actual work on, say, disarmament.

Anyway, here we are in 2019, looking at piles of commitments made over many years, variously termed the step-by-step approach, the building blocks approach, the progressive approach, (very briefly) the full spectrum-approach, and now apparently stepping stones. Meanwhile the United States has introduced the concept of creating conditions, now the environment, for nuclear disarmament, which is focused not on what the United States can do for nuclear disarmament but what the rest of the world can do for the United States in order to make it, as the most heavily militarised country in the world, feel “safer”. In discussing its proposal, the US delegation said that this is a way to ensure that non-proliferation and nuclear disarmament are not treated as competing priorities—but since no one except for the United States has set up this competition, this is at best a disingenuous framing for an exasperating attempt to deny, deflect, and defer action on 50 years of apparently empty promises.

A few countries are buying it, running for that football once again. But for the most part, NPT states parties are skeptical. The New Agenda Coalition (NAC) warned that NPT commitments are not to be reinterpreted, rolled back, or conditioned in any form, noting that the imposition of conditions on any Treaty obligation would undermine credibility of the NPT. This cross-regional grouping of states, responsible for amongst other things the 13 practical steps in 2000—and one of its members, Ireland, for the NPT itself—emphasised that upholding and preserving the NPT in today’s security environment requires the complete and unequivocal implementation of disarmament obligations that underpin the regime. Brazil, one of the NAC’s members, pointed out that the more the nuclear-armed states say the world is not safe, the more risk there is of nuclear proliferation.

Traditional allies of the nuclear-armed states also expressed concern with the new rhetoric about the security environment. Sweden’s foreign minister Margot Wallström noted that while the environment is probably the worst it has been since the end of the Cold War, this is at least in part because nuclear disarmament is being replaced by nuclear weapon modernisation, leaving key international treaties hollow and increasing mutual distrust. The representative of Latvia also turned the security tables, pointing out that every commitment states make under the NPT or other nuclear arms control and disarmament agreements strengthens international security, while Switzerland stressed that all past commitments remain valid regardless of the evolution of the security environment.

In some sense, this whole “CEND” “initiative” makes it feel like we’ve gone back not just 50 years but 73 years, back to 1946 when Bernard Baruch presented the US government’s plan for the control of atomic energy to the United Nations. He argued “before a country is ready to relinquish any ‘winning weapons’ it must have more than words to reassure it.” He argued, “It must have a guarantee of safety, not only against the offenders in the atomic area but against the illegal users of other weapons—bacteriological, biological, gas—perhaps—why not! —against war itself. In the elimination of war lies our solution, for only then will nations cease to compete with one another in the production and use of dread ‘secret’ weapons which are evaluated solely by their capacity to kill.”

Sure, let us abolish war. This is something WILPF has called for since 1915. We’re in. But the abolition of war cannot wait for or be a pre-condition for the elimination of weaponry. On the contrary, the abolition of weapons is a critical part of the process of abolishing war, and the abolition of nuclear weapons is key. If we’re going back to 1946, we should remember that Baruch also recognised that people do not belong to governments, governments belong to people. “We must answer their demands; we must answer the world’s longing for peace and security.” To this end, he asserted, the United States stands ready to proscribe and destroy nuclear weapons “if the world will join in a pact to that end.”

Well Baruch, in 2017 the world did just that! 122 states did, at least, with the negotiation and adoption of the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. But they did so over the objections of the United States and the other nuclear-armed states. Rather than coming together to ban and eliminate nuclear weapons, the very states that possess these “instruments of death” refused to join the vast majority of countries in the world in this endeavour. Indeed, the rejection of nuclear disarmament seems to be the only thing the possessors of these weapons seem to be able to agree upon these days. As the former UK Secretary of State for Defence Des Browne said, the nuclear-armed states cannot “bear the sight of each other,” but when it comes to the possession of nuclear weapons are “very good at articulating an argument as to why they need nuclear weapons only because the rest of the world does not behave itself well enough.”

And so all these years after witnessing the horror of the use of nuclear weapons, we sit with commitments made and broken, hoping year in and year out this will be the year the nuclear-armed states finally follow the letter and spirit of international law, finally put their people’s security above their own political desire for military dominance, finally follow through on what they said they would do the year before, five years before, fifty years before. How long do we keep running for this football? What can the rest of the world—those that support the TPNW and those that have invested time and energy into making the steps of 1995, 2000, and 2010 a reality—do together to take the football away from those who would rather the world fall on its face in a nuclear apocalypse than give up their “winning weapons”?

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