Despite the five nuclear-weapon state parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) – China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States – releasing a Jan. 2022 joint statement affirming that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought,” the global nonproliferation regime today is on shaky ground. Russian President Vladimir Putin has threatened to use nuclear weapons if NATO members intervene militarily in Ukraine. Iran is moving closer to acquiring sufficient material for a nuclear weapon, while negotiations to revive the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) appear to be at an impasse. Meanwhile, China and North Korea are building up their nuclear arsenals, while Russia and the United States have discontinued bilateral discussions about their own nuclear programs.

Against this backdrop, the Tenth NPT Review Conference (Revcon), which will be held on Aug. 1-26, at U.N. headquarters in New York, represents a crucial opportunity to restore the cornerstone of the global nuclear order. With its wide-reaching membership of 191 state parties (there are only four non-party states, India, Israel, Pakistan, and South Sudan, with North Korea having initiated a withdrawal procedure in Jan. 2003), the NPT has the largest membership of any arms control agreement. NPT parties gather every five years in accordance with Art. VIII, para. 3 to review the treaty’s operation and implementation of obligations such as in preventing the spread of nuclear weapons, disseminating the technology for peaceful uses of nuclear energy, and promoting the goal of nuclear disarmament. 

But as the 2015 conference was unable to reach consensus on a substantive final declaration and as nuclear risks and threats increase daily, some experts argue that the NPT regime as a whole is at stake. Geopolitical differences may stymie progress. Russia, for instance, warned Washington in a Telegram post not “to use this specialized multilateral platform for raising issues that are non-essential to the NPT issue,” after the U.S. President’s special representative for nuclear non-proliferation Adam Scheinman’s July 21 article remarked on “Russia’s unjustified war against Ukraine.” And issues that derailed progress in previous conferences, like a weapons of mass destruction free zone (WMDFZ) in the Middle East, will continue to be on the agenda for the upcoming conference. 

What should the international community expect from the NPT review conference? What gains could feasibly be obtained? Are there lessons learned from previous conferences that parties should heed? What role should civil society play? Just Security asked several top nuclear non-proliferation experts for their views on these crucial issues and more. 

Ambassador Susan F. Burk – Former Special Representative of the President, Nuclear Nonproliferation (2009-2012). 

Indispensable and irreplaceable. Over the many years I worked on behalf of the United States to promote and support the international nuclear nonproliferation regime, anchored by the NPT, I became convinced that every effort had to be made to maintain and strengthen this vital international legal instrument.   “Imagine a world without the NPT,” Dr. Lewis Dunn used to say when I worked for him on the 1985 NPT Review Conference, “and the importance of our efforts will be clear.” In all honesty, I couldn’t then — and can’t now — imagine such a world. An imperfect treaty? Of course. But the NPT has provided an enduring legal framework and foundation for other critical elements of the international nuclear nonproliferation architecture, including nuclear weapon free zones, and international safeguards programs. Significant reductions in the U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals over the years were facilitated by a strong NPT regime, as well. The Treaty’s key objectives of preventing the further spread of nuclear weapons, eliminating existing nuclear arsenals, and ensuring that all states have access to the peaceful atom for the social and economic benefit of their citizens remain as imperative today. Arguably, more so.  

Yes, the NPT has not prevented all further proliferation of nuclear weapons, and the elimination of nuclear weapons, regrettably, remains an elusive goal. But without the legally-reinforced norm of nonproliferation established by the NPT, and the treaty obligation undertaken by the NPT Nuclear Weapons States to pursue nuclear disarmament, we would be in a far worse place. The nuclear challenges the international community is facing today, as it takes up the important work of the NPT Review Conference, are grave. A unified message from the delegations is more essential this year than ever. 

My experience with three review conferences (’85, ’95, and 2010) convinced me that, despite the predictably contentious debates that pit the “haves” against the “have nots,” or one geo-political group against another, there is significant common ground that unites the treaty parties. The parties have demonstrated this in the past and hopefully will do so again next week. The stakes, always high, are too high this year, to let our differences decide the outcome of the Review Conference. Let’s not make the “perfect” be the enemy of the “good,” the pursuit of “all” leaves us with “nothing.” The world is watching.

Ambassador Thomas Graham, Jr. – Former Special Representative for Arms Control, Non-proliferation and Disarmament and former Acting Director of U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA).

The 2020 Revcon has been delayed for over two years due to the pandemic, but it is finally happening next week. The issues facing the NPT regime today include many of the issues that would or should have been addressed if the Revcon had happened on time. Added to these are two others: one that has not received the proper attention – the climate crisis – and frequent threats by President Putin to use tactical nuclear weapons in his war of aggression against Ukraine, thereby heightening the risk of global nuclear war. Both must be addressed in addition to long-standing NPT issues such as the failure to bring the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) into force; failure to achieve a weapons of mass destruction free zone (WMDFZ) in the Middle East (a feature of the last two Revcons); and important nuclear-weapons management questions (which was a focus in the early part of the International Humanitarian Law discussions after the last Revcon).

Since this is a short commentary, I will expand only on two issues which are likely to significantly impede progress toward nuclear weapons elimination – climate change and the threat of nuclear weapons use by Russia in the context of conventional war. 

If climate change continues to worsen, in the not-too-distant future we will witness desertification, the disappearance of arable land and fresh water sources, and increased acidity of the ocean (the latter threatening ocean food sources). The resulting world food and water source crisis might cause many nations to reach for at least a crude nuclear-weapon stockpile to help protect what they have. Under these circumstances, it would be impossible to maintain the NPT or any other limits on nuclear weapons. 

Regarding the issue of Russia’s threatened use of tactical nuclear weapons, virtually every study done by governments or non-governmental institutions has concluded that escalation to general nuclear war after the use of a tactical nuclear weapon would be an inevitability or at least highly likely.

Thus, it would be important for the Revcon to consider these two issues and perhaps negotiate a legally binding Protocol attached to the NPT, requiring members to take strong anti-climate change measures. Also, every member should do what it can to bring the Ukraine War to a just, fair, and peaceful end. Additionally, studies sponsored by the United Nations should be undertaken to examine the possibility of developing measures to deter or make the use of any type of nuclear weapon more difficult under any circumstances. Since these weapons are likely to be with us for a long time, effective and practical means of management must be found promptly.

Daryl G. Kimball – Executive Director of the Arms Control Association.

In the face of the growing danger of nuclear war, the 10th nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference is a critical opportunity for the treaty’s 191 states-parties to reinforce norms against nuclear weapons, condemn any threat of nuclear weapons use, and call for action on the treaty’s Article VI provision “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.”

Since the NPT entered into force, the United States and Russia have concluded a series of bilateral arms control and arms reduction agreements to cap and eventually reduce their massive nuclear arsenals. These efforts have constrained nuclear competition, reduced the threat of nuclear war, and strengthened the nonproliferation regime. As then-Senator Joe Biden put it in a speech in 1979, “pursuing arms control is not a luxury or a sign of weakness, but an international responsibility and a national necessity.” 

As always, the NPT Review Conference must comprehensively assess implementation and compliance with the treaty. But the success or failure of this pivotal meeting will likely depend on whether delegates can agree on a meaningful and updated disarmament action plan, as well as whether key governments make good on that plan in the months and years beyond.

Putin’s war on Ukraine has derailed for now U.S.-Russian talks on further cuts in their strategic nuclear arsenals and new agreements to limit short- and intermediate-range nuclear weapons. The last remaining U.S.-Russian arms reduction agreement, the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), expires in early 2026. Without common sense arms control guardrails, the dangers of unconstrained global nuclear arms racing will only grow, and the future of the NPT will become less certain.

Both sides recognize the danger but have not yet agreed to resume their dialogue. 

“Our progress must continue beyond the New START extension,” Biden wrote on June 2. “Even as we rally the world to hold Russia accountable for its brutal and unprovoked war on Ukraine, we must continue to engage Russia on issues of strategic stability.” 

For his part, Putin said on June 30 that “Russia is open to dialogue on ensuring strategic stability, preserving agreements on the non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and improving the situation in arms control.” 

Unfortunately, officials on both sides have equivocated on when the dialogue might resume. Delegations at this conference must be united in calling on the United States and Russia to conclude talks on New START follow-on agreements that achieve further cuts in nuclear warheads and delivery systems no later than 2025 and, pending the conclusion of such arrangements, agree not to exceed the central limits of New START until such time as new arrangements enter into force. The Review Conference should also seek a pledge by the three other nuclear-armed NPT states (China, France, and the U.K.) to engage in nuclear risk reduction talks and to agree to freeze the size of their nuclear arsenals.

Scott Roecker – Vice President for Nuclear Threat Initiative’s Nuclear Materials Security Program.

The much-anticipated, long-delayed 10th Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference (Revcon) begins Aug. 1 at a time of tremendous change that makes this conference much more challenging than previous reviews. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the sometimes subtle but very real threats of possible nuclear weapons use top the list of challenges facing global leaders as they work to find consensus at a time of deep polarization among nuclear weapons states. But all is not lost. Two issues in particular—one that showcases cooperation among possessor and non-possessor states on disarmament and another that highlights a topic outside the normal NPT discussions—offer the prospect of a more successful outcome in New York. 

The first is disarmament. A common complaint from previous NPT Revcons is the lack of progress toward disarmament by nuclear weapon states. It is true that the trends are not promising in this area, as countries with nuclear weapons are modernizing or expanding their arsenals. Nuclear weapon states need to find opportunities to curb their modernization programs and reduce the number and types of these weapons through legally binding verifiable agreements. While there does not appear to be a significant appetite for this in the near-term, there are other steps being taken by nuclear weapon and non-nuclear weapons states to jointly create the conditions for a nuclear weapon-free world. An excellent example of this is the International Partnership on Nuclear Disarmament Verification, also known as IPNDV. There are more than 25 countries participating in this partnership, including three nuclear weapon states (France, U.K., and United States). Launched in 2014, the IPNDV is now in its third phase and recently completed an in-person exercise that tested concepts developed in earlier phases. Specifically, the exercise explored two of the 14 step disarmament process and demonstrated that every country, not just those that possess nuclear weapons, have an important role to play in verifying disarmament agreements. This partnership is building important capabilities that will be needed for future disarmament work. 

The second issue, not normally associated with the NPT, is nuclear security. For too long, nuclear security has been kept separate from broader discussions on the connections between disarmament, nonproliferation, and nuclear power. But nuclear security is an essential element of the three main pillars of the NPT, and it would be an important step forward for leaders to acknowledge and embrace this truth during discussions. Nuclear weapons states will not make progress towards disarmament if they fear that stolen nuclear weapons or materials could end up in the hands of terrorists or new states. Nuclear nonproliferation is not possible if a state or a terrorist group might be able to acquire a stolen nuclear weapon or materials. The expansion of nuclear power will not be possible unless civilian nuclear facilities and stockpiles are secure. Civil society has a useful role to play in convening interested parties on this issue, which is the goal of the upcoming NPT Revcon side event that the Nuclear Threat Initiative is planning to host, along with Norway.  

With greater cooperation in these two areas, leaders can emerge from the long-awaited 10th NPT Revcon having made some meaningful progress.

IMAGE: Russian Yars ballistic nuclear missiles on mobile launchers roll through Red Square during the Victory Day military parade rehearsals on May 6, 2018 in Moscow, Russia, in preparation for a military parade on May 9 of that year to mark the 73th anniversary of the end of WWII. ( Photo by Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images)