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Keeping the 2020 Momentum Around Nuclear Issues Alive

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This blog belongs to the CSS’ coronavirus blog series, which forms a part of the center’s analysis of the security policy implications of the coronavirus crisis. See the CSS special theme page on the coronavirus for more.

Various nuclear milestones in 2020 have provided important opportunities to raise awareness on the role of nuclear weapons in national security strategies, their impact on communities, the state of arms control treaties, and progress in nuclear disarmament. While the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference on its 50th anniversary was rescheduled due to the pandemic, the delay could enable member states to further engage in dialogue, seek compromises, and suggest new initiatives. Depending on when and how the conference will eventually take place, the coronavirus crisis might even bring much-needed change to conference proceedings.

2020 is a symbolically powerful year in the field of nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament, marking the celebration and commemoration of several key anniversaries. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the cornerstone of the global non-proliferation regime, entered into force 50 years ago, and it has been 25 years since it was extended indefinitely. It has also been 75 years since Trinity, the first nuclear weapon test that ushered in the nuclear age and enabled the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki shortly thereafter.

The world is understandably focused on dealing with the health, economic, and societal consequences of the ongoing pandemic, which has caused commemoration events in Hiroshima and Nagasaki to be downsized and led to the postponement of the NPT Review Conference, which was initially planned for April-May this year, but is now tentatively scheduled for 4-29 January 2021. Nevertheless, it is crucial to ensure that this year’s multiple nuclear milestones do not go unheeded. They provide key opportunities to reflect, debate, remember, and educate on issues related to the role of nuclear weapons in national security strategies, their impact on communities, the state of arms control treaties, as well as progress in nuclear disarmament.

Rising to the challenge

Despite delays and downsized events, the academic, expert, and policy communities working on nuclear issues have been keeping the momentum of 2020 alive so far. Countless webinars organized by universities, think tanks, and NGOs replaced in-person workshops and conferences, enabling broader global participation. At the official level, policy-makers are also using virtual meetings and online exercises to advance discussions in preparation for, among others, the NPT Review Conference. In August, media outlets around the world drew attention to the appeal of the hibakusha, Japan’s atom bomb survivors, for a world free of nuclear weapons. As the world has turned further away from the aim of nuclear disarmament, the lifelong plea of the hibakusha resonates strongly today.

In particular, the erosion of arms control treaties, the increasing nuclear capabilities of countries such as China, India, Pakistan, and North Korea, and the nuclear modernization efforts of most nuclear weapon states, as well as the impact of emerging technologies such as AI and offensive cyber operations on nuclear policies are making the world less safe. Wide press coverage of the 75th anniversary of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings has served to highlight, among other things, the continuous risk of nuclear use – in warfare or accidental, dangerous nuclear weapons policies, and the colossal costs associated with nuclear modernization programs. Channeling this renewed attention toward measures that could be taken to reduce the risk posed by nuclear weapons, particularly in the absence of meaningful progress on US-Russia arms control, will be key to sustaining the momentum brought about by these nuclear milestones into 2021 and the rescheduled NPT Review Conference.

Difficulties ahead

This year’s NPT Review Conference, had it been held as initially planned, was set to be a highly contentious one. The pressure to produce a successful outcome given the anniversary date clashed with ongoing disagreements particularly on the pace and scope of disarmament, including the polarizing Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, and the proposal for a Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone in the Middle East. Arguments regarding the latter led to the failure to produce a consensus document at the 2015 NPT Review Conference. The current delay provides an opportunity to engage in further dialog, suggest new initiatives, and seek compromises. The global reach of the coronavirus has also refocused attention on the need for common security, a concept that has long been advocated in the face of the international threat posed by nuclear weapons. While it is unlikely that the extra months will significantly change the dynamics or polemics at play, NPT member states should draw some lessons from the chaotic management of the pandemic. For instance, the benefits of early international cooperation, the need to improve resilient response planning for global threats at various scales, and reliance on non-partisan expertise can all be applied to the nuclear context as well.

Furthermore, several key developments in the coming months will have an impact on NPT proceedings. First, the outcome of the US presidential elections in November will undoubtedly influence US arms control policies. If the January conference dates are maintained and Joe Biden is elected, the conference would even coincide for the first time with a change of administration in Washington. It is difficult to predict how the incumbent and the new US delegations would handle this changeover and how it would affect conference proceedings. Other delegations might also expect too much from a newly elected administration. Second, states will scrutinize the state of the Iran nuclear deal as an indicator of non-proliferation progress. The agreement hangs by a thread following the US withdrawal in May 2018 and Iran’s subsequent reversal of nuclear commitments. A complete collapse, which may occur if the Iran arms embargo is extended in October, would wreck one of the few non-proliferation achievements in recent years and heighten concerns for regional proliferation. Third, progress on US-Russian arms control, including the extension or expiration of New START, will send a strong signal to member states either way. Based on how these developments evolve, they could either hamper or stimulate conference proceedings.

An opportunity for change

Given current coronavirus developments, it may prove impossible to hold the NPT Review Conference in January 2021. Travel restrictions, social distancing and quarantine measures could lead to a further delay, perhaps even to 2022. For a review process as regimented as the NPT, this could force a rethink on how the review conference and the three preparatory ones are handled. The institutional mechanism relies on an array of formal and often cumbersome procedures, including countless statements and the expectation of reaching a consensus document. The process has been criticized as inefficient, especially in terms of its focus on consensus as the only measure of success. The long-term effects of the pandemic on large-scale public events could prove to be an opportunity in disguise for the NPT process. Shorter plenaries may need to be more focused, with more issues being discussed and agreed upon in smaller groups beforehand, leading to a series of reports or statements on which participants can agree (or disagree), rather than a single document. During the corona crisis, the review conference bureau has been working actively to pursue discussions in various formats and at different levels, including with civil society participation. These efforts should be sustained and strengthened in the longer term, especially if the conference is delayed beyond January 2021.

Moreover, the NPT’s 50 years of implementation and its successes should still be acknowledged and commemorated at the conference, even if the event will no longer take place during the anniversary year. Despite disagreements about its current form, the treaty and the review processes it has undergone have produced a set of commitments to build upon. This milestone represents an opportunity for member states to take stock and, more importantly, to agree on how to move beyond it and craft a compelling shared vision for the treaty’s next 50 years. In keeping the momentum around nuclear issues alive during 2020, the academic, expert, and policy communities have already highlighted various ways [1, 2, 3, 4] in which the upcoming NPT review conference could pave the way for change. They will also have an important role to play in contributing to this vision and the future of the NPT.

About the Author

Névine Schepers is a Researcher in the Swiss and Euro-Atlantic Security Team at the Center for Security Studies (CSS). @NevineSchepers

For more information on issues and events that shape our world, please visit the CSS website.

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