3. The Diminished Appeal of Globalism.
One might have expected the global pandemic to have fostered a greater sense of international community and shared values and interests, including the pursuit of “human” and “cooperative” security as opposed to narrow self- interest and national security. Instead, it appears to have fanned the flames of nationalism, undercut support for many forms of economic globalism, and encouraged more autarchic approaches to economic development. From a political economic perspective, one might expect these inward-looking trends, coinciding with the growth of relatively unconstrained authoritarian leadership in many regions of the world, to increase the risk of proliferation.
4. The Impact of new destabilizing technologies.
Technological innovation is neither inherently good nor bad for arms control and nonproliferation, just as there are neither “good atoms for peace” and “bad atoms for war.” Advances in satellite imagery, for example, have greatly enhanced the ability for national (and non-governmental) means to monitor and verify state compliance with international accords. Many emerging technologies, however, also have the potential to be destabilizing, and may reduce the technological and economic barriers to the production of weapons-usable fissile material, undermine crisis stability, and facilitate the ability of both state and non-state actors to precipitate nuclear weapons use. Among the disruptive technologies of greatest concern are those involving cyber, hypersonic, additive manufacturing, nano, and autonomous weapons features.
Although many experts recognize the potential proliferation impact of these new technologies, to date there has been little appetite among NPT diplomats to focus on these issues, at least in the context of the review process. This reticence is due in part to the highly technical nature of the topic and also because the subject is not one that previously has been on the NPT agenda. Indeed, on the relatively few occasions when the subject has been broached—including 2018 NPT Preparatory Committee meeting when the Chair specifically asked delegates to comment on the issue—there has been a deafening silence.
5. The Erosion of US-Russian Cooperation for Nonproliferation.
One of the hallmarks of US-Soviet relations during the last fifteen years of the Cold War was the unusual degree of parallelism and collaboration on matters related to nuclear nonproliferation. This cooperation extended over both Democratic and Republican administrations and was evident in many different fora, including but not limited to the Nuclear Suppliers Group, the IAEA Board of Governors, the NPT review process, and open-ended bi-annual meetings of high-level U.S. and Soviet policy makers. Cooperation on nonproliferation even extended to sharing sensitive intelligence information—most notably involving what were perceived to be nuclear test preparations by the apartheid South African regime in 1977.
Today, the situation could not be more different. There no longer are routine consultations about shared proliferation concerns, the positions of the two parties tend to diverge consistently in almost every international forum—a rare exception being their mutual disdain of the widely endorsed Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons—and even the pretense of civil discourse increasingly often is abandoned in favor of vitriolic exchanges such as those evident during the exercise of “right of replies” at the 2018 and 2019 NPT Preparatory Committee meetings. Rather than pursuing what objectively might be regarded as shared concerns about the proliferation dangers posed by non-state actors, the risks of inadvertent or accidental nuclear use, and the adoption of the Additional Protocol as the global standard for nuclear safeguards, the two parties invariably find themselves on opposite sides of most issues, including those of both a petty and more substantial nature. As such, one may be forgiven for not recalling that two of the most ardent proponents of the indefinite extension of the NPT in 1995 were the Russian Federation and the United States.
Whither the Tenth NPT Review Conference?
It has been observed that Covid-19 has given the postponed 10th NPT Review Conference a reprieve, but it remains to be seen if member states will have the necessary will and inclination to exploit the postponement to secure a successful Review Conference outcome.
The indications to date are not encouraging.
Reference already has been made to the dire state of nuclear arms control and disarmament, and that situation is unlikely to improve before the start of the delayed Review Conference, especially if it takes place in January 2021 as tentatively scheduled. Although much of the recent damage done to the nonproliferation regime by the impetuous policies of the current US administration may be remedied over time if a new president is elected in November, it will not be simple to reverse some of the recent missteps or restore confidence in U.S. nonproliferation leadership, which has been badly damaged. It also is important to appreciate that many of the underlying problems that beset the international nonproliferation regime were apparent well before the present U.S. administration. Among others, they are attributable to the behavior of a variety of countries, which have acted in a fashion inconsistent with their NPT obligations. They also reflect a deep and growing divide between nuclear and non-nuclear weapons states, as well as skepticism on the part of many NPT parties about the security and peaceful use benefits they derive from the treaty, particularly when they observe the favorable treatment given to India—a non-party to the NPT. Why, many non-nuclear weapons states ask, should they forego nuclear weapons when they are denied economic benefits granted to a nuclear weapons possessor in direct contradiction to formal decisions undertaken at prior NPT review conference meetings?
In addition to these underlying problems, the forthcoming NPT Review Conference will find it difficult to deal with the aftermath of the nearly defunct JCPOA (including its potential to spur pursuit of a Saudi nuclear weapons capability), the collapse of negotiations with the DPRK and its impact on the nuclear ambitions or South Korea and Japan, uncertainty about how to accelerate negotiations on a WMD Free Zone in the Middle East, and the need to take note of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which is approaching the number of signatures required for entry into force.
Finally, while a new U.S. administration is likely to yield numerous nonproliferation benefits, it will not inevitably lead to a revival of the kind of US-Russian nonproliferation cooperation, which historically contributed to positive NPT Review Conference outcomes.
If this proliferation diagnosis is correct, what then, should be done? It is, of course, much easier to identify steps that would be desirable to take than to prescribe actions that have a reasonable chance of being implemented. These concluding remarks eschew recommendations, which if diligently pursued by the international community, would contribute significantly to the reduction of proliferation incentives and the strengthening of nonproliferation disincentives. Rather, they propose a few modest steps that the United States and Russia could and should undertake to strengthen the nonproliferation regime if they truly believe, as they once did, that the spread of nuclear weapons poses a danger to their mutual interests.
First, it is essential to revive the kind of routine consultations between senior officials responsible for nonproliferation policy that characterized US-Soviet relations during the Cold War. Such consultations would not signify support for each other’s activities in other spheres but would simply acknowledge the utility of understanding better where it might be possible to coordinate actions on issues where each side’s interests converge.
A related exercise that could facilitate this understanding would be for the two sides to conduct comparative threat assessments to illuminate convergent and divergent perceptions of proliferation threats and priority nonproliferation objectives. Ideally, this activity would be performed in tandem by government experts. Alternatively, one might rely on the Academies of Science in both countries to undertake such a study.
Based on the historical record, it is quite possible that a comparative threat assessment would point to convergent U.S. and Russian evaluations of the need to continue stringent nuclear export control policies consistent with Nuclear Supplier Group guidelines and the IAEA Additional Protocol. If this were the case, it might be possible for Moscow and Washington jointly to ensure that Saudi Arabia—at a minimum—adopted comprehensive safeguards on their ambitious nuclear program. They also might collaborate in securing support from the small number of other key nuclear suppliers to impede Saudi development of its nuclear weapons potential.
Finally, it should be possible for the United States and Russia to reiterate in one fashion or another the basic tenet that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought. If they are unable to lend their support to this fundamental principle, any comments they might make about the enduring value of the NPT at the next Review Conference will have a hollow ring.