The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) has two major purposes and together they form a grand bargain. First, the treaty seeks to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons to other countries. Second, the treaty seeks to level the playing field by the pursuit of negotiations in good faith to end the nuclear arms race at an early date and to achieve nuclear disarmament. The goal of the grand bargain, in other words, is a world without nuclear weapons.
For the most part the non-nuclear weapon states parties to the treaty are playing by the rules and not developing or acquiring nuclear weapons. However, one country – the United States – has stationed its nuclear weapons on the territories of five European countries otherwise without nuclear weapons (Belgium, Germany, Italy, Netherlands and Turkey), and agreed to turn these weapons over to the host countries in a time of war. The US has also placed all NATO countries plus Australia, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan under its “nuclear umbrella.” Collectively these countries are known as the weasel countries, non-nuclear in name but not in reality.
In addition, there has been nuclear proliferation outside the NPT. Three countries that never joined the NPT developed nuclear arsenals (Israel, India and Pakistan), and North Korea withdrew from the treaty and developed nuclear weapons. Despite all of this actual nuclear proliferation, attention seems to be primarily focused on the possibility of Iran developing nuclear weapons, even though Iran appears to be willing to take all necessary steps, including intrusive inspections, to assure the world that it is not seeking nuclear weapons.
It is the other side of the grand bargain, though, where things really break down. The five nuclear-armed countries that are parties to the NPT (US, Russia, UK, France and China) appear more comfortable working together to maintain and modernize their nuclear arsenals than they do to fulfilling their disarmament obligations under the treaty. Their common strategy appears to be “nuclear weapons forever.”
The US, which plans to spend $1 trillion on modernizing its nuclear arsenal over the next three decades, is also largely responsible for the modernization programs of Russia and China as a result of unilaterally withdrawing from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty in 2002 and placing land- and sea-based missile defenses close to the Russian and Chinese borders. Since missile defenses can also be part of an integrated plan to launch first-strike attacks, Russia and China may feel compelled to maintain the effectiveness of their nuclear deterrent by enhancing their offensive forces to counter US missile defenses. Avoiding such defensive-offensive escalations was the purpose of the ABM Treaty in the first place. One can get a better sense of this by imagining the US response if Russian missile defenses were placed on the Canadian border and Chinese missile defenses were placed on the Mexican border.
The parties to the NPT just completed a month of negotiations for their ninth five-year review conference. The conference ended in failure without agreement on a final document to guide the work of the parties over the next five years. The US, UK and Canada refused to support a conference to begin negotiating a Middle East zone free of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction to take place by March 1, 2016. This conference, promised when the NPT was extended indefinitely in 1995, has been put off previously and now it has been put off yet again.
Even if there had been consensus on a final document from the 2015 NPT review conference, however, it would not have been a strong or satisfactory document. The nuclear-armed parties to the treaty spent their time at the meetings watering down the disarmament provisions to which they had previously made an “unequivocal undertaking.” The nuclear-armed states and the weasel states, despite their protestations, don’t seem serious about keeping their commitments to achieve nuclear disarmament. Increasingly, the non-nuclear weapons states and civil society organizations are coming to the conclusion that the nuclear-armed countries are not acting in good faith and, as a result, the grand bargain is not being fulfilled.
A positive and hopeful outcome of the conference, though, is that the non-nuclear weapon states may be sufficiently fed up with the nuclear-armed countries to act boldly to push ahead on a new path to nuclear disarmament. More than 100 countries have now endorsed the Humanitarian Pledge, initiated by Austria, to work for a new legal instrument to prohibit and eliminate nuclear weapons, just as has been done for chemical and biological weapons and for landmines and cluster munitions. This legal instrument could take the form of a new Nuclear Weapons Ban Treaty.
Also on the positive and hopeful side are the bold and courageous Nuclear Zero lawsuits filed by the Republic of the Marshall Islands against the nine nuclear-armed countries in the International Court of Justice in The Hague and separately against the US in US federal court. These lawsuits seek declaratory relief, stating that the nuclear weapon states are in violation of the disarmament provisions of the NPT and of customary international law, and seek injunctive relief ordering the nuclear-armed countries to initiate and engage in negotiations in good faith for total nuclear disarmament. A well-attended side panel at the NPT review conference provided an update on the status of the lawsuits.
This is the 70th year since nuclear weapons were used on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There are still over 16,000 nuclear weapons in the world. Enough is enough. It is time to abolish these weapons before they cause irreversible damage to civilization, the human species and other forms of life. We owe it to ourselves and to future generations of life on Earth to break our chains of complacency and demonstrate that the engaged human heart is more powerful than even nuclear arms.