In New York, the nuclear non-proliferation regime is put to the test in a highly fragmented world

This 25 July 2021 satellite image shows what analysts from the Federation of American Scientists believe is construction of a missile silo near Hami in China. (Photo: Planet Labs PBC/AP/NTB)

From 1 to 26 August, 191 states will gather in New York for the tenth review conference of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, in an explosive geopolitical context. While Russia threatens to use nuclear weapons, non-nuclear states are considering acquiring them.

Geneva Solutions has corrected a translation error that appeared in this article when first published on 28 July. In his quote, Adam Scheinman was referring to the TPNW and not the NPT.

It was October 1962. The planet came very close to a nuclear war at the time of the Cuban missile crisis between the two great powers of the Cold War: the United States and the Soviet Union.

In 1958, the United States was ready to launch a nuclear attack to defend Taiwan, the whistleblower and the source of the Pentagon Papers, Daniel Ellsberg, recently explained to Le Temps. Almost sixty years later, the risk of a nuclear conflict not only remains, but also shows signs of escalating.

Since the war in Ukraine triggered on February 24 by the Russian invasion, Kremlin leader Vladimir Putin has repeatedly threatened to use such a weapon.

It is against this backdrop that the tenth Review Conference of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), delayed by two years because of Covid-19, will be held from 1 to 26 August at the United Nations headquarters in New York – and the stakes are high.

The NPT, which has been in force for almost fifty-one years and includes 191 states parties, has certainly made it possible to limit the proliferation of nuclear weapons, the devastating effects of which we saw in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. But today it is part of a global geopolitical context that is much more volatile and therefore dangerous than in the past.

Strategic instability

In a February 2021 report entitled “The Future of Strategic Stability,” the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris (FPRS) noted that the notion of strategic stability, defined as “a situation in which the incentives to change the status quo are less strong than the disincentives to change,” is increasingly difficult to measure. If during the Cold War there were primarily two great powers that ensured a certain stability, notably because of the Soviet desire to maintain “strategic parity” with the United States, today the FPRS speaks of “nuclear multipolarity”, specifying that the world includes “more actors possessing nuclear delivery systems and weapons”.

Chinese, Indian and Pakistani arsenals have expanded and North Korea has become a new atomic power. The return of nationalism may prompt some states to expand and modernise their arsenals. Russia has developed hypersonic missiles that are causing concern. According to the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, California, which analysed a series of satellite photos, China is building 119 silos for intercontinental ballistic missiles near the Gobi Desert. Beijing wants to catch up with Moscow and Washington, which together hold nearly 11,000 nuclear warheads, or 90 per cent of the world's arsenals.

Read also: World’s stockpile of ‘usable’ nuclear weapons is increasing, watchdog warns

It is much more difficult, the FPRS adds, to measure the strategic stability of the planet because of the presence of very different armaments combining offensive, defensive, ballistic and cruise missiles and conventional weapons. Adding to the challenge is the issue of the Iran Nuclear Deal (JCPOA), which is teetering on the brink of collapse.

Grabbing hold of the Iranian and North Korean issues

“In New York, the United States will seek to reaffirm the continued relevance of the NPT, the cornerstone of non-proliferation for half a century,” a senior US state department official told Le Temps, emphasising the three pillars of the treaty that Washington considers essential: disarmament, non-proliferation and the peaceful use of nuclear technology. In his view, the North Korean and Iranian issues must be resolved if the non-proliferation regime is to remain credible. “It is clear,” he said, “that we will not resolve them in New York this August, but it will be imperative to tackle them head-on”.

At the Review Conference, one issue that could poison the debate is the Aukus agreement between the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia to deliver nuclear submarines to Canberra for security purposes in relation to Beijing, particularly in the waters of the South China Sea. “We expect the Chinese to raise the Aukus issue whenever they deem it relevant,” the state department official warned. In New York, the Sino-American relationship will inevitably weigh on the discussions, as concerns are high both in European capitals and in Washington.

On the American-Russian side, the arms control regime is hanging on by a thread thanks to the last-minute renewal of the new Start treaty on strategic arms reduction until 2026. With the war in Ukraine and Vladimir Putin's threats to use nuclear weapons, we are a long way from the resumption of the strategic dialogue between Moscow and Washington decided at the Biden-Putin summit in Geneva in June 2021. Such a dialogue is necessary to avoid any slippage. But it is precisely this strategic dialogue that is lacking between China and the United States. Yet it seems unavoidable if the two powers wish to avoid dramatic errors in the perception of each other’s arsenals.

“The problem is that with Moscow we have sixty years of experience in this type of dialogue,” the senior State Department official said. “Even if it is very complex, we have a mutual understanding of the issues. This is not at all the case with Beijing. It will take time to develop the same quality of dialogue.”

A second, more controversial treaty

The NPT Review Conference will not be able to avoid discussion of another controversial topic: the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), which was adopted by the UN General Assembly in July 2017 and entered into force on January 22, 2021. The states parties to the TPNW had their first review conference at the end of June. For nuclear powers as well as non-nuclear states like Switzerland, the treaty risks polarising the debate and in effect weakening the NPT.

Adam Scheinman, President Joe Biden’s special representative for non-proliferation issues, made this point categorically in an online press conference on Tuesday: “I do not believe that the TPNW itself is an effective step that can lead to nuclear disarmament. Not least because no state that has nuclear weapons has shown any interest in supporting the treaty. The treaty doesn’t provide the verification or the security that would be necessary to move to the final steps toward nuclear disarmament.”

Other voices suggest that the war in Ukraine may inspire non-nuclear states to become so. Kiev had renounced its nuclear weapons under the 1994 Budapest Memorandum. If the Ukrainian government had not done so, they say, a Russian invasion would have been more unlikely. Under this logic, Tehran could seek to acquire an atomic bomb.

The states that have ratified the TPNW disagree: for them, it is precisely because the nuclear states have not fulfilled their disarmament obligations under Article 6 of the NPT that the ban treaty is necessary.