Midnight one minute: time for action for nuclear dialogue is now
The arms control architecture, which was a solid pillar of strategic stability even in the highly rivalry of the Cold War, has collapsed. Strategic inattention and lack of political prudence have brought the Doomsday Clock just 100 seconds to midnight, the closest ever to an apocalypse ending civilization.
To be sure, the Biden administration’s decision in early 2021 to extend the new START secured a five-year reprieve from a dangerous nuclear arms race between Moscow and Washington. Yet, as the great powers continue to modernize their excessively lethal nuclear arsenals with new technological vehicles and capabilities, decisive steps to promote strategic stability in a world of great power competition must be taken now.
After much hope, the lack of political will has made the Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference (RevCon) – due to take place in January 2022 – to look rather disappointing. While everyone focused on the schedule for the twice postponed conference, the substance of the discussions unfortunately took a back seat. In addition, after much deliberation, civil society will be allowed to attend, but only in small numbers. The conference will therefore lack the energy of side events, advocacy and tenacity that characterize societal actors calling for nuclear disarmament. Who could forget the million people who demonstrated in Central Park in New York forty years ago to demand an end to nuclear weapons?
Consultations on the final RevCon document are already underway. We hope that it will be adopted by consensus unlike 2015 – but is this a positive result? Will consensual language not mask the deep divisions that exist between the five nuclear-weapon states (P5) and the majority of non-nuclear weapon owners who are striving for meaningful disarmament measures?
Meanwhile, other member states of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) are stepping up their nuclear programs. The UK, for example, has increased the cap on its nuclear arsenal (from 225 to 269 warheads) rather than lowering the number (to 180) as it previously said.
The oft-repeated mantra that “the NPT is the cornerstone of non-proliferation” has unfortunately become anachronistic. The NPT was critically important in its day, but 51 years later it cannot continue on autopilot. The political leaders of the P5 states in particular must take into account that the world has changed and is shaped by increasing multipolarity and increasing systemic competition between the great powers. This constitutes a much more complex strategic environment than that of the bipolarity of the Cold War.
The P5 declaration published in Paris on December 3 is disappointing. It reiterates old bland language on non-proliferation, quotes verbatim Article VI of the NPT, and has many ambitions without announcing irreversible practical measures. The P5 “Exchange of updates”, “reiterated their commitment to ongoing discussions”, “recognized their responsibility to work collaboratively” and similar formulas.
While it is welcome that the P5 “reiterated their commitment“To continue discussions on their respective nuclear doctrines and policies, their intention to”build on their successful workIs projected into the next NPT review cycle, with no commitment to take concrete steps to reduce nuclear weapons or to disarm.
In terms of concrete commitments, the results are therefore poor: they have decided to launch a pilot project to develop a network of young professionals of P5 academics. In the tense geopolitical environment within the P5, I realize that it is difficult to agree on a common language, but I fear that this statement by the P5 is not enough to restore the credibility of Article VI.
Given our doomsday situation, what needs to be done ahead of time to unlock the potential of NPT 2022’s RevCon and foster creative strategic action?
Basically, a discussion in favor of a direct reduction in the number of one-to-one nuclear weapons would be welcome. This would give a strong signal to non-nuclear-weapon States that genuine disarmament would indeed take place, rather than an open dialogue that could drag on for years.
In the meantime, it remains important to discuss issues of nuclear doctrine and the impact of non-strategic nuclear weapons, missile defenses and conventional long-range strike systems on strategic stability. Developments in the space and cyber fields are also crucial in this dimension.
For such a discussion to be productive, however, engagement between the United States and Russia alone is not enough. China, while possessing a much smaller nuclear arsenal, is a formidable power that is expanding its technological capabilities at all strategic levels. The recent virtual meeting between President Biden and President Xi resulted in an agreement to start strategic stability talks, a move that has been widely welcomed. Yet the language is carefully worded: “we would seek to start moving the discussion forward,” said US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan in reference to US concerns about the build-up of nuclear missiles and missiles in the United States. China.
It is clear that we need a new global vision of nuclear arms control, a vision that goes beyond the consideration of âmissile marchesâ. A more holistic approach is urgently needed, which takes into account geopolitical changes, technological disruptions and the evolution of fighting.
And that brings us to the Guardians of the NPT. The three depositary states (Russia, UK and US) in particular have a special responsibility for the NPT, and they must facilitate a constructive P5 relationship (including China and France) with the rest of the NPT members. Opinions among P5s, however, remained static for a long time. It is no longer enough to repeat the mantra that the NPT is the cornerstone of non-proliferation. The part of disarmament must be brought into the discussion to signal the commitment to non-nuclear member states.
A strong positive signal would be solidified if the P5 and those under their nuclear umbrella attended the First Conference of the States Parties to the Nuclear Weapons Ban Treaty as observers. This meeting will now take place in March 2022, and attendance would at least indicate respect for divergent positions on nuclear weapons possession.
Time spent on RevCon should also be spent reflecting on the work and goals of the NPT review process. Despite the commitments made by consensus at previous conferences, their implementation has stalled. It is not enough to dismiss past agreements as “obsolete” – a view that only a few states share – a serious effort is needed to build common ground and find a way forward given past commitments. In this sense, the conclusions of the Foreign Affairs Council of the European Union of November 15, which supported the three pillars of the NPT and affirmed the EU’s commitment to “continue to promote full, comprehensive, balanced implementation and Substantial of the 2010 Review Conference Action Plan âserves as a solid direction. Only the willingness to respect each other’s strategic views can help to agree on mutually acceptable outcomes.
The stakes of our strategic situation are too high. Preventive regulation is safer than managing nuclear conflicts on the âescalation ladderâ. Prudent policy will be needed to propel creative action and avoid a deadlock in RevCon 2022. The underlying strategic imperative must be that nuclear weapons are not the solution to conflict; nor a spiraling arms race that sucks up vast resources without leading to a higher level of security. How many nuclear weapons does it take to “win” a nuclear war? As the apocalyptic hour approaches apocalyptic midnight, the younger generations reject the anachronisms of collapsing struggle and nuclear competition: let’s listen to them.
The opinions expressed above represent the views of the author (s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network (ELN) or any of its members. The aim of the ELN is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to meet the urgent challenges of our time in foreign, defense and security policy.
Image: IAEA Image Bank