The 2022 NPT Review Conference & Canada’s Role in Non-Proliferation
What will be the focus of the 2022 Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference? What are the major issues at stake and what do you predict some of the outcomes will be?
This is an important NPT Review Conference. It comes twenty-five years after states that are parties to the treaty agreed to extend it indefinitely on the basis of several factors, including commitments on nuclear disarmament. The record will show that there has been scant progress on nuclear disarmament in the past several years. We are at a critical juncture right now because the nuclear armed states are modernizing their nuclear stockpiles. The five NPT nuclear armed states are not getting along with one another very well and in three years the last remaining bilateral agreement capping the world’s two largest nuclear arsenals, the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), will expire on February 5, 2026. One of the central themes of this review conference will be whether the nuclear five members of the NPT are fulfilling their disarmament obligations, which are spelled out in Article VI, as well as what they and other states can do to move in that direction.
Another key issue is advancing the goal of a WMD destruction-free zone (WMDFZ) in the Middle East. That was the issue upon which the 2015 NPT Review Conference final document fell apart. There has been some progress in that area since 2015, including a UN-sponsored meeting on the zone and two follow-up meetings. However, that meetings did not involve Israel nor the United States. Its value in the context of the NPT is unclear, so that will be another issue up for discussion.
Another issue requiring attention at this conference is the fate of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, otherwise known as the Iran nuclear deal. The P4 plus the EU and Iran, with the United States on the side, are discussing how to achieve a mutual return to compliance from Iran and the United States. At this stage, the outcome of the talks is uncertain and there are serious questions about whether Iran is meeting its comprehensive safeguards agreement obligations with the IAEA.
I think it is also important to recognize that the success of any given NPT Review Conference does not necessarily depend upon whether there is a final consensus document negotiated over the course of the session. There are other outcomes that could help reinforce, strengthen and advance the goals of the NPT short of that.
What has been the impact of the decision to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal? What has this meant for Iran’s nuclear program?
The Trump administration decision to exit the 2015 agreement has proven to be a complete and utter disaster. The agreement rolled back Iran’s nuclear capacity by putting in place more stringent international inspections and monitoring of its nuclear activities. Iran was complying with the agreement, and yet the Trump administration pulled out of the agreement without cause and reimposed the sanctions that the United States had waived after Iran met its nuclear commitments under the deal. What we see today is Iran exceeding the limit set by the deal. They are now much closer to the point where it could be capable of producing enough bomb-grade material for one nuclear weapon.
With every passing week, Iran is accumulating more enriched uranium material. They are doing this in retaliation for the reimposition of sanctions. Both sides are on a course leading towards a dead end—a new nuclear crisis in which Iran continues to be isolated economically and politically while increasing its capacity to produce bomb-grade nuclear material. The only real solution is a diplomatic one. While there has been a lot of discussion about a better deal, the reality is that the withdrawal from this agreement by the Trump administration has completely destroyed any trust between the U.S and Iran. If the different sides cannot find a path towards mutual compliance with this agreement, there cannot be a better deal on the horizon.
How has great power rivalry coupled with nuclear weapons proliferation affected international stability?
I think with every passing year, we see actions taken by the United States and Russia that increase the risk of a military conflict which has the potential to go nuclear. There is a similar pattern emerging between the United States and China, particularly in the South China Sea. The political rhetoric emanating from Washington, Beijing, and Moscow would indicate that the risk of nuclear conflict is all too high—possibly greater than it ever has been. Political leaders need to take steps towards reducing these tensions and begin building up the trust necessary to avoid catastrophe. That begins with a serious dialogue about the issues confronting all sides. The fact that China is now clearly on a course to expand both the quality and quantity of its nuclear weapons has only exacerbated these tensions.
China should enter Nuclear Risk Reduction discussions with the United States and eventually engage in some kind of arms control dialogue with the United States. China is not interested in doing that for the time being, in part, because it has a relatively smaller nuclear force, totaling about 300 nuclear weapons. However, 300 is still far too many. The United States and Russia each have approximately 1400 strategically deployed warheads and another 2000-3000 beyond that in their arsenals. China’s argument is that the United States and Russia need to do more to reduce their bloated nuclear stockpiles before they engage in serious arms control talks. That may be true, but it’s not too early to engage in discussions to reduce nuclear risks.
China has not yet built up its nuclear stockpiles, however it may soon do so. That means that the actions of the United States and Russia could influence what it does or does not do. We are not on an inevitable course towards an all-out arms race between the U.S and China. It doesn’t have to be that way. We are in control of our destiny on this, but it will take stronger leadership from Beijing and Washington.
The United States has pursued an approach over the past few decades, vis-à-vis China, that has increased China’s concerns over their ability to maintain nuclear deterrence. The United States has gradually increased its missile defense capabilities, which worries Chinese military planners, because they might be subject to a first-strike by the United States against the mainland if a conflict over Taiwan erupts. Additionally, Chinese defense planners worry that an expanded United States’ missile defense architecture could defeat any retaliatory strike that China might launch with its current force of ICBMs. In my opinion, the Chinese concerns are overblown, but they are concerned, nonetheless. We must recognize that there is an interrelationship between what the United States does vis-à-vis China and vice-versa.
Can President Biden use the current Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) to implement a sole purpose nuclear policy? What benefits and challenges come with such a policy?
One of the issues in this Nuclear Posture Review is determining the role and purpose of U.S nuclear weapons—what is known as the “declaratory policy.” During the 2020 campaign, President Biden stated explicitly that he believes that there is no circumstance in which it would be necessary or logical for the United States to use nuclear weapons first in a conflict that begins as a non-nuclear conflict. He has said that he would like to put a policy into place that declaring that the sole purpose of U.S nuclear weapons is to deter an attack against the United States or our allies.
This possible shift in declaratory policy has created anxiety amongst some U.S allies who may mistakenly believe that this diminishes the ability and will of the U.S to defend them in a conflict. They must consider the question the President asked, which is when would it make sense and why would it be necessary for the United States to use nuclear weapons first? This needs to be thought about very carefully. Once nuclear weapons are used in a conflict, even on a so-called limited basis, there is no guarantee that a limited nuclear war will not escalate into an all-out exchange between the U.S. and Russia, or the United States and China, which would result in the death of hundreds of millions of innocent people.
Are there any practical steps Canada could take to limit the proliferation of nuclear weapons?
Historically, Canada has played an important role in building bridges between the non-nuclear weapon state majority and the nuclear armed states. One of the new features in the debate about nuclear weapons is the TPNW of 2017, and I would argue that NATO countries, including Canada and United States, need to acknowledge that the TPNW exists and that it is a good faith effort by non-nuclear weapon states to reinforce the taboo against nuclear weapons. This should not become a source of friction between NATO member states and the more than 100 countries that support the TNPW.
The real work to reduce nuclear risks today needs to take place via discussions between the United States and Russia. They must discuss how they can reduce the possibility of nuclear conflict that might begin as a conventional conflict on the border between the NATO Baltic States and Russia, or a military event in the Black Sea, or a conflict over eastern Ukraine. What can be done to resolve those areas of tension, and what can be done to reduce and further limit the nuclear arsenals of the United States and Russia? The United States and Russia will have to negotiate a new agreement, or agreements, to follow the new START agreement, which ends in 2026. That’s not easy, and there is not a lot of time to do this.
If they fail, we will be living in a world in which there are no restrictions on nuclear weapons. We have not been in that situation since before 1972. I think one of the areas in which Canada can be very helpful is to remind Moscow and Washington that they need to make progress in that area, and that failure is not an acceptable option. In my opinion, to argue about, or to criticize the TPNW, would be a waste of valuable diplomatic capital that Ottawa should invest into other areas.
As difficult and challenging as the international security environment is today, and as real and terrifying as the threat of nuclear weapons is, there are solutions. We have faced these problems in the past—concerned citizens and responsible government leaders have stood up and taken actions that have walked us back from the brink. We need to find a way to do that again. We are all part of the solution, whether we live in nuclear-armed states or not.
Daryl G. Kimball