Why a stalling NPT is a wake-up call for global security

The Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) is at a dangerous point in its 50-year history. Its failure carries a risk we cannot afford.

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Since 2010, there has been a glaring lack of consensus on the way forward for the NPT. Following the failure of the 2015 Review Conference, the 2022 conference ended without agreement as Russia blocked consensus on the negotiated outcome document.

While states have often been able to isolate the treaty from other political issues, this has become increasingly harder as international tensions have increased. This poses significant risks for the global non-proliferation regime with some states increasing their interest in acquiring nuclear weapons.

Nuclear crises intensifying 

Since its inception in 1970, the NPT has not only established the global baseline for access to a spectrum of peaceful nuclear technologies, including radiological cancer treatments, nuclear medicine including diagnostics, agricultural applications of nuclear energy, and civil nuclear power production, while also mandating the NPT Nuclear Weapons States (UK, France, USA, Russia and China) to make progress towards disarmament.

While states have often been able to isolate the treaty from other political issues, this has become increasingly harder as international tensions have increased.

Nuclear crises are intensifying in various regions across the globe. While negotiations aimed at reviving the Iran nuclear deal have made progress in recent months, Iran has withdrawn permission for IAEA inspectors to conduct verification work at several nuclear sites. This diminishes the oversight the IAEA has over Iran’s nuclear programme and heightens concerns that Iran is moving closer to developing nuclear weapons, thereby stoking regional tensions.

Israel has long maintained that it would consider a military intervention before allowing Iran to acquire nuclear weapons, and Saudi Arabia announced once again that it would also acquire nuclear weapons if Iran did. This would alter the Middle East irrevocably, severely increasing risks of further, and possibly nuclear, conflict.

Some of the impact of proliferation on regional security can already be seen on the Korean peninsula. North Korea’s intensified missile tests have vastly increased South Korea’s fears over its neighbour’s intentions.

Earlier this year, the South Korean government also stated that it might consider establishing a nuclear weapons programme if its security continued to decrease. South Korea not only perceives an acute threat from its northern neighbour, but also grapples with mounting tensions in the Pacific, including China’s more assertive behaviour.

In Europe, Russia’s nuclear threats made throughout its aggression against Ukraine has also highlighted the risks that nuclear weapons pose when seen as an ‘insurance policy’ against interference from other states. Russia’s nuclear threats appear aimed at instilling fear and consequently reducing Western support for Ukraine throughout the invasion is an indication that the Russian government believes that its nuclear weapons protect it from other states’ intervention in this war.

In 1994, Ukraine transferred a significant portion of the Soviet nuclear arsenal deployed on its territory, on the basis of security guarantees from Russia, the UK and the US (the three depositaries of the NPT) under the Budapest Memorandum – an agreement that Russia has subsequently violated repeatedly. The violation of the Budapest Memorandum poses a direct threat to the non-proliferation norm, as it shows that non-nuclear weapons states (NNWS) cannot rely on security guarantees by nuclear weapons states (NWS). 

Deepening global divides 

Addressing the 2023 UN General Assembly, and against a backdrop of several absentee global leaders, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres highlighted deepening global divides. This polarization also affects the NPT, which is a bargain between NWS and NNWS, requiring NNWS to forgo acquiring nuclear weapons and NWS to make gradual progress toward disarmament. Demonstrating such progress has become increasingly challenging, particularly as NWS enhance their nuclear capabilities through modernization and expansion. 

The NPT is imperfect; four nuclear-armed states remain outside it and progress on delivering treaty goals has slowed over the past two decades.

The NPT remains pivotal for maintaining the non-proliferation norm and associated safeguards and inspection regimes, guaranteeing access to vital nuclear technologies for NNWS, and holding NWS accountable for disarmament. Nevertheless, the treaty is imperfect; four nuclear-armed states remain outside it and progress on delivering treaty goals has slowed over the past two decades. Regrettably, the procedural changes needed to address these challenges often encounter roadblocks due to numerous other political issues in the international arena.

Global access to peaceful nuclear technologies remains crucial – for mitigating climate change, broadening access to medical treatment, and for ensuring agriculture and food safety. Many technologies that states in the Global North have long taken for granted, such as radiological cancer treatments, remain out of reach for countries in the Global South due to barriers accessing nuclear technologies.

The NPT offers a viable avenue to rectify this disparity, but it requires improved cross-country collaboration. Linking development goals with nuclear technology has proven challenging, as states often treat these issues in isolation.

Consequently, programmes aimed at disseminating access to nuclear technologies often struggle to secure funding under development budget headings, despite their substantial contributions to international development. Enhancing integration between these realms would significantly benefit the states in need of access to these technologies.

Strengthening the NPT 

During the first Preparatory Committee of the 2026 NPT Review Cycle held in Vienna this summer, a new working group embarked on the task of strengthening the treaty review process. The working group deliberated on the efficacy of debates, accountability for achieving treaty goals, and transparency on states’ actions.

The status quo may no longer suffice in this evolving security environment and innovative approaches are needed to preserve the integrity of the treaty.

Many diplomats found the working group discussions refreshing and constructive – even if consensus was difficult and fundamentally not achieved. The forthcoming 2024 Preparatory Committee president could consider adopting some of the recommendations from the working group in areas where presidential discretion is applicable, potentially enhancing the NPT’s procedural framework.

State parties recognize cont.

State parties recognize that the status quo may no longer suffice in this evolving security environment and innovative approaches are needed to preserve the integrity of the treaty, prevent proliferation, and stop the use of nuclear weapons. It is incumbent upon state parties to focus on common interests.

For example, there is broad and deep agreement on nuclear weapons risk reduction. Ascertaining risks and definitional questions around which risks are the most serious and whose responsibility it is to address them are difficult, but just having the conversation helps inform participants and could possibly lead to real action, despite no diplomatic agreement.

Now, more than ever, the world looks to its leaders to rise above the challenges, embrace change, and fortify the NPT as a cornerstone of global peace and security. The failure of the NPT carries a price we cannot afford – one that includes the catastrophic potential for nuclear proliferation and use.