12 May 2013
Heather Williams
Former Chatham House Expert


The International Community seemingly faces a dilemma: it can either continue to manage the interconnected but often contradictory objectives of nonproliferation, disarmament, and peaceful uses through the 1968 Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT), or it may explore alternate avenues that shore up these objectives but at the risk of jeopardizing the NPT itself.

This dilemma was highlighted at the April 22-May 3 Preparatory Committee (PrepCom) meeting in Geneva. While expectations for the PrepCom were relatively modest, the meeting was punctuated by two events: Egypt's walk-out, signaling frustration over the continuing failure to hold a 2012 meeting to discuss a Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) Free Zone in the Middle East, and a joint statement co-sponsored by 80 countries on the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons. Did these events at PrepCom hurt, help, or sustain the NPT’s credibility?

Credibility depends to some extent on advancing the three pillars of nonproliferation, disarmament, and peaceful uses. The NPT is founded on the 'Grand Bargain' between Non-Nuclear Weapons States (NNWS), who agreed not to proliferate and pursue nuclear weapons, in exchange for a promise from the Nuclear Weapon States ([NWS] China, France, Russia, UK, and US) to pursue nuclear disarmament. In addition to these nonproliferation and disarmament priorities, for many countries, the credibility of the NPT depends on access to medical radiation, nuclear energy, and other uses that are not military in nature. 

The NPT is often cited as a Cold War relic. Yet its credibility is still seen as vital because it not only serves as the practical legal underpinning for international inspections and nuclear safety, but also continues to play a pivotal normative and accountability role. In addition, other nonproliferation and disarmament efforts, such as the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, refer to and build on commitments under the NPT.

New initiatives

Apparent threats to the NPT, such as North Korean withdrawal and Iranian noncompliance, have existed for decades. Other initiatives, however, are seemingly in line with NPT priorities but take place outside of the NPT official meeting schedule. These include attempts to hold a conference on a WMD Free Zone in the Middle East and the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons initiative, both of which are rooted in the 2010 Action Plan. The 64-point Action Plan resulted from the Review Conference that same year and includes a list of objectives for all member states to pursue leading up to the 2015 Review Conference. But, a key question remains: to what extent does the future and credibility of the NPT itself depend on tangible steps towards achieving all - or some - of these points? 

New alignments 

NPT dynamics are also shifting with new groupings of states. Meetings were previously divided between the NWS (and their allies) and Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), but other poles are developing: the New NAM (Norway, Austria and Mexico), Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Initiative (NPDI), and a revitalized New Agenda Coalition (NAC). While the NWS have always existed as a special group, their collaboration is experiencing an upswing as they appear committed to act as a unit in boycotting the Norway humanitarian approaches meeting, for example. In addition, in October 2012 the UN General Assembly established an open-ended Working Group to 'develop proposals to take forward multilateral nuclear disarmament negotiations for the achievement and maintenance of a world without nuclear weapons'. This group will meet in Geneva next week and is attempting to sustain the 'practical step-by-step approach' through the Conference on Disarmament and the NPT. The US has itself led the way among the NWS through other processes such as Resolution 1540, the Proliferation Security Initiative and the Nuclear Security Summit. 

Parallel pursuits 

This is not to suggest the NPT is in danger of collapse or has been significantly challenged whereby members may withdraw or fail to comply with their commitments. Rather it suggests a waning reliance on the NPT as the sole/primary mechanism for addressing the three themes of nonproliferation, disarmament, and peaceful uses. 

The NPT may indeed be a treaty from a different era, not readily adaptable to dealing with outliers such as India and Pakistan. That does not make it irrelevant or of waning utility, mutually exclusive from new initiatives to address these threats of the 'second nuclear age,' however. Indeed, these new initiatives may end up strengthening the NPT by reinforcing its ultimate objectives. To a large extent, the debate about NPT credibility is one of timing - how quickly must the NPT progress in addressing the three pillars in order to satisfy consensus? Rather than being a hub, upon which all nuclear progress depends, the NPT may rather prove to be an anchor from which new initiatives emerge and evolve, not necessarily mutually exclusive from the NPT.