Last month saw the conclusion of the eighth Review Conference of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (otherwise known as the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty or NPT) in New York City. Membership in the NPT is virtually universal. At present, it has 189 states parties—more than any other disarmament treaty—with only 4 countries recognized by the United Nations that are not members. But this broad tent makes significant progress extremely difficult.
Given that all countries must consent to a decision, the parties generally seek to achieve progress on measures that already enjoy consensus, while seeking greater backing in the future for other steps that remain in dispute. Yet even if the parties can agree on a Final Document, as they did this year, it typically includes only those provisions that no party finds highly objectionable.
And even when agreement is reached, there’s another problem—ensuring that parties actually do something about the commitments they’ve made. These obligations are often vague and lacking in specific benchmarks or deadlines. In addition, the conference lacks its own means of enforcement, and must rely on the UN Security Council to address violations, which can prove tricky.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Despite these limitations, the 2010 conference took a number of decisions that could affect the security of its diverse range of Asian members. China, Russia and the United States are recognized under the NPT as three of the five official ‘nuclear weapons states’ and, according to the treaty provisions, they’re obliged to try to reduce their nuclear weapons over time. At the 2010 conference, the delegations from each of these governments affirmed their commitment to nuclear disarmament. The Russian and US representatives sought to highlight their recently signed New START Treaty, which obliges them to cut their nuclear forces still further in future years, while the Chinese delegation expressed a willingness to join in these reductions once the Russian and US arsenals fell to Chinese levels.
But most of the representatives from the non-nuclear weapons states considered these affirmations, as well as their recent reductions, insufficient and instead wanted the nuclear weapons states to commit to a specific date by which they would disarm. The nuclear weapons states in turn resisted the proposed 2025 deadline. The compromise wording in the Final Document obliges them simply to ‘accelerate concrete progress’ toward abolishing their nuclear weapons, and they also refused to offer the non-nuclear weapons states legally binding commitments never to use, or threaten to use, nuclear weapons against them.