This month, governments, nongovernmental organizations, and experts are meeting in New York for the Tenth Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference. The conference has been delayed several times due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the fact that it is happening at all is an apt metaphor for the persistence of the arms control regime despite steep challenges as well as the gravity of those challenges themselves.
Under Article 6 of the treaty, nuclear-weapons state signatories to the NPT are obligated to “pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.”
But it’s hard to overstate the political challenges that seem to stand in the way of further progress toward eliminating the world’s nuclear weapons: above all, Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine, which has included repeated threats of nuclear escalation from Russia. The fact that the United States and Russia together possess over 90% of world nuclear weapons stockpiles means that, when it comes to actually eliminating more of the world’s nuclear weapons, these countries will necessarily have to take the lead.
It’s tempting, for this reason, to believe that until other things change, there’s no way to make any progress at all on getting rid of these weapons or reducing the threat they pose. This is the context in which the question of nuclear risk reduction has been discussed at the conference.
In a difficult moment for arms control and disarmament, the NPT Review Conference can serve as a valuable reality check for the real stakes of this work.
But the task remains urgent — all the more so with every successive threat of nuclear use, every weapons test, every closed line of communication. So what is to be done? Here are some common themes emerging around the question of risk reduction as conference goers grapple with the challenges of the moment:
THEME #1: Arms control is risk reduction, risk reduction is arms control.
Conversations around risk reduction have had a narrow focus, as the goal of agreements between the United States and Russia aim at improving security and decreasing the risk of accidental nuclear use. But Russia’s recent announcement that it would temporarily suspend inspections under the New Strategic Arms Control Treaty (New START) suggests the profound implications for risk reduction as a goal of the deterioration of the arms control regime.
New START expires in 2026. A replacement treaty that takes into account current conditions while setting the stage for further progress on arsenal reductions and risk reduction sounds like a tall order in mid-2022. However, we’re seeing how treaties can provide opportunities not only for limiting the number of nuclear weapons in real time, but also for parties to maintain a level of trust and communication around nuclear weapons issues more broadly.
THEME #2: Risk reduction isn’t a lesser goal.
Currently, opportunities for progress on improving the nuclear status quo in any way are limited. During the Trump administration, when the administration seemed bent on tearing down decades of arms-control treaties, risk reduction seemed like a more attainable goal — one that could make use of existing goodwill and established connections within both governments.
Now, with years of slow deterioration of the US-Russia relationship at every level behind us, Russia’s aggressive behavior in Ukraine, and Russia’s response to sanctions, risk reduction no longer seems like an option. But the policy planning, preparatory work, and search for policy linkages suggested by experts who spoke at the conference on prospects for risk reduction included identifying and reducing the most dangerous potential sources of nuclear risk, which is maintaining communication between nuclear-armed states, particularly around the potential of accidental escalation or deescalation of threats of tactical use.
THEME #3: Changing the field.
Changing the face of the field is a project with unpredictable and potentially far-reaching positive consequences.
Patricia Jaworek, a Program Officer at the Nuclear Threat Initiative’s Global Nuclear Policy Program and a member of the Young Deep Cuts Commission, underlined this point in her presentation during a side event on Aug 10., a Wednesday afternoon. She emphasized that youth initiatives are an essential part of the arms control and disarmament field, in part because they provide a space where new ideas can be fostered and incubated. In a moment when many are feeling the limits of possibility when it comes to building a better nuclear status quo, the nuclear policy community has an opportunity to think through how its internal organization efforts can serve its policy goals.
In a difficult moment for arms control and disarmament, the NPT Review Conference can serve as a valuable reality check for the real stakes of this work — and a laboratory for new ideas for making sure that nuclear weapons are never used again.
Emma Claire Foley is an Associate Partner for Research & Policy at Global Zero.