How Do We Change the Global Nuclear Order?

Whenever diplomats get together to address the really big global issues of our time, the already daunting challenges of co-ordination are made more complex by their governments’ competing policy commitments—to economic growth (simplistically conceived), special-interest groups, “national security” and prestige. But even bigger problems lie hidden and unsaid, deeply buried within the operating model that governs international relations.

To challenge these is to be seen as unrealistically radical or, worse, naïve. While governments recognise the need for agreement, their attachment to established ways of seeing the world and doing business traps them in a game of competition governed by threat and bargain, and the common interest suffers.

We all share an interest in avoiding nuclear war. It was this concern, deepened in the terror of the Cuban missile crisis, which led to the negotiation of the nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1968. We are into the second week of this year’s Non-proliferation Treaty Preparatory Committee, meeting at the United Nations in New York for a fortnight in preparation for next year’s Review Conference.

Representatives of the vast majority of states have addressed the challenges of nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation, urging fellow members to fulfil their commitments under the treaty—be it to disarm or demonstrate more transparently their intention never to acquire nuclear weapons. And there is no shortage of ideas on how member states can move in the right direction towards disarmament and reassurance.

The European Leadership Network, for example, summarised its recommendations in a statement on 1 May. They include: greater transparency around the ‘P5 process’ engaging the permanent members of the UN Security Council and commitment by them to the next international conference on the humanitarian consequences of the use of nuclear weapons, convening the conference on a Middle-East zone free of weapons of mass destruction and renewed efforts to bring into force the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and a Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty and to continue to resolve the dispute over Iran’s nuclear programme.

Such statements are essential to establish the diplomatic agenda for change. But change will be elusive unless we tackle the more fundamental challenges.

Inescapable reality

The NPT is a bargain. In return for commitments by the non-nuclear-weapon states to demonstrate clearly the peaceful nature of their nuclear programmes, through International Atomic Energy Authority inspection and verification, the nuclear-weapon states would promise to negotiate nuclear disarmament. The treaty may better be seen as an expression of an inescapable reality—that we will not achieve disarmament if nuclear weapons spread to more states (it would be seen as too risky) and we will not prevent such proliferation if some states continue to derive status and security through possession of nuclear weapons at the expense of others (why should those other states accept such discrimination in perpetuity?).

The NPT was simply a formal expression of this deeper truth beyond the treaty law. It represented a choice by member states to pursue a world free of nuclear weapons because the only other long-term equilibrium would be a world full of nuclear-weapon states—and that was not in the interests of anyone.

But what of the evidence? The nuclear-weapon states, investing in new generations of systems, have shown little sign of any concrete intention to move beyond “prudent” reductions. Yet over the space of almost half a century we have seen only one state leave the treaty and three others acquire nuclear arsenals. The NPT has performed remarkably well in containing proliferation—given its abject failure to drive disarmament any faster than would otherwise have been achieved through arms control and national-security calculation.

Is the criticism nuclear-weapon states bear at these NPT meetings such a hardship, if they get the benefits they think they do from keeping their nuclear arms? The newly-formed Wildfire group organised a side-event at the UN, “Burn the NPT”, speaking for many in claiming that all this amounted to a smokescreen for business as usual—worse perhaps, a safety valve that enables nuclear weapon states to retain their status and arsenals while other states let off steam every year.

Slow death

Ireland, a key state in the initial negotiations towards the NPT, also spoke in New York of the real danger underlying the nuclear-weapon states’ denial of the reality at the heart of the NPT—that non-proliferation can only be maintained long-term by their own disarmament. It warned that this could lead the treaty into decay. We would do well to explore further how that could happen.

While states may occasionally walk out of such meetings in frustration, they are not able credibly to threaten an exit from the treaty because the status quo is preferable to the most likely alternative—uncontrolled spread. We do, however, face the very plausible scenario that the treaty will experience a slow deterioration in its salience, as measures needed to stem the flow of associated technologies are resisted. There remains an uncertainty about the intentions of some within the treaty indefinitely to foreswear the nuclear option. Others are sufficiently disgruntled that they may choose not to participate in the essential programme to shore up loopholes and strengthen assurance.

Unfortunately, while its eventual impact could be just as devastating, a slow death doesn’t engender the same sense of urgency as the threat of a sudden one. This leaves the nuclear-weapon states wrapped up in their own concerns, which recently have taken a sharp turn for the worse.

Great Game

It seems today some in the west are itching to jump back into a strategic struggle with Russia. Some in Moscow say there was never really a definitive break; rather, we have been witnessing an adaptation of the continuous strategic conflict between west and east for power, influence, alliance and access to resources. Without Russian balance they fear domination by the United States and NATO. And those so inclined know that there is enough evidence out there to support such a worldview—a new chapter in the Great Game of zero-sum influence and exploitation.

If the large body of the commentariat and, perhaps more importantly, government decision-makers continue to choose this way to interpret events as they unfold it will be self-fulfilling, and we will slide into another cold confrontation with numerous consequences beyond an increased danger of great-power conflict. And the reason is simple: in a culture of competition, whatever we think of our motivations, the other will think we seek our own benefit at their expense.

And now think again of those big issues of the day requiring international collaboration and a deepening of trust. This is seriously undermined by current trends, as the west falls out with Russia over Ukraine (and the rest of eastern Europe). While state parties did gradually find some form of communication and accommodation in the middle of cold-war confrontation, and some notable arms-control successes, this was limited and far from what is demanded today in an age of accelerating climate change, financial interdependency and fragility, the growing power of corporations and malign non-state actors.

The consequences are not inevitable acts of God. We can choose to resist the temptation to fall into conflict within the Great Game and we can choose another way—one that strengthens international regimes and the commitments states have made which underpin them.

Taking responsibility

So where does this leave the choices for non-nuclear-weapon states wanting to drive forward a disarmament agenda with states apparently unable or unwilling to climb out of their own traps? Those who have easy answers are missing the complexity. Greater understanding is required of the attachments involved, of the operating models that underlie nuclear “deterrence” and the broader strategic relationships in which all states are implicated. States need to take responsibility for the impacts of their actions and postures on international security.

It may not be credible for nuclear-weapon states to think they can sustain the status quo without weakening the fabric of international relationships. But diplomatic attacks will not force them to give up their comfort blankets. Ultimately, nuclear disarmament will come when states recognise their possession of such arms runs counter to their interests, to their international relationships and to their identity as civilised societies. This demands a multi-dimensional, co-operative project, involving all members of the international community in moving away from the politics of coercion and threat.

This article was originally featured on OpenSecurity, a section of

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