The proliferation of nuclear weapons is one of the most glaring challenges to global security. An imperfect non-proliferation regime strives to stop the spread of nuclear weapons. Leading the pack, is the Non-proliferation Treaty(NPT), a landmark treaty that is now in its 6th decade. The Treaty distinguishes between the nuclear haves and the nuclear have-nots. Within the Treaty, there are two kinds of bargains. The first one is a promise to not develop, acquire, and control nuclear weapons in exchange for gaining access to nuclear energy for peaceful uses. The second one is a vow of not entering into give and take arrangements that may help countries produce, control, and stockpile nuclear weapons. However, there is another understanding between the privileged and the underprivileged parties to the Treaty: we won’t get the bomb, and you would eventually give up the bomb. This has continued to be the biggest stumbling block, for the ‘recognized’ Nuclear Weapon States(NWS) are not willing to surrender their crown jewels. As an exemplar of this attitude, the United States came up the CEND initiative, which called upon non-Nuclear Weapon States(NNWS) to ‘Create an Environment for Nuclear Disarmament’. Thus, it is fitting to argue that, there are elephants in the room that are denting efforts to make the non-proliferation regime robust while vitiating ties between deterrence enthusiasts and disarmament advocates.
Since 2017, disarmament campaigners are enchanted by a new treaty, known as the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). Set to enter into force on January 22, 2021, the TPNW calls for the complete elimination of nuclear weapons, a step that, according to many, will help further delegitimize nuclear weapons and plug the legal gap that exists in outlawing nuclear weapons. The Treaty, it must be recalled, was inspired by a renewed focus on the humanitarian consequences of a nuclear use. That a 24-paragraph-long preamble delves into the disastrous humanitarian repercussions and the value of the existing corpus of disarmament pleas is reflective of the nature of the Treaty.
The structure of the Treaty is such that it ends the apartheid. In other words, all parties to the Treaty will be required to give up nuclear weapons while pledging to not develop, use, and threaten to use, acquire, and stockpile nuclear weapons. The NWS have been given a choice. They could either ‘join and destroy’ or ‘destroy and join’, but destroy they must.
While the complete, irreversible elimination of nuclear weapons may enamour backers of disarmament, it does not sit well with ‘nuclear-armed’ states (NPT plus non-NPT) and countries that are being protected through extended deterrence. Therefore, it is hardly surprising that no nuclear-possessor has signed the Treaty. The signatories to the Treaty are those who are neither interested in nuclear weapons nor believe in their deterrent value. Hence, so far, the Treaty is merely preaching the choir, without appealing to those who believe in the utility of nuclear weapons, or, at the very least, are beguiled by its impact.
Besides the issue of verification, ambitiousness and idealism pose challenges. What marginal benefits would TPNW bring to the fore, absent support from powerful actors in the comity of nations? At a time when states like the United States and Russia are not only backing off from their decades-old commitments on arms control but are also expanding the role of nuclear weapons in their defence policies and doctrines, a Treaty so divorced from ground realities will prove to be ineffectual.
Also, basing the Treaty solely on humanitarian concerns is problematic in two ways. One, the assumption that a world without nuclear weapons will be stable, is too simplistic. Two, ignoring the phenomenon of deterrence altogether is a tad unfair, given that, just very recently, a humanitarian catastrophe was averted only when North Korea communicated to the United States that it has a complete nuclear deterrent in its arsenal. In the midst of a fraught security environment, TPNW’s singular-focus on the humanitarian angle may not excite countries that face current and prospective security threats.
All this notwithstanding, the Treaty certainly complements Article VI of the NPT. Moreover, the Treaty’s emphasis on only disarmament will put pressure on states that are, as yet, eschewing substantive discussions on the matter. TPNW’s supporters and signatories could act as a very powerful pressure group. The rising popularity of the Treaty could, at the very least, compel parties to the NPT to get their act together and take Review Conferences seriously.
However, the TPNW can be made more effective if its goals are harmonized with structural landscapes. In addition to that, the TPNW is silent when it comes to incentivizing states to give up and/or forswear the development of nuclear weapons. Though a strong, real motivator, the humanitarian aspect is not the only driver of and for nuclear disarmament. Thus, the makers of the Treaty have to rejig and redesign the terms while devising a better pitch in a bid to elicit greater support for a cause that is critical to removing sources of global instability.