States are half way through their second week at the NPT Review Conference (it lasts four), and the UN Secretary General has observed that the gulf between the five NPT nuclear weapon states and the 185 non-nuclear weapon states is growing wider, threatening the stability of the wider non-proliferation regime. The frustration at the conference is tangible, borne of a sense of just how difficult it is to find progress in the context of deepening rifts between states. Appeals to the common interest or to live up to commitments entered into appear to fall on deaf ears. Groups of states have their own conflicting priorities (inevitably), but do not seem in the mood to compromise. Lists of recommendations at the end of each working paper or statement seem like fantasy shopping lists with little chance of any early realization.
The RevCon is the place for states to call their fellow States parties to account for their treaty commitments and to develop the structure of the non-proliferation regime so that it evolves effectively to address the challenges as they emerge. It is critical to the health of the international community that all its members feel some obligation to the common law they all depend upon for stability and legal justice, and to engage in good faith in those common efforts to keep the regime alive and relevant.
And it is not just those states that prioritize disarmament that are frustrated. Those more attuned to status quo objectives (especially the nuclear weapon states) emphasize the non-proliferation architecture, closing off the routes to nuclear weapons. They talk of their frustration in failures to agree a fissile material cut-off treaty, in bringing the comprehensive test ban treaty into force, or in achieving universal means to stronger safeguards and verification processes. Whilst they do not deny that they have a responsibility to negotiate disarmament, this is seen as a long term objective, perhaps even an aspiration.
There has been undeniable progress in the regime since the end of the Cold War. Arsenals have reduced, some controls been put in place and kept to. Past successful Review Conferences (recently 1995, 2000 and 2010) have helped keep alive the hope that the regime can develop, proliferation held at bay and the world move on from a balance of terror. They have shaped commitments, framed diplomatic action, given legitimate voice to the ideas that change is possible.
But placing hope today in breakthroughs at this RevCon and a stronger commitment to an Action Plan appears naive. The political will is simply not present, the gulf in approach and expectations too wide, and the international strategic conditions poor. Will this be turned around by strong criticism and then strong-arming the nuclear weapon states into agreeing stronger commitments their political leaderships have little or no intention of fulfilling? That seems deeply unrealistic.
Ideally, the international community would agree to enforcement mechanisms to back up the obligations states have and will enter into. But enforcement is left to the UN Security Council, and so tends to focus upon those one or two instances of proliferation by states on the periphery in conflict with Security Council members (North Korea and Iran). Existing threats to international peace and security emanating from permanent members of the Security Council are left unchallenged.
On the other hand, simply renewing commitments within the 2010 Action Plan that have not progressed at all risks further weakening the sense of obligation. The Action Plan was intended as a framework for action. If agreements made as a result of hard negotiations count for little where is the motivation for states to engage in these negotiations in the first place? If states resist their obligations to the detriment of the majority do not suffer any consequences, why should they feel any pressure to deliver in future? The answer lies in the end in the credibility of the non-proliferation regime as a whole, in which those states interests are deeply embedded. They will need to come up with credible offers and deliver upon them if the majority of state parties are to retain faith in the NPT.
In frustration at the situation, some states are pushing for stronger legal approaches on the back of the NPT Article VI obligation to negotiate nuclear disarmament in good faith. Most notably the New Agenda Coalition has proposed the negotiation of either a ban or convention, or a less specific framework agreement around which more detailed arrangements can then be discussed. This approach that seeks to establish an early ban and by-passing the current blockages cannot hope to be the silver bullet that many campaigners appear to believe, but could help to change the normative context for international talks. But it is fraught with danger, in raising the temperature, dividing the international community further, and forcing many states to make difficult choices that could harm their commitment to disarmament.
Both these dimensions - the step-by-step development of the regime and more radical legal approaches - have important parts to play in taking us towards disarmament and non-proliferation. But alone they are insufficient. They need to reflect larger changes at the national level - a realization by national political and military leaderships that security cannot be achieved through the possession of the means for near-infinite destruction at the expense of others, that buying into this game of mutual assured destruction and the security and influence we think it brings us actually undermines our security and leads inevitably to proliferation in the longer run, that nuclear weapons are not only immoral, they are unusable (because they are too big and too devastating) and that therefore that the credibility of the deterrence they are said to offer is far weaker than we care to admit.
In other words, we cannot place all our faith in multilateral negotiations or stronger international legal instruments without deeper shifts in the attachment to nuclear deterrence and the status attached to nuclear arsenals at the national level. On these more fundamental questions we had been going in the right direction, slowly, and it was this that resulted in the progress we have seen. But now, in Russia, in NATO and the United States, in South Asia and in the Middle East in particular, the trend is in the other direction - towards seeing nuclear arsenals as not only legitimate but essential to survival, against the evidence. This demands a hard-nosed call to revive the debate on the utility of nuclear weapons at the national level - without this hopes for disarmament are likely futile. The obligation lies in each and every nuclear weapon state.
And as the new British government in particular approaches the post election consideration of Trident renewal we must avoid the lazy temptation to think this is someone else's problem, or that answers lie in multilateral nuclear disarmament - because that is simply an excuse for no change, business as usual... until disaster strikes.