Diplomats from NATO this week released a statement reaffirming the organization’s opposition to the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) as the agreement neared its global implementation in January. The three-point message sent a clear signal of intent to policymakers who have spent more than a decade producing the Treaty, which critics have argued contradicts the more-widely accepted Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), which entered into force in 1970. Though NATO’s position, which encompasses three of the five recognized nuclear powers, is not new to advocates of the TPNW, it serves to severely dampen any hope they had that the security alliance would renege on its prior rejection of the agreement. With Honduras’ ratification in October, the 50th of its kind, the treaty enters into force in January 2021.
The statement from NATO powers on Tuesday outlined the alliance’s position on a divisive treaty that the nuclear powers have long considered brash and counterproductive to global disarmament endeavors. The TPNW “does not reflect the increasingly challenging international security environment and is at odds with the existing non-proliferation and disarmament architecture,” it read, adding that “the NPT remains the only credible path to nuclear disarmament.” While the NPT puts less pressure on nuclear-armed states to disarm, it seeks to mollify the proliferation of the destructive weapons worldwide. In seeking total global disarmament, the new TPNW endangers NATO’s fundamental nuclear purpose, “to preserve peace, prevent coercion, and deter aggression,” by removing western nuclear deterrence without proper safeguards against hostile armament. Gustavo Zlauvinen, president-designate of the 2020 Review Conference for the NPT, noted in a recent interview with Kyodo News that the TPNW is “going to be another issue of contention,” dividing signatories to the original agreement and the 2017 treaty and hampering progress towards global nuclear peace.
Although the statement by NATO leaders comes as no surprise within the context of global nuclear disarmament policy, it will surely come as a blow to the growing number of countries who have pledged support to the TPNW. The absence of the bloc, amidst a large number of non-signatories including all nine of the world’s nuclear powers, severely delegitimizes the thrust of the treaty and impedes discussion about a peaceful disarmament. Moreover, the language used in the statement has improved little since an original condemnation by the P5 powers in 2018, the five recognized nuclear powers of the UN Security Council, suggesting little has been done to allay their fears.
The TPNW may seem redundant in the face of the 1970 NPT, which boasts 191 signatures and is widely accepted as the framework for continued nuclear disarmament and peace worldwide. However, key divergences differentiate the treaties and lay the basis of disputes between their advocates. While the NPT aims at limiting the spread of nuclear weapons through non-proliferation, disarmament, and continued peaceful civilian use of nuclear capabilities, the TPNW urges the total prohibition of nuclear weapons, from their development and testing to their use, according to the Nuclear Threat Initiative. The two therefore approach arms control slightly differently- one seeking gradual non-proliferation and reductions, the other preferring total disarmament. Critics of the latter share similar views to the NATO statement, arguing that total elimination can create further instability since nuclear weapons serve as a credible deterrent against conflict. The 2018 joint statement of the P5 alluded to this, arguing that only a “gradual process” could lead to “lasting global nuclear disarmament” without undermining existing security arrangements. Although no nuclear weapons have been used against humans since the end of the Second World War, the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs continues to emphasize the massive humanitarian implications of their use, including in the 2010 Review Conference of the Parties to the NPT, which opened discussions towards the adoption of the TPNW.
When the TPNW enters into force on January 22, 2021, it may do so with only 84 signatories. The very legitimacy of the treaty, despite its obvious humanitarian intentions, is inherently flawed by its rejection by NATO and other nuclear powers, drawing comparisons to the 1997 Ottawa Treaty, or Mine Ban Treaty, which also lacked key signatories worldwide. However, perhaps its most significant impact on global nuclear disarmament will be the effect it has on the NPT and its members, who have long since carried the bastion of nuclear peace. If the TPNW creates tension between signatories, discussions for wider disarmament could well be undermined. Yet, the TPNW may also serve as an opportunity to renew serious discussions about how to best move towards a world without nuclear weapons. If parties are willing to compromise in the interests of peace, at a time when nuclear tensions are high in the Middle East and North Korea, some good could yet be salvaged from the fresh impetus on nuclear disarmament.
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