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President Lyndon B. Johnson (far right) looks on as Secretary of State Dean Rusk signs the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1968. (© Corbis/Getty Images)

One year ago, diplomats from more than 150 countries gathered in New York for the start of the Tenth Review Conference (or “RevCon”) of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT).  For four weeks, we discussed, debated, and negotiated our way through an agenda covering every angle of the NPT’s central pillars: non-proliferation, peaceful uses of nuclear energy, and efforts to promote further progress on disarmament.   

With so many countries represented, disagreements were inevitable.  Yet when it came time to agree to a final outcome text detailing the areas of commonality among NPT parties, only one country – a nuclear-weapon state that had only months earlier commenced an unprovoked full-scale invasion of its non-nuclear-weapon state neighbor – blocked consensus.  In other words, with the lone exception of Russia, all NPT states parties were prepared to affirm their support for an international system based on rules and law, with the NPT somewhere near its center. 

Next week, we gather once more for the 2023 NPT Preparatory Committee (or “PrepCom”) meeting in Vienna, Austria, cognizant of both the progress made and the significant challenges ahead.  Russia continues its unlawful war against Ukraine as it engages in reckless nuclear saber rattling and retreats from arms control.  Its irresponsible military activities at Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhyia nuclear power plant create unthinkable risks of a nuclear calamity.   

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), 20 years after announcing its withdrawal from the NPT, is building a nuclear arsenal with intercontinental reach and has abandoned any pretense of interest in denuclearization talks.  The People’s Republic of China is engaged in an opaque expansion of its nuclear capabilities.  And questions concerning Iran’s nuclear program and safeguards compliance remain.   

These are not minor matters.  Each has the potential to seriously impact the NPT and the system of restraint it established more than half a century ago – that is, restraint on further nuclear proliferation and restraint on use of nuclear weapons.  If ever there was a time we needed an NPT, this is it.  

This PrepCom – the first of three scheduled to take place before the 2026 Review Conference – is about setting a positive and constructive agenda from now until 2026; an agenda that addresses challenges to the treaty and pursues implementation across all three of the treaty’s central pillars.   

The United States continues to work in good faith to advance all aspects of the treaty, to include the Article VI obligation to pursue good faith negotiations on effective measures relating to nuclear disarmament.  For example, we engage in the International Partnership for Nuclear Disarmament Verification (IPNDV) and the Creating an Environment for Nuclear Disarmament (CEND) initiative, which bring together diverse groups of countries to understand the drivers of nuclear risk and collaborate on options for safe and secure disarmament.  

The prospect for nuclear disarmament is clearly not proximate today.  But even amid a deteriorating security landscape, we continue to see the value of arms control to re-set the foundation for progress towards nuclear disarmament in the future.  National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan recently spoke about the United States’ readiness to engage in bilateral arms control discussions with Russia and China without preconditions. However, we are clear-eyed that “without preconditions” does not mean “without accountability” as we move forward.  We are interested in substantive engagement on common sense actions to reduce risks of a crisis or a misunderstanding escalating all the way to nuclear war.   

Robust deterrence for defense of vital U.S. and allied interests remains essential, while at the same time arms control – formal and informal – can be a mutually reinforcing tool to manage competition and preserve stability.  As National Security Advisor Sullivan proposed, steps the five NPT nuclear-weapon states could pursue now include formalizing missile launch notifications, establishing crisis communication channels, committing to the highest standards for transparency, and agreeing to maintain a “human-in-the-loop” for command, control, and employment of nuclear weapons. 

On transparency, the United States is leading the way.  The United States has reported consistently on its own implementation of the NPT and actions to strengthen the NPT regime across all three pillars, and we have put forth recommendations that would strengthen transparency around the policies and practices of all nuclear-weapon states and many non-nuclear-weapon states as well. 

Another priority is the negotiation of a Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT).  After decades of dormancy in the Conference on Disarmament, it is time to get to work on this bedrock treaty.  Without it, the next ten years may mark a period of nuclear arms racing, not their control.  With it, prospects for further action on arms control and disarmament would immeasurably improve.  Pending FMCT’s completion, we hope China will join a moratorium on production of such fissile material as the other five NPT nuclear weapon states have done.    

We must also work to advance entry into force of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). In line with the goals of the CTBT, the United States continues to observe its zero-yield nuclear explosive testing moratorium, and calls on all states possessing nuclear weapons to declare or maintain such a moratorium. 

Meanwhile, we insist on the fullest compliance with NPT nonproliferation safeguards and call on all NPT parties to raise standards wherever possible and to condemn violations where they occur. This should include making the Additional Protocol the standard for NPT verification and nuclear supply. 

We must also work together to increase access to the benefits of peaceful uses, which are not just limited to nuclear energy, but also include advancements in use of nuclear technologies for human and animal health, water resource management, food security, and much more.  We can and must begin building a ‘bigger table’ and invite others into the conversation on how to link peaceful applications to the pursuit of the UN Sustainable Development Goals.  Along with the United Kingdom, we are working on a Sustained Dialogue for Peaceful Uses to engage diverse stakeholders in collaborations on the benefits of nuclear technologies.   

As we gather once more to discuss ways to preserve and strengthen the NPT, we should all take time to think through our collective priorities for the current NPT review cycle.  For more than fifty years, the NPT has endured as the foundation of a system built on nuclear restraint.  Our top priority for the PrepCom – and for this review cycle – must be to preserve and strengthen this critical treaty, not in spite of the challenges we face but because of them. 

About the Author: Ambassador Adam Scheinman is the Special Representative of the President for Nuclear Nonproliferation.

U.S. Department of State

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