As President Biden’s Special Representative for Nuclear Nonproliferation, I lead our diplomacy in support of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the treaty that has served as the cornerstone of the nuclear nonproliferation regime for more than fifty years. Why do we assign someone to this job? Because of the importance of the NPT to international security, and of continuing the tradition of U.S. leadership in sustaining and building up this impressive international success story.
And it is truly impressive. I imagine the drafters of the NPT — which included U.S. and Soviet negotiators working in close coordination following an especially intense period of the Cold War — would take satisfaction in what has been achieved.
Over the last 50-plus years, nuclear proliferation has been significantly less than prognosticators expected at the time. We made gains in arms control. We gave the NPT an indefinite extension. We put nuclear supply controls in place. We enhanced international safeguards for NPT verification. We saw membership in the NPT come to include all but a handful of states. The safe, secure, and peaceful use of nuclear energy has helped millions of people around the world. And NPT parties of all types have cooperated extensively on the treaty’s implementation.
These are substantial achievements. But none are irreversible or immune to the titanic shifts now underway in the international system.
Today, we face Russia’s unprovoked and illegal war against Ukraine. We also face Russia’s problematic record of arms control noncompliance, as well as the People’s Republic of China’s continued rejection of it. We face a DPRK determined in its nuclear build-up and an increasingly turbulent Middle East.
This all comes back to the critical importance of the NPT, a treaty that underpins the global nuclear nonproliferation regime and whose Review Conference will take place this August.
The NPT unites big and small powers, and even major power rivals, around a common set of principles, which include a conviction that the spread of nuclear weapons is dangerous and would make all of us less secure, less safe, and less prosperous.
The NPT’s relevance also draws from a common aspiration of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council – the NPT nuclear-weapon States – to avoid nuclear conflict. These members are China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Just five months ago, their leaders declared in a joint statement that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.
Unfortunately, less than two months later, Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, violating international law, including the UN Charter, and going against the NPT’s central tenets. Consider the following:
- Russia’s provocative nuclear rhetoric is in complete opposition to the treaty’s nuclear disarmament aims and its role in helping to ease international tensions;
- Russia’s aggression against Ukraine is contrary to the assurances it provided to Ukraine in the 1994 Budapest Memorandum – assurances that were critical to Ukraine’s ability to join the NPT as a non-nuclear-weapon State Party;
- Russia’s military actions at or near civil nuclear facilities in Ukraine seriously undermine Ukraine’s ability to use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. These actions endanger the safety of the people of Ukraine and neighboring states and the surrounding environment.
Despite these challenges, there is no alternative to the NPT. Without it, the foundation for the nuclear nonproliferation regime would never have been laid, leaving us with an abundance of nuclear risk. A new or different treaty mandating immediate nuclear disarmament may be a penultimate step on the long road to a safer world, but we don’t live in that world today.
At this year’s NPT Review Conference in New York, our principal goal will be to gain the widest possible reaffirmation of the treaty, preserving its pride of place in the international order.
At this year’s NPT Review Conference in New York, our principal goal will be to gain the widest possible reaffirmation of the treaty, preserving its pride of place in the international order. The United States will work with others to achieve a constructive final document that advances each of the treaty’s three pillars – nonproliferation, disarmament, and peaceful uses – and puts down a marker in support of this vital instrument.
This should start with States Parties dealing candidly with Russia’s reckless behavior and flouting of international law. While we don’t seek to make the NPT Review Conference an arena to challenge Russia, we can hardly ignore its actions. It is incumbent upon States Parties to reject Russia’s dangerous actions, escalatory rhetoric, and false claims; failure to do so can serve only to cheapen the currency of the treaty. We can also articulate what constitutes responsible nuclear-weapon State behavior to take forward the Permanent 5 (P5) leaders’ January 2022 statement.
What we cannot do at the Review Conference is blindly conduct business as usual. By its actions, Russia has, for now, closed off this possibility.
That said, there is still much that the international community can and must do together. In particular, we need a renewed focus on arms control, one that is relevant to today’s competitive strategic environment. These efforts should focus on actions that can meaningfully reduce the risks of nuclear war or deterrence failure, avoid arms races, and advance the NPT as a framework for the pursuit of further nuclear disarmament.
We know from history that arms control can take many forms. Yet at its core, nuclear arms control is a cooperative endeavor to address problems of military insecurity and promote strategic stability, improve mutual trust and security, and reduce the likelihood of the use of nuclear weapons.
Much good work is already underway on this front. The Stockholm Initiative launched by Sweden and Germany, the P5 process, the Nonproliferation and Disarmament Initiative, the Creating an Environment for Nuclear Disarmament effort, and the International Partnership on Nuclear Disarmament Verification are contributing to dialogues on nuclear risk reduction that should be carried forward into this year’s NPT Review Conference.
We must remember that deterrence is not guaranteed. It can fail. Wars can start over flawed assessments, among other drivers. But though deterrence can never be guaranteed, it can be strengthened and made more stable if states commit themselves to advancing arms control and risk reduction.
Despite all that we face today, I remain optimistic. The NPT has survived past shocks and it will survive the current one too. In fact, the present challenge might best be seen as an opportunity to recenter the NPT as an instrument of our shared security. At this summer’s Review Conference and beyond, I hope all States Parties will rise to the challenge and embrace that opportunity.
About the Author: Ambassador Adam Scheinman is the Special Representative of the President for Nuclear Nonproliferation.