2015: Towards a brave new nuclear world?

by Marianne Hanson and Jenny Nielsen

Deep tensions and frustrations are rising to the fore as the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference in New York gets underway. All parties must act bravely to bridge these deep divides if they are to make progress towards a nuclear-free world.

This year marks several important events in the international nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament regime, including the 2015 Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference (NPT RevCon) being held in New York currently, the hoped-for finalization of the Iran deal with the P5 +1 states, and the 70th commemoration of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. It also marks five years since international humanitarian law was first mentioned explicitly in the NPT process, prompting some states to pursue a ‘humanitarian initiative’, a framing of the discourse on nuclear weapons away from a purely strategic context and towards an emphasis on the catastrophic human, health, resource and environmental consequences which would result from any use of nuclear weapons.

Opening meeting of the 2010 NPT RevCon in New York. Source: Flickr | IAEA

The RevCon, held every five years, is an important diplomatic process for international security. It takes stock of what has been done in the preceding period to curb nuclear proliferation and to implement measures for disarmament, but also looks forward and sets goals for driving these processes further. Since the ending of the Cold War, the divide between those NPT member-states which do not have nuclear weapons and the ones which do possess them (the US, Russia, China, Britain and France) has grown, with many in the former camp deeply disillusioned about the prospects for getting the latter group to disarm. The Conference aims to reach consensus in its final outcome document on what actions should be taken, but it is far from assured that such consensus will be possible this month.

The US administration continues to stress that ‘as long as nuclear weapons exist, the US will maintain a safe, secure, and effective nuclear arsenal’, and this sentiment is echoed by other nuclear weapon states. It is important to note, however, that while we have been lucky in avoiding a nuclear conflict since 1945, given the evidence and research on the risks associated with nuclear arsenals, as long as nuclear weapons exist, there is no guarantee that our luck will hold. As politicians, strategists, diplomats, and civil society groups convene at the UN, they may wish to reflect on what type of brave new nuclear world they want to create.

Divisive issues

The 2015 RevCon  takes place  20 years after  the NPT—widely regarded as the cornerstone of the nuclear non-proliferation regime—was indefinitely extended  through a compromise package deal (of three decisions and a Resolution on the Middle East). The Middle East resolution specifically called for efforts towards the establishment of a Middle East zone free of nuclear and all other WMD and their delivery systems. With the elusive Helsinki conference mandated by the 2010 NPT Action Plan yet to be held, due to diverging postures by the regional parties, this issue remains a challenge for states at the New York meeting.

Not surprisingly, there exists a divergence of views on the pathway and measures needed to work towards the elimination of nuclear weapons, including on which proposals are feasible in today’s strategic and political environment. The nuclear weapon states continue to insist that only an incremental, step-by-step approach, with slow reductions, is realistic, given the security tensions present in many parts of the world today. It seems to many non-nuclear weapon states and civil society groups however that this approach has not produced results, and they fear that disarmament will always be postponed and held hostage to such claims. These advocates of disarmament stress the dangers of continuing to rely on nuclear weapons; for a growing number of them, creating a legal ban against nuclear weapons is seen as desirable and feasible, even if the nuclear states do not sign  up to such an agreement at the outset.

Any serious efforts to address these divides will require engagement and informed dialogue between the various constituencies involved in the nuclear weapons policy debate. These constituencies include:

  • Strategic nuclear communities of nuclear weapon states who devise, implement and sustain nuclear deterrence policy, and who inevitably argue for continuation of the status quo;
  • Non-nuclear weapon states and civil society groups driving and advocating nuclear disarmament (including those driving the humanitarian initiative);
  • Non-nuclear weapon states – including those in NATO, East Asia and Australia – relying on extended nuclear deterrence.

It appears very difficult to bridge the diverging views held by these constituencies. A nuclear ban and the stigmatization of nuclear weapons will surely not be acceptable to those individuals and states who still promote nuclear deterrence as a core component of defence doctrines. Some in these strategic communities may perceive the NPT RevCons as merely high-level diplomatic theatrics that take place every five years and which have no direct relevance to infrastructure and ‘real’ policy on nuclear deterrence. Efforts to consolidate a stigmatization of nuclear weapons through a legal framework, such as a proposed nuclear weapons ban treaty—without the engagement of the nuclear weapon possessors and their respective strategic communities will not garner internalized changes. At the 2015 NPT RevCon, the nuclear weapons states will argue that proposals for a nuclear ban at this time will divert focus away from the agreed 2010 Action Plan and the P5 ‘step-by-step’ process.

But many non-nuclear states and civil society groups argue that the lack of implementation of the 2010 Action Plan is undermining the credibility of the regime and the entire NPT review process. They suggest that a nuclear weapon ban treaty ought to be considered. Their argument is that while this will certainly not create a risk-free world in international security, neither will continuation of the status quo provide us with long-term security and stability. Indeed they argue that the status quo carries with it far higher levels of risk to human security and will inevitably lead to discord in international cooperation on non-proliferation priorities.


States parties to the NPT, the nuclear armed states outside the NPT and civil society groups should act bravely to bridge the deep divides on preferred and promoted pathways towards implementing nuclear disarmament, in order to move towards a frank dialogue and progress. This will require balanced assessment by all constituencies of perspectives and priorities. A continuation of the status quo vis-à-vis implementation of Article VI commitments to disarm will not be acceptable to many non-nuclear weapon states whose frustration has been simmering for decades over perceived unfulfilled ‘empty promises’ made in 1995, 2000, and 2010.

At present, the discourse on nuclear weapons policy remains engaged only in ‘enclave deliberation’, perpetuating the views within and excluding external or opposing views and arguments. Palpable frustration and miscommunication abounds within and between these various constituencies, making it imperative to engage and stimulate meaningful dialogue between them. There is a real need to promote informed, respectful, and frank engagement and dialogue between these camps.

Perhaps a way to inch closer to establishing such a dialogue would be to convene key stakeholders in a non-binding, Track II forum, with informed individuals from these separate constituencies, and with a progressive yet balanced agenda which addresses the underlying social constructs, assumptions and rationales of the role of nuclear weapons in security strategies and defence doctrines. An informed forum across the spectrum of diverging perspectives could help to bridge these deep divides.

If the important discussions on framing a humanitarian narrative regarding nuclear weapons which are taking place in New York (as well as in Geneva, and recently in Oslo, Nayarit and Vienna) are to have an actual impact on nuclear deterrence policy, efforts need to be focused on promoting these ideas to the stakeholders within the defence and strategic communities of the nuclear weapon states (as well as to those four nuclear weapon states who remain outside the NPT framework).

The evidence highlighted so far by the humanitarian initiative describes catastrophic scenarios of devastation and nuclear winter. Such dystopias are not inevitable; we have the means to avert them. A nuclear-free world is surely a worthy goal to aim for, but moving these efforts forward will require an understanding of and engagement with alternatives to nuclear deterrence as well as the courage from all constituencies to engage with one another.

Marianne Hanson is Associate Professor of International Relations at the School of Political Science and International Studies, University Of Queensland. She has published widely in the field of international security, with a focus on weapons control, and is currently engaged in a book project examining the emergence of the humanitarian initiative in nuclear weapons debates. 

Jenny Nielsen is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the School of Political Science and International Studies. Previously, she was a Research Analyst with the Non-proliferation and Disarmament Programme at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), a Programme Manager for the Defence & Security Programme at Wilton Park, and a Research Assistant for the Mountbatten Centre for International Studies (MCIS) at the University of Southampton. She holds a PhD from the University of Southampton which focused on U.S. nuclear non-proliferation policy vis-à-vis Iran in the 1970s.

Featured image: US nuclear test detonation in 1952. Source: WikiMedia

One response to “2015: Towards a brave new nuclear world?

  1. Iran led the call by non-aligned nations for Israel to give up its nuclear weapons as the 2015 NPT Review Conference got underway. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif insisted that the 120-nation Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) is demanding that “Israel, the only one in the region that has neither joined the NPT nor declared its intention to do so, (…) renounce possession of nuclear weapons” adding the non-aligned nations are seeking “as a matter of high priority” to set up a nuclear-free-weapons zone in the Middle East.

    In May 2014, a top Iranian diplomat reiterated his country’s call for a halt to the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Hamid Baeedinejad, the director general for political and international affairs at Iran’s foreign ministry addressed the third Preparatory Committee of the NPT Review Conference in New York noting:

    “Despite the approval of the whole NPT members and the international community’s serious call to hold the 2012 conference on the establishment of nuke-free zone in the Middle East, the Zionist regime has disapproved of the conference.”

    The Obama Administration also disapproved of that conference!

    However, Israeli citizens of conscience called, “If Israel won’t come to Helsinki, Helsinki will come to Israel” and acted in lieu of the derailed Helsinki conference with one in Israel!

    From December 5-6, 2013, current and former Israeli parliamentarians, local and international peace and human rights activists met in Haifa to call for a zone free of nuclear weapons and all weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East and called for a world free of nuclear weapons.

    The people powered Haifa Conference called for the prompt convening of the Helsinki Conference to create a WMD-free zone that was unanimously mandated by the NPT Review Conference at the United Nations in 2010 and 2013; and the General Assembly of the UN reaffirmed it in Dec. 2013.

    The members of the Haifa coalition called for the end of Israel’s nuclear apartheid citing two options: nuclear weapons for all or a complete WMD disarmament in the region.

    The Haifa coalition also addressed the essentials for achieving a just and lasting peace: end the Israeli occupation of Palestinian and Arab territories. They also called for equal participation of women at all levels of discussion, advocacy and diplomacy in implementation of these demands…


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