Nuclear proliferation: How coronavirus crisis is opportunity

Why We Wrote This

Nuclear proliferation is a global issue that’s been decidedly overshadowed. Our writer breaks down what might have happened at a now-delayed U.N. conference, and how the delay may have bought much-needed time.

Bebeto Matthews/AP
Members of the United Nations Security Council convene a meeting on the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, Feb. 26, 2020, at U.N. headquarters in New York.

Two ways to read the story

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 5 Min. )

Every five years, member states gather to review the half-century-old Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, or NPT. The conference was to have been held at the United Nations in New York for a month beginning next week, and predictions of a rancorous and divisive review were flying high.

Enter the coronavirus pandemic, forcing U.N. officials to delay the gathering of hundreds of diplomats and officials until 2021. The postponement is increasingly being viewed as an opportunity.

Among the reasons for the dour predictions: the world’s nuclear weapons states, including the United States, Russia, and China, were in for a drubbing from nonnuclear states for undoing disarmament accords and modernizing and expanding nuclear arsenals, experts said.

“I continue to believe that the coronavirus pandemic is providing an opportunity for leaders to come together around international institutions and agreements and to restate commitments to international cooperation,” says Rose Gottemoeller, a former undersecretary of state for arms control and international security. “The NPT regime is no different,” she adds, “so I believe we’ll see [treaty signatories] … coming together around the position that ‘this is a good treaty, let’s recommit to it and strengthen it going forward.’”

With the world caught in the throes of the coronavirus pandemic, the global threat that much of the international community once worried about most – the proliferation of nuclear weapons and the risk of a cataclysmic nuclear winter – has largely vanished from public thought.

The issue has quite literally retreated from the international stage – the pandemic having forced the postponement of the every-five-years review conference of the half-century-old Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, or NPT.

The gathering of hundreds of diplomats and nuclear-issues officials from the NPT’s 191 member states was to have been held at the United Nations in New York for a month beginning next week. U.N. officials have delayed the conference until 2021.

Yet while predictions of a rancorous and divisive NPT review conference were flying high earlier this year, the postponement is increasingly being viewed as an opportunity.

Among other reasons for the dour predictions: The world’s nuclear weapons states, including the United States, Russia, and China, were in for a drubbing from non-nuclear states for undoing disarmament accords and modernizing and expanding nuclear arsenals, experts said.

For some experts in nuclear issues, the year ahead now opens the door to serious discussion of ways of fortifying the NPT, particularly by hardening the consequences of member states withdrawing from the treaty, as North Korea did in 2003.

With the leaders of Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and other countries musing at times about the treaty’s unacceptable limits or even leaving the NPT, some say it’s time to focus on barring the door to a future wave of nuclear-arms proliferation.

Opportunity for leadership

“If you have an extra year, it should be used to consider other ideas and priorities than what typically consumes the conversation, and new ways of interpreting the treaty to preserve its integrity,” says Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center in Washington.

It would be smart to focus a bit more on nonproliferation, and maybe a bit less on disarmament, “which tends to consume everyone but doesn’t get the traction people are looking for,” he says.

Some see a “silver lining” in the postponement, in that it offers an opportunity for global leadership.

“The pandemic has thrown everything up in the air [but] leaders will be looking for ways to show their leadership and put it in a good light,” says Rose Gottemoeller, a former undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, and until recently a deputy secretary general at NATO.

For example, she says President Donald Trump is likely to want a big foreign policy win to tout in his reelection campaign, and that could prompt the U.S. to take some disarmament action – such as extending the New START arms reduction treaty with Russia – before the November election.

More broadly, Ms. Gottemoeller says the context of a global pandemic can actually be a boon to the search for more cooperation on other issues.

“I continue to believe that the coronavirus pandemic is providing an opportunity for leaders to come together around international institutions and agreements and to restate commitments to international cooperation,” says Ms. Gottemoeller, now a distinguished lecturer at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation in Palo Alto, California.

“The NPT regime is no different,” she adds, “so I believe we’ll see [treaty signatories] … coming together around the position that ‘this is a good treaty, let’s recommit to it and strengthen it going forward.’”

A pessimistic view

Yet despite his hopes for new thinking on nuclear issues in the months ahead, Mr. Sokolski says he worries that a remarkably successful 50-year-old treaty might not last another decade.

The NPT took effect in 1970 based on the basic bargain that the five nuclear-armed states of the U.N. Security Council (the U.S., Russia, China, France, and the United Kingdom) would move toward the elimination of all nuclear weapons, while the non-nuclear states committed to not seeking or developing such weapons but would have access to peaceful nuclear energy uses. The NPT took effect in a world where many countries had nuclear weapons programs, but today only India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea stand outside the treaty.

Over the last half-century, the two largest nuclear-weapons powers, the U.S. and Russia, have indeed sharply reduced their stockpiles. But more recently those two powers have shifted to modernizing their arsenals, as China has moved to expand its arsenal. Moreover the U.S. and Russia have moved away from disarmament treaties, with the last major treaty between them, New START, set to expire in February 2021.

Increasingly non-weapons states see the nuclear powers as failing to hold up their end of the NPT bargain, a sentiment that has prompted some NPT members to pursue new initiatives without the major powers. In 2017, 81 countries signed on to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, a document rejected by the nuclear weapons states.

Given the percolating ire of the non-nuclear states, some experts say they are not certain that the postponement of the NPT review conference will lead to greater global unity on disarmament and nonproliferation down the road.

“For sure the review conference” set for next week “was a train wreck waiting to happen, but nothing guarantees that we’ll find ourselves in nine months or a year in a better position,” says Waheguru Pal Sidhu, an expert on multilateral and U.N. issues at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs. “The opportunity is there, but there’s also a risk of even more disunity.”

Much will depend on how countries, and especially the major powers, choose to address the coronavirus pandemic, Mr. Sidhu says. Proceeding with a spirit of “we’re one world in this together” could in turn foster a greater sense of cooperation on other issues, including nuclear weapons and proliferation. But a “you’re on your own” approach could sour the atmosphere of a major international effort like the NPT review.

“People are talking about international solidarity for addressing COVID-19, but on the other hand we have the proliferation really of these nation-first approaches – America first, Brazil first, India first – that set a tone that does not encourage greater cooperation,” he says.

Less time for mischief?

Some experts worry that what Ms. Gottemoeller calls the “mischief-makers” in the nuclear arena – foremost among them North Korea and Iran – could use the months before the NPT conference to advance their nuclear programs and further weaken the global nuclear nonproliferation regime.

But even there, Ms. Gottemoeller says the pandemic has changed her thinking on how some states are likely to proceed on nuclear issues over the coming months.

“My view has shifted on this, I think the pandemic means they have less time and less incentive to make mischief, because they need the help of the international community,” she says.

She cites the example of Saudi Arabia, which has alarmed the nonproliferation community with talk of purchasing nuclear facilities that could leave it in possession of the fuel and other building blocks for an eventual nuclear weapons program.

But other challenges are likely to put provocative moves like a nuclear program on the back burner, Ms. Gottemoeller says. “I don’t think they’ll be focused at this moment on buying nuclear reactors.”

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.