A crucial event for the future of international peace and security – and global sanity – got under way at UN headquarters in New York last week, though, given the lack of political and media attention, you might be forgiven for not noticing.
The review conference of the landmark 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty (NPT) involves 191 state party signatories. Few international agreements enjoy such near universal support. Nuclear-armed Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea are shameful hold-outs.
Simply put, the NPT is about preventing nuclear war by encouraging disarmament, halting proliferation and promoting peaceful uses of nuclear science and technology. Up to now, at least, it’s helped stop another nuclear catastrophe.
“Another” is the operative word. The 77th anniversary of the first such catastrophe was commemorated on 6 August at Hiroshima, where an estimated 140,000 civilians died, or were condemned to an agonising death, on one day in 1945. To put that in perspective, roughly 10,000 civilians have died in Ukraine in just under six months.
Western public opinion, lulled by the end of the cold war, seems to have lost sight of the immeasurable horror of atomic warfare. There are no Greenham Commons nowadays, even though new missile deployments proliferate.
If recent events puncture that complacency, it won’t be wholly bad. UN secretary-general António Guterres raised the alarm last week when opening the NPT conference.
“Today, humanity is just one misunderstanding, one miscalculation away from nuclear annihilation,” he warned. “We have been extraordinarily lucky so far. But luck is not a strategy. Nor is it a shield from geopolitical tensions boiling over into nuclear conflict.”
Western public opinion, lulled by the end of the cold war, seems to have lost sight of the immeasurable horror of atomic warfare
Russia illustrates Guterres’s point in terrifying fashion. Having previously seized the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, Europe’s largest, in southern Ukraine, it is using it as a fortress from which to fire artillery with impunity. The UN nuclear watchdog says a disaster is in the making. Launching his invasion, Vladimir Putin placed Russia’s nuclear forces on alert and issued a crude threat. Any western attempt to interfere, he said, “will lead to such consequences that you have never encountered in your history”.
Whether bluffing or not, Putin’s nuclear blackmail has undoubtedly deterred direct US and Nato intervention in Ukraine and so prolonged the war. Now there’s concern that China may adopt similar tactics over Taiwan.
Anti-nuclear campaigners say NPT pledges must be honoured and strengthened, and most countries agree. But the treaty is in trouble all the same. In practice, all five recognised nuclear weapons states – the US, Russia, China, France and Britain – are breaking their Article VI treaty commitment to pursue disarmament “in good faith”, thereby setting an execrable example.
Instead, a multilateral nuclear arms race is gathering pace, unrestrained in the case of the US and Russia by bilateral cold war arms control treaties discarded by Putin and Donald Trump, and propelled in the case of China by neo-imperial ambition.
“All of the nuclear-armed states are increasing or upgrading their arsenals and most are sharpening nuclear rhetoric and the role nuclear weapons play in their military strategies,” the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute said in its authoritative annual report.
The US and Russia, while claiming to support further nuclear arms reduction, still maintain 3,708 and 4,477 nukes respectively. China has 350, France 290 and Britain 225. Beijing’s arsenal is predicted to more than double in the next decade. And it’s not only about Armageddon. Growing stockpiles of so-called tactical or battlefield weapons and new hypersonic missiles are making “limited” nuclear warfare more likely.
Hypocrisy and double-talk are not confined to the big players. Like Israel, India and Pakistan, Britain and France are modernising their arsenals. President Emmanuel Macron, in true Napoleonic style, wants to extend France’s nuclear shield to cover all of Europe.
In a joint statement last week, Britain, France and the US described the NPT as “irreplaceable” and “vital”. They said they were making “enduring efforts” to fulfil their Article VI obligations.
Last year, however, Boris Johnson’s government relaxed Britain’s no-first-use doctrine to allow a UK nuclear response to a non-nuclear attack. Ministers also raised the cap on the Trident warhead stockpile and reduced publicly available information. “Both decisions have led many to question the government’s commitment to disarmament,” a House of Commons research paper noted wryly.
Even as it extolled the virtues of collaboration, the joint statement castigated Russia for its “irresponsible nuclear rhetoric and reckless attacks endangering nuclear reactors”. It went on: “We condemn those who would use or threaten to use nuclear weapons for military coercion, intimidation, and blackmail.” Quite right. But such criticism sits uneasily alongside strictures by Stephen Lovegrove, UK national security adviser, who has warned that a “rapid escalation to strategic conflict”, meaning nuclear war, could too easily result from the current shouting match between the west and Russia and China.
To make matters worse, North Korea’s rogue regime is expected to conduct a geopolitically (and physically) destabilising underground nuclear test soon. But there are glimmers of hope, too. Last-ditch negotiations to curb Iran’s nuclear programme have resumed. Plus 86 countries have now signed the symbolic, nonetheless important, 2021 Nuclear Weapon Ban treaty.
Why, as appears the case, is the world teetering ever more precariously on the brink of renewed nuclear catastrophe? There are many factors. Increased insecurity, rising nationalism, weak and stupid leaders, vested commercial interests.
Yet as much as anything, the reawakened spectre of nuclear annihilation is the product of a defining 21st-century phenomenon: the increasingly anarchic refusal of states to uphold international law and the UN-underwritten, post-1945 global order.
They just won’t stick to the rules, even as they stick it to each other.