By John Erath
The much-delayed 2020 NPT Review Conference (RevCon) has ended and, as expected, not produced a Final Document. This has predictably led a number of commentators to label the RevCon a failure, primarily for not making “progress” toward nuclear disarmament. Despite the lack of a splashy headline, the RevCon did produce some positive results that bear examination.
It is helpful to remember that despite the hopes of disarmament advocates, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty does not exist in a vacuum; its disarmament provisions are largely dependent on the international security situation. By itself, the NPT is necessary to establish the conditions for eventual disarmament, but it is not sufficient to achieve the goal, especially not in times when threats of nuclear attacks are becoming currency.
The most important consequence of the RevCon was that it put the spotlight on the most important challenge facing the world in the area of non-proliferation: Russian aggression.
The draft Final Document reached “consensus minus one,” that is to say everyone agreed to it, except Russia. According to reports from the UN, Russia objected to implicit criticism of its invasion, particularly the assertion that Ukraine should control its own nuclear infrastructure. After four weeks during which Russian aggression was too often the unacknowledged elephant in the room, the parties to the treaty did the right thing and refused to give in to Moscow’s hostage taking, preferring a RevCon without a tangible result to one that traded such a “success” for what would have been, in effect, legitimation of an illegal attempt at conquest.
Despite devoting many of its 30-plus pages to standard text that could have been written any time in the last decade, the draft Final Document showed significant progress. In 2015, the RevCon was unable to agree on how to call for a Nuclear-Weapons-Free Zone (NWFZ) in the Middle East in a way that all the states of that region could support. This time, they were able to do so, in part because the 2015 RevCon highlighted the points of difference and opened the way for discussion leading to a UN General Assembly Resolution. The failures both in 2015 and 2005 to adopt a Final Document did not signal the end of the NPT and will not this time. The near consensus opens the door on several issues, notably nuclear risk reduction, nuclear security and verification, that could lead to progress before the next RevCon.
It would be absurd to believe that a RevCon, or any international meeting, could eliminate nuclear weapons overnight. Given the current international situation, that goal is looking more difficult than it did before February 24, but by not giving in to blackmail and by setting a stage for progress in important areas, the RevCon did about as well as could be reasonably expected.