Possible Wild Cards to Contemplate in Preparation for the 2019 NPT PrepCom

April 16, 2019
William C. Potter and Sarah Bidgood

Forecasting proliferation developments is a perilous business, and we generally do not place much confidence in proliferation prognoses.

United Nations General Assembly hall in New York City. (Src: Patrick Gruban, Wikimedia Commons)

United Nations General Assembly hall in New York City. (Src: Patrick Gruban, Wikimedia Commons)

What can be predicted with confidence, however, is that there will be a number of surprises in the lead-up to and during the next NPT Preparatory Committee (PrepCom) meeting, scheduled to open in New York on April 29, 2019. Indeed, the first major surprise already occurred in early 2019, with the change in mid-stream of the designated chair for the PrepCom.

While it is impossible, by definition, to anticipate unpredictable events, familiarity with prior NPT meetings and the factors responsible for their outcomes (both positive and negative) may provide some useful clues about “wild cards” or issues that could emerge with unforeseen but potentially significant consequences for the review process.

We have flagged six such issues that merit attention:

  1. The collapse of US-Russian cooperation for nonproliferation
  2. Isolation of the United States even among other nuclear-weapon states (NWS)
  3. The salience given to chemical weapons
  4. Disregard for prior NPT commitments (especially regarding the Middle East)
  5. US efforts to denigrate the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT)
  6. Failure to designate a president for the 2020 NPT Review Conference*

1. End of US-Russian cooperation in the context of the NPT review process

There is a total absence of trust and respect in US-Russian relations today, and this lack of cooperation now extends even to those areas in which the objective interests of Washington and Moscow would appear to converge and in which they cooperated during some of the most frigid moments of the Cold War.

Based on the lack of civility in personal exchanges at the 2018 PrepCom and during debate at the fall 2018 First Committee, it is conceivable that 2019 may mark the first time in NPT history in which there is not even a modicum of cooperation between the two NWS architects of the NPT. Moreover, US-Russian acrimony could create a toxic atmosphere that would poison all efforts at finding common ground on other topics across the three pillars of the treaty.

2. Extreme isolation of the United States

Radical departures by the United States on past NPT review conference positions and more general angst on the part of many traditional allies could lead to the United States’s  increasing isolation on many issues.

This phenomenon could lead to major splits within the Western European and Other Group, as well as among the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (the P5). It also could prompt new leaders to emerge, who champion policies very much at odds with the current US administration.

While it is difficult to gauge how the diminished influence of the United States will impact on NPT politics and processes, there is reason to believe that it might be most apparent on issues related to the Middle East and the CTBT. It also might lead to support for calls upon the United States and Russia to recommit to nuclear arms control.

Indeed, the demise of US-Russian cooperation could actually create a situation in which Russia departs from past practice and encourages other states to demand preservation of past accords and the resumption of efforts to negotiate new ones. One saw a glimpse of this dynamic at the First Committee in fall 2018 with respect to the issue of the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty.

3. Salience of Chemical Weapons

Although prior NPT PrepComs and Review Conferences have addressed weapons of mass destruction besides nuclear weapons, especially in the context of creating zones free of such weapons, the issue of chemical weapons (CW) has rarely been the focus of discussion.

The issue, however, surfaced on several occasions at the 2018 PrepCom with respect to CW use by Syria and also regarding accusations of Russian involvement in the use of nerve agents in the United Kingdom, where it led to some of the most acrimonious rights of reply.

These contentious debates escalated further at meetings of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in fall 2018, and senior Russian officials attacked the OPCW for exceeding its mandate, going so far as to compare the organization to a sinking Titanic.

Given the demise of US and UK relations with Russia, it is quite likely that new accusations regarding CW use will be raised during the general debate at the next PrepCom, provoking nasty exchanges at the outset of the meeting, which could complicate efforts to have civil and productive exchanges on other issues.

4. Disregard by States of Prior Commitments

There is a tendency among states parties to the NPT both to forget and, on occasion, purposefully disregard commitments made at past Review Conferences and PrepComs.

The former tendency often reflects selective inattention to cognitively uncomfortable elements, as well as limited institutional memory, particularly with respect to commitments made before 2010.

The loss of institutional memory also contributes to the relative impunity with which some states consciously ignore prior obligations even if they choose not to repudiate them formally or excuse the practice due to the assertion that “things have changed, and we have to adjust accordingly.”

Also contributing to the lack of censure is that many states practice this cherry-picking behavior—such is not the sole providence of the NWS, although some of them are guiltier than others.

Illustrative of the potential unanticipated impact on the review process of disregard of prior commitments was the wholesale abandonment of Paragraph 12 of the 1995 Principles and Objectives Decision regarding the prohibition of trade with states lacking full scope safeguards—actions that were highlighted by the 2008 Nuclear Suppliers Group’s exemption for India, and which played out with a vengeance in all of the Main Committees at the 2010 NPT Review Conference.

The US decision at the 2018 PrepCom to disavow Washington’s support for the 2010 recommendations dealing with the WMD-free zone in the Middle East and to question the appropriateness for the NPT review process to consider the issue altogether could provoke an even more harsh response at NPT meetings in 2019 and 2020, especially if the United States actively seeks to subvert the UN General Assembly-mandated conference on the subject.

It is conceivable that the response might include efforts by some Arab states to challenge the continued viability of the 1995 package of three decisions and one resolution, including the decision on the indefinite extension of the NPT.

5. US Efforts to Denigrate the CTBT

A disregard for past commitments is likely to be especially visible on the topic of the CTBT. The need for a comprehensive test ban is enshrined in the preamble of the NPT itself, and, following the CTBT’s negotiation, the importance of achieving its entry into force was reaffirmed in the 13 practical steps of 2000 and the 2010 Action Plan.

In this light, and given new and continuing challenges facing the CTBT today, a number of states may choose to treat the 2020 Review Conference as a target of opportunity for reiterating the contributions of the Treaty, including with respect to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). Given the high degree of support the CTBT enjoys among NPT states parties, one might assume that the conference would seek to forge consensus language urging Pyongyang to sign and ratify the CTBT (or, at least, reaffirming the treaty’s importance to this issue).

Based on US behavior at the 2018 PrepCom, however, the issue of the CTBT and the DPRK may prove to be contentious. At the 2018 PrepCom, France issued a statement on the DPRK that made no mention of the CTBT, despite Paris’ staunch support for it as a state party and of the provisional technical secretariat. Apparently, the US delegation blocked any text mentioning the CTBT, in keeping with Washington’s decision not to pursue ratification, as articulated in the 2018 US Nuclear Posture Review.

Reticence to confront the United States on the matter may have been influenced by uncertainty at the time about how the United States would act on the Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action related to Iran. Today, however, it is more likely that any US efforts to denigrate the CTBT will provoke a stronger response.

6. Stalemate in Designating a President for 2020

Historically, the presidency of the NPT Review Conference is held by members or observers of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). Based on a system of rotation among regions, the president of the 2020 NPT Review Conference would be selected from the Latin American and Caribbean Group (GRULAC), and indeed GRULAC nominated Argentina’s Ambassador to International Organizations in Vienna Rafael Grossi for that post.

His candidacy, however, has been blocked by a small group of NAM members led by Venezuela, which currently serves as NAM chair. The issue appears to be primarily one involving the dispute between Venezuela and members of the so-called Lima Group, which includes Argentina. Although Ambassador Grossi has been encouraged by some states to act as though he had been confirmed as Review Conference President, it appears increasingly doubtful that any formal decision will be taken by NAM on the matter prior to the 2019 PrepCom (and probably not before Venezuela surrenders its position as chair of NAM to Azerbaijan in fall 2019).

As a consequence of this stalemate, considerable delays and uncertainty have been introduced into the process by which the Review Conference president undertakes formal consultations and selects individuals to assist him/her at the Review Conference, including the posts of subsidiary body chairs.

It is unclear how the delay will impact debates at the 2019 PrepCom, but it is conceivable that proposals may be resurrected to alter the process by which Review Conference presidents are selected.

Another related but different wild card issue involving Venezuela pertains to a potential dispute over the credentials of the delegation(s) that seek to sit behind the Venezuelan placard.

The aforementioned set of wild cards is by no means exhaustive, and one can imagine a number of other developments that could impact significantly on the NPT review process in a negative or positive fashion. They include, but are not limited to, escalation of the Indo-Pakistani conflict, a constructive or contentious debate by NWS and NNWS over the US “Creating the Environment for Nuclear Disarmament” initiative, Iranian and/or Venezuelan recalcitrance, an effort by one or more countries to reopen the issue of the agenda for the Review Conference, a rift within the Non-Aligned Movement between those who attach particular important to the WMD-free zone in the Middle East and others who believe greater attention should be focused on nuclear disarmament, and the escalation of hostilities between the United States, Israel, and Iran. Recognizing the potential for these issues and other wild cards to intrude into the NPT review process will not necessarily guarantee what the Chinese sometimes refer to as a “smooth” process. Failure to anticipate their presence and plan accordingly, however, will increase the likelihood of their disruptive impact.

* The authors are grateful to Nizhan Faraz Rizal for his research on the topic of “Wild Cards” during his stay at CNS in fall 2018.

This paper initially was presented to a meeting of the Working Group on Alternative Approaches to Nuclear Disarmament in Annecy, France on March 14, 2019. The Working Group is supported by Carnegie Corporation of New York.

William C. Potter is Director of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS) and is Sam Nunn and Richard Lugar Professor of Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey.

Sarah Bidgood is a senior research associate and project manager at CNS. She and Dr. Potter are co-editors of Once and Future Partners: The United States, Russia, and Nuclear Non-Proliferation (Routledge, 2018).

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