A new chapter in the Nuclear Non Proliferation Regime?

16th July 1945, a flash of blinding light lit up the skies of New Mexico as if the radiance of a thousand suns were burst into the sky at once accompanied by an explosive force that had been hitherto unheard of, mankind had created the means to rival the celestial powers which form the core of the cosmos itself.  Mankind had harnessed the power of the atom; the world would never be same.

The US monopoly on Nuclear weapons was short-lived with the Soviet Union soon conducting its first nuclear test on 29 August 1949. This ushered in the era of Bipolarity and solidified the Cold War as a reality. As the Cold War raged on the number of Nuclear Weapons skyrocketed and the number of states possessing nuclear weapons slowly increased. To limit this spread of nuclear weapons to other countries a series of treaties were drafted which were aimed at preventing the further spread of nuclear weapons these treaties collectively are known as the Nuclear Non Proliferation Regime (NPR). At the core of the NPR stand the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty better known as the NPT. After decades of stagnation a new treaty came to light one which advocates for the complete ban on nuclear weapons and their use called the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons with many believing that it would open a new chapter in the NPR.

To understand if the TPNW truly marks a new chapter in the Nonproliferation regime one must first analyze the basic tenets of the treaty and what makes its different from the existing NPR infrastructure. Open for signature in 2017 and entered into force on 22nd January 2021 the TPNW builds upon the humanitarian challenge of the use of nuclear weapons and their threat to humanity. The TPNW arose from popular sentiment against the inaction of the Nuclear Weapon States to carry out disarmament under article 6 of the NPT. It has 86 signatories and 54 parties, the text of the treaty talks about the indiscriminate and total disarmament of all nuclear weapons and explosive devises, article 2 of the treaty says that all state parties to the treaty to declare within 30 days if they had ever owned or possessed control over nuclear weapons. And if a state does possess nuclear weapons after 7 July 2021 it shall work with the competent international authority to pursue disarmament. States that possess nuclear energy will work with the IAEA to negotiate within 180 days verification and safety mechanisms to prevent the diversion of nuclear fuel whose implementation shall be entered into force after 18 months of the treaty being entered into force. While the NPT makes a distinction between Nuclear Weapon States and Non-Nuclear Weapon states giving legitimacy to the arsenals of select countries while barring others from making nuclear weapons the TPNW instead removes this distinction of NWS and NNWS and calls for the total disarmament of nuclear weapons regardless of their status according to the  NPT.

Looking at the TPNW one observes that no nuclear weapon state has actually signed the treaty and the US and its allies even went as far as to denounce the treaty. The absence of nuclear weapon states including the Permanent 5 members of the United Nations Security Council (P-5) poses problems for the treaty, as a treaty on the prohibition on nuclear weapons without the involvement of the states who actually possess these weapons simply makes no logical sense. Another grave flaw of the treaty is that it lacks a clear plan towards disarmament and instead it uses vague terminologies. There also exist no such mechanisms to punish state parties who have violated the treaty nor does there exists any incentives for countries to sign the treaty as opposed to the incentive of nuclear energy and cooperation under the NPT.

Another critique on the TPNW is that it fails to recognize the central nature and the significance that nuclear weapons have on the strategic stability and the force postures of countries. An argument which has been central to realist thought. It is due to the concept of deterrence that the world has witnessed the decrease in the number of all out wars between major powers. Kenneth Waltz one of the pioneers of neo-realism highlighted this point and claimed that in the post war world nuclear weapons acted as a second force of peace and stability as they have made the cost of war immensely high. In regions such as South Asia nuclear weapons proved instrumental in preventing the outbreak of all-out war between India and Pakistan (although limited and sub conventional level war remains). Taking away nuclear weapons without providing any alternative to these concepts of deterrence and balance of terror would most likely result in chaos as it is only through providing better alternatives that these existing concepts are made obsolete hence making the need for nuclear weapons obsolete.

That being said one must not overlook the normative significance that this treaty entails. While major flaws such as lack of clarity and the absence of nuclear weapon state parties hinder any solid progress towards disarmament the treaty is the first of its kind as it removes the previous distinctions of the NPT between the Nuclear Weapon States and the Non-Nuclear Weapon states and calls for total disarmament it is aimed at developing a stigma around nuclear weapons. This push for prohibition on nuclear weapons was spearheaded by International NGO’s and other civil society groups under the banner of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) this is in contrast to the earlier development on arms control and disarmament whose main proponent were and was facilitated by states. The treaty makes more sense if one looks at it through the lens of constructivism whose focus on the role of normative and ideational non material structures on the behavior of actors suggest that the TPNW has given rise to a new norm in the International system one which outright bans the use and the possession of nuclear weapons. However this seems to be in its initial stages

Taking a look at the overall situation one finds that this norm happens to be in the second stage of the norm life cycle, during this stage norm leaders (States) push for a more hands on approach with states convincing other states adopt the same norm, as opposed to the first stage which involves the emergence of a norm. A look at the TPNW shows that this exact phenomena is happening as the proponents of total disarmament seek to convince other states of adopting the same stance. This is solidified in article 12 of the TPNW which says that each state party shall encourage states which are not a party to the treaty to sign, ratify, accept, approve or accede to the Treaty. This would then lead the final stage in which the norm goes through the process of Internalizationin which it gains a taken for granted status, and becomes a given fact of everyday life. Just as the creation or the use of biological weapons is universally seen as a crime and a taboo, use and the possession of nuclear weapons would be regarded as a similar taboo. The main obstacle to this being the norm acceptance by the P-5 and the states which actually possess nuclear weapons. As without their collaboration it is near impossible that the conditions for internalization would be met.

In conclusion while this treaty is not expected to yield solid results in the form disarmament as it suffers from the flaws highlighted above but it should not be seen only in this regard. The treaty is a part of a broader dynamic of the Norm Life Cycle and the normative significance that it carries and its role in stigmatizing nuclear weapons is a step towards the internalization of the norm of complete disarmament and opening a new chapter in the Nuclear Non Proliferation Regime, albeit a small step.

Muhammad Haisam Abbas
Muhammad Haisam Abbas
Student of Strategic Studies from the National Defense University, Pakistan.