By Lillian Parr
The latest stage of the COVID-19 pandemic, fueled by the rapidly-spreading Omicron variant, has caused a new wave of disruptions and challenges both domestically and abroad. This includes forcing the Tenth Review Conference of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) to be postponed from January 2022 until late 2022.
This is not the first time the NPT Review Conference has been rescheduled. Originally planned for April 2020, it has been delayed repeatedly because of the pandemic. The conference is now expected to be held in August 2022, a full two years and four months later than the intended start date. The Review Conferences are supposed to happen every five years — the last one was in 2015.
While delaying the conference was the only option to protect the health of staffers and delegates, it is a great loss at a time of high tension and instability. They provide an opportunity to review implementation and compliance with the landmark 1970 treaty and are important for shaping the future of nuclear arms control. With 191 participating countries, the NPT is the world’s most widely ratified arms control agreement, and is a cornerstone of arms control. Weakening norms against weapons of mass destruction, modernization and expansion of nuclear arsenals, and the unraveled Iran Nuclear Deal (JCPOA) would all be crucial topics of conversation.
Beyond the NPT Review Conference, COVID-19 has forced a great deal of international treaty work, arms control efforts, and diplomacy to be put on hold. Even when events are not cancelled, but are held virtually instead, the casual interactions and side-bars that often produce valuable connections are lost. New ideas can also be stymied, further limiting avenues for progress.
Unfortunately, this has highlighted the interconnected nature of the transnational risk landscape and illustrated how a public health threat can exacerbate nuclear challenges. Not only has the pandemic heightened tensions and destabilized economies—making weapons threats greater—it has also robbed us of the ability to effectively address these issues through diplomacy and conventions.
Efforts to reduce biological risks, both naturally occurring and weaponized, will have a broadly beneficial effect on security and stability, including in our ability to reduce other threats. The COVID-19 pandemic has left us in a more vulnerable position in myriad ways—nuclear threat reduction is one many reasons to invest in preventing another pandemic from occurring.
A positive note in this fraught security environment can be found in a joint pledge from the P5 on January 3 stating the priority of reducing strategic risks and avoiding nuclear war, citing that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” This statement is a noteworthy effort to increase trust and cooperation from five of the world’s nuclear-armed nations. Progress on arms control during a pandemic is far more difficult, but this showed that it can be done.
Continue to watch the CSR blog for updates and analysis on the interconnectedness of biological and nuclear threats.