For most, the seven years since 2015 feels like a tumultuous, transformative time. For those working in nuclear policy attending the ongoing tenth Review Conference of the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons this month, 2015 feels like a completely different era.
A short list of major events which have occurred between the previous RevCon in 2015 and today:
- The signing, implementation, and abandonment, of the JCPOA—the “Iran Deal”;
- The 2017 North Korean “breakout” including thermonuclear device and missile testing;
- The 2019 U.S. withdrawal from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty;
- The 2020 collapse of the 1992 Treaty on Open Skies;
- The introduction of Russia’s “doomsday” weapons—a nuclear-powered autonomous torpedo and a nuclear-powered cruise missile;
- The 2019 and 2020-21 India-Pakistan border skirmishes;
- The increasing of tensions along the disputed India-China border;
- The self-declared “impressive progress” on the growth of China’s nuclear arsenal;
- The intensification of P5 nuclear modernization programs;
- The rapid pursuit of hypersonic weapons and advanced reentry vehicle technologies;
- The 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine and accompanying nuclear threats;
- The 2022 suspension of on-site inspections in Russia under New START.
Given these many blows to the international arms control and nonproliferation regime, it is understandable that this year’s RevCon—originally set for 2020 but delayed due to the pandemic—can feel like a cold start for those participating. Still, and perhaps owing to the dire state of nuclear affairs, there is a gathering energy here in New York among the delegates, hosts, and observers that the current geopolitical tensions demand forward progress—and perhaps a reset in our approach to nonproliferation widely.
The early traction, it seems, has been found not in talks toward traditional arms control measures, but in the more indirect topics of strategic risk reduction. RevCon delegates have been more willing in these weeks to discuss more oblique themes like confidence-building, predictability, transparency, clarity, understanding, and crisis management. The general risk reduction framework was pre-signaled by a January working paper from the P5 countries which provided useful, if preliminary, structure for this month’s conversations.
And the enthusiasm for risk reduction has already been avowed at high levels. Speaking at a UNIDIR side-event in her role as Deputy Assistant Secretary in the U.S. Department of State Bureau of Arms Control, Verification, and Compliance, Alexendra Bell declared that “risk reduction is arms control, is risk reduction.” It’s a welcome endorsement from a key U.S. official, and reinforces the prevailing idea that there are countless options for how nuclear-armed nations could reduce the risks of miscalculation and use, which may or may not resemble arms control agreements of the past.
The promise of working in a flexible risk reduction paradigm is twofold: first, that collaborating on the diplomatic fundamentals of building trust, clarity, and understanding in the nuclear space will serve as a foundation from which to ultimately bring states together for future, binding arms control measures. Even the P5’s January working paper was a welcome surprise amid a long slide in the wrong direction, as evidenced by the list of events above, and new momentum can already be seen from it at RevCon.
Second, progress in risk reduction areas will have the immediate effect toward stabilizing crisis scenarios and avoiding potential escalation traps as both international tensions and the nuclear arms race roil. With no shortage of potential flashpoints around the world, even just during the two short weeks of this conference, it is clear that there is no reason for delaying the pursuit of such steps.
The ability for countries to work on their own terms is a mixed benefit of this approach. As new technologies are fielded and various offense-defense calculations are affected, leaders have historically had a difficult time agreeing to (or upholding) agreements which constrain capability. In the context of today’s emerging missile systems, for example, an agreement restricting hypersonic reentry vehicles or an INF-type treaty on range restrictions is seen by many as an impossibility in today’s security environment. But having broad-brush risk reduction-rooted norms in place regarding their use, deployment transparency, or simply reinforcing communications channels would certainly build a safer and more stable context in which to work.
There is risk, of course, in avoiding the techno-strategic details: countries could use the relative ambiguity and non-binding status of some risk reduction concepts to forestall actual progress toward its end goals—or worse, to operate in bad faith while pursuing increased nuclear capability. It will be of great benefit to all participants if a strong risk reduction architecture can be tied to the NPT process and regime, and especially so if highly specific goals can be mutually set following this RevCon. Governments and organizations will do well to map their campaigns over the next 2-3 years to facilitate these conversations in pursuit of rapid alignment.
But for arms controllers and advocates, it’s hard not to feel like a shift away from high-level nuclear engagement among states with these weapons is anything other than a settlement to the moment. And to be sure, there are many organizations at RevCon hosting excellent conversations focused on stockpiles and deterrence, WMD-free zones, and calling for the resumption of formal talks. But for this review conference, and in planning for the shorter intersessional period before the next (indications are that RevCon 11 will go ahead in 2025, returning to the 5-year schedule), focusing on practical, near-term steps that commit nuclear-armed states back toward paths of restraint and responsibility to their NPT commitments may be just what we need to chart out an effective return to multilateral arms control within the decade.