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Commentary | 26 March 2013

The State of the NPT Diplomacy

Image of William Potter

William Potter |Director of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies

Diplomacy Middle East NPT Nuclear Arms Control Nuclear Disarmament Nuclear Weapons Global Security

It is hard to approach the forthcoming 2013 NPT PrepCom without a sense of foreboding. When delegates assemble in Geneva on April 22nd for two weeks of negotiations at the second session of the Preparatory Committee of the 2015 NPT Review Conference (Rev Con), precious little goodwill is likely to remain from the heady days of the last Rev Con in May 2010 when a consensus Final Document was forged. That noteworthy achievement, including a 64 item Action Plan, was only possible because of the adoption of compromise language related to the convening of a Middle East WMD-free Zone Conference by the end of 2012. No one, including many members of the Non-Aligned Movement, was entirely satisfied with that language, but they agreed to subordinate their priority objectives on disarmament, nonproliferation, and peaceful uses to the single-minded goal pursued by a very determined and talented NAM Chair from Egypt. It is very important to recall this fact as we approach the penultimate PrepCom in the 2015 NPT Review Conference cycle because it suggests that the consensus that was reached in 2010 is more fragile than many observers appreciate and could unravel quickly if certain developments do not transpire.


The Middle East Elephant 
It is hard to imagine more than perfunctory implementation of the 1995 NPT Middle East Resolution or the NPT-mandated Middle East Conference until a meaningful peace process is resumed in the Middle East. That said, failure to convene the Conference in 2012 has been a body blow to the NPT review process and threatens to disrupt the 2013 PrepCom. The Arab League has threatened to boycott the PrepCom if certain conditions are not met, and while that threat may simply be a negotiating ploy, one cannot rule out the possibility that Egypt—for domestic political reasons, among others—will actually absent itself from the 2013 PrepCom. Such an unprecedented step could have very negative consequences for the NPT at the same time that it diminishes Egypt’s ability to influence proceedings in the review process. At the time of this writing, it is still conceivable that multilateral consultations on the Middle East involving all of the relevant parties may be held in Geneva prior to the PrepCom. If these consultations take place and/or if a date is set for the convening of the actual Middle East Conference, the 2013 PrepCom may receive a new lease on life. If, however, no obvious headway is made on the Middle East front, the prospects for a smooth PrepCom—with or without Egypt’s participation–are next to zero.


The Disarmament Mouse
Much of the next NPT PrepCom will be dominated by the Middle East, and developments there set the initial tone—for good or for bad—for the 2013 meeting. For many non-nuclear weapons states (NNWS), however, no issue is more important than nuclear disarmament. While one can point to some modest progress in the disarmament sphere since the 2010 NPT Review Conference, the record overall is hardly encouraging. Particularly disconcerting is the complacency and self-congratulatory orientation of all of the nuclear weapons states (NWS)—especially with respect to P-5 nuclear deliberations—and the leisurely approach to further nuclear reductions taken by the United States, and especially by Russia.

While a great deal correctly is expected of the NWS when it comes to disarmament, NNWS also have a role to play. To the extent that they are delinquent in ratifying relevant disarmament treaties such as the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty or neglect implementation of their NWFZ treaty commitments (e.g., obligations not to engage in nuclear trade with countries lacking full-scope safeguards or the Additional Protocol), they reduce their own moral standing and diminish their potential influence in promoting full implementation of Article VI.

The disarmament mouse most likely to roar at the 2013 NPT PrepCom is international humanitarian law (IHL) and humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons use—a double-barrel issue that has unusually strong appeal to both civil society and national governments. The United States and the other NWS paid scant attention to the topic when it was raised in 2010, but were unpleasantly surprised by the broad and diverse support for the subject (including from some NATO members) at the 2012 PrepCom and at the fall 2012 meeting of the First Committee of the UN General Assembly. Although it remains to be seen how the issue will reverberate in Geneva, a major conference on humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons use held in Oslo in March 2013 is likely to make the issue even more salient at the 2013 PrepCom. While the NWS would be well advised to carefully consider, if not embrace the initiative, there are few signs they will do. French diplomats, in particular, have been dismissive of states advocating the importance of the humanitarian dimension of nuclear disarmament. All five NWS refused to attend the Oslo Conference, apparently in a coordinated move, which has provoked negative reactions from civil society and will undoubtedly draw further criticism at the PrepCom. Interestingly, although Egypt was one of the sixteen states that joined in a statement on the humanitarian dimension of nuclear disarmament at the 2012 PrepCom, it now appears to be concerned by the traction this new issue has demonstrated and its diplomats have cautioned that it should not become a diversion from the traditional NPT disarmament agenda (read the Middle East).

Wild Cards

Constraints of space preclude a discussion of many other issues that will receive extended attention at the next PrepCom, including those related to nonproliferation compliance, promotion of peaceful uses, and nuclear security. It is impossible to anticipate precisely how these matters will play out, but a number of “wild cards” could complicate or facilitate headway at the Geneva meeting. Among these unpredictable factors are: possible additional nuclear tests by the DPRK, decisions by one or more key states from the Middle East to boycott the PrepCom, a productive set of consultations on the Middle East and/or the announcement of a date for the convening of the delayed Helsinki Conference, fissures within NAM over the relative importance to attach to disarmament as opposed to regional security issues, the emergence of a new or reinvigorated group of states that play a bridge-building role across political groupings (much as the New Agenda Coalition did at the 2000 Review Conference, headway (or lack thereof) on the Iran-P5+1 talks, and the role Iran plays in its new capacity as Chair of the Non-Aligned Movement.


NPT review process old-timers will recall another fateful PrepCom that was held in Geneva in 1998. It must rank among the most contentious NPT meetings of all time. The 1998 meeting collapsed over the issue of the Middle East, but even had agreement been reached on that subject there were another three to four issues waiting in the wings to torpedo the PrepCom. As if that were not enough, India and Pakistan accentuated the failure of the meeting with a series of nuclear tests before some of the delegates had even departed from Geneva.

Hopefully, 2013 will not be a repeat of 1998. An optimist, for example, might point out that this year’s PrepCom has a particularly able chair in Romanian Ambassador Cornel Feruta, an experienced diplomat who has worked closely with many of the key delegations during his prior tenure in Vienna. He also benefits from the absence of specific tasking for the second PrepCom, as an agenda already was adopted at the first session, and the third session in 2014 will bear the brunt of pressure to generate recommendations for the 2015 Rev Con. Nevertheless, he will still need all of his diplomatic acumen—and a good deal of luck—to conclude the second PrepCom in the relatively uneventful and harmonious fashion that his predecessor achieved in Vienna in 2012.

Conventional wisdom, which in this instance is probably correct, is that the 2012 PrepCom was the calm before the storm. If so, it is possible that pundits will judge the 2013 meeting a “success” if no major damage is done and the outward appearance of normalcy in the review process is maintained. That may set the bar too low, and certainly it is not a ringing endorsement of the state of the “strengthened NPT review process”—one of the now largely forgotten decisions that were taken in 1995 as part of the bargain to extend the NPT indefinitely. Nevertheless, it is hard to envisage a much more positive outcome from the next PrepCom, which must deal with a number of challenges not of its own making.

The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security challenges of our time.