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The Search for Mountaintop at the 2018 NPT PrepCom

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On a clear day, you can see the top of snow-capped Mont
Blanc from the Palais des Nations, the home of the United Nations in Geneva.
It’s a striking contrast to be able to see this vision so clearly when, inside
the assembly hall, countries are desperately grappling with how to make
progress toward the goal of a world without nuclear weapons.

In 2008, NTI’s co-founder, Senator Sam Nunn, along with
George Shulz, Bill Perry, and Henry Kissinger, wrote in a Wall
Street Journal op-ed
that the goal of a world without nuclear weapons is
like the top of a very tall mountain. “From the vantage point of our troubled world
today, we can’t even see the top of the mountain, and it is tempting and easy
to say we can’t get there from here. But the risks from continuing to go down
the mountain or standing pat are too real to ignore.”

Despite the beautiful view of Mont Blanc outside, from
inside the assembly hall the mountaintop seems further away than ever.

I’m here in Geneva at the second
Preparatory Committee meeting (PrepCom)
of the 2020 Review Conference
(RevCon) of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).  The NPT,
which entered into force in 1970, has as its goal limiting the spread of
nuclear weapons and contains three “pillars”: nonproliferation (preventing countries from acquiring nuclear
weapons beyond the original five nuclear-weapons states—China, France, Russia,
the U.K., and the United States); disarmament
(working toward eventual, global nuclear disarmament); and peaceful use (protecting the right of nations to pursue peaceful
nuclear energy).

Lack of recent progress on the second pillar—nuclear
disarmament—has led to deep frustration among countries without nuclear weapons
and disillusionment about the continued credibility of the NPT.

The disarmament agenda has stalled, and the NPT regime is
under threat, which means that agreements among countries about how to manage
the dangers of nuclear weapons may be giving way, making the world less safe.
Meanwhile, we face many challenges: deteriorating U.S.-Russia relations and the
potential collapse of bilateral arms control; the divisions exacerbated by the
negotiation and adoption of a treaty
prohibiting nuclear weapons
(TPNW), in which all five nuclear-weapons
states and countries under the “nuclear umbrella” refused to participate (with
the exception of the Netherlands); the threat posed by North Korea’s nuclear
program; and concern about potential U.S. withdrawal from the Iran deal (JCPOA). 

Following on the heels of a 2015 NPT RevCon that was
considered a failure, another failed NPT RevCon in 2020 would be damaging to
the NPT regime. Preventing that outcome will be a significant challenge.

That’s why NTI has launched a new project, the Global
Enterprise to Strengthen Non-Proliferation and Disarmament. This project, which
will convene government representatives and experts, will facilitate
constructive dialogue in two areas: attempting to achieve short-term, concrete
progress within the NPT and contribute to a successful RevCon in 2020; and
rebuilding cooperation on a shared long-term goal of a nuclear-weapons free
world, examining enablers for, and barriers to, progress. .
For more detail on the project, see the Global Enterprise project page.

To kick off the project, NTI hosted a dinner in Geneva this
past Sunday, where 22 governments, including all five nuclear-weapons states,
and the United Nations were represented. The productive conversation showed
that most countries want to engage in constructive dialogue and are eager for
ideas to support a successful 2020 RevCon. Despite the challenges we see,
despite the pressure on the NPT, and despite the fact that the mountaintop
seems so far away, the NTI dinner gave me a spark of optimism that if we roll
up our sleeves and focus on our common interests and not our differences, we
can make progress.

As for an assessment of the 2018 PrepCom, it’s too early to
tell on Day 3 of the PrepCom, which takes place over two weeks. I can offer some
initial observations, in particular addressing questions I posed when I reported
from the 2017 PrepCom:

Since the 2017 PrepCom, the nuclear weapons prohibition
treaty has been adopted but not yet entered into force (it requires 50
ratifications to do so). So far, it appears that the prohibition treaty will not
cause disruption at the PrepCom—many of its supporters have made clear they do
not want the treaty to become a cause of conflict or to undermine the NPT. Supporters
continue to express frustrations about the slow progress of disarmament but don’t
appear to be rushing to exit the NPT in favor of the TPNW.

·Many countries are expressing concern about the
recently released U.S. Nuclear Posture Review (NPR). (My colleague Lynn Rusten detailed
her concerns about the NPR here.)
But many of the anticipated issues did not come to fruition. For instance, the
NPR did not rule out extending the New
START
treaty, did not renounce the goal of a world without nuclear weapons,
and did not preview a major expansion in the nuclear arsenal. In a side event
at the PrepCom, the U.S. government took time to explain and answer questions
about the NPR and U.S. nuclear policy, demonstrating transparency about its
nuclear program that was appreciated by some who attended.

North Korea has obviously been a hot topic as
well, especially in light of the upcoming Trump-Kim summit. Stay tuned on that
one.

Finally, as I write this, the Russian and Ukrainian
delegations are engaging in a spat about Russian actions in Ukraine. It
wouldn’t be a PrepCom without some fireworks, after all.

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