A challenging year ahead for nuclear disarmament

March 26, 2024

By Cesar Jaramillo

Published in The Ploughshares Monitor Spring 2024

Anyone hoping to see progress on nuclear disarmament in 2024 will need to temper expectations. In an era marked by heightened geopolitical tensions, rapid technological advancements, increasing military spending, and major overlapping conflicts – some involving nuclear-weapon states – the pursuit of nuclear disarmament faces formidable challenges. This remains true, even as we live under the real threat of nuclear conflict.

The Doomsday Clock set by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists remains at 90 seconds to midnight, the closest it has ever been to Armageddon. It serves to remind us of the urgent need for nuclear disarmament. But the road to that goal is rife with obstacles. Here are three.

1. Heightened nuclear weapons risk in the Ukraine conflict

Key stakeholders in the Ukraine conflict – Russia, the United States, and NATO members France and the United Kingdom – possess most of the world’s nuclear arsenal. All claim to adhere to the doctrine of nuclear deterrence, which posits that the possession of nuclear weapons can prevent conflict by deterring adversaries.

In fact, these states believe that the use of nuclear weapons could be justified under certain circumstances.

Now Russia is making reckless threats to use nuclear weapons in its current conflict with Ukraine, which it frames as an existential struggle with the West. A significant defeat in a conventional battle could create a justification for Russia to use nuclear weapons.

Is the international community willing to risk certain catastrophe if Russia or any nuclear-armed state decides to deploy nuclear weapons?

Russia does not have a nuclear No-First-Use policy. Indeed, its nuclear doctrine includes conditions under which it would use nuclear weapons in response to conventional attacks.

2. The nexus between AI and nuclear weapons

Rapid technological advancements, particularly those with military applications, such as artificial intelligence (AI), present another significant challenge to nuclear disarmament efforts. Some of this new tech could make nuclear systems more vulnerable to attack or provoke the use of nuclear weapons in self-defence. And, while it might be argued that AI-driven technologies promise enhanced efficiency and precision in targeting, they also introduce new complexities and uncertainties, which could raise fears, also encouraging the use of nuclear weapons.

AI could, for instance, disrupt traditional command-and-control structures. As AI systems become increasingly autonomous, there is a risk that they could misinterpret signals or escalate conflicts beyond human control. AI-driven cyber capabilities could target nuclear infrastructure and command systems, undermining confidence in the security and reliability of nuclear arsenals, and lead to destabilizing escalatory responses.

AI-enabled disinformation campaigns and cyber manipulation tactics could exacerbate tensions and inflame existing conflicts, increasing the risk of nuclear brinkmanship.

3. A weakened NPT

The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) has failed to deliver on – or even make progress toward – the objective of nuclear abolition. Two successive NPT review cycles, which concluded with Review Conferences in 2015 and 2022, have failed to produce even a consensus outcome document.

Still, most stakeholders seem to agree that the NPT remains the centrepiece of the global nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation regime. Nuclear-armed member states support it, perhaps because it provides a forum in which, thus far, they have been able to shape the official narrative.

This summer in Geneva, the first of the next set of NPT Preparatory Committee meetings leading to the 2026 NPT Review Conference will be held. But more and more stakeholders question if this regime presents a viable path to nuclear abolition.  

Recently 69 states – the total membership of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) and all parties to the NPT – went on record to declare that nuclear-armed NPT member states the United States, the Russian Federation, China, France, and the United Kingdom are in breach of their legal obligations under the NPT. This extraordinary consensus was articulated in the declaration of the Second Meeting of States Parties to the TPNW, held at the United Nations in New York from November 27 to December 1, 2023.

The NPT’s Article VI outlines obligations for nuclear-weapon states (NWS) to pursue disarmament in good faith. Yet, according to Article 24 of the TPNW declaration, the behaviour of NWS “unquestionably” represents “a failure to meet their legally binding obligations under Article VI of the NPT.” It goes on to declare that in the period since the First Meeting of States Parties to the TPNW, “none of the Nuclear-Weapon States have made progress in accordance with Article VI of the NPT and in their unequivocal undertaking to accomplish the elimination of their nuclear weapons.”

Article 24 serves as a groundbreaking indictment of NWS and underscores the growing determination of non-nuclear-armed states to demand concrete and demonstrable action toward nuclear abolition. Yet the divide between TPNW supporters and NWS remains deep.

The big question

Is the international community willing to risk certain catastrophe if Russia or any nuclear-armed state decides to deploy nuclear weapons? Surely the current threat of nuclear escalation underscores the urgent need for diplomatic efforts to mitigate such a risk.

The obstacles discussed – and others – reveal a pressing need for enhanced dialogue to address the escalating risks that nuclear weapons will be employed. At a minimum, effort must be exerted to enhance nuclear security to mitigate the risks of unintended escalation and to preserve global peace and stability.

See also An indictment of non-compliance: States Parties to the TPNW accuse nuclear-weapon states of legal breach.

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