A security framework for nuclear abolition

June 6, 2022

Published in The Ploughshares Monitor Volume 43 Issue 2 Summer 2022

Imagine that the international community has just eliminated nuclear weapons. That an auspicious combination of genuine political will, good-faith diplomatic engagement, and effective leadership has resulted in comprehensive and credible multilateral disarmament negotiations that made irreversible nuclear abolition a reality. You wake up to the news that the last remaining warhead has been dismantled. The era of nuclear weapons is over.

Now imagine that a book is being written to describe the process that made this outcome possible. It details how states navigated all the thorny, seemingly intractable political and security challenges – the same challenges that make some states today consider nuclear weapons essential to their security.

The book includes a detailed roadmap that explains how concrete solutions to specific problems were achieved. There is a chapter on “How Israel was persuaded to give up its nuclear weapons” and another on “The conditions under which the United States removed its nuclear weapons from the territories of other NATO member states.”

There is broad consensus that the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) has not delivered on the promise of nuclear disarmament. More than 50 years ago, it set out a legal framework for nuclear abolition, with a specific disarmament obligation under Article 6. However, nuclear-weapon states have thus far disregarded their obligation to “pursue negotiations in good faith” that lead to nuclear disarmament.

There is an urgent need for that kind of roadmap, however hypothetical at this point. Much of the current talk on nuclear disarmament focuses on big-picture mechanics, describing global processes and instruments. These are important efforts, no doubt. But they must be complemented by specific solutions that disentangle the concrete bilateral, regional, and international security dynamics that underpin the global nuclear order.

This recognition cannot be allowed to slide into a belief that achieving ideal international security conditions is a prerequisite for nuclear disarmament. Shifts in security arrangements can and must happen in parallel with concrete nuclear disarmament measures. A credible process leading to nuclear abolition requires attention – and demonstrable progress – on both fronts. Otherwise, it will remain a distant, ethereal objective.


There is broad consensus that the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) has not delivered on the promise of nuclear disarmament. More than 50 years ago, it set out a legal framework for nuclear abolition, with a specific disarmament obligation under Article 6. However, nuclear-weapon states have thus far disregarded their obligation to “pursue negotiations in good faith” that lead to nuclear disarmament. Many doubt that this treaty, as currently structured and implemented, will ever lead to complete nuclear disarmament.
But even if states were willing, “good faith” would not tell them how to plot their moves to nuclear disarmament. Nor would it provide ways to respond to current security dynamics that are seen by some as obstacles to such progress.

Consider, for instance, the Action Plan that was enthusiastically adopted at the 2010 NPT Review Conference. Action 1 calls on states to “pursue policies that are fully compatible with the Treaty and the objective of achieving a world without nuclear weapons.” But what does this mean in practice?

How can it be applied, say, to the security assurances that the United States gives to a Taiwan threatened by mainland China? To the pursuit of a Middle East zone free of nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction? To NATO’s collective security arrangements, founded on nuclear deterrence? To the nuclear sabre-rattling between India and Pakistan? To the security of South Korea, threatened by North Korea’s small yet increasingly sophisticated nuclear arsenal?


The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) entered into force in January 2020. By establishing an unambiguous ban on all dimensions of nuclear weapons – including their very possession – it constitutes a formidable victory for nuclear disarmament advocates.

A product of widespread frustration with the lack of progress toward nuclear disarmament and firmly founded on humanitarian considerations, the TPNW significantly strengthens the normative regime for nuclear abolition. Its effective implementation, which includes a scenario in which nuclear-weapon states and their allies join in good faith, will benefit from early and dedicated attention to the specific security contexts and relationships that will predictably be impacted.

A mantra in global nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation conversations has long been that there is an urgent need to formulate security arrangements that do not rely on the threat or use of nuclear weapons. So, what would those alternative security arrangements look like? As former U.S. statesmen Henry Kissinger, Sam Nunn, William Perry, and George Shultz argued in a 2007 op-ed for The Wall Street Journal, a world without nuclear weapons will not simply be today’s world minus nuclear weapons.

Security dynamics that impact national positions on nuclear disarmament must be addressed. Concerted thinking on effective approaches to address each situation is sorely needed. At a minimum, a basic recognition of the need for a security framework to complement existing legal and normative frameworks for abolition is critical.


A nuclear alliance

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has an overt policy of nuclear deterrence and allows its nuclear-armed members to make weapons available to other members. Several non-nuclear-weapon European states have on their territories nuclear weapons owned by the United States.

The fact that all NATO members are also States Parties to the NPT raises important questions about the extent to which they are complying with their obligations under the treaty. In Article 1, each State Party of the NPT with nuclear weapons “undertakes not to transfer to any recipient whatsoever nuclear weapons.” Article 2 requires “each non-nuclear weapon State Party to the Treaty” not to receive them.

Obviously, such sharing of nuclear weapons must end in any credible process to nuclear disarmament.

Nuclear-armed states outside the NPT

Four of the nine countries currently in possession of nuclear arsenals – India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea – are outside the NPT framework, with no process in place to bring them into the fold. It is unlikely that these countries would be accepted into the NPT regime as nuclear-weapon states; it is just as unlikely that they would agree to join the treaty as non-nuclear-weapon states.

It is hard to see how the NPT could be a realistic vehicle to zero nuclear weapons when almost half of the states with nuclear weapons are neither bound by its obligations nor restricted by the limits it sets.

The Middle East

A resolution of the 1995 NPT Review Conference that called for “practical steps” toward a zone in the Middle East free of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction (WMDFZ) was widely considered at the time to be critical for the indefinite extension of the NPT.

After years of negligible progress on this issue, in 2018 the UN General Assembly tasked the Secretary-General with convening a long-delayed conference on the Middle East WMDFZ no later than 2019. Two sessions have been held, one in 2019, a second in 2021. But not all required parties were at the table.

While there has been broad participation by states in the region as well as four of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (China, Russia, France, and the United Kingdom), two states known to be critical for the success of the process have refused to participate and missed both sessions: Israel and the United States.

The achievement of a Mideast zone free of weapons of mass destruction is a necessary and integral part of a process to free the world of nuclear weapons. Despite welcome efforts and good intentions, the absence of key players makes it a distant prospect.


Requiring separate analysis is the question of how to limit Iran’s ability to develop a nuclear weapons program.

The joint comprehensive plan of action (JCPOA) agreed to by Iran and the P5+1 (permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany) was a significant step in achieving a diplomatic solution to the volatile stalemate over Iran’s purported ambition to develop nuclear weapons. Although most experts believed that the agreement was robust and that Iran was complying with the terms, the United States withdrew unilaterally in 2018 and reinstated sanctions against Iran. The Iranian government then walked away from its own commitments under the deal.

With the unravelling of the JCPOA, the Iranian nuclear question remains unresolved.

North Korea

In recent years, North Korea has made very significant, well-documented progress in its nuclear weapons program, including advances in warheads and delivery systems that would enable an attack on the continental United States. It is too late to talk about “preventing” North Korea from becoming a nuclear-weapon state.

At the same time, it is unlikely that the international community’s current approach – sanctions + sabre rattling – will put a halt to North Korea’s nuclear ambitions in the foreseeable future. No credible plan is in motion that can reasonably be expected to result in a denuclearized Korean peninsula.

Still a rocky path ahead

The abolition of nuclear weapons requires disarmament provisions, verification mechanisms, and a timeline for implementation. These mechanics do not exist in a vacuum and cannot be operationalized without due consideration of relevant security dynamics and contexts, many of which point to issues that require effective resolution.

While it is beneficial, indeed constructive, for the nuclear abolition enterprise to focus on progress achieved, it is also critical to pay attention to areas in which progress has not been made.

Some obstacles, unresolved issues, and security relationships are so entrenched that they threaten to derail nuclear disarmament efforts. They serve to compound the magnitude and complexity of the nuclear disarmament problem and so must be confronted and effectively addressed. To succeed in this, imagination is certainly needed.

Photo: Protests were held outside the U.S. Embassy in Tehran after the United States withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in May 2018. By Tasnim News Agency, CC BY 4.0

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