Cooperative Security, Arms Control and Disarmament By Alexander Kmentt  |  12 January, 2021

How Nuclear Dependent States Could Respond to the Entry into Force of the TPNW

Photo Credit: Nisa yeh

Since the dawn of the nuclear age in 1945, perceptions and strategic positions amongst States regarding nuclear weapons have always differed. The 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) has thrust these existing divisions to centre stage. The treaty is the result of an increasing emphasis placed by non-nuclear weapon States on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons and the persisting risks posed to all humanity by these weapons. The TPNW is also the consequence of concern about the absence of credible nuclear disarmament steps and actions to which all State parties to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) have committed themselves by consensus. Through the TPNW, supporting States take an unequivocal stance on the nuclear weapons issue: The humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons explosions are too grave, unacceptable, and potentially global, and the risks of nuclear weapons and the practice of nuclear deterrence postures are too high. Hence these weapons must be prohibited to prevent these contingencies and as a conceptual precondition allowing the world to move away from a nuclear weapons-based concept of security.  

Not surprisingly, the TPNW is heavily criticised by nuclear armed States who show no inclination to relinquish these weapons. The nuclear weapons debate, as led by these States over the past decades, is pre-conditioned and subordinated with the “need” to maintain nuclear deterrence; the value and the necessity of nuclear deterrence is posited and taken for granted. Thus far, any notion or initiative that questions the veracity of the assumptions on which nuclear deterrence is based is objected to as naïve or heretical and not considered on its merits. Breaking through the wall of the nuclear deterrence dogma has been impossible so far. This is demonstrated by the fact that since the first international conference in Oslo in 2013 that focused on the humanitarian consequences and risks of nuclear weapons, nuclear armed States have not been able or prepared to engage on the substantive arguments raised. As these arguments do indeed challenge the veracity of nuclear deterrence, the tactics of nuclear armed and nuclear dependent States have been to deflect, by criticising instead the idea of a ban and then the TPNW itself. 

The underlying rationale of the TPNW also puts the nuclear dependent States, those States that are under extended nuclear deterrence arrangements with nuclear armed States, into a difficult position. Nuclear dependent States find it more difficult to argue their professed support for nuclear disarmament while, at the same time, criticising the TPNW and defending the “necessity” of nuclear weapons and the nuclear status quo. As none of the nuclear armed States participated in the process leading up to the TPNW, such as the 2016 United Nations open-ended working group and the 2017 TPNW treaty negotiations, it was left to the nuclear dependent States to speak out at these meetings in favour of the security value of nuclear weapons and the need to keep them. As such, the TPNW has exposed a credibility issue for nuclear dependent States between supporting nuclear disarmament and multilateralism more broadly, at the same time as acquiescing to the current nuclear weapons and nuclear deterrence policies of military alliances, such as NATO, to which they belong. This situation is poised to become even more of a challenge as the entry into legal force of the TPNW will inevitably bring about a broader and more public discourse on the TPNW and its rationale in their own countries and, with it, mounting civil society engagement. 

There are, however, steps that nuclear dependent States could take to acknowledge this challenge and to build a constructive bridge towards support of the TPNW. For example, nuclear dependent States could declare their understanding of the nuclear risks and the threat perceptions faced by the vast majority of non-nuclear weapon States because of current nuclear deterrence policies. They could declare that they too wish to move away from a nuclear deterrence-based security architecture and understand that this is not a sustainable security policy in the long run. While nuclear dependent States may think that they cannot sign the TPNW right now for political reasons, reducing their reliance on and moving away from nuclear deterrence and replacing it with other forms of deterrence could be formulated as a clear policy goal and an urgent priority. Nuclear dependent States could, individually or collectively, set such a political objective, opening the door for a more constructive dialogue on the sustainability of nuclear deterrence, one in which the humanitarian consequences and risks of nuclear weapons for all humanity would be weighed against their perceived security benefits. 

This broader and more inclusive discussion on nuclear weapons and collective security is needed and should be pursued at the international level at a pace and with a sense of importance commensurate with the global threat that nuclear weapons constitute.

In 2010, in its strategic concept, NATO stated that “as long as nuclear weapons exist, NATO will remain a nuclear alliance”. This is an often-cited quote to underscore NATO’s opposition to the TPNW. The logical corollary of this statement is, of course, that “nuclear weapons will exist as long as NATO remains a nuclear alliance”. However, the preceding sentence in NATO’s strategic concept “commits NATO to the goal of creating the conditions for a world without nuclear weapons”.  Arguably, initiating credible movement away from reliance on nuclear weapons and nuclear deterrence creates these conditions, probably more than anything else. Thus far, there has not been much movement among more pro-disarmament nuclear dependent States to initiate or engage in such a broad discussion on nuclear deterrence. This is in part for political reasons that go beyond the nuclear weapons issue, including the larger question of the future of the transatlantic alliance and US security guarantees. It remains to be seen whether, with different political circumstances in Washington and after the entry into force of the TPNW, some of the nuclear dependent States will see more of a possibility for engaging in such bridge-building efforts.

Alexander Kmentt is an Austrian career diplomat and the Director of the Disarmament, Arms Control and Non-proliferation in the Austrian Foreign Ministry. He has worked extensively on disarmament and non-proliferation issues and is one of the architects of the initiative on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons and the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). In 2019-20 he was on a sabbatical as a Senior Visiting Research Fellow at King’s College, London, after having served as Austrian Permanent Representative to the Political and Security Committee of the European Union since 2016. His book The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons: How it was achieved and why it matters will be published in Spring 2021 by Routledge Taylor & Francis Group.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Austrian Foreign Ministry.