One Minute Closer to Midnight: A Return to Nonproliferation and Arms Control

CSPS Fellow Ayah Abdul-Samad argues that the Biden administration will have opportunities to bolster nuclear nonproliferation.

The issues of nonproliferation and arms control remain prevalent in the international security field and fundamental to the incoming administration’s foreign policy strategy. More specifically, highlighting the role and importance of existing multilateral agreements would reaffirm the United States’ continued cooperation with the international system in supporting a nuclear disarmament policy. Through President-Elect Joe Biden’s commitment in adhering to the following three primary issues: support for the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty, and noncompliance in ongoing international agreements by member-states, the future Biden administration could potentially focus on related secondary issues that would further bolster nonproliferation as a whole.

The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) Review Conference

With the upcoming NPT review conference in April 2021, Biden’s active participation in the conference would reaffirm the treaty’s role as the leading disarmament agreement for nuclear stockpiles and clearly signal the United States’ dedication to implementing and adhering to nonproliferation policies, ensuring member-state cooperation, and gaining potential support from non-member-states. Since the NPT has reduced the nuclear threat from potentially 20-30 states to only five legitimate programs, support of the NPT would highlight the US’ commitment to nuclear disarmament and compliance to international norms and agreements surrounding existing nuclear technology. Additionally, US participation in the NPT review conference would reinforce US policies that would eliminate the risk of future nuclear weapons use and distance the US from current potentially risk-inducing policies of the Trump administration.

With Biden taking a crucial first step in acknowledging a more practical look at the role of nuclear weapons within the international system, major players should follow suit in adherence to the NPT and like-minded agreements. Greater collective support of arms control would also minimize risks associated with proliferation outliers, such as North Korea and Iran. The continuation of a multilateral agreement on nuclear disarmament reinforces existing international restrictions and norms regarding nonproliferation and ensures that states seeking illicit or unauthorized weapons programs are not internationally accepted.

Ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT)

Ratification of the CTBT would highlight Biden’s commitment to the eradication of risks posed by testing weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) and lead to a potential secondary action that Biden should implement: the elimination of the Trump administration’s initiative on the creation of low-yield tactical nuclear weapons and a refocus to maintenance of existing nuclear technology. Such an endeavor would retain the deterrence desired for diplomacy with Russia and similar states, while ensuring the current nuclear stockpile is maintained in a safe and secure manner. The Trump administration has cited the added benefit of tactical weapons to deterrence, the increase in threshold for the use of such weapons, and enhanced flexibility of a US military response to threats on US national security. However, the creation of such weapons presents a challenge in which the US would embark on research, development, production, and testing of nuclear weapons — violating established international norms and resulting in possible escalatory rhetoric and action from states like North Korea and Iran. Nuclear weapons testing creates a precedent for testing in the modern era and opens the door for other nuclear-capable states in similar pursuits. CTBT ratification would ultimately aid in ending the Trump program for tactical nuclear weapons and eliminate risks of reimplementation of the program.

Noncompliance Issues and WMD Uses by Member-States

The international system continues to face risks due to noncompliance with international nonproliferation and arms control agreements by member-states and continued uses of WMDs by non-member-states. Violators of the NPT, Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), or Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) have continually ignored international protocol and faced little repercussions for their actions, despite condemnation from a majority of the international community. Such violations include Syrian chemical weapons uses of nearly a decade, Russia’s use of chemical weapons against political adversaries, and the pursuit of illicit nuclear weapon ambitions by rogue states. Chemical weapons violations by Syria have been investigated and attributed by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and the United Nations; however, the US has failed to take decisive action. Since the Obama administration’s declaration of a ‘red line’ regarding chemical weapons use, and the Trump administration’s continuation of a weak policy, Syria and like-minded states likely view using chemical weapons as a viable option with limited consequences from the international community. Similarly, Russia’s own use of chemical weapons has gone largely unpunished given their comfortable perch on the UN Security Council and despite membership in the CWC. Passive enforcement and a lack of retribution will encourage states to pursue illicit weapons programs, employ unsanctioned technology, and ignore international norms centered on nonproliferation.

While support of the NPT and CTBT would reaffirm Biden’s commitment to multilateral agreements on international disarmament, enforcing compliance on proliferation issues remains vital in international security. Responsible action by the US should include a treaty similar to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran, and potentially North Korea, and support of existing bilateral agreements like the New START with Russia. Ultimately, the Biden administration should focus on policies that would promote a positive relationship and strategic stability with states like Russia and China and that would support disarmament and nonproliferation amidst growing concerns over non-state actors and WMD-pursuant states.

Ayah Abdul-Samad is a third-year graduate student in the International Security master’s program and the Science, Technology, and Security certificate program at the Schar School of Policy and Government. She has a BA in International Affairs from Marquette University, with a concentration in Third World Studies and a minor in Arabic Studies. She has previously worked with the Syrian American Council in Chicago, and is currently a Global Intelligence Analyst with the World Bank. Ayah’s main research interests focus on Middle East security issues and CBRN proliferation in similar areas.

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