As the 2021 edition of the Nuclear Weapons Ban Monitor was being prepared for print in March 2022, Russia had launched a devastating invasion of Ukraine only to meet fierce resistance. In order to try and deter direct NATO military involvement in the conflict, President Vladimir Putin had issued threats to use nuclear weapons and ordered Russian nuclear forces to be placed in a ‘special regime of combat duty’, raising the risk of deliberate or inadvertent escalation to nuclear war. The war in Ukraine is yet another stark reminder of the profound dangers of living in a world in which powerful states insist their security must rest on capacity for massive and indiscriminate nuclear violence. We have ended up trusting to luck rather than the supposed stabilizing effects of nuclear deterrence.
Only weeks earlier, on 3 January 2022, the five permanent — and nuclear-armed — members of the United Nations Security Council (P5) issued a restatement of the Reagan-Gorbachev declaration that a nuclear war ‘cannot be won and must never be fought’. Yet, their reliance on nuclear deterrence means these very same states are continuously preparing to fight, and try and win, nuclear wars. The year 2021 also saw deepening confrontation not only between Russia and the United States and its allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), but also between China and the United States and its allies in Asia and Europe. In addition, there were rising tensions between China and another nuclear-armed state, India. The year was peppered with military preparations for armed conflict, in Ukraine and other hotspots such as Taiwan and Ladakh. The shadow of nuclear violence hangs over all of these conflicts because they create plausible pathways for escalation in which control of a crisis could slip away from political and military leaderships.
Even before the war in Ukraine, the broader geopolitical context for the TPNW was deep uncertainty about the direction of world politics and the rules and institutions of global order, including the ‘nuclear order’ – the system of institutions and rules that determines who can do what with nuclear technologies. Decades of work to build a nuclear arms control regime have been unpicked, and quantitative and qualitative vertical proliferation by nuclear-armed states is ongoing. Moreover, the ways in which cyber warfare, advanced missile defences, and an artificial intelligence (AI) revolution could enhance the possibility of nuclear violence — in Ukraine and future confrontations — have added to a sense of nuclear disorder.
These dynamics were, for a time, moderated somewhat by the change in approach by the incoming United States (US) administration in January 2021, which led to the extension of the New START treaty with Russia until February 2026, along with the resumption of a strategic dialogue with Russia. Other promising signs were a proposed dialogue with China and an effort to re-engage with Iran on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The strategic dialogue with Russia was abruptly interrupted by the Russian aggression against Ukraine.
Embedding the TPNW in 2021
The entry into force of the TPNW on 22 January 2021 as binding international law was an important step in the process of establishing the authority of the Treaty and its norms and rules. Work on further embedding the TPNW in global politics centred on preparing for the Treaty’s First Meeting of States Parties in 2022 and furthering implementation of its core prohibitions and obligations. This involved research and outreach on specific Treaty issues, such as pathways to nuclear disarmament; verification of compliance with the Treaty; implementation of the positive obligations to address harms from nuclear-weapons use and testing; institutional design and support for the TPNW; and universalizing the Treaty. A large number of statements and resolutions supported the Treaty and the humanitarian initiative at the 76th session of the United Nations (UN) General Assembly. In addition, a number of working papers were submitted in preparation for the Tenth Review Conference of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 2022 that urged support for the TPNW and for the positioning of the humanitarian consequences of nuclear violence at the centre of NPT diplomacy.
The UN also played a positive role through its support for the Treaty in 2021. Thus, Secretary-General António Guterres declared in his report, Our Common Agenda, that: ‘The entry into force of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in January 2021 was an extraordinary achievement and a step towards the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons.’ In September 2021, the UN Secretary-General called on ‘all States to support the Treaty’s goals and recognize its place in the global disarmament architecture’. He also urged states to ‘reject the poisonous and flawed logic of endless nuclear competition’.
States and civil society actors continued to use the Treaty’s entry into force to urge states supportive of the TPNW to sign and ratify it. Campaigners mobilized local authorities and city councils to pass resolutions and legislation in support of the TPNW in nuclear-armed states and their clients. They successfully used the Treaty to motivate banks and other financial institutions to divest from companies that support the production of nuclear-weapons systems, and they have used it to gather support from a global community of parliamentarians. At a local level, this has extended to towns and cities formally declaring themselves ‘non-nuclear’ through the Mayors for Peace organization and ICAN’s Cities Appeal. As of the end of 2021, a total of 8,059 towns and cities across 165 countries and regions had joined Mayors for Peace and signed up to its programme for the total abolition of nuclear weapons. In addition, more than 520 cities and local and regional authorities had subscribed to ICAN’s Cities Appeal in support of the TPNW. They include Barcelona, Berlin, Geneva, Hiroshima, Los Angeles, Manchester, New York, Oslo, Paris, Sydney, Toronto, and Washington D.C.
Counter-resistance to the TPNW
Critics of the TPNW continued to frame it as a source rather than a symptom of polarization in global nuclear politics. When analysts and diplomats characterize the debate as polarized, what they mean is that nuclear deterrence has become more contested, as a consequence of greater diversity and inclusivity in the debate that has been enabled by the humanitarian initiative and the TPNW. After previously having failed to stop the negotiation, adoption, and entry into force of the TPNW, some nuclear- armed states and umbrella states continued in 2021 to subject the TPNW to sustained counter-resistance. P5 unity against the TPNW once again illustrated their shared commitment to nuclear deterrence as a system of security within which they can continue to threaten each other and threaten to destabilize the system as a whole. They continued to reject the TPNW on the basis that it will not create a world in which they might feel comfortable enough to relinquish their nuclear weapons.
NATO and the P5 pressured their allies and other countries not to support the TPNW or attend its First Meeting of States Parties. The North Atlantic Council’s Brussels Summit reiterated its opposition to the Treaty in June 2021. NATO’s Nuclear Planning Group also reportedly discussed the TPNW and NATO members’ responses to it at its defence ministers meeting in Brussels in October 2021. The P5 delivered a joint statement at the UN General Assembly’s First Committee in October 2021, calling on ‘all countries that support or are considering supporting the TPNW to reflect seriously on its implications for international peace and security.’ There has, of course, been no lack of serious reflection by TPNW supporters as to the implications of the Treaty. Rather, they reject nuclear deterrence on the basis that it is an inherently unstable system which constitutes the greatest immediate threat to peace, security, and humanity.
A role for the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has also been politicized. Ambassador Bonnie Jenkins, the US Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, reported after a meeting in September 2021 with Rafael Grossi, the IAEA’s Director General, that the United States is ‘opposed to any IAEA role in the TPNW’. The IAEA is mandated to conduct its activities ‘in conformity with policies of the United Nations furthering the establishment of safeguarded worldwide disarmament and in conformity with any international agreements entered into pursuant to such policies’. (See Art. III(B)(1), 1956 IAEA Statutes.) Thus, UN member states that are party to the TPNW — a Treaty negotiated under UN auspices — have a right to expect the IAEA to engage with the TPNW and advise on nuclear disarmament verification issues, including at the First Meeting of States Parties to the Treaty. Opposition to such a role undermines the universalization of IAEA Comprehensive Safeguards Agreements and Additional protocols under both the NPT and the TPNW.
Navigating the TPNW
Despite continued opposition to the Treaty from nuclear- armed states and their clients, there has been some toning down of criticism since the TPNW’s entry into force in January 2021. For example, in September 2021, Ambassador Jenkins also stated that the United States was no longer telling countries not to sign the Treaty, and that ‘we’re not nearly as assertive as we were in the past about it’. In October 2021, Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov was also reported to have stated that Moscow will not pressure other states to stay away from the TPNW’s First Meeting of States Parties. Finally, in contrast to other actors’ claims about the dangers supposedly posed by the TPNW, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken merely noted in December 2021 that ‘we don’t for a minute question the motivations of TPNW supporters, but we simply don’t believe that the treaty will aid in actually meeting the objectives that we share’.
During the course of the year, political initiatives by coalitions of states were further developed to navigate the politics of the TPNW, the NPT, and the nuclear-armed states. In preparation for the NPT Review Conference, initiatives like the Stockholm Initiative have focused on recommitments to previously agreed but unfulfilled disarmament steps and risk reduction measures by the P5. However, it was the lack of progress on these issues (such as de-alerting, further reductions, no-first use, support for NWFZs, and negative security assurances) that prompted work on alternative ways forward after the 2005 NPT Review Conference by reframing the debate around humanitarian consequences, which then generated the TPNW. In some respects, the risk reduction agenda that gathered momentum in 2021 is therefore coming full circle to where the world was in the 2005–10 NPT review cycle. The danger is that approaches such as these are reduced to asking the P5 to say certain things (such as the joint statement that a nuclear war cannot be won and should never be fought) rather than actually take concrete actions towards disarmament. This limits engagement with nuclear-armed states to those issues with which they are comfortable and ends up leaving nuclear disarmament diplomacy exactly where it is.
The nuclear-armed states and their clients all have a longstanding, declared commitment to the objective of nuclear disarmament and the vision of a world without nuclear weapons. (The five nuclear-weapon states designated under the NPT (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) have agreed to an ‘unequivocal undertaking’ to accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals leading to nuclear disarmament, consonant with their obligations under Article VI of the NPT. Of the four other nuclear-armed states (all States not party to the NPT), India and Pakistan have longstanding and frequently referenced policies in favour of global nuclear disarmament, formulated in similar terms to those of the NPT nuclear-weapon states. (See, e.g., https://bit.ly/3kNGBzG and https://bit.ly/36OHhzU). North Korea intermittently expresses support for a nuclear-weapon-free world and joins statements and policy documents of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) that call for nuclear disarmament. (See, e.g., https://bit.ly/3fgKR9P). Israel too is on record as supporting nuclear disarmament, although it does so in abstract terms since it does not officially acknowledge its own possession of nuclear weapons. (See, e.g., https://bit.ly/333LKOa). However, not only do the nuclear-armed states reject the idea that the TPNW represents an effective and necessary step towards that goal, but also the idea that nuclear weapons can be eliminated. The argument is that nuclear weapons cannot be ‘uninvented’ and that since revolutionary change in global politics looks unlikely, the weapons are here to stay, whether we like it or not. Moreover, the weapons are framed as the solution to the security dilemmas the weapons themselves produce. Nuclear deterrence is depicted as necessary and rational while alternative views are derided as unrealistic or dangerous.
The TPNW was a product of profound concern about this de facto permanence of nuclear weapons in world politics. The Treaty reflects a different view, insisting that nuclear weapons can be eliminated from world politics without a wholesale transformation of the current system of states, following the processes by which chemical and biological weapons have been stigmatized, prohibited, and largely eliminated. In doing so, the Treaty explicitly challenges the legitimacy of nuclear weapons and nuclear deterrence. If a nuclear-armed state genuinely wanted to pursue balanced, mutual nuclear disarmament then it could and should engage constructively with the TPNW and declare that it would be willing to adhere to the Treaty and disarm if its nuclear-armed competitors also do so. At present, however, their focus remains on maintaining nuclear weapons in order to exert nuclear deterrent threats and thereby produce ‘national security’.
The TPNW asks nuclear-armed states and umbrella states to end their inconsistent stances and choose: nuclear weapons, yes or no. While they are all still opting for the continuance of nuclear weapons, the TPNW has prompted political debate in several umbrella states. This culminated in 2021 in decisions in NATO member states Norway and Germany to attend the TPNW’s First Meeting of States Parties as observers, despite strong pressure from within the alliance not to do so. The new governments elected in Norway and Germany in 2021 found themselves as targets of a familiar narrative of danger, immaturity, and naivety for engaging with the TPNW. The Treaty was crudely caricatured in terms of zero-sum geopolitics in which participation in the TPNW is a loss for NATO and a win for Russia and China.
Supporting the Norwegian government’s decision, two former Norwegian prime ministers, Kjell Magne Bondevik and Thorbjørn Jagland, said in November 2021 that doublethink where nuclear weapons are deemed ‘unwanted’ and ‘indispensable‘ at the same time is causing the stalemate in nuclear disarmament. They argued: ‘We can and should start the work to reduce the value ascribed to nuclear weapons and instead stigmatize them, also while allied states still possess them,’ advising NATO to open ‘discussion on whether nuclear deterrence creates more risk than security, if the alliance is really doing all in its power to enable negotiations on disarmament, and how the TPNW can be integrated in NATO’s disarmament strategy.’
It can be expected that several non-nuclear-armed members of NATO will grow increasingly uncomfortable with the fact that the real reason for their nuclear-armed allies’ resistance to the TPNW is that it is making the dissonance between a continuing commitment to nuclear deterrence on the one hand, and a commitment to nuclear disarmament on the other, untenable.
In sum, the TPNW gained in relevance for the global politics of nuclear weapons in 2021, despite ongoing resistance to the Treaty and the possibilities for nuclear disarmament that it represents. More broadly, the TPNW stands as a multilateral response to a systemic existential danger. It confronts powerful structures that support a dangerous and unsustainable status quo, paralleling the movement to mitigate the global ecological crises of climate heating, collapsing biodiversity, and widespread chemical pollution forcefully highlighted at the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow in November 2021.22 Both of these global initiatives ultimately seek a fundamental reconception of how powerful and adversarial states relate to each other on questions of military and ecological violence and the necessity (still) of shifting how we think about security from the state to the human community and the planet we all inhabit.