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Can the NPT fulfill its promise to eliminate nuclear weapons?

Latin American countries will push again for nuclear disarmament at this month’s review conference

Russia's nuclear-powered Severodvinsk submarine outside St. Petersburg on July 30. (Dmitri Lovetsky/AP)
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The United Nations kicks off the 10th Review Conference of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) on Monday, gathering 191 treaty members in New York. It’s an NPT review that typically takes place every five years, though the pandemic pushed the date back two years.

What’s on this year’s agenda? The NPT and its advocates have largely been successful in preventing nuclear proliferation over the past five decades. However, my research explains the growing frustration some countries feel toward what they see as the slow pace of nuclear disarmament.

The nuclear powers proclaimed their commitment to disarmament in January, yet the United States, Russia and China continue to pursue ambitious nuclear modernization strategies. And the Russian invasion of Ukraine has only boosted fears of a possible use of nuclear weapons.

In this context, nuclear powers will face substantial disarmament demands. Mexico and other Latin American countries will use this review conference (RevCon) to ask, again, for nuclear powers’ commitment to nuclear disarmament. They’ll push for the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons, legally binding negative security assurances and a treaty banning the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons.

The pace of disarmament is frustrating

Latin America advocated for eliminating nuclear weapons during the original NPT negotiations in the 1960s. Nuclear powers at the time expressed their opposition to total nuclear disarmament. Academics and policymakers alike argued that nuclear deterrence prevented conflict. They maintained that a certain amount of nuclear arms was necessary to ensure Cold War stability.

In response, Brazil and other countries argued that the NPT would become a “neo-colonial” tool without bold disarmament objectives. Most Latin American governments advocated for a less ambitious goal. They accepted nonproliferation obligations in exchange for nuclear powers’ commitment to reducing their nuclear arsenals over time. This compromise became Article 6 of the NPT.

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But Latin American governments believe nuclear powers have emphasized preventing nuclear proliferation to other countries, rather than reducing their own arsenals. And disarmament advocates have become increasingly frustrated. As a result, during the last RevCon, in 2015, NPT members didn’t agree on a final declaration because of divergent disarmament objectives — just as they failed in the 1980, 1990, 1995 and 2005 conferences.

Nuclear powers will face increasing disarmament demands during the RevCon. If consensus falls apart yet again, doubts will rise about the viability of the NPT regime.

What do Latin American countries want?

Latin American delegates will insist that the RevCon participants pay equal attention to nuclear nonproliferation and nuclear disarmament. These countries see these two policies as necessary tools to promote international security. These are the main goals that they will focus on.

1. Banning nuclear weapons

Latin American governments see the NPT as the cornerstone of the global nuclear order. However, they have looked for alternative disarmament mechanisms, given the slow progress on disarmament among nuclear powers. Most Latin American countries support the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, commonly known as the Ban Treaty, which entered into force in January 2021.

Latin American leaders will use the momentum generated by the Ban Treaty to demand more ambitious disarmament goals. It helps that the RevCon will take place so soon after the members of the Ban Treaty gathered in Vienna in June — a meeting that energized disarmament proponents.

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2. Alternative security strategies

Latin American governments have pointed out the dangers of prioritizing nuclear arsenals in national security strategies. In their campaigns to rally support for the Ban Treaty, most Latin American countries emphasize the humanitarian and environmental consequences of nuclear weapon detonations. They have announced no change in their disarmament demands in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Governments in the region have expressed growing anxiety about the United States, Russia and China expanding and modernizing their nuclear arsenals. These dynamics make Latin American officials think that nuclear powers are backtracking and conditioning their disarmament progress on having more effective nuclear arsenals.

3. Denuclearizing the Middle East

Latin American governments created the first nuclear-weapon-free zone in a densely populated area in 1967. They forged regional compromises by bracketing out controversial issues — like banning maritime nuclear transit — to deal with in a separate negotiation.

Since then, Latin American governments have supported the creation of similar zones in other regions to gradually disarm the world. Latin American officials have favored creating a Middle Eastern nuclear-weapon-free zone to guarantee nonproliferation and disarmament since the proposal first emerged at the 1995 RevCon.

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The Conference on the Establishment of a Middle East Zone Free of Nuclear Weapons and Other Weapons of Mass Destruction took place at the United Nations in November 2021. Latin American diplomats recognize that some Middle Eastern countries might not join this effort at first. Still, they hope to encourage debates during the RevCon to lay the groundwork for good-faith negotiations to disarm the region.

Latin American governments can draw on their own experience in creating a successful nuclear-weapons-free zone. In the November meeting, for instance, the Egyptian delegate reminded participants that ratifying nations don’t have to be part of a regional zone from the outset. For example, Argentina, Chile and Brazil did not fully join the Latin American zone until 1994, decades after the treaty creating this mechanism opened for signatures.

Will this year’s RevCon bring consensus?

Nuclear and nonnuclear powers can use the 10th RevCon to find common ground and “pursue negotiations in good faith” about nuclear disarmament, following their commitments in Article 6 of the NPT. The meeting in August could be an opportunity to lay some groundwork to establish a balance between nuclear nonproliferation and nuclear disarmament — and strengthen the NPT as the cornerstone of the global nuclear order.

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J. Luis Rodriguez (@luisrodaquino) is a Stanton Nuclear Security Postdoctoral Fellow in the Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC) at Stanford University. His research focuses on how the Global South builds and maintains limits on the use of force.