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Trying to nuke the threat of atomic warfare

February 24, 2020

With the nuclear threat seemingly growing, a nonproliferation treaty is being put to the test. Sixteen states hoping to strengthen the agreement held talks last year in Stockholm — now they are to meet again in Berlin.

A nuclear warhead
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/C. Riedel

Thirty years after the end of the Cold War, the thought of nuclear war is again sparking concern: The United States, Russia and China are modernizing their arsenals. Iran is enriching more uranium in response to the US withdrawing from a landmark nuclear deal. Meanwhile, North Korea is testing warheads and rockets in an attempt to scare off any number of potential enemies.

Many experts agree, the threat of nuclear war has grown. In order to change that, 16 countries are meeting this Tuesday in Berlin. At the invitation of German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, they are picking up talks that began last June in Stockholm.

Indirectly, the meeting is about what is considered the world's most important tool for stemming the nuclear threat: the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, or NPT. This agreement is revisited every five years. In two months, its 190 signatories will gather for four weeks of talks in New York.

In the run-up to this conference, Swedish diplomats have warned the "NPT community" not to "turn up empty-handed in 2020." To prevent that, Sweden launched the Stockholm Initiative to carve out joint proposals for the upcoming talks in New York.

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Preserving the balance of power

The NPT is a diplomatic attempt to freeze the nuclear balance of power in 1967 terms. Up to that point, five countries had developed nuclear weapons capabilities: The US, France, China, the United Kingdom and the then-Soviet Union. The agreement barred them from passing their technical know-how onto third countries. All other treaty signatories agreed not to develop their own nuclear weapons. In addition, all participating countries, including the five official nuclear powers, agreed to hold talks aimed at complete disarmament.

The NPT is binding under international law, and only a handful of countries have not signed it: South Asian neighbors India and Pakistan, for example, have been at odds over the Kashmir region since their independence in 1947, and use the threat of nuclear weapons as part of that bitter dispute. Each state had already been developing nuclear weapons before the NPT came into force in 1970. The same holds true for Israel — these three countries are unofficial nuclear powers outside the treaty. The only other nonsignatory state is South Sudan, which has had to face more urgent problems than developing its own nuclear weapons program since its independence in 2011.

North Korea, meanwhile, is a special case. The East Asian state announced its withdrawal from the NPT in 2003 in order to develop its own nuclear weapons. In January, Iran threatened to exit the treaty. Ever since the US unilaterally withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal, the signs from the Islamic Republic have been pointing toward potential nuclear weapons development.

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Two separate camps

The 16 states participating in the Stockholm Initiative are not all nuclear powers. Countries such as Sweden, New Zealand and Ethiopia have no nuclear weapons. Countries such as Canada, South Korea and Germany, meanwhile, maintain — as NATO members — a policy of expanded nuclear deterrence: They may not have their own nuclear weapons programs, but they practice so-called nuclear participation because they can incorporate nuclear weapons from NATO partners in missions without possessing them themselves.

In Germany, for example, the US military stations nuclear warheads at the Büchel Air Base in Rheinland-Palatinate. Thus, NATO countries have a different starting point in the upcoming talks than those that are completely nuclear weapons-free. The Parliamentarians for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament (PNND), a global network of lawmakers aiming to stop nuclear proliferation, has praised the Stockholm Initiative, saying it "could bridge the divide between nuclear and non-nuclear States."

Read more: Landmark INF nuclear arms treaty is history: What now?

The fear of nuclear weapons

Much to do in Berlin

Indeed, a number of concrete proposals were already developed in Stockholm that the Initiative's 16 participants want to bring to the conference in New York. For example, they want to increase the amount of advance warning that must be given before a nuclear weapon can be used on enemy territory.

The Stockholm Initiative also wants all nuclear powers to adhere to a "no first use policy" for nuclear weapons, and is hoping that the states at the New York conference will formally agree to the wording that "a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought."

After their initial meeting in Stockholm, the participants agreed their collective goal was "a world without nuclear weapons." Now they want to further refine those goals in Berlin, precisely so they do not show up to the nuclear nonproliferation conference in New York on April 27 empty-handed.

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