Should we care that the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference that just wrapped up in New York was roundly criticized as "disappointing" and a "failure," and that Canada is on the receiving end of part of the blame? I'd say so, considering that observers of geopolitical war games have noted that we're in a particularly perilous place at the moment.
The NPT talks, also known by the funkier tag "RevCon," take place every five years to look at the progress made on the 45-year-old treaty, which is supposed to slow and ultimately halt the proliferation of nuclear arms. Ideally but not always, the talks end in a document that outlines future action toward disarmament, which 190 participating countries agree to sign.
Except, this time, the United States, Britain and Canada balked at signing the outcome document, largely because of an Egyptian-led provision to open negotiations on making the Middle East a nuclear-weapons-free zone. Israel, which has never admitted to its cache of nuclear weapons, publicly thanked Canada for not supporting the proposal.
This is a very complicated, high-stakes game of poker, which the public does not hear enough about. As The Economist put it, RevCon is "high both on obscure technical discussion, and on diplomatic grandstanding. … But without [the non-proliferation treaty] the world would be a more dangerous place."
If you listen to the people who keep a keen eye on nuclear tensions, the world is becoming a much more dangerous place. George Shultz, Ronald Reagan's secretary of state, who helped negotiate the historic 1987 Soviet-U.S. intermediate-range arms deal, writes in the introduction to a new book of essays, The War That Must Never Be Fought: "The world has lately taken a turn for the worse with one result being a rising threat of nuclear proliferation."
Russia is not just sabre-rattling – who cares about sabres these days? – but is making infinitely more ominous noises about actually increasing its nuclear arsenal, and raising the alert levels of the weapons it has. With tensions raised over the war in Ukraine, the U.S. and Russia are accusing each other of breaching that historic 1987 missile treaty. So much for the great hope of Barack Obama's 2009 speech in Prague, in which he pledged to fight for a nuclear-free world. So much for the promise of the 2011 New START Treaty, which was supposed to increase the speed of beating swords into ploughshares.
There is great interest in a possible deal to curtail Iran's nuclear ambitions, but less attention paid to the thousands of weapons already built and on "hair-trigger alert," ready to be deployed at an instant's notice. There are 1,880 of those (and thousands more waiting in the wings), according to the Global Zero report, written by General James Cartwright, former vice-chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, that was released last month. I do not recommend you read it before bedtime, considering that it contains passages such as this: "Warning and decision timelines are getting shorter, and consequently the potential for fateful human error in nuclear control systems is growing larger."
The good news is that the rest of the world is becoming fed up with the glacially slow pace of disarmament shown by the nine nuclear states (some of which are not even vaguely committed to reducing their stockpiles). As Paul Meyer, Canada's former disarmament ambassador, wrote in the wake of the most recent RevCon: "What is becoming clear is that the majority of non-nuclear-weapon states party to the NPT are no longer willing to give the benefit of the doubt to the nuclear-weapon states and their version of the way forward on nuclear disarmament."
That frustration is bound to take different directions. For example, the tiny Marshall Islands, where the U.S. tested 67 above-ground bombs between 1946 and 1958, is suing the nine nuclear states in international courts for failing to disarm.
Less symbolic and more hopeful is the disarmament pledge undertaken by more than 100 countries since December's conference on the humanitarian effects of nuclear weapons in Vienna. The so-called humanitarian pledge recognizes the "risk of nuclear weapons use with their unacceptable consequences can only be avoided when all nuclear weapons have been eliminated." None of the nuclear-weapons states has signed the pledge. Neither has Canada.