Nuclear weapon test Bravo (yield 15 Mt) on Bikini Atoll | Foto: United States Department of Energy | Public Domain

How contestation can strengthen the nuclear non-proliferation regime

How robust is the Non-Proliferation Treaty which has recently come under severe attack? In a new article, Carmen Wunderlich and Harald Müller examine contestation within the nuclear nonproliferation regime. They argue that debate over international norms does not necessarily result in erosion, but may also strengthen international norms.


This post was originally published with Contemporary Security Policy Blog on Jan 18, 2018. It is based on Not lost in contestation: How norm entrepreneurs frame norm development in the nuclear nonproliferation regime, in: Contemporary Security Policy | the first 50 downloads are free


122 countries voted, last July, for the legal prohibition of nuclear weapons. Yet, the five official nuclear weapon states and their allies strongly oppose a nuclear ban. They argue that it might undermine the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The NPT is, after all, the cornerstone of the global nuclear non-proliferation regime.

With near universal membership, the NPT can be considered a success of global security governance. However, like all systems of norms, the regime has not been free from contestation; challenges to its normative structure have been a common feature. Yet, so far it has proven robust. Why this relative stability, and what about the future?

Multilateral treaty regimes like the NPT present complex compromises among actors with multiple interests and worldviews. Therefore, the regimes incorporate structural fault lines deriving from the main differences of interests and ideas manifest already during the negotiations. These fault lines spark continued processes of contestation which keep normative dynamics within the regime alive.

Norms are never carved in stone but subject to interpretation and change of meaning – triggered by intrinsic (non-compliance or internal disputes) as well as extrinsic events (technological developments or shocks like 9/11). Such disputes about normative meaning are the engine driving norm dynamics. They are instantiated by actors committed to preserve the status quo, to reform, or to revolutionize the regime.

Whether contestation leads to normative progress, or blockage or even decay ultimately depends on three factors: commitment by the powerful parties to appreciate the concerns of the many, the work of bridge-builders for compromises, and the construction of reciprocal gains from compliance by all.

Many disputes within the NPT relate to its inherent inequality: it distinguishes between nuclear weapon states (NWS) and non-nuclear weapon states (NNWS) which bear different rights and duties. These differences create opposite perspectives on the NPT, the way it operates, and how to improve its functioning. From these perspectives, different ways to understand the regime norms, their relative weight and their interrelations result, all structured by conflicting justice claims.

NWS justify their privileged status by their responsibilities for world order as permanent members of the UN Security Council: a status-related concept of justice. NNWS demand the elimination of the power difference which different NPT status implies: an equality-based concept of justice. In addition, developing countries claim preferred access to civilian nuclear energy as compensation for the past wrongs of colonial exploitation: compensatory and need-related concepts of justice.

What is called the NPT’s three interrelated “pillars” – nonproliferation, peaceful uses, and disarmament – installed as result of a “bargain” between the different groups of states, constitutes the regime’s fault lines, from which key patterns of contestation derive: the disarmament and the peaceful uses/nonproliferation disputes. Additionally, contestation results from disagreement on the relative weight of the “pillars” (are disarmament and peaceful uses as weighty as non-proliferation or even weightier?), the difference between states parties and non-NPT members, and procedural disputes. In all issue areas, contestation is related to the NPT’s inherent inequality.

Contestation consequences vary: disputes have repeatedly led to incremental norm improvement by specifying prescriptions and proscriptions, sharpening the nonproliferation tools, and widening the NPT agenda. If accompanied by a spirit of understanding and compromise, positive norm dynamics emerge.

But when norm contestation engenders an antagonistic feedback cycle that drives parties further apart, the regime community is shattered; blatant non-compliance might then meet insufficient response, parties turn to unilateralism and seek progress outside the procedures of the NPT. This may lead to norm erosion or even regime collapse. Such processes might arise when deeply emotionalized justice claims guide either side and make compromising difficult.

The origins of the Humanitarian Initiative and the failure of the 2015 RevCon on the Middle East suggest that this is most likely when parties get frustrated by a series of broken promises: The CTBT is still not in force, the FMCT is not even being negotiated, and there is no progress on the Middle East. Disregard by the powerful for the majority’s complaints betrays a lack of respect and recognition that drives negative emotions.

When such antagonistic contestation coalitions face each other over time, preventing all adaptation of the norm system to changing circumstances, the regime will look increasingly ineffective. Members may lose interest in membership. This stalemate motivates norm entrepreneurs (mostly of the “good citizen” type) willing to build bridges and to shape cross-cutting coalitions beyond the boundaries of the established groups, to explore and shape compromises. Their activities enhance the chances for consensus-building considerably.

Eventually, the NPT inequality problem can only be solved through a credible disarmament process, reciprocated by improved nonproliferation measures. Without satisfactory offers of civilian assistance and cooperation to the Global South by the North, regime efficiency will remain limited. The prospect of win-win results mitigates regime inequality and induces cooperation.

What does that tell us for the future of the NPT given the newly established nuclear ban treaty? For one, the ban treaty should not be regarded as competing with but rather as complementary to the NPT. Sure, a stronger wording would have been desirable. Yet, the humanitarian initiative is a direct result of ongoing contestation processes within the NPT, which resulted in frustration and anger of many NNWS with the slow pace of disarmament within the NPT.

By moving the issue beyond the NPT, the protagonists of the humanitarian initiative and the promoters of the ban treaty took a last resort, regained recognition for their demands and exerted considerable normative pressure on the NWS (and their allies). Furthermore, many ban advocates have been actors with a long-standing commitment for the NPT. That they went beyond the NPT does not mean they want to destroy it. It could rather be assumed that they keep their long-standing commitment for the NPT.

Carmen Wunderlich
Carmen Wunderlich ist wissenschaftliche Mitarbeiterin der HSFK im Programmbereich Internationale Sicherheit. Ihre Forschungsschwerpunkte sind globale Normdynamiken in der Kontrolle von Massenvernichtungswaffen sowie die Rüstungskontrollpolitik Irans.
Harald Müller
Harald Müller leitet an der HSFK die Forschungsgruppe „Nukleare Rüstungskontrolle“. Er war zwanzig Jahre geschäftsführendes Vorstandsmitglied und Leiter des Programmbereich I der HSFK und ist emeritierter Professor für Internationale Beziehungen an der Goethe-Universität Frankfurt am Main. Zu seinen Forschungsschwerpunkten gehören internationale Sicherheitspolitik, Rüstungskontrolle/Abrüstung/Nichtverbreitung, Nuklearwaffen, deutsche und amerikanische Außen- und Sicherheitspolitik sowie Theorien der internationalen Beziehungen.

Carmen Wunderlich

Carmen Wunderlich ist wissenschaftliche Mitarbeiterin der HSFK im Programmbereich Internationale Sicherheit. Ihre Forschungsschwerpunkte sind globale Normdynamiken in der Kontrolle von Massenvernichtungswaffen sowie die Rüstungskontrollpolitik Irans.

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