Nuclear policy at the G7: six key questions

Alicia Sanders-Zakre, Mayumi Fukushima, James J. Wirtz, Sidra Hamidi, Carolina Panico and Anne Sisson Runyan

International Affairs
International Affairs Blog
8 min readMay 17, 2023

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A floral display pictured ahead of the G7 Summit in Hiroshima, Japan on 17 May 2023.

This year’s G7 summit in Hiroshima sees nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation sitting high on the agenda, amid rising tensions between the nuclear states and an increasingly divided international order. In this blogpost we bring together researchers and practitioners working on nuclear weapons to discuss the key challenges facing disarmament and non-proliferation efforts. From the difficulties great power competition presents for nuclear non-proliferation and the concrete steps states can take towards disarmament, to the ongoing violent impacts of nuclear waste storage, the contributors to this symposium confront some of the central questions facing policy-makers working on nuclear issues.

What meaningful steps can the G7 take towards nuclear disarmament?

Alicia Sanders-Zakre: The G7 is meeting at a time of unprecedented nuclear risk in one of the cities that best understands the urgency of nuclear disarmament. The G7 is composed of three nuclear-armed states, two countries hosting US nuclear weapons and two others who accept nuclear use on their behalf. Action on nuclear disarmament by these countries is possible when there is political will. Lamenting the challenging security environment without proposing any concrete action to fulfil their own legal obligation to pursue disarmament, as the G7 foreign ministers did when they issued a communiqué in April, will not be enough. In June 2022, more than sixty countries adopted the first such action plan on nuclear disarmament in over a decade at the First Meeting of States Parties to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) — the Vienna Action Plan. When G7 leaders meet in May, they must follow the example of TPNW states parties and show the leadership needed to lower nuclear dangers. While in Hiroshima, G7 leaders must recognize the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons. As TPNW states parties declared in June 2022, G7 leaders too must condemn unequivocally all nuclear weapons threats. They must end nuclear stationing. And finally, they must join the TPNW — and present their plan to engage all nuclear-armed countries to disarm alongside them.

Alicia Sanders-Zakre is the Policy and Research Coordinator at the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons where she directs research on the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons and nuclear weapons policy.

How can the G7 address eroding confidence in contemporary nuclear institutions?

Mayumi Fukushima: The global nuclear order is under enormous strain as the return of great power politics has weakened the international institutions that are foundational to its stability. States face few consequences for seriously violating the legal provisions and norms of nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation. With Russia’s sabre-rattling and suspension of the new START treaty, China’s efforts to massively expand its nuclear arsenal, North Korea’s repeated missile launches, and Iran’s further advances toward nuclear weaponization, geopolitical competition repeatedly plays a central role. For Russia and China, their interests in undermining America’s influence in their respective regions are far more important than curbing nuclear proliferation, especially in states such as North Korea and Iran that are supportive of their mission.

Allowing Russia and China to act with impunity would encourage further violations and would increasingly erode confidence in relevant institutions, including the UN Security Council, on which nuclear institutions like the IAEA depend for law enforcement. Given current great power politics creates enormous challenges for these institutions, the G7 leaders should do more than just condemn violations or call for stronger adherence to existing treaties and sanctions regimes. They could suggest ways to rebuild trust not just in nuclear institutions but also in broader security organizations, including major reforms at the United Nations and more constructive diplomatic engagement with Russia (once the war in Ukraine has come to a close) and China.

Dr. Mayumi Fukushima is a research fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center and was formerly a Japanese career diplomat.

Her article, ‘Japan’s National Security Council: filling the whole of government?’ co written with Richard J. Samuels, was published in the July 2018 issue of International Affairs.

What challenges does the US face in nuclear non-proliferation discussions at the G7 and how should policy-makers respond?

James J. Wirtz: Today’s great power competition creates challenges across many dimensions of international relations, including ongoing efforts to slow or reverse nuclear proliferation. The war in Ukraine, which has produced a stream of nuclear threats from the Kremlin, and an undeniable nuclear build-up by the People’s Republic of China has increased both the threat of nuclear war and the salience of nuclear deterrence. The non-proliferation regime has withstood several challenges over the past thirty years, but a major conventional war in Europe, Moscow’s rhetoric and Beijing’s nuclear build-up have ended disarmament as the dominant trend in global nuclear matters.

The non-proliferation regime can do little to reverse Moscow or Beijing’s turn towards nuclear weapons; after all, it did little to cap the Cold War nuclear arms race. Nevertheless, policy-makers must recognize that states might re-assess their non-nuclear status, especially if the extended nuclear deterrent provided by the United States appears less credible in a tri-polar setting. Disarmament advocates tend to treat decisions to defer or abandon a nuclear programme as irreversible when they are in fact subject to re-evaluation as events warrant. Officials and publics alike must recognize that proliferation incentives are emerging. The non-proliferation regime might soon face some serious tests.

James J. Wirtz is a Professor of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey California.

His article, ‘Nuclear disarmament and the end of the chemical weapons “system of restraint”’ was published in the July 2019 issue of International Affairs.

Is it possible for the G7 states to revive a nuclear deal with Iran?

Sidra Hamidi: Possible — yes. Likely — no. The previous Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) relied on a convergence of many favourable factors : willing regimes in Washington and Tehran, key mutual benefits, and a relatively stable international environment. Current negotiators face the consequences of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and large-scale protests in Iran. In particular, the protests may incentivize G7 states to wait for regime change rather than working with hardliners who can leverage a nuclear deal to boost their domestic legitimacy.

Beyond circumstantial constraints, the current moment should also prompt an assessment of the original deal. The JCPOA represented more than just technical limitations on Iran’s nuclear program. It allowed Iran to resolve deep-seated anxieties around the recognition of its nuclear status and rights. Despite limiting its capabilities, the JCPOA buttressed Iran’s recognition in the global nuclear regime. Both hardliners, like the current leadership and negotiating team, and reformists, like those that negotiated the JCPOA, share a commitment to securing Iran’s ‘right’ to nuclear technology. This desire for recognition is distinct from nuclear capability. For the Iranians, the JCPOA recognized Iran’s right to nuclear technology, regardless of US statements to the contrary. A future deal hinges on capturing this dynamic.

Sidra Hamidi is an assistant professor of political science at Eckerd college.

Her article, ‘Constructing nuclear responsibility in US–India relations’ was published in the March 2023 issue of International Affairs.

What lessons can the G7 states take from negotiations on the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons?

Carolina Panico: The G7 Summit in Hiroshima provides a unique opportunity to reflect on challenges and opportunities for nuclear disarmament. I wish every world leader could hear the testimony of the Hibakusha (survivors of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki) and visit the Peace Memorial Museum. Their stories must not be forgotten and should inform discussions on nuclear weapons.

Reflecting on the successes of non-nuclear states in driving the adoption of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), there are two important lessons for those pursuing nuclear disarmament at the G7.

First, it is crucial to understand the role of gender in global nuclear politics. Paying attention to how dominant assumptions of the masculine and feminine shape global politics, as well as theorizing their reconstruction, is essential for grasping and seizing possibilities for policy innovation and change. Realizing a nuclear-free world requires understanding the structures of power and knowledge that render a nuclear world possible, and feminist thinking provides valuable analytical tools to foster such understanding. The incorporation of this analysis into more conventional assessments of nuclear politics enables a more holistic understanding of the world and its possible futures.

Second, focusing on humanitarian perspectives is vital for effectively pursuing nuclear disarmament and enhancing the impact of small and middle-power states. During the TPNW negotiations, humanitarian discourse played an important role in enabling small and middle-power states to increase their influence in the otherwise inaccessible world of nuclear politics. Their focus on the humanitarian dimension of nuclear weapons policy upended conventional thinking by challenging the dominant framing of powerful nuclear states as benevolent protectors and the rest of the world as in need of protection.

Carolina Panico is a doctoral candidate in Politics and International Relations at the University of Auckland, New Zealand.

Her article, ‘Challenging war traditions: humanitarian discourse and the nuclear prohibition treaty’ was published in the May 2023 issue of International Affairs.

What are the hidden costs of nuclear waste?

Anne Sisson Runyan: Irreparably contaminated bodies, lands, and waters, the dispossession of peoples and cultures, and the destruction of just relationships among people and between people and nature — these are among the enduring costs of the nuclear order. Indeed, this is often hidden by both proponents of nuclear ‘security’ and ‘clean’ nuclear energy as well as those that focus on apocalyptic visions of nuclear war and nuclear accidents alone. Resulting from the entire nuclear fuel chain, including uranium mining, nuclear weapons and power production, and nuclear testing, nuclear waste is the most invisible killer — invisible, that is, to those who do not bear the brunt of it.

Kept out of sight around nuclear sites often in remote areas, particularly on Indigenous lands, forever dangerous nuclear waste is now, via unproven technologies, to be buried or ‘reprocessed’, potentially producing more plutonium to expand the nuclear order. For Indigenous peoples, and particularly Indigenous women, who never consented to nuclear colonialism and the loss of national, cultural, and bodily sovereignty as well as the environmental destruction, racism, and heterosexism attendant to it, ending the violent impacts of nuclear waste requires ending the order that produces it.

Anne Sisson Runyan is a Professor in the School of Public and International Affairs and a Taft Research Center Fellow at the University of Cincinnati.

Her article, ‘Indigenous women’s resistances at the start and end of the nuclear fuel chain’ was published in the July 2022 Issue of International Affairs.

For more information on nuclear politics read the International Affairs reading list on The nuclear issue and July 2022 edition titled ‘Feminist interrogations of global nuclear politics’.

All views expressed are individual not institutional.

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