Can blockchain technology reduce nuclear tensions?
Researchers at the Centre for Science and Security Studies at King’s College London have been analysing „non-political“ solutions to the problem of nuclear disarmament.
The researchers‘ new report points out that the consolidated multilateral nuclear order around the United Nations Non-Proliferation Treaty, or NPT, has been constantly affected by problems of international cooperation, reinforced by the asymmetry between nuclear and non-nuclear states.
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The latter, known as NNWS, are signatories to the treaty, but insofar as they are not nuclear, their contribution to the fulfilment of the treaty’s obligations comes down to developing tools and processes that can help improve multilateral disarmament verification.
However, NNWS often lack the technical capacity to contribute significantly to such efforts, researchers say. These deficiencies ostensibly exacerbate the perception among both nuclear and non-nuclear states that the NPT is compromised by the lack of a robust multilateral nuclear disarmament verification process. In addition to this, the report adds, it remains difficult to build mutual confidence that all parties to the NPT will respect their non-proliferation commitments in practice.
This is where blockchain technology comes in, from the perspective of the report’s authors. Extrapolating from its initial observations, the report proposes that these „complex and interrelated challenges“ can be productively addressed using a technical and operational approach:
„How can [decision makers] promote multilateral verification of nuclear disarmament while ensuring that the highly sensitive data created in the process is managed in a secure and reliable manner?
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Adopting a data-sensitive and process-oriented approach is aligned with the report’s explicit priorities, based on the authors‘ observation that many of the active non-proliferation efforts in recent years have taken „a technical and operational rather than a political approach“. Here, the authors point to the International Association for the Verification of Nuclear Disarmament and the Quad initiative of Norway, Sweden, the United Kingdom and the United States.
Having asserted the importance of technical solutions, the researchers argue that blockchain technology could benefit verification processes by providing a virtually immutable encrypted record that can serve as a „chain of custody“ for „treaty items.
Moreover, blockchain could also address the problem of trust: while states may share a common interest in reducing nuclear risk, they often lack confidence in each other, preventing full cooperation. In this case, the use of technology could apparently mitigate this lack of trust by allowing „third parties to verify the integrity of [disarmament] verification data“, without these parties being able to see the highly sensitive data themselves.
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The report also sees potential in smart contracts, noting that blockchain technology, together with self-enforcing algorithmic contracts, can provide a secure base layer for the private Internet of Things infrastructure, which combines sensors and environmental monitors. Apparently, this could be implemented to perform real-time verification at remote sites to automatically alert parties to any potential treaty violation. They conclude:
„Blockchain could act as a cryptographic repository for national declarations in disarmament processes, allowing parties to disclose confidential data in a phased manner, in parallel with political and strategic developments“.
The researchers admit that whether blockchain can actually help achieve non-proliferation objectives depends entirely on the high-level policy objectives of states and how these objectives are pursued. The report therefore refrains from promoting blockchain as an absolute cure for one of the most pressing geopolitical problems of the modern era.