Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty at fifty: a midlife crisis

On 1 July 1968, the Treaty on the Non-proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, or NPT) was opened for signature. Since then, the Treaty has become a cornerstone of international efforts to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons, to eventually eliminate them and to facilitate peaceful use of nuclear energy. With the adherence of 190 countries, the NPT is close to universal world participation. In 1995 the Treaty was extended indefinitely, after its initial period of 25 years. The NPT remains unique as there is no other international agreement based on a bargain between nuclear- and non-nuclear-weapon states.

The 185 non-nuclear countries pledge to abstain from acquiring nuclear weapons. On their side of the bargain, the five recognised nuclear possessors – China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States – promise not to help non-weapon states get nuclear weapons and to seek the grand goal of nuclear disarmament. For the benefit of all parties, the Treaty facilitates cooperation on peaceful applications of nuclear technology under the watch of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

The non-proliferation record of the NPT is not perfect, although the Treaty has helped curb the spread of nuclear weapons. Its disarmament impact, however, is far more contentious, which helps explain the broad support for the recent Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). With growing polarisation among the States Parties on the pace of nuclear disarmament, the NPT, at 50, enters its midlife crisis. There are reasons to expect that amid this crisis the durability of the NPT will probably be tested as never before.

Non-proliferation record

Scholars disagree on the extent to which the NPT has helped to stop nuclear proliferation, as its direct or indirect impact is difficult to prove. Yet it can be, at least partially, credited with embedding the non-proliferation norm that is responsible for keeping the number of countries armed with nuclear weapons lower than ten. As Lewis Dunn – an astute observer of the NPT – notes, the Treaty has curbed proliferation pessimism, which was widespread in the 1960s. The increasing number of states adhering to the Treaty has helped to reverse the perception that ‘runaway’ or ‘cascading’ proliferation is unavoidable.

Even though there are many reasons why all but a few countries have refrained from acquiring nuclear weapons, the NPT might have helped some of them to crystallize their decisions by compelling them to make a choice. After prolonged political and bureaucratic debates and taking into account various considerations, countries like Australia, Japan, Sweden, Switzerland and West Germany decided that joining the Treaty would be in their best interest. In the case of countries allied with the United States, the diplomatic efforts of the United States to convince them to join the Treaty, backed up by nuclear guarantees, significantly contributed to their final choices. For many states that never contemplated obtaining nuclear weapons, technical and financial help with the peaceful use of nuclear technology was the main incentive for acceding to the Treaty.

Only three countries decided to not adhere to the NPT from the outset: India, which carried out a “peaceful” nuclear test in 1974; Pakistan, which conducted nuclear tests back to back with India in 1998; and Israel, which has neither confirmed nor denied that it has nuclear weapons.

There are positive examples of countries that joined the NPT even though they initially acquired nuclear weapon capability or were close to obtaining it. South Africa joined the NPT in 1991 after it had unilaterally dismantled its small arsenal. Argentina and Brazil acceded to the Treaty in the 1990s after they had mutually agreed to cease their weapons-related activities. Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine became NPT members after they gave up nuclear weapons they had inherited in 1991, following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Even though the decisions of these countries were prompted by factors other than the NPT, their accession to the Treaty cemented these decisions and made them far more difficult to reverse.

North Korea withdrew from the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty in 2003, despite extensive international sanctions and political isolation. Pictured: A plutonium reactor capable of providing fuel for a nuclear bomb. ©

The non-proliferation score of the NPT is not perfect, as a number of countries have decided to cheat and pursue nuclear options while remaining NPT parties. Yet, because of the NPT, they have had to pursue nuclear weapons covertly, constraining their efforts. In some cases, it has bought time for them to reconsider their nuclear options, or for outside intervention that has prevented further progress.

For example, Libya’s pursuit of nuclear weapons for almost 30 years was terminated in 2003, thanks to the diplomatic efforts of the United Kingdom and the United States, and a change of mind by the country’s leader, Colonel Muammar Qaddafi. Iraq’s nuclear pursuit of almost 20 years was ended by the 1991 Gulf War, and Syria’s decade-long efforts were disrupted by Israel’s 2007 attack on the covert Al Kibar nuclear reactor.

Those NPT countries that have been caught cheating and have refused to abandon their clandestine programmes have paid a significant price for noncompliance. North Korea, which in 2003 announced its withdrawal from the Treaty and soon acquired nuclear weapons capability, did it despite extensive international sanctions and political isolation. Sanctions imposed on Iran for its covert nuclear activities were eased after the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and Iran’s renewed commitment to abide by its obligations under the Treaty. Without the NPT, the concerted global efforts to prevent, slow down, curb, punish and reverse the actions of Iran and North Korea would be much more difficult. The Treaty gives legitimacy to the non-proliferation norm and to actions to enforce it.

While the Treaty has significant loopholes, detection of illegal proliferation by its safeguards system has mobilised efforts to strengthen verification and enforcement. The exposure of Saddam Hussein’s clandestine programme in 1991 led to improvements of the IAEA’s inspection authority with the 1997 Additional Protocol. The Protocol has been ratified by over 130 countries.

The non-proliferation impact of the NPT Treaty has been multiplied by a dense network of international initiatives and agreements created to support the NPT goals, including the Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zones, the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material, the Zangger Committee, the Nuclear Suppliers Group, United Nations Security Council Resolution 1540, the Proliferation Security Initiative, and the Nuclear Security Summits. Together, these multilateral efforts reinforce the non-proliferation regime and the NPT.

Disarmament progress

Article VI of the NPT commits all parties to “pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control”. There are differences among NPT parties on how to interpret this article, and a nuclear-weapon-free world remains a distant vision. While there are sharp differences among the five NPT nuclear-weapon states in terms of numbers and variety of nuclear capabilities, the roles attached to these capabilities and their attitudes toward reductions, they all defend their disarmament records and their fidelity to Article VI.

Sanctions imposed on Iran for its covert nuclear activities were eased after the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and Iran’s renewed commitment to abide by its obligations under the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty. A joint commission (pictured here meeting in Vienna, Austria, 7 December 2015) was tasked with monitoring implementation. © Reuters

The United States argues that its overall nuclear arsenal is 88 per cent smaller than its peak number. According to available data, between 1967 and 2017 the US arsenal shrank from 31,255 to 3,822 warheads. Russia claims that it has decreased its nuclear arsenal by more than 85 per cent. Under the limits of the 2010 New START Treaty, the deployed strategic nuclear arsenals of the two biggest nuclear possessors are now capped at their lowest level since the 1950s.

The United Kingdom has announced the reduction of its operational warheads to no more than 120. France states that it has reduced the airborne and sea-based components of its nuclear deterrent forces by one third and capped its overall nuclear arsenal at 300 warheads. China, the only NPT nuclear weapon state that does not claim any reductions, assures that its nuclear arsenal is at “the minimal level required by national security”. The nuclear weapon states argue that these and other actions they have taken, including the voluntary moratorium on nuclear testing, signify progress towards the goals envisioned in Article VI.

Progress toward nuclear disarmament remains, however, the most serious bone of contention within the NPT. While the nuclear weapon states highlight what they have achieved so far, a vast majority of non-nuclear weapon states focus on what more needs to be done. Non-nuclear-weapon states criticise nuclear possessors for slow progress and for not fulfilling their promises, including falling short of achieving a Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which has not been ratified by China and the United States. While nuclear-weapon states and US non-nuclear allies claim that further progress toward disarmament must take into account the overall security environment, for the majority of non-nuclear-weapon states the time for nuclear disarmament is now and arguments from countries relying on nuclear weapons are not convincing.

Risks of the current crisis

The history of the NPT is fraught with tensions and pessimism about the Treaty’s future. Four out of nine review conferences concluded without a consensus statement. Over past decades, there has been a prevailing perception among NPT observers that the Treaty is in bad shape and at risk of becoming obsolete and eventually collapsing, because of proliferation challenges and disputes about disarmament.

Discord among the NPT parties reached new levels on 7 July 2017 when 122 NPT members voted in favour of TPNW, which embraces the goal of outlawing all nuclear weapons, including those possessed by the five NPT nuclear weapon states. The TPNW was opened for signature in September 2017 and has already been signed by 59 countries and ratified by ten. According to its proponents, it represents an effective measure under Article VI of the NPT by creating a legally binding prohibition on nuclear weapons. For countries opposing the TPNW, including NATO Allies, the Treaty will not only be ineffective but risks undermining the NPT.

The TPNW can be interpreted as a symptom of the NPT’s midlife crisis – an expression of the frustration of non-nuclear weapon states, which have a deep sense of remorse for slow disarmament progress. For its advocates, the TPNW is also an attempt to give nuclear disarmament new youth and energy. Eventually, it may be possible for NPT members to find a formula of compromise and agree to disagree on the new treaty. The troubles on the horizon are not necessarily fatal, as the dissatisfaction of some States Parties with disarmament progress does not seem sufficiently strong to warrant withdrawal from the NPT. So far, at least, despite many worries, no state seems prepared to make that choice. The common denominator of both proponents and opponents of the TPNW is that their main goal is to strengthen the NPT.

After the end of the Cold War, US President George H. W. Bush announced on 27 September 1991 that the United States would remove almost all US tactical nuclear forces from deployment. Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev reciprocated on 5 October 1991, pledging to eliminate all nuclear artillery munitions, nuclear warheads for tactical missiles and nuclear landmines as well as to withdraw all Soviet tactical naval nuclear weapons from deployment. However, significant questions remain about Russian implementation of its pledges and there is considerable uncertainty about the current state of Russia’s tactical nuclear forces (source: Arms Control Association). ©

Yet, the TPNW further polarises the NPT process at a time when longstanding points of tension take on new significance in a changed security environment. Before any compromise on the TPNW can be achieved, the resilience of the NPT will be tested as never before, which may have irreversible and highly undesirable consequences.

With the re-emergence of “great power competition”, managing the disarmament demands of the TPNW supporters will be increasingly difficult. Against the wishes of many non-nuclear weapon states, the role of nuclear weapons in international politics is not decreasing but growing.

Despite its past willingness to accept strategic nuclear reductions, Russia is increasingly relying on nuclear weapons in its security and foreign policy, which was confirmed by President Putin in a speech on 1 March 2018when he revealed new investments into various exotic nuclear capabilities. Russia’s increased nuclear emphasis over recent years has prompted the United States to respond. Even though US investments into supplementarynuclear capabilities are modest compared to Russian programmes and do not increase the total number in the arsenal, disarmament advocates view them equally and treat them all as yet another sign of disingenuousness on the part of nuclear-weapon states. While Chinese actions in the nuclear weapons realm remain opaque, there is little doubt that China has been updating its nuclear arsenal to keep pace not only with the United States and Russia, but also as a part of its strategic competition with India. Yet the United States and its NATO Allies remain the primary target of the TPNW activists’ ire.

Failure by China and the United States to resolve the North Korea nuclear and missile problem, and a collapse of the JCPOA, will make it much more difficult for the NPT members to maintain unity in tackling non-proliferation challenges. If Iran resumes the activities constrained by the JCPOA, it will make the non-proliferation landscape in the Middle East even more fragile, adding to persisting tensions that are often channelled into NPT debate about the Middle East Weapons of Mass Destruction-Free Zone.

NATO’s stakes

NATO Allies put their own mark on the original text of the NPT by aligning themselves with the broader US goal of limiting the number of nuclear-weapon states, and ensuring that nuclear-sharing arrangements for US nuclear weapons in Europe, which predated the NPT, were fully addressed when the Treaty was negotiated. These arrangements themselves have contributed to security in Europe and non-proliferation as Allies under the US nuclear umbrella have not felt pressure to develop their own weapons.

Led by reductions made by France, the United Kingdom and the United States after the end of the Cold War, NATO has dramatically reduced the number and variety of nuclear forces within its territory and has been eager to work on further reciprocal reductions of the non-strategic nuclear weapons of Russia and the United States. A nuclear consensus within NATO has been based on a balance between nuclear deterrence and disarmament.

Nevertheless, the reconciliation of NATO nuclear deterrence needs with growing disarmament aspirations will be increasingly difficult for the Alliance. Russia’s renewed nuclear emphasis, and its direct and indirect nuclear threats, have put more demands on NATO Allies to ensure effective nuclear deterrence. Given radical changes in the security environment, the Alliance must re-balance to meet the new requirements.

Russia’s renewed nuclear emphasis, and its direct and indirect nuclear threats, put more demands on NATO Allies to ensure effective nuclear deterrence. Pictured: Russian military vehicles with nuclear warheads during the Victory Day parade at Red Square in Moscow, Russia – 9 May 2018. © Reuters

In addition, nuclear-sharing arrangements within NATO and US nuclear guarantees to its allies have become one of the main targets of the TPNW. Nuclear ban advocates, like the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), have concentrated on shaping public opinion in countries allied to the United States. Pressure by TPNW supporters requires all NATO member governments to defend their security and moral rationales for maintaining NATO’s nuclear capabilities. This balancing act puts NATO Allies, which depend on deterrence, at odds with supporters of abolishing nuclear weapons within the NPT.

The NPT is a common good and its collapse would have disastrous consequences for global stability and predictability, first and foremost for NATO Allies. The consequences of not maintaining credible nuclear deterrence in the current volatile security environment could, however, be even more catastrophic for the Alliance.

In this context, the NATO Allies should seek to find a compromise to preserve the NPT and accommodate disarmament aspirations. NATO arms control strategy should continue to aim to convince Russia to come back to compliance with its arms control obligations such as the INF Treaty, and agree on future reciprocal reductions in the number and role of non-strategic nuclear weapons in Europe – even though nothing suggests now that Russia is willing to accept any transparency, restraints or reductions in its non-strategic nuclear arsenal, which is significantly larger than that of the Allies.

At the same time, NATO Allies should continue to publicly defend the Alliance’s nuclear deterrent in light of the need to preserve the European security order and should continue to make clear that the Alliance will maintain credible nuclear deterrence as long as nuclear weapons exist.

Dr Jacek Durkalec is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Center for Global Security Research (CGSR) at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

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