Today, July 1, marks the 45th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, or NPT. With the treaty now fully in the midst of middle age (it should be dying its hair and buying a motorcycle any day now), Nukes of Hazard looks back on the history of the treaty, its key successes and continuing problems, and what lies in store for it in the future.
A Brief History
The NPT was opened for signatures in 1968, and entered into force in 1970. After the expiration of its initial 25-year term, the treaty was indefinitely extended at a 1995 Review Conference. Over the course of its 45-year lifespan, the treaty has gained near-consensus approval from the international community — with 190 signatories, it is the most widely-adopted arms control treaty in history.
1. It has prevented a nuclear proliferation worst-case scenario: The NPT came about at a time when many policymakers were justifiably concerned about the possibility of nuclear weapons spreading around the globe. After all, less than twenty years after America’s use of nuclear weapons against Japan, four additional states had already detonated their own nuclear devices, and many feared that this was only the tip of the proliferation iceberg. As I mentioned in a post from last week, President Kennedy ominously intoned in 1963 that there may be as twenty nuclear weapons states by 1975. However, in the 45 years since the NPT’s signing, Kennedy’s vision has not become a reality. Though the NPT is not the sole reason for this, it certainly deserves a large portion of the credit.
2. It has helped to establish nonproliferation as an international norm: Nowadays, we typically take the norm of nuclear nonproliferation for granted. States that acquire nuclear weapons are perceived by the international community as violating the rules of the international system. But it wasn’t always this way. In his landmark work on nuclear proliferation, “Why Do States Build Nuclear Weapons?” Scott Sagan wrote that France, which tested its first nuclear weapon in 1960, did so primarily out of a desire to gain international prestige – a goal which, in the pre-NPT era, it was largely able to achieve, with few international repercussions. Compare this with the post-NPT era: states like North Korea and Iran are international pariahs, while some states, such as Ukraine and South Africa, decided to voluntarily relinquish their nuclear capabilities. In the NPT era, adherence to international norms about nonproliferation, rather than joining the “nuclear club,” has proven to be the most effective way for a state to enhance its international standing.
1. It hasn’t completely halted nuclear proliferation: While the NPT has succeeded in preventing a nuclear proliferation worst-case scenario, it has not entirely halted the spread of nuclear weapons. Since the treaty was opened for signature in 1968, four additional states (India, Israel, Pakistan, and North Korea) have joined the nuclear club, and many are concerned that Iran could be heading down the same path.
2. Article VI: One of the foundational trade-offs of the NPT is enshrined in Article VI of the treaty. Under the terms of Article VI, the five nuclear weapons states (NWS) pledge to work towards the goal of eventual nuclear disarmament, in exchange for the non-nuclear weapons states (NNWS) pledging to not develop weapons of their own. However, NWS compliance with Article VI has been questionable — the US and Russia have made strides in reducing the size of their arsenals, but the other three NWS have given little indication that they intend to make similar cuts. Meanwhile, additional US-Russia reductions will need to overcome a range of hurdles before they can become a reality. Though the NWS’ apathy towards nuclear disarmament is hardly a recent development, continued disregard by the NWS for their Article VI obligations has the potential to undermine the legitimacy of the treaty as a whole.
The next major event on the horizon for the NPT is the 2015 NPT Review Conference. These conferences are held every five years, and provide signatory states with an opportunity “to review the implementation of the treaty…and to set a forward-looking agenda for its further operation.” In a June speech at the Elliot School of International Affairs, Thomas Countryman, the State Department’s Assistant Secretary for International Security and Nonproliferation, highlighted two issues that have played a major role in the annual Preparatory Committee meetings ahead of the 2015 Review Conference, and will likely dominate the conference itself: namely, the creation of a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the Middle East, and concerns from NNWS about the slow pace of NWS disarmament.