Experts assess the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, 50 years after it went into effect

Robert Einhorn, Senior Fellow in the Arms Control and Non-Proliferation Initiative: As we mark the 50th anniversary of the NPT’s entry into force, there is much to celebrate.

Without the treaty, the powerful norm against proliferation it created, its associated controls on exports of sensitive technologies, the rigorous International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) monitoring system, and the threat of sanctions for violating nonproliferation obligations, we would be living in the world of many nuclear-armed states that President John F. Kennedy predicted. As Mike points out, today there are only nine countries with nuclear weapons, the same number as 25 years ago — a remarkable indication of the NPT’s durability and its contribution to international stability.

Without the treaty, and the confidence provided by its IAEA verification system that nuclear equipment and materials would not be diverted to the production of nuclear weapons, the widespread use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes would not have been possible — not just for electricity generation, but also for the production of isotopes for use in medicine, agriculture, and industry.

While the NPT’s central goal was to prevent additional nuclear-armed states, it sought to assure non-nuclear weapon states (who were required to renounce nuclear arms) that the asymmetry between them and the five original nuclear powers (who were allowed to keep their nuclear weapons) would not last forever. It therefore obligated the five — China, France, Russia, the U.K., and the U.S. — to make “good faith” efforts to reduce and ultimately eliminate their nuclear arsenals.

In the last 50 years, the United States and the USSR/Russia have made huge progress toward nuclear disarmament, reducing their nuclear weapons inventories by close to 90% from Cold War levels. Mike is right that they pursued nuclear arms limitations and reductions primarily because they believed such arms agreements would serve their own security interests, not because they were obliged to do so under the NPT. But Mike is also right that the NPT helped create the stable strategic framework in which such agreements were acceptable to the superpowers. And the desire of Washington and Moscow to ensure the success of the treaty and its nonproliferation goal gave them additional incentive to pursue nuclear disarmament.

So the NPT’s first 50 years have been remarkably successful. But there are warning signs that its continued success cannot be taken for granted.

The international security environment has become increasingly unsettled. U.S.-Russian and U.S.-Chinese bilateral relations have sharply deteriorated. With the growing strategic capabilities of additional countries, especially China, the bipolar model of stability has become outdated. New technologies and types of weapons — including offensive cyber, counter-space, and hypersonic weapons — could further destabilize the security environment.

There are growing concerns not just that new nuclear arms reduction agreements are very unlikely, but that existing agreements, including the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, are unraveling and that this could lead to renewed nuclear arms competitions and even increase the risks that nuclear weapons will once again be used.

It is not only the NPT’s disarmament goals that are at risk. There are fears that the number of nuclear-armed states could increase.

With U.S. withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and Iran rebuilding its enrichment program, the JCPOA is hanging by a thread, and some Iranians are even talking about leaving the NPT. Meanwhile, the Saudi crown prince says the kingdom will acquire nuclear weapons if Iran does, and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan asks why other countries can have nuclear weapons and Turkey cannot.

In Northeast Asia, U.S.-North Korea negotiations have ground to a halt, raising concerns in South Korea and Japan that Pyongyang’s nuclear capability may be permanent at a time when doubts have arisen about the reliability of U.S. alliance commitments and security guarantees, which have been the critical factor enabling those U.S. allies to renounce nuclear weapons of their own.

An additional warning sign is the continued polarization within the NPT membership, with non-nuclear NPT parties — especially among the non-aligned — concerned that that the NPT nuclear powers — particularly the United States and Russia — are not taking their nuclear disarmament commitment seriously. This concern gave impetus to the negotiation of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which the five NPT nuclear weapons states and most of their allies strongly oppose.

These challenges to the future of the NPT and the broader global nonproliferation regime will be addressed at the upcoming April-May NPT Review Conference, a conference of NPT parties held every five years to review the operation of the treaty and consider means to strengthen it. The review conference is likely to be a contentious one. But given the deep reservoir of members’ support for the treaty, it is possible that, despite their differences, they will be able to come together on a conference outcome that reaffirms the essential role of the NPT in strengthening international security and pledges their support for a strong and durable treaty for many years to come.

Nothing could better ensure a positive review conference outcome than a Trump administration decision to join with Russia in extending the New START Treaty for another five years, which would preserve predictability and transparency in the U.S.-Russian strategic relationship and provide the breathing space needed to consider how to promote stability and future arms control measures in the increasingly complex and challenging international security environment we are now facing.

Source: Brookings