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NPT at 50: Past imperfect, future uncertain

The writer is a researcher at the Takshashila Institution. The views expressed here are entirely his own. He can be found on Twitter @duke_notkukem
Published : Mar 6, 2020, 2:43 am IST
Updated : Mar 6, 2020, 2:43 am IST

In exchange for countries’ pledges not to develop nukes, the US in exchange would hand over its own nuclear weapons.

The Soviet Union went nuclear in August 1949, and the idea of controlling the spread of nukes quickly lost its vogue. (Representational Image)
 The Soviet Union went nuclear in August 1949, and the idea of controlling the spread of nukes quickly lost its vogue. (Representational Image)

On March 5, 1970, a new international treaty entered into force, which in essence set up a regime which legally discriminated against the countries without nuclear weapons, made up of those countries which possessed nuclear weapons.

It has been 50 years since the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) entered into force, and it has reached this age at a very ironic time — a time when the future of the treaty itself remains uncertain.

The raison d’etre of the NPT was to stop the spread of nuclear weapons, and ultimately reach a stage where the world is free of the most destructive creation of mankind.

This was done by dividing countries into two categories: the ones who tested nuclear weapons before January 1, 1967 were classified as nuclear-weapon states, namely the United States, the United Kingdom, France, the Soviet Union (now Russia) and China, who were legally allowed to own, develop and test nuclear weapons. On the other hand, countries who did not test nuclear weapons before the set date were classified as non-nuclear weapon states, and were banned from developing nuclear weapons under any circumstances as long as they were signatories of the NPT.

Efforts to curtail the spread of nuclear weapons, however, have been somewhat of a failure, as India, Israel, Pakistan and North Korea maintain a nuclear arsenal even while being outside the NPT regime. South Africa also managed to build a small number of nuclear weapons, but ultimately decided to dismantle them and sign the NPT.

But this treaty, with all its good intentions, is a bandage solution to a problem that the superpowers of the Cold War had created for themselves, and the story of the NPT traces its roots to a little-known idea called the Baruch Plan.

Efforts to control the bomb: Between 1945 and 1949, the United States remained the sole nuclear power, and took its first chance to take control of nuclear technology. In 1946, Bernard Baruch, the then representative of the United Nations Atomic Energy Commission (UNAEC), proposed a new plan under which atomic weapons would effectively be banned.

The plan also said that an independent international body, known as the Atomic Development Authority, would control all the material and technology associated with nuclear weapons. In exchange for countries’ pledges not to develop nukes, the US in exchange would hand over its own nuclear weapons.

For the Soviets, this was a non-starter. They were soon to reject the plan, arguing that there was no guarantee that the US would give up its nuclear weapons once the Baruch Plan came into effect. The Soviet Union went nuclear in August 1949, and the idea of controlling the spread of nukes quickly lost its vogue.

Meanwhile, nuclear technology became readily accessible by the “Atoms for Peace” programme introduced by American President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1953. Countries quickly chanced upon the opportunity to obtain this technology in the free-for-all bazaar, the same technology which could also be used to build nuclear weapons.

The Soviet Union also provided the nuclear gift within the Communist bloc. First to China during the Stalin era, and later to North Korea.

Atomic assistance, however, would soon come to haunt both the superpowers. The technology transferred both intentionally and unintentionally, provided the tools for other countries — adversaries and allies alike — to build their own nuclear weapons. Indeed, scholars and practitioners of nuclear policy were uniquely worried about the “Nth country” problem, and predicted that at least 10-20 countries would have nuclear weapons by 1970.

Confounded by the problem that the superpowers themselves had created, they scrambled to find a stop-gap solution to curtail the growth of the proliferation monster. The US and the Soviet Union, along with other nations, began negotiating the NPT in the mid-1960s. The treaty was signed on July 1, 1968, and came into effect only in 1970.

The NPT was sold as a grand deal to the non-nuclear weapon states, where signing the treaty would give them the inalienable right to develop peaceful nuclear technology. In exchange, the nuclear-weapon states would, in good faith, pursue the goal of disarmament and cease to build more nuclear weapons in the fullness of time.

A shaky record: In the years that followed, both the US and the Soviets seemed to take arms control seriously, and began their NPT with the negotiation of SALT and the ABM Treaty. Indeed, the superpowers did put quantitative limits on their arsenals.

Viewed in retrospect, superpower arms control was in no compliance with the good faith they promised in the NPT. Rather, policymakers in the US viewed arms control agreements as a vehicle for seeking competitive advantages against the Soviet Union.

Furthermore, the superpower actively allowed other countries to build nuclear weapons, looking the other way when confronted with hard realities. Starting from the Kennedy administration, US policymakers came to a consensus with the Israelis to maintain an ambiguity towards Israel’s nuclear status. Similarly, the US looked the other way when Pakistan embarked upon its nuclear programme.

Similarly, China too provided nuclear assistance to Pakistan, sending both their scientists and supplying ballistic missiles to the Pakistanis.

At the same time, the US used economic sanctions as a tool to quash the nuclear dreams of many other countries seeking nuclear weapons. The decision to extend the treaty indefinitely was taken in the 1995 Review Conference of the NPT, making the stop-gap solution to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons to a permanent one.

The turn of the 21st century introduced us to the infamous A.Q. Khan network that spread the risk of nuclear proliferation even further, supplying nuclear weapons technology to North Korea, Iran, Libya and Syria.

Today, the NPT has 190 signatories. India, Pakistan, North Korea and Israel have not signed the treaty, though each one is in possession of a modest nuclear arsenal.

History has demonstrated that the non-proliferation efforts by the superpowers has been all but shaky, and sometimes, even hypocritical. As we enter the third decade of the 21st century, the spread of nuclear weapons has become a cause for concern, once again — this time at the backdrop of fading economic non-proliferation norms and a new, impending arms race.

The future of the NPT: The NPT is, in retrospect, a bandage solution to a problem of the superpowers’ creation. At best, it can be assessed as a glass half-full. At worst, it can be called completely irrelevant in today’s context.

The stability of the nuclear order has worsened since 2018. Diplomacy with North Korea has led to nowhere, and Kim Jong-un’s regime continues to improve its nuclear arsenal. Iran has all the incentives to kickstart its nuclear programme after the US pulled out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), popularly known as the Iran nuclear deal.

Other efforts to put nuclear weapons in the margins of international politics, most recently, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (also known as the Nuclear Ban treaty), have failed to gain traction as no nuclear-weapons state signed the agreement.

Non-proliferation norms are only good so long as countries follow them. New research has shown that even a small nuclear conflict among the nuclear powers can have catastrophic consequences. For example, a small nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan would release an enormous amount of black carbon into the atmosphere, which would result in a drastic drop in temperature across the globe. This could reduce rice production in China by 23 per cent.

Under the condition of diminishing nuclear norms, traditional forms of controlling nuclear risks may not work. One novel idea is for all nuclear powers to negotiate an agreement where they pledge never to use nuclear weapons first, and use nuclear weapons only after being attacked by an adversary. Such a Global No-First Use Treaty (GNFU) might work as a non-discriminatory means of reducing the risk of nuclear war.

Nuclear weapons are the most destructive tools that humans have ever created. The NPT seems to have reached the end of its life. The ultimate goal for the world now is to ensure that these weapons, under any circumstance, will never be used.

Tags: non-proliferation treaty