The Nonproliferation Regime Remains an Emperor with No Clothes

Following the use of nuclear weapons in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the international community started exploring options for preventing the diversion of nuclear technology from peaceful uses to military purposes.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was created in 1957, in the wake of U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower’s 1953 “Atoms for Peace” speech, aimed at preventing states from diverting nuclear technology from peaceful purposes. The IAEA’s membership gradually expanded and it has worked very hard to reach agreements, such as the Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement (1971) and the Additional Protocol (1997), that enhance the effectiveness and efficiency of the IAEA.

Following the acquisition of nuclear weapons by the P-5 (i.e., the United States, Russia, France, Britain, and China), the nonproliferation regime gradually expanded both at the multilateral and bi-lateral levels to avoid the misuse of nuclear technology. The Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) was signed in 1968 with the intention that major nuclear weapons states would work unanimously to meet three pillars: nonproliferation, disarmament, and peaceful use of nuclear energy. The good news is that these major nuclear weapons states are still a crucial part of the NPT. In addition, the regime is working towards ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) along with enactment of the proposed Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT).

Additionally,  multilateral nonproliferation export control regimes such as the Zangger Committee (1970), the Nuclear Suppliers Group (1975), the Australia Group (1985), the Wassenaar Arrangement (1994), and the Missile Technology Control Regime (1987) came into existence to help support the efforts of the nonproliferation regime. Both the United States and the Soviet Union (now Russia) undertook various arms control and arms reduction-related negotiations, including the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT I) (1969), SALT II (1979), the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I) (1991), START II (1993), the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT) (2002), and New START (2010)to reduce their strategic deterrence forces; which in turn assisted the functions of the nonproliferation regime indirectly.

With an increased membership of 191, the NPT has become the cornerstone of the nonproliferation regime. Just before the creation of the NPT, it was feared that more than twenty states would acquire nuclear weapons. Today, there are only nine states that have nuclear weapons. Any new country that desires to acquire nuclear weapons would be from within the NPT – and the NPT has an incentive to make sure that this will not happen (and to avoid the North Korean example of withdrawal). Presumably, had the NPT not existed, there would have been many states in possession of nuclear weapons and the world’s peace and security could have been put in greater danger.

The NPT was strengthened after South Africa decided to abandon its nuclear weapons program voluntarily and later became part of the NPT as a non-nuclear weapons state. Also, following the end of the Cold War, three inherited nuclear weapons states – Belarus, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan – gave up thousands of nuclear weapons and became part of the NPT as non-nuclear weapons states. Finally, the NPT was extended indefinitely at the 1995 Review Conference, with the most recent Review Conference taking place last month.

The nonproliferation regime is not free from challenges, however. Despite its strengths, it confronts some weakness too.

First, the nonproliferation regime is still weak and ineffective despite the NPT’s life extension and gradual increase of its membership. North Korea challenged the NPT by withdrawing and then testing nuclear weapons. This move set a precedent for others to withdraw if they choose to do so (exploiting Article X of the NPT). The regime remains helpless to punish states that withdraw. In addition, three nuclear weapons states (India, Israel, and Pakistan) have never joined; this is a challenge for the international nonproliferation regime as to how long it would take and how these nuclear weapons states could finally become part of the NPT.

Second, NPT non-membership could indicate that state prioritizes its security and survival over many other national factors. If a state’s security concerns are not properly addressed by the international nonproliferation regime, that state will try to keep itself away from the those legal bindings and/or obligations. The international nonproliferation regime does not have a mechanism to provide security to threatened states, a key weakness of the regime.

Third, the regime does not have a negative security assurance, nor it can it force nuclear weapons states to agree to one (not to attack states that do not possess nuclear weapons). In the absence of such a security mechanism, non-nuclear weapon states within the NPT regime may feel threatened and ultimately abandon the regime. Arguably, it is the United States that plays a role for the nonproliferation regime in terms of providing security guarantee to its allies and partners, as part of its extended deterrence, which in turn discourages them from acquiring nuclear weapons.

Fourth, many states, both within and outside the NPT, consider it discriminatory as it recognizes “the haves” that acquired nuclear weapons before January 1, 1967, but does not recognize “the have-nots” that acquired nuclear weapons afterwards. Perhaps, the “have-nots” (India and Pakistan) may at some point join the NPT if they are provided some kind of nuclear legitimacy.

Fifth, the regime has not addressed the trans-regional factors that affect it. Whatever happens in terms of strategic force postures and deterrence force modernization between the United States and Russia affects China. China affects India, and India in turn affects Pakistan. These links undermine the strength of the nonproliferation regime, which impedes the regime’s efforts to become universal. Universality of the nonproliferation regime may not be attained unless this factor is fully addressed. Idealistically, one of the solutions for this could be the elimination of both strategic and conventional force asymmetry amongst nuclear weapons states party to the NPT. However, this may not be likely in the immediate future.

The nonproliferation regime will consistently fall toward failure and remain an emperor with no clothes, unless it realizes and addresses these weaknesses both at the regional and international levels. This would require states’ determined leadership and commitment to being essential parts of the regime.


Image: Indian Ministry of External Affairs, Flickr

Posted in , Negotiations, Nonproliferation, NPT, Nuclear, Nuclear Weapons

Zafar Khan

Zafar Khan (Ph.D. Strategic Studies, University of Hull, UK) authored the book “Pakistan Nuclear Policy: a minimum credible deterrence” (Routledge: London, 2015). Currently, he serves as an Assistant Professor at the Department of Strategic Studies, National Defense University, Islamabad where he teaches seminars on arms control and disarmament and programs and policies of nuclear weapons states. His areas of interest include proliferation/nonproliferation, nuclear policy, security strategy, cyber-studies, foreign policy, and international relations theory. His papers have appeared in various national and international peer-reviewed journals.

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4 thoughts on “The Nonproliferation Regime Remains an Emperor with No Clothes

  1. A very good argument for the need to commit ourselves to nonproliferation efforts. For the regime to succeed it requires dedicated commitment by all nuclear states. But if the larger nuclear states continue to make exceptions and grant waivers, ignoring their responsibility to the NPT– it weakens global nonproliferation efforts.

  2. Non proliferation regime is a multilateral binding thus demands the efforts and willingness of each and every state whether member to NPT or not to contribute their share in making the regime successful in achieving its mission. The very discriminatory and interests based policies of global power is the major fact towards the failure of the treaty. As long as the policies of super power regarding the regime remain the same and discriminatory there is a little hope for the regime in its current form to be successful. For that purpose there is a need to counter the ever increasing proliferation activities at both the regional and global level, a non discriminatory, equal for all approach must be considered.

  3. Zafar,
    A thoughtful analysis.
    As you say, the NPT “regime” (I dislike this word, but it has stuck) has plenty of weaknesses.
    This reminds me of Winston Churchill’s complaint about Democracy: it’s a lousy system of governance, but it happens to be better than the alternatives.
    The NPT is taking its lumps. My sense is that future Review Conferences will be as contentious as this last one. But without the NPT, the world would be a more dangerous place.
    Best wishes,

  4. Indeed, the Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) needs to be strengthened with non-discriminatory measures, criteria-based approach and gathering of its off-shoots under the single legally binding agenda (e.g.NPT) as well.

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