This year marks the 40th anniversary of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty’s coming into force. Despite its central role in shaping the global nuclear order, the NPT’s future looks anything but promising.
The main challenges the NPT now faces come from within its regime, not from the nonparties. The nations outside the NPT fold that wanted to go nuclear have done so. And having acquired nuclear weapons, those states are in no position to join a treaty that essentially is rigidly structured and is thus not amendable.
It has been widely forgotten that the NPT originally was intended to prevent countries like Japan, West Germany and Italy from acquiring nuclear weapons. Japan, did not ratify the treaty until 1976 — eight years after the NPT was concluded, and six years after the pact took effect. Over the years, however, the challenges to the NPT have come from outside the list of its original targets.
It is remarkable that the NPT has survived for so long and that it was extended indefinitely in 1995. As a result of the 1995 action, the treaty — originally conceived as a 25-year bargain between nuclear-weapons states and nonnuclear-weapons states — has become permanent.
For the foreseeable future, nuclear weapons, with their unparalleled destructive capacity, are likely to remain at the center of international power and force capacity. Nuclear weapons, as the 2002 U.S. nuclear posture review stated, will continue to play a “critical role” because they possess “unique properties.”
Some 95 percent of all nuclear weapons are in the arsenals of the United States and Russia. The U.S. has announced recently that it has 5,113 nuclear weapons in its arsenal, plus “several thousand” more waiting to be dismantled. Russia is believed to have a fairly similar number of nuclear weapons in deployment.
Although their arsenals have declined, both Russia and the U.S. still maintain “overkill” capabilities — that is, either can destroy the entire world several times over. There can be no justification for maintaining such large arsenals today, and the reductions proposed by the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) between the U.S. and Russia will not change the overkill capacities of the two sides.
The latest U.S. Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) incorporates a welcome shift by proclaiming that the U.S. will not use nuclear weapons against a nonnuclear-weapons state or in response to a nonnuclear attack. Yet that assurance is hedged with caveats — the nonnuclear-weapons states have to be fully “in compliance” with their nonproliferation obligations; and given the catastrophic potential of biological weapons, the U.S. reserves the right to respond with nukes against a biological attack.
It would have been better had the posture review made clear — without any qualification — that the sole purpose of nuclear weapons is to deter a nuclear attack. Instead, the NPR declares such a sole purpose as a long-term goal. With the burden of the Nobel Peace Prize weighing heavily on U.S. President Barack Obama’s mind, the caveat-ridden NPR comes across as being more posture than review.
Given the fact that every nuclear- weapons state, by definition, is a proliferator, the varying standards still being applied on proliferation underscore the nonproliferation challenges. Geopolitical interests, rather than objective criteria, usually determine a response to any proliferation problem. Also, who is a legitimate nuclear-weapons state or who is not has remained a subject of controversy. The NPT recognizes as nuclear powers only those countries that tested a nuclear device before 1967. But it is hardly a good advertisement for the NPT regime that some nuclear-weapons states remain outside its fold.
Actually, the real “success” of the NPT has been in reinforcing the system of extended deterrence by giving countries such as those in NATO and others like Japan, Australia and South Korea little choice other than to continue to rely on the U.S. for nuclear-umbrella protection. Minus the NPT, these countries would have been the most-likely candidates to go nuclear because they also happen to be the most-capable states technologically. So, the effect of the NPT has been to either strengthen extended deterrence or to drive nuclear programs underground, as was symbolized by North Korea.
A few technologically capable countries, like Sweden and Switzerland, of course, voluntarily relinquished their nuclear-weapons option even while staying out of any alliance system. Their decision was based on a careful judgment that their security would be better protected without nuclearization.
Today, a key question that arises is whether any of the countries ensconced under the U.S. nuclear umbrella would be willing to forgo the benefits of extended deterrence in order to help lower the utility of nuclear weapons and give a boost to the cause of nuclear disarmament.
Today, the world has a treaty (although not in force) that bans all nuclear testing but no treaty to outlaw the use of nuclear weapons. In other words, those that are party to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty are prohibited from testing a nuclear weapon at home but are legally unencumbered to test the weapon by dropping it over some other state. That anomaly must be removed.
Brahma Chellaney is the author of the 2010 international best-seller, “Asian Juggernaut” (HarperCollins).