The world community will gather in New York from April 24 to May 19 for the first review of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty since it was indefinitely extended in 1995. Unfortunately, the nuclear future looks a lot less rosy than it did five years ago. Since then, India and Pakistan have crashed through the NPT barrier, the U.S. Senate has rejected the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, Russia has adopted a more assertive nuclear posture, North Korea’s intentions remain worrisome and Iraq’s activities are no longer subject to international inspection.

We have to choose from among four nuclear options: the status quo, proliferation, nuclear rearmament or abolition.

A restoration of the 1995 status quo would require a rollback of nuclear weapons by India and Pakistan, and only them. But trying to denuclearize South Asia is no more realistic than demanding immediate nuclear abolition. It cannot be achieved by finger-wagging at their nuclear naughtiness. The 1998 tests confirmed the folly of believing that five powers could indefinitely retain their monopoly over one class of weapons.

The belief that eight countries can retain a nuclear monopoly is equally in defiance of common sense, logic and history. NATO’s war over Kosovo sent a chill of apprehension down the spines of many developing countries with their own secessionists. Who will be the next target of intervention by tomorrow’s international moral majority? The experience of a rampant Western coalition simply bypassing the United Nations to violate the norm of nonintervention caused great disquiet and made many countries more determined to upgrade national defense preparedness. They might become interested in nuclear warheads and missiles as leveraging weapons.

In the case of advanced countries, the flow of enabling technologies, material and expertise in the nuclear-power industry can be used, through strategic prepositioning of materials and personnel, to build a “virtual” nuclear-weapons portfolio capable of rapid “weaponization.” Within the constraints of the NPT, a nonnuclear industrialized country can build the necessary infrastructure to provide it with the “surge” capacity to upgrade quickly to nuclear weapons.

The NPT review conference begins in the shadow of the fear that arms control is at an impasse and disarmament could be reversed. The debate over a national missile defense system, and its implications for existing arms-control agreements, is intense. Relations between any two or all three of Russia, China and the United States could deteriorate to the point of a new Cold War. Treaties already negotiated and signed could unravel through nonratification or breakouts. The testing of nuclear weapons could be resumed by any one of the five legal or three de facto nuclear powers.

If the NPT status quo is already history, and the risks of arms-control reverses and proliferation are real, then we must either accept a world of more nuclear weapons and more nuclear powers, or move to a nuclear-weapon-free world. There is no third way.

It is difficult to convince some of the futility of nuclear weapons when all who have such weapons insist on keeping them. The preaching of exhortations and the coercion of sanctions need to be buttressed by the force of example. The case for independent British and French nuclear-deterrent forces is not compelling. Another circuit breaker in the countervailing nuclear-weapons capability spiral is the U.S. If its case to retain nuclear weapons is persuasive, then it should be even more persuasive for those countries that live in insecure neighborhoods and lack the panoply of conventional military tools, underpinned by the revolution in military affairs, available to Washington.

Moreover, the best way to keep nasty weapons out of the hands of nasty groups is to keep them out of the hands of governments.

The NPT is tied to a frozen international power structure that is decades out of date. It had become dangerously fragile because of the vertical proliferation of the nuclear powers for two decades, before they rebuilt the structure of cooperation in nuclear peace, called a halt to their proliferating arsenals, and began progressively dismantling them in a virtuous cycle of mutually reinforcing unilateral, bilateral and multilateral arms-control agreements and policies. Yet tens of thousands of nuclear warheads remain in needlessly large stockpiles, on active duty and on hair-trigger alert.

The road to the nuclear-free destination includes still deeper reductions in nuclear arsenals; further constraints on the extraterritorial deployment of nuclear weapons; the entry into force of the CTBT; bans on missile test flights and on the production of fissile materials; and de-alerting and de-mating of nuclear forces, warheads and missiles.

Such scenarios typically provoke dismissive comments from so-called “realists.” Yet, realistically, is there another option beyond those identified here? If not, then which is the best? As with the late British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s famous aphorism on democracy, the abolitionist option may well be unrealistic, but all other conceivable options are even more unrealistic as strategies of security.

The only guarantee against the threat of nuclear war is the complete elimination of nuclear weapons. In most contexts, a step-by-step approach is the best policy. Such caution can be fatal if the need is to cross a chasm. In the case of nuclear weapons, the chasm over which we must leap is the belief that world security can rest on weapons of total insecurity.

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