NEW DELHI — When the complete history of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty gets written, its 1995 permanent extension will prove the beginning of its end. Although all nations of the world except four are today party to it, the NPT is in trouble, its future uncertain. From Japan to New Zealand, and from the United States to Germany, analysts are looking at ways to shore up the NPT regime.

For a treaty that has served as the bedrock of a five-nation-monopoly nuclear order, its extension in perpetuity was supposed to guarantee indefinite continuance of that regime. To achieve that success, many states were enticed, badgered, bullied, bribed, suborned or simply persuaded to fall in line. Over success, however, can be a recipe for eventual failure. Permanent extension was the equivalent of a blank check being handed to the nuclear powers. And in time to come this is likely to prove to be the NPT’s undoing.

When Washington originally launched its diplomatic offensive, the proposal for an everlasting extension was intended to serve only as an opening gambit. The strategy was to ask for the maximum possible so that something substantial came out of any compromise deal. In contrast, a more moderate approach, such as seeking another 25-year term, could yield, it was felt, only five to 10 years of extension. No one in Washington had imagined a year ahead that NPT would be permanently extended — and so smoothly. But once the permanent-extension juggernaut was launched, it flattened all opposition on its path.

Five years later, the legacy of 1995 is beginning to haunt the NPT regime. With the NPT’s first formal review since the permanent extension scheduled to begin at a conference of state-parties in New York from April 24, questions already are being raised about the regime’s future. The top U.S. arms-control official, John Holum, has cautioned against “a weakened NPT regime” emerging from the conference. Despite its increased membership, however, the regime is already appearing weaker. The head of the U.S.-based Institute for Energy and Environmental Research has contended that the NPT’s permanent extension is “turning into a failure.”

By gate-crashing the nuclear club in 1998, India demolished the central goal of the NPT regime: to keep the number of declared nuclear-weapons states at five. With that goal lost, the regime today looks overtaken by events. The “second nuclear age” that India heralded seems incompatible with the NPT-type arrangements of the older era. The growing calls by a number of prominent Western figures for de facto recognition of India’s nuclear-weapons status reflect both the new international respect gained by New Delhi and its ability to strike further at the foundations of the NPT regime.

In the years ahead, the NPT is likely to come under pressure from those states that believe they have lost out by backing the regime. These are advanced industrial states that have the technical capability to build nuclear weapons but which for political reasons renounced their nuclear option. Not all these nations are ensconced under the U.S. or NATO nuclear umbrella, examples being Sweden and Switzerland, both of which seriously examined building nuclear weapons. Any loosening of the U.S.-led security arrangements now in existence would also impact on the NPT’s future.

The NPT is one of the most egregiously discriminatory treaties even concluded in history, but its system of nuclear colonialism was introduced with the support of the discriminated. Its permanent extension, however, greatly amplified the inequity. Not only did the action seek to legitimize the five-nation monopoly, it also did away with the central bargain that won the original support of the discriminated. Under the bargain, nonnuclear states agreed to forswear nuclear ambitions and tolerate retention of nuclear arsenals by the then five possessor nations in return for efforts to achieve effective progress on complete disarmament, an obligation enshrined in the NPT’s Article VI. More recently, the World Court ruled unanimously that the NPT nuclear powers have a two-fold legal obligation: Not only should they be seen as negotiating in good faith, they should also achieve nuclear disarmament “in all aspects.”

In reality, the reverse has happened. The size of the five-nation nuclear arsenals today is many times bigger than when the NPT was concluded. And despite the scrapping of a lot of Cold War weapon surpluses, the two biggest nuclear powers retain more than 10,000 nuclear warheads each. The arms control and disarmament process has ground to a halt.

The NPT nuclear powers have certainly not held their end of the bargain. In fact, since 1995, these powers have lost all incentive to work for disarmament.

With the patience of nonnuclear states beginning to wear thin, the upcoming NPT review conference will be an occasion for plain speaking. Egyptian Ambassador Fayza Aboulnaga has already warned that unless the traditional nuclear powers met their treaty obligations, “the NPT regime could crumble.”

However, by approving the treaty’s permanent extension, the nonnuclear parties have little leverage left over the nuclear powers. The stalled disarmament process is testament to the fundamental mistake these states committed in 1995. Although the permanent extension took place on the basis of 20 agreed “principles and objectives” that included the key goal of “systematic and progressive efforts” to reduce nuclear weapons, no such efforts have been undertaken. Even the nuclear test-ban treaty, although it was designed in a manner to permit continued nuclear modernization and subcritical and hydronuclear testing, is in limbo after the U.S. Senate’s rejection.

Such realities have adverse effects on the stability and validity of the nuclear nonproliferation regime,” according to a 12-member Japanese Study Group headed by Professor Mitsuru Kurosawa of Osaka University. The group has unveiled a plan for the 21st century that calls for, among other things, an executive body to be set up to ensure NPT-related obligations are put into effect.

Global security is at the crossroads today, and this year’s developments (including a pending U.S. decision whether to begin deploying national missile defenses) will influence the direction it takes. The latest five-yearly NPT review conference is important in that context.

Given the sharply rising feelings, it will be a surprise if any successful outcome emerges from this 25-day conference. The traditional nuclear powers, however, already have a strategy to deflect criticism: They would insist the review not take just a backward but a forward look as well, that their Article VI obligations and most of the 1995 principles and objectives are not time-bound, and that the focus also be on the challenges mounted by India, Pakistan, Iraq and North Korea. As a U.S. official, Pierce Corden, said in a recent paper, “So there are more issues and concerns at stake than those embodied in Article VI.”

By the time the final conference gavel falls on May 19, the frailty of the NPT regime will stand exposed.

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