Thirty-five years ago, governments acknowledged the threat posed by the spread of nuclear weapons and agreed on a Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). Negotiations were spurred by the fear that the number of nuclear powers was set to expand exponentially; rather than a world of five nuclear “haves,” there might be dozens. The NPT worked: Today, there are still only five nuclear-weapons states, and there are just three “gray states” that are believed to have weapons outside the NPT framework.

In recent years, the treaty’s loopholes have become increasingly apparent. Fortunately, the NPT has a mechanism that allows for periodic review. The most recent such conference just concluded. Unfortunately, it was a failure. Deep divisions among treaty signatories prevented any action to plug those holes. The collapse of the review conference does not herald the end of the NPT, however. It does mean that concerned governments must redouble efforts to find consensus on ways to strengthen the global nonproliferation regime.

It is estimated that there are over 30,000 nuclear weapons scattered throughout the world. Five countries have the overwhelming majority of those weapons: the United States and Russia have most of those, but China, Britain and France are also among the NPT nuclear-weapons states. Three other states — India, Pakistan and Israel — are widely assumed to have arsenals of their own. North Korea and Iran are trying to build their own nuclear weapons.

The NPT aims to reconcile three sets of interests. It is intended to halt the stem of nuclear weapons and related technologies, to facilitate the spread of peaceful nuclear technologies and to bring about the eventual elimination of existing nuclear arsenals. Two bargains are embodied in the treaty. In one, countries forgo the right to develop weapons in exchange for access to peaceful nuclear technology. In the other, nuclear “have nots” accept permanent nonnuclear status in exchange for the commitment of the nuclear-weapons states to eliminate their own stockpiles.

Every five years, the treaty signatories — currently there are 188 — meet to review the status of the NPT and the global nonproliferation regime. The most recent conference concluded last week in New York and it was an unmitigated failure. Despite the imminent threat of proliferation by Pyongyang and Tehran, and the nuclear black market that has been exposed by the revelations about the activities of Pakistan’s A.Q. Khan, treaty members could not agree on priorities.

Nonnuclear-weapons states insist that the “haves” cut their nuclear arsenals. The nuclear-weapons states, in particular the U.S., demand that the group focus on the activities of Iran and North Korea. The gap proved unbridgeable. The seeming lack of progress in dismantling the U.S. arsenal — which in fact has been cut by 13,000 weapons since the 1980s — undermined any willingness by nuclear “have nots” to accept tighter restrictions on their access to nuclear technology.

The conference concluded in acrimony. Unable to even agree on an agenda until after three weeks of meetings — and this followed several equally fruitless preparatory conferences — the review conference ended without even issuing a chairman’s statement. Mr. Mohamed Elbaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, was blunt: “Absolutely nothing” came out of the meeting.

The conference failure does not spell the end of the NPT. At the 1995 review conference, signatories agreed to its indefinite expansion. The breakdown last week does not affect that. The nuclear nonproliferation regime is bigger than the NPT itself and the regime has proven remarkably adaptable. As loopholes have been identified, fixes have been prepared. After the discovery in the 1990s that Iraq had made considerable progress advancing its nuclear ambitions, the IAEA developed the Additional Protocols that strengthened the agency’s safeguard mechanisms. Revelations surrounding A.Q. Khan prompted the creation of the Proliferation Security Initiative, which aims to interdict illegal transfers of nuclear weapons and related materials. Finally, the prospect of terrorists acquiring such weapons prompted last year’s passage of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1540, which obligates all U.N. member states to strengthen laws to stem the spread of weapons of mass destruction.

These steps have helped reinvigorate efforts to stop the spread of weapons of mass destruction. More must be done, of course, and concerns about nuclear apartheid must be addressed. The world will never be free of the threat of nuclear annihilation until all nuclear arsenals have been dismantled. But hopes for that day must not become the enemy of more pragmatic, incremental efforts to build a safer world.

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