LONDON — What has become of the globally agreed regime designed to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons — the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT)? The answer these days is that while it has served the world well for many years it is now in tatters.

The original treaty was clear and concise. It aimed to confine the ownership of nuclear weapons to those five countries that already had them, or claimed to have them, namely the United States, Russia, China, France and Britain. These were designated the “existing nuclear powers.” Both they and all other signatories to the treaty became subject to a strict system of compliance, verification, monitoring and regulation, whatever their nuclear activities, whether civil or military or in the gray area of “dual use” in between. And an often forgotten bit of the treaty was that the existing five would steadily wind down their arsenals.

That was the theory. Today’s reality is dangerously different. Outside the original five, Israel has long possessed nuclear weapons in flat defiance of the NPT. So has India, although it has now been “rewarded” for its disregard by American bilateral action with access to various new nuclear technologies.

Pakistan has matched India all along with its own warheads — and with a very leaky nuclear-information system. Iran — in fact a signatory to the NPT — has nevertheless acted in secret and is now pressing ahead with no credible means in sight of stopping it.

Meanwhile North Korea has stepped right out of the NPT system and is agreeing instead to six-party talks, which are moving at a snail’s pace. It may already have full nuclear-weapons capabilities. It certainly has missiles that can reach Japan.

Proliferation breeds proliferation. Iran’s progress to nuclear status, though it may take a few more years yet, is bound to prompt nuclear-weapons ambitions in Egypt, and maybe Syria and Turkey as well. North Korea’s nuclear advance, if not somehow checked, is bound to lead to rethinking in Japan, either about acquiring a nuclear-weapons capability, which it could do with ease, or to agreeing to the forward deployment of American nuclear missiles on its soil.

So what happens next in this precarious and unbalanced situation? In theory three possible avenues exist.

The first is to try somehow to get the genie back into the bottle. That is to say, the illegal nuclear powers would somehow have to be persuaded to give up all military ambitions and conform fully with the original treaty.

That prospect is highly unlikely. The United Nations’ instrument of nuclear discipline, the International Atomic Energy Agency based in Vienna, is a weak body at the best of times. The idea that Israel would willingly go nonnuclear is fantasy. The same applies to India and Pakistan. It is true that two nations in history have voluntarily given up nuclear activities — South Africa and Ukraine — but both in very special circumstances that apply nowhere else.

A second avenue would be just to shrug one’s shoulders and allow proliferation to happen, hoping that mutual deterrence, which did seem to work in Cold War days, would stop any government using these horrific weapons.

That seems a counsel of utter despair. Governments can and do go mad, as history shows. New nuclear states, flushed with power, could threaten nonnuclear and smaller nations while the world trembled.

The third avenue is to start redesigning the architecture of the NPT system to embrace the new “facts on the ground” — namely that these weapons are now possessed, or about to be, by several countries outside the original five. What is therefore required is a much more powerful regime of inspection, monitoring, verification and control that brings the activities of every nuclear nation, or would-be nuclear nation well and truly into the open, with all secret sites revealed and the inspectors welcomed. The whole philosophy would be complete openness.

This kind of solution would also involve the most carefully policed exchange of nuclear materials and technologies, universally agreed (in contrast to the Bush bilateral deal with India), with the possible sharing of facilities under international control.

Such an approach requires enormous leaps of faith and hope, but it just might work, unlike the other two. Israel would somehow have to be brought openly to the table, a step that probably only the U.S. could compel it to take. India and Pakistan would need to build on their existing nuclear standoff — which at least shows that the theory of mutual deterrence has some life left in it.

Iran will have to talk to someone in the end as well, but who? It has not accepted — at least not yet — the idea of Russian nuclear assistance and guarantees in exchange for allowing all uranium enrichment processing to take place on Russian soil. But the Iranians might just listen to their biggest oil and gas customers, China, Japan and India, if these three could be prevailed on to put aside all their other differences, at least on this issue.

In North Korea it is pressure from Beijing that offers the best hope of bringing that dark regime’s nuclear activities into the daylight. Interestingly, the one development that might trigger a firm Chinese line with North Korea would be the prospect of more nuclear-weapons deployments next door in Japan. That might bring China to recognize more clearly than ever before that even with its billion-plus citizens, and even with its existing or planned gigantic cities (each of 50 million inhabitants) spread well inland, it could still be just as devastated by a disorderly nuclear world — and by a nuclear war — as America, Russia, Europe or the rest of Asia.

Beijing may keep reiterating that it wants “peace.” So do we all, but it will have to be worked for.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.