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Home > Publications > Research Papers > > The NPT: A Bear Pit or Threshold to a Nuclear-Weapons-Free World?
Nuclear Collisions: Discord, Reform & the Nuclear Nonproliferation Regime

The NPT: A Bear Pit or Threshold to a Nuclear-Weapons-Free World?

Jayantha Dhanapala

Commentators on the NPT usually fall into two categories. One group, the nationals of NWS and their allies, believe in arms control (as distinct from disarmament) predicated on the retention of nuclear arms by the five NWS and the strict prohibition of any proliferation of these weapons to other states. Their commentaries are preoccupied with dangers to the NPT arising from breakouts from the regime, with the current suspects being Iran, Syria, and North Korea (although the latter has already announced its withdrawal from the NPT, has conducted two nuclear tests, and is believed to have a small arsenal of nuclear weapons). A second group comes from NNWS, largely from countries within the NAM. These commentators believe in both arms control and disarmament, and they identify the lack of progress by NWS in implementing Article VI as equally, if not more, important in comparison to the core Articles I and II. They see the NPT as a transitional stage toward a nuclear-weapons-free world.

The debate revolves around, on the one hand, a common identification of three pillars that support the NPT—nonproliferation, disarmament, and peaceful uses of nuclear energy—and, on the other, a sharp disagreement over the comparative importance of each pillar. That disagreement is routinely papered over with adroit diplomacy and drafting skills at NPT review conferences, when a final document can be agreed upon by consensus. But the discord invariably reappears as the next review conference approaches. The mutual recrimination between the NWS and their allies and the NNWS is largely mirrored in the academic community.

Steven Miller’s paper, however, is a refreshingly frank and realistic assessment of the NPT, providing readers with a snapshot of the treaty’s current status and containing practical suggestions for its improvement. He begins with the fundamental recognition that the NPT regime, like all other treaty-based international legal regimes, rests on the principle of consent among sovereign states. For a large number of NAM countries, that sovereignty has only recently been regained after a dark period of colonialism. The Westphalian system of the nation-state may seem to be phasing itself out in more developed countries, with the rise in regional and global constructs; although even these, such as the euro zone, appear to be under stress. Ethno-nationalism and religion are also threatening to break up large states, encouraged—ironically—by Western democracies in the name of human rights. Christian South Sudan is the 193rd member of the UN, and the dramatic Arab Spring that has drawn selective intervention from the UN Security Council has seen NATO action only in oil-rich Libya, while ferment in Bahrain and Yemen continues. Thus, for the NAM, sovereignty and independence are fundamental issues and any attempt to curtail them—such as by imposing the Additional Protocol as a mandatory qualification for Article IV benefits or by reinterpreting Article X—will be met with resistance. The original drafting of the NPT, it should be remembered, is perceived by most NNWS as a hegemonic Cold War exercise between the United States and the Soviet Union that made amendment procedures virtually impossible.

Today, the NPT must be viewed in a global context in which the political and economic power of the West, in general, and the United States, in particular, is in decline. The center of gravity in global power is shifting gradually to the global South, especially in light of the strong resurgence of the Chinese and Indian economies. The problem of Security Council reform is similar to NPT reform. Another important aspect of the global context is the demand for nuclear power, which is likely to continue despite the accident at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant in Japan. The pressures of climate change have led to demands for carbon-free energy, and despite its costs and risks, nuclear power is an attractive option for many countries. We also have to contend with aggressive nuclear power suppliers that offer appealing terms for the reactors they sell. These suppliers now include countries outside the developed West and Russia, such as the Republic of Korea. Thus, more NNWS will want to exercise their Article IV rights to peaceful uses of nuclear energy.

It is vital that there be a level playing field for countries and that safeguards do not infringe on sovereignty. Perhaps the IAEA should follow the unique tripartite structure of one of the oldest international organizations—the International Labor Organization—which has governments, employer organizations, and trade unions represented. This structure gives an equal voice to workers, employers, and governments, ensuring that the views of the social partners are closely reflected in labor standards and in shaping policies and programs. Governments, the nuclear industry, and civil society could have a similarly structured organization within the IAEA to ensure that Article IV benefits are made accessible in a wise and equitable fashion. Any such organization would strengthen both the IAEA and the NPT.

Miller attempts to identify the colliding visions within the NPT, and he sets about his task methodically. “It is almost as if there are two NPT regimes,” he asserts. Following the conclusion of the NPT, other developments have exacerbated the dichotomy between NWS and NNWS. There was Israel’s undeclared crossing of the nuclear threshold, for example, and the seemingly uncritical acceptance of this move by the Western nuclear powers. Israel is an outlier state with a policy of nuclear ambiguity, neither confirming nor denying possession of nuclear weapons. Some leaks have been hastily plugged, and whistle-blowers like Mordechai Vanunu have been effectively silenced. The origins of the Israeli nuclear program go back to the late 1950s; and by 1970, Israel was reported to have crossed the nuclear threshold. France was believed to be the source of nuclear expertise and material in the early stages of Israel’s program. By the 1980s, Israel was understood to have a mature nuclear weapons program based around Dimona. The other outlier favored by the United States and the West is India. Miller honestly concludes that the impact of the U.S.India nuclear cooperation deal has “been more damaging than anticipated.” Indeed, the United States has still to reap any economic benefits from the deal. The third instance of NWS contradictions, or double standards, is with respect to extended deterrence and the stationing of U.S. nuclear weapons in Europe.

Miller’s analysis of the reform proposals shows wide differences between NWS and NNWS on fissile material production; on the issue of not engaging in enrichment or reprocessing; on export controls, especially the functioning of the extra-NPT body, the Nuclear Suppliers Group; and the many other reforms proposed by both NWS and NNWS. He argues that “competing conceptions of the NPT system are accompanied by competing programs for reform of the regime.” Having so accurately described the “serious collisions of interests and perceptions” in the NPT regime, what are Miller’s own prescriptions?

Miller recommends two processes by which the deep divisions within the NPT can be managed. The first is through the very political diversity of NPT states parties and the fact that the NAM is a movement and not a rigid organization—which permits ad hoc groups like the New Agenda Coalition to emerge and function as bridge-builders in the successful adoption of a final document, as it did at the 2000 NPT Review Conference with its thirteen “practical steps.” The other process Miller identifies is the bonding over a common interest in preserving the norms of the NPT regime. Miller believes that a focus on interests, not just rights, will enable a more rational approach to emerge. Economic interests should be highlighted in areas such as the construction of new nuclear power plants. Considering common interests would also entail more consultation than imposition, more focus on voluntary measures than mandatory ones. Miller is right in both of his recommendations, but my disappointment is that he does not go beyond them.

There needs to be a better understanding of the wellsprings of NNWS and NAM approaches to the NPT. In the 1960s, when a large number of Asian and African countries entered the UN, the decision-making that took place in international forums evolved from a voting-by-numbers game favored by the developed countries into a consensus model. The majority favoring the developed countries became a “tyranny” when the same rules favored the developing countries. And so consensus became the ideal and has indeed been the practice in the NPT, with voting wielded only as a threat (to say nothing of whether that voting would be by secret or open ballot). This transition has helped create a better atmosphere for consultation, but it must be a consultation among equals as sovereign countries. Against this backdrop, it is indeed surprising that the NAM has had inadequate attention from Western scholars. Western diplomats react with derisory incomprehension over the NAM and question its post-Cold War rationale. The NAM riposte is to question NATO’s raison d’etre now that the Cold War is over, as well as its functioning beyond the North Atlantic.

Filling the gap and complementing Miller’s thoughtful essay is the welcome publication of a book by William Potter and Gaukhar Mukhatzhanova. Principles vs. Pragmatism: The Nuclear Politics of the Non-Aligned Movement, which Miller himself refers to in his essay, is based on scholarly research enriched by direct personal experience at NPT conferences; it reveals a depth of understanding rare in Western research on NAM in the context of nuclear disarmament and the NPT. The book comes out of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, a well-known center of excellence that has long fulfilled the task of bridging differences between NWS and NNWS with regard to disarmament norms.

The book’s four parts explore the basis for the NAM; the movement’s machinery; a set of case studies on specific issues; and the future of the movement, especially in terms of Iran taking over the NAM chairmanship. The authors’ understanding of the subject, based on personal interviews with key NAM diplomats and their observance of NAM diplomacy in NPT gatherings, is deep and commendable. They see the differences of opinion and inconsistencies as part of the loose structure of the NAM, noting that even more rigid organizations like the EU and NATO have their own differences. Not all of the NAM is within the NPT. The authors distinguish between NAM’s unequivocal support for nuclear disarmament and the lack of emphasis on nuclear nonproliferation, while also considering the different attitudes toward the IAEA’s Additional Protocol, among other issues. They also help add context to the fears over Iran assuming the NAM chairmanship, citing historical precedents such as the chairmanship by Cuba.

As I expressed at the conclusion of the 2010 NPT Review Conference, the relief that the NWS felt over the adoption of the final declaration’s conclusions and recommendations and the lukewarm reaction from NAM states and pro-disarmament NGOs signified that we had only bought the NPT another five years. The tensions endemic in the central bargain of the NPT remain. Good-faith implementation of the 64-point action plan as laid out in the final document will be crucial, as will progress on the New START along with ratification of the CTBT by the United States. The future course of the six-nation talks on North Korea, the resolution of the questions over Iran’s nuclear program, and the outcomes of the 2012 Middle East nuclear conference will also determine the future of the NPT. The treaty has survived another challenge, but without further action by NWS and their allies—they alone have the power of decisive action in achieving a nuclear-weapons-free world—the NPT will wither away.