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Home > Publications > Research Papers > > Living with an Imperfect NPT
Nuclear Collisions: Discord, Reform & the Nuclear Nonproliferation Regime

Living with an Imperfect NPT

C. Raja Mohan

Steven Miller’s survey of the current discord in the nonproliferation system focuses on the abiding concerns of the developing and non-aligned world and the negative impact these concerns have on efforts to reform the NPT system. The conflict between the zeal and self-righteousness of the Western nonproliferation community, on the one hand, and the preoccupation with equity and balance as expressed by the nuclear elites within the NAM, on the other, has affected the legitimacy and credibility of the NPT in recent decades. This conflict, however, is unlikely to be resolved through legal and technical fixes. Nor is a “perfect NPT” that satisfies one and all within political reach. In the real world, a flawed NPT is probably better than none at all. The challenge to the NPT system today is whether it can adapt to the changed international context in a pragmatic manner.

Unfortunately, discrimination is designed into the NPT. No amount of arguing between the West and the NAM will overcome this structural deficit of the treaty. As Miller rightly points out, the current attempts to reform the NPT are seen in the NAM as tightening the “obligations” of NNWS while doing little to compel NWS to implement theirs. Friction arises over expanding the commitments of NNWS under Article III, which deals with safeguards and international monitoring. Other troubled attempts at reform have involved limiting the “rights” of NNWS under Article IV, which promises liberal international access to all peaceful uses of nuclear energy. Article V, on the conduct of peaceful nuclear explosions (PNE), is a virtual dead letter, thanks to India’s claim that its first nuclear test in 1974 was a PNE. No one is betting that Article VI, which calls for general and complete disarmament, will be implemented anytime soon. There is a debate on closing the Article X “loophole,” which allows NNWS to withdraw from the NPT.

In essence, the NPT is about preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Neither eliminating nuclear weapons nor promoting peaceful uses of nuclear energy has been given the same level of priority as nonproliferation. To suggest that there are three “equal pillars”—nonproliferation, disarmament, and peaceful uses—undergirding the NPT is an argument that was popularized by India and other developing countries of the NAM. It has no basis in the negotiating record of the NPT. While the sponsors of the treaty—the United States, United Kingdom, and Soviet Union—were willing to make vague reference to general and complete disarmament, it has always been fanciful to suggest that there was a “grand bargain” on the issues of nonproliferation and disarmament in concluding the treaty. Despite the occasional lip service paid to Article VI by sections of the nonproliferation community in NWS, the proposition that great powers would abandon their nuclear weapons because of their NPT “obligations” requires a leap of faith. Article VI might be a good political stick to use against the NWS, but it is by no means an effective one in the real world.

The unhindered right to peaceful uses of nuclear energy was an important topic in the drafting of the NPT. The issue was of some concern to the leading nations of the developing world; but their plans for developing nuclear power were largely aspirational in the 1960s. The question of peaceful uses was of greater interest to many European states, which had the technical capability and political intent to build significant atomic energy development programs. As Albert Wohlstetter recognized early on, states could use the civilian nuclear power route to develop nuclear weapons programs. (It is much simpler though to build weapons by constructing a small research reactor and a reprocessing plant to convert the spent fuel into weapons-grade material.) In addition, some states that have joined the NPT have cheated on their obligations as related to verification. Taken together, these trends underline the paradox that strengthening the NPT necessarily involves making it more discriminatory and unequal. For countries that have voluntarily given up nuclear weapons, the latest denial of enrichment and reprocessing technologies need not be debilitating to a nuclear power program. Ironclad fuel supply assurances and mechanisms such as an international nuclear fuel bank could contribute reliably to planning for nuclear power production.

After four decades of implementing the NPT, we have some reason for optimism. One fact, as Miller rightly points out, is that the NAM is not a cohesive group. If it were, the NAM would by now have altered the framework of the NPT in favor of the developing world. The NAM had significant leverage on the future of the NPT when it came up for review and extension in 1995. Deep divisions within the NAM, however, prevented the group from exercising its sway. Instead, the NAM had to settle for small pickings in return for an indefinite extension of the NPT. Another fact is that an overwhelming majority of the NAM, forming the largest bloc among the NPT members, has sought neither to develop large nuclear power programs nor to cheat on the treaty. The difficult cases have been few and have had little to do with the political divide between North and South or between haves and have-nots. Also, a large majority of the NAM is quite comfortable with the inherent inequity in the NPT system and remains unaffected by the problems of global nuclear order.

Finally, in multilateral forums, NAM diplomats routinely and vigorously express their resentment of the unilateral changes to the rules made by the West. But their influence on the political leaders and national security bureaucracies at home is not significant. The non-nuclear developing states in the NPT do not seek to acquire atomic weapons because the NPT system is unfair. Some of them explore the nuclear weapons option because their security is threatened by their neighbors. Some fear regime change imposed by the great powers. For those that fall under these categories, the arguments about equity and justice are valuable tools in mobilizing domestic public opinion in favor of a nuclear weapons program or in justifying their defiance of the nuclear order. Some of these regimes have deliberately sought nuclear weapons programs as a useful bargaining tool with the West. North Korea has demonstrated the value of nuclear weapons programs in extracting political concessions from the international community. Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi gave up the nuclear option as part of an effort to normalize relations with the West. Skeptics might argue that the West’s intervention in Libya in 2011 only underlines the fact that regime change is easier when one has given up the nuclear option.

That point brings us to the question of the missing pillar in the NPT system: the security of states that forgo nuclear weapons under the treaty. Not surprisingly, the idea of negative and positive security assurances has been a large part of the NPT debate over the decades. Negative security assurances—that is, assurances (sometimes with caveats) not to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against NNWS of the NPT—have often been delivered by the great powers. But such promises are neither here nor there. Where the great powers have given positive security assurances—in other words, where they have formed alliances, as in Western Europe and East Asia—the dike against proliferation has held firm (although the credibility of these alliance commitments could erode in East Asia in the face of China’s rising power and new concerns about the credibility of U.S. extended deterrence). Great powers, however, cannot be expected to bear the burden of alliance commitments merely for the sake of preserving the NPT. Such commitments are inevitably related to the resources and national security priorities of each great power.

One important weakness of the NPT is the lack of an enforcement mechanism. The implicit assumption had been that the great powers, especially the nuclear superpowers, have a strong stake in preventing proliferation and would have the political will to punish those that violate the treaty. The record of the last few decades has made it difficult to put much stock in that assumption. Interests other than the defense of the NPT system have prevented the great powers from acting purposefully and in concert against presumed offenders. The blind eye that the United States has turned toward Israel’s nuclear weapons as well as its readiness to countenance Pakistan’s clandestine nuclear weapons program during the 1980s, when Washington needed Islamabad’s support in bleeding the Soviet bear in Afghanistan, are two examples of nuclear realpolitik. When the United States actively promoted India’s nuclear exceptionalism during a period from 2005 to 2008, China reacted by offering additional nuclear reactors to Pakistan, in violation of its earlier assurances to the NSG.

The increasing reluctance of Russia and China to follow the Western approach on Iran and North Korea highlights an emerging structural challenge to the NPT system: the weakening of the United States and the West, especially after the global financial crisis of 2007–2008. If the NPT system eroded in the last two decades—at a time when American and Western power were at their apogee—its prospects under the emerging multipolar world could be much dimmer. The implications of this structural change in the coming years could far outweigh the recent West versus NAM arguments. Those who have endlessly complained about Western unilateralism with regard to the NPT will have a hard time coping with Western weaknesses in countering proliferation, a certain amount of which must be anticipated. If the West fails to reverse the nuclearization of North Korea and stop Iran’s nuclear weapons program, that will have a greater effect on the NPT system than all the divisive arguments that Miller analyzes.

Rather than searching for solutions within the narrow framework of the NPT, the focus of nonproliferation efforts in the coming decades should be on adapting to changes in the global distribution of power; building a great-power coalition (if not a concert) that can act outside the NPT framework to slow the proliferation of nuclear weapons; and maintaining effective regional balances to reduce incentives for nuclear weapons acquisition. During the last two decades, the enormous power gap between the United States and the rest has allowed the debate to be framed by the West in terms of presumed nonproliferation norms. The emphasis has been on legalistic arguments, technical solutions, and reliance on Western dominance in multilateral institutions. However, the nonproliferation community will not have these luxuries available in the next two decades. The premium will instead be on restoring a strategic approach to nonproliferation amidst a relative decline of the West and a steady diffusion of power in the international system.