NPT at Fifty: taking stock

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Jul 6, 2018 1 Comment ›› orepa

In the year following Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as information about the complete devastation of the cities and the persistence of radiation poisoning filtered out into the public domain, concern about the threat of atomic/nuclear weapons registered in the public imagination. In the US, concerns about the threats posed by nuclear energy were offset to a degree by two factors: curiosity about the possible benefits of nuclear energy and the fact that we were the only ones who had militarized that energy into a bomb.

That changed when Russia exploded its first atomic weapon, and it changed more when both the US and Russia exploded thermonuclear bombs—many orders of magnitude greater than Little Boy or Fat Man, big enough to wipe out an entire city with one multi-megaton bomb.

Since then, geopolitical perceptions and, more rarely, insights into other threats posed by nuclear weapons, have largely determined the level of public concern. The Cuban missile crisis, a growing understanding of the risks posed by fallout from atmospheric testing, the tensions of the Cold War—these elements created momentum to reduce or at least constrain the dangers posed by nuclear weapons in the 1960s and led to a series of international treaties —a Partial Test Ban Treaty in 1963, an Outer Space treaty in 1967, the Treaty of Tlatelolco declaring Latin America a nuclear-free zone in 1967, and the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty in 1968.

Other treaties have come since then. One—the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty— came, in 1972, and went, thirty years later, when George W. Bush abrogated it in order to pursue the chimera of security by deploying anti-missile technologies to eastern Europe.

But it was the Nonproliferation Treaty, the NPT, on which the world hung its highest hopes for constraining the spread of nuclear weapons and eliminating the threat of nuclear weapons by reducing the stockpiles of existing weapons to zero. Article VI of the Treaty promised that weapons states would negotiate to end the arms race and achieve complete disarmament “at an early date.”


The NPT opened for signatures on July 1, 1968, and was immediately signed by the United States, the Soviet Union and Great Britain. So, for those of us who pay attention to nuclear weapons issues, the fiftieth birthday is a good time for taking stock.

Since the Treaty went into effect (in 1970, after garnering the requisite number of signatures and ratifications), it has grown to be the broadest arms control treaty in history, with 189 signatory nations. Twenty-five years after its entry into force, a review conference was convened in at the United Nations. At that review, the decision was taken to continue the Treaty indefinitely and to meet every five years to review progress.

In the ensuing years, non-nuclear states have expressed growing frustration at the pace of de-nuclearization by the weapons states. In 1996, the International Court of Justice (World Court) was asked to issue an Advisory Opinion on nuclear weapons. Over the objections of the United States and other weapons states, the World Court found that the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons would be a violation of customary humanitarian law. The Court also declared, by a unanimous vote, that all nuclear weapons states, even those not party to the NPT, had a positive obligation not only to pursue, but to achieve nuclear disarmament—the court quoted Article VI of the NPT in its opinion.

In the following decade, the NPT review conferences, in an attempt to establish a framework of accountability and to spur the nuclear weapons states to take action, established a program of thirteen practical steps that weapons states should take in pursuit of their 1968 obligation. The weapons states were required to report on their progress at subsequent review conferences—those reports, when filed, have recorded little actual progress in getting to zero.

Checking the ledger, we see:

On the plus side, the two largest nuclear weapons states have concluded several treaties that led to significant stockpile reductions. From Cold War highs of tens of thousands of nuclear weapons, the US and Russia both have reduced their warhead numbers to about 5,000, with 1,500 actively deployed. On the not-so-plus side, these numbers still represent a massive imbalance of power when compared to all the rest of the world, and 1,500 warheads could kill hundreds of millions or people and render the planet largely uninhabitable in the space of one afternoon.

On the plus side, the spread of nuclear weapons has been constrained by the NPT, and by other treaties that have designated large parts of the world nuclear-free zones. On the minus side, in 1968 there were five nuclear powers; fifty years later the number has almost doubled—there are now nine. That doubling did not take fifty years—it happened over the last twenty years.

But perhaps the most telling measure of the NPT’s success is the action taken by 122 nations in July of 2017 when they voted to adopt the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons at the United Nations. The United States, along with other nuclear-armed states and many of the states under their “nuclear umbrella,” denounced the Treaty on the Prohibition (which has come to be called the Ban Treaty.)

Writing in The Hill, a Washington, DC based newsletter, George A. Lopez noted, “The ban treaty quickly faced significant condemnation from the nuclear powers and their allies protected by their ‘nuclear umbrella.’ In September 2017, the NATO ministers were clear when they stated, ‘The ban treaty is at odds with the existing nonproliferation and disarmament architecture.’ They said it risks undermining the original treaty, which has been at the ‘heart of global nonproliferation and disarmament efforts for almost 50 years.’ The ban treaty, in their view, ‘disregards the realities of the increasingly challenging international security environment.’”

It is worth noting that the NATO critics are mostly right. It is also worth noting that is exactly the point of the Ban Treaty. Many of the proponents of the Ban Treaty would argue the architecture of the NPT has proven, over fifty years, inadequate to compel weapons states to meet their obligations. Quite the contrary, it seems to have allowed them to settle into a comfort zone with nuclear weapons possession. Often the major power weapons states have used the NPT as a tool to forbid the horizontal proliferation of nuclear weapons while ignoring the vertical proliferation among weapons states. Even today, in 2018, the United States is embarked on a trillion dollar modernization program that will result in new bomb production plants, new weapons systems, new warheads and new warhead delivery vehicles.

Ban Treaty advocates have argued that it is the Ban Treaty that is most seriously engaging “the realities of the increasingly challenging international security environment.” Global instability exacerbates nuclear risks from weapons states and from other actors who, because of the ongoing weapons programs spread around the globe, could have access to nuclear weapons or weapons materials. While Ban Treaty proponents have not said they want to undermine the NPT, they rightly challenge the efficacy of the NPT, fifty years on. No longer content to accept the nuclear powers’ reading of Article VI (“We’re negotiating, just like we promised!” and “At an early date is a relative term.”), they want to kick-start a new effort to rid the world of nuclear weapons.

The conflict between the two parties seems to be reducible, and how one sees things depends on one’s point of view. The weapons states have confidence in their capacity to maintain security and order—just the way they like it—by relying on their military power, the foundation of which remains thermonuclear weapons of mass destruction.

Non-nuclear weapons states see themselves as increasingly vulnerable, even if only as collateral damage, in an increasingly unstable global environment. Even some of those who are currently under the US nuclear umbrella would prefer not to need an umbrella at all, correctly judging that no risk (a world without nuclear weapons) is safer than some risk, especially when the stakes are so high.

Fifty years after the signing of the NPT, it seems unlikely that the Treaty will ever achieve its crowning goal of a world free of nuclear weapons. There is a chance that the growing global support for the Ban Treaty could re-energize arms reduction efforts among the weapons states. Or that the wide acceptance of the Ban Treat will prove, when it enters into force, to be a wedge that can be used by activists and governments to compel the weapons states to take irreversible steps toward complete disarmament.

To be honest, it does not seem likely. The fact that the United States has developed conventional weapons that are completely capable of defending US soil and interests around the globe and projecting overwhelming devastating military might as a deterrent, the fact that long-time war horses like Henry Kissinger, William Perry, George Shultz, Sam Nunn, Lee Butler, William Horner and others have called for the US to take concrete steps toward disarmament, the setting of the hands of the Doomsday Clock to 2 minutes ‘til midnight, the saber rattling between the US and North Korea, and the false alert in Hawai’i—none of these have shaken the general public acceptance of (or resignation to) the nuclear threat, nor have they caused policy-makers to alter their fundamental belief, however illusory or irrational it may be, that nuclear weapons are ultimately a security guarantor and thus an asset.

That explains why the US is comfortable with the NPT, which they read as allowing them to keep their nukes as long as they are doing something, and not with the Ban Treaty, which demands that they do what they promised to do fifty years ago or be branded international outlaws.


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  1. Kim Bergier says:

    Thank you, Ralph, for once again summing up so much information in lay language so we-the-people can understand “what the hell is going on”!

    In my research to find out how many nuclear weapons there are in our world today I found a U.S. News article from 9-26-2017 by Chelsea Bailey, titled “How Many Nuclear Weapons Exist? U.N. Calls for Total Elimination of Nukes”. If you look it up you can see a table (per Hans Kristensen, FAS) that illustrates “Nuclear arsenals across the world”. Russia has 7,000 warheads, U.S. 6,800, France 300, China 270, U.K. 215, Pakistan 120-130, India 110-120, Israel 80 and North Korea 20-40 warheads.

    I take heart in knowing 59 countries have signed the U.N. Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons and 11 have ratified it, as of 7-14-2018. Now to get 39 more countries to ratify it!

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