Strategic Culture

July 1 is the day when the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) marks the 50th anniversary of its signing. Opened for signature in 1968, it became effective in 1970. Extended indefinitely in 1995, the NPT has become the most universal international agreement, aside from the United Nations Charter, with 191 states having joined the milestone treaty. North Korea left it in 2003 and four countries – India, Pakistan. Israel and South Sudan – never acceded to it.

The document is reviewed every five years at Review Conferences of the Parties to the Treaty of Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. Geneva will host the next one in 2020. 185 countries have remained non-nuclear. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov cited expert estimates, which conclude that up to fifty countries might have eventually acquired nuclear weapons if it were not for the treaty. South Africa, which actually had produced some nuclear munitions, Brazil, Argentina and some other states have rejected their nuclear military programs.

The Antarctic, Latin America, the South Pacific, Southern Asia, Africa and Central Asia are nuclear-weapon-free zones encompassing about 120 nations. The entire Southern Hemisphere has remained free of nukes.

In about 30 years, the combined nuclear arsenals of Russia and the United States have been reduced by a factor of five or six in comparison with the peak the Cold War. To a much lesser extent, France and the UK have reduced their nuclear offensive weapons too. That’s on the bright side of things.

The failure to prevent more nations going nuclear is on the negative side. The Pyongyang’s withdrawal was possible because the document does not outline any repercussions to follow after pulling out to subsequently proliferate. Its pull out was quite legal pursuant to Article X, point 1 of the NPT.

Many states have not ratified the 1997 Additional Protocol to the IAEA, which significantly strengthens nuclear safeguards in non-nuclear-weapon states granting expanded rights of access to information and locations. The NPT does not say anything about punitive measures to be taken against those who violate the treaty.

A conference on the establishment of weapons of mass destruction-free zone in the Middle East agreed on at the 2010 Nuclear Summit has never materialized. Deadlocked for many years, the talks on a Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty have bleak prospects as the US-Russian cooperation on the safety and security of nuclear sites and materials ended in 2014.

The US and Russia are the only powers to be engaged in arms control regime. Third nuclear-weapon states have not agreed to legally binding nuclear-weapon limitations.

The NPT is an agreement of non-nuclear-weapon states not to go nuclear in exchange for assistance in developing peaceful atomic energy. The problem of North Korea has a good chance to be solved now but some countries can follow its example and use peaceful nuclear energy projects for acquiring either nuclear weapons or the technology to develop them. The example of Libya, which had cancelled its nuclear program to be attacked by NATO in 2011, may provoke some nations into applying clandestine efforts to acquire a nuclear deterrent “to be on the safe side.”

The treaty does not restrict neither the development of dual-use technologies nor the accumulation of nuclear materials for peaceful purposes allowed under Article IV, point 2. Neither does it provide a clear definition of what exactly constitutes a violation and when can a state be accused of trespassing the threshold. Conducting tests? Israel has acquired the nuclear capability without them. India was recognized as a nuclear power only in 1998 though the first test took place in 1974.

Expanding uranium enrichment capability and increasing low-enriched stockpile, openly or secretly in the sites hidden underground, are the activities not explicitly banned by the treaty. Adding definitions to make precise what is what could significantly improve the text of the document. The introduction of a standard clause to compel states to return all dual-use nuclear technologies and materials acquired within the framework of the treaty in the event they decide to leave it would be a step in the right direction.

One more weak point – the treaty does not provide security guarantees to non-nuclear-weapon states.

Nevertheless, the NPT has played an instrumental role in preventing the spread of nuclear weapons (NW) and their technology, remaining to be the bedrock of the non-proliferation regime. NW are still housed in North America, Europe, South Asia, East Asia, and the Middle East.

In his speech to the UN Assembly in 1988, Mikhail Gorbachev, the President of the Soviet Union, proposed to eliminate all nuclear weapons in a phased program to be implemented by 2000. No wonder, those days he led the country, which was a founding nation actively involved in preparing the NPT for the consideration by the international community. Comprehensive disarmament could have been achievable if the US joined the effort. But it did not, rejecting the idea of radical nuclear disarmament through the NPT.

The ratification by the US of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) would have been a significant contribution into the non-proliferation process but it has not happened.

Another major contribution into the effectiveness of the NPT the US could make is to take home all its tactical nuclear weapons based in other countries. No other nuclear weapon state has its weapons deployed outside national borders. Keeping nukes in other countries is proliferation.

The US plans to integrate modernized B61-12 guided nuclear bombs with stealth F-35 bombers. About half of the munitions are earmarked for delivery by national aircraft of NATO allies with crews going through special training. It constitutes a violation. The treaty prohibits nuclear weapon states from transferring nukes to other recipients (Article I) as well as from receiving NW (Article II).

The US unilateral withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal has delivered a severe blow to the NPT. The IAEA has stated that Iran complies with the agreement’s provisions. Now any state ready to meet the NPT terms will know that its efforts may go down the drain because the fate of international agreements depends on US whims.

The United States could do much more to make the global non-proliferation regime more effective. Hopefully, the issue will be addressed in a constructive way at the US-Russian summit in Helsinki scheduled on July 16. Other states could also contribute into making the 2020 Review Conference more productive than the previous ones.

Nobody can do it alone. Only cooperation between major global powers and alliances, coupled with effective action, can reverse the current negative trends and stop the spread of dangerous materials, and know-how. The 50th anniversary of the NPT is the appropriate moment to reflect on the future and consider ways to make the global non-proliferation regime more effective.