Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty

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The nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) is the only legally binding multilateral agreement that commits signatory states to an active pursuit of disarmament. It is a major example of an attempt to govern the development and use of technology, in this case, one of the most powerful technologies ever developed.

Historical Development

Early post-World War II efforts to contain the proliferation of nuclear weapons were unsuccessful. The United States (1945) was followed rapidly by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics ([Soviet Union] now Russia, 1949), United Kingdom (1952), France (1960), and the People's Republic of China (1964) as nuclear weapons states (NWS), quickly dissipating assumptions that nuclear technology was difficult to both acquire and master. In fact the increasing construction of nuclear reactors introduced a sense of urgency for a multilateral treaty that would halt and eventually reverse the proliferation of nuclear energy and weapons technology. The NPT was therefore designed to strike a balance between the NWS, the five states who manufactured and or exploded a nuclear weapon prior to January 1, 1967, and non-nuclear weapon states (NNWS), in ways that would diminish and eventually eradicate the use of nuclear weapons.

Throughout the 1950s, there were a series of initiatives by both NWS and NNWS to check the proliferation of nuclear technology. Although there were fundamental disagreements between the United States and the Soviet Union on the specifics of these initiatives, these efforts nevertheless set the precedent for a multilateral treaty that would include non-dissemination and non-acquisition principles as its fundamentals.

These NPT negotiations took place in three distinct phases. Phase one consisted of bilateral talks in the late 1950s and early 1960s between the United States and the Soviet Union. Although both countries favored non-proliferation, there were serious divergences on how to implement it. The United States, along with Canada, France, and the United Kingdom, submitted a package to the United Nations in August 1957 that included a non-transfer commitment. The Soviets objected on the grounds that it still allowed for the deployment by a nuclear power of its weapons under the justification of self-defense, and wanted to add a clause prohibiting the stationing of nuclear weapons in foreign countries.

The main sticking point continued to be the U.S. proposal for a North Atlantic Treaty Organization-based (NATO) Multilateral Nuclear Force (MNF), which the Soviets argued constituted proliferation. Although the U.S. draft treaty sought to clarify collective defense arrangements by maintaining that the United States would hold a veto on deployment of U.S. weapons, the Soviets would not agree to such a provision. However both countries ultimately agreed on the premise that nuclear nonproliferation was of the utmost importance. The United States conceded on the collective defense MNF and in the end of 1966 the Soviet and U.S. chairmen of the Eighteen-Nation Disarmament Committee (ENDC) reached a tenable agreement on the basic premises of the proposed NPT.

Phase two of deliberations occurred between the United States and its NATO allies. The NNWS members of NATO expressed significant concern over the planning of nuclear defense within the confines of their region without their full consent. The United States sought to clarify how a non-proliferation treaty would support collective defense obligations. The U.S. interpretation of the draft treaty stated that while nuclear weapons and the framework of the treaty covered explosive devices, delivery systems were not included. Therefore the treaty did not prohibit planning of nuclear defense between the NATO allies, nor deployment of U.S. controlled and operated nuclear weapons on territory of non-nuclear NATO members. The Soviets did not object to this interpretation, as the United States would maintain full control over their nuclear weapons throughout Europe, specifically where nuclear weapons were deployed.

Phase three of the negotiation took place throughout the 1960s in the United Nations and occurred simultaneously with the bilateral U.S.–U.S.S.R. talks as well as the NATO negotiations. It began when the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Irish resolution in 1961 calling for all states to enter into a nonproliferation treaty that would outlaw the transfer and acquisition of nuclear weapons. Following the Irish resolution was UN resolution 2028 in 1965, which codified five principles necessary for a non-proliferation treaty: Both NWS and NNWS states would be prohibited from proliferation of any kind; NWS and NNWS would share the responsibilities of the treaty; the goal of the treaty would be nuclear disarmament but also general and complete disarmament; there would be practical policies in place to ensure the effectiveness of said treaty; and the establishment of nuclear weapon free zones should not be hindered by the treaty. Resolution 2028 provided the fundamental framework for the final version of the NPT and it was from this document that the United States and Soviet Union began to develop an actual codified multilateral treaty to end proliferation of nuclear weapons.

Finally on August 24, 1967, the United States and the Soviet Union submitted identical but separate drafts of the treaty to the ENDC. After many revisions, the treaty was approved by the UN General Assembly and opened for signature on June 12, 1968, to the depositary governments of the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union. The treaty went into effect on March 5, 1970. France and China eventually signed on as did 183 NNWS.

NPT Commitments: Successes and Failures

The NPT commits signatory NWS to not transfer their nuclear weapons to NNWS, or assist them in acquiring nuclear weapons. NNWS signatories agree to renounce nuclear weapons, and to remain open to inspections of their nuclear materials and activities by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The NPT further commits states to hold conferences every five years in Geneva, Switzerland, to review the implementation and effectiveness of the treaty. In 1995, twenty-five years after the formal commencement of the treaty, the review conference voted to extend the agreement indefinitely, as opposed to holding five year reviews.

The NPT is important in that it is the legal basis for the nonproliferation and disarmament regime and the only universal arms control treaty. Countries throughout the world have been able to develop nuclear power for peaceful purposes without threatening neighbors or enemies. The NPT has had such an impact that, more than thirty-five years later, there are only eight countries that possess nuclear weapons (United States, Russia, France, England, China, India, Pakistan, and North Korea), a far cry from the hundred that was once predicted. Several countries, including South Africa, Argentina, and Brazil, have even been convinced to give up nuclear capabilities based on the strength of the regime.

While all the successes of the NPT may never be known, there are also some negatives to the regime. Critics contend that the larger share of the responsibility falls on NNWS, and that they face a military disadvantage because they are required to submit their programs to IAEA inspections while NWS are not. Non-aligned NNWS—that is, countries who are not part of a military alliance with the NWS states—sought security assurances that the NWS would not use weapons against them, but this was never explicitly confirmed in the final draft of the NPT.

Others claim that IAEA safeguards are oftentimes ineffectual, as was the case with Libya, which denied, and North Korea, which continues to deny access for IAEA inspection. India, which first tested a peaceful nuclear device in May 1974; Pakistan which tested a nuclear weapon in May 1998 following a test by India; and Israel are not party to the NPT, but all have nuclear weapons. For them to join, they would have to dismantle their nuclear weapons, as South Africa did in 1991. The world continues to encourage these countries to renounce their nuclear program and join the NPT. However each of the three nations is known to have nuclear weapons, as is North Korea, proving that despite the strides made by the NPT, proliferation is still possible and a valid threat to international security. Nevertheless those states party to the NPT continue to endeavor to strengthen the effectiveness of the NPT, and remain committed to securing nuclear free zones, and checking the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

The NPT, in both its successes and failures, exemplifies efforts to develop mechanisms of international governance for technologies of international significance. In this respect it may be compared to the Montreal Protocol for the reduction of the emissions of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) or the Kyoto Protocol for the reduction of green house gas emissions. Comparisons might also be made with the Law of the Sea Treaty for international sharing in the exploitation of seabed mineral resources and treaties to demilitarize space. The need for multinational governance of science and technology is clearly an important issue about which greater sophistication will only be developed by trial and error learning.


SEE ALSO Baruch Plan; Just War; Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty; Military Ethics; Nuclear Ethics.


Bailey, Emily; Richard Guthrie; Daryl Howlett; and John Simpson. (2000). Programme for Promoting Nuclear Non-Proliferation Briefing Book Volume I: The Evolution of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Regime, 6th edition. Southampton, UK: Mountbatten Centre for International Studies.

Sokolski, Henry. (2001). Best of Intentions: America's Campaign against Strategic Weapons Proliferation. Westport, CT: Praeger Publications.


Monterey Institute of International Studies. "Center for Nonproliferation Studies Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons Treaty Tutorial." Available from

United Nations. "Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons." Available from

United States Department of State. "Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons." Available from

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The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), formally called the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons, is the cornerstone of the international effort to halt the proliferation, or spread, of nuclear weapons (State Department, United States Treaties and Other International Agreements, Vol. 21, part 1 [1970], pp. 483–494). The NPT was first signed in 1968 by three nuclear powers—the United States, the Soviet Union, and the United Kingdom—and by nearly 100 states without nuclear weapons. It came into force in 1970, and by the mid 1990s it had been signed by 168 countries.

The NPT distinguishes between nuclear-weapon states and non-nuclear-weapon states. It identifies five nuclear-weapon states: China, France, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

Article II forbids non-nuclear-weapon states that are parties to the treaty to manufacture or otherwise acquire nuclear weapons or nuclear explosive devices. Article III concerns controls and inspections that are intended to prevent the diversion of nuclear energy from peaceful uses to nuclear weapons or explosive devices. These safeguards are applied only to non-nuclear-weapon states and only to peaceful nuclear activities. The treaty contains no provisions for verification of the efforts by nuclear-weapon states to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

Under the provisions of Article IV, all parties to the treaty, including non-nuclear-weapon states, may conduct nuclear research and development for peaceful purposes. In return for agreeing not to develop nuclear weapons, non-nuclear-weapon states receive two promises from nuclear-weapon states: the latter will help them to develop nuclear technology for peaceful purposes (Art. IV), and the latter will "pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament" (Art. VI) (as quoted in U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency 1982, 93).

Since 1975, NPT signatory countries have held a review conference every five years to discuss treaty compliance and enforcement.

North Korea has caused international concerns since 1993, with its attempts to develop a nuclear arsenal. In 1993, North Korea announced that it would withdraw from the NPT, only to rescind its withdrawal shortly thereafter. In 1994, North Korea and the United States entered into an agreement whereby the United States agreed to provide power supplies and other necessities in exchange for North Korea's promise not to pursue the development of nuclear weapons. However, in October 2002, North Korea announced that it would resume its program to develop these weapons. On January 10, 2003, it announced again that it would withdraw from the treaty, effective the following day. Although the NPT requires that nations adhere to a three-month waiting period to withdraw from the treaty, North Korea claimed that it had already done so, for it originally had announced its withdrawal in 1993. North Korea's attempts to develop nuclear weapons have brought crisis to that region, and South Korea and Japan have sought U.S. assistance to resolve the crisis through diplomacy.

further readings

Dekker, Guido den. 2001. The Law of Arms Control: International Supervision and Enforcement. Norwell, Mass.: Kluwer Law International.

Kegley, Charles W., Jr., and Eugene R. Wittkopf. 1993. World Politics. 4th ed. New York: St. Martin's Press.

Mandelbaum, Michael. 1995. "Lessons of the Next Nuclear War." Foreign Affairs (March–April).

Sheehan, Michael. 1988. Arms Control: Theory and Practice. Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell.

U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. 1982. Arms Control and Disarmament Agreements: Texts and Histories of Negotiations.


Arms Control and Disarmament.

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NUCLEAR NON-PROLIFERATION TREATY (1968). Following more than a decade of discussions, on 12 June 1968 the United Nations General Assembly approved the text of a nuclear non-proliferation treaty authored primarily by representatives from the United States and the Soviet Union. On 1 July 1968 the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union signed the treaty, along with fifty-nine other countries. American President Lyndon Johnson submitted the treaty to the U.S. Senate for ratification on 9 July 1968, but after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia on 20–21 August 1968, the Senate was unwilling to approve any treaty with Moscow. As tensions between the superpowers cooled in early 1969, newly inaugurated President Richard Nixon resubmitted the treaty to the Senate. The Senate ratified the treaty on 13 March 1969, and Nixon signed it into law on 24 November 1969. In March 1970, the treaty took effect as international law.

The treaty had three main provisions. First, it prohibited the declared nuclear states (as of 1 January 1967)—the United States, the Soviet Union, Great Britain, France, and the People's Republic of China—from transferring nuclear weapons to nonnuclear states. Nonnuclear states were not allowed to receive or manufacture nuclear weapons. Second, the treaty protected the peaceful uses of nuclear energy by all states. International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards would assure that nuclear energy was not diverted into nuclear weapons. Third, the treaty obligated nuclear weapons states to "pursue negotiations in good faith" for "general and complete disarmament."

Only Israel, India, Pakistan, and Cuba have refused to sign the treaty. They claim that the treaty is unfair because it privileges the nuclear "haves" of the 1960s, while preventing other states from acquiring their own nuclear arsenals. India, in particular, has also accused the United States and other nations of failing to meet their stated obligation to negotiate for "general and complete disarmament." In the twenty-first century the proponents of the treaty will have to seek ways of overcoming these criticisms.


Bundy, McGeorge. Danger and Survival: Choices About the Bomb in the First Fifty Years. New York: Vintage Books, 1990.

Bunn, George. Arms Control by Committee: Managing Negotiations with the Russians. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1992.

———. Extending the Non-proliferation Treaty: Legal Questions Faced by the Parties in 1995. Washington, D.C.: American Society of International Law, 1994.

Garthoff, Raymond L. Détente and Confrontation: American-Soviet Relations from Nixon to Reagan. revised ed. Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institution, 1994.


See alsoArms Race and Disarmament .