Although recent events pose serious challenges to international efforts to limit the global spread of nuclear weapons, the nonproliferation regime is by many measures a great success. Despite pessimistic past projections that the world would by now contain twenty, thirty, or more nuclear weapons states, only three countries have joined the five nuclear weapons states acknowledged by the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1968 in openly declaring their status. As the cornerstone of international efforts to limit the spread of nuclear weapons, the NPT is unusual in two respects. First, in contrast to virtually all international treaties, it is discriminatory by design. The treaty recognizes and locks in inequality by regulating access to powerful weapons. Second, despite inequalities in rights and obligation, membership has grown to make the NPT the most widely ratified arms-control agreement in history, with 187 parties. In 2006, the only countries in the world remaining outside the treaty were India, Israel, and Pakistan (although North Korea declared its withdrawal in 2003). However, in recent years the regime has faced its greatest challenges, ranging from the potential emergence of new nuclear weapons powers to the apparent disinterest of the United States in the NPT.
The impetus for the NPT grew out of dissatisfaction with the “Atoms for Peace” policies promoted by U.S. president Dwight D. Eisenhower’s administration during the 1950s. Under this program the United States offered unrestricted access to nuclear fuel in exchange for the promise that it be used only for peaceful purposes. The Atoms for Peace framework established the core bargain that would underpin the NPT: Countries that give up the military potential of the atom should be able to enjoy the full peaceful benefits of it. Oversight tasks were vested in a United Nations (UN) agency created to monitor Atoms for Peace transfers: the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
However, shortcomings in the Atoms for Peace/IAEA framework soon became apparent. By focusing only on nuclear materials transferred explicitly under specific agreements, the arrangement neglected to regulate technology, material, and knowledge developed indigenously (or copied from transferred material). At the initiative of the United States, Soviet Union, and United Kingdom, a new framework designed to monitor and regulate all nuclear material was negotiated. This became the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which opened for signatures in 1968 and entered into force in 1970. A grand bargain forms the core of the NPT: In exchange for forgoing nuclear weapons, nonnuclear weapons states gained access to technology necessary for nuclear energy and secured a commitment from the nuclear weapons states “to pursue negotiations in good faith” aimed at nuclear disarmament. The treaty thus strives to stem both horizontal proliferation (the spread of weapons beyond the five nuclear weapons states acknowledged by the treaty: the United States, Soviet Union, United Kingdom, France, and China) and vertical proliferation (by reducing the arsenals of these five). Article X of the treaty allows a party to withdraw from the treaty if “extraordinary events” jeopardize the “supreme interests of its country.” All other parties of the treaty and the UN Security Council must be notified three months prior to withdrawal. The NPT has a supply-side orientation aimed at regulating the use of nuclear technology, with relatively little concern for reducing the demand for nuclear weapons. To the extent that states desire nuclear weapons to gain security and prestige, the NPT does relatively little.
The NPT established a set of international safeguards to obstruct the diversion of nuclear material and technology from energy to weapons programs. Administered by the IAEA, safeguards entail the monitoring and inspection of material and facilities declared by the signatory state. Iraq exposed the loophole in this arrangement by limiting its weapons-related activity to clandestine, undeclared facilities that remained outside the IAEA’s inspection regime. To close this loophole, the IAEA obtained an expanded legal mandate in the form of an additional protocol providing inspectors with the authority to visit any and all facilities, declared or not. First available for signature in 1997, the Additional Protocol remains voluntary; members are encouraged, but not required, to sign. As of 2006, 78 Additional Protocol agreements are in force, and 110 states have signed them.
Although central to the treaty, safeguard arrangements are not backed by an effective enforcement mechanism. The IAEA itself can only suspend technical assistance to a country in violation of its safeguard agreements. To pursue stricter measures, the IAEA must refer a noncomplying country to the UN Security Council, which can choose to impose further sanctions. These range up to and include military intervention if action is taken under Chapter VII of the UN charter, which permits military intervention by other states in the face of a threat to international peace and security. However, the difficulty of achieving consensus in the Security Council—where each of the five nuclear weapons states (NWS) holds a veto—makes vigorous enforcement unlikely.
India’s “peaceful nuclear explosion” in 1974 exposed another weakness in the NPT-based nonproliferation regime by demonstrating that nuclear technology transferred for peaceful uses could easily be misused. In response the United States proposed forming the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), a group of nuclear technology exporters that seeks to control the export of nuclear materials, equipment, and technology. Growing from an initial membership of seven in 1975 to forty-five in 2006, the NSG had the advantage of including countries not party to the NPT (at the time of its origin including France, who, along with China was given NWS status but had refused to sign until 1992) and regulating exports to all countries. However, Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program revealed two shortcomings in the NSG: National exports were weak at blocking transfer of subcomponents, and countries varied widely in the vigor with which they regulated exports.
In 1995 after month-long negotiations, the NPT extension conference adopted a motion to extend the treaty indefinitely. Although successful, the negotiations revealed divisions among members, most notably dissatisfaction among many non-nuclear powers at the limited progress of the NWS in reducing their own arsenals. Responding to these concerns, the conference adopted a “Principles and Objectives” calling for the completion of a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the conclusion of a fissile material cut-off treaty, and the “determined pursuit” by the NWS of efforts to reduce nuclear arsenals. The extension conference also established a strengthened review process in which conferences to promote full implementation are held at five-year intervals. The first review conference in 2000 called once again for the “unequivocal undertaking” by the NWS of steps toward reducing their nuclear arsenals. Divisions among members had grown so great by the time of the 2005 review conference that members were unable even to agree on an agenda.
The immediate aftermath of the cold war brought both peril and promise in terms of the spread of nuclear weapons. The collapse of the Soviet Union created three new nuclear powers overnight in 1991, as Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine inherited the nuclear weapons that had been stationed in their territories. Moreover, many scholars believed that the combination of security guarantees and restraint provided to their allies by the United States and the Soviet Union during the cold war had limited the spread of nuclear weapons. Removal of these guarantees and restraints, it was feared, might increase the demand for nuclear weapons. Finally, economic distress, rampant crime, and widespread corruption in Russia fed fears that some of its 27,000 nuclear weapons and large stock of weapons-grade uranium and plutonium would find their way to either terrorists or non-nuclear states.
Yet in the first years after the cold war, the promise seemed to outweigh peril. Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine all returned their weapons to Russia and joined the NPT. South Africa, which had accumulated a small nuclear arsenal, renounced its weapons and joined as well. France and China joined in 1992. And in response to the revelations of Iraq’s circumvention of the safeguard regime, NPT members strengthened inspections, established the Additional Protocol, and extended the treaty indefinitely. Finally, North Korea’s attempt to leave the NPT and acquire nuclear weapons appeared defused by the 1994 Agreed Framework accord with the United States. Contrary to most expectations, by the mid-1990s there were still only five overt nuclear powers (although Israel, India, and Pakistan had unacknowledged weapons capabilities), the number of countries pursuing weapons was falling, and the NPT had become nearly universal.
Recent years have seen new challenges emerge, exposing weaknesses in the nonproliferation regime. The decision of India and Pakistan to test nuclear weapons in 1998 heightened concerns about the three nuclear weapons powers that remain outside the NPT (although Israel does not publicly declare its nuclear weapons status, its nuclear capabilities are widely acknowledged). The three non-NPT nuclear powers are problematic because many countries joined the NPT on the belief that no other countries would openly declare nuclear status. If states successfully retain nuclear weapons outside the treaty, the incentives for members to exercise restraint become ineffective.
The apparent efforts of Iran and North Korea to pursue nuclear weapons from within the treaty pose an even more serious challenge. North Korea detonated a nuclear device in October 2006, and Iran is widely believed to be pursuing nuclear weapons. Both appear to be taking advantage of a key feature of the NPT: Countries can master the nuclear fuel cycle within the treaty and then withdraw to take the final steps in developing nuclear weapons. Obtaining weapons-grade fissile material— highly enriched uranium-235 or plutonium-239—is the only really serious obstacle to developing nuclear weapons. Yet the treaty facilitates mastery of the skills and technology necessary to enrich uranium and to separate plutonium from spent fuel. Once these tasks have been mastered, it is a short step from peaceful activities to producing weapons-grade material. The treaty thus bars countries from making nuclear weapons while providing them with much of the means to do so. Although this tension has long been recognized, no state appears to have pursued this path except North Korea and, perhaps, Iran. If North Korea and Iran acquire an open nuclear weapons capability, it may spur other countries to leave the NPT and also pursue weapons; Japan, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt are frequently suggested as possibilities.
The revelation in 2003 that Pakistani nuclear scientist A. Q. Khan, who headed Pakistan’s nuclear program for almost twenty-five years, had been running a private proliferation network for the export of nuclear technology exposed further weaknesses in the nonproliferation regime. Most of the efforts to control the spread of nuclear technology, such as the Nuclear Suppliers Group, focus on stopping exports from the most technologically advanced countries. Yet the revelations that Khan ran a network selling everything from centrifuges for enriching uranium to bomb designs to Iran, Libya, North Korea, and perhaps a fourth country, raised fears that countries in the developing world with diverse capabilities could trade among themselves to bolster their nuclear programs, bypassing export controls. These fears prompted responses from both the United States and the United Nations. The United States announced the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), in which participating nations agree to forbid suspect shipments. With more than 70 countries participating by 2007, the PSI, unlike other controls, addresses technology transfer among developing countries. And in 2004 the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1540, which requires all members to establish export and transshipment controls over technology relevant to the development of nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons.
Discovery of the Khan network also heightened fears that nuclear weapons might fall into the hands of terrorist organizations. Similar private sector networks, poorly secured weapons and material in Russia, and North Korea are the most frequently cited possibilities as sources of atomic bombs for terrorists. Analysts are divided on the magnitude of this threat. Although nuclear devices would not help most terrorist organizations achieve their goals, terrorists with apocalyptic beliefs or those bent on meting out severe punishment to enemies may find them attractive, and evidence does suggest that Al Qaeda has a persistent interest (of debatable intensity) in weapons of mass destruction.
Although many of the challenges facing the nonproliferation regime suggest the necessity of revising the NPT, current policies of key states make that task difficult. Many see recent U.S. policies as retreats from commitments made at the 1995 review conference; these policies include the failure to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the abandonment of the qualified no-first use pledge made by U.S. president Jimmy Carter’s administration to NPT members, and the persistent interest in new nuclear weapons designs. In addition, the U.S. invasion of Iraq is widely believed to have spurred proliferation by enhancing the appeal of nuclear weapons in the eyes of insecure regimes. Any bargain to reinvigorate the NPT would require commitment by the United States and the other four NWS to move forward on their commitments to disarmament, and most likely require some kind of agreement on the status of the three nuclear weapons states that remain outside the treaty. Given current policies, achieving agreement on reforms appears difficult, if not impossible.
SEE ALSO Al-Qaeda; Cold War; Deterrence, Mutual; Terrorism; Weaponry, Nuclear; Weapons of Mass Destruction
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"Proliferation, Nuclear." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 16, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/proliferation-nuclear
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"Nuclear Proliferation." The Oxford Companion to American Military History. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 16, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/nuclear-proliferation
"Nuclear Proliferation." The Oxford Companion to American Military History. . Retrieved July 16, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/nuclear-proliferation