Would We Really Miss the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty?

Article excerpt

The nuclear nonproliferation treaty (NPT) has been described by one of its proponents as the most ambitious attempt to extend the civilizing reach of the rule of law over humankind's destructive capacity.1 In fact, the NPT is perceived by many as indispensable for international security and world order. Yet there is a widespread impression that the regime is in deep crisis and may soon collapse. Several factors contribute to this assessment: North Korea's nuclear weapons program; concerns about the growing noncompliance of regime members, particularly in the case of Iran; the fact that three nuclear-weapons countries continue to abstain from the nuclear nonproliferation regime-India, Pakistan, and Israel; insufficient verification procedures; limited consensus in the international community about enforcement of the treaty; an increasingly bitter struggle between nuclear haves and havenots about the nuclear disarmament commitments of the former; and a renaissance of the civilian use of nuclear energy and the possibility of access to weapons-critical technology for ever more states (and nonstate actors). In addition, the recent US-India deal on civil nuclear energy cooperation is a big disappointment for all those governments who thought that their decision to renounce nuclear weapons would be awarded with access to civil nuclear technology. If the US-India deal is implemented, India could have both weapons and reactors.

Consequently, the NPT's legitimacy is decreasing. One may however argue that the NPT will survive, if only because the five permanent members of the UN security council have a strong interest in maintaining the regime since it provides them with a privileged position as legitimate nuclear powers. But if the international community wants to preserve the NPT as a living document rather than an empty shell, governments will be confronted with some hard choices. This becomes particularly salient in view of the case of Iran. If Tehran manages to develop a nuclear weapons option despite its treaty obligations, a collapse of the NPT becomes very likely. More effective sanctions, though, let alone military action, would come at a severe price. Therefore, it seems appropriate to ask a question that may sound radical to many: would we really miss the NPT? For NPT pundits, the answer is obvious: the end of the NPT would result in a world with ever more nuclear weapons that would sooner or later get used. These experts also point out that without the NPT, the dream of a nuclear-free world would also come to an end. Others are more cautious. Even without the NPT in place, these analysts assert, more nuclear proliferation would not be inevitable.

Recently, the academic debate on the NPT and its future has become more philosophical in nature. William Walker argues that the treaty was a child of a grand enlightment project, setting up an international order of mutual commitments and cooperation among the nations. At the same time, Walker holds the Bush administration's nonproliferation policy responsible for the normative decline of the nuclear order. Engaging in both unilateral approaches and rogue states' rhetoric, the Bush administration has embarked on a counter-enlightment strategy.2 Walker's statements triggered a lot of criticism, and in many respects, his accusations made the discussion more controversial. This article seeks to calm the debate. In its first part, it asks if we would be confronted with a world of more nuclear weapons states instantly once the NPT had collapsed. It then proceeds with a discussion of the relationship between the NPT and nuclear disarmament. The article concludes by highlighting some often neglected aspects in favour of the NPT.


Nuclear regime purists expect a nuclear avalanche once the NPT is buried. They believe that there are mainly three reasons why NPT members, previously once adhering to the regime and therefore convinced not to go nuclear, would then, in such a situation, decide to acquire nuclear weapons: assertiveness, security, and prestige. …