At first glance, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) seems to offer a concrete solution to the problem posed by nuclear weaponry. As the most widely accepted arms-control agreement, the NPT attempts to codify the prevention of arms proliferation among states. However, a major weakness of the NPT lies in the enforcement of its policies. This weakness has been highlighted by the current defiance of two states and has brought into question the overall effectiveness of the treaty. Iran's continuing non-cooperation emphasizes the problems of measuring compliance and of determining the course of action to take toward uncooperative states. North Korea's past actions and withdrawal from the NPT question the treaty's usefulness as a means of coping with states that no longer find abiding by the agreement worthwhile.
Both cases represent the NPT's ineffectiveness in establishing a consistent and forceful system for preventing nuclear proliferation. Surely future efforts should promote stronger consensus among participating states and uniform mechanisms for addressing illegitimate state action, but it is still uncertain how these goals should be incorporated into a working treaty.
Difficulties in NPT enforcement are not necessarily the fault of the treaty itself. Rather, they are intrinsic to the nature of arms control. The NPT would be best served by clearer mechanisms of enforcement that are less dependent on the vicissitudes of current global politics. Mechanisms that might include a clearer agenda of how to address noncompliant states or more concrete punishments for misbehavior could prevent the escalation of potentially dangerous situations.
Broad Acceptance, Good Intentions
Since its creation in 1970, the NPT has been accepted by 187 states. Only India, Pakistan, and Israel have failed to sign, and North Korea has withdrawn. Under the NPT, the five declared nuclear weapons states--the United States, the United Kingdom, Russia, France, and China--agree to not assist other states in acquiring nuclear weapons. They also consent to reduce and eventually eliminate their own nuclear arsenals. Non-weapons states are obligated not to pursue nuclear weapons and can individually allow the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to inspect their nuclear facilities. All states are forbidden to supply certain nuclear-related weapons or materials to others unless they are under safeguards. Only peaceful nuclear technology such as energy technology is allowed under the NPT. To induce states to abide by its terms, the NPT relies on nuclear safeguards--agreements that allow the IAEA to make routine inspections. Though the IAEA has no third-party enforcement power, its inspectors can report NPT violations to the United Nations, which can then enact sanctions and other measures. At the May 1995 NPT Extension Conference, parties adopted the Strengthened Safeguards System, which gave inspectors more power, including complete access to nuclear records and environmental sampling. The NPT's principal shortcoming is its reliance on immediate referrals of treaty violations to the UN Security Council and on effective action within the United Nations--conditions that are rarely achievable.
The Fundamental Flaw
Despite the consensus embodied in the NPT that states should pursue non-proliferation, its provisions have not been enforced in a reliable manner. The NPT contains no procedures for the Security Council's management of non-compliance. After referring a country to the Security Council, the IAEA has no control over subsequent developments. In addition, the Security Council has no obligation to act in a specific way; it could ignore the situation or take military action. It is also difficult to define compliance within Article IV of the NPT, which establishes the peaceful use of nuclear energy. Because compliance is a nebulous issue, inconsistencies that might merit the label of non-compliance can go undetected. …