The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty: The Past 40 Years

Arms Control Today, June 2008 | Go to article overview

The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty: The Past 40 Years


On July 1, the nearly 190 states-parties to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) will mark its 40th anniversary. Four decades ago, representatives of roughly 60 states gathered in London, Moscow, and Washington to sign the accord, which entered into force on March 5, 1970. Only India, Israel, and Pakistan, all of which possess nuclear weapons, have not joined the NPT, while North Korea remains the sole state to have declared its withdrawal. The NPT is the most universal arms control treaty in force.

At the Washington NPT signing ceremony, President Lyndon Johnson hailed the treaty as "the most important international agreement since the beginning of the nuclear age." It arguably remains so today and is frequently described as the cornerstone of the nonproliferation regime, albeit one rife with tensions that some fear might cause it to fissure and crumble. Those tensions always have been manifest in the treaty, which strikes an uneasy balance between the nuclear-weapons haves and have-nots.

The treaty recognizes the five countries-China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States-that had tested nuclear weapons before the treaty's completion as nuclear-weapon states and obligates them to pursue "effective measures" toward nuclear disarmament. All other states are designated by the treaty as non-nuclear-weapon states and are prohibited from acquiring nuclear arms. The non-nuclear-weapon-state majority has repeatedly criticized the nuclear-armed minority for not moving fast enough to fulfill treaty commitments to end the arms race and eliminate arsenals. In the last two decades, all of the nuclear-weapon states except China, which has claimed to possess the smallest arsenal of the I five, have made net reductions in their nuclear holdings. Still, the U.S. stockpile totals some 5,400 nuclear warheads (see ACT, January/February 2008), while Russia early this year reported a deployed force of 4,147 strategic warheads.

Although aiming to stop the spread of nuclear weapons to new countries, the NPT allows for access to nuclear technologies for peaceful purposes. The inherent problem is that nuclear technologies used to make nuclear fuel for reactors also can be used to produce nuclear arms. During the treaty's 40-year history, some countries have used nuclear energy programs as cover to explore or pursue nuclear weapons programs. These countries include NPT signatories or states-parties Iraq, Libya, North Korea, and South Korea. Many states allege that Iran is working illicitly toward a nuclear weapons capability and that Syria might recently have had or still harbors similar intentions. Such concerns are prompting key nuclear-supplier states to support stiffer trade restrictions on sensitive uranium-enrichment and spent fuel reprocessing technologies. In the process, nonpossessors charge that their NPT "rights" are being trampled.

A group of former senior U.S. statesmen is warning that an array of accumulated challenges facing the NPT is pushing the world toward a "nuclear tipping point." In response, they recommend that the United States more "energetically" lead the effort toward the NPT vision of a world free of nuclear weapons or risk a "new nuclear era that will be more precarious, psychologically disorienting, and economically even more costly than was Cold War deterrence." One of those statesmen, former Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), compares the goal of zero nuclear weapons to a mountaintop that the world must ascend. (See ACT, March 2008.) That metaphor resembles another used 40 years ago by Johnson at the NPT signing ceremony. "The march of mankind is toward the summit not the chasm," he declared. The fate of the NPT could well determine whether Johnson was correct.

Photos: (Top right) President Lyndon Johnson described the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty as "...the most important international agreement in the field of disarmament since the nuclear age began," during his December 6, 1968 address to the UN General Assembly. …

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