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Commentary

The NPT at Age Forty

in Program

By Michael Krepon – As the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty approaches middle age, treaty supporters confront two paradoxes: while the utility of nuclear weapons for major powers is declining, it is growing for outlier states. Likewise, while the contributions to the treaty by four of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council have never been greater, the weaknesses of the NPT appear to be growing. These paradoxes must be addressed if the NPT is to age gracefully.

Over the past two decades, the most impressive treaty gains have been made by the United States, Russia, Great Britain, and France. These gains can be measured by six key indicators of declining nuclear weapons’ utility: actual battlefield use, threats of battlefield use, overall stockpile size, warheads deployed, nuclear-weapon tests, and fissile material production for weapons.

Based on these six indicators, Washington, Moscow, London and Paris have greatly diminished the value they place on nuclear weapons since the Cold War ended. Despite their improved compliance with the NPT’s core obligations, the outcome of the 2010 Review Conference is in doubt, as is, more importantly, the health and well-being of the NPT regime. Threats to the well-being of the NPT regime now lie increasingly in the actions of outlier states, the politicization of deliberations by the IAEA board of governors, and the reluctance of key non-nuclear-weapon states to step up to their obligations as guardians of the treaty.

The most important indicator of the declining utility of nuclear weapons for major powers is the absence of battlefield use. A weapon not used on battlefields loses its military utility. Every year that passes without the use of nuclear weapons in crisis or warfare makes it harder for a political leader to authorize subsequent use, while making the user more of an international pariah. 

Nuclear weapons also have less political, as well as military, utility for major powers, which now lose standing by brandishing nuclear weapons against each other or against non-nuclear-weapon states.  Rare, public threats by British and U.S. leaders in recent decades have been directed only at countries that are not in good standing with the IAEA and are presumed to have weapons of mass destruction in violation of UN Security Council resolutions.

A third measure of declining utility of nuclear weapons for the P-5 is stockpile size. Moscow and Washington have reduced their stockpiles by approximately 50,000 warheads below their Cold War peaks. The stockpiles of France and the United Kingdom have been in decline since 1981 and 1992, respectively. Of the P-5 nuclear arsenals, only China’s is believed to be growing, albeit modestly, and only Beijing is increasing the number of warheads it deploys.

 Every test of a nuclear weapon is a declaration of utility. Since 1996, the P-5 have not conducted a single declaration of utility in the form of a nuclear weapon test. And as for fissile material production for weapons, four of the P-5-again, with the exception of China-have officially declared a moratorium on fissile material production.

 In stark contrast, outliers to the NPT are relying more heavily on nuclear weapons.  Three of the four NPT outliers-India, North Korea, and Pakistan-are the only states to have tested nuclear devices since 1996 and are enlarging their fissile material and weapon stockpiles. The most harrowing crises since the Cold War ended have involved outliers to the NPT which have engaged in verbal threats in periods of heightened tension, sometimes accompanied by missile flight testing or the movement of nuclear-capable missiles. The record during the last twenty years is clear: states that seek political utility from nuclear weapons during periods of heightened tension now reside primarily outside the NPT.

 There are many reasons for the NPT regime’s weaknesses besides the actions of outlier states. Moscow and Beijing have not stepped up to their responsibilities as treaty guardians and as veto-wielding members of the Security Council. Russian and U.S. nuclear stockpiles remain extremely large. The Bush administration did serious harm to NPT norms by championing a civil nuclear deal with India without compensatory steps to shore up the treaty. Meanwhile, Beijing still acts as a free-rider to the NPT regime, rather than taking on responsibilities commensurate with its growing power. Beijing, like Washington, has still not ratified the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

 Non-nuclear-weapon states are also growing contributors to the NPT’s woes. The IAEA’s board of governors has not acted consistently and coherently to uphold treaty obligations. Many states resist “second-generation” norms of responsible nuclear stewardship, particularly those associated with strengthened safeguards, materials protection, and accountancy. Egypt threatens to hold the NPT hostage to its regional interests. Israel has not done nearly enough to reinforce the NPT with parallel steps. And, above all, the nuclear program of Iran, which is not in compliance with IAEA safeguards, casts a long shadow over the NPT regime.

 Even with this litany of woes, the NPT has been a remarkable success. Despite the power and influence nuclear weapons are presumed to possess, the NPT has established nonproliferation as a global norm. States pursuing nuclear weapon programs after the NPT entered into force have been cast as outliers. The treaty has near-universal membership and compliance.

 There is a consensus among experts about corrective measures to deal with the NPT’s weaknesses. Many of these steps will once again be highlighted at the 2010 Review Conference. The treaty will not continue to serve its intended purposes without heavy lifting from many quarters.

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