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NPT at 50: Celebration or midlife crisis? – analysis


On March 5, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) turned 50 years old. Often described by its supporters as the “cornerstone of nuclear non-proliferation and nuclear disarmament”, the NPT is among the most widely adhered to global treaties. All but four countries (India, Israel and Pakistan that never joined, and North Korea that withdrew in 2003) are parties to the NPT.

However, the NPT’s golden anniversary passed without much notice. A statement issued in New York by the spokesman for the Secretary-General of the United Nations (UN) was notable for its brevity and nondescript character. There are suggestions that the NPT Review Conference, which will open in New York on April 27, will be postponed due to the coronavirus outbreak, but will also have the effect of avoiding a potentially bruising confrontation.

In 1963, President Kennedy expressed the apprehension that by 1975, there could be as many as 20 countries with nuclear weapons. The former USSR shared similar concerns. This convergence of interests between the two adversaries of the Cold War allowed negotiations for a NPT.

To make it attractive, it was initially conceived as a three-legged stool: non-proliferation, forcing those without nuclear weapons to commit to never acquiring them and accepting full-range safeguards; disarmament, forcing the five countries with nuclear weapons (United States, USSR, United Kingdom, France and China) to negotiate to reduce and finally eliminate their nuclear weapons; and third, to ensure that states that do not possess nuclear weapons enjoy full access to the peaceful applications of nuclear science and technology.

When the negotiations ended in 1968, India had concluded that the disarmament stage was too weak and that the definition of a state with nuclear weapons (one that had exploited a nuclear device before January 1, 1967) was one that created a permanent division between nuclear possessors and dispossessed; chose to stay away.

Among the frequently cited successes of the NPT is the dramatic reduction in the number of nuclear weapons from a peak of 70,300 warheads in 1986 to around 14,000 today, with the US. USA And Russia representing more than 12,500. What is overlooked is that almost all of the reductions occurred between 1990 and 2010, and the process has now stopped. More significantly, these reductions were the result of bilateral talks between the US. USA And Russia, which reflects their state of relations, and there have never been negotiations under the NPT. In fact, during the first 15 years of the NPT, the Soviet arsenals of EE. USA They rose from less than 40,000 to more than 70,000, making it clear that the NPT nuclear weapons states have joyfully ignored the TNP disarmament stage.

The TNP has successfully prevented proliferation. Since 1970, only four countries have acquired nuclear weapons, bringing the total number of nuclear-weapon states to nine, much less than the arrests of Kennedy in 1963. However, it highlights the uncomfortable reality that the NPT does not have means to deal with these four states

The five nuclear-weapon states recognized by the NPT (N-5) are also the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (P-5), leading to the inevitable conclusion that nuclear weapons remain the currency of the political and military power. This conclusion can only encourage potential proliferators by making nuclear weapons more attractive as the ultimate guarantor of security.

TNP supporters also claim credit for strengthening the taboo against nuclear weapons by pointing out that nuclear weapons have never been used since 1945. However, closer examination of the recently declassified documents indicates that since 1970, there have been more than a dozen of cases in which the United States and the USSR came close to initiating a nuclear exchange, often based on misperceptions about the other’s intentions or simple system errors. Even today, USA USA And Russia keeps more than 1,000 nuclear weapons on trigger alert, increasing the risks of accidental or inadvertent nuclear exchange.

Today, the nuclear taboo is being challenged as major nuclear powers undertake research and development to obtain more usable, low-performance nuclear weapons. Ballistic anti-missile defense, hypersonic systems that carry both conventional and nuclear charges, and growing offensive cyber capabilities further blur the line between conventional and nuclear.

Frustrated by the N-5’s lack of response, 120 TNP countries joined civil society to push forward negotiations for a Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), concluded in 2017. These countries had concluded that despite near universal adherence, the NPT could never be the vehicle for nuclear disarmament. It had delegitimized proliferation, but it did little to delegitimize nuclear weapons. And in the process, the NPT had reached the limits of its success. The N-5 and its allies boycotted the negotiations, but the existence of the TPNW exposes the inherent imbalance in the TNP’s three-legged stool.

The uncomfortable truth is that the old model of nuclear weapons control reflected the political reality of the Cold War. Today’s reality reflects multipolarity, marked by asymmetry. Not surprisingly, the bipolar era treaties between the United States and the USSR, such as the ABM Treaty or the INF Treaty, are already dead, and others like the New START and the Open Skies Treaty are being challenged.

The NPT faces a similar challenge, of continuing political relevance. Unless NPT members, especially the N-5 realize this, their golden anniversary may well mark the beginning of the NPT’s mid-life crisis.

Rakesh Sood is a former diplomat and currently a distinguished fellow of the Observer Research Foundation.

The opinions expressed are personal.

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