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Will the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) become the 21st century version of the Kellogg-Briand Pact or the Concert of Europe?

The NPT, adopted on June 12, 1968, came into force on March 5, 1970, after the fulfillment of the stipulations of Article IX (3), which stated that the treaty “shall enter into force after its ratification by the States, the Governments of which are designated Depositaries [Britain, the US, and the USSR] of the Treaty, and forty other States signatory to this Treaty and the deposit of their instruments of ratification.” In May 1995, the treaty was extended indefinitely (Art. X of the original treaty had asked for a review after 25 years), and by 2006, 189 states had ratified the treaty. Overall, the NPT has received much praise and is considered a landmark international treaty whose immediate goal is nuclear disarmament and ultimate goal is complete disarmament. Despite the statistical success the treaty enjoys today, it faced significant objections during its drafting by the Eighteen Nation Disarmament Committee (ENDC) from 1965 to 1968 and has some significant outliers today. Most notably, India remains recalcitrant on the issue of joining the treaty, while Pakistan and North Korea pose grave concerns with their nuclear arsenals. Israel, not a signatory to the NPT either, maintains an opacity regarding its capabilities though most observers accept that Israel has been nuclear-capable since the late 1960s.

Out of the four outsiders, India is the only one that has expressed a cogent and consistent criticism of the non-proliferation regime. Ironically, it was India who first proposed the treaty in 1965. It was also India that first proposed an end to nuclear testing in 1954. Again, it was India that proposed in 1982 a convention to ban nuclear weapons, including a ban on the production of fissile materials for nuclear weapons. Finally, it was India that put forward a comprehensive action plan for a nuclear-free world within a specific time-frame at the third United Nations Special Session on Disarmament, in 1988. The arguments India has made in opposition to the NPT as it now stands are in no way unique – in fact, India found many sympathetic ears during the ENDC debates, mostly from Italy, West Germany, and Japan. The renewed impetus (after the successful ratification of the Limited Test Ban Treaty in August 1963 which banned which banned atmospheric testing and testing in space or under water) to concluding a treaty of non-proliferation stemmed from the Chinese nuclear test in October 1964, in the immediate aftermath of which Secretary of Defence Roswell Gilpatric conducted a study concluding that urged the Johnson administration consider non-proliferation as the surest means of reducing threats to US security. During the ENDC debates, although Italy supported the US aim of nuclear non-proliferation, Italian diplomats had entirely different approaches to the issue. The Italian proposal, submitted in July 1965 to the committee, suggested the adoption of a unilateral voluntary and temporary moratorium from the non-nuclear states, which for a number of years would commit to renounce the nuclear option and to accept, on a voluntary basis, the controls of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on the fissile material in their possession. The confirmation of the surrender of fissile material by the non-nuclear states would be conditioned upon the nuclear states reaching some sort of agreement on disarmament. After a period of time, if no agreement had been reached, the non-nuclear states would recover their freedom of action. The Italian proposal was received quite positively, for it did not discriminate between nuclear states and non-nuclear states. Unlike the US proposal which insisted on mandatory controls, the Italian proposal stated that any declaration of renunciation by a non-nuclear state would be valid only if accompanied by statements of powers that were in similar conditions, and also that any country could easily end their commitment if other states changed their mind and obtained nuclear weapons. Both conditions could be conceived not only as measures to protect national security and to foreshadow a possible reason for treatment withdrawal from the Treaty, but also as a maneuver to prevent the introduction of stricter measures.

Sadly for nuclear non-proliferation, the United States was able to frame a treaty jointly with the Soviets and present it for consideration. Using the considerable powers of persuasion at its disposal, the White House rammed the treaty down everyone’s throats. As Roberto Ducci observed a few years later, the United States was more concerned with peace in Vietnam than protecting its allies or even giving non-proliferation a genuine thought. “It is difficult to maintain good grace while being castrated of your options for a nuclear defence,” Ducci wrote in an Italian newspaper at the time.

The Indian objections to the treaty were also dismissed. The primary problem with the NPT, as India argued at the ENDC and has pointed out umpteen times over the past half-century, is that although it attempts to limit horizontal proliferation, the spread of nuclear weapons beyond those nuclear powers as of the arbitrary date of January 01, 1967, it does nothing to prevent vertical proliferation, the continued improvement of nuclear warheads through complex computer simulations. To underscore this point, in July 2011, the US government decided to go ahead with modernising its nuclear arsenal at the cost of almost $700 billion over a decade. A group of Senators is telling the White House that it will have little or no chance of maintaining America’s hegemonic role in the international arena unless it also moves ahead with nuclear-warhead modernization. The warning comes in a recent letter from 40 Republican Senators and Independent-Democrat Joe Lieberman reminding the President of his legal responsibility under the National Defense Authorization Act of 2010 to present budget estimates for modernizing U.S. nuclear forces along with any new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) pact. This criticism of the NPT has received additional support from the International Court of Justice, who on July 8, 1996, in its Advisory Opinion on the Legality of the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons, stated that “there exists an obligation to pursue in good faith and bring to a conclusion negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament in all its aspects under strict and effective international control. Such an obligation requires that states actively pursue measures to reduce the numbers of nuclear weapons and the importance of their role in military force structures.

The treaty as it stands, allows the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, and China to miniaturise warheads, improve yield, and create better delivery systems while the rest of the world watches and prays that these self-appointed judges, jurors, and executioners of world affairs have the sense to eschew these weapons of mass destruction. For most countries, this is not problematic as they have no means of acquiring nuclear weapons nor do they have the need to (by their own defence estimates). This means that countries like Malawi, Sri Lanka, or Uruguay would be willing signatories of the treaty while others countries with more troubled defence ministries such as India, Israel, or Iran would need more from the Nuclear Five to be assuaged that their safety has not been compromised. The Indian nuclear test of May 1974 underscored for opponents of the new nuclear regime the failure of the NPT in preventing proliferation and giving adequate assurances to non-nuclear states. Roberto Gaja, Secretary General of the Italian Ministry of External Affairs, raised the issue of an amendment to the NPT, allowing for a third class of states classified as “militarily non-nuclear.” This class would include threshold states that had held back from testing nuclear weapons but had the capacity to do so at a moment’s notice. This initiative also fell through.

In the idealistic efforts to rid the world of the military atom, another key point has been overlooked: although it is possible for large states such as the United States, Russia, and China to envision large and effective conventional armies to subdue not only their neighbours if the need arose but also far-flung countries around the globe (the US already has this capability as we have witnessed the horrors and triumphs of the last 60 years, and China is most definitely working towards this goal), smaller states with more limited budgets and other concerns more worthy of their GDPs have no hope of holding off their larger neighbours. Israel, with seven and half million citizens surrounded by approximately 400 million Arabs is one of these small states. India, a military midget in comparison to its larger and more powerful neighbour, China, is another, as is Pakistan in comparison to India. Although some leaders in these states might be willing to give up their nuclear weapons, it is strategically nonsensical to expect them to do so. Nuclear umbrellas are no guarantee of borders, nor are they easy to come by. Even if a state were to secure an ironclad nuclear security treaty with one of the Five, questions regarding a nuclear response to massive conventional attacks would always remain, as would the willingness of one of the Five to challenge a state backed by another member of the Five Powers. Besides, as global power equations and interests change, any security agreement would be strained over time.

To move away from the NPT itself to the international affairs under the non-proliferation regime, a significant factor potentially nuclear-capable countries would look at is how well the system works. As mentioned earlier, it is no victory of the non-proliferation lobby to have Lesotho join the NPT, but it would be a strong statement to the efficacy of the system were Pakistan to do so. Unfortunately, the NPT stands naked before the charge of manipulation for the sake of narrow-minded national interest. The Pakistani case is an excellent example of how the NPT has been a mere smokescreen first for US interests and then for Chinese interests. In both cases, the international community was not strong enough to interfere. US disinterestedness in stopping Pakistan acquire a nuclear arsenal in the 1980s was nothing short of criminal, a role that has now been filled and surpassed by China. Neither the US nor China were penalised in any way. In fact, Chinese aid extends to even missile technology and two more plutonium-producing reactors were brazenly grandfathered into an old Sino-Pakistani treaty of nuclear assistance signed before China joined the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). The much-vaunted quality of stability and rationality in nuclear regimes has been demolished by such actions, and no threshold nuclear state can take any assurance given by the Big Five or the international community seriously. In a far less offensive matter, the United States bent over backwards in 2008 to conclude a deal with India that would allow civilian nuclear cooperation. Ostensibly to bring India into the mainstream nuclear debate, the move signalled the US desire to recruit India as a potential ally against a rising China – again at the cost of the spirit of the NPT.

If nuclear disarmament is a serious goal for anyone, the fundamental issues that need to be addressed are 1. nuclear apartheid – the idea that some countries are allowed to have nuclear weapons while others are not, 2. effective countermeasures against proliferators and those who aid them, 3. genuine nuclear disarmament. These issues in and of themselves will not solve all the problems – the karma of past actions will continue to haunt the international community, namely, the Pakistani arsenal, the North Korean threat, and the Iranian quagmire. Decades of whimsical security policies by the superpowers taint the non-proliferation puzzle as much as the purely nuclear issues confound progress on reducing the number of these ultimate weapons. However, one path forward is to jettison the present position on the NPT non-proliferation purists have made into a theology and reappraise the Italian proposal from 1965 and 1974.

In what appears to be a strategic impasse, it is useful to consider what each side hopes to gain and what they are willing to surrender. For nuclear states not coronated by the NPT, the goal is to get acceptance of their nuclear status, no matter why they crossed the nuclear Rubicon. Such states, or any state, would be unwilling to comply with a system that puts them at a permanent disadvantage vis-a-vis their rivals or the international community. In return, they would probably accept a series of conditions that would make their arsenals and nuclear trade safer and more transparent. As for the Big Five, any change in the NPT to accommodate new nuclear powers would be a considerable loss of face and undermine over four decades of non-proliferation policy. However, in order to maintain dialogue with the newer nuclear states, they must consider the concerns raised by them. A system increases in stability as more states become part of it; it also does so by removing challengers to itself and India, Pakistan, and Israel would be worthy additions to the NPT system. While the Kellogg-Briand Pact was a well-intentioned attempt at outlawing war, it failed abominably. On the other hand, the Concert of Europe (CoE), resulting from two decades of war in Europe, is an excellent example of a system worth emulating. The architects of the CoE understood a fundamental principle of international politics that has been forgotten in the NPT debate – states will challenge the status quo if they have nothing to gain from it, or worse, if they are at a disadvantage. There is no reason for India (or Israel) to accede to the NPT in a position of inferiority, particularly when her neighbours maintain nuclear weapons and have been known to be hostile to her. If, as in the Indo-US nuclear deal, a place could be carved out for de facto if not de jure recognition of nuclear arsenals, the lifespan of the NPT will be enormously enhanced. Of course, the slightest dilution of the NPT will cause severe problems, but those are the wages of an ill-conceived and short-sighted treaty. The question will be, in such a situation, how many countries will actually be willing to circumvent international treaties and obligations to pursue a nuclear arsenal were the NPT to be diluted? The CoE also ensured that no major state would be able to make significant gains at the expense of others, thereby adding to its stability. In the nuclear world, if the arsenals of all nuclear powers were tied together as were their political options, much more would ride on increases and modernisations of nuclear arsenals. As things stand, the discrepancy between Russian and US arsenals and the other nuclear arsenals is so vast that any attempt to bracket them together would be a farce.

All this is not to say that the Big Five do not have legitimate yet personal interests in curtailing the further spread of nuclear weapons. However, no nation that feels genuinely threatened (legitimately or otherwise) would ever want to outsource its defence interests to the benevolence of the Five caretakers. And given the preponderance of conventional force that can be mustered by some nations, it would only be logical for their neighbours to want to have something equivalent to balance the game. The abolition of nuclear weapons are thus tied to massive reductions in conventional forces on the part of some nations. Only then will the gatecrashers to the nuclear party feel safe to give up their arsenals.