The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) is the most significant arms limitation and disarmament agreement that had the record number of countries ratifying. As a confidence-building measure, the Treaty operates a safeguards system that is a responsibility of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). While the treaty facilitates collaboration and equal access to technology, the safeguards verify compliance and prevent the diversion of fissile material. Since its introduction, the NPT has been under attack by critics because to them, the agreement allowed the authorized states to keep all the power all while keeping the non-nuclear countries in their place. This essay argues that while flawed, the NPT is still relevant today, and subverting it would be short-sighted.
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In 1945, the United States’ atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki took the lives of more than 350,000, most of whom were civilians. The death toll and the devastation made it clear that the development of nuclear capabilities could lead to the creation of extremely deadly warfare. The next year, there were some attempts to introduce an international system that would control and equalize access to nuclear technology.
By 1949, the program had been terminated because the major powers could not reach a consensus (Rotblat 139). The same year, the Soviets exploded their first atomic bomb, and the nuclear arms race between the United States and the former Soviet Union began. As the tension was rising, US President Eisenhower put forward his “Atoms for Peace” proposal that gained a lot of resonance during the United Nations General Assembly (Rotblat 155). The key points of the proposal were establishing an international organization, disseminating peaceful nuclear technology, and holding back weapon capabilities around the globe.
“Atoms for Peace” soon reaped the first results, such as the emergence of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) tasked with the promotion and control of nuclear technology. In the next few years, the IAEA’s leverage increased, and the principle of non-proliferation was guiding the negotiations as early as 1957. By the 1960s, the structure of the Treaty had become clear, and the agreement entered into effect.
The Treaty had three fundamental pillars — non-proliferation (not seeking or acquiring nuclear weapons), disarmament (cessation of the nuclear arms race and general disarmament), and peaceful uses (cooperation in the peaceful uses of the nuclear energy) (Carlson 100). Article X of the NPT prescribed renewing the agreement every 25 years. However, in 1995, the parties settled on an indefinite agreement that implies a review of the progress every five years.
Today, the Non-Proliferation Nuclear Treaty is a near-universal agreement with the highest rate of global adherence. The members are put into two categories: nuclear-weapon states (NWS), which includes the United States, Russia, China, France, and the United Kingdom, and non-nuclear-weapon states (NNWS) (United Nations). Only five countries (India, Pakistan, Israel, South Sudan, and North Korea) did not enter the treaty (United Nations).
Out of these non-signatories, only South Sudan has not developed nuclear weapons. While originally a signatory country, North Korea withdrew from the treaty in 2003 and emancipated itself from the binding force of the Safeguards Agreement. US aggression was named as the main motivation for the radical decision (Pollack 87). Despite multiple sanctions, North Korea continues to aggressively pursue nuclear technology development and even threaten the US against military intervention (Pollack 250). The unrest and non-adherence raise questions regarding the effectiveness and fairness of the NPT on the whole.
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Since its introduction, many critics have pointed out some of the major flaws of the Non-Proliferation Nuclear Treaty. According to the circus, the NPT effectively splits the world into “haves” and “non-haves.” While the first ones are entitled to keep their weapons and even stockpile them, the latter ones are held in their place and frozen from attempting to pursue the development of their own. Besides, the nuclear-weapon states actively intervene in other countries’ policies and do so in a discriminatory manner. For instance, the United States reached a secret agreement with Israel and allowed it to keep its nuclear weapons without signing the treaty (Popp et al. 143).
At the same time, the US imposed sanctions on Iraq at the earliest signs of nuclear activities, even though the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors disproved them (Popp et al. 167). Such incidents reveal the unfair treatment of the non-nuclear-weapon states by the authorized weapon states and uneven distribution of power.
The question arises as to whether the NPT is still relevant. Carlson enlists more than a few challenges to making the NPT more fair and effective (104). It is true that there has been a series of significant non-proliferation violations where countries, such as Iraq, Romania, Libya, Iran, and Syria, were found to be non-compliant with safeguard guidelines. Many governments are still rather ambivalent about what non-proliferation brings them (Carlson 106). The NPT is also facing the spread of proliferation-sensitive nuclear technologies (mainly enrichment and reprocessing) and hurdles to the IAEA’s verification capability. As a result, it is not unreasonable to wonder if there is a completely different framework.
Since 2017, the United Nations have been seeking support for the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). If it enters into force, the Treaty will oblige all countries in possession of nuclear weapons to remove them from the operational status immediately (Carlson 107).
On the one hand, compared to the NPT, the TPNW could serve as a great equalizer because it would prohibit all countries from having nuclear warfare. On the other hand, the TPNW has already polarized the global community, especially the nuclear-armed states. They still see nuclear weapons as a crucial part of their national security policies and are likely to sabotage all negotiations and consider the attempts at an absolute prohibition as pressure from the major powers (Carlson 110). Therefore, the alternative to the NPT is not viable in the nearest future and does not appear to be any fairer than its predecessor.
Opened for signature in 1968 and valid since 1970, the NPT has been a landmark international decision. Its main objective was to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and weapons technology. Under the NPT, the ratified countries are bound to find ways to peaceful cooperation in nuclear use and general and complete disarmament. In practice, the realization of the NPT’s principles has been criticized for discrimination and inconsistency. Many governments are still reluctant to negotiate further terms or ambivalent about the treaty on the whole. Though fairly flawed, the NPT does not have viable alternatives as a full ban would lead to more tension. Therefore, the NPT should not be revoked but rather reworked to resolve imprecise moments and clarify the control mechanisms for the nuclear-weapon states.
Carlson, John. “Is the NPT Still Relevant? – How to Progress the NPT’s Disarmament Provisions.” Journal for Peace and Nuclear Disarmament, vol. 2, no 1, 2019, pp. 97-113.
Pollack, Jonathan D. No Exit: North Korea, Nuclear Weapons, and International Security. Routledge, 2017.
Popp, Roland, Liviu Horovitz, and Andreas Wenger, eds. Negotiating the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty: Origins of the Nuclear Order. Taylor & Francis, 2016.
Rotblat, Joseph. A Nuclear-Weapon-Free World: Desirable? Feasible? Routledge, 2019.
United Nations. Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). n.d. Web.