A few days ago I had a very lively discussion with a senior disarmament specialist, someone involved for quite a long time with efforts to stop nuclear proliferation. Of course, the North Korean nuclear test was the spark. It was the classical discussion where one sees the glass half-full and the other half-empty.
He claimed that the North Korean blast was to be put in the context of the wider non-proliferation regime. He urged me to look at the big picture. He said that without the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which was concluded in 1968, and entered into force in 1970, by now we would count nuclear-armed countries by the dozens and not on the tip of two hands. He reminded me that at the beginning of the 1960s President Kennedy predicted that by the end of the decade there would be up to twenty-five states with nuclear weapons. If that bleak prediction did not become true is because the NPT made it so much harder for wannabe nuclear powers to succeed.
I am baffled by this kind of reasoning, which is not only of my interlocutor, but also the prevailing mood in Vienna, at the headquarters of the International Atomic Energy Agency, and in many capitals around the world. It was obvioulsy also the opinion of the Norwegian Nobel Committee who in 2005 awarded the IAEA Director M. El Baradei and the Agency the Nobel Prize in Peace “for their efforts to prevent nuclear energy from being used for military purposes and to ensure that nuclear energy for peaceful purposes is used in the safest possible way.” Clearly the prize awarders decided to focus on the efforts and not the results, as you do with those students who, for some reasons you cannot grasp, you like, but perform below standards.
It seems to me that everyone who had a serious enough reason to get a nuke, did get one. Since the entry into force of the NPT, India, Pakistan, and North Korea have gone overtly nuclear. Israel did not test but it is widely believed to have nuclear capacity. Look out for Iran to come up next. South Africa developed a limited nuclear capability and to date it is the only one who gave up its arsenal (Kazakhstan and Ukraine might be added to the list as they inherited part of the USSR arsenal but also gave it up).
Admittedly, the NPT made it harder to get it, by raising the stakes and costs, but it did not make it nearly impossible. Claiming that the NPT has been a success because Argentina, Brazil, Japan, Canada, Sweden, Germany or Australia could but chose not to go nuclear is absurd. These countries had little or no reason to get nukes in the first place, as they had other alternatives to secure their defense (i.e., someone else’s nukes). The day there are 80 countries with nuclear weapons, we will hear the NPT is a smashing success because without it everyone, including every self-respecting terrorist organization, would have them.
All the NPT has achieved is to slow down proliferation not to prevent it. However, claiming that this was the goal of the convention from the onset is guileful historical revisionism. The NPT aimed to freeze the situation at five nuclear armed countries (the permanent members of the Security Council). The treaty is called the “Non-Proliferation Treaty”, not the “Slower Proliferation Treaty”. Countries without nukes committed not to get them, and in return countries with nukes committed to “pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to the cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control” (Art. 6). Who violated the NPT first? Who is really to be blamed for its unraveling?
Admitting that the NPT failed, that the big bargain did not work, is the first step towards fixing it, and it is imperative we fix it and we do it now. I cannot resign myself to live in a world that is gradually becoming indifferent to the inherent threat posed by the possession of nuclear weapons, because it won’t take long before we become indifferent to their use.