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NPT turns 50. The first half it lived a lie, the second half it saw its own demise

The Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons Treaty was meant to prevent a world catastrophe. Fifty years on, it has done nothing to avert arsenal building.

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It has been 50 years since the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons Treaty or NPT came into force. It spent the first half of the 50 years living a lie, and the second half witnessing its own dangerous demise. It is hazardous to continue to believe it will be effective in preventing nuclear war and the sooner the world moves on to other ways to secure itself, the better.

By the late 1960s, the world realised that nuclear weapons were not merely massively destructive but, because of the way they would be employed, could lead to the practical annihilation of life on the planet. As movies such as Dr Strangelove (1964) showed, nuclear weapons were not ordinary weapons that you could use a few at a time in a few places. Rather, a nuclear strike would be overwhelming with the attacker going all out at the adversary’s arsenal and population centres. Fearing this, the adversary would pre-empt such a devastating attack by launching an all-out attack first.

The neurotic nature of nuclear strategy meant that the planet could be reduced to rubble merely because an accident, miscalculation or misunderstanding tripped someone’s wire. As history subsequently showed, this almost happened. A few times.

So, the world’s governments negotiated a deal. Those who had already tested nuclear weapons before 1 January 1967 would disarm over a period of time and the rest would be prohibited from building any. The United States, the Soviet Union, Britain, France and Communist China agreed to eventually give up their nuclear weapons, but argued that they could hardly be expected to do so while they were in the middle of a Cold War. They would keep their bargain in the fullness of time, although the initial term of the treaty was 25 years. In the meantime, there would be a stringent regime of export restrictions, technology control and intrusive international inspections to ensure that other countries weren’t building nuclear weapons. This, then, was the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty that was signed in 1968 and came into effect on 5 March 1970.

Also read: The risk of nuclear proliferation (and war) is growing

‘The strong do what they can…’

Interestingly, the NPT was binding on all countries, including those — such as India — that didn’t sign it. Not surprisingly, the zeal with which the five nuclear weapons states pursued non-proliferation was matched by their reluctance to reduce their own nuclear arsenals. Then in 1995, even after the Cold War had ended, they decided they’ll just keep their nuclear arsenals forever, even as they doubled-down on mechanisms to prevent other countries from crossing the nuclear threshold.

If this is blatantly unfair, self-serving and quite different from the pursuit of the lofty goal of preventing a nuclear catastrophe, it is par for the course in international relations. As the classical Greek historian Thucydides put it in a famous passage in the History of the Peloponnesian War, the “strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must”. The amoral nature of international relations hadn’t changed in the intervening millennia, but the technology and materials to produce nuclear weapons were not too difficult for motivated states to acquire, not least because of the connivance of one or more of the “strong” – the five nuclear weapons states.

Despite playing an important role in the negotiations, India didn’t sign the NPT because the blatant unfairness was against our interests. In the teeth of Western opposition and sanctions, India proceeded with a peaceful nuclear explosion in 1974 and weapons tests in 1998.

Through the 1980s and 1990s, China helped Pakistan and North Korea build their arsenals because they could serve as its proxies in pinning down the United States. Observing the relative fortunes of Saddam Hussein (who didn’t have nuclear weapons), Muammar Gaddafi (who abandoned Libya’s nuclear project) and Pervez Musharraf (who became the toast of Washington DC), the Iranian ayatollahs concluded that possessing nuclear weapons will protect their regime from external aggression. When Tehran came close to a bomb, the Saudis signalled that they too had access to a bomb — quite possibly built for them by the Pakistanis.

For the past few years, South Korea and Japan have been contemplating whether they must go nuclear given that two of their unfriendly neighbours are nuclear-armed, and the reliability of the US nuclear umbrella is doubtful.

In other words, whether they signed the NPT or not, countries that see a need for nuclear weapons have acquired them. This won’t change in the future.

Also read: Modi should know India’s status as a nuclear weapon state demands responsible leadership

No first use

The NPT is not only a failure, but it is also dangerous because it does little to address the risk of a nuclear exchange. The US, Russia and China have thousands of nuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert, and accidents and misunderstandings can still cause the catastrophe we feared 50 years ago.

To avert that disaster, it is important to acknowledge that the NPT approach does not work and the 21st century needs different, better ideas to tackle the problem. Yet, because of the vast intellectual, political and bureaucratic commitment to the NPT regime, it has become difficult to reform international nuclear security.

One way forward is to move away from prohibiting possession to discouraging their use. At Takshashila, we have advocated a Global No First Use (GNFU) treaty that can help reduce the risk of an accidental nuclear war. This will create the foundation for nuclear weapons states to lower nuclear alertness levels, reduce the sizes of the arsenals and change their posture. What about disarmament? Now, I do not think complete disarmament is feasible — and some such as nuclear strategy theorist Thomas C. Schelling have argued that it’s not desirable either — but it is perhaps a worthwhile goal to pursue in the long run. For the time being though, we can buy another day, month, year and decade of human survival by committing not to use nuclear weapons first, and then, at all.

The author is the director of the Takshashila Institution, an independent centre for research and education in public policy. Views are personal.

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  1. True that NPT failed but not in achieving its broader goal. India , Pakistan and North Korea tunneled through the barrier but South Africa, Libiya and on the face of it Israel did not venture. And all those like Soudi Arabia, Iran etc who so much want to be in the Nuclear Club have not been able to cross the barrier. In absence of NPT and with the visible benefit of having a nuclear weapons, world would have had as many nuclear weapons as many Bombers. Wrong and unprincipled strong arm technique to hold Nations’ hands has worked, even if we dont like to think so. Yes it failed to establish a just Nuclear order.

    With the current run of Covid-19 virus, it is time to implement non proliferation treaty for Chemical and Biological weapons in yet stronger terms.

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