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The Pride of the Diplomats: Why the NPT Works

Christian Cooper - 14th May 2015
The Pride of the Diplomats:  Why the NPT Works

Christian Cooper makes the case for the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, describing its positive effects on the international norm against nuclear weapons and the community of nations as a whole.

The review of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) this month is a once every five years chance to reaffirm and strengthen one of the strongest international norms: that against the proliferation and use of nuclear technology for military means. Representatives of 190 countries are gathered to examine the treaty itself and discuss new ways to increase global buy-in against nuclear dangers. This time, they might do so in a critical new way.

Israel will be at the table for the first time in 20 years as an observer only (having not signed the NPT), and according to a senior Obama administration official, has agreed to begin working with Arabs on an agenda for a conference to discuss a weapons of mass destruction free zone in the Middle East. This is a dramatic change from 2010, when Israel refused to even consider the idea.

Incremental diplomatic wins like this one lie at the core of the truly transnational strategic interest on the path to complete nuclear weapons disarmament. This is precisely why ensuring the peaceful use of nuclear technology must remain a key component of all nations’ foreign policy doctrines. Perhaps one reason the NPT, and its review every five years, is often overlooked by the general public is because at face value, everyone agrees more nukes are a bad thing.

However, the NPT, and the corresponding diplomatic collaboration surrounding nuclear weapons, go much deeper than simply halting the proliferation of such dangerous technology. It is through this nearly universal treaty the next generation of world leaders will likely see nuclear disarmament, avoid an open war with Iran over its nuclear program, and stop a Middle East nuclear arms race in its tracks. However, it wasn't always clear the NPT would be the resounding success it is.

In 1961 when Israeli Prime Minister Ben-Gurion told U.S. President John F. Kennedy that Israel's nuclear program at Dimona was for peaceful purposes only, Kennedy’s National Security Council was simultaneously warning that by the 1970s there could be 40 nuclear weapon armed states (including Israel). If an America in the future faced rampant nuclear threats and could not believe a face-to-face conversation with a reliable ally, what could anyone trust? There had to be a better way, and the NPT was the answer: Never trust, always verify.

In Israel's defense, the only NPT signatories who have violated the treaty since adoption— Iran, Iraq and Syria—have sworn to destroy the Jewish state. Remaining a non-signatory to the NPT and maintaining an opaque nuclear first strike nuclear capability was strategically the right choice for Israel (regional de-stabilization be damned), and one that could be revisited given their 2015 decision to consider an agenda for a nuclear weapons free Middle East. Israel's gambit to wait for the NPT to become as ironclad as it has paid dividends that we can all reap both in June with a comprehensive agreement between the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council (including Germany, a group colloquially referred to as the P5+1) and Iran and well into the future.

The defining trait of the NPT is reframing the acquisition of nuclear weapons by a state from an act of national pride circa 1960 to an act contrary to international law by 1970. Thankfully, today we operate in a world that accepts nuclear power as a scientific pursuit but abhors its use for violence. This is also why Iran's right to domestically enrich as a signatory to the NPT will be a cornerstone of the P5+1 agreement that will be announced soon and likely ratified by the first of July. This comprehensive agreement will also implicitly underscore one of the pillars of the NPT: The gradual demilitarization of nuclear technology.

And lest critics make the argument that the NPT can only be used to coerce pariah states like Iran, consider the actions of the major powers. Since the NPT entered into force, the United States has drastically reduced the number of nuclear weapons in its stockpile by 80 percent and completely removed multiple entry warheads from its nuclear strike capacity. In some respects just as importantly, Washington is currently targeting the open ocean; there is no longer a single ICBM aimed at the Russian Federation and nuclear-armed, long-range strategic bombers have been removed from daily nuclear alert.

Russia has made similar progress, with both commitments and demonstrated progress in reducing deployed warheads as well as deployed and undeployed delivery vehicles. Moscow has also taken the lead in other areas where the United States has lagged behind, singing and ratifying the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. To be sure, complications—including Russia’s tendency to view their remaining weapons as a counterweight to all NATO stockpiles rather than simply that of the United States—still exist, but the fact remains that the norm created by NPT has reduced the potential for nuclear disaster across the globe.

And where has all that potential destruction gone? Fully 10% of electric power in the United States over the last two decades came from down-blended, highly enriched uranium earmarked for Russian megaton nuclear bombs. Over 20,000 warheads (and their associated risk of accidental launches) were removed from service all thanks the spirit of the NPT. The spirit of bilateral cooperation remains strong; despite the tensions in Ukraine, both the United States and the Russian Federation are fully implementing the terms of the New START treaty, wherein each shares data on the movement of strategic forces and both engage in reciprocal inspections of military facilities.

The NPT is not just about non-proliferation; it is a shift in mindset that nuclear technology will be shared with those who want it for peaceful purposes in return for de-arming those who have militarized it. It has been a resounding victory for the idea of internationalism and the fundamental idea that a community of nations can come together and, through mutually-reinforcing and verifying behavior, make strategic choices that defy the self-serving nature of states in an anarchic system. Moreover, it has been the bedrock of a norm that spawned a range of bi- and multilateral measures to protect the world against the terrible risk of nuclear conflict.

Collective continued nuclear demilitarization is a win for the diplomats of the world. Progress on the biggest issues comes in small breaks, such as the Israeli decision to if not pull a seat up to the table, at least pay close attention on the sidelines. Through extraordinary burdens of verification and disclosure, the NPT will continue to make the world a safer place.

 

Christian H. Cooper is a Fellow with the Truman National Security Project and a term member at the Council on Foreign Relations. Views expressed are his own.

 

Photo credit: San Diego Air & Space Museum Archives / Photo / No known copyright restrictions