If the NPT has to retain political relevance, it has to adapt to the changed political realities of the 21st century and acknowledge the advances made in nuclear science and technology. Merely repeating the tired clichés of the past is clearly not enough. A new political convergence of interests has to be built if the NPT has to successfully overcome its midlife crisis.
The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) entered into force on March 5, 1970 and saw its fifty-year anniversary in 2020. The 10th Review Conference (RevCon) was originally scheduled to take place in April-May 2020. However, COVID-19 intervened and after repeated postponements, it is now scheduled for August 1-26, 2022.
Today, the NPT is often described as the cornerstone of the global nuclear order. It enjoys near-global adherence and all countries except four (India, Israel, and Pakistan never joined, and North Korea withdrew in 2003) are parties to the NPT. The original text of the NPT gave it a lifespan of 25 years and the 1995 RevCon extended it into perpetuity. Despite such an impressive record, there is a sense of disquiet that clouds the forthcoming RevCon and raises uncomfortable doubts about its future. The question is: will the NPT overcome its midlife crisis, or will it become a victim of its own success?
Accepting political reality
Since this is the age of virtual reality, in the Nuclear Metaverse, the mood among the believers is sanguine. Global nuclear stockpiles are at an all-time low. The two global nuclear superpowers, the USA and USSR, that had accumulated over 65,000 nuclear weapons between them, have reduced their arsenals to below 15,000 and the operational numbers are lower still. The NPT has been successful in preventing proliferation and only four countries have gone nuclear since it came into effect. The treaty enjoys widespread adherence. Most significantly, nuclear weapons have never been used since 1945, creating a de-facto if not a de-jure, nuclear taboo.
But in the real world, which is driven by politics, things look different. The reason is that the NPT is the product of a global political order that existed in the 1960s and that bipolar world is now history. The Cuban missile crisis in 1962 had brought home the risks of global nuclear annihilation to the leaders of both the USA and the USSR.
At the bilateral level, it created a process of bilateral nuclear arms control, beginning with the Hot Line and leading to the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks and treaties like the SALT I and II, START I, INF, ABM etc. However, this structure is being strained. In 2002, the USA unilaterally walked out of the ABM Treaty and in 2019, the INF Treaty collapsed. The old model of bilateral arms control was based on ‘nuclear parity’ and ‘mutual vulnerability’ and no longer holds in an age of multi-polarity, marked by asymmetry.
The Cuban missile crisis also generated a convergence of interests between the two rival hegemons that nuclear proliferation should be strongly curbed. This helped kick-start the negotiations for the NPT. To make it attractive, it was initially conceived as a three-legged stool — non-proliferation (countries without nuclear weapons would have to forswear their right to acquire them and accept full scope safeguards); disarmament (obliging the five countries with nuclear weapons — USA, USSR, UK, France and China, to negotiate in good faith to reduce and eventually eliminate their nuclear arsenals, although no time-frame was prescribed); and third, to ensure that non-nuclear weapon states would enjoy full access to the peaceful applications of nuclear science and technology.
Evaluating the NPT
On closer examination, it would appear that it is only on the non-proliferation front that the NPT was successful. In fact, during the first fifteen years of the NPT, the US and Soviet arsenals increased from below 40,000 to nearly 70,000, making it clear that a nuclear arms race was on. The subsequent reductions in the arsenals were driven by political dynamics and not NPT-related compulsions, because no disarmament negotiations have ever taken place in the NPT framework.
Furthermore, recently-declassified papers reveal that there were over a dozen instances where the US and USSR came close to initiating a nuclear exchange, many of which were the result of system errors or misperceptions about the intentions of the adversary. Today, with rising tensions and nuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert, the risk of an accidental or inadvertent nuclear exchange remains high.
Even the nuclear taboo is under strain, because the major nuclear powers are pursuing research into developing more usable, low-yield nuclear weapons. Ballistic missile defence, hypersonic systems that carry both conventional and nuclear payloads, and growing offensive cyber capabilities that can interfere with command-and-control systems blur the dividing line between nuclear and conventional weapons and create incentives for early use.
The technology involved in detonating an atomic bomb is 77 years old. While export controls have helped in curbing proliferation, new developments in computing and simulations, dual-use systems, space and cyber capabilities increase the risk of nuclear entanglement in ways that could not have been foreseen in the 1960s.
The NPT has therefore reached the limits of its success as far as the proliferation objective is concerned. However, its packaging, as a balanced three-legged stool, has been reduced to a rather wobbly one-legged stool because it de-legitimised proliferation but not nuclear weapons. It recognised five nuclear-weapon states because they had tested a nuclear device before January 1, 1967, the cut-off date under the NPT, who converted their special responsibility into an exclusive privilege to retain their nuclear arsenals permanently.
Rediscovering political relevance
The clearest reflection of the growing political frustration among other countries was reflected in the humanitarian initiative spearheaded by a coalition of non-governmental organisations and civil society to negotiate a treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons. The negotiations were concluded in 2017, and in January 2021, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) entered into force. Today, 86 countries are signatories, and of these, 60 have ratified their participation. All of these are non-nuclear weapon states; parties to the NPT in good standing. The TPNW outlaws the development, testing, production, manufacturing, acquisition, possession, stockpiling, stationing, deployment, use, threat of use, transfer, or receipt of nuclear weapons. According to them, since nuclear weapons were the only weapon of mass destruction not subject to a comprehensive ban, despite their catastrophic humanitarian and environmental consequences, the TPNW plugs a significant gap in international law. Expectedly, all countries that possess nuclear weapons (and their allies) have refused to have anything to do with the TPNW, reflecting the growing political divisions.If the NPT has to retain political relevance, it has to adapt to the changed political realities of the 21st century and acknowledge the advances made in nuclear science and technology. Merely repeating the tired clichés of the past is clearly not enough. A new political convergence of interests has to be built if the NPT has to successfully overcome its midlife crisis.