A precarious anniversary

March 5, 2020

The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) is half a century old today. “The NPT Instruments of Ratification were submitted by two of the NPT Depositary States, the Soviet Union and the United States, at a special ceremony at The Reception House in Moscow,” the Izvestiya newspaper reported on its front page on March 5, 1970. Under the terms of NPT Article IX, the Treaty entered into force on the same day following the submission of the Instruments of Ratification by the three depositary states (the Soviet Union, the United States, and the United Kingdom) and 40 other State Parties. “Our goal is to keep the future generations safe from the calamity of war,” the Soviet prime minister Aleksey Kosygin announced at the ceremony.

After 50 years, the NPT is looking remarkably well for its age. It has survived the Cold War, the détentes, the Ice Ages, and other ups and downs in international relations without losing its integrity or crumbling into irrelevance. Only a handful of states still remain outside the Treaty.

That is undoubtedly a resounding success, and our planet is all the better for it. We are already plagued by such woes as global pandemics and climate change. Imagine for a second if we also had to contend with an uncontrolled spread of the most devastating weapons that ever existed, with more and more countries acquiring an instrument of total self-annihilation of the entire mankind. The few existing flashpoints, such as the Indo-Pakistani border and the Korean peninsula, are already giving us a nervous twitch. Just imagine how much worse it would get if we had dozens of such flashpoints! Would the world be more secure? According to Peace Research Institute Frankfurt (PRIF), a total of 27 national nuclear weapons programs had been initiated globally, and only three discontinued prior to the NPT’s entry into force. But since the treaty came into effect in 1970, only nine nuclear weapons programs have been initiated, and 23 discontinued.

Some well-deserved congratulations are therefore entirely in order – but once we’re done with congratulations, late us also take a minute for sober reflection. For all its success, the NPT’s health isn’t all it could be. The Treaty undergoes regular medical check-ups every five years at the NPT Review Conferences. The results of the latest checkup in 2015 were very worrying: the State Parties failed to reach a consensus, and after bitter recriminations, the delegations left the Conference without agreeing a Final Document.

The 50-year-old Treaty has two serious conditions, both of them chronic. First, the nuclear disarmament process has ground to a halt. Efforts to negotiate a treaty on “general and complete” (not just nuclear!) disarmament, clearly stipulated in Article VI of the NPT, are entirely off the agenda and seen as a utopian aspiration by most of the parties involved. Meanwhile, the United States is currently laying waste to the entire architecture of arms control, raising the prospect of nuclear havoc. Second, the NPT has failed to become a universal instrument as several nations that possess a nuclear arsenal are refusing to join. These nations are Israel, India, Pakistan, and the DPRK. The situation in the Middle East is especially perilous, with a grave risk of an uncontrolled escalation.

Another NPT health check-up is scheduled for late April, when the next Review Conference kicks off in New York. The event has not even started, but predictions of its utter failure are already rife – and some of the reasons cited for such forebodings are entirely real. At the height of the Cold War, Soviet foreign minister Andrei Gromyko described the US-Soviet dialogue on nuclear nonproliferation as “the only silk thread” connecting the two superpowers at the time. Despite the flareups such as the Soviet campaign in Afghanistan or the deployment of the US Pershing missiles in Europe, that thread remained strong, and substantive US-Soviet dialogue on nuclear matters never ceased. But now, this silken thread is being torn right before our eyes. The Americans have either gone a bit deaf to Russian reasoning, or become a bit too self-confident for their own good. The mantra in Washington these days is that “Russia is part of the nonproliferation problem, not part of the solution”, making a boomerang effect a distinct possibility.

Indeed, things are looking so gloomy that Tariq Rauf, one of the leading nonproliferation specialists, has even suggested that the Review Conference should be postponed until next year. He has chosen a plausible pretext, arguing that large gatherings should be avoided amid the ongoing coronavirus outbreak. But I think that a large gathering, with everyone contributing to the common cause and helping to draw up an effective prescription, cannot and should not be delayed: otherwise, the fragile health of the NPT can quickly deteriorate beyond repair.