Fear over nuclear war runs high 50 years after nonproliferation treaty

Fear over nuclear war runs high 50 years after nonproliferation treaty
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Hitting 50 years of age can be a poignant moment for most individuals. For an international treaty, the half century mark would appear less angst generating, maybe even insignificant. Not so for the 50th anniversary of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty of 1968 this month.

The rhetoric of the Singapore summit notwithstanding, the globe has witnessed in the dangerous escalatory rhetoric and nuclear saber rattling between North Korea and the United States a new awareness that fear and misperception increase the likelihood of accidental nuclear war. The U.S. withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal and the plans announced by both Russia and the United States to spend billions of dollars to upgrade their respective nuclear arsenals in the coming years add to this.

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These developments demand a midlife reconsideration of the spirit and letter of the law that has been the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. It was designed as a three-legged stool to control the future spread of nuclear weapons and nuclear energy. The first leg stated that existing nuclear states would not transfer weapons or weapons grade materials to other states. Solidifying the stability of that pledge was that all non-nuclear states would neither obtain nor develop these weapons.

This dual promise was tied closely to a second leg that nuclear weapons states would move to dramatic reductions in their arsenals. Carefully crafted language structured ambiguity into the treaty regarding the aim of those nations for “good faith negotiations” to pursue arms control and ultimately complete nuclear disarmament. The third leg of the treaty stated the right of all states to pursue non-weapons nuclear energy development if they abided by the safeguards of the International Atomic Energy Agency and opened their facilities to inspections.

During the height of the Cold War, and through various serious nuclear crises, the treaty has created and sustained a reasonably successful global regime for managing the spread of nuclear weapons, including dissuading most of the nearly two dozen states predicted to develop them from doing so. Only four United Nations member states have never signed the treaty: India, Israel, Pakistan and South Sudan. The first three are acknowledged nuclear weapon states, now joined by North Korea, which withdrew from the treaty in order to finalize its nuclear ambitions.

The enduring relevance of Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty can be seen in its utility for the transference of former weapons-focused uranium from the former Soviet Union into reactor fuel that was shipped to the United States in the 1990s under the Nunn Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program. Continued adherence to the treaty is a critical concern as the world watches Tehran in the wake of U.S. withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, and the United States attempts to get North Korea to denuclearize.

But, as often happens at midlife, the treaty has been shaken by criticism about the failure to attain its goal. Its most obvious weakness has been that the five authorized nuclear states, despite more than 80 percent reductions during over the years, still wield 20,000 warheads. Moreover, those cutbacks were more related to improved relations between Russia and the United States after the Cold War than treaty adherence.

Ongoing disgruntlement among almost all other nations about the stagnation in weapons disarmament led directly to the July 2017 passage by 122 member states in the United Nations General Assembly of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, now commonly referred to as the Nuclear Weapons Ban Treaty. Unlike earlier arms control agreements, the ban treaty aims for the complete elimination of nuclear weapons in all nations. It is being hailed in many capitals as a “game changer” in global momentum, much like the treaty of 50 years ago.

But the ban treaty quickly faced significant condemnation from the nuclear powers and their allies protected by their “nuclear umbrella.” In September 2017, the NATO ministers were clear when they stated, “The ban treaty is at odds with the existing nonproliferation and disarmament architecture.” They said it risks undermining the original treaty, which has been at the “heart of global nonproliferation and disarmament efforts for almost 50 years.” The ban treaty, in their view, “disregards the realities of the increasingly challenging international security environment.”

The support for NATO from other members of the nuclear club was pronounced. Despite their significant differences on virtually all contemporary political and security matters, Russia and China have agreed with the United States and NATO on rejection of the ban treaty. This affirmation is even more striking as the United States and Russia trade barbs over alleged violations of the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty of 1987. Empowered with the new model for global security that the ban treaty articulates, however, dozens of nations appear undeterred and are citing the new Cold War, North Korea and Iran to support their efforts.

Herein lies the challenge to the arms control approach that the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty has championed. Five decades after its creation, the problems the it was meant to address exist in more complex form and face an even more pressing set of related challenges. These keep nuclear disarmament and the capacity of the original treaty to achieve it through arms control and reductions high on the global agenda.

George A. Lopez is the Hesburgh Professor Emeritus at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame. He served on the United Nations Security Council panel of experts for North Korea sanctions and was vice president at the United States Institute of Peace.