Counting on Nuclear Non-Proliferation

Today is the 45th Anniversary of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and also this week, Wednesday marks the 20th anniversary of the U.S. Presidential announcement to extend the moratorium on nuclear explosive testing. These are admirable anniversaries, but what have they achieved?

The NPT has become the bedrock of the nuclear arms control regime, but back in 1968 when it was first signed, states had no clue how long it would last; and written into the Treaty was a 25-year lifespan. In 1995, the treaty was then indefinitely extended. Now, 189 countries are treaty members, three have actively chosen not to join (Israel, India and Pakistan), and only one has withdrawn (North Korea). Those outside the NPT have not seen the benefit of foregoing nuclear weapons programs and joining the NPT, and this fundamentally weakens the prospects of longer-term sustainability of the regime, unless some form of consensual accommodation can be found.

The overwhelming number of countries that did decide to enter the treaty as Non Nuclear Weapons States (NNWS) have affirmed that they will never possess nuclear weapons, in cooperation with the five Nuclear Weapons States (NWS) of China, France, Soviet Union/Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, which pledged to work toward nuclear disarmament. Although controversies have continued around a handful of countries that have at times failed to stay in compliance with their safeguards obligations, and around the NWS over whether they are making enough progress on their pledges, the treaty is very much alive. The treaty has provided a platform for countries to work together – keeping one another in check and providing forums for sharing ideas devoted to reducing the threat of the world’s most destructive weapons. The anniversary should be enough to give pause to ask the unanswerable question: What would have happened if the NPT had not been enacted?

The same type of question could be asked about the moratorium on nuclear weapons testing that the U.S. President declared in 1993. In the several months after the President had said the United States would renew a moratorium and called on other nuclear powers to follow suit, another country broke it. China tested on October 5, 1993, and continued testing through part of 1996. Yet despite the difficult circumstances, the U.S. measure in 1993 helped to build momentum for the moratorium among all the NWS that has now held for over 15 years. Russia, and U.S. allies France and the United Kingdom, have since ratified the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which means that they are willing to forego nuclear explosive testing forever and support collective efforts to verify that all members are following treaty rules. The United States is a signatory to the treaty.

But because the United States, China, and also Egypt, Iran, Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea, have not ratified the CTBT, it has yet to enter into force. China has indicated that it would ratify if the United States took such a step. That takes Presidential support and two-thirds of the Senate to agree, but the Senate appears in no mood to ratify many treaties these days.

The next NPT Review Conference, in 2015, will be another marking point for the health of the non-proliferation regime. During that conference, members will assess progress in part based upon the ambitious and detailed Action Plan from 2010, of which several points refer to the importance of making progress on the CTBT. The CTBT Organization contributes to this progress, facilitating signatory activities to improve the verification system for a treaty in force. A little over a week ago, Vienna hosted the Science and Technology Conference-with over 750 scientists attending to discuss developments in verification technology. The International Monitoring System continues to develop, with the ability to detect nuclear explosive tests worldwide with high confidence, and is now over 80 percent complete. Still it is unclear how much longer the CTBTO will be able to receive funding without a CTBT in force.

Ratifying the treaty would signal to other countries that the United States plans to avoid another nuclear arms race and close the door on the emergence of another nuclear-armed state emerging on the back of a nuclear testing program. Still, the treaty allows for members to assess, and give notice to exit the treaty should it deem necessary for national security purposes. If the CTBT were left to languish, the moratorium becomes more tenuous, not because of any imminent need to test, but because of a loss of will and momentum. The United States has an opportunity to strengthen U.S. and global security by acting to bring the CTBT into force, and again taking the lead on revitalizing the non-proliferation regime.

The question will be whether the U.S. Administration will be able to break through the current Congressional stalemate, to create the space it needs for the United States to take this leadership role.

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