This piece was originally published as a policy brief by the United Nations Association of the United States of America(UNA-USA).



The international system to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons is based on a basic premise: increasing the number of countries in possession of nuclear weapons will directly increase the risk that such weapons will be used. Thus, the vast majority of countries in the world—over 180 of them—have pledged not to acquire nuclear weapons and to allow inspections to ensure their nuclear assets are used only for peaceful purposes. This regime, which also includes five acknowledged nuclear weapon states, is further premised on the pledge that those five countries will work to lower the nuclear threat and that they are unequivocally committed to nuclear disarmament. Thus, the regime, and the treaty at its heart—the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT)—rests on three equally important pillars: nonproliferation, disarmament, and the right to peacefully use nuclear technology.


These pillars held in heavy weather for over three decades, but are now starting to show signs of age. 35 years after its entry into force, the NPT is about to be reviewed for the seventh time. One would think, with the end of the cold war, the global war against terrorism, and the high level of attention paid to proliferation, that the Treaty members would be poised to reaffirm the NPT’s vital importance and take action to enhance it for the years ahead. Yet, it is now clear that the Treaty is in crisis and the three-week long review conference slated to begin May 2 could be the most contentious in history.


US officials have repeatedly stated that the NPT is facing a crisis of compliance. From Washington’s perspective treaty violations by Iran and North Korea, and the unwillingness of other states to punish those cases of non-compliance has put the treaty at risk. For their part, many non-nuclear weapon states believe that the nuclear states have not complied with their commitments to disarmament. They think that the US and other countries working to modernize their nuclear arsenals are not, and have never been, serious about full nuclear disarmament. Thus, the real challenge to the nonproliferation system is not only the crisis of compliance with the treaty, but also the crisis of confidence in it.

“Cornerstone of Global Security”

Over time, the NPT has proven its worth. In 1960, John F. Kennedy famously prophesied a world with some twenty nuclear nations by the mid 1970s. Yet today, more than 60 years after the invention of nuclear weapons, only eight states have the bomb. More than a little credit should be given to the NPT for this state of affairs. Thus far, it has lived up to its promise and has enhanced the security of all nations. It remains the most widely subscribed security treaty in world history and the only legal document committing states to nuclear disarmament.


Since the treaty came into force, more nations have given up nuclear weapon programs than have begun them.  In fact, four states, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Ukraine and South Africa, have given up possession of actual nuclear weapons altogether. In 1970, the treaty had 64 member-states, and only 3 of the 5 nuclear-weapon states were members. Since then, both France and China have signed on, along with 122 other nations, giving the NPT 188 member-states. Only three, Israel, India, and Pakistan, have refused to join.


During this same period, only one member-state, North Korea, has successfully evaded the controls of the NPT and emerged as a nuclear capable state. Pyongyang spent decades developing a nuclear weapons program and, after a confrontation with Bush administration officials in late 2002, announced that it was no longer bound by its NPT obligations.


Yet despite its progress, the most controversial aspect of the NPT remains in the area of disarmament. Even here, however, much progress has been made in the past 35 years. In 1970, the United States and the Soviet Union had a combined nuclear arsenal of nearly 38,000 nuclear warheads. In 1985, the combined total was, incredibly, over 62,000 warheads. Today, after years of arms limitation and arms reduction treaties, as called for under Article VI of the NPT, that total has been reduced to roughly 26,000 warheads. While one can debate whether this rate of reduction is sufficient given the currently benign state of American-Russian security relations, it is clear that the disarmament pillar of the NPT can be proud of its record. The concern today is that the trend toward nuclear reductions may be soon reversed, as states including the United States and Russia look to nuclear weapons as increasingly viable tools for military missions beyond strict deterrence.


The NPT reached a pinnacle in 1995 when all of its member-states agreed that the Treaty should remain in force indefinitely. While not everyone concurred on what steps needed to be taken moving forward, all recognized the fundamental strength of the treaty—that everyone is far better off with it than without it. Sustaining this faith in the treaty must be a fundamental objective in the years ahead. The NPT will enjoy continued success only as long as all member-states buy into the notion that it makes them more secure.

The “Twin Crises of Compliance”

The world has changed dramatically since 1995, and the NPT has been dealt a series of six body blows, each of which presents new challenges and new opportunities for the international community.


The first major blow came, ironically, from outside the treaty. In 1998, India and Pakistan engaged in dueling nuclear tests, marking the first time ever that anyone besides the five nuclear powers overtly tested a nuclear weapon. This tremor shook the nonproliferation regime, but was certainly not enough to topple it, and the NPT member-states came together in 2000 to not only rebuke India and Pakistan but also to break new ground in their commitments to the treaty.


The second and third blows were delivered in quick sequence in late 2002. First, in October the United States confronted North Korea, claiming that Pyongyang had broken the terms of their agreement by pursuing a clandestine program to produce highly enriched uranium for nuclear bombs. North Korea reacted with hostility, eventually delivering the most powerful shock to the treaty by announcing its controversial withdrawal in January 2003.


Shortly after the war of words broke out between Washington and Pyongyang, it was revealed that Iran was also pursuing clandestine uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing programs. Though the mullahs in Tehran claimed their efforts were within their Article IV rights to use nuclear technology for research and power generation, Iran had violated the treaty by hiding its program. Many fret that in the coming years the treaty will allow Iran to come to the brink of a nuclear weapon capability, at which point Tehran would withdraw and declare itself a nuclear power a la North Korea.


The fourth major hit absorbed by the NPT came veiled in the success of Libya’s disarmament. It was not until Libya renounced its nuclear weapons program in December 2003, opening all of its facilities to international inspection, that the black market proliferation network of A.Q. Khan was brought to light. Khan employed a number of contacts and front companies in more than a half dozen countries to illegally sell massive amounts of nuclear technology. This non-state challenge is an entirely new one for the treaty. It is unique to the “globalization era,” and it will be difficult to tackle.


The same factors that facilitated Khan’s proliferation have fueled a much more overt challenge to the NPT: the diffusion of nuclear technology. Ironically, this threat is also a product of the treaty’s success. The treaty’s mandate to spread peaceful nuclear technology has led to a world in which thirty-five or forty countries have the know-how to develop nuclear weapons. All that is stopping them is political will. In the words of IAEA Director-General Mohammed ElBaradei, “The margin of security in the current non-proliferation regime is becoming too close for comfort.”  This diffusion of the knowledge and materials needed to build nuclear bombs is particularly concerning in an era where nuclear terrorism has been consistently identified as the primary threat to both national and global security.


The final challenge to the NPT comes from an entirely different source: the nuclear-weapon states. While it is true that nuclear arsenals are vastly reduced from even fifteen years ago, there is great concern that the nuclear-weapon states have not taken their obligation to disarm seriously enough. For example, the United States is currently pursuing new types of nuclear weapons, hopes to shorten the time necessary to resume nuclear testing, and has espoused a new policy that envisions nuclear first-use in certain situations. According to NPT expert Rebecca Johnson, “When one of the nuclear club is regarded by others as going too far towards taking the disarmament obligations seriously, it is viewed as breaking ranks.”

Review Conference 2005: The Need for Universal Compliance

While often tumultuous, previous NPT Review Conferences have enjoyed varying degrees of success. In the context of the upcoming debate, it is important to note that the most successful sessions have been products of balance—balance in addressing all three pillars of the treaty: nonproliferation, peaceful sharing of nuclear technology, and disarmament. The treaty has emerged strongest when all states have acknowledged the challenges to all three pillars and have made difficult compromises to address each of those challenges. As the President of this year’s Review Conference, Sergio Duarte of Brazil, has stated, we cannot “give exclusive weight to one of the elements to the detriment of the others.”  Sometimes that strengthening has come in the form of a final consensus document as in 2000. Other times, it has come as a statement of principles and objectives as in 1995 at what is considered the most successful NPT Review Conference ever.


The debate in New York will inevitably be framed by the three pillars, and will center around the six blows recently absorbed by the treaty, with the delegates searching for agreement on ways in which those challenges can be addressed. The most important development will be to what extent the member-states recognize that Universal Compliance and a balance of obligations must drive their thinking.


Nonproliferation. The United States, and its fellow nuclear-weapon states, will likely harp on the need for strengthened compliance with the treaty’s nonproliferation obligations. Focusing on cases such as North Korea and Iran, the United States will emphasize the threat that nuclear “rogues” pose to international security. They will attempt to demonstrate that the only true challenge to the NPT is that posed by these bad regimes. To a certain degree, their argument is valid. The challenges posed by North Korea and Iran have illuminated the need for two significant reforms to the NPT. There is support for both of these measures, and they can and should be taken at the Review Conference in May.


Article X Reform. North Korea successfully hid its nuclear weapons program and then became the first member to ever withdraw from the treaty in early 2003. To this point, the international response to these actions, highlighted by the six-party talks, has been woefully inadequate. The fact that North Korea could withdraw from the treaty without major consequences must be addressed.


To respond to this challenge, there must be a strong push to enhance Article X of the treaty, which allows for withdrawal in the case that “extraordinary events” threaten a country’s “supreme interests.”  The international community must make clear that no state will be permitted to get off scot-free if it withdraws from the treaty and declares itself a nuclear power. To accomplish this, the Review Conference can and should build on French and German proposals by calling for the UN Security Council to pass a resolution clarifying the NPT withdrawal process. This resolution would demand that any party attempting to withdraw explain precisely what “extraordinary events” led to its withdrawal. It would also hold that state responsible for any violations committed while it was a party to the NPT, and it would prohibit the withdrawing party from using any materials, equipment, facilities, or technology acquired under the NPT. If the withdrawing state proves unwilling to comply with these demands, the international community in general, and the nuclear-supplier states in particular, would have a very strong legal basis for military action to force compliance, if necessary. Such international solidarity would, in turn, improve the likelihood of succeeding in disarmament negotiations before any military action became necessary.


The Additional Protocol Standard. In the fall of 2002, the international community learned that, while they were fixated on Russia’s overt nuclear commerce with Iran, the mullahs had been covertly procuring nuclear technology from the network of Pakistani scientist A.Q. Khan. Over time, however, the IAEA has successfully uncovered large portions of Iran’s formerly illicit program. Though we cannot yet be sure that all of Iran’s activities have been brought to light, it is clear from the words of IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei that the Additional Protocol has been an essential tool in this process so far. “If a country wants to proliferate, it will most likely go underground, meaning undeclared…The undeclared, of course is usually an easier route and that’s where the [Additional] protocol is a key.”  Beyond Iran, the Additional Protocol has been important in Libya, as well as in revealing small-scale clandestine activities in South Korea and Egypt.


As a policy measure, therefore, the United States should follow up on earlier public statements and push for the universal acceptance of the Additional Protocol. If the Additional Protocol became the standard for international inspections, the IAEA would have a much easier time both identifying violators and deterring other states from pursuing illicit nuclear weapons programs.


The Dangers of Being Unbalanced. If the 2004 preparatory session for this year’s conference is any indicator, however, this US emphasis on nonproliferation may be accompanied by downplaying the disarmament pillar. As then-Undersecretary of State John Bolton stated in the spring of 2004, “We cannot divert attention away from violations we face by focusing on Article VI issues that do not exist.”   Though there will be widespread support for both empowering the IAEA with the Additional Protocol and clarifying the NPT withdrawal process, this lack of balance on the part of the United States may lead some to attempt to frustrate what they see as Washington’s discriminatory aims.


Peaceful Access to Nuclear Technology. Though lack of balance may hinder some nonproliferation objectives, it could really haunt the conference when the delegates take up proposals to limit access to uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing facilities, which could be used to produce bombs. Of real concern is that countries might work to cynically misuse the NPT to obtain the very technologies and facilities needed to produce nuclear weapons and then withdraw from the treaty ready to go nuclear. These concerns are as old as the NPT itself, and every two decades, it seems the international community tries and fails to make progress on this risk. Yet now, with the looming spread of uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing technologies to more and more countries, the ability of countries to acquire and malevolently manipulate nuclear facilities raises more questions than ever before.


Iran is the main test case. Having hidden major portions of its nuclear program for 18 years, Iran is now within a few months or years of obtaining a fully operational uranium enrichment capability. Having acquired it clandestinely, and given the instability of its region, there is more than a little concern that Iran is not committed to its non-nuclear status. Yet there is nothing in the NPT per se that gives countries the right to deny Iran access to enrichment, even if it has cheated previously on the treaty.


Thus, a number of proposals have been put forward that would build additional stability into the Treaty regime. On February 11, 2004, President Bush called on all countries that did not possess enrichment or reprocessing facilities to refrain from developing them in exchange for guaranteed access to fuel services for reactors. IAEA Director General ElBaradei has called for a five-year moratorium on construction and operation of all such plants, regardless of which countries own and operate them. This would give the international community time to look at international management options for proliferation-sensitive facilities. While most states understand that these issues are too complex to be resolved at the NPT Review Conference, many are interested in discussing the options, and hope that some momentum for international dialogue and future action can be created at the Conference.


Disarmament. With the nuclear powers focused exclusively on nonproliferation and limiting others’ access to a closed nuclear fuel cycle, many of the non-nuclear weapon states will try to balance the debate by emphasizing disarmament. Though often treated as a “second-class commitment”  by the nuclear powers, disarmament is central to the NPT. It is one of only two concessions made by the nuclear powers to entice the non-nuclear states to remain faithful to their nonproliferation commitments. Now, with much desire among some to change the rules regarding nonproliferation and access to peaceful nuclear technology, there will be even greater desire for major disarmament commitments from the nuclear-weapon states.


The Thirteen Steps. The 2000 Review Conference has rightly been remembered for the difficult compromise made by the New Agenda Coalition, a group of non-nuclear countries friendly with the United States, and the nuclear-weapon states. Under their leadership the entire conference agreed to thirteen concrete and pragmatic steps towards disarmament. These steps included early entry into force of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), a moratorium on all nuclear explosions, conclusion within five years of a verifiable treaty to ban the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons, and an “unequivocal commitment” by the nuclear-weapon states to full nuclear disarmament.


Since the 2000 Review Conference, however, the nuclear-weapon states, most noticeably the United States and France, have attempted to downplay the importance of the 13 Steps, warning that they are unlikely to be re-affirmed at the 2005 Review Conference. This approach is both unnecessary and counterproductive. Lack of flexibility on the 13 Steps has the potential to bring the conference to a standstill.


Though the Bush administration contends that the 13 Steps are a relic of the past, which no longer apply in the post-9/11 world, only one of these steps has actually been rendered obsolete. The true problem with the twelve still-relevant steps is that they are in conflict with some Bush administration policy priorities, such as the desire to shorten the time required for nuclear testing, opposition to a verifiable treaty to end the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons, opposition to the CTBT, and the hope of developing new “bunker busting” nuclear weapons.


For its nonproliferation objectives to be met, however, it would be prudent for the Bush administration to swallow its pride and comply with its solemn agreements by either re-affirming the twelve still-relevant steps or re-negotiating an equivalent set of steps towards nuclear disarmament. The agreement to the 13 Steps in 2000 was a major political achievement and the failure to re-affirm or re-negotiate in 2005 would have major political consequences.


Beyond the 13 Steps, the rest of the disarmament debate will likely center around the three black sheep of the nonproliferation regime: Israel, India, and Pakistan. Calls for each of these states to disarm and join the NPT as non-nuclear members will almost certainly be futile and go unheeded.


Towards a Strengthened NPT

Though it would be naïve to expect the Review Conference to produce a consensus document that solves all of the treaty’s problems, it is not outside the realm of possibility that the conference will adjourn with a fortified NPT and an international community energized to make the world safe from nuclear weapons.


In order to achieve this objective, however, the delegates will have to embrace the idea of Universal Compliance and accept a balance of obligations. This means that both nuclear- and non-nuclear weapon states must acknowledge that they have important obligations to fulfill under the treaty. Only this approach can address both the crisis of compliance and the crisis of confidence. It would also correct the impression that the nuclear-weapon states get more out of the nonproliferation regime than do their non-nuclear counterparts. Over 98% of the world’s nations have embraced the Non-Proliferation Treaty because they believe that it enhances their security. To sustain and strengthen the NPT, the “advantaged” nuclear-weapon states must ensure that the other 183 member-states see the treaty as fundamentally beneficial and fair.


Though it does not seem overly likely, with the Universal Compliance approach, the NPT Review Conference could bolster a regime that is very much in need of bolstering. The NPT must not lose its hard-won mantle of “most successful treaty every devised.” With a sustained and strengthened NPT, brighter days could still lie ahead.


Joshua Williams and Jon B. Wolfsthal work on nonproliferation issues at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, DC. Wolfsthal is the co-author of Deadly Arsenals: Tracking Weapons of Mass Destruction and Universal Compliance: A Strategy for Nuclear Security.

[1]Since the NPT came into force the following states have given up nuclear weapons or nuclear weapons programs, or ceased consideration of pursuing a nuclear weapons program: Argentina, Au

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