As this is being written, the conference reviewing the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) is going on at the UN in New York. I often lose the line in the formal presentations by the official delegates, and find myself wondering: Why has the NPT worked?
President Kennedy warned in the 1960s that in 20 years there might be 30 nuclear-weapon states in the world. That is why the NPT was created. It went into force in 1970 and the proliferation stopped. Inside the NPT there were the five original nuclear weapon states. Three others have never joined and remain outside: India, Pakistan and Israel. These three countries were already too far along the way to obtain a nuclear arsenal. Since then only North Korea has been lost from the flock, leaving the NPT in 2003 when it became the ninth nuclear-weapon state, and the outlaw.
Still, the NPT has been a great success story in stopping proliferation.
Why? Why did not a score of other states think that they needed nuclear weapons for their security?
One idea behind the NPT came from President Eisenhower’s program “Atoms for peace”: The nuclear-weapon states (NWS) would provide nuclear technology and fissile material for civilian use to the nuclear-weapon-free states (NWFS). In exchange, these would abstain from nuclear weapons.
Is the provision of nuclear civilian technology the reason the NWFS have stayed away from these instruments of genocide? This carrot has had some importance. One reason Sweden and Switzerland scrapped their plans for nuclear weapons was that the USA offered a reliable supply of enriched uranium and nuclear reactors at reasonable prices, provided these two countries abstained from atomic bombs. That principle, however, has been broken. India, for instance, has enjoyed almost unrestricted support from the Nuclear Suppliers Group although India stays outside the NPT. Israel has obtained technology and fuel from the USA and France; Pakistan from China. Only North Korea went the road alone, with a little uranium from the Soviet Union.
In exchange for abstaining from nuclear weapons the NWFS were promised that the nuclear-weapon states would abolish all their nuclear weapons. The NWS have completely disregarded this pledge.
So, why do not Taiwan, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia or Brazil build nuclear weapons? If the established NWS need nukes for their security, do these countries— so much weaker in military strength—not need them more? Or are they just so much cleverer than the NWS that they realize that nuclear deterrence is an illusion?
Maybe. But I also believe that the strength of the Non-Proliferation Treaty itself is important. Once a treaty has been in force for some years, it gradually builds its own strength. That is the way law, international and national, works. If Brazil, Germany or Indonesia today should decide to acquire nuclear weapons, they would feel that they are outlaws, in the same way as North Korea. Their own populations would be upset. Shall we now break a treaty that we have fought so hard to defend? Shall we let our national self-respect depend on military power, as do France or England?
It is difficult to see that any of the present NPT members would act this way. A treaty or international law, which has been in power for a long time, acquires a stature of its own. Breaking the treaty degrades the offender. The fear of international sanctions would be a temporary problem, if any, for a strong country, such as e.g. Brazil.
We are now trying to build a treaty banning nuclear weapons. Initially, only NWFS will join. Once such a ban against nukes has been in place for some years, the NWS will be regarded as the anomaly, even as the outlaw. If we NWFS can live without nuclear weapons, why not they? When we fill our obligations in the NPT, why do not they?
The proposal for a ban on nuclear weapons has caused a very strong reaction from the nuclear-weapon states. Is that not a proof that the NWS are afraid of being proven to be outlaws and underdeveloped?
A ban against nuclear weapons can only strengthen the NPT!