Is it time to ditch the NPT?

By Joelien Pretorius, Tom Sauer | September 6, 2019

UN/IAEA inspectors examine suspect equipment in Iraq following the 1991 Gulf War. Photo Credit: IAEA Action Team

In 2020, the participants in the 1970 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) will congregate for the treaty’s 10th review conference. Which means that it may be a good time to re-examine the relevance of the NPT, and even consider the idea of dropping this treaty in its entirety, in favor of the new kid on the block: the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, also know as the Ban Treaty. At the risk of grossly oversimplifying, one treaty seeks to stop the further spread of nuclear weapons, while the other goes further and seeks to get rid of them entirely. This difference is reflected in their formal titles.

Why should we ditch the former in favor of the latter? To answer that, let us look at history.

In the half-century of its existence, the broader objective of the NPT—to restrict the spread of nuclear weapons—has been corrupted. Instead, states possessing nuclear weapons have used the NPT to legalize their own nuclear weapons and criminalize everyone else’s. The result is a one-sided and duplicitous nuclear order that is unstable, dangerous, and contrary to the expectations on which non-nuclear weapon states joined the NPT. The nuclear weapon states have squandered a number of opportunities to fulfill their end of the bargain embedded in the treaty. These include reneging on commitments given at the 1995 Review and Extension Conference, the 2000 and 2010 Review Conference conclusions, and boycotting the UN-mandated multilateral negotiations of a legal prohibition on nuclear weapons. These failures line up as proof that nuclear weapon states have no intention to give up their nuclear weapons.

Consequently, it may be time for states that are serious about nuclear disarmament to consider withdrawing from the NPT entirely. The only terms on which we see any use for these states to remain members would be if the NPT becomes a forum for an orderly and time-bound transfer from the old nuclear order—based on disingenuous and cynical interpretations of the NPT by the five nuclear weapon states (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) to uphold the status quo—to a new nuclear order where the premise is that nuclear weapons are illegal for all.

A “cornerstone” of what? The NPT has often been described as the “cornerstone” of the nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament regime. This metaphor conjures up an image of a key building block securing a structure of sorts—let’s say a house. The intention with the NPT was to build a house where nuclear weapons would eventually become illegal and illegitimate. Accordingly, at key points in the NPT’s history, states without nuclear weapons were assured that the NPT is a blueprint for a world without nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons’ so-called legality in the hands of those states which had conducted nuclear tests by 1967 was understood to be only a temporary measure—a means to an end, intended as a practical measure to make nuclear disarmament negotiations easier. It was based upon an earlier proposal, known as the Irish Resolution—the idea that by curbing the spread of nuclear weapons up front, it would ultimately be easier to negotiate disarmament down the road, because there would be fewer states with nuclear weapons to begin with.

Herein lies the problem: The house that was built (and continues to be built) on the NPT cornerstone is not the one that the architects promised. Instead, the nuclear weapon states have used this treaty to argue that their nuclear weapons are legal and a sovereign right. As a result, the NPT became the cornerstone of a severely hypocritical nuclear order where a few states regard wielding their nuclear weapons as legitimate while proscribing this sovereign right to other states—something which India dubbed “nuclear apartheid.”

The disingenuous interpretation of the NPT has led to and reinforced entrenched nuclear military-industrial complexes. Moreover, this order has structurally enabled proliferation, arms races, the continuation of conflicts that should long ago have been resolved politically (such as the Korean Peninsula and Kashmir), war under the pretence of counter-proliferation (Iraq in 2003 and likely against Iran in the near future) and unacceptable nuclear risks—from hair-trigger alerts and accidents to terrorism. Four out of the five nuclear weapon states are not even prepared anymore to endorse the Reagan-Gorbachev principle, which states that nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought. This led observers such as former California governor Jerry Brown and nuclear expert William Potter to conclude that “it is hard to maintain faith in the future of the NPT.”

Put on the spot, defenders of the nuclear order have tried to convince us that although the house built over the last 50 years is not the one that the NPT promised, we should remain patient: The house, they claim, is simply just not finished yet. The slow pace of nuclear disarmament is attributed to the world not being safe for the elimination of nuclear weapons at the present time. The US initiative in the NPT forum, Creating an Environment for Nuclear Disarmament, is just the latest excuse to delay nuclear disarmament by postulating mythical prerequisites for its implementation.

RELATED: The nuclear ban treaty is set to enter force. Experts explain what comes next.

A house of cards? Article 6 of the NPT demands that all signatories—both nuclear and non-nuclear weapon states—“pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament…” While the height of the (quantitative) nuclear arms race is hopefully behind us, there are still 14,000 nuclear weapons on Earth, each with a destruction capacity that is on average much larger than the Hiroshima bomb. The use of only a fraction of this worldwide arsenal is enough to destroy the world beyond recovery.

Multilateral nuclear disarmament negotiations by 124 states—which only started up in 2017—were boycotted by all the nuclear-armed states and most of their allies. Not one of the nuclear-armed states has signed the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Instead, all the nuclear weapon states have gone the other direction, and are in the process of what they call “modernizing” their nuclear arsenals. The United States, for instance, is planning to spend $1.2 trillion (not counting inflation) over the next 30 years to modernize its nuclear weapons and their delivery vehicles. The United States and Russia, collectively possessing more than 90 percent of all nuclear weapons, are quick to point to bilateral arms control treaties as evidence of their step-by-step nuclear disarmament approach. However, they have no qualms about dismantling these treaties on a whim when it suits them, as was the case with the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and the Intermediary Nuclear Forces Treaty. That makes a mockery of Article 6.

Furthermore, contradicting one of the agreed negotiation guidelines that the NPT must embody “an acceptable balance of mutual responsibilities and obligations of nuclear and non-nuclear powers,” there have been discriminatory extensions over time that tip the scales against non-nuclear weapons states. The establishment of the Zangger Committee and the Nuclear Suppliers Group, for instance, institute informal nuclear export controls on non-nuclear weapon states, while the IAEA Additional Protocol further lengthens the list of requirements for these states to prove their non-proliferation credentials.

The non-nuclear weapon states have been patient for a long time. Every five years, they reminded the nuclear weapon states about their disarmament promises. Sometimes, additional promises were made by the nuclear weapon states. In 1995, at the Extension Conference, a Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and a fissile material ‘cut-off’ treaty were promised, as well as negotiations of a Middle East weapons of mass destruction free zone. Today, none of these has become a reality (the CTBT is in limbo as it has not entered into force). The same applies for similar promises made at the 2000 and the 2010 Review Conferences. The United States even backtracks on these earlier promises—something that was criticized at the 2019 NPT Prepcom by countries like Sweden, Switzerland, and NATO member state Latvia. The final outcome of this Prepcom was a strong signal from the non-nuclear weapon states to the nuclear weapon states that they are running out of patience.

RELATED: Nine hurdles to reviving the Iran nuclear deal

Let’s also not forget that the “cornerstone” of the non-proliferation regime still does not contain the only nuclear proliferator in the Middle East (Israel). Nor does the non-proliferation regime contain three out of four nuclear armed states in Asia—India, Pakistan, and North Korea—as members. In sum, one third of all nuclear armed states are not at all covered by the NPT, and the prospects for bringing them in are nil. At the same time, these non-official nuclear armed states give permanent incentives to the further spread of nuclear weapons, especially in the Middle East and East Asia.

The nuclear order built on the infamous “cornerstone” therefore seems to be a house of cards, ready to topple with the next wave of proliferation, in all likelihood in the Middle East (Iran, Saudi Arabia, and maybe others like Turkey and Egypt). Former Canadian diplomat Paul Meyer concludes that “it is a wonder that the NPT retains any credibility as a framework for global nuclear governance.” Along the same lines, Harvard academic Rebecca Davis Gibbons fears that “without change, [the NPT] will likely suffer a slower but no less consequential death.”

A Hobbesian world after withdrawal? Many observers, like the Ukrainian scholar, Polina Sinovets, fear the end of the NPT, as it might lead us to “a truly Hobbesian nightmare” where the old rules are abandoned and the new ones have not been developed or have not been accepted by all.

That fear is unjustified for two reasons. First, as stated above, the NPT is not the cornerstone of the non-proliferation and disarmament regime anymore. It has become an obstacle to its own ideals, a farce of empty promises. The longer it persists (without fulfilment of Article 6), the less relevant and more politically void it becomes. We are reaching the moment where more states—perhaps many more states—will start leaving the treaty anyhow. Some may leave because they are tired of not being treated respectfully; others for fear of becoming targets of aggression under fabricated premises of nuclear proliferation.

Second—and this is something that many observers have not thought through—the NPT can and in all likelihood will be replaced by the Ban Treaty. Most states, at least if they sign the Ban Treaty, would be bound by the Ban Treaty’s prohibitions—which include NPT safeguards. The Ban Treaty embodies all that the NPT stood for originally and more. It provides the necessary framework for negotiating the verifiable elimination of nuclear weapons when nuclear armed states join.

What would states who withdraw from the NPT lose?

Nothing. On the contrary, we would end up living in a different world, that replaces a discriminatory regime with a regime in which all states are equal—at least with respect to the possession of nuclear weapons. It would be a world without a treaty that ends up legitimizing nuclear weapons for a small group of states while condemning their acquisition by most other states. It would be a world in which nuclear weapons and their possessors would be regarded as pariah states, possessing defense instruments that are not only inhumane, immoral and illegitimate, but also illegal once the Ban Treaty enters into force.

Is it possible to redeem the NPT? If the original intent of the NPT is followed through to its logical conclusion, the NPT must be superseded or amended. A world without nuclear weapons does not need an NPT, because there would be no (legal) nuclear weapon states. However, such a world has need for the system of safeguards and verification that the NPT has established.

The only way that we see any worth in states continuing to be members of the NPT is if the NPT becomes a dynamic and time-bound forum for the orderly transition to a new nuclear order where nuclear weapons are illegal for all. Such a transition would start with nuclear weapon states and their allies joining the Ban Treaty or initiating the negotiation of a Convention on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons. The NPT Review Conferences could then be used to determine what aspects of the NPT must survive into the new nuclear order—such as safeguards and how to bring non-NPT nuclear armed states into the fold of nuclear disarmament. But, inevitably, the NPT must be replaced with another international agreement—be it the Ban Treaty or a newly negotiated instrument—that abolishes nuclear weapons, oversees their elimination, and institutes a universal system to ensure nuclear abstinence for all.

If the penny doesn’t drop soon for nuclear weapon states that this is the only way forward, then rationally there seems little else for states that are serious about a world without nuclear weapons to do, but to walk away from the NPT.

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Jonah Speaks

Five nuclear armed states joined the NPT, but none will join the nuclear ban treaty. The ban treaty requires unilateral nuclear disarmament by any nuclear-armed nation that joins. As a practical matter, any successful nuclear disarmament or nuclear reduction treaty must be mutual and verifiable. The ban treaty drafters ignored this fairly obvious point. Accordingly, their work product failed to devise any practical approach for reducing and perhaps eliminating nuclear weapons. Advocating withdrawal from the NPT only compounds the error. If the NPT collapses, then what? The ban treaty will not take its place. Instead, there will be no regulation… Read more »

Joelien Pretorius
Joelien Pretorius

The 5 nuclear weapons states act as if there is no regulation for them in any case. The TPNW laid down the principle of a ban around which verification can be negotiated either as a protcol or a follow-up treaty that supercedes the TPNW. If the nuclear weapon states are serious about their end of the NPT bargain, they must negotiate such an instrument. But, because the NPT does not provide a deadline for disarmament, the nuclear weapon states can abuse it to justify their non-compliance with the NPT ad infinitum. States who agreed to forgo the nuclear option cannot… Read more »

Jonah Speaks

A third option is to remain within the NPT (with or without joining the TPNW) and continue efforts to move the world toward a mutually verified reduction and elimination of nuclear weapons. A collective withdrawal from the NPT would simply demolish the nuclear order without establishing a new nuclear order. The result would be nuclear arms racing and further nuclear proliferation, making the dream of nuclear zero vastly more difficult to achieve.

Marianne J Hanson
Marianne J Hanson

Jonah – there have been several comprehensive and well-respected studies exactly on a ‘practical approach for reducing and perhaps eliminating nuclear weapons’. They are already out there, with contributions from strategists, politicians, and military staff, detailing clearly how we can move, in a phased, balanced, mutual, and verifiable way to lowering the numbers of nuclear weapons, and then their elimination. The problem is that the nuclear armed states refuse to listen. It is not the job of the TPNW to put forth another one of these ‘practical approaches’. Been there, done that.

Jonah Speaks

I fully support “phased, balanced, mutual, and verifiable” methods for reducing or eliminating nuclear weapons. Working out the details will require substantial amounts of diplomatic effort and serious negotiations over a period of many years. Unfortunately, the TPNW provides no outline or blueprint for any nuclear armed nation to follow, other than the non-starter of immediate unilateral disarmament. Withdrawal from the NPT is counter-productive to the TPNW’s professed goal to establish a “norm” of no nuclear weapons use or possession.

Ari Kivimäki
Ari Kivimäki

It is even less likely nuclear states would enter this new treaty. Having witnessed for decades how most states never join the NPT or those that do are scarcely obeying it (US and Russia) there’s no incentive to join a more comprehensive and punishing deal. At the least they would be humiliated even more by being the only kids on the non-nuclear block than in the NPT. And at most it could be downright dangerous to be a part of it as the world is set for another wave of rapid nuclear expansion triggered by the US leaving the Iran… Read more »

Lars-Erik Lundin

The standard argument that I heard from TPNW supporters during my inquiry on behalf of Sweden was that the two treaties are complementary. This argument is missing here, to say the least. For many of us in Europe, it does matter if the US and Russia are legally bound to a treaty or not. In fact, that was the absolute condition for my country to join the NPT in the first place. And that was our ambition expressed in a declaration of vote in 2016 before the TPNW negotiations started. But we were rather alone seeking an inclusive approach. I… Read more »

Rob Goldston
Rob Goldston

This article surely supports the arguments by the opponents of the TPNW that it could be used to undermine the NPT. Why not maintain the NPT (and push hard on Article 6) while also supporting and pushing forward the TPNW?

Joelien Pretorius
Joelien Pretorius

The TPNW does not undermine the NPT. The nuclear weapon states undermine the NPT. The non-nuclear weapon states and civil society have pushed as hard as they can, but Article 6 remains unfulfilled – now even more so than in 1990s. The NPT’s lack of a deadline for disarmament and the way that the nuclear weapons states use the NPT to legitimize (their) nukes and shift the goal posts is the problem. Non-nuclear weapons states will start to call the nuclear weapon states’ bluff, like North Korea has.

helen caldicott

The BAN treaty is now the only one with any relevance but how to get the blasted nuclear weapons states to sign it, maybe they feel they will be signing away their masculinity! Time for women to take over!!

Linda Pentz Gunter

While, as you write, “The NPT has often been described as the ‘cornerstone’ of the nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament regime”, Article IV of the NPT has been described as the “cornerstone” of the Treaty itself. Although not covered here, this is the other deep flaw in the NPT. Far from being a “cornerstone,” Article IV, which affords countries that disavow nuclear weapons the “inalienable right” to develop nuclear energy, simply shoots the treaty in the foot. The continued proliferation of nuclear power leaves the door perpetually wide open to the further development of nuclear weapons in countries such as Saudi… Read more »

Raymond G. Wilson

A problem with the BAN treaty is that it is lacking in real incentives. The following has the necessary incentives not only to ban nuclear weapons but to also end wars.

Ramesh Thakur
Ramesh Thakur

Many of the criticisms of the article are sharp and to the point. But I don’t see that any of the critics are engaging with the authors’ core argument. Let me summarise: 1. The NPT has many flaws and shortcomings that have accumulated over time to make it increasingly cumbersome for achieving the nuclear disarmament goal. See:; 2. As the authors point out, the five NWS have succeeded through unilateral reinterpretation in a double de facto amendment: legalising their own indefinite retention and criminalising proliferation by anyone else. This corrupts the original bargain. If you are a member of… Read more »


Without the threat of nuclear annihilation there is going to be a lot of warfare. I say this as an Indian — the only thing keeping India and Pakistan from going to a full-scale war are the nukes.

Keith Gottschalk
Keith Gottschalk

The Pretorius and Sauer article hits one nail on the head. To continue to pretend, after fifty years, that NPT negotiations to dismantle all existing nuclear weapons are in good faith is, with great respect, delusional. It is a courteous diplomatic fiction. If you disagree, it will be helpful to indicate for how much longer you will consider NPT states as negotiating in good faith to dismantle their nuclear armory when they do not scrap their nuclear weapons . Would one hundred years be more reasonable? Would three hundred years of negotiations still be considered to be in good faith?… Read more »

alyn ware

I agree with Pretorius and Sauer that the NPT is flawed and discriminatory. But what can be done about this? The nuclear-armed States are able to ignore the Article VI obligation of the NPT because the non-nuclear States do not appear to be serious in pushing them to implement it. Not one other non-nuclear country joined Marshall Islands in their 2016 case in the International Court of Justice against the nuclear armed states on lack of implementation of Article VI. Marshall Islands asked them, but not one joined. Not surprisingly, this left the ICJ to conclude that there was no… Read more »

Tom Sauer

We agree that the goal should be – as you end your reply – ‘to shine a global light on the hypocrisy of the nuclear armed states’, and that that requires action by the non-nuclear armed states. You seem to say that the latter has not been the case, referring to the Marshall case. I do not know why no other non-nuclear armed state has supported the Marshall Islands at that time. But you seem to forget that around the same time 122 non-nuclear armed states started and finished multilateral negotiations for the Ban Treaty. That can definitely be categorized… Read more »


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