Challenges and solutions for nonproliferation

By Beenish Pervaiz, November 22, 2012

As globalization progresses, the political order is undergoing increasing stress. Both international organizations and non-state actors are eroding the traditional concept of national sovereignty, challenging states' monopoly of power in the political, military, territorial, and legal realms. Indeed, international agreements like the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) are among the factors that have constricted nations' sovereignty.

With 189 signatories, the NPT is the most influential treaty that concerns nuclear issues. But the world has changed in the 42 years since the treaty came into force. If the treaty is to survive, it must be implemented more comprehensively and verification procedures must become less discriminatory. All this requires greater global cooperation.

Terrible prospect. For the treaty to remain an influential document in an integrated world, it will need to come to terms with major challenges. The treaty regime must become more adept at confronting nuclear terrorism. The emergence of non-state actors has called into question whether a nonproliferation regime that was fashioned during the Cold War is capable of addressing contemporary threats. According to Article I of the treaty, "each nuclear weapon state … undertakes not to transfer to any recipient whatsoever nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices or control over such weapons or explosive devices." But there is no guarantee that this principle can be upheld in a world where non-state actors are increasingly challenging the authority of the state.

In recent years, countries like Libya and Syria have been accused of seeking to develop nuclear weapons; evidence has emerged of nuclear smuggling from the former Soviet Union; and cities like New York and London have been targets of terrorism. All this contributes to fears of nuclear attacks carried out by terrorists. The power of non-state actors is gradually coming to par with state power, but the NPT cannot exert control over non-state actors. This highlights the importance of international initiatives such as the Nuclear Security Summit, which can help build a more coordinated, committed global effort against the menace of nuclear terrorism. The underlying goal of the summits is to secure all vulnerable nuclear materials; in order for this to be achieved, countries must honor the pledges of money and resources that they have made to the effort, and in many cases should increase the levels of funding and personnel that they devote to nuclear security.

Rogues and outliers. A serious challenge to the treaty is posed by rogue states and by countries that are not NPT signatories. This challenge requires an internationally coordinated response, insofar as a country like North Korea, which is no longer a party to the treaty, and a country like Iran, which is a party to the treaty but is sometimes characterized as a rogue state, nonetheless play key roles in preserving peace in their respective regions, and therefore must be brought to the negotiating table.

At the same time, non-signatories must be treated equally, and must face the same disincentives to proliferate. India presents a curious case in this regard — New Delhi and Washington have concluded a nuclear cooperation agreement, and the Nuclear Suppliers Group has granted India a waiver allowing it to engage in nuclear trade, despite its not being a party to the treaty. Canada recently finalized details of a nuclear cooperation agreement it reached with India in 2010, and Australia seems to be moving toward exporting uranium to India as well. Through decisions such as these, nations prioritize strategic ties with India and their own commercial interests over the good of the nonproliferation regime. If the treaty is to retain any influence over political decisions in an increasingly integrated and capitalist world, it must be enforced more evenhandedly.

Lay down your arms. The treaty fails to provide a comprehensive plan for disarmament of the nuclear weapon states. Article VI of the treaty contains only the vague obligation that signatories will "pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament." But the world is at a point where commitment to disarmament must go beyond negotiations "in good faith." Among non-nuclear weapon states, considerable distrust flows from the fact that the treaty prevents them from acquiring nuclear weapons while, at the same time, the nuclear weapon states have moved so slowly toward disarmament. Hence, the treaty's survival depends on whether a comprehensive and non-discriminatory framework for disarmament is established.

The antinuclear initiative Global Zero has presented a concrete disarmament road map in the form of its Global Zero Action Plan. One of the plan's strengths is to include in the process nations, such as India and Pakistan, that are key to eliminating the dangers of nuclear war but are not signatories to the treaty. In any case, many who support universal nuclear disarmament believe that, as globalization continues in political, economic, and cultural terms, a new, legally-binding global convention on nuclear weapons is the best path forward.

It seems likely that factors such as globalization, technology diffusion, regional security challenges, and intensification in the power of non-state actors will result in an increase in the number of countries that — even despite being parties to the NPT — look favorably upon acquiring nuclear weapons. The cost of building and maintaining these weapons could inhibit proliferation, but more important would be for the nuclear weapon states to display genuine commitment to disarmament and so set an example for the rest of the world. And if the global community prioritized addressing the world's humanitarian crises over acquiring these deadly weapons, growth in nuclear weapons might be brought to a halt.

Topics: Nuclear Weapons


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