The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the almost four-decade-old deal among the world’s nuclear and non-nuclear states to control the spread of nuclear technology that can be used for weapons, is on its back. In addition to the five declared “nuclear states” party to the treaty, three non-parties, India, Pakistan and Israel, have developed and deployed nuclear weapons in highly tense and unstable political environments and with unknown safeguards against theft or accidental launch. Moreover, North Korea has all but confirmed a minimal nuclear arsenal, which may already be deployed and aimed at Seoul, and at US forces in the demilitarized zone between the two Koreas. Those weapons could even, loaded on missiles like the Nodong-2 and the Taepodong, hit Japan and US bases in Asia. It hardly requires recapitulation that Iran’s nuclear program is the single greatest threat to global peace and stability today. Whether or not Tehran develops a serviceable nuclear deterrent, its brash defiance and calculated ambiguity in the face of Western pressure has pushed more responsible players to plan for what nobody wants: a US or Israeli preemptive strike on Iran.
We are in these dire straits largely thanks to the breakdown of the NPT’s central bargain: that if non-nuclear states gave up the right to develop nuclear arsenals, the five nuclear states would grant them reasonable access to peaceful nuclear technology, and would themselves undertake robust and credible efforts to reduce their deadly nuclear stockpiles. While the treaty’s five nuclear powers (coincidentally, also the five permanent UN Security Council members) hardly bear direct responsibility for other states’ choices, they certainly have not helped. Aside from a few Cold War driven reductions in US and Russian nuclear stockpiles, the nuclear states have done decidedly little to deliver on their promise. It should not be a surprise, therefore, that leading non-nuclear states, especially those facing what they consider existential military threats, have bucked international censure to develop the ultimate deterrent.
Whether this worrying trend is reversible depends on whether the US, Russia, and the other leading nuclear powers can restore strength and credibility to the bargain underpinning the NPT. Some experts believe there may be a way to do that.
The Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), opened for signature in 1996, prohibits all states parties from undertaking or assisting other states to undertake nuclear weapons tests, including nuclear explosions of any kind. Although the US signed the treaty in 1996, the Senate has as yet not ratified it, sending the signal to aspiring nuclear powers that the world’s leading nuclear weapons state may still intend to test and deploy new, even more destructive nuclear weapons. Under such circumstances, why should an India, a Pakistan, or even an Iran, refrain from developing its own modest nuclear deterrent? On the other hand, if the US were to ratify CTBT, even after more than a decade, the move could give gravitas to a renewed commitment to the NPT, and offer proponents of that venerable treaty as the basis for future non-proliferation the life support they need.
On the domestic front, ratification will be no easy task. First, it will require a sea change in attitudes on the Hill. Senators will have to acknowledge, as our British allies recently have, that we cannot call for universal compliance with the letter and spirit of the NPT without offering it ourselves. Our national laboratories and related executive agencies must abandon plans for future nuclear tests, and confirm that policy change publicly. Top weapons experts acknowledge that even the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) program, ostensibly essential to ensure the durability of the US nuclear deterrent, does not require testing in violation of the CTBT. They might be persuaded to cooperate by a deal explicitly linking full funding for the RRW with CTBT ratification. Finally, the President should make a major speech endorsing ratification, reaffirming the US commitment to reducing our own nuclear stockpiles pursuant to the NPT, and at least aspiring to eventual nuclear disarmament. After all, if the most heavily nuclear armed juggernaut cannot hope for and imagine a world without nuclear weapons, how can we ask more vulnerable states to make that aspiration a reality?