Can the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty outrun its double standard forever?

NPT Double Standards 4President John F. Kennedy once said:

“You cannot negotiate with people who say what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is negotiable.”

However a small group of states (including the state of which Kennedy was President) have done just this in relation to the possession of nuclear weapons for decades. Five of them (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States) have held the position of being the privileged few allowed to possess nuclear weapons under the terms of the 1968 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT)  while all others agree to forego developing the ‘ultimate weapon’ in return for access to civilian nuclear technology. Three others have refused to sign the treaty (India, Israel and Pakistan) and instead developed their own nuclear weapons (overtly in the cases of India and Pakistan after 1998 and covertly in the case of Israel from the late 1960s) happy to free-ride on the lack of global proliferation ensured by the treaty. To paraphrase Kennedy, the decision of these eight states (nine if you include North Korea from 2003 onwards) to inflict mass destruction on an adversary is theirs, but everyone else’s decision to acquire the same capability can be negotiated away.

What is perhaps most extraordinary about the NPT ‘grand bargain’, as it is often called (although given that the five nuclear weapon states have exactly the same access to civil nuclear technology as the rest of the signatories, ‘bargain’ here really is a polite term for ‘scam’), is that it has remained largely intact for so long. For something built on such a seemingly unsustainable basis as an institutionalised double standard (particularly one that relates to the ultimate survival of nation states), the fact that its indefinite extension was negotiated in 1995 and that the treaty is still with us defies most conventional wisdoms about the ‘dog-eat-dog’ nature of self-help politics in an anarchical international system. Yes, the treaty may have been abused by some states and used as a cover to develop covert weapons programmes (Iraq, Libya, North Korea and possibly Iran) and one state has even withdrawn from the treaty under Article X (North Korea in 2003), but these are four cases in a treaty that boasts 189 signatories.

Challenging sustainable security

In many ways the success of the treaty regime provides one of the most robust challenges to the whole concept of sustainable security. Why bother addressing the root causes and underlying drivers of nuclear proliferation if you can effectively stem the flow of nukes by maintaining a treaty which promotes a ‘norm’ of non-proliferation as good international behaviour, and allows you to deflect charges of hypocrisy as long as you make encouraging noises about ‘eventual’ nuclear disarmament at some unspecified point in the future?

However, like a building with rotten foundations, it may be that what has appeared to be a relatively sustainable global non-proliferation regime is far less stable than many believe it to be. Recently, Egyptian negotiators walked out of the UN talks that are held in the lead-up to each five yearly review conference of the NPT. This dramatic move from Egypt was a public expression of the long-held private frustrations of its diplomats who, after being effectively promised serious negotiations towards a Middle East Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone (WMDFZ), in return for their support for the indefinite extension of the Treaty in 1995 (and re-affirmed explicitly at the review conference in 2010), face the continued postponement of such talks. The problem is, Israel has no interest at all in such a zone – why would it? A combination of the NPT and Western action against would-be proliferators such as Iraq, Libya and Iran have meant that the construction of a WMDFZ in the Middle East would mean that Israel would either have to join and give up its position as the only state in the region with nuclear weapons, or be the one state in the region that refuses to join. Either way, it would also mean attracting global attention to its nuclear weapons arsenal, something Israel has managed to successfully avoid of late in all the focus on the weaponisation concerns over Iran’s civil programme.

Calling it like it is

Before leaving the NPT preparatory talks, Egypt’s Ambassador Hisham Badr explicitly referred to the resolution passed in 1995 that called for negotiations on a Middle Eastern WMDFZ, and called out those that thought they could get away with Egypt sticking to its side of the bargain and getting little in return. His comments challenged the idea that the double standard could be maintained indefinitely when he stated clearly that “we cannot wait forever for this resolution to be implemented.”

Perhaps the most worrying signs here are the responses to Egypt’s move. Israeli diplomats have effectively said that with the security situation in Syria, in Egypt itself and elsewhere in the region, a WMDFZ is the least of its concerns. The United States has referred to the episode as “theatrics” and in the meantime has pushed on with negotiating a nuclear trade pact with Saudi Arabia. These trade deal talks are taking place at a time when experts are tracking an increase in the acquisition of strategic ballistic and cruise missiles by the Kingdom. The other nuclear weapons states have been conspicuously quiet throughout.

So rather than seeing this as a sign of the potential unravelling of an unsustainable regime based on a double standard, those who have most to gain from the NPT arrangement (both inside and outside the regime), are betting on this being just another ‘NPT in crisis’ – a moment they assume will pass. Whether this storm will blow over (like a mushroom cloud over the Pacific Ocean…no, sorry that bad pun is stopping right there!) is now THE big question for those concerned about nuclear threats. If the regime falls apart and 189 states are no longer happy to give up nuclear weapons, the simple days of dealing with Iranian and North Korean nuclear ‘crises’ will be looked back upon with great fondness.

Time for regime change?

While the NPT regime story is one of a continuing death foretold, it is difficult to see how the all-important 2015 review conference can outrun the double standard that sits at the heart of the regime without all signatories applying some degree of what could be called a ‘sustainable security’ approach. As Egypt’s actions make clear, anything less than a regime specifically geared towards addressing the reasons why some states seek nuclear weapons  – including regional insecurity, conventional weapons imbalances and the prestige attached to nuclear arsenals by their possessors – is a regime existing on borrowed time.

Ben Zala is a Lecturer in International Politics at the University of Leicester.

Image source: Wikimedia