For fifty-five years, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and associated institutions have helped prevent the widespread acquisition of nuclear weapons, while allowing countries to pursue nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. The NPT is a central element of the contemporary international system and a key reason that nuclear weapons have not been used in conflicts since 1945. Today, the NPT is under significant pressure from multiple directions. Many states are dissatisfied with the status quo and denounce a lack of cooperation to remedy perceived deficiencies, which are: coercive measures against those who try to engage in proliferation, such as Iran; stalling progress on disarmament; perceived impediments to nuclear trade and cooperation. All those tendencies already existed before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but now they will be accelerated due to Moscow's blatant disregard for Ukraine's sovereignty and international norms.
If major repair efforts are not made, the non-proliferation system will reach a breaking point. More states will try to acquire nuclear weapons. The supply of nuclear technology may be drastically altered as more and more states adopt it as a way to combat climate change. Perhaps nuclear crises between major powers will become more frequent, thus increasing the possibility of the use of nuclear weapons (by accident or on purpose). Such a future is very dangerous, and the international community must try to prevent it.
Discontent with the nonproliferation regime has been brewing for a long time. Fundamentally, it stems from the slow hollowing out of the three pillars of the grand agreement of the NPT. To fulfill this agreement, the nuclear-armed states agreed not to share their weapons and, ultimately, to disarm. Non-nuclear weapon states agreed not to develop nuclear weapons and to allow independent oversight of their nuclear activities. And all states agreed to allow cooperation in the peaceful uses of nuclear technology. The NPT was joined by 191 countries, all except India, Pakistan and Israel (and now we must add North Korea, which withdrew from the treaty). Over time, the deal's value proposition diminished, leading to the widespread discontent seen today.
Starting in the 1950s, nuclear technology began to be perceived as a modern marvel. It was capable of providing large amounts of electricity with which to meet economic development goals, cure cancer, eradicate harmful agricultural pests. For a time, nuclear explosives were even considered to have a potentially viable use in mining. For these reasons, many states sought to seize nuclear technology as part of their general social development projects and as a symbol of modernity and progress.
Although nuclear technology fulfilled many of the promises attributed to it by its proponents, in the decades that followed its luster was marred by accidents, high capital costs, and the need to devise long-term storage of spent, highly radioactive fuel. . Public support for nuclear power plants dwindled; especially after the nuclear accidents at Chernobyl in 1986 and Fukushima in 2011. Over time, nuclear power came to be perceived as an outdated and non-avant-garde technology. Left behind by biotechnology, information technology and the space industry (among others), its symbolic power diminished.
The perceived loss of value of nuclear technology as an incentive in the grand deal was accompanied by problems in the non-proliferation pillar. In 1998, India and Pakistan carried out nuclear test explosions and declared themselves nuclear powers. The US and its Western allies toppled Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, two leaders who had sought nuclear weapons, reinforcing the perceived value of nuclear weapons in deterring regime change. (The Russian invasion of a denuclearized Ukraine is cited as another example of this phenomenon.) Iran's secret nuclear activities came to light. And North Korea resumed its nuclear program and carried out a first test explosion in 2006, with negotiations failing to stop or permanently reverse the development of its arsenal.
Meanwhile, efforts to achieve universality of the NPT were undermined by special US agreements with India to give it access to nuclear power technology despite not being a member of the NPT. China followed suit with Pakistan. In 2021, the US announced another exception to standard non-proliferation practices; on that occasion, to help Australia build nuclear-powered submarines. In short, the nonproliferation pillar has been hollowed out both by states seeking illicit access to nuclear weapons, by several states that have acquired them, and by a few powerful states that have made exceptions to the rules for their friends. .
Lastly, on the disarmament pillar, dissatisfaction with the slow pace in the reduction of nuclear weapons by the US and Russia after the cold war, and the modernization of nuclear arsenals by almost all the states that possess them, prompted dozens of states and civil society organizations to begin convening conferences to discuss the possible humanitarian consequences of the use of nuclear weapons. Those meetings eventually culminated in the 2017 UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), which establishes a norm against the possession of nuclear weapons. 86 states have signed the treaty, and 60 have ratified it. However, none of the nuclear-weapon states or their allies have joined the treaty. Nonetheless, the TPNW is a loud and clear expression of frustration with the status quo and of efforts to address perceived flaws in the NPT agreement through a clearer call for disarmament.
The hollowing out of the grand deal of the NPT is unlikely to lead to states achieving nuclear weapons. However, this hollowing out affects how leaders weigh the political and security benefits of their acquisition against the inherent costs and risks that the process entails. In particular, since the great powers (especially the US) have shown their willingness to make exceptions to the rules – and, if the international community is unable or unwilling to apply severe sanctions against proliferators – some leaders could assess that the bet is worth it. The most proliferation-prone states are those facing security threats from adversaries or hostile neighbors (particularly nuclear-armed neighbors) and those of autocrats seeking to entrench their internal dominance and avoid external threats of change. regimen.
Unfortunately, the Russian invasion of the Ukraine reinforces such a logic. Under the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, Ukraine agreed to return to Russia the Soviet nuclear weapons left on its territory at the end of the cold war in exchange for security guarantees from Russia and the US. Now, after the Russian invasion , some academics and policy experts argue that, had it kept those weapons, Ukraine would have been able to deter Russian aggression. (This is a partially flawed argument, as Ukraine never had operational control of the weapons and Russia would likely have ended up withdrawing them without Ukrainian consent.) Similar lessons are drawn from Iraq and Libya: if they were successful in their efforts By developing nuclear weapons, Saddam Hussein or Muammar Gaddafi might have been able to dissuade outside countries from imposing regime change and would therefore still be in power today. Statements by North Korean officials make it clear that such a nuclear security policy is why the country persists in developing weapons, despite periodic efforts by the US, China, South Korea and others to negotiate the end of the program.
The lure of the security provided by nuclear weapons, fears that a Russian invasion might encourage North Korea to try the same, and the belief that the US will end up making an exception in the non-proliferation regime… such are the ideas that drive today in South Korea, for example, the strong interest in obtaining nuclear weapons. Public opinion polls show that between 60% and 70% of the population would like to have nuclear weapons. Politicians have asked the US to deploy in South Korea or, alternatively, to develop an independent arsenal. Major newspapers debate the issue. All this in a country already protected by a security alliance with the US that includes US guarantees to use nuclear weapons if necessary for the defense of the territory.
South Korea, among others, may or may not seek nuclear weapons; But the potency of those ideas and their emotional resonance among South Koreans is a clear indicator of the ill health of the nonproliferation norm.
The fact that a non-proliferation regime exists today is largely due to the common interest and cooperation between the US and the Soviet Union since the 1950s. Despite the tensions of the cold war and In the crises of the time, both Moscow and Washington saw the value of limiting potential proliferation by controlling the spread of nuclear technology. They formed cadre of diplomatic and technical experts who participated in the nuclear treaty negotiations and who came to know and respect each other. The two countries have developed International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards that are intended to detect potential proliferation and deter it by the likelihood of discovery, as well as nuclear technology trade regimes. In addition to creating multilateral non-proliferation instruments, both countries enabled nuclear energy and research cooperation with allies and partners, while offering them security guarantees to mitigate the perceived need for nuclear weapons. Cooperation and common interest among the great powers in writing and maintaining the rules is essential for a functioning international order.
However, over the last two decades, disagreements between Russia and the US have become more acute, many of them motivated by the perception in Moscow that their interests were being ignored. Little by little, these disagreements began to erode the common purpose that had allowed a series of cooperation in nuclear matters. Arms control agreements fell apart. Discussions at the IAEA about how to strengthen safeguards have festered. Diplomacy over how to handle difficult cases like Iran's has become more tense. China's rise to world prominence in that period further complicated matters. In some cases, Beijing was productively involved in diplomacy over Iran and North Korea; on the other hand, in others it broke the rules to favor its interests in key regions.
Many analysts predict that the world is headed for a period of heightened tensions between great powers and perhaps even a Cold War 2.0. The "limitless" partnership that is being consolidated between Russia and China despite Russian aggression against Ukraine seems consistent with a trend towards new blocs. Regardless of the future construction of the international system (bipolar or multipolar), the maintenance of common interests in non-proliferation among the great powers is by no means guaranteed. In fact, the great powers may try to relax or even break the rules if they perceive that this will strengthen the deterrence against the opposing bloc.
For example, to strengthen its alliances with Japan and South Korea or to prevent either of them from developing their own nuclear arsenal, the US could agree to the deployment of nuclear weapons in the region. Or, if an ally decides to get nuclear weapons, Washington might end up going along with it to preserve its relationship with that ally. Similarly, Russia seems likely to move nuclear weapons into Belarusian territory, right up to the NATO border; and it might also be tempted to offer nuclear incentives to some of its other allies. One or more of the major powers may undermine or block collective efforts to stop proliferation in other regions, notably the Middle East.
Such predictions may seem far-fetched today, but as Ukraine's post-invasion order settles and international norms are rewritten, the confrontation between the major powers will dramatically alter the patterns of cooperation on which the regime was founded and sustained. The political decline of non-proliferation institutions is already underway and is likely to accelerate, often driven by the actions of the major powers themselves.
Putting aside the uncertainty surrounding Russia's place in the world following its invasion of Ukraine, there is one global imperative that could forge a new non-proliferation consensus: the usefulness of nuclear power in the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources to help combat climate change. The latest report from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is clear about the imperative to radically reduce carbon emissions now.
Making nuclear power available to countries that want to use it in their climate strategies is one way to start reinvigorating the big NPT deal. The facilitation of nuclear cooperation must be accompanied by improved practices in nuclear liability: in safety, security, liability and non-proliferation. In particular, states that insist on using technologies or materials that are more easily convertible into nuclear weapons should take additional voluntary steps to reassure the international community of the absence of weapons intent. China, Russia and the US, among other countries with companies that sell nuclear reactors, could find common cause in this global approach that only requires policy alignment and not the negotiation of new treaties.
The global policy of rebuilding the non-proliferation system is fraught with difficulties given the hollowing out of the grand agreement of the NPT, the growing demand for nuclear weapons, and the weakening of cooperation between the major powers. Progress in any area or in any negotiation will be extremely difficult, if not impossible. However, probable failure should not impede efforts to prevent the future from being more dangerous.
Toby Dalton is a senior fellow and co-director of the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.