The past is so much with us that it can sometimes obscure the present. This is certainly true with respect to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), whose quinquennial review is scheduled to begin on May 3. During past reviews, the health and well-being of the NPT regime has been measured primarily by the actions of the five states recognized by the treaty as possessing nuclear weapons. Under Article 6 of the treaty, all five—
During the Cold War, the P-5 produced, in the aggregate, tens of thousands of nuclear weapons, tested these weapons more than 2,000 times, and threatened to use them during harrowing crises or in warfare. Most of this wretched excess was the doing of the Soviet Union and the
Given this history, past review conferences understandably produced action plans that focused primarily on what the first five proliferators needed to do to strengthen the regime. Continued pressure on the P-5 is certainly warranted because they still possess more than 20,000 nuclear weapons. Nevertheless, well-rehearsed speeches blaming the P-5 for the ills of the global nonproliferation regime obscure recent trends and impressive gains.
Looking back, the NPT has made extraordinary strides. The treaty entered into force on March 5, 1970, with just 43 member states. Among the original absentees were
Despite the power and influence nuclear weapons are presumed to possess, the NPT has established nonproliferation as a global norm. States pursuing nuclear weapons programs after the NPT entered into force have been cast as outliers. The IAEA Board of Governors has found two states, Iran and North Korea, to be in noncompliance with their safeguards agreements. Others, including South Korea and Syria, have conducted activities that, when exposed, have been viewed by the IAEA as matters of serious concern, prompting the agency to request clarifications or dispatch inspection teams.
Although a number of non-nuclear-weapon states have strengthened their commitment to the NPT over the past two decades, the most impressive gains during this period have been made by four of the P-5. These gains can be measured by six key indicators of nuclear weapons’ utility: actual battlefield use, threats of battlefield use, overall stockpile size, warheads deployed, nuclear weapons tests, and fissile material production for weapons. Based on these six indicators, compliance with the NPT’s core obligations by four of the P-5 has become stronger, and the value they have placed on nuclear weapons has plummeted since the Cold War ended. Despite these gains, which are described below, the outcome of the 2010 NPT Review Conference is in doubt, as is, more importantly, the health and well-being of the NPT regime. Threats to the well-being of the regime now lie increasingly in the actions of outlier states, the politicization of deliberations by the IAEA board, and the reluctance of key non-nuclear-weapon states to step up to their obligations as guardians of the treaty.
The profound nature of the positive trends described below has been underappreciated for three primary reasons. First, the residual P-5 capabilities remain large, reflecting the excessive size of their arsenals in past decades. Second, old ways of thinking linger in P-5 nuclear enclaves, where attempts to buck these trends capture headlines, even when they are ineffectual. For example, Bush administration efforts to add new warhead designs to the
Consider the particulars, starting with the battlefield use of nuclear weapons. When the nuclear age began, no one was so bold or so foolish as to predict that the “winning weapon” would remain sheathed for more than six decades. Others have analyzed at length the reasons for this unexpected and enormously important tradition of restraint. What matters most, for the purposes of this article, is the inescapable conclusion that a weapon not used on battlefields loses its military utility. Every year that passes without the use of nuclear weapons in crisis or warfare makes it more difficult for a political leader to authorize subsequent use, while making the user more of an international pariah.
A second criterion is the political utility of nuclear weapons. Even if unused on a battlefield, nuclear weapons could still have political utility in that they could influence behavior in crises and in war. During the Cold War, the
The pattern of nuclear-tinged threats over the past two decades has changed markedly from the Cold War. The most harrowing crises since the Cold War ended have involved outliers to the NPT.
A third measure of nuclear weapons utility is stockpile size. According to data compiled by Stan Norris and Hans Kristensen, global nuclear stockpiles reached their peak in 1986 at more than 65,000 warheads. Moscow and Washington have reduced their stockpiles by approximately 50,000 warheads below their Cold War peaks. The stockpiles of France and the United Kingdom have been in decline since 1981 and 1992, respectively. The British and French stockpiles are now respectively 43 percent and 32 percent smaller than they were in these peak years. Of the P-5 nuclear arsenals, only China’s is believed to be growing, albeit modestly.
Another important barometer is the number of nuclear weapons deployed. Since the Cold War ended, Moscow and Washington have reportedly removed from operational status more than 19,000 nuclear weapons. The number of nuclear weapons deployed by France has been reduced by at least 125. The United Kingdom has reduced its arsenal by approximately 200 deployed nuclear weapons. Of the P-5, only Beijing is increasing the number of warheads it deploys.
Every test of a nuclear weapon is a declaration of utility. In 1962 alone, there were an astonishing 178 nuclear weapons tests. From 1965 to 1974, there was an average of 62 tests per year. In the following decade, the average was 54 tests per year. From 1985 through 1994, the average number of tests dropped to 18 per year. Since 1996, the P-5 have not conducted a single declaration of utility in the form of a nuclear weapons test.
A final yardstick is fissile material production for weapons. Four of the P-5—again, with the exception of
In summation, by all six key indicators, the utility of nuclear weapons has declined dramatically for four of the P-5 over the past two decades. Stockpiles and numbers of deployed nuclear weapons are declining significantly. The potential for military conflicts between major powers has diminished greatly, along with accompanying threats to use nuclear weapons. Probably none of the P-5 is now producing fissile material for weapons. None of the five has tested nuclear weapons for 15 years, an extraordinary and previously inconceivable stretch of time. Finally and most importantly, no country has resorted to battlefield use of a nuclear weapon since 1945.
This track record deserves respect rather than denigration. To be sure, Cold War stockpiles and nuclear testing were excessive by any measure. Yet, the extent of reductions in Russian and
The NPT is both a beneficiary and a cause of these positive trends. The extent of causality can admittedly be debated, except in one crucial respect: The treaty’s indefinite extension in 1995 was clearly linked to the subsequent completion of negotiations and entry into force of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). This pledge was partially delivered in 1996 but has yet to be honored fully. Nonetheless, the positive linkage between the NPT and nuclear testing is clear: If there were no connection between nuclear testing and the indefinite extension of the NPT, the P-5 would surely have tested old or new weapons repeatedly during the past 15 years.
Nuclear trend lines for four of the P-5 have been decidedly positive over the past four review conferences. Supporters of the NPT, who have pushed long and hard for these trend lines, can be justifiably proud of their work, even though they habitually see the glass as half-empty. Temporary reversals of these enduring trends could occur at any time, which would compound P-5 responsibility for the NPT’s uncertain state. Their most important duty as treaty guardians and as veto-wielding members of the Security Council is to deal purposefully with compliance concerns. In their dealings with
Other complaints could no doubt be added to this list, but there is undeniable, impressive evidence that, on balance, the contributions of four of the P-5 to the NPT regime have grown significantly in recent decades. In contrast, outliers to the NPT are relying more heavily on nuclear weapons. Three of the four NPT outliers—India, North Korea, and Pakistan—are the only states to have tested nuclear devices since 1996 and are enlarging their fissile material and weapons stockpiles.
These positive and negative trend lines will intersect with uncertain effect at the 2010 NPT Review Conference. Four of the five major powers have contributed most of the significant gains for the NPT regime over the past two decades, but all five still have a long way to go in fulfilling their treaty obligations. Although the P-5’s trend lines are mostly positive, the same cannot be said for the IAEA, for states outside the treaty, or for those undermining it from inside.
1. UN Security Council, Resolution 1887, S/RES/1887, September 24, 2009, www.un.org/Docs/sc/unsc_resolutions09.htm.
3. See International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), “The Structure and Content of Agreements Between the Agency and States Required in Connection With the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons,” INFCIRC/153 (corrected), June 1972, www.iaea.org/Publications/Documents/Infcircs/Others/infcirc153.pdf.
4. See IAEA, “Model Protocol Additional to the Agreement(s) Between State(s) and the International Atomic Energy Agency for the Application of Safeguards,” INFCIRC/540 (corrected), May 1997, http://www.iaea.org/Publications/Documents/Infcircs/1997/infcirc540c.pdf.
5. International Atomic Energy Agency, “Safeguards Statement for 2008,” n.d., http://www.iaea.org/OurWork/SV/Safeguards/es2008.pdf.
6. IAEA Board of Governors, “Report by the Director General on the Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement Between the Agency and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,” GOV/2003/3, January 6, 2003, www.iaea.org/NewsCenter/MediaAdvisory/2003/gov2003-3.pdf; IAEA Board of Governors, “Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement in the Islamic Republic of Iran,” GOV/2005/77, September 24, 2005, www.iaea.org/Publications/Documents/Board/2005/gov2005-77.pdf.
8. See, for example, Nina Tannenwald, The Nuclear Taboo: The United States and the Non-Use of Nuclear Weapons Since 1945 (
9. For evidence of noncompliance prior to 1991 threats, see UN Security Council, Resolution 707, S/RES/707, August 15, 1991, www.fas.org/news/un/iraq/sres/sres0707.htm. For evidence of noncompliance prior to 2003 threats, see UN Security Council, Resolution 1441, S/RES/1441, November 8, 2002, http://www.un.org/Docs/journal/asp/ws.asp?m=S/RES/1441(2002).
10. Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), “Table of Global Nuclear Stockpiles, 1945-2002,” November 25, 2002, www.nrdc.org/nuclear/nudb/datab19.asp (hereinafter NRDC table).
15. For current figures for Russian and
16. For French deployed warheads, we take “deployed” to mean the number available for immediate use: carried on patrol by ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs), stationed at airfields, or mounted on land-based ballistic missiles. We assume, conservatively, that only one French SSBN is on patrol at any given time. See Robert S. Norris and Hans M. Kristensen, “French Nuclear Forces, 2008,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Vol. 64, No. 4 (September/October 2008), http://thebulletin.metapress.com/content/k01h5q0wg50353k5/fulltext.pdf. At its historical peak in 1992, we again assume a lone SSBN on patrol as well as the other deployments, including of the Hades missile. Robert S. Norris and William M. Arkin, “French Nuclear Forces 1993,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Vol. 49, No. 8 (October 1993), p. 56.
17. For British deployed warheads, we take “deployed” to mean the number available for immediate use: carried on patrol by SSBNs or stationed at airfields. Current British SSBNs reportedly carry 48 weapons, and one is on patrol at any given time. See Robert S. Norris and Hans M. Kristensen, “British Nuclear Forces, 2005,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Vol. 61, No. 6 (November/December 2005), http://thebulletin.metapress.com/content/k52425n3320m8644/fulltext.pdf. At its historical peak in 1975-1982, there were 48 weapons on patrol on SSBNs and roughly an additional 200 gravity bombs at airfields. See Richard Moore, “The Real Meaning of the Words: A Pedantic Glossary of British Nuclear Weapons,” UK Nuclear History Working Paper, No. 1, March 2004, www.mcis.soton.ac.uk/Site_Files/pdf/nuclear_history/Working_Paper_No_1.pdf.
18. U.S. Department of Defense, “Military Power of the People’s Republic of
19. For raw data, see NRDC, “Table of Known Nuclear Tests Worldwide,” November 25, 2002, www.nrdc.org/nuclear/nudb/datab15.asp.
20. Sharon Squassoni, Andrew Demkee, and Jill Marie Parillo, “Banning Fissile Material Production for Nuclear Weapons: Prospects for a Treaty (FMCT),” July 14, 2006, www.fas.org/sgp/crs/nuke/RS22474.pdf.