Sixty years after the first atomic bombings, some 40 countries have the know-how to produce nuclear weapons. If it is true that the nuclear genie cannot be put back in the bottle, why aren't there dozens of nuclear-armed states? The decades-long global struggle against nuclear proliferation has largely succeeded because the 1968 nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) established effective nonproliferation and disarmament rules and standards.
The treaty and associated measures make it far more difficult for the non-nuclear states to acquire the material and technology needed to build such weapons. Equally important, it commits the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, and China to pursue nuclear disarmament and has led them to pledge not to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear NPT members, thereby reducing the salience of nuclear weapons and the motives for other states to acquire them.
At the 1995 NPT Review Conference, the reaffirmation of the nuclear-weapon states' disarmament obligations was essential to the indefinite extension of the treaty. At the 2000 Review Conference, states-parties went even further, agreeing to a 13-point action plan, including bringing into force the treaty banning nuclear testing, making future nuclear arms reductions irreversible and verifiable, and negotiating a verifiable cutoff of fissile material production for weapons.
As the May 2005 NPT Review Conference approaches, progress on nuclear disarmament is as essential to winning the struggle against proliferation as ever. Sadly, the nuclear-weapon states' recent disarmament record is mainly one of lost opportunity and inaction.
Most disturbing are the brazen claims of senior Bush administration officials that disarmament commitments made at previous review conferences no longer apply. Washington is also actively opposing or sidestepping the most important disarmament measures. As a result, states-parties are divided about how to strengthen the treaty. Leading states, including many U.S. allies, are calling on Washington to revise its policies and adopt a more balanced and productive approach.
President George W. Bush opposes entry into force of the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which would impede development of new types of nuclear warheads by existing nuclear powers and would-be proliferators. China and other key CTBT hold-outs have followed suit by delaying ratification.
Adding insult to injury, Bush has approved a military strategy that calls for new nuclear capabilities designed to enhance the credibility and range of options for the possible use of nuclear weapons. Not only has the United States initiated research on new, more “usable” nuclear weapons, but Russia claims it is developing a more advanced nuclear delivery system.
China continues to slowly modernize its nuclear arsenal of approximately 400 warheads, while France and the United Kingdom are considering nuclear force modernization. Maintaining and expanding reliance on nuclear weapons only undermines nonproliferation efforts by suggesting to other states that nuclear weapons are necessary for their security.
Stalled for years by China, negotiations on the fissile material cutoff treaty are now blocked by U.S. opposition to a verification system. The stance is short-sighted and self-defeating. Such a treaty is effectively verifiable and would lock in the production freeze observed by the NPT's five nuclear-weapon states. It would also cap the supply of bomb material available to NPT holdouts India, Israel, and Pakistan.
The United States and Russia will cite their progress toward securing Soviet-era weapons-usable material and dismantling weapons banned under the 1991 START agreement. While important, their efforts reflect commitments made a decade ago.
They will also tout their newest arms reduction pact, which will reduce their stockpile of deployed strategic weapons. But contrary to arms reduction goals of the 1990s, the 2002 Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty does not require the verifiable destruction of warheads or their delivery vehicles and will allow each side to maintain massive strategic nuclear arsenals of 5,000 warheads or more past 2012—about 10 times the size of any other states' current nuclear stockpile.
U.S. and Russian leaders have also failed to discuss how they might reduce their so-called tactical nuclear weapons, which total at least 4,000. Greater Russian reliance on such weapons combined with NATO states' reluctance to part with the 480 U.S. tactical warheads based in Europe impedes progress.
Although NPT member states will not likely reach consensus on a new disarmament action plan at the next review conference, they cannot afford to retreat from their past commitments. At a minimum, NPT states must reaffirm their common nuclear disarmament goals, examine how to achieve them, and agree to resume progress on further, specific measures to halt and reverse the nuclear arms race.
By itself, progress on nuclear disarmament will not hold back proliferation. But in the long run, the number of countries with nuclear weapons cannot be held in check if the United States and the other nuclear-weapon states do not hold up their end of the NPT bargain.