Half Full or Half Empty? Realizing the Promise of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty

Jean du Preez

Some analysts are already writing the epitaph for the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). Others are dusting off Cold War prognosis about nuclear chain reactions, arguing that the treaty has failed and that more and more states will break out or creep out from the almost 40-year-old regime. Still others are looking into ways to establish a new nuclear nonproliferation regime, arguing that the NPT cannot meet today’s challenges.

These gloomy forecasts on the future of the NPT follow a number of setbacks: the disappointing outcome of the once-every-five-years treaty review conference in 2005; the inability of the 2005 UN summit to express itself on the threats associated with nuclear weapons; North Korea’s blatant disregard for the treaty’s goals, including its October 2006 nuclear test; increasing concerns over Iran’s nuclear intentions; and the impact of the U.S.-Indian nuclear cooperation deal. There now seems to be a growing belief that the goals embedded in the treaty and upheld for almost four decades have become “missions impossible.”

The nuclear nonproliferation regime is in deep trouble and facing unprecedented challenges. NPT states-parties should be seeking to build bridges between each other on ways to strengthen the treaty’s core bargains as they did in 1995 and 2000. Instead, they are taking singular approaches. Some focus only on the nonproliferation side of the NPT bargain, including a few key parties who prefer threats of sanctions and military action to diplomacy. Another group, meanwhile, is quick to make linkages aimed at stalling progress on nonproliferation or in an attempt to force equal treatment on issues such as nuclear disarmament, the crises in the Middle East, and assurances against the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons.

Yet, has the NPT failed? Although a bit dated and despite some noncompliance concerns, it is fair to say that the vast majority of its members continue to believe in and fully support the treaty’s objectives and principles. Contrary to growing perceptions in Washington, both in governmental and nongovernmental circles, the treaty has a good track record. Although the only four states that remain outside the treaty are now armed with nuclear weapons, this problem relates to long-standing regional and bilateral political issues that the NPT was not necessarily designed to address. Convincing these countries to renounce nuclear weapons or control their nuclear-related technologies and material will require tailor-made diplomatic approaches outside the context of the NPT in which the United States and other NPT nuclear-weapon states have a leading role.

The “glass-half-empty” protagonists seem to believe that because less than a handful of NPT members have cheated— Iraq, Libya, North Korea, and Iran—the NPT and its safeguards system have failed to prevent proliferation. Of these “cheaters,” Iraq and Libya are no longer of nuclear proliferation concern, while the verdict is still out on Iran’s intentions. In their analysis of the treaty’s well-being, those who foresee a demise of the NPT seem to forget that several states, such as Argentina, Belarus, Brazil, Kazakhstan, South Africa, and Ukraine, gave up their nuclear weapons or related programs and joined the NPT as non-nuclear-weapon states in good standing. Moreover, the overwhelming majority of other non-nuclear-weapon states have laudable compliance records.

Instead of finding ways to reward good behavior, more and more initiatives are surfacing on ways further to curtail the right of states in good standing to use the atom for peaceful purposes. Others argue that the nuclear cooperation deal between India and the United States will tear the treaty apart because it would essentially reward India for staying outside the regime. They seem short on ideas, however, on how to incorporate the world’s most populist democracy into the nonproliferation fold while providing its citizens with a sustainable energy source. Many others believe that the nuclear-weapon states have not met their legal disarmament obligations, but they have little legal ground to judge these states, given the weaknesses of the treaty in this regard.

The treaty is not yet on the brink of failure. Talk of such failure plays into the hands of those who wish to pursue nuclear weapons or use unilateral action in pursuit of national counterproliferation objectives. Yet, the continued inability to adapt the treaty from its Cold War framework to one more responsive to today’s security environment will, over time, erode the treaty’s relevance as a cornerstone of international security. As they now begin formal preparations for the 2010 review conference, states-parties must move quickly to lay the groundwork for success by establishing an effective preparatory process, defining balanced and achievable goals, and building political will and momentum to implement them.

For if states-parties approach the next review cycle with the same business-as-usual approach as they did the past one, the outcome of the 2010 review conference could be in jeopardy long before it starts. Another failed conference could pave the way for greater involvement and intervention by the most powerful states, acting either as coalitions of the willing or through the UN Security Council, on the grounds that the multilateral machinery has ground to a halt and that the NPT is no longer functional. Others may start questioning the security framework that the treaty promises and seek their security through other means, including nuclear weapons.

Opportunities to advance the treaty’s goals in the run-up to the 2010 conference remain. Taking advantage of them requires visionary leadership, strong political will at the highest levels, and innovative and constructive cooperation among all key players—national, intergovernmental, and nongovernmental—to strengthen the core bargains on which the treaty was founded almost 40 years ago. In so doing, the treaty’s inherent weaknesses should be recognized with a view to finding ways to address these limitations in a holistic manner. What is needed urgently is not a new treaty or lopsided ways to deal with current threats, but a balanced plan of action to implement the treaty’s core bargains, taking into account developments since its adoption, including the way in which it was extended in perpetuity.

Going Back to the Future

When the member states of the 18-nation Disarmament Commission, later the Conference on Disarmament (CD), agreed to the text of the NPT in 1968, they did so knowing that the treaty was not perfect and that its provisions might not stand the test of time. In part, this led to the agreement that the treaty would not last in perpetuity but that its future would be determined 25 years after entry into force. The text of the treaty was the best that could be achieved at a time when the United States and the Soviet Union had large arsenals of nuclear-tipped missiles aimed at each other and when it was feared that several other states might follow the example of those states that had acquired a nuclear weapons capability.

While states without nuclear weapons agreed to forgo that option immediately, nuclear-weapons states made two rather vague concessions. They agreed in Article IV that the restrictions embedded in the treaty would not affect the “inalienable right” of all states to use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes and that states should share technology and material for the peaceful use of the atom. In Article VI, they agreed to pursue negotiations in “good faith” to stop the arms race and, in what appears to have been an afterthought, made a similar commitment to nuclear disarmament and general and complete disarmament. No time frame was set for these negotiations. A withdrawal provision was also added, requiring advance notice and an explanatory statement. Finally, they came up with a formula to define those countries temporarily entitled to possess nuclear arms by recognizing as legitimate nuclear-weapon states only those countries that had detonated a nuclear explosive device prior to January 1, 1967.[1]

Over time, these sweeteners helped encourage almost all states to join the pact.[2] Despite the inherently discriminatory nature of the treaty, states with the capability to develop nuclear weapons decided not to do so but instead accepted in good faith the requirements set forth by the treaty to remain nuclear weapons free. They saw in the treaty a “grand bargain,” one they hoped would ensure their own national security and lead to the elimination of nuclear weapons. These incentives, however, are now considered by some as loopholes as they allow states to use peaceful nuclear energy as cover for weapons development before exercising their right to withdraw from the treaty. Others argue that the retention of nuclear weapons by a few states allows them to threaten those without weapons.

The 1995 agreement to extend the treaty indefinitely was yet another grand bargain. Instead of making the treaty’s future conditional, it was agreed to strengthen the review process[3] as a yardstick to measure progress on nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament during every five-year review cycle. As recalled by Ambassador Thomas Graham Jr., who led the U.S. delegation to the 1995 conference, the treaty was extended indefinitely based on a set of “political conditions,”[4] a major component of which was a set of principles and objectives for nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament anchored to three clearly defined disarmament actions,[5] and on an agreement that a legally binding instrument should be considered to assure non-nuclear-weapon states against the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons.[6] These negative security assurances and the nuclear disarmament promises, especially from the United States, played an important role in winning indefinite extension of the treaty.[7] Today, many states feel that this decision was a mistake because it effectively eliminated the little leverage that non-nuclear-weapon states had over nuclear-weapon states to stick to their end of the bargain and ultimately disarm.

By contrast, the much-heralded 2000 review conference actually watered down some of the important agreements reached in 1995. For instance, the clearly defined nuclear disarmament program of action was no longer intact. Instead it was replaced with a basket of items, the so-called 13 practical steps on nuclear disarmament, without attaching clear priority to them. Many of these steps, offered as concessions by the nuclear-weapon states to ensure successful adoption of a final document as validation of the 1995 indefinite extension decision, were not real concessions at all, such as the agreement to achieve the early entry into force of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) after the Senate had already categorically rejected U.S. ratification of the treaty the previous year.

Similarly, knowing full well that breaking the deadlock in the CD was improbable, states-parties agreed to conclude negotiations on a fissile material cutoff treaty (FMCT) within five years, provided it were done in the context of the CD’s program of work. The only real achievement among the 13 steps was step six, representing the first “unequivocal undertaking” by the nuclear-weapon states to eliminate their nuclear arsenal. Although no time frame was attached to this undertaking, the notion of “eventual” progress toward this goal was removed, and a clear de-linkage was made to the idea of general and complete disarmament.

Even the limited successes of the 2000 conference were soon eroded. As early as 2001, at least two nuclear-weapon states (the United States and France) negated several of the intensely debated bargains. For instance, soon after taking office, the Bush administration stated that many of the 13 steps were no longer valid, among other reasons, pointing to the Senate’s rejection of the CTBT. France continues to argue that any progress toward nuclear disarmament be part and parcel of general and complete disarmament.[8]

In contrast to the high level of cooperation between all states-parties in 1995 and 2000, the legacy of the 2005 conference is one of negative tactics and a lack of political commitment. Had the United States and France not so blatantly provoked other states-parties by attempting to roll back some of the key decisions and agreements taken at the 1995 and 2000 conferences, the 2005 outcome could have represented progress. From the perspectives of Washington and Paris, however, the 2005 conference was a mission accomplished. Not only were the 1995 and 2000 agreements sufficiently undermined, but initiatives to counter new proliferation threats outside the treaty regime are now gaining more support. Likewise, for the other main culprits, Egypt and Iran, the 2005 “failure” prevented both a rollback of previous decisions, in particular those related to the Middle East, and any reference to Iranian noncompliance.

Two opposing perceptions emerged from the ashes of the 2005 conference: that the agreements reached in 1995 and 2000 remain supreme and that the 2000 bargains were a mistake and that the value of consensus final documents to reflect common approaches is of less importance. Of further concern is the split that emerged among non-nuclear-weapon states. Key Western states now promote minimalist approaches at the expense of their own traditional positions and important measures agreed in 1995 and 2000. On the other hand, developing countries are stonewalling attempts aimed at restricting their treaty rights. They argue that they should not be forced to accept additional obligations when the nuclear-weapon states are allowed to ignore their previous disarmament commitments and agreements. If in 2010 the states-parties fail to learn from this experience, then the treaty’s relevance as the cornerstone of the nuclear nonproliferation regime would be in serious jeopardy.

Where We Are Now

Only a few months away from the first preparatory session, or PrepCom, for the 2010 review conference, there is already a deep sense of pessimism about its prospects. As if challenges from North Korea to Iran to India were not enough reason to doubt any positive outcome, the events at the 61st General Assembly First (Disarmament) Committee in October (see page 40) showed that the 2005 divisions now run even deeper.

Instead of a setting a positive tone for the 2007 PrepCom by adopting more conciliatory approaches, Washington apparently decided to entrench itself as an obstacle by casting negative votes on 24 of the 52 resolutions recommended by the committee. Of these, the United States was alone in voting no on 12 occasions, even in the face of overwhelming support, including from its closest allies.

At the expense of being isolated with a country it holds in utter contempt, the U.S. delegation alone joined North Korea in voting against the principles of a CTBT, while Washington leads the charge to isolate Pyongyang and demand that it never test nuclear weapons again. Washington again joined North Korea in voting against a rather innocuous resolution put forward by Japan on a “renewed determination towards the total elimination of nuclear weapons.” Shattering any hopes that the non-nuclear-weapon states might be granted one of their long-standing aspirations—not to be threatened by the use of nuclear weapons— Washington for the first time and on its own voted against a resolution that called for legally binding negative security assurances.

As if this was not enough, the U.S. delegation rubbed it in by stating that it “opposes” a negative security assurances treaty “or any other legally binding instrument on security assurances.”[9] This dangerous message could heavily impact how states perceive their security within the context of the NPT. They may come to believe that protection against U.S. aggression requires a nuclear arsenal. No wonder North Korea voted in favor of this resolution.

Washington’s backpedaling from its own 1995 and 2000 commitments to back an “effectively verifiable”[10] FMCT caused Canada[11] to withdraw its traditional resolution in support of the treaty. It did so ostensibly to prevent further damage to the already fragile support for an FMCT and to avoid confrontation with the United States.

Instead of welcoming the signing of a long-awaited Central Asian Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone (CANWFZ) treaty,[12] the United States, the United Kingdom, and France voted against a resolution put forward by five Central Asian states and pressured some of their allies and UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to withhold their endorsement of the treaty. Not only is the signing of the CANWFZ treaty one of few positive developments in a maze of pessimism about the future of nonproliferation, but it clearly underlines the commitment to nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation by a group of states that previously had nuclear weapons on their territory and continue to live in a nuclear-armed neighborhood. The United States and other opponents may have legitimate concerns about some aspects of the treaty, but what they seem to ignore is that this is the first treaty that requires its members to adhere to enhanced International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards, which include the Model Additional Protocol. The treaty also requires its members to meet international standards for the physical protection of nuclear material.

Of course, the United States is not alone in undermining prospects for a smooth start to the next review cycle. Tehran’s continued intransigence to cooperate fully with the IAEA and heed resolutions by the IAEA board and the UN Security Council has already divided the NPT membership and could make Iran the focal point of the first preparatory session in 2007. What is now most needed is a responsible approach by the leadership in Tehran. It needs to prove to the international community that Iran can be a responsible possessor and user of nuclear material and technology.

The intense focus on Iran’s nuclear aspirations also holds negative consequences for other developing countries that want to develop the means to use the atom for nuclear energy and other peaceful purposes. A number of initiatives intended to curtail this right have sprung up over the last two years, ranging from multilateral controls over the nuclear fuel cycle to eliminating the use of highly enriched uranium (HEU) in the civilian nuclear sector.

Already, several developing countries have reacted sharply. Some, such as Algeria, Argentina, Egypt, South Africa, and Saudi Arabia, recently declared their intentions to develop their own civilian nuclear energy programs. Moreover, the leaders of the Nonaligned Movement, which brings together 115 developing countries, reiterated in September 2006 that “each country’s choices and decision in the field of peaceful uses of nuclear energy should be respected without jeopardizing its policies or international cooperation agreements and arrangements for peaceful uses of nuclear energy and its fuel-cycle policies.”[13] The reaction by these developing countries to initiatives to curtail their Article IV rights is forewarning that this is likely to become the dividing line between success and failure in 2010.

Another early warning is the deepening frustration over the lack of progress on nuclear disarmament. Key nonaligned states, such as Brazil, Egypt, Indonesia, and South Africa, have already linked progress on issues such as standardization of the Model Additional Protocol, limitations on the nuclear fuel cycle, and civilian HEU elimination to appropriate progress on nuclear disarmament.

Toward 2010: A Strategy for Success

Given deep differences on how to resolve the challenges facing the treaty today, it is crucial for states-parties to consider new ways to regain confidence in the treaty’s core bargains. Attempts to address these challenges, however, must focus on the achievable, must be balanced, and should not appear to reinterpret, negate, or diminish existing obligations, commitments, and undertakings.

The first order of business for the PrepCom in 2007 should be to get the process right. The experience at PrepCom sessions since the adoption of the 1995 strengthened review process has demonstrated that, for the process to be effective and to yield the expected results, it is vital that states-parties show the required political will and be prepared to carry out discussions and negotiations with a view to reaching results on procedural arrangement and substantive matters.

While it is important at next year’s PrepCom to have a genuine and frank exchange of views on current challenges facing the treaty with a results-oriented approach, care should be taken not to create an even deeper divide among states-parties that may not be bridgeable before the 2010 conference. Instead, the first PrepCom should primarily focus on the procedural mechanisms that would enable agreement on both procedural arrangements and substantive recommendations reflecting the views of all states. These should take into account the recommendations, deliberations, and results of its previous sessions. Mindful of the full cycle leading up to the conference, state-parties should keep the process alive, dynamic, and responsive. The possibility of a fourth PrepCom session shortly before the review conference should also be considered. If, however, it proves unlikely for the PrepCom to produce substantive consensus recommendations, it should adopt a report consisting of procedural arrangements for the conference and a summary of the proposed recommendations.

Building on and in no way diminishing the significance of the 1995 “Principles and Objectives,” the 2010 review conference should adopt a plan of action in support of the full implementation of the treaty’s objectives, taking into account the changes in the geopolitical and international security environment. The action plan should stand on its own and serve as a “lodestar”[14] to regain confidence in the treaty’s core bargains, as the Principles and Objectives document did in 1995. Such an action plan should include a number of elements.


While reaffirming the importance of universal adherence to the treaty, states such as India, Pakistan, and Israel are unlikely ever to join the treaty as non-nuclear-weapon states. Ways to capture them must be explored without rewarding them for staying outside the norm. For instance, they should be required as a precondition for any civilian nuclear cooperation to accept an additional protocol in the same manner as NPT nuclear-weapon states. Making an exception for one state, as envisaged in the U.S.-Indian deal, without securing sufficient assurances that technology and material will not be diverted to a nuclear weapons program should not be an option. These states should also be required to sign on to a future FMCT.[15]


Both nuclear- and non-nuclear-weapon states should reaffirm their nonproliferation obligations and recognize the need to strengthen these obligations without undue restrictions on the peaceful use of nuclear energy. Further strengthening of nonproliferation measures must be packaged with equal obligations on the nuclear-weapon states. Although nuclear cooperation with a state found to be in noncompliance with its nonproliferation obligations should be suspended, criteria should be developed to distinguish between the degree of seriousness of violations as well as the violator’s willingness to take steps to correct the matter. UN Security Council Resolution 1540, which is aimed at preventing nonstate actors and terrorists from gaining access to “weapons of mass destruction” and related material, has the potential to plug the gaps in the nonproliferation regime, but significant skepticism remains among many states about its application. A broader understanding needs to be developed about the role of the resolution in strengthening states’ NPT nonproliferation obligations.

Preventing Nuclear Terrorism

The fear of nuclear terrorism is not equally shared by all states-parties, but they should recognize that an act of nuclear terrorism anywhere in the world could have severe consequences for all. The role of the IAEA Code of Conduct on the Safety and Security of Radioactive Sources, the need to implement fully and strengthen Security Council Resolution 1540, and universal adherence to the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material should be emphasized. Although eliminating the use of HEU in the civilian sector would contribute toward preventing terrorist access to this material, agreement on this approach would best be linked to the inclusion of excess military fissile material under an FMCT.

Nuclear Disarmament

Here the focus should be on the achievable over the medium term. Of highest priority should be maintaining moratoria on nuclear testing and the expansion of existing moratoria on military fissile material production. At the same time, all states-parties should recommit themselves to achieve the early entry into force of the CTBT and work toward a future verifiable FMCT. This assumes that CD negotiations for such a treaty would commence before 2010. Other commitments by nuclear-weapon states to verifiable and transparent arms reduction measures also should be emphasized. Although most urgent with respect to Russia and the United States, all nuclear-weapon states should agree to reduce the operational status of their nuclear forces.

Diminishing the role of nuclear weapons in security policies would serve to address fears among non-nuclear-weapon states that they are potential targets of these weapons. Nuclear-weapon states should also pledge not to adopt nuclear doctrines or develop new weapons systems that blur the distinction between nuclear and conventional weapons or lower the nuclear threshold.[16] At the same time, Russia and the United States should implement their undertakings to eliminate specific types of nonstrategic or tactical nuclear weapons and agree to withdraw all these types of nuclear weapons to central storage on national territory for eventual elimination.[17]


All non-nuclear-weapon states should agree to accept comprehensive safeguards agreements further strengthened by an additional protocol. The application of these strengthened safeguards should be a condition of supply of technology and material for peaceful purposes. It should also be emphasized that these measures are not designed to limit the right of states to peaceful nuclear energy but rather to enhance international confidence in every state’s ability to be a responsible possessor and user of advanced nuclear material and technologies for peaceful purposes. Of equal importance should be the requirement that civilian nuclear cooperation with states outside the NPT be preconditioned on the application of an additional protocol to all related nuclear facilities and material.

Peaceful Use of Nuclear Energy

It is essential to reaffirm Article IV rights for states in full compliance with their nonproliferation and full-scope safeguards obligations (Articles I, II, and III of the treaty). States found to be in violation of these obligations should forfeit their rights under Article IV. The IAEA should continue to be used as an active forum for exploring ways to reduce proliferation risks associated with the nuclear fuel cycle without jeopardizing peaceful uses of nuclear energy, including these technologies. The results of the September 2006 IAEA Special Event on Assurances of Nuclear Supply and Non-Proliferation[18] and the IAEA Secretariat’s expected recommendations on potential nuclear fuel-supply mechanisms next year could increase support for multilateral fuel-cycle controls.

Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zones

Existing and future zones should be considered as mechanisms to address both the nonproliferation and disarmament objectives of the NPT. States should be encouraged to urgently ratify these treaties. The entry into force of the African Nuclear-Weapons-Free Zone treaty (Pelindaba) should be a high priority for all states. It is equally important that the nuclear-weapon states ratify the relevant protocols to all existing zone treaties.

Security Assurances

In an effort to defuse a potential deal-breaker, the nuclear-weapon states should reaffirm prior to the 2010 conference and in the context of the Security Council their political pledges not to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon states.[19] The conference should establish a mechanism to consider ways to provide legally binding negative security assurances to NPT states-parties in full compliance with their nonproliferation obligations.


To address the imbalance inherent in the design of the NPT, ways should be considered to increase the accountability of all states-parties to their obligations under the treaty. Holding annual meetings of state-parties and extraordinary state-party conferences to respond to serious challenges, such as a withdrawal or a nuclear test, could be one possible way. Admittedly, this idea is controversial, but nothing in the treaty precludes a PrepCom from adopting consensus decisions and resolutions on matters of urgent concern relating to the authority, integrity, and implementation of the treaty. The reporting mechanism built into the 13 steps toward nuclear disarmament also could be used as a template for all states to report on the implementation of their NPT obligations.

Civil Society and Outreach

Increased participation of civil society, including academic institutions and the corporate sector, should be encouraged as a means to inform wider audiences about the danger of nuclear proliferation. Enhanced participation of nongovernmental organizations as observers in NPT meetings would also have mutual benefits for states-parties and civil society. States-parties should be encouraged to promote nonproliferation and disarmament training and education in academic institutions and diplomatic training courses. International organizations such as the IAEA and the CTBT Organization should support this goal.

Although political will derives from each state-party’s own perception of the treaty, a number of initiatives could foster political momentum in support of the action plan and a successful conclusion to the 2010 review conference. First, the nuclear-weapon states should start by reaching agreement on how to deal with North Korea, resolving their differences over Iran, and dispelling any suspicion over possible new weapons development and nuclear testing. Another positive political message to the broader NPT membership would be for congressional Democrats to restart a process in support of the CTBT. This could re-energize the ratification process in other states, such as China, Colombia, Egypt, and Indonesia. These states also must ratify the treaty for it to enter into force. This in turn would create a more favorable environment for success in 2010.

Like-minded coalitions, new and existing, could be used to promote achievable options to develop and strengthen confidence in the treaty. In the past, groups of like-minded states such as the New Agenda Coalition[20] and regular collaboration between state-party representatives and nongovernmental experts have shown remarkable results. Unfortunately the divisive relationships among NPT states-parties seem to have crept into these like-minded groups. Given Germany’s influence in the nonproliferation and nuclear disarmament debates, Berlin could use its presidency of the European Union next year to promote a balanced and flexible role for the EU during the next review cycle. Likewise, the nonaligned leadership should avoid being entrapped by the hard-line positions of some of its members. Yet, although like-minded coalitions and political groups remain important vehicles to promote common approaches in support of the treaty’s objectives, it would be important not to force like-mindedness on states where the political will or the belief in common approaches does not exist.

To generate high-level political will in support for concrete action at the 2010 conference, a NPT heads of state summit should be convened on the margins of the 64th UN General Assembly in New York in 2009. A strong but balanced political declaration issued by such a summit just prior to the 2010 review conference could provide much needed political momentum. Adding even more weight would be a joint statement at this summit by the permanent five members of the Security Council in which the nuclear-weapon states commit themselves to work toward a positive outcome in 2010.

Of significant importance could be a change in U.S. political leadership. Many countries hope that the outcome of the 2008 presidential election could lead to a change in U.S. nonproliferation and arms control policies and have been buoyed by the outcome of the November 2006 elections. Such a change could send a powerful and positive message to the wider NPT membership.


Although the NPT has not been mortally wounded yet, there is a real possibility that a failure in 2010 could make the treaty irrelevant as an effective instrument for maintaining international peace and security. The challenge facing the states-parties during the next review cycle is ensuring that the treaty’s continued validity, including its indefinite extension, remains intact. That can not be ensured if individual elements of the NPT’s bargains are approached singularly; neither can one or another of these elements be ignored or minimized. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan emphasized this need for balance when he recently compared it to an aircraft that can remain airborne only if both wings are in working order. He sternly warned that the international community is “asleep at the controls of a fast-moving aircraft. Unless we wake up and take control, the outcome is all too predictable.”[21]

Any desire, be it by the non-nuclear-weapon states or the nuclear-weapon states to address only one aspect of the NPT bargains—be it nuclear disarmament, nuclear nonproliferation, safeguards, the peaceful uses of nuclear energy, or universality—is a recipe for failure and should be guarded against. To avoid an NPT crash and burn, a new grand bargain, at the highest political levels is needed to reinvigorate the 40-year-old treaty.

Jean du Preez is director of the International Organizations and Nonproliferation program at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies in the Monterey Institute of International Studies in Monterey, California.


1. Article IX of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) defines the nuclear-weapon states as China, France, the Soviet Union (now Russia), the United Kingdom, and the United States, all of whom tested nuclear weapons before this date.

2. Only India, Israel, and Pakistan have not signed the NPT. North Korea joined but announced its withdrawal from the treaty in 2003 and detonated a nuclear device in October 2006.

3. “Decision 1: Strengthening the Review Process for the Treaty” (1995 NPT Review and Extension Conference, New York, April 1995).

4. Ambassador Thomas Graham Jr., remarks, Global Security Institute Forum on “Lessons for the Future From the Crucible of Experience,” New York, May 24, 2005.

5. “Decision 2: Principles and Objectives for Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament” (1995 NPT Review and Extension Conference, New York, April 1995). Paragraph four contains a program of action on nuclear disarmament: the conclusion of negotiations on a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), the start of negotiations on a fissile material cutoff treaty (FMCT), and the pursuit by the nuclear-weapon states of systematic and progressive efforts to reduce nuclear weapons globally with the ultimate goal of eliminating those weapons.

6. Ibid. Paragraph eight states that, “[n]oting United Nations Security Council resolution 984 (1995), which was adopted unanimously on 11 April 1995, as well as the declarations of the nuclear-weapon states concerning both negative and positive security assurances, further steps should be considered to assure non-nuclear-weapon states party to the treaty against the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons. These steps could take the form of an internationally legally binding instrument.”

7. See George Bunn, “The Legal Status of U.S. Negative Security Assurances to Non-Nuclear Weapon States,” Nonproliferation Review 4, No. 3 (Spring-Summer 1997), p. 1.

8. At the 2000 NPT Review Conference, France argued that Article VI links nuclear disarmament to general and complete disarmament. Although it initially acquiesced that these items are not linked, it continues to claim that its French version interprets this differently.

9. Explanation of vote by the U.S. delegation on draft resolution A/C.1/61/L.45, adopted at the 61st session of the General Assembly’s First Committee.

10. Shannon Mandate, adopted by the Conference on Disarmament March 23, 1995.

11. Canada is the traditional sponsor of a First Committee resolution dealing with the FMCT.

12. The foreign ministers of the five Central Asian states— Kazakhstan, Krygyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan—signed a treaty establishing CANWFZ on September 8, 2006, in Semipalatinsk, Kazakhstan.

13. Final document of the 14th Summit Conference of Heads of State or Government of the Nonaligned Movement, Havana, Cuba, September, 16, 2006 (based on paragraph 2 [Article IV] of the Final Document of the 2000 NPT Review Conference).

14. At the 1995 Review and Extension Conference, South Africa proposed that the review process be strengthened by adoption of “set of principles for nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament which would be taken into account when the implementation of the treaty is reviewed” and that these principles would “take into account the current international environment.” These principles were offered not as amendments to the treaty but to serve as a lodestar to focus attention on the importance of the treaty’s objectives and the changing security environment. The South African ideas provided the basis for the decision to indefinitely extend the treaty. They are as relevant today as they were in April 1995.

15. The U.S. draft FMCT introduced to the CD does not list India, Pakistan, and Israel as states whose ratification is required for entry into force of the treaty.

16. Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission, Weapons of Terror: Freeing the World of Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Arms ( Stockholm: WMD Commission, June 2006), p. 98 (Recommendation 21).

17. Ibid., p. 99 (Recommendation 23).

18. “New Framework for the Utilization of Nuclear Energy: Assurances of Supply and Non-Proliferation,” 50th International Atomic Energy Agency General Conference Special Event, Vienna, September 19-21, 2006.

19. In 1995 the pledges by the five nuclear-weapon states were formally acknowledged by the Security Council in Resolution 984, adopted just prior to the 1995 NPT Review and Extension Conference, marking the first real politically binding commitment both on positive and negative security assurances. This resolution was seen as an effort by the nuclear-weapon states to secure support for the indefinite extension of the NPT.

20. The New Agenda Coalition was launched in 1998 by the foreign ministers of eight non-nuclear-weapon nations—Brazil, Egypt, Ireland, Mexico, New Zealand, Slovenia, South Africa, and Sweden—with the purpose of pressuring the nuclear-weapon states to fulfill the obligation they undertook in Article VI of the NPT to eliminate nuclear arsenals. The coalition officially consists of the above states except Slovenia.

21. Lecture by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan at Princeton University, November 28, 2006.