John Gittings

The NPT and Proliferation
Recent articles and interviews
Journal articles
Newspaper articles
Family links

paper for Beijing ORG -CPAPD conference, Dec. 2005

Today the world is at a nuclear "tipping point." The world's response to the grim prospect of nuclear terrorism, to the challenges posed by Iran and North Korea and to the threats from existing nuclear arsenals will have a huge impact on proliferation for decades to come.

[Carnegie International Non-proliferation Conference, November 2005 agenda]

Is the cause of nuclear non-proliferation on its deathbed, and was the NPT 2005 Review Conference the occasion when it contracted a terminal illness? In a world beset by other, more manifest, crises, from the chaos in Iraq to global warming, from African famines to the threats of pandemics, the Conference's failure passed without too much attention. Nor was much notice taken when the UN World Summit did not even include the words "nuclear non-proliferation" or "nuclear disarmament" in its declaration. Those who have contributed to these failures -- principally by the inaction of the Permanent Five (P5) nations although the disunity of the non-nuclear weapon states (NNWS) played a significant part -- are not inclined to advertise the fact. The nuclear question is increasingly reduced to the problem of alleged "rogue states" -- currently Iran and North Korea -- plus the threat of nuclear acquisition by terrorists. Today there are many reasons to be pessimistic about the future of an international non-proliferation regime capable of preventing an increase in the number of Nuclear Weapon States (NWS): I shall set these out in this short paper, and conclude by calling for a concerted effort to resuscitate the NPT before it is too late.


History of the NPT

For the first 20 years of nuclear weapons, concern over proliferation was rarely voiced: the existing powers, first the US and then the Soviet Union, hoped that new adherents to the club would be few and slow to arrive. Officially there was more concern over nuclear strategy, weapon development and post-war survivability while the anti-nuclear peace movement focused on testing, fall-out and the danger of war. Commitment to nuclear disarmament was only declaratory: as John Foster Dulles put it to the National Security Council in 1955, he did "not feel able, from the standpoint of public relations, to stand up and say to the entire world that nuclear weapons are here to stay forever" [Wittner, II, 177]. The Soviet Union, and later China, made a more vigorous pitch to world opinion with their propaganda campaigns for "complete disarmament". Less publicly, concern over proliferation grew from the mid-1950s onwards although "arms race advocates [in the US] exhibited disdain for non-proliferation schemes... concluding that all disarmament agreements would erode US security". [Maddock, 1998]. Efforts by President Eisenhower to tackle the so-called "Fourth Country problem" were nullified by cold war suspicions on both sides, disagreement within the US administration, and subordination of non-proliferation to other policy goals. However both superpowers made separate arrangements with their client states for the transfer of peaceful nuclear technology, and the establishment of the IAEA in 1957 provided an institutional basis for later use.

Serious interest in a non-proliferation treaty developed rapidly in the early 1960s, after the first French test and with shared superpower concern over maintaining Germany's non-nuclear status. At first the emphasis (as in the 1961 "Irish Resolution") was solely on non-proliferation unlinked to disarmament. Public anxiety mounted following the Cuban missile crisis, while China's first nuclear test provided increased pressure on both superpowers. It was in this context that they accepted the provision of negative security assurances and, most importantly, of the principle (in Article VI of the Treaty) that non-proliferation should be linked to progress in nuclear disarmament.. Thus in 1968 the US delegate acknowledged that the permanent viability of the Treaty would "depend in large measure on our success in further negotiations contemplated in Article VI" [Fischer, 1992, p. 109] It was widely held that the NPT would require "reinforcement" of such a kind if it was to survive: as the first Pugwash conference put it, this would "almost certainly be necessary within a decade" if the treaty were not to crumble" [Barnaby, 1969, p.260].

In the event the treaty survived for two decades, held in place by the cold war which explained if it did not excuse the lack of further progress. The time for "reinforcement" -- parallel action on both disarmament and non-proliferation fronts -- was clearly overdue when the cold war came to an end. This ensured that the treaty would be renewed in 1995, although the indefinite extension (rather than for a fixed period) paradoxically represented a defeat for the non-nuclear lobby, reflecting both the superior diplomatic muscle of the nuclear powers and divisions within the non-aligned camp. Much more encouraging progress was made in 2000 when new pledges on nuclear disarmament were conceded by the NWS (principally by accepting the 13-step programme for Article VI implementation). This achievement owed something to more effective Non-aligned Movement (NAM) and New Agenda Coalition (NAC) diplomacy, but more to the shock effect upon the P5 of the India/Pakistan nuclear test explosions. The NWS "feared that a shambles (or worse still, an acrimonious failure) would seriously weaken the credibility of the Treaty and play into the hands of the proliferators" [Disarmament Diplomacy, May 2000].

To summarise, significant progress in the first three decades of the NPT was possible on only two occasions (1970 and 2000) in a very specific set of circumstances:

(a) when the NWS were sufficiently alarmed by the emergence of new proliferators -- as in the 1960s (France and China), and the 1990s (India and Pakistan.); (b) when a strongly focused public opinion called for action, as in the run-up to 1970 and in the post-cold war climate of the 1990s; and (c) when the NNWS could present a relatively unified front:

The climate was very different five years later. The 2005 Conference "limped to its predicted end... when it adopted a so-called 'final document' that did little more than list participants and officials and how many meetings had been held." As for the substantive issues, (a) entry into force of the Comprehensive Test-ban Treaty (CTBT), (b) progress towards nuclear disarmament, (c) the nuclear fuel cycle and strengthening safeguards, the states parties showed themselves unable even to have an honest debate, let alone adopt any effective measures "to deal with nuclear dangers and proliferation". While one can point to tactical mistakes made by the NNWS, and the unhelpful salience of the Iran problem, the root cause for failure was "a dismal lack of leadership and the entrenched positions and proliferation-promoting policies of a small number of influential states" [Rebecca Johnson, 2005]. In these circumstances, it could even be argued that the absence of a substantive final document was preferable to a compromise agreement which would have cancelled out or weakened previous commitments.


Waning commitment to nuclear disarmament

It may be said that the P5 have never seriously contemplated a future for themselves without nuclear weapons. However, they have at least professed belief in such a goal with some degree of credibility which is now in doubt.

(a) The P5 visibly dragged their feet in the 2005 NPT negotiations, failing to produce a common statement such as had been achieved in 2000: their overall performance has been characterised as "rhetoric without much substance". In addition to its well-known opposition to the CTBT and to a verifiable fissile materials ban, the US refused to acknowledge the consensus outcome of the 2000 conference as a basis for further work. Britain played a dubious role by securing the reversal of an agreement to include the 2000 and earlier conference decisions in the current (2005) agenda. There were few if any signs of serious negotiating effort by the other P5 members. Subsequently at the UN First Committee session in October, the P5 joined in opposing a draft resolution, sponsored by the G6 (Canada, Brazil, Kenya, Mexico, New Zealand and Sweden), to "initiate work on priority disarmament and non-proliferation issues".

(b) There is a worrying trend towards the erosion of non-nuclear guarantees. Statements made by the US and Britain (particularly in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq) on their preparedness to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear threats have further weakened the meaning of so-called negative security assurances. Even China's thinking may be becoming more nuanced: as one Chinese expert argues, "If China's conventional forces are devastated in a Taiwan conflict, it is inconceivable that China would not use nuclear weapons as a true means of deterrence" [Shen Dingli, 2005].

(c) In spite of declarations supporting nuclear disarmament, all P5 states are actively planning for improvement and further acquisition. Here we may cite (i) US R&D in a number of areas from low-yield warheads to weapons in space (ii) the open secret that Britain has decided to replace its Trident deterrent (iii) planned improvements to China's missile capability, (iv) the upgrading of the air-and sea-based legs of the French arsenal, and (v) development of a new generation Russian ICBM and other "qualitative improvements".

(d) The possession of nuclear weapons is integral to all P5 strategies and there is no attempt to assess or explore alternative non-nuclear options. The position has hardened since the emergence of the new nuclear states and the threat of yet more. No credible scenario for the de-nuclearisation of India, Pakistan or Israel is even being floated, while the resumption of US nuclear cooperation with India indicates a belief that there is no point now in bolting the stable door. India for its part has abandoned its commitment on paper to global nuclear disarmament [Bidwai, 2005].

(e). In addition to strategic concerns, the perceived political value of nuclear status remains as high as ever. Thus in Russia's case, "nuclear weapons play a major politico-psychological role as one of only two remaining attributes of their country’s great power and global status (the other being a permanent seat on the UN Security Council)" [Trenin, 2005]. Status is openly cited as a powerful argument for maintaining nuclear weapons in the UK and France, and no doubt continues to be a factor (as it has been in the past) in China's determination to possess such weapons.


Counter-proliferation as an alternative?

Belief is ebbing (and in the US has already disappeared) that the NPT is the most appropriate device for tackling proliferation. The failures of the 1990s (India, Pakistan, North Korea and possibly Iran) plus a putative terrorist threat have shifted attention to measures of counter-proliferation, and thus on action which is more likely to be unilateral or selectivrely multilateral (e.g. "coalition") in nature rather than under an international regime. Examples include the US-launched Proliferation Security Initiative and the G8's Global Partnership against the Spread of Weapons and Materials of Mass Destruction..We may note a recent US exposition on "counter-WMD strategy" which, while listing non-proliferation as a pillar of this strategy, only referred once and in disparaging terms to the NPT [Robert Joseph, 2005].

Off the record, Western officials are quoted as saying that the "lofty goals [of the NPT] are unrealistic". Their argument, if spelt out openly, would run on the following lines: the original treaty has been overtaken by the emergence of the new NWS and by other nuclear threats; further proliferation can only be avoided by a combination of coercion and inducements; attention should be focused on imposing international controls on the nuclear fuel cycle, so that new proliferators can be constrained by restricting enrichment and reprocessing. Not all proliferators represent a threat, but for those who do, the option of military coercion, including the possible use of nuclear weapons, must be retained.

This approach has been summarised, in relation to US policy, by William Potter (Director of Monterey Centre for Non-proliferation Studies) as follows:

"1. Nuclear proliferation is inevitable; at best it can be managed, not prevented.

2. There are good proliferators and bad proliferators.

3. Multilateral mechanisms to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons are ineffectual.

4. Regional security and economic considerations trump those of global nonproliferation."

[Carnegie Conference, 8 November 2005].

Leaving aside any question of morality, is the carrot-and-stick policy now being advocated likely to succeed in corralling current threshold nuclear powers, or in creating an international climate which will discourage future proliferators? Here it will be argued that this strategy will not succeed for the following reasons:

(a) A successful global regime under which the nuclear fuel cycle is effectively controlled could only operate on the basis on an international consensus which does not exist.

(b) A major obstacle to such a consensus is the persistence of double standards between NWS and NNWS: this is displayed, for example, in the US determination to block a verifiable ban on fissile materials production which would expose their own nuclear fuel cycle to scrutiny.

(c) Enforcement under the strategy now envisaged will depend, in the last resort, on unilateral or "coalition" armed action which will further undermine international consensus. The war on Iraq (allegedly undertaken to coerce the Saddam Hussein regime to renounce its WMD) serves already as a negative example.

(d) As the cases of Israel, India and Pakistan (and possibly North Korea) suggest, there is a strong incentive to seek nuclear status by stealth and thus avoid any unpleasant consequences. Any country which believes that it may, at some date in the future, have to decide whether to become a nuclear power, will be tempted to advance to that status earlier.

(e) As the case of Iran demonstrates, attempts to constrain nuclear development avowedly for peaceful purposes will arouse nationalist resentment and plausible accusations of double-standards. A frustrated would-be nuclear state may be tempted to instigate assymetrical action against those who seek to coerce it.

(f) The suggestion that nuclear weapons might be deployed against suspected WMD threats is not wholly implausible as further progress is made in warhead miniaturisation: it would lower the threshold of use with disastrous consequences.


Questions for the future

Having survived the Cold War, we now find ourselves staring at the steep face of another mountain. The path we choose over the next few years will determine whether we build a safer world or launch another great wave of proliferation, vastly increasing the probabilities for the use of these weapons by nations or terrorists.

[Joseph Cirincione, director for non-proliferation, Carnegie Endowment].

Is it now "simply be too late to attempt to return to policies that will support the NPT and the international non-proliferation regime" and are we facing the "breakdown of the NPT and the ensuing likelihood of worldwide nuclear proliferation" [Graham & McNamara, 2005]? What can be done to remedy what Mohamed ElBaradei in his opening address to the NPT conference labelled "the ongoing perception of imbalance between the nuclear haves and have-nots"?

Standing still is not an option for the non-proliferation cause: a failure to move forward is tantamount to moving backwards. In the past, the threat of further proliferation has been an incentive to work towards agreement on non-proliferation. The NPT was concluded against the background of alarming predictions, both public and private, about future spread. In the US, these included the "Nth Country Experiment" of the early 1960s and a series of National Intelligence Estimates. The tragedy today is that similar forecasts are pushing major actors away from agreement on non-proliferation and towards a strategy of counter-proliferation which, as argued above, will be self-defeating.

However difficult it may be to restore the compact on which the NPT was based (the agreement to trade non-proliferation for progress towards nuclear disarmament) there is no viable alternative. As a wide range of experts is now predicting, the final breakdown of this understanding (which is already under severe strain) could open the flood gates: In two vital regions of the world -- the Far East and the Middle East -- the emergence, whether presumed or confirmed, of a new nuclear power could trigger a fresh round of proliferation.

A return to a viable NPT regime will require:

(1) Restored cooperation between the various constituencies of NNWS (e.g. NAM, NAC etc.) to achieve the unity displayed at the 2000 (but not the 2005) NPT Review.

(2) A re-commitment to implementation of Article VI of the treaty, in the spirit of the 2000 consensus, by the NWS. This will require energetic diplomacy on the part of P5 states such as Britain and China which have played a relatively passive role so far. The agenda should include restoring the credibility of the negative security assurances, bringing into force the CTBT, and securing wider agreement for a policy of no-first-use.

(3) A public opinion campaign, on an international basis, in support of nuclear disarmament/non-proliferation, seeking to put pressure on governments as effectively as was achieved in the 1960s. While even the most determined advocacy will never succeed in "banning the bomb", it can strengthen inhibitions against its spread and potential use: as a recent study of the "nuclear taboo" [Tannenwald, 2005] argues, it may be "easier to ban the use of nuclear weapons than to ban the weapons themselves." At a time when the taboo is being eroded, there is an urgent need to rekindle popular concern.






Barnaby, C. F. ed., Preventing the Spread of Nuclear Weapons (Souvenir Press, 1969).

Bidwai, Praful, "India abandons global nuclear disarmament", Inter-press Service, 26 Oct. 2005.

Carnegie International Non-proliferation Conference, Proceedings, 2005,

Cirincione, Joseph, "Lessons lost", Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, vol. 61, no. 6, Nov./Dec. 2005.

ElBaradei, Dr Mohamed, "Opening statement to the NPT Review Conference", 2 May 2005.

Fischer, David, Stopping the Spread of Nuclear Weapons (Routledge, 1992)

Graham, Thomas, & McNamara, Robert, "The growing nuclear peril", The Courier-Journal, 11 Nov. 2005.

Johnson, Rebecca, "Why the 2005 NPT Review Conference failed", Disarmament Diplomacy, No. 80, Autumn 2005

Joseph, Robert G, "Applying the Bush administration's strategy to combat weapons of mass destruction to today's challenges", (Dept. of State), 21 Oct. 2005.

Maddock, Shane, "The Fourth Country problem: Eisenhower's nuclear non-proliferation policy", Presidential Studies Quarterly, vol. 28, no. 3, 1998.

Shen, Dingli, "Nuclear deterrence in the 21st century," China Security (World Security Institute China Program), No. 1, Autumn 2005

Tannenwald, Nina, "Stigmatizing the bomb: Origins of the nuclear taboo", International Security, Vol. 29, No. 4, Spring 2005

Trenin, Dmitri, Russia's nuclear policy in the 21st century environment, (IFRI, Paris, 2005).

Wittner, Lawrence S., Resisting the Bomb, 1954-1970, vol. II (Stanford University Press, 1997).