Does nuclear non-proliferation have a future?

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Surely, if universal disarmament and universal weaponisation are the only two stable states, then despite international efforts to the contrary, the proliferation of nuclear weapons was guaranteed from the time of the Manhattan project. Realists like Kenneth Waltz have convincingly argued that contrary to popular fears, the spread of nuclear weapons may actually have stabilising effects on the international system. Given the NPT’s fatal flaws, is non-proliferation itself a hopeless cause?

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Before asking whether and how universal weaponisation can be halted it is first necessary to examine whether universal disarmament can be made to work (even this means the risk of conventional wars becomes greater). Current international initiatives to cut off the production of fissile materials and ban nuclear testing do nothing to further the cause of disarmament. They are at best half-measures that give an impression of progress without changing the incentives that make countries go nuclear in the first place.

The reality is that as long as some countries possess nuclear weapons and others don’t, the incentive to go nuclear will never completely be wiped out. Only an initiative that commits all nuclear powers to an unambiguous reduction in warheads and materials within a fixed time frame, a regime of universal inspections to ensure compliance and an assured international commitment to militarily punish defaulters will render disarmament efforts credible. But such a project is inconceivable in an international community that has not even been able to agree on completely banning landmines. Predictably, Rajiv Gandhi’s famous 1988 disarmament initiative didn’t interest the nuclear powers. The subsequent extension of the flawed NPT to perpetuity sounded the death knell for disarmament. So too for non-proliferation.


If realism rules out disarmament while the NPT repeats its failure to prevent the emergence of new nuclear powers should we then reconcile to a world full of nuclear weapons? For one thing, it is possible to make proliferation much more difficult and painful. But the achievement of even this limited objective calls for a major departure from the existing non-proliferation dogma. The NPT only recognises as legitimate nuclear weapons states those countries that conducted nuclear explosions before 1969, an arbitrary year. Any improvement of the NPT must take into consideration the reality of states that have acquired the capacity since then. It must also strengthen the penalties for those who fail to comply with their treaty obligations.

A simple way to deal with questions of ‘legitimacy’ is to offer a one-time amnesty in exchange for full disclosure. This implies states are given a chance to declare that they have nuclear weapons or capabilities. This would provide an opportunity for countries like India, Israel and Pakistan to join the mainstream as legitimate nuclear powers, on condition that they fully disclose the means and mechanisms by which they circumvented the NPT regime. No one is likely to be spared embarrassment. That’s why it will work. The best time to have a red face is when there are red faces all around.

The most serious proliferation threat today comes from Pakistan’s activities, the full extent of which remains unknown. The danger will get worse the longer Pakistan remains outside the mainstream. However, bringing Pakistan in will not be easy, given its record, its ambitions and the nature of its polity. Still the promise of eventual ‘legitimacy’ must remain on the table if the problems it created are to be tackled. Similarly, the prospect of an amnesty can provide alternative end-scenarios for the current luckless negotiations with North Korea and Iran. Or call their bluffs.

But amnesties are effective only if they are one-off and backed by severe penalties for unconfessed defaulters. Currently, countries can unilaterally pull-out of the NPT assured of the fact that punishment will be mild or even better, non-forthcoming. Post-amnesty enforcement cannot be similarly teethless. In addition to immediate and automatic referral to the United Nations Security Council, the enforcement mechanism must have a stronger commitment to the use of force. The Proliferation Security Initiative could be widened or a similar regime that is empowered to interdict suspicious shipments be put in place.

Rendering nukes irrelevant

These measures work to weaken the incentives for proliferation. Besides, the year 2010, for example, is just as arbitrary as the year 1969. There’s another, albeit more far-fetched way to weaken the incentives for seeking nuclear weapons in the first place. The basis of nuclear deterrence between adversaries is a survivable second strike capability that assures the attacker of unacceptable damage in response. Countries choose to develop nuclear weapons either to threaten or to deter a nuclear attack. But if existing nuclear powers jointly commit themselves to assured punitive second-strikes on any country that conducts a nuclear attack, then the basic incentive to develop nuclear weapons will be drastically weakened. An unacceptable penalty for their use will make nuclear weapons unusable and their development pointless. Even existing nuclear weapons will be rendered unusable unless any of the nuclear powers decides to take on all others simultaneously. Realism suggests that such unity and rules-based behaviour among countries will be most unlikely. This is much harder compared to simply protecting the existing regime from reality. Try comparing it though, with achieving universal disarmament.

The non-proliferation and arms control establishments do have a future – but their ability to think beyond the theology of the NPT regime will determine their effectiveness. But if international non-proliferation efforts continue to be stuck in the “dreary desert sands of dead habit”, then Professor Kenneth Waltz better be right.

3 thoughts on “Does nuclear non-proliferation have a future?”

  1. I doubt it will be stabilizing. It increases the likelihood of a nuke ending up in the hands of either a government that is unable to safeguard its nuke inventory. That increases the chances of a nuke ending up in the hands of difficult to trace nonstate actor that can’t be deterred easily. To deal with that potentiality, countries would have to greatly restrict cross border traffic to a level that would allow full monitoring and inspection of imported merchandise, which would reduce global trade, perhaps to the extent that the world would experienced a depression. The last depression the world experienced wasn’t terribly stabilizing.

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