The NPT is bunk. And dangerous

The NPT is bunk. Not merely because the weapons have-nots can, with a large degree of impunity, violate their promise not to develop nuclear weapons. Not even because the weapons haves have, with a larger degree of impunity, abandoned even talk of universal disarmament. But really, because the treaty stands in the way of improving the security of the arsenals of the states that already have nuclear weapons.

Yesterday’s report in the New York Times confirms what many analysts suspected for some time: that the United States is ‘assisting’ Gen Musharraf in keeping Pakistan’s nuclear weapons and facilities secure. It also confirms other suspicions: that this is limited by how much the Pakistanis would be willing to trust the Americans. It’s likely that there is a component of Pakistan’s nuclear establishment that is secured with American assistance, there is a component that isn’t, and there is a tenuous balance between the two that is key to Musharraf’s survival.

But what the NYT’s report also brings to fore is America’s own inability to share the technology to prevent unauthorised or accidental activation: both because of America’s domestic laws, but also because of NPT obligations that disallow sharing of technologies between states that have nuclear weapons. Where there is (relatively) a lesser degree of strategic mistrust, as in the case of the United States and France, it might have been possible to orchestrate a charade—a game of “twenty questions”—to implement a technology transfer. Where the mistrust is greater, as between the United States and Pakistan (or China), it is almost impossible. The Pakistanis won’t trust an American ‘black box’ inserted between their nuclear trigger and the firing pin. The Americans can’t legally show them what’s inside the black box even if they would have liked to.

Harold M. Agnew, a former director of the Los Alamos weapons laboratory, which designed most of the United States’ nuclear arms, argued that recent federal reluctance to share warhead security technology was making the world more dangerous.

“Lawyers say it’s classified,” Dr. Agnew said in an interview. “That’s nonsense. We should share this technology. Anybody who joins the club should be helped to get this.”

“Whether it’s India or Pakistan or China or Iran,” he added, “the most important thing is that you want to make sure there is no unauthorized use. You want to make sure that the guys who have their hands on the weapons can’t use them without proper authorization.” [NYT]

In the current situation, the United States has to contend with the risk that the custody of those weapons, materials, facilities and people that Musharraf has managed to keep from the Americans could fall into unauthorised hands. That risk would have been lower if there was a higher chance that Musharraf & Co had their own black boxes inserted in the weapons they have hidden away. (Despite spending $100m in securing Pakistan’s arsenal, the United States cannot entirely ignore Musharraf’s bogey)

This is not Pakistan’s, or indeed the world’s, last nuclear crisis. The world could be made a lot more secure if the NPT didn’t stand in the way of securing it. The international nuclear technology regime is crying out for reform. The pretence that some states with nuclear weapons are officially ‘nuclear weapons states’ and others are not should be the first to go. Freeing up nuclear technology transfers between states with nuclear technologies will neither open the floodgates—for such transfers will only occur to the extent that they are in the interests of the states that have superior technology—nor is it inconsistent with universal disarmament. On the contrary, securing the world’s existing arsenal is as good an idea as universal disarmament. And it’s more practical too.

From the archives: Why the NPT is bunk, why it cannot prevent proliferation and what might. Related Links: More about Permissive Action Links (PALs)

3 thoughts on “The NPT is bunk. And dangerous”

  1. Good points, Nitin. This NYT article shows why these “international” agreements on nuclear non proliferation are so outdated and useless when it comes to rogue states like pakistan. the way Iran has been defiantly carried on with its program shows how toothless the NPT really is when it should matter the most.

    but dont tell this to our non proliferation “experts” who swear by the NPT. I guess the acronym now stands for “Not Particularly Trustworthy”

  2. I more or less agree that proliferation cannot be stopped. The early leaders of the Manhattan project realised this. That was the reason they advocated giving nuclear technology to states so that it can be checked and controlled. The proposal was too radical for the times; it is viewed as too radical now. It’s a little like arguing for legalising drugs (which I personally am in favour of). One open question is whether religious extremist states like Iran will use weapons if they develop them or not. People who argue against religious faith think that it can be strong enough to encourage such suicide. I don’t know…I think that even with people like Ahmedinejad, their self-interests are too important to them to contemplate using nukes and getting completely paved in return. The only real major problem is that of nuclear terrorism, but even for that keeping track of nuclear material will go a long way, which will be easier if it’s legal for everyone to acquire it.

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