Diplomats from around the world are meeting at the United Nations in New York to review the state of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. This treaty, commonly known as the NPT, came into force 49 years ago, and is widely regarded as the cornerstone of international disarmament and nonproliferation diplomacy.
But if it is the cornerstone, then what is the evidence of its effectiveness? Has it blocked the spread of nuclear weapons?
Has it reduced the size of the global nuclear arsenal?
Has it led to meaningful nuclear disarmament or even to a diminished risk that nuclear weapons will be used?
Perhaps one asks too much of a treaty that was negotiated a half century ago. At that time, the United States and the Soviet Union were ideological and military adversaries, but they also had recently avoided — barely — a nuclear catastrophe in the wake of Soviet deployment of nuclear-armed missiles in Cuba. The 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis was a major wake-up call for both Moscow and Washington, and it prompted them to negotiate several arms control accords, including the NPT.
In some respects, the promise of the NPT has been realized. The pace of proliferation has been much slower than anticipated, and the treaty’s membership now includes almost all the nations of the world. To be sure, three nuclear-armed states — India, Pakistan and Israel — refused to join. A fourth — North Korea — joined and then chose to withdraw. But of the 13 past and present nuclear nations, four countries (South Africa, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine) renounced those weapons and ratified the treaty.
The size of the global nuclear arsenal is much smaller today than it was at the peak of the Cold War — a fact that the two states with the largest nuclear forces, the United States and Russia, say shows their good faith under the treaty to pursue negotiations to stop the nuclear arms race at an early date and eventually achieve nuclear disarmament.