US President Barack Obama has injected fresh momentum into efforts — stalled for a decade — to bring about nuclear disarmament. He has committed himself to the vision of a world free of nuclear weapons and acknowledges the link between nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament by the nuclear-weapon states.
Obama has pledged to revitalize the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which aims to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. The non-proliferation regime, of which the NPT is the cornerstone, is in disarray. The main problems are easily identified.
First, the five main nuclear powers have not taken seriously their NPT obligation to work for nuclear disarmament. Instead, they have insisted that nuclear weapons are essential for their security and continued to modernize their nuclear arsenals. This naturally robs them of the moral authority to persuade others not to acquire nuclear weapons, which continue to be perceived as a source of power and influence, and an insurance policy against attack.
Second, as we have seen in the case of North Korea, there is nothing to stop countries that sign the treaty from simply walking out after declaring that “extraordinary events” have jeopardized their supreme interests.
Third, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which is supposed to police the non-proliferation system, is shamefully underfunded. When it comes to determining whether or not a country is conducting a covert nuclear weapons program, IAEA inspectors often have their hands tied, either because they lack the legal authority to gain access to all the locations they consider necessary, or because the IAEA’s analytical laboratories are outdated, or because the agency does not have adequate access to satellite imagery.
Fourth, export controls have failed to prevent the spread of sensitive nuclear technology, not least due to the sophisticated efforts of clandestine networks like the one run by Pakistani nuclear scientist A.Q. Khan. Nine countries already have nuclear weapons, and it would be naive to presume that others, particularly in regions of conflict, will not try to get hold of them.
In addition, a number of countries with nuclear energy programs have the capability, if they choose, to manufacture nuclear weapons within a matter of months if their security perceptions change, because they have mastered the critical technology — uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing. If more countries take this path, it could prove to be the Achilles’ heel of non-proliferation.
Fifth, the international community, spearheaded by the UN Security Council, has more often than not been paralyzed in the face of challenges to international security and ineffectual in responding to suspected cases of nuclear proliferation.
These issues will not be resolved overnight. But there is much that can be done relatively quickly. The US and Russia have started negotiations on deep cuts in their nuclear arsenals, which together account for 95 percent of the world’s 27,000 warheads. Other key steps include bringing into force the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty; negotiating a verifiable treaty to end production of fissile material for use in weapons; radically improving the physical security of nuclear and radioactive materials, which is vital to prevent them from falling into the hands of terrorists; and strengthening the IAEA.