The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT)

A virtual special issue of the Nonproliferation Review

The Nonproliferation Review

The parties to the 1968 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) are meeting this month for a review conference that was supposed to take place in 2020 but was repeatedly delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

In conjunction with that conference, the Nonproliferation Review is highlighting articles it has published over the years that focus on various aspects of the NPT and its review process. Readers will notice that many of the issues raised in these articles remain prominent.

A new element at this review conference is the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), which entered into force in 2021.
View Nonproliferation Review articles on the TPNW

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Negotiating history

Daniel Khalessi, “Strategic Ambiguity: Nuclear Sharing and the Secret Strategy for Drafting Articles I and II of the Nonproliferation Treaty” (2016)

Since the 1950s, the United States has engaged in nuclear sharing with its NATO allies. Today, about 100 US tactical nuclear weapons remain on European soil. However, the Treaty on the Non-proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) prohibits the transfer of nuclear weapons to non-nuclear-weapon states. The potential discrepancy between text and practice raises the question of how the NPT’s negotiators dealt with NATO’s nuclear-sharing arrangements while drafting the treaty that would eventually become the bedrock of the international nonproliferation regime. Using a multitiered analysis of secret negotiations within the White House National Security Council, NATO, and US-Soviet bilateral meetings, this article finds that NATO’s nuclear-sharing arrangements strengthened the NPT in the short term by lowering West German incentives to build the bomb. However, this article also finds that decision makers and negotiators in the Lyndon B. Johnson administration had a coordinated strategy of deliberately inserting ambiguous language into drafts of Articles I and II of the Treaty to protect and preserve NATO’s pre-existing nuclear-sharing arrangements in Europe. In addition to illuminating an important piece of NPT negotiating history, the article offers timely insights for challenges concerning NATO and relations with Russia today.

John Krige, “The proliferation risks of gas centrifuge enrichment at the dawn of the NPT: Shedding light on the negotiating history” (2012)

This article uses previously overlooked archival sources to analyze the negotiating history of Article IV of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). Contrary to received wisdom, there was a lively debate in the spring of 1968, much of it restricted to behind-the-scenes exchanges between Washington and London, over the proliferation risks of gas-centrifuge technology for uranium enrichment. Effective safeguardability was the crucial factor in addressing the issue of a non-nuclear-weapon state developing a centrifuge enrichment plant within the framework of the NPT. In 1968, the US Atomic Energy Commission claimed that reliable perimeter technologies could be developed to stop diversion. The UK Atomic Energy Authority was emphatic that this would not be possible, that clandestine centrifuge enrichment plants would proliferate, and that the NPT would be gravely undermined.

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Victor Gilinsky & Henry Sokolski, “Serious Rules for Nuclear Power Without Proliferation” (2014)

The authors propose five principles for addressing the major deficiencies of the current treaty-based approach to nonproliferation. These involve effectively closing the door to withdrawals from the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT); defining which nuclear technologies fall within the NPT’s “inalienable right” provision, so as to maintain a reasonable safety margin against possible military application; expansion of International Atomic Energy Agency inspections to include greater readiness to use its “special” inspection authority; creation of an NPT enforcement regime, to include a secretariat; and universalizing the NPT so as to apply to all states, while creating a path for current non-parties to come into compliance. There is no illusion here about the prospects for the adoption of this approach. At a minimum, the world needs to be frank about the gap between nuclear programs and current nonproliferation protection. Encouragement of greater use of nuclear power should be predicated on closing that gap.

J. Christian Kessler, “Technical Negotiations in a Political Environment: Why the Hexapartite Safeguards Project Succeeded” (2013)

Despite a political environment fraught with core policy differences, between 1979 and 1983, six governments and two international safeguards directorates—the International Atomic Energy Agency and the Euratom Safeguards Directorate—negotiated an agreement to preserve the core verification principles behind the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). At first, even agreement to talk was in doubt. Other governments questioned US motives; they wondered whether US motives in promoting the International Nuclear Fuel Cycle Evaluation had been to evaluate or to prevent non-nuclear-weapon states from deploying uranium-enrichment and spent-fuel-reprocessing technologies. In addition, Germany and Japan disagreed with the United States on whether NPT safeguards were to address undeclared materials or activities. Notwithstanding this environment, the participants reached agreement first to negotiate, and then on specific technical measures, even when the approach implied a policy consensus where none existed. At the conclusion, agreement was reached on specific technical measures for safeguards at gas-centrifuge uranium-enrichment plants, and all participating states, including two nuclear-weapon states, made diplomatic commitments to adopt this approach for current and future centrifuge plants. This article examines the factors that facilitated agreement and considers what lessons can be learned for future efforts to solve complex technical issues in a politically charged environment and in the absence of complete agreement even on the objectives to be realized.

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Strengthening the NPT

Paul Meyer, “Saving the NPT: Time to renew treaty commitments” (2009)

For more than 40 years, the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) has provided major security benefits to the international community; however, the treaty is suffering from internal and external pressures, and benign neglect on the part of its members is undermining its authority. To ensure the treaty’s continued viability, it is time for member states to start showing the NPT the respect it deserves and to renew their commitments to its fundamental purposes. Achieving this requires remedial action in at least four areas of vulnerability: reinvigorating nuclear disarmament; strengthening nonproliferation; overcoming the NPT’s institutional deficit; and fostering a rapprochement between NPT and non-NPT states that does not abandon the goal of treaty universalization. There is still time before the 2010 NPT Review Conference for concerted action to restore the NPT’s vitality and for the United States to resume its leadership role on behalf of the treaty and its membership.

Lewis A. Dunn, “The NPT: Assessing the past, building the future” (2009)

This article assesses the successes and failures of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) since its creation in 1968 by developing and applying a set of “metrics” to each of the NPT’s substantive articles as well as to its withdrawal provisions. In light of this analysis, the article also puts forward some specific proposals for strengthening the NPT and its implementation, with a view to the debate and decisions at the upcoming 2010 NPT Review Conference. A concluding section turns explicitly to the 2010 NPT Review Conference and proposes pursuit of agreement on three NPT Action Plans: one for nonproliferation, one for peaceful uses, and one for nuclear disarmament. Combining vision and practicable steps, these Action Plans would set out a roadmap for action between the 2010 and the 2015 NPT Review Conferences. They could provide a foundation for substantive exchanges—in this case, on progress toward their implementation—during the preparations for the 2015 conference.

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Review conferences

Jeffrey S. Lantis, “Irrational Exuberance: The 2010 NPT Review Conference, Nuclear Assistance, and Norm Change” (2011)

The 2010 Review Conference of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) produced a Final Document calling for an extension of the principles of the nonproliferation norm as well as steps toward complete disarmament. This article looks beyond the rhetoric, however, to examine recent decisions by great powers to expand nuclear trade with non-NPT countries and the implications of these decisions on the traditional nonproliferation norm of restraint. The article seeks to contribute to constructivist theory by supplementing existing accounts of norm creation and establishment with a new model of norm change. The article develops a case study of the 2008 US-India nuclear deal to highlight the role of elite agency in key stages of norm change, including redefinition and constructive substitution through contestation. It concludes that the traditional nonproliferation norm may be evolving in new directions that are not well captured by existing theoretical frames.

Harald Müller, “A Nuclear Nonproliferation Test: Obama’s Nuclear Policy and the 2010 NPT Review Conference” (2011)

The most important short-term success of President Barack Obama’s nuclear-weapons policy has been to halt the erosion of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). Obama’s policies helped extract a minimum positive result from the 2010 NPT Review Conference, a favorable outcome compared to the chaos that his predecessor’s representatives had created at the 2005 conference. However, the result is only a compromise of the least common denominator between the nuclear-weapon states and the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). The nuclear-weapon states refused to agree to any specific actions or deadlines for disarmament, while the NAM states rejected any strengthening of the nonproliferation toolbox. The 2010 conference’s final document is thus an exercise in minimalism, with the notable exception of the section addressing the Middle East. As measured by delegates’ statements, the Obama policy was welcomed as a positive development. This factor enabled key players, such as Egypt and Brazil, to strive for compromise, and others, such as Russia and China, not to block it. This outcome owes more to the “Prague spirit” and the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty than to the Nuclear Posture Review. By compromising on the Middle East, the Obama administration showed the necessary flexibility to motivate the key NAM actor, Egypt, to deliver the agreement of that bloc, foiling the intentions of Iran to prevent a consensus.

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Interpreting Article VI

Christopher A. Ford, “Debating Disarmament: Interpreting Article VI of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons” (2007)

In discussions of compliance with the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), it is often alleged or insinuated that the United States is in violation of its obligations under NPT Article VI to undertake nuclear disarmament. Such arguments are worth addressing not only on their own merits, because confusion about a treaty’s obligations is seldom a good idea, but especially because such claims seem increasingly to be employed as excuses for why other states party to the NPT should not be expected to live up to what are clearly the core provisions of the treaty: those pertaining to nonproliferation. Confusion over Article VI, therefore, should be seen as a significant danger, for it can undercut the integrity of the nuclear nonproliferation regime upon which the international community places no small reliance in helping maintain peace and security. This article aims to clarify the meaning of Article VI, dispel erroneous conclusions related to its disarmament obligations, elucidate the record of U.S. compliance, and help lay the foundation for a more productive international discussion of how nonproliferation and disarmament issues can be addressed.

David Krieger, Mohamed Shaker, Christopher A. Ford, “Debating Article VI” (2008)

Thomas Graham Jr., “The Origin and Interpretation of Article VI” (2008)

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