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Facing the Mid-Life Crisis of the Non-Proliferation Treaty

Author: Charles D. Ferguson, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Science and Technology
October 2006
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As someone fast approaching middle-age, I can feel for the 36-year-old Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), still spry but starting to feel aches and pains. Encroaching mid-life can spark an existential crisis. While a treaty cannot reflect inwardly about itself, the countries that created and joined the treaty can and should decide whether it has outlived its usefulness or just requires improvement. Confronted with challenges from so-called rogue states such as Iran and North Korea and with moribund arms control initiatives and treaties blocking disarmament among the nuclear-armed powers, NPT member states should seize the opportunity to revitalize the treaty and the set of institutions and practices that constitute the non-proliferation regime. Like a person, the NPT and regime have had their successes and failures, but can hopefully learn from experience and mature into more beneficial members of society.

The ultimate purpose of the adult NPT arises from the words that gave birth to the treaty. The NPT’s preamble states that “the proliferation of nuclear weapons would seriously enhance the danger of nuclear war” and underscores the “need to make every effort to avert...such a war.” Today, instead, the focus is on the treaty’s bargain in which those countries without nuclear arms should agree to not acquire these weapons and in exchange should reap the benefits of peaceful nuclear energy. In that respect, the NPT provides the non-proliferation regime with its legal footing. The regime’s goal has been to guard against countries misusing nuclear power to make nuclear weapons. Although like-minded countries could have formed a coalition of the willing without invoking the NPT to create a regime that scrutinizes exports of nuclear goods and works to shut down nuclear weapons programs, such a coalition could easily fragment if it did not have the firm foundation of a treaty.

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