Can the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty outrun its double standard forever? via Sustainable Security

President John F. Kennedy once said:

“You cannot negotiate with people who say what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is negotiable.”

However a small group of states (including the state of which Kennedy was President) have done just this in relation to the possession of nuclear weapons for decades. Five of them (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States) have held the position of being the privileged few allowed to possess nuclear weapons under the terms of the 1968 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT)  while all others agree to forego developing the ‘ultimate weapon’ in return for access to civilian nuclear technology. Three others have refused to sign the treaty (India, Israel and Pakistan) and instead developed their own nuclear weapons (overtly in the cases of India and Pakistan after 1998 and covertly in the case of Israel from the late 1960s) happy to free-ride on the lack of global proliferation ensured by the treaty. To paraphrase Kennedy, the decision of these eight states (nine if you include North Korea from 2003 onwards) to inflict mass destruction on an adversary is theirs, but everyone else’s decision to acquire the same capability can be negotiated away.

What is perhaps most extraordinary about the NPT ‘grand bargain’, as it is often called (although given that the five nuclear weapon states have exactly the same access to civil nuclear technology as the rest of the signatories, ‘bargain’ here really is a polite term for ‘scam’), is that it has remained largely intact for so long. For something built on such a seemingly unsustainable basis as an institutionalised double standard (particularly one that relates to the ultimate survival of nation states), the fact that its indefinite extension was negotiated in 1995 and that the treaty is still with us defies most conventional wisdoms about the ‘dog-eat-dog’ nature of self-help politics in an anarchical international system.

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