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International Nuclear Nonproliferation Regime
March 11, 2010



This backgrounder will examine the international nuclear nonproliferation regime; specifically the origins, benefits, and drawbacks of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the Comprehensive Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT).  Increasingly obvious loopholes and a looming NPT review conference in May are coming together to make 2010 a watershed year for the nuclear nonproliferation regime.


Nuclear nonproliferation is working its way up the Obama  administration's list of priorities.


The end of World War II presented the United States with a new kind of strategic dilemma. How could a potentially apocalyptic technology, once discovered, permanently be kept out of the hands of competitors? Early attempts at regulation betrayed a sense of urgency; a seemingly quixotic willingness to forfeit state authority over nuclear weapons. One such attempt was the Truman administration’s ‘Baruch Plan.’ The plan envisioned America unilaterally dismantling its nuclear monopoly so that the United Nations could become the sole regulator of nuclear arms and nuclear facilities worldwide [3]. Although the Baruch Plan was stillborn, a desire to block the spread of nuclear weapons lived on and eventually produced the Non-Proliferation Treaty- an agreement that remains a central pillar of nuclear nonproliferation to this day. 

The NPT’s signing in 1968 represented the culmination of three decades of negotiations and institutional maturation at the UN. Some major steps included: President Eisenhower’s proposal of a treaty regulating nuclear activities around the world in 1953, the establishment of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in 1956, and the unanimous passage of a UN General Assembly (UNGA) resolution calling for a treaty to ban non-nuclear states from acquiring nuclear arms in 1961 [2]. By the time that the Cuban Missile Crisis was over, producing a lull in US-Soviet tensions, the foundations of the NPT had already been laid.

While the NPT represents a diplomatic victory in the Cold War era, success was almost destined from the outset due to a simple strategic dynamic: nuclear-armed states don’t want to nullify their strategic advantage by allowing competitors to acquire nuclear weapons. Thus, the NPT has always represented an issue that is easy for power players to rally around because it is in their national security interests to do so.

The Treaty

The NPT came into power in 1970, and it has since been signed by 189 countries [1]. While it originally required renewal every five years, the treaty became permanent after the 1995 review conference [4].

The NPT enshrines five signatories as permanent ‘nuclear weapons states’: Britain, France, the United States, Russia, and China. Currently, there is no explicit legal way to legitimize any new nuclear weapons states under the auspices of the NPT.

All other states sign the treaty as ‘non-nuclear weapons states.’ They agree not to develop nuclear weapons in exchange for access to peaceful nuclear technology [5]. Nuclear weapons states are banned from transferring nuclear arms expertise or control of weapons to non-nuclear weapons states. All verification takes place under the supervision of the IAEA [5].

The obvious discrimination inherent to the NPT- that some states are allowed to have nuclear weapons while others are not- is sidestepped through the inclusion of Article VI, which commits the nuclear weapons states to eventually disarming and working towards a nuclear-free world [1]. Thus, the nuclear weapons abstinence practiced by non-nuclear weapons states is not permanent, and according to the letter of the treaty, could be repealed if the nuclear weapons states don’t move towards disarmament.


In March 1963, President John F. Kennedy warned the American public that fifteen to twenty-five states would come to possess nuclear weapons by the 1970s [6]. That this grim prediction did not come to pass is not owing to a lack of technical know-how, but rather widespread international acceptance of the legitimacy of the NPT. In other words, several states that could have developed nuclear weapons programs chose not to do so, instead signing the NPT as non-nuclear weapons states. That the treaty enjoyed such early success and remains relevant to this day is a triumph of diplomacy. However, the NPT is far from perfect and still contains loopholes that can be exploited.


Many of the NPT’s failures are widely known. For one, despite what the treaty may lead one to believe, the world contains more than five nuclear weapons states.  Israel, India, and Pakistan are all nuclear-armed states that exist outside of the regime [1]. The DPRK, another nuclear weapons state, withdrew from the treaty in 2003. Since these states are not part of the NPT, they have no legal obligation to abide by the NPT's strict regulations on nuclear technology transfer. Some states, like India, have made sure to follow a strict self-imposed regiment of export control [9]. Other states, like Pakistan, have failed to do so in the past.

The IAEA itself has experienced a few high-profile failures in regards to its NPT-mandated intelligence and inspection duties. Several instances of uranium and plutonium separation and other weapons-related activities were successfully hidden from IAEA inspectors in Iraq, North Korea, since 1991 [7]. Subsequent NPT review conferences have tried to close these loopholes, but as the current Iranian nuclear crisis so clearly demonstrates, the line between a legitimate NPT non-nuclear weapons state and an aspiring nuclear power is blurry at best. 

Ultimately, the main drawback of the NPT is the aforementioned hypocrisy involving the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ and by extension, the difficulty of ever properly implementing Article VI. The longer that nuclear weapons states like Russia and the United States refuse to give up their stockpiles or the right to research new nuclear weapons, the less likely it is that non-nuclear states will feel morally obliged to abstain from developing nuclear weapons. 


The CTBT is a treaty banning all nuclear explosions, whether they take place in the atmosphere or underground. It was negotiated in Geneva between 1994 and 1996, and at the time was interpreted as a tit-for-tat: the nuclear weapons states work towards implementing Article VI by adopting a test ban and the non-nuclear states accept a permanent extension of the NPT [8].

The CTBT received a terminal blow when the United States Senate voted the treaty down despite President Clinton’s enthusiastic support for the initiative [1]. Eight other countries have yet to ratify the treaty, including: China, DPRK, and Egypt [8]. India and Pakistan, largely owing to their low-level nuclear arms race, have not signed the treaty.

The treaty has not come into force.  Without support from key players like the United States and to a lesser degree India, it faces an uncertain future.



The NPT now faces pressure from all sides. India and Pakistan spurned the treaty and international opinion by testing nuclear weapons in 1998. This in itself was damaging to nuclear nonproliferation, but even more damaging was the United States subsequent nuclear deal with the Indian government that effectively made India a de facto nuclear weapons state, if not a de jure one [9]. The smothering of the CTBT and the Bush Administration’s insistence on developing a new generation of ‘bunker buster’ tactical nuclear weapons have both had the effect of pushing the implementation of Article VI into the far and distant future. No movement towards the implementation of Article VI has fueled resentment over the discriminatory nature of the NPT in its current form.

These issues don’t even touch down on suspicions over Iran’s nuclear activities or the DPRK’s recent nuclear tests. It is clear that the participants of 2010 NPT review conference will have their work cut out for them if they want to pull the treaty back into relevancy and stem the tide of nuclear proliferation.



The Obama administration is well aware of the importance of the 2010 NPT review conference, and as such it has been conducting its Nuclear Policy Review (NPR) very carefully. Indeed, the first draft of the NPR has already been rejected for not being ‘transformational’ enough [11]. This NPR will aim to build confidence among NPT stakeholders, essentially trying to convince them that President Obama meant it when he said he wanted a nuclear-free world in Prague.  

It’s likely that the signing of a new START treaty with Russia will figure prominently in the new NPR. Rumors have been swirling that Washington and Moscow are close to an agreement that would drastically reduce their respective nuclear weapons stockpiles [10].

It is also likely that the NPR will halt the development of any new nuclear weapons; a step that the Bush administration was unwilling to take [10].

But perhaps the most important issue that the NPR will address is the United State's nuclear doctrine. A shift towards a less ambiguous doctrine could pay dividends for American negotiating credibility at the 2010 NPT conference. Currently, the United State’s nuclear doctrine leaves the door open on using nuclear weapons against a non-nuclear state. This doctrine adds to the growing list of strategic incentives for non-nuclear states to develop their own weapons programs.


[1] International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War. 2006. The Pillars of Modern Nuclear Non-proliferation and Arms Control.

[2] Bunn, G & Rhinelander, J. Looking Back: The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty Then and Now. 2008.

[3] US State Department. The Acheson-Lilenthal & Baruch Plans, 1946. 2010.

[4] Plesch, D. The 1995 NPT Review and Extension Conference. 1995. British American Security Information Council.

[5] Campaign for International Co-operation and Disarmament. NPT Summary. 2010.

[6] Lavoy, P. Predicting Nuclear Proliferation: A Declassified Documentary Record. Strategic Insights, Volume III, Issue 1. Jan, 2004.

[7] Bunn, G. The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty: History and Current Problems. Arms Control Association. 2003.

[8] Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organization.  CTBT Fact Sheet.

[9] World Nuclear Association. India, China, & the NPT. March, 2009.

[10] Sanger, D. White House is Rethinking Nuclear Policy. New York Times. Feb, 2010.

[11] BBC News, US Plans ‘Dramatic’ Reductions in Nuclear Weapons. March, 2010.

Tags:  Military - Politics - Environment - America - North - World - UN Sanctions - Nuclear Nonproliferation - India Pakistan Tension - Global Arms Trade - Defense Spending - BRIC Countries - Ban Ki-moon - News

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