Nuclear Vigilantes

LOS ANGELES – Forty years ago this month, more than 50 nations gathered in the East Room of the White House to sign the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons. In his memoirs, US President Lyndon B. Johnson called it “the most significant step we had yet taken to reduce the possibility of nuclear war.” 

Today, with the benefit of time, we can evaluate whether the accord truly marks the “historic turning point” President Johnson hoped for. The evidence suggests that while the pact’s dikes have largely held, serious leaks have developed, prompting nuclear vigilantes to apply force when they have concluded that diplomacy would fail to halt the Bomb’s spread. Whether this behavior is a harbinger for the future remains unclear, but it raises a continuing specter given the failure of the NPT to include an effective enforcement mechanism.

One fact is not in doubt: the NPT is the legal linchpin for the nuclear nonproliferation regime now signed and ratified by all but three nations – India, Pakistan, and Israel – and one drop-out, North Korea. The Treaty’s principles remain bold: the pact’s five acknowledged nuclear weapons states – the US, Britain, France, Russia, and China – promise to eliminate their nuclear arsenals, and the remaining parties commit not to acquire nuclear weapons in exchange for the right to develop civil nuclear power, with international assistance, subject to binding safeguards.

While the NPT is not entirely responsible for the absence of dozens of nuclear-armed states that many people once feared would emerge, it generated a standard of behavior that continues to guide most countries. Still, the accord never fulfilled its disarmament objective. The five nuclear powers continue to hang on to their weapons, giving mere lip service to their elimination. More disturbing for international calm, a handful of non-nuclear signatories have secretly flouted the agreement. Eventually exposed, their perfidy demonstrated the NPT’s imperfect ability to deter, catch, and reverse nuclear cheats.