The Morality of Non-Proliferation

Nearly all the world’s nations are meeting in New York to review the Non-Proliferation Treaty. The NPT was negotiated in the 1960’s after five countries (the United States, the Soviet Union, Britain, France, and China) developed nuclear weapons. India, Pakistan, and Israel refused to join the treaty and, over time, constructed their own atomic bombs. Now North Korea and Iran stand accused of violating their treaty commitments by pursuing nuclear weapons.

Aside from the legal issues, is there a moral case for non-proliferation? In a world of sovereign states, is it hypocritical for some to have nuclear weapons and deny them to others?

If no one had the bomb today, it would be best if it were not invented. But history depends on the paths that were taken in the past. Suppose it were 1939, and states were debating whether the US should invent the bomb. They might have argued that all should get it or none. But if they knew that Hitler’s Germany would get it, they might have approved Franklin Roosevelt’s decision to develop it before the Nazis.

Besides, turning back the clock is impossible. Even if all countries agree to disarm, some might cheat. The successful cheaters would most likely be authoritarian states with little transparency. After all, North Korea says that it has developed nuclear weapons despite having signed the NPT. Libya was also a party to the NPT while it pursued a covert nuclear program.