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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Extend NPT But Repair Its Flaws Too

It seems one of the few areas in which Washington and Moscow see eye-to-eye these days is on the need to extend indefinitely the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, whose status is now under debate at the United Nations.


Though this meeting of minds is surely welcomed by both governments, neither would hold it up as much of an achievement. All five recognized nuclear powers have a clear and obvious interest in extending the treaty, which was intended, when signed in 1968, to ensure they remained the world's only five nuclear powers.


It looks as though a narrow majority of the treaty's signatories will agree to the extension, although a number of countries are unhappy with the treaty because they do not believe the five powers have kept their side of the bargain -- which was to disarm.


This has been one of the most important arms treaties of all time, so its renewal is essential. But it is also a deeply flawed treaty, and the debate underway in New York does not appear to be addressing what ought to be the central issue -- namely, how to fix NPT.


The treaty's success must be acknowledged. The history of weapons systems has been that all nations at all times have sought out the most advanced military technology available, whether that was stirrups, muskets or nuclear warheads. Yet, since the atom bomb was developed, very few nations have managed to acquire it.


But NPT has had its share of failures. It has not stopped the nuclear powers from slipping nuclear technology to their favorites -- Israel is a clear example of this. The treaty has also encouraged the spread of civilian nuclear power technology, the safety and financial soundness of which has always been in doubt, while its potential for producing fissile materials for use in nuclear weapons has not.


These are the debates that ought now to be underway in New York: How can the treaty be amended to prevent the nuclear powers from playing favorites? And what should be done to define when civilian power stations should or should not be sold to nonnuclear powers?


The United States, for example, is now fighting Russia's agreement to build a power plant for Iran, arguing that Iran has so much oil the only possible reason it can want nuclear energy is to make bombs.


At the moment, there is no mechanism and no set of criteria to decide whether the United States is right about Iran. Such issues are decided through assessments of profit and other political judgements, while NPT -- the treaty that is supposed to defend against nuclear proliferation -- has nothing to say.