What it is: The Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) is an international agreement to slow down the spreading (proliferation) of nuclear weapons and eventually to achieve nuclear disarmament. It also commits the states who have signed it to work towards ultimate ‘general and complete disarmament’.

What it means: The first nuclear weapons were developed by the USA in the early 1940s, and some UK scientists worked on the project. The Soviet Union had developed its bomb by 1949. The UK developed its own bomb (in secret and with no assistance from the USA) by 1952. Two other countries later developed nuclear weapons: France (by 1960) and China (by 1964). The NPT was created in 1968 and came into force in 1970. By 2005, 189 countries had signed it. Most treaties have a built-in time limit, but in 1995 it was agreed that the NPT should continue indefinitely. Israel, who developed nuclear weapons in the 1970s, has never signed it. Nor have India and Pakistan, countries often in conflict with each other, who carried out nuclear weapons tests in 1998. North Korea withdrew from the Treaty in 2003. Under the terms of the NPT the 5 acknowledged nuclear-armed states agree not to pass nuclear weapons or nuclear weapons technology to other states. Non-nuclear states agree not to develop nuclear weapons, though all are allowed to develop nuclear technology for peaceful domestic use. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), set up in 1957 to encourage peaceful use of nuclear energy, monitors the use of nuclear power and carries out inspections to ensure that nuclear technology isn’t being diverted to military purposes. In 2000, the 5 nuclear states signed a statement committing themselves to ‘an unequivocal undertaking by the nuclear weapon states to accomplish total elimination of their arsenal, leading to nuclear disarmament’. It is true that the USA and the Russian Federation had already cut down their arsenals, and that in 2002 the USA promised the Russian federation it would further reduce its nuclear warheads to about 2,000. But the USA reserved the right to keep 10,000 warheads in stock, and now also planned to produce new high-precision low-intensity nuclear weapons for attacking underground weapons installations in countries it regarded as a threat. The USA was one of the first devisers of arms control, and so might be expected to support it. But the original motive behind arms control had less to do with horror at the destructive power of nuclear weapons than with the crippling costs of the arms race – which is why both sides in the Cold War felt able to sign the NPT in 1968. All the same, after the Cold War ended, for a time it looked as though nuclear disarmament was a real possibility: for a short time there was a sense of relief, and nuclear weapons dropped out of the news. But in 1998 India and Pakistan revealed themselves as nuclear-armed states - and in India’s case this meant potential nuclear confrontation with China as well as Pakistan. There was talk of nuclear weapons in several other countries (including Iraq and Iran) leading to fears of a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. The USA began to retreat from commitments. It withdrew from the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. As a leading disarmament lawyer put it: ‘The new US policy clearly announces that the true prevention of proliferation is not to be any treaty, but American attack’. The US policy included revived plans for an anti-missile shield in space. Anti-nuclear defence risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Think about it: If what the disarmament lawyer says is right, then proliferation is encouraged, not prevented. States wondering about going nuclear may look at US policy and the 2003 Iraq war, and think it’s better to have nuclear weapons if there’s a risk of being in the USA’s firing line. There has long been a temptation to think of nuclear weapons as though they are like any other. In any case, the very fact that the nuclear states are clearly reluctant to give them up provides an incentive to other states to become nuclear-armed too. Meanwhile, hidden international networks marketing nuclear technology and components have been quietly doing deals, indifferent to the destabilising effects. International control of nuclear weapons is now less successful than it was in the last days of the Cold War. The future safety of the world may depend not on the number of nations that want to make nuclear weapons but can’t, but on the number that could make them but choose not to.

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