Nuclear Non-Nuclear Powers

If the Bush Administration is going to make the world safer from weapons of mass destruction (WMD), it is going to have to figure out how to handle nuclear proliferation, which is the most serious type of proliferation in terms of the number of lives that are threatened by it. There is much talk of revising the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which has been relatively successful, but which has failed to prevent proliferation in a few very important cases — India, Pakistan, and Israel.

The NPT differs in its treatment of nuclear weapons states and non-nuclear weapons states. Nuclear weapons states are those that exploded a nuclear devices before 1967 — the US, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, France and China. Russia took on the Soviet Union’s designation as a nuclear weapons state. Everybody else is a non-nuclear weapons state. Cuba, India, Israel, and Pakistan have not signed the NPT, which is where the rub comes in, because India and Pakistan have both exploded nuclear devices, and Israel is widely known to possess a number of nuclear devices, although it may never exploded one. Israel may have tested one in South Africa in 1979, but exactly what happened when a US satellite reported that it saw a nuclear explosion in 1979 has never been unambiguously explained.

One problem is that the nuclearization since 1967 of these previously non-nuclear states has never been satisfactorily dealt with by the NPT. Their possession of nuclear weapons has been de facto accepted by the world, and they are not in violation of the NPT, because they never joined it. Iran is a member, and North Korea was a member.

A second problem is that the possession of nuclear weapons remains an indication of national greatness. Countries that aspire to world stage greatness, such as Brazil, are unlikely to say it is okay to accept India’s nuclear status, but deny it to us. The NPT regime either has to sanction countries that go nuclear, or it has to allow other countries to go nuclear.

The third problem, then, is that the NPT calls on all nuclear powers to get rid of their nuclear arsenals, or at least to work toward disarmament, but they have not done so. There was progress for a while with the various SALT and START negotiations, but these are now ancient history. So, it’s been accepted that once a country goes nuclear, it can stay nuclear.

The are a number of proposals to update or strengthen the NPT, but they don’t deal with this problem. Until they do, it is unlikely that the NPT will be able to deal with the issue of new nuclear powers, which could include North Korea in the short term, Iran in the medium term, and perhaps Brazil in the long term.

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