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Editorial Analysis: NPT at 50: Celebration or mid-life crisis?

Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)

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Non-Proliferation Treaty
Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)

Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT):

  • Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) is often described by its supporters as the cornerstone of global nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament.
  • NPT is among the most widely-adhered-to global treaties.
  • All countries except four (India, Israel and Pakistan that never joined, and North Korea that withdrew in 2003) are parties to the NPT.

50 years of NPT wasn’t celebrated grandly:

  • On March 5, 2020, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) turned 50.
  • Yet, the NPT’s golden anniversary passed without much notice.

History of NPT:

The initiation of negotiation towards a treaty:

  • In 1963, US President Kennedy voiced his concerns that, by 1975, there could be as many as 20 countries with nuclear weapons.
  • The erstwhile USSR shared similar concerns.
  • The shared concerns of the two most powerful countries of the time, and Cold War adversaries, enabled the negotiations for an NPT.

Initial plan:

  • To make it attractive, it was initially conceived as a three-legged stool:
    1. Non-proliferation – obliging those without nuclear weapons to undertake never to acquire them and accept full-scope safeguards.
    2. Disarmament – obliging the five countries with nuclear weapons (United States, USSR, United Kingdom, France and China) to negotiate to reduce and eventually eliminate their nuclear weapons.
    3. Access to peaceful use of nuclear tech – to ensure that non-nuclear weapon states would enjoy full access to peaceful applications of nuclear science and technology.

But India rejected the idea that only few countries can have nuclear weapons:

  • The negotiations towards NPT ended in 1968.
  • But India realized the disarmament leg was too weak and the definition of a nuclear-weapon State (one that had exploded a nuclear device before January 1,1967) was one that created a permanent division between nuclear haves and have-nots.
  • The five nuclear weapon states recognized by the NPT (N-5) are also the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (P-5), giving rise to the inevitable conclusion that nuclear weapons remain the currency of political and military power.
  • As a result, India chose to stay away from signing the treaty.

Evaluation on NPT:

The NPT has been successful in preventing proliferation:
  • Since 1970, only four countries have acquired nuclear weapons, bringing the total number of nuclear-weapon-states to nine, much less than Kennedy’s apprehensions in 1963.
  • However, it brings out the uncomfortable reality that the NPT has no means of dealing with these four states.

But ‘Disarmament’ part of NPT has been a failure:

  • Among the oft-cited successes of the NPT is the dramatic reduction in the number of nuclear weapons from a peak of 70,300 warheads in 1986 to around 14,000 at present, with the US and Russia accounting for over 12,500.
  • What is overlooked is that nearly all the reductions happened between 1990 and 2010, and the process has now dwindled to a halt.
  • More significantly, these reductions were a result of bilateral talks between the US and Russia, reflecting their state of relations, and no negotiations have ever been held in the NPT framework.
  • In fact, during the first 15 years of the NPT, the US-Soviet arsenals went up from below 40,000 to over 70,000, making it abundantly clear that the NPT nuclear-weapon-states have blithely ignored the disarmament leg of the NPT.

Despite NPT, situation of nuclear war arose:

  • The NPT’s supporters also claim credit for strengthening the taboo against nuclear weapons by pointing out that nuclear weapons have never been used since 1945.
  • However, a closer examination of recently declassified papers indicates that since 1970, there were over a dozen instances where the US and USSR came close to initiating a nuclear exchange.
  • Even today, US and Russia maintain over 1,000 nuclear weapons on hair trigger alert, increasing the risks of an accidental or inadvertent nuclear exchange.

Even N5 has not stayed away from nuclear weapon development:

  • Today, even the major nuclear powers undertake research and development for more usable low-yield nuclear weapons.
  • Ballistic missile defense, hypersonic systems that carry both conventional and nuclear payloads, and growing offensive cyber capabilities further blur the line between conventional and nuclear.

NPT seen as incapable of achieving nuclear disarmament:

  • About 120 countries party to the NPT had concluded that, despite near universal adherence, the NPT could never be the vehicle for nuclear disarmament.
  • They noted that NPT had delegitimized proliferation, but done little to delegitimize nuclear weapons.
  • This was seen as proof that the NPT had reached the limits of its success.

Efforts at alternative Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons:

  • 120 countries party to the NPT joined hands with civil society to push negotiations for a Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), concluded in 2017.
  • The N-5 and their allies boycotted the negotiations but the existence of the TPNW exposes the inherent imbalance in the NPT’s agenda.


  • The old nuclear arms control model reflected the political reality of the Cold War.
  • Today’s reality reflects multipolarity, marked by asymmetry.
  • As a result, treaties led by US and USSR from the earlier times are already dead or being challenged.
  • The NPT faces a similar challenge, of continued political relevance.
  • Unless the NPT members, especially the N-5 realize this, its golden anniversary may well mark the beginning of NPT’s slide into irrelevance.

Also Read: U.P. clears Ordinance for recovery of damages

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