The Most Successful Security Pact in History

Despite the power and allure of nuclear weapons, only nine nations in the world today have nuclear arsenals. Why aren't there more?

The main reason: the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The NPT, which went into force 41 years ago today, has provided strong incentives for nations to give up their nuclear weapons programs -- or not pursue them in the first place. Over 30 other nations have the technological ability to make nuclear weapons, but they chose not to do so.

Since the treaty entered into force on March 5, 1970, more countries have given up nuclear weapons programs than have started them. The number of nuclear weapons in the world has declined from a peak of 65,000 in 1987 to roughly 22,000 today. And every nation in the world has joined the treaty save three: India, Pakistan and Israel.

By all measures, the NPT has been remarkably successful at keeping states from getting the bomb -- especially considering the alternative of life in a nuclear-armed crowd.

Bargaining to Prevent Chaos

In the 1960s, 23 states were conducting weapons-related research, were actively discussing the pursuit of nuclear weapons, or already had the bomb. At the time, this wave of proliferation threatened nuclear chaos as dozens of nations -- large and small, stable and unstable -- moved to arm themselves with atomic bombs.

This is why John F. Kennedy warned in 1960 that if we did not do something, 15, 20 or 25 countries would have nuclear weapons by the end of that decade. As president, Kennedy acted. He started negotiations for a treaty to stop the proliferation wave. He couldn't finish the job, but Lyndon Johnson did and Richard Nixon signed the treaty. Democrats and Republicans worked together, side by side, with a bi-partisan consensus to eliminate these weapons and prevent their spread.

With American leadership, the states of the world agreed to a simple three-part bargain, enshrined in the NPT:

  • All states that did not have nuclear weapons would promise never to get them;
  • All states with weapons would work to reduce and eliminate them;
  • Countries in good standing with the treaty could obtain nuclear technology for peaceful purposes (like power reactors) as long as they accepted inspections to make sure that the technologies were not being used to make bombs.

The bargain worked. The overwhelming majority of states kept their end of the deal. Sixteen states with nuclear weapons programs that were under way abandoned their programs (Argentina, Australia, Belarus, Brazil, Canada, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Libya, Romania, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, Switzerland, Taiwan, Ukraine and Yugoslavia).

A few states never signed the treaty, and only a couple of states grossly violated the treaty (North Korea and Iran). But the majority of the world has respected the bargain of the NPT. As a result, only ten states have nuclear weapons or are believed to be seeking them today -- a far cry from the 25 states forecasted decades ago. (States with nuclear weapons are, in order of the size of their arsenals: Russia, USA, France, China, UK, Israel, Pakistan, India, and North Korea, with Iran suspected of seeking nuclear weapons.)

Reduce Arsenals, Prevent New Nuclear States

The U.S. and other nuclear powers must uphold their end of the bargain by reducing their nuclear arsenals. If they do not, other states over time may begin to drop their commitment to not pursue nuclear weapons.

Most analysts understand the essential link. The interim report of the Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States correctly notes:

If the U.S. by its actions indicates to other nations that we are moving seriously to decrease the importance and role of nuclear weapons, we increase our chance of getting the kind of cooperation we need to deal effectively with the dangers of proliferation.

As the commission concluded:

What we do in our own nuclear weapon program has a significant effect on (but does not guarantee) our ability to get that cooperation. In particular, this cooperation will be affected by what we do in our weapons laboratories, what we do in our deployed nuclear forces, what kind of nuclear policies we articulate, and what we do regarding arms control treaties (e.g., START and CTBT).

The historical record supports this conclusion. To continue the success of the Non- Proliferation treaty it is essential the nuclear-armed states steadily work to reduce their arsenals. The leadership must come from America and Russia who together have over 95 percent of all nuclear weapons in the world.

After 41 years of remarkable, though imperfect, success under the NPT, it's vital that we see the treaty to its conclusion: the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.