From Nuclear Non-proliferation to Nuclear Disarmament: A Need to Refocus NPT Priorities

-Manpreet Sethi, Research Assistant, IDSA



Ever since the use of the Little Boy and the Fat Man on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, mankind has lived with nuclear weapons. The cataclysmic effect that the atomic bombs had on the international situation, transformed them into not only the new guarantors of security, but also into a potent currency of power and prestige. Not surprisingly, therefore, the years after 1945 were characterised by the realisation on the part of all existing and potential major powers that nuclear weapons must form a part of their security calculus if they were to wield influence in the international comity of nations. Consequently, countries that could financially afford and technologically support nuclear weapons programmes went ahead.

Simultaneously, however, saner voices had begun to highlight the urgent need to reverse the process and disarm the atom. That these were drowned in the din of the frantic nuclear activity undertaken to master and refine nuclear weapons technology is evident from the fact that the world today has to contend with several thousands of nuclear warheads in the arsenals of the five nuclear powers—USA, Russia, UK, France and China. Attempts at nuclear disarmament, meanwhile, have remained just that over the last 52 years—mere attempts to establish a nuclear-weapons-free world.

This paper seeks to suggest that attempts at general and complete nuclear disarmament have largely failed because of an over emphasis on nuclear non-proliferation, particularly horizontal, while disarmament has attracted only lipservice from the perpetrators of nuclear weapons. In this regard, the Treaty of the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) that is deemed to be the core of the global non-proliferation regime is no less to blame for having indulged in a skewed pursuit of its twin objectives—nuclear non-proliferation and nuclear disarmament.The paper argues that nuclear non-proliferation can be sustainable only if complemented by nuclear disarmament. In the absence of the latter, proliferation of nuclear weapons, irrespective of the NPT and its safeguards regime, would always pose a potential risk.

Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Nuclear Disarmament

Very early in its evolution, the concept of nuclear disarmament was overtaken by that of non-proliferation. In fact, even before the nuclear weapons were first designed and developed, scientists had visualised their immense destructive potential and sounded a cautionary note against going ahead on that path. In a letter dated August 2, 1939, Albert Einstein had written to the US President Franklin D Roosevelt that "... uranium may be turned into a new and important source of energy... This new phenomenon would also lead to the construction of bombs."1

Five years later and only a year before the bombs were first used, Danish nuclear physicist Niels Bohr had sent identical letters to President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill in which he wrote that "... a weapon of unparalleled power is being created which will completely change all future conditions of warfare... Unless, indeed some agreement about the control of the use of the new active materials can be obtained in due time, temporary advantage, however great, may be outweighed by a perpetual menace to human society."2 These prophetic words, however, went unheeded and USA did develop and use the nuclear weapon. Thereafter, nuclear disarmament got left behind and nuclear non-proliferation became the immediate reality.

In fact, the origins of nuclear non-proliferation can be traced to as far back as the US sponsored Manhattan Project, 1942-45. Even then, at a stage when the bomb had not even been developed, the US was consciously following a policy of non-proliferation. Notwithstanding the participation of a number of scientists and engineers from different countries, especially France, UK and Canada, USA held control of the Project. General Leslie Groves who supervised it made a conscious attempt to seal off important areas of research and development from the foreign scientists.3 Therefore , at close of the war, USA was the only country equipped with technological information and working expertise on the construction of the bomb.

An opinion dominant among US policy makers in the latter part of the 1940s considered information on the bomb to be American property and stressed the political advantage of "keeping now and for all time in the future all scientific and technological information," especially for strengthening American bargaining position vis-a-vis USSR.4 Perhaps it was the prevalence of this group that is partly to be blamed for the failure of efforts to bring nuclear energy and the spread of nuclear weapons under international control right in the very beginning. The Baruch Plan put forward by USA in 1940 had called for the institution of an International Atomic Development Authority, to take over the ownership and control of all sensitive nuclear material and facilities as also the monitoring of the less sensitive nuclear research activities. Once the system was in place, the US promised to destroy all existing nuclear weapons. But, the propect of a US monopoly until the global system was created was not acceptable to USSR which was itself engaged in an effort to build its own nuclear arsenal. So, USSR proposed a reversal of the sequence of events proposed by the Baruch Plan asserting that the destruction of weapons must precede international control.

Faced by this impasse, the specially constituted United Nations Atomic Energy Commission struggled to reconcile differing viewpoints on how to control the spread of nuclear weapons. That it failed miserably became evident in 1950 when it was dissolved without having evolved a consensus report. Initiatives at nuclear disarmament did not succeed because of lack of mutual confidence between the two major power blocs at the time of the Cold War. One side did not wish to give up the advantage it enjoyed in nuclear weaponry while the other was determined not to be left behind. Therefore, despite occasional talks, the nuclear arms race only accelerated. USSR had already detonated a nuclear device in 1949. UK followed in 1952, France crossed the threshold in 1960 and China in 1964.

In the light of the above developments, some practical and less ambitious milestones on the road to disarmament were attempted. Within this ambit, the Antarctic Treaty was concluded in 1959, the Partial Test Ban Treaty in 1963, the Outer Space Treaty in 1967 and the Sea-bed Treaty in 1972. However, these were not measures of disarmament proper but preventive steps since they sought to avert the spread of nuclear weapons to areas where they did not previously exist. A major step towards nuclear non-proliferation and eventual nuclear disarmament was deemed to have been taken when the NPT was concluded in the late 1960s.

NPT and Nuclear Non-Proliferation

The NPT entered into force in 1970. The intent of the treaty was twofold : firstly , to codify norms against the spread of nuclear weapons i.e. to ensure nuclear non-proliferation beyond the five already established nuclear states; and secondly, to commit the declared five weapon states (NWS) to end their nuclear arms race and to endeavour to achieve nuclear disarmament. Essentially therefore, the long range vision of the treaty was a nuclear-weapons-free world to be achieved by preventing new states from going nuclear and by making the NWS give up their nuclear arsenals.4

In pursuit of its first objective of restricting the nuclear capable states at five, the NPT identified three major issues and accordingly, included in its provisions the specific means of getting around them. Articles I and II of the NPT sought to address the problem of nuclear proliferation by preventing the potential transfer of nuclear weapons or related technology from NWS to a non-nuclear weapon state (NNWS). To this effect, the NWS undertook a pledge not to negotiate such a transfer and to maintain their nuclear weapons under their direct physical control. Meanwhile the NNWS too committed not to accept, receive or manufacture any nuclear weapons.

Secondly, in order to ward off the fear that worldwide rapid expansion of civil nuclear power programmes would not lead to the generation of special materials for nuclear explosives, Article III sought to construct appropriate political and technical barriers. It established safeguards on the use of civil nuclear industries for non-peaceful purposes. The implementation of safeguards was envisaged through inspections and monitoring of nuclear materials and facilities by a special international agency, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Over the years, safeguards have become the mainstay of the global nuclear non-proliferation regime.

A third major issue that the NPT sought to address concerned the fears of the NNWS that they would be economically disadvantaged by the limitations on their access to nuclear technology for its civil and peaceful applications. In this regard, Article IV assured the right of all nations to access benefits of nuclear energy. Article V further vouchsafed the rights of all to use peaceful nuclear explosions (PNEs)"under appropriate observation and procedures."5

It is thus obvious that the issue of non-proliferation was devoted the larger share of NPT provisions and practically all through the nearly 30 years of its existence it has attempted to attract more and more nations, irrespective of their interest in nuclear energy, into the non-proliferation fold. Whether by doing so it has been able to promote nuclear non-proliferation remains a debatable issue considering the facts that the majority of its members are any way non-nuclear, the NWS have not put an end to vertical proliferation of their nuclear weapons, neither has the NPT been able to halt transfer of nuclear weapons technology between two willing nations and nor has it inhibited a party state from going nuclear if it so desired.

Nevertheless it must be conceded that as far as nuclear non-proliferation is concerned, the NPT has at least contributed to the creation of a general consensus on the issue. It has been central in formulating and perpetuating a negative view towards nuclear weapons and thereby establishing a norm against nuclear non-proliferation. At the same time it might not be inapt to state that this has largely been enabled by the fact that non-proliferation, especially in the horizontal mode in which it has been pursued, was an issue to be applied to NNWS. The NPT can claim to have achieved much less, if any , success on its provision relating to nuclear disarmament primarily because it concerned NWS.

NPT and Nuclear Disarmament

As regards the promotion of nuclear disarmament , the second and what was deemed to be the final and ultimate objective of the NPT, its Article VI committed all parties to "pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures" to end the nuclear arms race. Even the preamble of the treaty expressed the desire to "facilitate the cessation of the manufacture of nuclear weapons, liquidation of all their existing stockpiles, and the elimination of national arsenals of nuclear weapons and the means of their delivery." In fact, the NPT, was never intended to be a license for the indefinite perpetuation of a two-tier world of nuclear haves and have-nots. It embodied a bargain between the NWS and NNWS. While the latter committed not to acquire nuclear weapons, the former were expected to negotiate and attain general and complete nuclear disarmament.

Unfortunately, steps taken by NWS on the road to nuclear disarmament have been small and sporadic. All through the 1970s and uptil the mid-1980s, the East-West arms race was intense. Nuclear arsenals continued to grow quantitatively and qualitatively. Concessions began to be made towards nuclear disarmament through negotiation of some arms control agreements only in the second half of the 1980s. The Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty was signed in 1987 and thereafter the two negotiated to conclude START I in 1991. More announcements of arms cuts have followed from USA and Russia but it must be mentioned that inspite of START II, USA and Russia would still retain some 20,000 nuclear warheads during the first decade of the new century.6 Meanwhile, the three other NWS, UK, France and China have unveiled no concrete plans of reducing their arsenals . Neither has any of the five NWS renounced their plans to modernise and improve the existing weapons.

Another small step that has been hyped as a giant leap towards nuclear disarmament was the recent conclusion of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). Its purported objective is to put an end to nuclear testing for new weapons. Despite this, however, USA has continued with its sub-critical underground explosions and computer simulation tests meant for weapons refinement. It is an established fact that US and Russian military nuclear scientists have not stopped working on newer types of nuclear warheads.7 Therefore, even the CTBT has left NWS free to "modernize" their weapons and has not really pushed the world any closer to nuclear disarmament.

Measures taken uptil now towards disarmament have essentially been those of arms control. Nuclear disarmament, meanwhile, presupposes a complete absence of nuclear arms from the world. While it cannot be denied that having reached the state of nuclear armament in which we reside today, general and complete disarmament is impossible to achieve through just one stroke, yet complacency derived from mere arms control should be unacceptable.

Vindication of the Indian Stand

Right from the very beginning, India has considered the NPT to be a flawed document that was not equipped with the requisite capability to accomplish its objectives. Indian Ambassador to the UN, Azim Hussein, while speaking before the 1567th meeting of the First Committee of the United Nations in 1968 had listed several shortcomings in the NPT and predicated India's non-acceptance of the treaty on them. These included criticisms that the treaty did not ensure true non-proliferation because it emphasised only horizontal and not vertical non-proliferation; it did not do away with the special status of superiority associated with nuclear weapons; it did not provide for a balance of obligations and responsibilities between the NWS and the NNWS; it did not outline any step-by-step approach towards nuclear disarmament and nor did it create a juridical obligation in regard to the cessation of the arms race; and, it was discriminatory in regard to the safeguards and controls which were imposed only on NNWS.8

Unrestrained vertical nuclear proliferation and the lack of progress on nuclear disarmament over the last 30 years vindicate the Indian stand. Three decades later it is still more evident that each one of the criticisms then articulated was well founded. Under the NPT provisions, the NWS never accepted too many obligations—these were reserved only for the NNWS. The only major commitment that they had to undertake was towards nuclear disarmament and that too was loosely and ambiguously worded to allow the weapon powers enough leeway to continue the stockpiling and refining of their nuclear weapons. On the other hand, horizontal non-proliferation was devoted maximum attention and it was advertised as a means of securing eventual nuclear disarmament.

The situation as it is obtained today, however, exposes the fallacy of pursuing such a lopsided approach to nuclear disarmament. The threat of nuclear proliferation stems as much today from a new nation going nuclear as from the NWS continuing their weapons related activity. In fact, it is this continuance of vertical proliferation that could trigger horizontal proliferation. Consequently, India has always upheld the immediate and urgent need for general and complete disarmament. In this context, one can point towards the remarkable maturity exhibited by the country in abstaining from developing nuclear weapons despite having tested a nuclear device more than two decades ago. While remaining out of the NPT, it has attempted to highlight the inadequacy of promoting only nuclear non-proliferation in the absence of a concurrent and serious move towards nuclear disarmament.

Imperatives of Nuclear Disarmament

The importance of nuclear disarmament cannot be under- estimated. It is a goal that is even more imperative to be achieved now than ever before. Despite the fact that the global scenario has changed with the end of the Cold War to the extent that bipolar confrontation has ended and accordingly, the possibility of nuclear weapons being used deliberately in a global war has lessened, but the threat of the same weapons being used either by accident or through a miscalculation has increased. This may be attributed to the complexity of command,control, and communications today coupled with the speed with which nuclear weapons can be delivered. Moreover, the present international security system is characterised by ethnic conflicts, violence in the wake of fallen empires or fragmenting states, economic scarcity etc. In such conditions an inadvertant use of nuclear weapons cannot be ruled out.

The above possibility is further heightened by the risk of illegal trade in nuclear fissile material. Arms limitation and control efforts have led to the dismantling of several 100s of nuclear warheads which are prone to theft or diversion. That these fears are not unfounded is proved by the fact that attempts to smuggle radioactive material from Eastern Europe more than doubled from 1993 to 1994 from 56 cases to 124 cases.9 Of these, 77 involved weapons grade material. In December 1994, the Czech government had seized 2.72 kg of uranium enriched to as high as 87.5 per cent. German authorities too have unearthed similar cases of smuggling.10 Presently, the nearly 500 metric tonnes of highly enriched uranium (HEU) that has been recovered from dismantled weapons is lying in Russia. It is awaiting an agreement with USA whereunder it would be converted to low enriched uranium before being shipped to the US.11 However, while the details of the agreement are being negotiated, the HEU faces the danger of being stolen or diverted for non-peaceful purposes.

Modern international system is witnessing a technology push in which more technology is available from a greater number of suppliers. The collapse of the centralized Soviet control and the turmoil in Eastern Europe have increased the opportunity for states or groups to acquire nuclear technology, weapons, components and expertise. This alarming trend is already making itself visible in cases where some Russian scientists have been found to be "moonlighting by modem" in order to supplement their meagre salaries. Another scientist has been reported to be communicating with Pakistani personnel on rocket technology.12 Given such an emerging scenario, import-export restrictions on technologies are bound to become less important over time. Even the International Fuel Cycle Evaluation (INFCE) had predicted in the late 1970s that technological constraints would have outlived their role by the end of the century. In the wake of these developments, unless nuclear disarmament is established as a universally acceptable norm, possession of nuclear weapons by other than the existing five nuclear states may not be avoidable.

In fact, the continued presence of nuclear weapons with NWS enhances the risk of nuclear proliferation. NWS have justified their nuclear arsenals on the basis of certain unique security advantages that they offer. However, similar or other considerations ranging from enhancement of national status and prestige to promotion of scientific and technological development etc. cannot be ruled out as triggering a chain of nuclear proliferation. Such a likelihood is further reinforced by the emergence of new sources of conflict including, regional, ethnic, religious, nationalist etc.

Therefore, as long as the NWS keep their nuclear arsenals, there would always exist the possibility of any NNWS invoking these same motivations, or some of them, to go nuclear. With time, the technical and economic obstacles to nuclear weapon production are decreasing. Consequently, it will require only a strong political will by NNWS to continue to abstain from these weapons. If NWS do not hasten efforts towards nuclear disarmament, this abstinence could slowly diminish.

In fact, this possibility could be aided by the likelihood of an increase in Third World dependence on commercial nuclear power. Prompted by a global trend away from fossil fuels, it is likely that demands by developing countries for increased access to commercial nuclear power will surge. This would lead to scientific and technological sophistication of infrastructures that could be used to transform a civilian nuclear programme into a military oriented one. This does not mean that the operation of a commercial nuclear reactor automatically gives a state the capability to construct a weapon. In fact, INFCE had concluded that fuel cycle facilities are not the most efficient route to acquire materials for the manufacture of weapons. However, a state with even a small nuclear industry and a research component will have a reserve of knowledge which could be used for military purposes. Also, the spread of nuclear power would be accompanied by the gradual spread of sensitive technologies bringing fissionable material within the hold of more nations. Even if IAEA safeguards are applied, clandestine diversion cannot be ruled out as demonstrated by the cases of Iraq and North Korea. Therefore, to root out the very temptation of any country wishing to go nuclear it is imperative that global nuclear disarmament is accepted as an unimpeachable norm.

Fortunately, the contemporary climate is suitable for forging ahead towards nuclear disarmament. Nuclear weapons are today considered less credible even for limited security purposes. Given their high destructive potential that cannot be restricted in time and space, military utility of these arms is considered to be limited against a comparably equipped opponent. On the other hand, their use against a NNWS is deemed "politically and morally indefensible". Owing to the above limitations, nuclear weapons were found unsuitable for use even when powers possessing them suffered setbacks as in the case of Korea or when faced defeat as in Vietnam and Afghanistan. In fact, after 52 years in which no NWS has made use of its nuclear arsenal, the world has a strong "tradition of their non-use" that must be capitalized upon.13

In November 1995, the Australian government established an independent Commission to propose practical steps towards a nuclear weapon free world and the related problem of maintaining stability and security during the transitional period and after this goal is achieved. Stating that "nuclear weapons pose an intolerable threat to all humanity and its habitat" this group comprising of experts from all over the world, called for their elimination through a "series of phased verified reductions."14 The Commission also laid down a step-by-step guide to nuclear disarmament though it shied away from specifying a timeframe for the process.

To further reinforce the argument in favour of nuclear disarmament, the International Court of Justice, in response to a request from the UN General Assembly in July 1996 pronounced the use of nuclear weapons as unlawful and against the principles and rules of humanitarian law. In an international comity of law abiding nations, this judgement contributes to creating an environment in which nuclear weapons are considered abhorrent and to be abolished. Notwithstanding the fact that the judgement is not binding and neither does it enjoin any punitive action against violators, yet it does vindicate the stand of NNWS, and particularly that of India to further reinforce the imperative of disarmament upon the NWS.

Another heartening trend is the emergence of a growing body of opinion in the US that is beginning to give a serious thought to nuclear abolition, in place of the earlier prevalent tendency to wave away nuclear disarmament as an impractical and impossible goal. For instance, recognising the changed international climate, Barry Blechman and Cathleen Fisher of the Henry L Stimson Centre have argued that the character of international relations is "undergoing an irreversible transformation that will ultimately invalidate rationales for weapons of mass destruction."15 Yet another prominent and celebrated advocate of nuclear abolitionism is General Lee Butler, a veteran of nuclear policy who headed the US Strategic Command until 1994. He has based his argument in favour of nuclear disarmament on a moral imperative: "Accepting nuclear weapons as the ultimate arbiter of conflict condemns the world to live under a dark cloud of perpetual anxiety."16 Notwithstanding that there are other influential American policy makers who still uphold the efficacy of nuclear weapons, yet the very presence of such advocates of nuclear disarmament creates an environment that could be exploited.


It cannot be denied that nuclear non-proliferation does contribute to nuclear disarmament. The requirements of a multi-nuclear world with respect to command, control, communications and intelligence would be awesome. Stability would definitely suffer as a result of the heightened risks of accidental nuclear war, unauthorised use of nuclear weapons or a nuclear war triggered by third parties. Naturally therefore, an environment where proliferation is under control would facilitate the process of disarmament. But the point to be emphasised is that non-proliferation is not disarmament. As long as even one state has nuclear weapons, it provides the logic, rationale and incentive to others to acquire them.

Over the last almost 30 years in which NPT established the global non-proliferation regime, emphasis lay in applying pressure on states to join the treaty. Bringing them into the non-proliferation regime through the acceptance of internationally verifiable non-proliferation obligations was deemed an essential step towards disarmament. This strategy proved effective to the extent that today the NPT has nearly 180 states within its fold. But then, a majority of these states anyway do not possess nuclear weapons. On the other hand, the actual proliferators, the NWS have gone about their task unchecked and unhindered. In order to rectify this situation, the emphasis must now shift to disarming not the disarmed, but those that are not renouncing their nuclear arsenals. The focus has to shift.

In this context, one could quote the proposal of Frank Blackaby outlined in his article "Time for a Peasants' Revolt". He has called for a coming together of the NNWS of the NPT to issue a warning to the NWS that by not committing themselves to a time-bound disarmament plan, they are in violation of the treaty and if measures are not taken to rectify this within two years they would withdraw en masse from the NPT.17 The idea is worth a thought if it could push the NWS towards a concrete disarmament plan.

In conclusion, it may be reiterated that the risk of nuclear war stems not only from the possibility that additional states could acquire nuclear weapons. It stems as much, if not more, from the efforts of the five NWS to develop ever more sophisticated defensive and offensive weapons. Nuclear disarmament by NWS must, therefore, be the logical complement to non-proliferation pledges and behavioural applications of the NNWS. The future of mankind cannot be made hostage to the perceived security of a mere handful of states. Neither should it be acceptable to indefinitely establish a world divided into the nuclear haves and the have-nots. An international system devoid of nuclear disarmament carries within it the possibility of nuclear weapon proliferation and hence would be nurturing the seed of its own destruction.



1. Frank G Dawson, Nuclear Power: Development and Management of a Technology (Seattle and London, 1976), p. 12.

2. Nuclear Weapons: Report of the Secretary General of the UN (Mass., USA: Autumn Press, Inc., 1980), p. 180

3. Leslie R Groves, Now It Can Be Told: The Story of the Manhattan Project (New York, 1962).

4. Dawson, n. 1, p. 16.

5. At the time, it was widely believed that PNEs could be beneficially employed for earth excavation to reach underground oil and mineral reserves.

6. Frank Blackaby, "Time for a Peasants' Revolt," Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Nov/Dec 1997, p. 4.

7. William Arkin,"What's "New" ?" Ibid., pp. 22-27.

8. As quoted in Nuclear Proliferation Problems (Stockholm: SIPRI, MIT Press, 1974), pp. 259-260.

9. Philip L Ritcheson." Proliferation: Scope , Prospects and Implications," Naval War College Review, vol. L, no. 3, p. 51.

10. John F. Sopko, "The Changing Proliferation Threat," Foreign Policy, Winter 1996-97, pp. 4-5.

11. Francisco Calogero, "Fast-track the Uranium Deal," Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, November/December 1997, p. 20.

12. Alan Cooperman and Kyrill Belianinov, "Moonlighting by Modem in Russia", US News and World Report, April 17, 1995, pp. 45 and 48.

13. McGeorge Bundy, William J Crowe, Jr., and Sidney D Drell, Reducing Nuclear Danger (New York: Council on Foreign Relations, 1993).

14. Report of the Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons, Internet, Canberra Commission Home Page, http://www. ddfat. gov. au/dfat/cc/cchome.

15. Barry Blechman and Cathleen Fisher, "Phase Out the Bomb", Foreign Policy, Winter 1994-95.

16. Robert A Manning, "The Nuclear Age: The Next Chapter", Foreign Policy, Winter 1997-98.

17. Blackaby, n. 6, pp. 4-5.