March 18, 2006Foreign AffairsSecurity

Born with a fatal flaw

The nuclear non-proliferation treaty cannot prevent proliferation in its current form

This is an archived blog post from The Acorn.

It is fashionable among the critics of the India-US nuclear accord to point out that making an exception for India is against the heart of the NPT bargain and constitutes a bomb-sized loophole through the treaty. Under this popular interpretation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the five nuclear powers have an inviolable right to own nuclear weapons while the rest of the countries have to subject their facilities to international safeguards in order to enjoy the civilian benefits of nuclear technology. For not signing up to the scheme of things cooked up by the nuclear powers in the 1960s, India is routinely excoriated by the non-proliferation sorts, some of who have even stooped to Enron-like tactics to prove their point.

The original non-proliferation ayatollah

But digging into a little bit of history will reveal that the NPT actually penalised India for positively engaging the international community on initiatives to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. In the mid-1960s, India played a leading role in securing a UN General Assembly resolution that set the terms of reference for the negotiations that would lead on to the Non-Proliferation Treaty. This resolution called for all states to refrain from proliferation, balance responsibilities between nuclear powers and non-nuclear powers and move towards disarmament. In a way, India was the original non-proliferation ayatollah!

It was the United States and the Soviet Union that were opposed to these terms. At that time the United States was considering setting up a multilateral nuclear force under NATO and was wary of any terms that would stand in its way. Furthermore, none of the nuclear powers liked the idea of mutual’ responsibilities for that would mean inspections of their own nuclear facilities. As for disarmament, it was as dead then as now. So when the ensuing treaty was drafted on terms that suited the United States and the Soviet Union, and not what the UN General Assembly had resolved, India did not sign it.

In fact, in the run up to the NPT negotiations, India had announced that it would be willing to sign a treaty that among others bound the UN to guarantee the security of states threatened by nuclear weapons and called for nuclear powers to commit to a freeze of production and testing of warheads. The United States was not inclined to accomodate these terms then. Ironically, in the wake of the landmark India-US deal, non-proliferation specialists like Robert Einhorn are now asking for India to cap its nuclear arsenal. As Michael Levi puts it, it is indeed easy to swear off more trips to the supermarket once the pantry is full.

China had tested its first nuclear device in 1964. In the mid-1960s, India had calculated that a global freeze on nuclear weapons would prevent China from further developing its nuclear arsenal. But it became clear to India that the NPT would not only do nothing to prevent its its northern neighbour from developing into a full-fledged nuclear power. It would also not provide any security guarantees against nuclear bullying by Maoist China. For all the moralism and the normative positions that it took during negotiations, India’s decision not to sign the NPT was based on realism: the treaty would undermine its security.

Crime and punishment

China on the other hand was neither negotiating with the United States nor tabling resolutions at the United Nations, of which it was not yet a member. It conducted many more tests, concentrated on developing a broad nuclear arsenal and delivery systems and shared the fruits of its nuclear labour with the likes of Pakistan, North Korea and Iran. But since it had conducted its nuclear test before the NPT came into force in 1970, it was rewarded with the status of a legitimate nuclear weapons state in 1992, after it decided that it was no longer beneficial to stay outside the treaty regime. France too held back from signing until 1992. Although some western analysts dispute this, India was already capable of testing a nuclear device in the 1960s. But it didn’t. That was in part due to its (mistaken) belief that the NPT would either lead to disarmament or at the least, accomodate its national security interests. For its labours, it was rewarded with the status of a nuclear pariah, especially after it conducted its first nuclear tests in 1974.

So, contrary to simplistic explanations offered by latter-day editorialists, the NPT itself was a bad bargain, the heart of which an inequality that was a ticking time-bomb for its ultimate failure. The India-US accord may shake-up the NPT; but its failure to prevent proliferation has less to do with this deal than to do with fundamental flaws in the treaty itself.

Next: The future of nuclear non-proliferation

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