Fifty years ago tomorrow, a landmark global agreement came into force which stemmed from the horrors witnessed only a generation previously and sought to protect future generations from the same fate.
The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), a response to the febrile geopolitical climate of the Cold War, has been subject to vociferous criticism ever since, dismissed as a conspiracy to tighten the grip of superpowers, or a talking shop which has failed to make good on its promise of complete nuclear disarmament.
Neither argument is without merit, but as it reaches a landmark anniversary, it would be disingenuous to suggest that the NPT, a cornerstone of international efforts to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons, has not been a success. Only 13 states have ever held nuclear weapons, four of which have since given them up.
But at a time when multilateralism is on the wane, trust in the historic accord is rapidly collapsing, driven in large part by the fact that the two countries with more nuclear weapons than everyone else combined seem intent on playing fast and loose with its founding principles.
This spring will see a customary, five yearly review conference of the treaty, where well-worn ritualistic affirmations should be taken with a pinch of salt. The stark reality is that the NPT – the only permanent, multilateral agreement – is in jeopardy.
The treaty includes no less than 11 articles and its text runs to more than 2,200 words. But its essence can be summarised in a sentence. It is a bargain, designed to ensure the nuclear have-nots do not seek to acquire their own weapons on the condition that the haves eventually give them up. In many ways, reducing the agreement to such a blunt synopsis only highlights its inadequacies, and the shambolic state of nuclear diplomacy has undoubtedly played a part.
The bulwarks that were in place to douse Iran’s nuclear ambitions were dealt a near fatal blow after the US walked out on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in 2018. Things got significantly worse in January after the US drone strike which killed Quasem Soleimani, an attack which prompted the Iranian regime to suspend its final commitment on uranium enrichment.
The UK, France, and Germany have since triggered the faltering deal’s formal dispute resolution mechanism, though any hopes of de-escalation seem increasingly faint. There is a very real prospect that Iran will stockpile increasing amounts of uranium and redouble its efforts to roll out a new generation of centrifuges.
The threat posed by another rogue state, North Korea, is just as serious. A little over 48 hours ago, it fired two unidentified projectiles into its eastern sea, marking the resumption of weapons tests after a months-long hiatus. With ongoing unrest over US sanctions – described by Kim Jong-Un as “gangster-like demands” – it should surprise no one if he makes good on his promise to pursue new nuclear and long-range missile tests.
Yet, perversely, it is not the likes of Tehran or Pyongyang who pose the greatest threat to the continuation of the treaty. Instead, the blame lies largely with the established order, which is failing to keep its side of the bargain, and shows no signs of finding their way back on to the road to disarmament.
Throughout the rest of this year and beyond, the US and Russia will likely spend colossal sums towards the modernisation of their nuclear arsenals. Budget documents prepared by the US Defence Department, for example, detail a staggering £28.9 billion of programmes to overhaul its nuclear capabilities.
Russia, flexing its military and technological muscle, is deploying its first hypersonic nuclear-capable missiles, and has unveiled designs for a new class of nuclear-powered attack submarines.
Not to be outdone, we learned last month that Britain has committed to spending billions of pounds on a new generation of nuclear warheads to replace Trident. The announcement underlined our status as the world’s nuclear cuckold, given it was announced not in parliament, but let slip by Pentagon officials addressing the US Senate defence committee – a happy accident borne of ignorance. Or perhaps it was contempt.
Either way, the sense that the historic treaty is fraying beyond repair is now impossible to avoid. The carefully assembled frameworks which brought order and peace are not simply falling apart due to age. They are being deliberately dismantled.
Last year saw the collapse of the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, and the so-called New Start dealis set to expire next February. President Donald Trump has intimated he has no interest in renewing it.
Whether it is in isolation or in unity, such treaties have proven to be flawed defences – the fact that countries such as India, Pakistan, and Israel have joined the nuclear club is testament to that.
But those cracks and fissures did not obscure the solidity of the whole. The deals have brought much-needed stability to a world that is increasingly anything but.
The wholesale push to modernise atomic arsenals signals the latest, and arguably the gravest threat to the peace such accords have brokered. As things stand, the NPT could soon be the only agreement left. But with its most prominent signatories scuttling it, the future is very much uncertain.