At the G8 summit in L’Aquila, Italy, earlier this month, President Obama stated that the leaders of the G8 nations embraced the strategy he outlined in Prague in April to strengthen the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). But the NPT itself is problematic. As such, it may no longer be a useful instrument for encouraging nonproliferation.
Article II of the NPT states that "each non-nuclear-weapon state party to the treaty undertakes … not to manufacture or otherwise acquire nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices." Article VI of the NPT states that "each of the parties to the treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament." In other words, non-nuclear countries agree never to acquire nuclear weapons in exchange for the promise that the nuclear powers will disarm. But this is essentially a false promise (I’m old enough to remember Popeye cartoons and Wimpy’s refrain of "I’ll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today") – certainly not one the United States would agree to if it were not a nuclear power. So although President Obama believes "the basic bargain is sound," these two articles reduce the NPT to mostly wishful thinking.
Moreover, the notion of nuclear disarmament – while great political theater – is largely utopian. The reality is that, for better or for worse, nuclear weapons cannot be uninvented. And the president’s vision of "a world without nuclear weapons" is a quixotic quest. Assuming disarmament could be achieved, how would it be enforced? The president acknowledges that "some countries will break the rules" and then claims "we need a structure in place that ensures when any nation does, they will face consequences." But what consequences? If no country had nuclear weapons, what ability would any country have to force another country that acquired nuclear weapons to give them up?
Indeed, there would be tremendous incentives to cheat in a disarmed world, because a nuclear-armed power would possess a significant strategic advantage over its unarmed adversaries. And the current nuclear powers have every reason to remain so for sovereign national security reasons – besides geography, one of the compelling reasons why the United States does not have to worry so much about a foreign invasion or direct military attack is because the U.S. strategic arsenal is a powerful deterrent. Even President Obama recognizes this reality: "As long as these [nuclear] weapons exist, the United States will maintain a safe, secure, and effective arsenal to deter any adversary."
Article IV of the NPT states that "nothing in this treaty shall be interpreted as affecting the inalienable right of all the parties to the treaty to develop research, production, and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes." However, the treaty does not explicitly prohibit uranium enrichment as part of a peaceful nuclear energy program. The problem is that the same technology used to produce low-enriched uranium for nuclear power plants can also produce highly enriched uranium for nuclear weapons. This is a loophole that Iran appears to be exploiting in its quest to become a nuclear power. As a way to close this loophole, the president proposes to "build a new framework for civil nuclear cooperation, including an international fuel bank, so that countries can access peaceful power without increasing the risks of proliferation." But since the Obama administration’s policy is to seek energy independence from foreign oil, why would Obama believe other countries would be willing to be dependent on a fuel bank (presumably heavily influenced, if not controlled, by the United States) for their nuclear energy needs?
Article X of the NPT states that "each party shall in exercising its national sovereignty have the right to withdraw from the treaty if it decides that extraordinary events, related to the subject matter of this treaty, have jeopardized the supreme interests of its country." So a country can be a party to the NPT but decide that abiding by the treaty is no longer in its best interests and withdraw, which is exactly what North Korea chose to do in January 2003, claiming, "A dangerous situation where our nation’s sovereignty and our state’s security are being seriously violated is prevailing on the Korean Peninsula due to the U.S. vicious hostile policy towards the DPRK." Given that North Korea had been named a member of the axis of evil a year earlier and the United States was on the verge of invading Iraq (a non-nuclear power), it’s perfectly understandable that the regime in Pyongyang might believe it was in the DPRK’s "supreme interests" to no longer formally agree to be a nonnuclear power, i.e., a pushover for regime change. (And it’s worth noting that the United States made much the same decision when it chose to withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in July 2002.)
The NPT is not a universal treaty. There are 193 countries in the world, but not all of them are signatories to the NPT. The result is the so-called "D3 problem," or the de facto nuclear states: India, Pakistan, and Israel. These countries were never part of the NPT regime and were thus able to develop nuclear weapons, because they are under no obligation to abide by the NPT. And it’s not lost on the rest of the world – particularly the Muslim world – that the United States doesn’t hold Israel to the same standard as Iran. Indeed, like previous presidents, Obama refuses to even acknowledge that Israel is a nuclear power. (This should come as no big surprise, since it mirrors the double-standard U.S. policy that calls for the Palestinians to renounce violence but falls short of saying the Israelis should abandon illegal settlements.)
Finally, the NPT does not exist in a vacuum. It’s impossible to ignore U.S. foreign policy, particularly a proclivity for military intervention supported by Democrats and Republicans alike. Since the end of the Cold War marked by the opening of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the United States has engaged in nine major military operations, but only one of those – Operation Enduring Freedom – was unambiguously in response to a direct threat to the United States. This is a powerful incentive for countries such as Iran and North Korea to acquire nuclear weapons as the only reliable deterrent against U.S. invasion. As long as the United States continues to have an interventionist foreign policy (and the Obama administration has not overseen a sea change in U.S. foreign policy), it will be next to impossible to prevent proliferation.