With the United States Congress stamp of approval this month on India’s nuclear pursuits, it may behoove world’s leaders to retire the near-defunct Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and start configuring a new regulatory framework. The NPT is on its last breath for two reasons: Firstly, countries like Iran and North Korea, both signatories to the NPT, are no longer incentivized to adhere to the constraints of the NPT since non-signatory India is reaping rewards from US contracts. Critics rightly point out that India is receiving NPT membership benefits without the obligations of enrollment. Secondly, the United States abrogates NPT regulations on uranium imports by supplying India with enriched uranium for both civilian and military needs – the NPT wanted nuclear states to downsize not upgrade.
The treaty, signed in 1970, was designed to cap weapons development and promote disarmament. US efforts to establish nuclear relations with India – politically motivated because it ensures India’s vote on stemming Iran’s nuclear development, economically motivated because relations will be lucrative for US business – substantially undermine the treaty. Claiming India to be the “exception to the rule , experts are scrambling to ensure the NPT’s stronghold on nuclear development. Even Dr Mohamed El Baradei, Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency, attempted to reinforce the treaty’s muscle this year by proposing five new measures: tighten controls, protect materials, support verification, reinvigorate disarmament and strengthen the United Nations Security Council.
But will these measures suffice without US support? Moreover, is the treaty comprehensive enough to prevent further circumvention by existing or aspiring nuclear nations? The answer is a resounding “No to both questions. The NPT rubric merely skims the surface of more complex security issues, those of military, economic, and energy, and fails to adequately provide a framework for the realities of the 21st century. It’s not 1970 anymore.
Backing up a bit, why do countries pursue nuclear capacity? Generally speaking, leaders assume that by going nuclear, they will be protected from neighboring threats, provided with financial incentives important to national economic growth, offered prestige among the few and the proud, and equipped with ample energy to power the grid for a mushrooming populace. Examine the pursuits of India and Iran and these points play out. Both India and Iran allege sticky relations with neighboring countries (Pakistan and Israel, respectively). Both economies need the financial boost offered by nuclear technology. Both governments feel strongly that nuclear weapons afford a political ranking among the global elite. And both nations face a population growth that will require sufficient energy infrastructure to meet demand.
Unfortunately, the NPT falls short of addressing these more salient needs and appears clearly incapable of obfuscating nuclear developments. Therefore, can the global community buttress the NPT with additional strictures that effectively attend to military, economic and energy needs or should it be retired altogether? While answer to the latter question remains uncertain, the former question can and should be answered with a “Yes . Here are some ways of getting to yes:
Firstly, a whole new conceptualization of global security is in order. In 1970, the five original nuclear powers standardized the protocols for geo-political engagement. Now, nearly forty years, there are nine known nuclear nations. This is a problem. In order to discourage the contagious attraction of proliferation, the world needs an alternative framework that does not inspire political ascendancy of a nuclear nature. As long as the United States continues to undermine international treaties like the NPT, “nine will soon become “nineteen or “ninety and NPT-signatories like Iran will find little impetus to adhere to NPT regulations as long as neighboring non-signatories, in Iran’s case, Israel, are permitted access to weapons technology. This inconsistency must be addressed immediately – a conversation the United Nations should facilitate.
Secondly, developing nations must be supplied with alternative means to meet their economic and energy needs. Pursuits for nuclear power – driven by economic and energy agendas -exacerbate tensions with neighboring countries. Understandably, nuclear development is perceived as a threat. Renewable energy sources, however, like solar, wind and hydro power satisfy these two key needs while convincing neighbors that benign intentions are at play. Spurring a successful transition from nonrenewable nuclear to the less-threatening renewable energy requires global support and participation. Survey Iran’s landscape, for example, and one finds vast opportunities for solar and wind power. Recognizing this, Iran recently inaugurated an innovative wind farm partnership program with neighboring Armenia. Actions like these should be encouraged.
Thirdly, the five original nuclear powers must disprove the idea that nuclear energy is “the solution by investing in and positioning renewable energy as politically and economically advantageous. Politically, because acquisition of nuclear energy will only lead to further conflicts over uranium enrichment capacity (i.e. whether or not capacity is at power-ready five percent or weapons-ready eighty-five percent), disposal of nuclear waste and concomitant health concerns. Economically, because renewable energy offers financially lucrative opportunities, something the corporate giants British Petroleum and General Electric have already discovered.
Until these three actions are taken, one can expect the nuclear powers to be followed by forty or fifty nuclear disciples. Long after India and Iran, other disciples will seek admittance to the nuclear club. Egypt has already announced its intentions. Nations like India, Iran and Egypt are struggling with substantive military, economic, and energy needs that cannot be addressed by the NPT alone. Consequently, something more comprehensive is required. Since the NPT is recognizably limited in its capacity to address these security dynamics, it is time to retire it or retool it.
Michael Shank is a PhD student at George Mason University’s Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution.