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Nuclear Disarmament is the Key to Success


The Non-Proliferation Treaty, which entered into force in 1970, is the centerpiece of international efforts to control the spread of nuclear weapons. Perhaps the treaty was given the wrong name when it was created because the treaty is about nuclear disarmament as well as non-proliferation. At the heart of the treaty is a deal between those states that possess nuclear weapons and those that do not. The deal, simply put, is that the nuclear weapons states agree to the complete disarmament of their nuclear arsenals, while the non-nuclear weapon states agree not to acquire nuclear weapons. This agreement, or bargain, between the parties to the treaty, setting forth the course of action each will pursue with regard to nuclear weapons, is the most important aspect of the treaty. It is, however, the least understood, particularly by American citizens.

The sad fact is that from the inception of the treaty the nuclear weapon states have shown scant inclination to fulfill their part of the bargain. As recently as the year 2000, the nuclear weapon states agreed to 13 practical steps to achieve nuclear disarmament. Their record is an almost perfect failure, not because they tried and failed but because they lacked the political will to even seriously try. Without a serious effort by the nuclear weapon states to achieve nuclear disarmament, the treaty appears to enshrine double standards that give special privileges to the nuclear weapon states. In fact, it is not the treaty that promotes double standards, but the nuclear weapon states themselves.

A year ago the United States initiated a preventive war against Iraq based on the claim that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction or programs to create them, including nuclear weapons programs. Setting aside the now doubtful veracity of the claims, the US-led war underlines the double standards in the non-proliferation regime. By contrast, the US remained silent about the proliferation activities of its ally in the “war on terror,” Pakistan. When it was revealed that Pakistani scientist A. Q. Khan was selling nuclear secrets to Iran, North Korea and Libya, and was pardoned by the Pakistani government after he admitted these serious transgressions, the US had little to say. Similarly, the US has never publicly raised the issue of the known proliferation of nuclear weapons to Israel. All of this points to double standards that are inconsistent with the terms of the Non-Proliferation Treaty and with effective attempts to control the spread of nuclear weapons.

In a February 2004 speech at the National Defense University, George Bush addressed the threat of nuclear proliferation. “The greatest threat before humanity today,” he said, “is the possibility of secret and sudden attack with chemical or biological or radiological or nuclear weapons.” Among the seven proposals put forward by Mr. Bush was one calling for the 40 nations of the Nuclear Suppliers Group to “refuse to sell enrichment and reprocessing equipment and technologies to any state that does not already possess full-scale, functioning enrichment and reprocessing plants.” That this proposal met with a round of applause suggests how little his audience, and Americans in general, are attuned to issues of double standards.

We commend Mr. Bush for calling on all countries “to strengthen the laws and international controls that govern proliferation,” including criminalizing proliferation. Mr. Bush is right in seeking to stop proliferation of nuclear weapons. He is wrong in thinking that it can be done based on an international system of double standards that favor some nations over others. Nuclear weapons anywhere are a threat to people everywhere. As Mohamed Elbaradei, the Director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, warned in a speech on the day following Mr. Bush’s speech, “If the world does not change course, we risk self-destruction.”

Elbaradei called for tightening and universalizing controls over the export of nuclear materials, empowering the international inspectors, preventing withdrawal from the Non-Proliferation Treaty, bringing sensitive parts of the nuclear fuel cycle under international control, initiating long overdue negotiations on a fissile material cut-off treaty and having the nuclear weapon states move forward on nuclear disarmament. Elbaradei called nuclear disarmament a “fundamental part of the nonproliferation bargain.”

“We must abandon the unworkable notion,” Elbaradei said, “that it is morally reprehensible for some countries to pursue weapons of mass destruction yet morally acceptable for others to rely on them for security, and indeed to continue to refine their capacities and postulate plans for their use.” Certainly he must have had in mind programs, such as “mini-nukes” and “bunker-busting” nuclear weapons being pursued by the US administration, when he made this statement.

Moving Forward

ElBaradei’s proposals are useful and necessary, as are those of Mr. Bush that do not enshrine double standards, but they are not sufficient to stop nuclear proliferation. A more comprehensive and urgent program is needed to achieve this critical goal because the consequences of failure are so drastic. The type of serious program that must be implemented if we are to prevent further nuclear proliferation with all its attendant threats is set forth below.

1. Universal application of the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

The treaty cannot be effective unless it is applicable to all states in the world without exception. Currently, India, Pakistan and Israel are not parties to the treaty and possess nuclear weapons. North Korea has withdrawn from the treaty and claims to possess nuclear weapons. These states must be brought into the treaty, and made accountable for controlling their nuclear weapons and materials under international safeguards. For the treaty to succeed these states, along with the other nuclear weapons states, must also become subject to transparent and verifiable nuclear disarmament.

2. Set a timetable and clear objectives in achieving nuclear disarmament.

The Non-Proliferation Treaty has been in effect for more than three decades without substantial progress on the nuclear disarmament provisions of the treaty’s bargain. The only way to assure that the nuclear weapons states achieve their obligations in a timely way is to set a strict timetable for achieving significant markers on the road to complete nuclear disarmament.

3. Establish a global inventory of nuclear weapons and materials.

In order to control nuclear weapons and materials, it is necessary to ascertain accurately what exists. All states without exception must be subject to reporting requirements and international inspections in creating this inventory.

4. Place all nuclear weapons and materials under international safeguards. Currently there are double standards in which the civilian and nuclear weapons programs of the nuclear weapons states are not subject to IAEA inspections and safeguarding. These double standards must end and all nuclear materials and weapons in all countries must be accounted for and placed under international safeguards.

5. Cease all efforts to “improve” nuclear capabilities.

Currently the US and other nuclear weapon states are seeking to develop new and more usable nuclear weapons. This is another example of double standards under the Non-Proliferation Treaty that must be ended.

6. Criminalize both horizontal and vertical proliferation of nuclear weapons.

All efforts to accomplish nuclear proliferation, whether by transfer of weapons or materials or by improving and expanding existing nuclear arsenals, should be criminalized and treated as criminal violations of international law.

7. Provide security assurances to non-nuclear weapon states.

An essential part of the bargain for non-nuclear weapon states forgoing their nuclear option is that they will not be subject to nuclear attack by the existing nuclear weapon states. These assurances must be reaffirmed in unequivocal terms.

8. Commit to a No First Use Policy.

All existing nuclear weapon states should commit to not being first to use nuclear weapons against other nuclear weapon states and to bringing their nuclear policies into line with this commitment.

9. Maintain the current moratorium on nuclear testing.

All states should maintain the current nuclear testing moratorium and ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty if they have not already done so. The US can take the lead by ceasing preparations for resumption of nuclear testing within a shorter timeframe and by closing its Nevada Test Site.

10. Redirect funding from developing and maintaining nuclear weapons to dismantling them and safeguarding nuclear materials.

Funding currently directed to maintaining and improving nuclear arsenals should be redirected to the goal of preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons and materials. International efforts to inspect and safeguard nuclear materials and weapons and to dismantle existing nuclear arsenals require adequate funding to be successful.


Nuclear proliferation cannot be halted without the nuclear weapons states making serious, significant and sustained moves toward nuclear disarmament. This means that nuclear disarmament can no longer be placed on the back burner, while attempting to halt proliferation by force. To prevent proliferation, double standards must end and the nuclear weapon states must engage with determination in fulfilling their long overdue obligations to achieve nuclear disarmament. A world safe from nuclear threat will be a world without nuclear weapons or one moving rapidly in this direction. It will also be one in which all nuclear materials and weapons are under strict and effective international controls. This requires a new way of viewing security, one free of double standards. It is a way made necessary by the need to prevent even a single nuclear weapon or the materials to make one from falling into the hands of non-state extremists who are not subject to being deterred by threat of retaliation.

Albert Einstein said, somewhat enigmatically, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” We can imagine what will happen to our cities, to civilization and to life if we fail to prevent nuclear weapons from proliferating and being used. But can we summon the political will to prevent these imaginable catastrophes caused by the unleashing of nuclear weapons somewhere on earth from destroying our collective future and causing untold sorrow?

DAVID KRIEGER is president of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. He is the co-author of Nuclear Weapons and the World Court.


David Krieger is President of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation ( 

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