Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty 40 years on

This week saw the fortieth anniversary of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

One thing that has often perplexed me is how much the public anxiety about the proliferation of nuclear and other armaments has diminished over the last twenty years. The end of the Cold War could explain some of it, but given the repeated references by various political leaders to the threat of terrorism, a ‘War on Terror’, rogue states, weapons of mass destruction and the like, plus the fact that the Doomsday Clock is now back at five minutes to midnight, one could reasonably expect greater public pressure for action to increase disarmament. Yet on the whole community concern remains relatively muted.

Some argue it is more important to put energy into reducing arms proliferation in general. According to Worldwatch, “more than 500 million military style hand-held weapons exist now- enough to arm every 12th human on earth – and millions more are produced each year.” Personally, I think there needs to be far more effort put in on all fronts.

Kevin Rudd’s proposal for an international commission on nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament has to be welcomed as offering potential, although as I wrote in Online Opinion, I’m not yet convinced that he is going to give it the necessary political and diplomatic priority.  The answer I got to a question I asked in the Senate about the proposed commission shows the whole thing is all still very much at the preliminary stage.

But scepticism about the depth of the government’s commitment shouldn’t divert attention from the importance of the stated goal and the need for everyone to put more energy behind that goal.  There is a real potential that a significant shift in approach may soon occur in the USA. The Centre for Arms Control and Non-proliferation has produced this side by side comparison of Barack Obama and John McCain’s views on nuclear weapons and other related security issues. This piece in The New Republic highlights both the limitations of the ‘good guys versus bad guys’ approach to international engagement and the historical apprehension of US conservatives to the NPT.

For a bit more background, this piece from Foreign Policy in Focus by Masako Toki, a researcher at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies in California, is also worth reading. As it notes,

One of the most prominent developments in the area of nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament is the initiative of four former high-ranking U.S. officials – George Shultz, William Perry, Henry Kissinger, and Sam Nunn – to establish a world free of nuclear weapons.

It gives significance to Kevin Rudd’s proposal, but also emphasise the need for the major powers to support new energy being put towards disarmament, and “more assertive stances from non-nuclear powers like Japan.”

Given the Rudd proposal, the initiatives of Shultz and company, and growing support for these efforts, the world stands at a rare and extraordinary moment of opportunity to pursue nuclear disarmament. But the major nuclear powers need to take the first steps.

Importantly, it also recognises the essential role that civil society must play in these efforts. Which gets me back to the point I raised at the start – increased, continuing and widespread public pressure on this crucial issue is vital if we are to have much chance of making genuine progress.

Here are links to some other pieces on the NPT anniversary:

  • The Free Government Information site reports that the National Security Archive has published a briefing book, “The Impulse towards a Safer World”, which is “a thorough and intriguing history of one of the most significant multilateral arms control achievements of the nuclear age”
  • Various info from the Abolition 2000 network.
  • report from AFP emphasises both the success of the NPT and the urgent need for it be overhauled or updated.
  • report from The Age gives emphasis to the Bush Administration reputedly being miffed at not being consulted about Kevin Rudd’s proposal.
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  1. Andrew Bartlett, you said ….

    ” “….the public anxiety about the proliferation of nuclear and other armaments has diminished over the last twenty years.” ”

    Not this little bit of the public.

    It would be nice if all nuclear weapons vanished overnight; not much chance of that happening just yet though.

    The Pope threatened to excommunicate any Christian guilty of using a cross-bow. That didn’t work. The European colonial powers had a genleman’s agreement not to arm the native peoples with the latest weapons. That agreement lasted long enough for the British to send state-of-the-art Made-In-Germany weapons captured from the Boers across the border to arm the Hottentot rebels in German South West Africa. Then there was the Washington Treaty after the First World War. That didn’t work either.

    The sad litany of breaches of agreements between nations on limiting arms goes on and on.

    It has been wonderful living in a world where no nuclear bombs have been used against cities for 63 years. I hope that situation continues …. but the prospect of that happy situation continuing is pretty gloomy.

    Gloomy or not, each of us, in our own way, has to keep trying to delay the third nuclear attack on a city. We cannot afford to just give up and wait for such an attack.

  2. I went to see a movie called “Iron Man”. At the beginning of the movie, the main character said the best way to prevent an invasion was to have a bigger stick than anyone else.

    Then when he found out the weapons his company manufactured were being used by “the enemy” in Afghanistan, he changed his mind and did something about it.

    But getting down to the bottom line, if you don’t have an army with state-of-the-art weapons and plenty of allies, another country will come, blow you away and take over.

    Even allies can turn on you or use you for their own purposes.

    Human nature is not to be trusted, especially when you live in one of the best places on Earth.

    I don’t think this is the first time Kevin Rudd has got up George Bush’s nose. Bush became too used to John Howard licking his boots and agreeing to almost anything. He must have saved a lot of money on shoe polish.

    Prominent Americans may want a world free of nuclear weapons, but I’m sure they will keep some themselves, while making demands of others. After all, it was the USA that used them previously.

  3. Getting rid of Nukes that are in the hands of some very boring and dominant types….means almost an willingness to accept these boring and dominant types.Who in their right mind would have the energy to find some how to convince these boring dominant types to give up what excites them about their insistences!? Could anyone convince Rumsfeld to give the money he got from selling technology to the North Koreans back to the already stretched U.S.A. taxpayer!? Hardly likely! What about Cheney and the Iranians.!?

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