What's in a name? Take what's commonly known as the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). It is a mechanism to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons beyond the five nations—the U.S.; the Soviet Union, now Russia; the U.K.; France; and China—that had them when the agreement was negotiated in the late 1960s.
NPT is also a bargain. The five nuclear powers commit 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 under strict and effective international control."
In return, non-weapon-state parties to NPT must refrain from acquiring nuclear weapons. But they have the right to develop peaceful nuclear technology, as long as they allow their facilities to be inspected. NPT is an essential stepping stone toward a, as yet nonexistent, Treaty for the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons (TENW).
So far, neither side of the NPT bargain has been fulfilled. Last month, North Korea followed the original five nuclear powers and Israel, India, and Pakistan to become the ninth nation to have nuclear weapons.
On the bargain's other side, of the five original nuclear powers, the U.S. and Russia have reduced their ability to annihilate any national foe from, say, 50 times over to 10 times over. The other three have reduced their smaller arsenals. But after what is now close to 40 years, all five are making plans to update their arsenals to last another 40 years.
All nuclear weapons are dangerous, even virtual ones. A nuclear weapons program that did not exist helped start the Iraq war. A charge that Iran has a nuclear weapons program—something it denies—is triggering agitated attention, threats, and saber rattling.
Real and potential proliferation of nuclear weapons are both matters of grave concern. However, they should not be a distraction from the issues raised for policymakers and scientists by the continuing existence of the five initial nuclear arsenals. They still account for 99% of all nuclear weapons.
Conventional NPT thinking puts the focus on the 1%. That's what NTP is about: a holding action while the five original nuclear powers phase out their arsenals. TENW-type thinking puts the onus on all nuclear weapons, including the 99%.
A further complication is the threat of terrorism. It can be argued that the nuclear weapons of one nation deter other nations from using their nuclear weapons. But will they prevent the use of a nuclear weapon by a nonstate entity?
There is concern about information on nuclear weapons technology on the Web, the weapons-related technology that was put on the world market by elements of the Pakistani nuclear weapons establishment, and the possibility that North Korea, already an arms exporter, could also put nuclear weapons technology on the market. And the U.S. is spending billions of dollars to help Russia ensure that its nuclear weapons and fissile materials stay out of terrorist hands.
Non-nuclear-weapon nations can look at the way NPT is working out as five nations declaring, "You can't have nuclear weapons, but we can. And we don't intend to give them up."
This scenario is becoming decreasingly tenable. Witness the four additional nations that have defied the purposes of NPT to build nuclear weapons. On the other hand, witness the global abhorrence of nuclear weapons, the growing number of nuclear weapons free zones around the world, and the nations that have given up either actual nuclear weapons or programs to build them.
Despite the threats, the sanctions, and the huffin' and puffin', a nation that wants a nuclear weapon and has the technical capability to build one can have one unless stopped by war. As North Korea has demonstrated, with persistence, sacrifice, and steely determination, it can be done. One day, if things don't change, it might take only the money to buy one.
The issue for the five initial nuclear powers is: Do they continue to tolerate or rationalize nuclear weapons proliferation in some cases and to resort to violence to stop it in others? Or do they get serious about seeking a comprehensive approach to eliminating all nuclear weapons, including their own, however long it takes?
It is not encouraging when the usually savvy Economist magazine runs a cartoon of North Korean President Kim Jong Il, with his one test, holding the world a nuclear hostage while representatives of three of the world's nuclear powers with 20,000 or more nuclear weapons between them look on in disdainful judgment.
It is not a confidence builder when states with nuclear arsenals scream bloody murder about R&D experiments in low-level uranium enrichment by a nation without nuclear weapons while failing to address meaningfully their own commitment to nuclear disarmament.
Over the years, there have been positive developments. At least, the number of nuclear- armed states has not yet grown to the 25 or so once feared. Nuclear weapons have not been used in anger for 61 years.
However, due to the combination of the we-will-never-give-them-up attitude of the nuclear powers and the perception by other nations that they must ensure their own security by acquiring nuclear weapons, NPT and global security are on increasingly shaky ground.
It is long past the time to get down to fresh thinking and an aggressive, coordinated effort led by the major powers to finally come to grips with the nuclear dilemma. It cannot be resolved by the nonnuclear-weapon powers alone, and it won't go away by itself.
Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.