his year marks the 40th anniversary of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty's coming into force. Despite its central role in shaping the global nuclear order, the NPT's future looks anything but promising.
The main challenges the NPT now faces come from within its regime, not from the non-parties. The nations outside the NPT fold that wanted to go nuclear have done so. And having acquired nuclear weapons, those states are in no position to join a treaty that essentially is rigidly structured and is thus not amendable.
It has been widely forgotten that the NPT originally was intended to prevent countries like Japan, West Germany and Italy from acquiring nuclear weapons. Japan, did not ratify the treaty until 1976 — eight years after the NPT was concluded, and six years after the pact took effect. West Germany and Italy deposited their instruments of ratification only in 1975.
After France conducted its first nuclear test in 1960 in the Sahara, West Germany was considered the most likely candidate to follow suit. West Germany first tried to block the conclusion of the NPT before seeking to influence the outcome of the negotiations.
Over the years, however, the challenges to the NPT have come from outside the list of its original targets. NPT's first test, in fact, came early — in May 1974 when India carried out a "peaceful nuclear explosion" (PNE). As India was a non-signatory and indeed had vowed to stay out of the NPT when the treaty was concluded, the test involved no breach of legal obligations. Still, after the Indian test, PNEs quickly fell out of international favour, although the US and the Soviet Union both had large PNE programmes.
It is remarkable that the NPT has survived for so long and that it actually was extended indefinitely in 1995. As a result of the 1995 action, the treaty — originally conceived as a 25-year bargain between nuclear-weapons states and non-nuclear-weapons states — has become permanent. It is that success that has bred major challenges. Since the mid-1990s, the integrity and credibility of the NPT have come under growing pressure.
Although their arsenals have declined, both Russia and the US still maintain “overkill” capabilities — that is, either can destroy the entire world several times over.
In fact, nearly a century after chemical arms were introduced in World War I and more than six decades following the nuclear incineration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the world is at the threshold of new lethal weapons, as underlined by the ongoing research on lasers, information weapons, space-based platforms, anti-satellite weapons and directed energy systems. For the foreseeable future, however, nuclear weapons, with their unparalleled destructive capacity, are likely to remain at the centre of international power and force. Nuclear weapons, as the 2002 US nuclear posture review stated, will continue to play a "critical role" because they possess "unique properties".
Yet, such are the challenges from the accelerated weaponisation of science that rearmament today looms large on the horizon, with the arms race being extended to even outer space. For example, the reverberations from China's January 2007 anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon test — the first ASAT kill by any power in more than two decades — continues to be felt because of the way that test brought down wishful thinking about averting militarisation of space.