Text Only | Disarmament Diplomacy | Disarmament Documentation | ACRONYM Reports
Back to the Acronym home page
British Policy
South Asia
About Acronym

Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 30, September 1998

Parallel Nuclear Realities
By Cathleen S. Fisher


Only months after the Indian and Pakistani underground nuclear tests, the world shows every sign of adjusting to the new reality of seven, rather than five, admitted nuclear-weapon States (with Israel waiting silently, at least for now, in the wings.) Yet, despite legitimate concerns about the erosion of non-proliferation norms, the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the complex system of rules and constraints of which it is an essential part, appear likely to survive the South Asian challenges.

The Indian and Pakistani actions, as well as the international response they provoked, did not create, but only revealed, long-standing weaknesses and strengths of the NPT. The shortcomings have long been known, if often downplayed or ignored: the treaty's lack of inclusiveness and concomitant failure to earn universal legitimacy; the dearth of strong stakeholders in the NPT; and the agreement's inability to address the "demand" side of the nuclear proliferation problem. At the same time, however, ongoing efforts to draw India and Pakistan into the non-proliferation regime - if not the NPT - also represent a reaffirmation of the non-proliferation norm, as well as a prudent pragmatism.

In evaluating the future of the NPT, it is important to be mindful of the past: The NPT has always been but one tool in the non-proliferation arsenal. The treaty of course plays an essential role in providing the normative foundation for broader non-proliferation efforts - a normative context that bears even on non-signatories to the treaty. The NPT, however, has been and will continue to be only an important component in a much broader construct that includes export and suppliers' control regimes, regional or multilateral de-nuclearization agreements and arrangements, and bilateral measures to address the security motivations for proliferation. And this broader regime has proven remarkably adaptable, despite the existence of important "outliers" to the NPT itself (India, Pakistan and Israel). In short, the NPT and the regime of which it is a part should not be written off yet. The future of both, however, will likely necessitate efforts to craft a truly inclusive regime that builds on the existing norms, but also encompass new tools and agreements appropriate to the political realities and new nuclear dangers emerging in the post-post Cold War period.

A Nuclear Renaissance?

Initial reactions to the May nuclear tests by India and Pakistan followed predictable script lines that reflected well-entrenched and familiar positions. The five declared nuclear-weapon States strongly condemned India and Pakistan for breaking the testing moratorium and underscored the NPT's value as a non-proliferation tool; their common commitment to pursue nuclear disarmament under Article VI of the NPT was then reaffirmed. Additionally, the P-5 and most of the advanced industrial States called on India and Pakistan to cease testing, to join the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and the negotiations to conclude a Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT), and to refrain from full weaponization and deployment of nuclear weapons. The States of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), for their part, underscored the failure of the declared nuclear powers to make progress toward nuclear disarmament and made oblique references to the threat posed to non-proliferation by "other States'" actions. A small group of independents censured evenhandedly the nuclear-weapon States and India and Pakistan. Importantly, a majority of States rejected revisions to the NPT that would allow formal recognition of India and Pakistan as nuclear-weapon States.

Since May 1998, statements of principled opposition to the Indian and Pakistani nuclear tests have given way to pragmatic actions to mitigate the impact of the tests on the non-proliferation regime. Although economic sanctions imposed by the United States, Japan, and international lenders remain in effect, the United States has been negotiating with India and Pakistan in the hope of persuading both countries to join the CTBT, in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions and other concessions. In their respective statements before the United Nations General Assembly in September 1998, the Indian and Pakistani leaders both professed their governments' willingness to sign the CTBT, if certain conditions were met. The prospective deadline for Indian accession according to Indian Prime Minister Vajpayee, is September 1999 - before the deadline for convening a special conference to discuss the treaty's entry-into-force. At this writing, however, it is unclear whether both sides' demands can be accommodated, and the tough bargaining continues.

At first glance, the spate of recent non-proliferation challenges and crises would seem to raise serious doubts about the existence of a "non-proliferation norm" and the purported marginalization of nuclear weapons. Both India and Pakistan have played the "nuclear card" in a bid to enhance their international status. North Korea has taken a similar tack, and Saddam Hussein's apparently unwavering ambition to acquire weapons of mass destruction (WMD) may prove more durable than the international community's resolve to thwart him. Does a non-proliferation norm exist, or have we begun to witness the renaissance of the nuclear age? Does international response to these crises signal weakening support for non-proliferation objectives and the dissolution of the existing non-proliferation regime?

Weaknesses Revealed...

In evaluating the implications of the Indian and Pakistani nuclear tests for the future of the NPT and the non-proliferation regime more generally, some historical perspective may be useful. First, both States already were widely believed to possess nuclear capabilities, and neither was a member of the NPT. For that reason, even before the May explosions, expert observers had begun to grapple with the need - and risks - of integrating the so-called "threshold nuclear weapon" States (India, Pakistan, and Israel) into the non-proliferation regime. In that sense, the nuclear tests only confirmed an assumed reality. Moreover, the South Asian challenges, like the recent North Korean and Iraqi actions, only called attention to weaknesses in the treaty and the existing regime that have long been recognized:

The cornerstone of the non-proliferation regime - the NPT - lacks two essential requirements for a stable, effective and robust cooperative security regime: inclusiveness and legitimacy. (1) Although the treaty, through the inclusion of Article VI commitments, may aspire to universality, the NPT in fact creates a discriminatory system of nuclear have's and have-not's. This political inequity is increasingly unacceptable to many States and undermines the treaty's legitimacy. Voluntary adherence under these circumstances is more difficult to ensure, making challenges to a system that relies heavily on norms virtually inevitable. As former IAEA director, Hans Blix, observed, "So long as some States remain outside the non-proliferation regime and the nuclear-weapon States have not taken decisive steps toward nuclear disarmament, non-proliferation can still be subject to some strain." (2)

The NPT has relatively few stakeholders. The reactions of different States to recent proliferation challenges reflect widely disparate evaluations of the treaty's importance to national security and global peace and stability. For most governments, non-proliferation is one of multiple goals, to which it may - or may not - assign high priority. To the governments of developing States, for example, proliferation may appear an abstract and distant threat in the face of pressing economic, social and political problems. Such States may perceive themselves as having little at stake when a regime that they view as having marginal significance to national well-being is violated. For these States, the themes of historical victimization and global inequity coursing through the Indian declarations justifying the May explosions strike more resonance than abstract exhortations from the developed States regarding the importance of the NPT regime and the non-proliferation norm. This means that although the security of many would be undermined by the unchecked spread of WMD, in fact, the responsibility for enforcing or preserving the treaty's obligations and norms falls to a relatively small number of States.

The NPT is not designed to address the "demand side" of proliferation. Traditional non-proliferation tools have been directed primarily at the "supply" side of the proliferation problem; they do little to address the security, domestic, or normative motivations that persuade States to acquire (or confirm the acquisition of) nuclear weapons. In recent years, more attention has been focused on assuaging the security concerns that lead States to seek more powerful military capabilities through confidence-building measures and efforts to resolve regional conflicts. Additionally, as long as nuclear weapons exist and States feel threatened by powerful neighbors, security assurances are likely to play an important role in stanching demand in some countries for nuclear weapons. Japan's willingness to forego acquisition of nuclear weapons, for example, may be attributed in part to its NPT commitments and Japanese abhorrence of nuclear weapons. But the US-Japan alliance and the security assurances provided by the US have bolstered Japan's ability to offer strong support for nuclear non-proliferation agreements such as the NPT and CTBT. If faced with the prospect of a US withdrawal from Japan or a weakened US-Japan alliance, normative constraints might be outweighed by security concerns, leading the Japanese to support development and deployment of nuclear weapons. In the absence of effective and trusted cooperative regimes to address the security concerns of many States, diminishing the demand for nuclear weapons may require the perpetuation of traditional security assurances. Where domestic political pressures are driving proliferation, other tools and approaches are needed. Similarly, when leaders and publics alike believe that a State's regional and global importance requires it to possess nuclear weapons, then the disapprobation and sanctions associated with violating the non-proliferation norm may be accepted as the price of "greatness."

In sum, the fault-lines in the NPT and non-proliferation regime have become more evident in recent months, but their existence predated the May nuclear explosions. Some of the regime's apparent failures are rooted in basic structural flaws, particularly the lack of inclusiveness and universal legitimacy as well as its failure to address the demand side of the equation, which have nevertheless become more problematic since the end of the Cold War. It would be premature, however, to announce the death of the treaty or the non-proliferation regime of which it is a part.

... and Strengths Reaffirmed

The non-proliferation norm has been challenged - but also reaffirmed. While the May nuclear explosions overturned the nuclear status quo, they did not invalidate the non-proliferation norm, which has evolved over decades and is unlikely to be easily destroyed. This is, in part, because of what norms are - and are not. The non-proliferation regime rests on shared rules and principles that prohibit the acquisition of nuclear weapons by non-nuclear States; some of these prohibitions - such as the NPT - have legal standing, but the normative sense of obligation that they confer may extend even to some States officially outside of formal legal regimes. Further, although norms are violated, they can still retain their validity. (3) India's behavior is instructive on both counts. Until the May nuclear tests, India, along with the other "threshold" nuclear-weapon States, had endeavored to preserve the official fiction of "non-nuclear status" - even though, as a non-party to the treaty, it was not legally bound by the NPT. When it finally chose to openly challenge existing norms, Indian leaders justified the decision within the context of a commitment to nuclear disarmament, thus reaffirming the norm embodied in the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty. By the same token, when faced with the Indian and Pakistani challenges to the nuclear status quo, most States insisted on preserving the NPT intact, suggesting that the non-proliferation norm is valued - even in the face of obvious violations. And although steps are now being taken to adapt to the new nuclear realities in South Asia, these actions have been undertaken within the context of the normative obligations created by the NPT. Negotiations with India and Pakistan seem intended to appeal to the sense of responsibility that de facto nuclear-weapon States now share with the declared nuclear powers; this approach stands in stark contrast with that used to deal with North Korea and Iraq, both of which are viewed as unabashedly rejecting non-proliferation norms.

The NPT is an important - but not the only - non-proliferation instrument. The NPT will continue to be the cornerstone of the non-proliferation regime - despite the fiction of five nuclear-weapon States that it upholds. As in the past, however, the NPT will be supplemented by a complex network of bilateral and multilateral arrangements and agreements, as well as unilateral actions. For example, the restraint of the nuclear-weapon States in using or threatening to use nuclear weapons diminishes the salience of nuclear weapons as military or political tools of statecraft, while national efforts to check to the flow of technology and technical know-how to suspected proliferators supplement multilateral agreements. All of these actions, arrangements and agreements - not just the NPT - help to build global non-proliferation norms and to slow the spread of nuclear weapons.

The non-proliferation regime - if not the treaty - in fact already has begun to adapt to the new nuclear realities. And there are compelling reasons for doing so. The international community cannot afford to ignore the potentially disastrous consequences for regional and global stability and security of an unbridled arms race in South Asia or destabilizing nuclear doctrines, force postures, and command and control mechanisms. These new challenges may require creative approaches that fall within or outside of the current framework of non-proliferation treaties and agreements. The need to supplement or circumvent the NPT is not without historical precedent, however. The denuclearization pacts with Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan, and the bilateral inspection regime to verify the rollback of the Argentine and Brazilian nuclear programs both represent innovative solutions to unique challenges. Similarly, although its future is uncertain, the KEDO agreement aimed at halting North Korea's nuclear weapons program is essentially a bilateral bargain hammered out between the US and North Korea, with Japan and South Korea offering substantial financial backing.

The NPT and the New Nuclear Realities

While perhaps inevitable, the shift from principled rhetorical resistance to India and Pakistan as new nuclear-weapons States to pragmatic adaptation to the reality of their possession of nuclear weapons entails risks for the non-proliferation regime. As noted above, the NPT itself appears to have too few stakeholders, even while the norm it embodies appears to enjoy widespread support. And the existing regime is woefully inadequate in dealing with the often forgotten dimensions of proliferation - domestic political motivations and intangible, but often powerful, collectively-shared notions of a country's appropriate and legitimate place in global or regional politics. Moreover, the global consensus in support of forceful action to prevent proliferation appears to be weakening and could diminish further as governments around the world are increasingly preoccupied with a burgeoning international financial crisis or political and economic woes at home. If other would-be proliferators perceive the emerging international pragmatism as proof that the acquisition of nuclear weapons spells limited penalties and great rewards - including enhanced status in regional and global politics - they may encouraged to follow the North Korean or Iraqi examples. On the other hand, the non-proliferation regime has long been weakened by the exclusion of the three assumed de facto nuclear-weapon States from the existing complex of treaties and agreements. The actions now being taken to begin integrating India and Pakistan into the CTBT would be a first step toward addressing that omission. Moreover, there are compelling security reasons to deal pragmatically with the realities of nuclear weapons in India and Pakistan.

The recent challenges to the non-proliferation regime are yet another reminder that the problems of the messy post-post Cold War world will demand new tools and approaches. This is true not only of non-proliferation efforts, but of traditional arms control processes, which appear badly mismatched to new strategic realities and may, in fact, be slowing progress toward reducing Cold War arsenals in Russia and the United States. The very different challenges posed by India, Pakistan, North Korea and Iraq underscore the need for more nuanced and sophisticated non-proliferation strategies tailored to the specific motivations driving particular countries to acquire or maintain nuclear arsenals. Where domestic political factors are decisive, non-proliferation efforts must be directed toward strengthening the political coalitions that oppose acquisition of nuclear weapons. (4) In the case of India, if, as some observers argue, the May nuclear tests were determined primarily, if not solely, by the need to shore up a weak and fractious coalition government, then what influence, if any, would a serious commitment to nuclear elimination by the P-5, and actions toward that end, have had on the domestic political debate in India? Similarly, with an eye to future actions, what impact will continued sanctions and international pressure, or, conversely, acceptance of Indian demands, have on pro- or anti-bomb coalitions in Delhi?

If a deal with India and Pakistan can be struck, an important step toward a new non-proliferation regime would have been taken. Such a regime could - for a time - preserve the existing system of rules and agreements, along with the now all-too-apparent fiction of five nuclear-weapon States, but it would be supplemented with a new system of controls that would encompass the de facto nuclear-weapon States. Such a regime could build on an inclusive CTBT regime, and might, over time, include other arrangements encompassing the declared and de facto nuclear-weapons States to address commonly shared concerns, such as the security and control of nuclear weapons and materials. Whether two parallel regimes - and the nuclear realities they embody - can both be sustained over time is of course unclear. But at this juncture there may be no good alternative to efforts to include those States not now covered under existing treaties and arrangements. Steps to create a more inclusive regime could also enhance the legitimacy of non-proliferation - and counter-proliferation - efforts directed at States such as Iraq seeking to acquire WMD for aggressive purposes. In such a regime, the NPT would preserve the ideal of universal non-proliferation, just as other mechanisms addressed the nuclear dangers that fall short of that ideal.

Notes and References

1. See Antonia Handler Chayes and Abram Chayes, in "Regime Architecture: Elements and Principles," in Global Engagement: Cooperation and Security in the 21st Century, Janne E. Nolan, ed. (Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution, 1994).

2. Quoted in Chayes and Chayes, p. 73.

3. Chayes and Chayes, p. 69.

4. On the multiple causes of proliferation, see Scott D. Sagan, "Why Do States Build Nuclear Weapons: Three Models in Search of a Bomb," International Security, vol. 21, no. 3 (Winter 1996/97).

Dr. Cathleen S. Fisher is Senior Associate at the The Henry L. Stimson Center.

© 1998 The Acronym Institute.

Return to top of page

Return to List of Contents

Return to Acronym Main Page