The NPT is designed to prevent the proliferation of WMDs. It has some utility for many states, but it has not been a successful treaty. Defections are cheap, so rogue states have a high incentive to develop nuclear weapons while treaty-abiding states have few means of recourse except war.

The Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) of 1968 is designed to prevent the further spread of nuclear weapons and to create an arms-control regime. The key articles outline the objectives and function of the treaty. Article I forbids nuclear-weapon states from providing non-nuclear weapon states with “nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices” or any assistance. Article II forbids NPT non-nuclear weapon states from developing their own weapons. Article III mandates the IAEA with the duty to monitor compliance. And Article IV, Section 2 grants these states the “the right to participate in, the fullest possible exchange of equipment, materials and scientific and technological information for the peaceful uses of nuclear energy.” Peaceful use of nuclear energy is precisely what makes the treaty vulnerable to violations. Nuclear energy produces the necessary components for weapons, and the IAEA’s safeguards needed to be implemented to ensure compliance with the treaty.

The NPT works through this mechanism:

The 5 Nuclear Weapon States (US, Russia, China, UK, France) have no interest in nuclear weapon proliferation. They have a vested interest to coordinate their actions to punish violations of the treaty.

There are positive utilities for cooperation with the treaty.
1) Non-nuclear states may use peaceful nuclear energy. If they obey the treaty, they receive aid, advice and trade from nuclear powers. If they defect, they lose this assistance.

2) There are safety issues relating to peaceful use of nuclear power as improper construction and uses can lead to disasters, such as Chernobyl. The IAEA provides technical assistance and minimal safety standards along with safeguards and their inspections help identify safety issues along with potential violations. This creates a unilateral benefit for international cooperation and compliance with nuclear nonproliferation treaty.

3) Non-nuclear states fear a nuclear arms race if an enemy state defects from the NPT and secretly builds nuclear weapons. The International Atomic Energy Agency created a monitoring regime which is a successful confidence building measure. The IAEA’s duties are universally implemented and observed, encouraging all states to comply with its regulations. IAEA monitoring reduces the uncertainty that the NPT is being violated. Even if a state wishes to build weapons, as North Korea did and Iran is doing, the efforts will be detected and the violating states will be forced to do so openly under international scrutiny.

4) To supplement the NPT, nuclear countries formed export control regimes to prevent material exports and advice to countries that have nuclear weapon ambitions. The Nuclear Exporters Committee and the Nuclear Suppliers Group act as a supply cartel, to restrict supplies to only selected countries. These supply cartels work reasonably well to prevent international state assistance in the construction of nuclear weapons.

The logic behind the NPT and its arms control organizations uses liberal internationalism as their basis. However, there is also a realist argument about the treaty that helps explain most of the NPT’s successes and few failures. The NPT provides security value to states who remain non-nuclear. The IAEA monitors a country and its enemy, so the regime reduces the uncertainty. Both states to save money by not producing unnecessary weapons. In the event that a state does violate the treaty, there will be reasonable warning, possibly years notification before any weapons are actually produced, giving threatened states sufficient time to prepare for a nuclear arms race.

The IAEA cannot stop a rogue state from developing nuclear weapons. Instead, neighborings states must use self-help through military action to prevent the threat from emerging, or develop their own nuclear weapons in response. The monitoring regime acts as an intelligence source. It increases confidence between nations to eliminate accidental arms races and fear. An intentional arms race may still result.

There are a few significant flaws in the NPT. They relate to appropriate membership and the lack of a serious enforcement mechanism.

First, some states did not sign the NPT and other states may leave at any point. The Treaty itself is non-binding. India, Israel, Pakistan and North Korea are non-NPT members with nuclear weapons.

India presents a major problem for the NPT. It is an historical accident that the NPT recognizes only the US, UK, Russia, China, and France as the legitimate nuclear weapons powers and not India. India is a major world power, equal to China, yet it is excluded from the treaty. Technically, India could face trade sanctions. President Clinton put economic sanctions on India in the 1990s, despite India being a rising world power and a potential US ally.

Since China is an enemy of India, the Chinese government will veto any recognition of India as a formal nuclear power under the NPT. The Bush administration has decided to informally recognize India as a nuclear power and lifted the trade sanctions. The growing US-Indian alliance acts as a de-facto violation of the NPT. This is because the NPT is an inflexible treaty that described a static situation in 1968 and does not recognize changes in the 21st century international balance of power.

Second, peaceful nuclear energy requires states to have peaceful intent. The knowledge and materials needed for nuclear energy can be converted to nuclear weapons. There is no enforcement mechanism to ensure peaceful intent and compliance with the treaty.

There are two ways to circumvent the NPT and supply cartels. First, the nuclear black market – like the AQ Khan network – can share knowledge and material between rogue states like North Korea, Pakistan, Libya, and Iran. Second, rogue states can develop their own nuclear weapon program from scratch, as Pakistan, India, and North Korea did.

If a hostile state desires to develop nuclear weapons, they may. They can legally develop peaceful nuclear energy plants while secretly obtaining the knowledge to build weapons. They can then defect from the NPT, end IAEA monitoring, and build the weapons within a short interval of time. Once they have nuclear weapons, they are virtually immune to military attack.

States have a very short window of opportunity to prevent WMD production. The rogue state can declare that it’s intent is peaceful to deter military retaliation until it is too late. They can use diplomacy, as Iran is doing, to create deadlock and inaction to buy them time.

At this point, perhaps we should abolish the NPT and renegotiate a new treaty. This would recognize new legitimate nuclear powers such as India and outline clearer enforcement mechanisms to deal with the nuclear black market and rogue states.