This article appeared in the Washington Post, Editorials and Opinions Section.

Every five years, the nuclear nonproliferation treaty (NPT) comes up for reassessment by the countries that have signed it. This is the treaty that provides for international restraints (and inspections) on nuclear programs. It covers not only the nuclear nations but 180 other countries as well, including Iran, Iraq, North Korea and Libya. An end to the NPT could terminate many of these inspections and open a Pandora’s box of nuclear proliferation in states that already present serious terrorist threats to others.

Now it is time for the 30-year-old NPT to be reviewed (in April, by an international assembly at the United Nations), and, sad to say, the current state of affairs with regard to nuclear proliferation is not good. In fact, I think it can be said that the world is facing a nuclear crisis. Unfortunately, U.S. policy has had a good deal to do with creating it.

At the last reassessment session, in 1995, a large group of non-nuclear nations with the financial resources and technology to develop weapons–including Egypt, Brazil and Argentina–agreed to extend the NPT, but with the proviso that the five nuclear powers take certain specific steps to defuse the nuclear issue: adoption of a comprehensive test ban treaty by 1996; conclusion of negotiations on a Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty, and “determined pursuit” of efforts to reduce nuclear arsenals, with the ultimate goal of eliminating them.

It is almost universally conceded that none of these commitments has been honored. India and Pakistan have used this failure to justify their joining Israel as nations with recognized nuclear capability that are refusing to comply with NPT restraints. And there has been a disturbing pattern of other provocative developments:

  • For the first time I can remember, no series of summit meetings is underway or in preparation to seek further cuts in nuclear arsenals. The START II treaty concluded seven years ago by presidents George Bush and Boris Yeltsin has not been seriously considered for ratification by the Russian parliament.
  • Instead of moving away from reliance on nuclear arsenals since the end of the Cold War, both the United States and NATO have sent disturbing signals to other nations by declaring that these weapons are still the cornerstone of Western security policy, and both have re-emphasized that they will not comply with a “no first use” policy. Russia has reacted to this U.S. and NATO policy by rejecting its previous “no first use” commitment; strapped for funds and unable to maintain its conventional forces of submarines, tanks, artillery, and troops, it is now much more likely to rely on its nuclear arsenal.
  • The United States, NATO and others still maintain arsenals of tactical nuclear weapons, including up to 200 nuclear weapons in Western Europe.
  • Despite the efforts of Gens. Lee Butler and Andrew Goodpaster, Adm. Stansfield Turner and other military experts, American and Russian nuclear missiles are still maintained in a “hair-trigger alert” status, susceptible to being launched in a spur-of-the-moment crisis or even by accident.
  • After years of intense negotiation, recent rejection by the U.S. Senate of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty was a serious blow to global nuclear control efforts and to confidence in American leadership.
  • There is a notable lack of enforcement of the excessively weak international agreements against transfer of fissile materials.
  • The prospective adoption by the United States of a limited “Star Wars” missile defense system has already led Russia, China and other nations to declare that this would abrogate the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which has prevailed since 1972. This could destroy the fabric of existing international agreements among the major powers.
  • There is no public effort or comment in the United States or Europe calling for Israel to comply with the NPT or submit to any other restraints. At the same time, we fail to acknowledge what a powerful incentive this is to Iran, Syria, Iraq, and Egypt to join the nuclear community.
  • The U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA) has been recently abolished, removing an often weak but at least identifiable entity to explore arms issues.

I believe that the general public would be extremely concerned if these facts were widely known, but so far such issues have not been on the agenda in presidential debates.

A number of responsible non-nuclear nations, including Brazil, Egypt, Ireland, Mexico, New Zealand, South Africa and Sweden have expressed their disillusionment with the lack of progress toward disarmament. The non-proliferation system may not survive unless the major powers give convincing evidence of compliance with previous commitments.

In April, it is imperative that the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty be reconfirmed and subsequently honored by leaders who are inspired to act wisely and courageously by an informed public. This treaty has been a key deterrent to the proliferation of weapons, and its unraveling would exert powerful pressures even on peace-loving nations to develop a nuclear capability.

All nuclear states must renew efforts to achieve worldwide reduction and ultimate elimination of nuclear weapons. In the meantime, it requires no further negotiations for leaders of nuclear nations to honor existing nuclear security agreements, including the test ban and anti-ballistic missile treaties, and to remove nuclear weapons from their present hair-trigger alert status.

Just as American policy is to blame for many of the problems, so can our influence help resolve the nuclear dilemma that faces the world.