With the exception of a few cloistered academics, almost no one would seriously argue that the spread of nuclear weapons would make the world a safer place. Most individuals, including policy makers, understand that it is essential to future security to keep nuclear weapons from spreading. Based on this understanding, the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) was put forward and signed by the US, UK and USSR (three countries with nuclear weapons) in 1968. The Treaty entered into force in 1970. Since then the Non-Proliferation Treaty has become the centerpiece of international efforts to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. Currently there are only four countries in the world that have not signed and ratified the NPT: India, Israel, Pakistan and Cuba. The first three of these have nuclear weapons.

At the heart of the NPT is a basic bargain: the countries without nuclear weapons agree not to acquire or otherwise develop these weapons in exchange for the nuclear weapons states agreeing to engage in good faith efforts to eliminate their arsenals. This bargain is found in Article VI of the Treaty, which calls for “good faith” negotiations on nuclear disarmament. Many of the non-nuclear weapons states have complained over the years that the nuclear weapons states have not upheld their end of the bargain.

In 1995, when the Treaty was extended indefinitely after powerful lobbying by the nuclear weapons states, these states promised the “determined pursuit” of systematic and progressive efforts to reduce nuclear weapons globally with the ultimate goal of their elimination. Over the next five years, however, these countries continued to rely upon their nuclear arsenals to the dismay of many countries without nuclear weapons.

When the five-year Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference was held in April and May 2000, the parties to the Treaty, including the nuclear weapons states, agreed to take a number of “practical steps” to implement promises under Article VI of the Treaty. Thirteen steps were listed. I would like to highlight just two. The first of these is an “unequivocal undertaking by the nuclear weapons States to accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals….” The second is “early entry into force and full implementation of START II [Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty II] and the conclusion of START III as soon as possible while preserving and strengthening the ABM [Anti-Ballistic Missile] Treaty as a cornerstone of strategic stability and as a basis for further reductions of strategic offensive weapons….”

The “unequivocal undertaking” is language that the New Agenda Coalition (Brazil, Egypt, Ireland, Mexico, New Zealand, Sweden and South Africa) has been pressing for, along with practical steps to achieve “the total elimination” of nuclear weapons. In essence this commitment is a reaffirmation of what the nuclear weapons states promised many years ago when they first signed the Treaty in 1968.

Moving forward with START II and START III are also in the offing. After many years, the Russian Duma finally ratified START II, and President Putin has indicated that he is prepared to proceed with reductions to 1,000 to 1,500 strategic nuclear warheads in START III. The US has responded for inexplicable reasons that it is only prepared to discuss reductions to the 2,500 level at this point, a response hardly in keeping with its promises to pursue good faith efforts to eliminate nuclear weapons globally.

An even greater problem, however, lies in US determination to deploy a National Missile Defense. It can hardly do this and keep its promise of “preserving and strengthening” the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. The US has been trying unsuccessfully to convince the Russians that the ABM Treaty should be amended to allow the US to deploy a National Missile Defense. However, this is exactly what the ABM Treaty was designed to prevent, based on the reasoning that a strong defense would lead to further offensive arms races, and the Russians want nothing to do with altering the ABM Treaty.

US officials have told the Russians that the National Missile Defense that the US seeks to deploy is aimed not at them, but at “states of concern” (the new US name for states they formerly referred to as “rogue states”). These officials have actually encouraged the Russians to keep their nuclear armed missiles on hair-trigger alert and not reduce the size of their arsenal below START III levels in order to be able to successfully overcome a US National Missile Defense. In their eagerness to promote the National Missile Defense, these officials are actually encouraging Russian policies that will make an accidental or unintended nuclear war more likely. Russia is not buying this, and has made clear that if the US proceeds with deployment of a National Missile Defense, thereby abrogating the ABM Treaty, Russia will withdraw from START II and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

US insistence on proceeding with a National Missile Defense will be even more destabilizing in Asia. The Chinese have made clear that their response to US deployment of a National Missile Defense will require them to further develop their nuclear forces (at present the Chinese have only 20 nuclear armed missiles capable of reaching US territory). Should China increase its nuclear capabilities, India is likely to follow suit and Pakistan would likely follow India. How Japan, North Korea, South Korea and Taiwan would respond remain large question marks.

At the recent Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference the US committed itself to “preserving and strengthening” the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. US plans to move forward with a National Missile Defense are incompatible with this promise. If the US wants to uphold the Non-Proliferation Treaty and prevent the disintegration of this Treaty, it must act in good faith. This means finding another way to deal with potentially dangerous states than building an unworkable, provocative and hugely expensive missile defense system.

The 2000 NPT Review Conference offered some promise of progress on nuclear disarmament. Unfortunately, the fine words Final Document of the Conference notwithstanding, this promise will be dashed if the US continues in its foolhardy and quixotic attempt to put a shield over its head. Such a course will lead only to a leaky umbrella and global nuclear chaos. A far safer course for the US would be to carry out its promise of seeking “the total elimination” of the world’s nuclear arsenals. Without US leadership this will not happen. With US leadership a nuclear weapons free world could become a reality in fairly short order. It is past time for this issue to enter the public arena and move up on the public agenda. The American people deserve to become part of this decision which will so dramatically affect their future and the future of the planet.