How the West undermines nuclear non-proliferation

While the United Nations Security Council struggles to achieve the verifiable disavowal of nuclear weapons by Iran and North Korea, Europe and North America are busy championing nuclear weapons as the ultimate security trump card and the preeminent emblem of political gravitas, thereby building a political/security context that is increasingly hostile to non-proliferation.

At the end of November in Riga, though NATO leaders may have quarreled over Afghanistan , they were of a single mind in reaffirming the political and security advantages of nuclear weapons.[i] The leaders declared the continuing relevance of, and their full satisfaction with, the alliance's 1999 strategic doctrine,[ii] which declares that "the Alliance 's conventional forces alone cannot ensure credible deterrence. Nuclear weapons make a unique contribution in rendering the risks of aggression against the Alliance incalculable and unacceptable. Thus, they remain essential to preserve peace."

It is an assertion that begs a question almost too obvious to repeat? If NATO, with its collective command of some two-thirds of global conventional military capacity, feels unacceptably vulnerable without a nuclear back-up, what are North Korea and Iran likely to conclude? It is true that North Korea and Iran joined the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) as non-nuclear weapon states and solemnly pledged to permanently disavow nuclear weapons, but so did most of the NATO states, including Canada, that have just proclaimed their enduring commitment to nuclear weapons. Five non-nuclear weapon states (Germany, Netherlands, Belgium, Italy, and Turkey )[iii] even host nuclear weapons on their territories.

The United Kingdom followed the NATO paean to nuclear weapons with its own unilateral version. In its just released Defence White Paper, the Blair Government promises a new generation of submarine-based nuclear weapons, albeit reduced by 20 percent from its current arsenal of about 200 warheads.[iv] As the Leader in the Guardian put it, "the words ‘nuclear deterrent' occur more than any other in the defence white paper published [December 4], but at no point is the document clear about who or what a new generation of British nuclear weapons is intended to deter."[v]

Whitehall, of course, denies that its nuclear modernization program is in violation of Article VI of the NPT, which commits all nuclear weapon states to eliminating their nuclear arsenals, or a betrayal of its pledge, made at the 2000 NPT Review Conference along with other nuclear weapon states, of "an unequivocal undertaking to accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals leading to nuclear disarmament to which all States parties are committed under Article VI."[vi] But it is hard to deny what the UK action says about the spirit of its nuclear disarmament commitments and what it does to the political climate in which nuclear non-proliferation is pursued.

To top it off, the US Administration and Congress then joined up to reward India for its nuclear weapons tests in violation of non-proliferation norms. The US-India nuclear cooperation agreement accepts India as a de facto nuclear weapons state and irgnores, even rewards, its continuing violation of UN Security Council Resolution 1172, which calls on India and Pakistan "immediately to stop their nuclear weapon development programmes, to refrain from weaponization or from the deployment of nuclear weapons, to cease development of ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons and any further production of fissile material for nuclear weapons."[vii]

In addition to rewarding defiance of the Security Council, implement of full civilian nuclear cooperation with India will arguably put the United States in violation of Article I of the NPT which prohibits nuclear weapon states from assisting, encouraging, or inducing other states to acquire nuclear weapons. Providing India with civilian nuclear fuel assists its nuclear weapons development by freeing up limited domestic supplies for the production of fissile material for its expanding arsenal. And as to encouragement, there is little doubt that India takes encouragement from its new found favour in Washington and the equanimity with which its violations of the Security Council are met.

For North Korea and Iran the lessons are unmistakable. Western non-proliferation policy is not about eliminating nuclear arsenals or even stopping their spread. Instead, it is an art of selection - states within, or being wooed into, a US-defined orbit of friendliness are permitted to violate global non-proliferation norms, while states outside this axis of strategic convenience are to be punished to the full for their, in the case of Iran, much lesser violations.

Hans Blix and his Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission warned against this kind of selective non-proliferation, rejecting "the suggestion that nuclear weapons in the hands of some pose no threat, while in the hands of others they place the world in mortal jeopardy."[viii]

If it is the intention of European and North American governments to build a political climate that is hostile to non-proliferation, then they will be well-pleased with their work of the last few weeks.

[i] "Comprehensive Political Guidance," Endorsed by NATO Heads of State and Government on 29 November 2006, Riga, Latvia (

[ii] "The Alliance's Strategic Concept," Approved by the Heads of State and Government participating in the meeting of the North Atlantic Council in Washington. D.C. on 23 rd and 24 th April 1999 (

[iii] Robert S. Norris and Hans M. Kristensen, "Where the Bombs are, 2006," NRDC: Nuclear Notebook, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists(November/December, 2006, vol. 62, no. 6), pp. 57-58.

[iv] By Robert S. Norris and Hans M. Kristensen, " British nuclear forces, 2005," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists,NRDC: Nuclear Notebook (November/December 2005, vol. 61, no. 06), pp. 77-79.

[v] "Why? And why now?" The Guardian, December 5, 2006.

[vi]2000 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, Final Document: Volume I, Part I: Review of the operation of the Treaty, taking into account the decisions and the resolution adopted by the 1995 Review and Extension Conference Improving the effectiveness of thestrengthened review process for the Treaty (Article VI and eighth to twelfth preambular paragraphs), para 15(6).

[vii] Security Council, Resolution 1172, June 6, 1998, operative paragraph 7.

[viii] Weapons of Terror: Freeing the World of Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Weapons (Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission, 2006, Stockholm ), p. 60.

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.