Advances and setbacks in controlling the spread and stockpiles of nuclear weapons seem to occur in decade-long cycles. Shortly before he retired after 12 years as head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed ElBaradei described the world's nuclear system as being in tatters. The standing of nuclear weapons, he said, had been enhanced as a ticket to power, prestige, and an insurance policy against foreign intervention.

But after a decade in the doldrums, the nuclear outlook may once more be turning optimistic. With 190 members, the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) is the most successful arms control agreement in history. But by now it is weighed down with many inconsistencies, anomalies and double standards. In particular, because it has been transformed from a prohibition into a nonproliferation regime, the time has come to look beyond it to a cleaner alternative that gathers all the meritorious elements into one workable package in a nuclear weapons convention.

This will not self-materialize merely because we wish it so. Nuclear abolition is both desirable and feasible. But there are many technical, legal and political challenges to be overcome.

Nor will it ever eventuate if we always push it to a distant future. Serious preparatory work on it needs to be started now, with conviction and commitment. U.S. President Barack Obama's statement in his I have a nuclear-free dream speech in Prague last spring, that the dream may not come true during his lifetime, was disappointing.

By failing to include timetabled, binding, verifiable and enforceable disarmament commitments, the NPT legitimized the nuclear arsenals of five nations, the U.S., Russia, China, the U.K. and France -- the N5.

By relying on the promise to use nuclear power for peaceful purposes only, it empowered states to operate dangerously close to a nuclear-weapons capability. It proscribed non-nuclear states from acquiring nuclear weapons, but has no strategy for dealing with non-signatory states. It permits withdrawals much too easily. With no secretariat, the NPT depends on five-year review conferences for implementation. These operate by the consensus rule, which does not make for decisive resolution of contentious issues.

The zenith of nuclear arms control and disarmament was 1996, the nadir 2005. The NPT was indefinitely extended in 1995, the World Court affirmed its disarmament obligations in July 1996, and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty was adopted in September.

Then matters got worse. India and Pakistan tested the bomb in 1998 followed by North Korea a few years later. Libya abandoned its nuclear programs, but Iran intensified its and several others have embarked on new "peaceful" programs.

New nuclear weapons, for example "mini-nukes" and bunker busters, were developed. They were increasingly used to threaten non-nuclear states. Risks multiplied of terrorists acquiring and using the bomb.

The 2005 NPT Review Conference, dogged by acrimonious procedural wrangling, ended in recriminations over who was to blame for the fiasco. Washington faulted the international community for failing to confront Iran and North Korea. Others countered that the U.S. was obsessed with proliferation but totally intransigent on previously agreed-to commitments.

Thus the current nuclear security challenge is fivefold.

1) Some NPT members are cheating on their nonproliferation obligations and pursuing the weapons option clandestinely;

2) Israel, India and Pakistan have the bomb outside the NPT and North Korea has withdrawn from it;

3) The N5 have disrespected their commitment to disarm;

4) The NPT does not cover non-state actors;

5) The growing interest in nuclear energy raises issues of safety, security, and reliable firewalls between peaceful use and weaponization.

Fortunately, there is significant movement to get the train of disarmament back on track. Most famously, candidate Barack Obama promised and President Obama has reaffirmed the goal of an eventual nuclear-free world.

There are new leaders in many nuclear weapons-relevant countries who are less wedded to the dogmas and rigid security worldviews of the Cold War. The U.S. and Russia are restarting bilateral strategic disarmament talks and actions. India has repeated its commitment to universal nuclear disarmament. The moratorium on nuclear testing has held for some years and Obama has promised to ratify the CTBT and bring it into force. The UN Security Council passed a progressive resolution looking forward to a nuclear free world.

Major challenges remain.

Should we view Israel, India and Pakistan (and North Korea?) through the lens of nonproliferation or disarmament? Proposals for them to sign the NPT as non-nuclear-weapon-states are illogical. They already have arsenals.

Alternatively, if the non-NPT nuclear-armed states are to be viewed through the disarmament lens, why exempt the N5? Not a single country that had nuclear weapons when the NPT was signed in 1968 has given them up. This fuels the politics of grievance and resentment.

The fundamental contradiction in the NPT has been fudged for four decades but now presses upon us with increasing intensity. Is the core problem nuclear weapons themselves, or which types of regimes have them, or the relevant proliferation records of the individual actors?

The logical policy choices are: to condemn nuclear weapons for everyone; to distinguish between the security justifications of China, India, Iran, Israel, Pakistan, Russia and the U.S. and the lack of security justifications of Britain, France and North Korea; or to differentiate bad and rogue from responsible behaviour and oppose regimes, not the weapons.

Those who worship the most devoutly at the altar of nuclear weapons issue the fiercest fatwas against others rushing to join them. The most powerful stimulus to nuclear proliferation by others is the continuing possession of the bomb by some. The threat to use nuclear weapons, both to deter their use by others and to prevent proliferation, legitimizes their possession, deployment and use. That which is legitimate cannot be stopped from proliferating.

Hence the axiom of nonproliferation: as long as any one has them, others, including terrorists, will try their best and worst to get them. Nuclear weapons could not proliferate if they did not exist. Because they do, they will.

The focus on nonproliferation to the neglect of disarmament ensures that we get neither. If we want nonproliferation, we must prepare for disarmament.

Too many have paid lip service to the slogan but not pursued a serious program of action to achieve nuclear abolition. This reality has not changed. British Foreign Secretary David Miliband writes that "we must strengthen the systems designed to detect any attempt to acquire nuclear weapons and we must ensure that any such attempt has serious consequences." On the other hand, "we must create the conditions for the eventual elimination of all nuclear weapons."

Obama in his speech to the UN General Assembly on Sept. 23 said "we must stop the spread of nuclear weapons, and seek the goal of a world without them." That is, the imbalance between mandatory and enforceable nonproliferation obligations and the distant wish for "eventual" nuclear disarmament is to be maintained.

Four decades on, it is hard to deny that the NPT locked the non-nuclear signatories into a false bargain wherein they gambled away a strategic option for a promise that has not been honoured. The focus on the NPT plays into the hands of the nonproliferation ayatollahs, diverts attention and effort from nuclear disarmament and effectively undermines the pursuit of nuclear abolition. This then encourages proliferation. The good -- the NPT -- has become the enemy of the best -- nuclear abolition.

In consequence, nuclear threats have intensified and multiplied. In the meantime, scientific and technological advancements since 1968 have greatly expanded our technical toolkit for monitoring and verifying weapons reduction and elimination. It is time to supplement and then supplant the NPT with a multilaterally negotiated, non-discriminatory and universal nuclear weapons convention.

Within our lifetime, either we will achieve nuclear abolition or we will have to live with nuclear proliferation, and die with the use of nuclear weapons.

Ramesh Thakur is director of the Balsillie School of International Affairs and a distinguished fellow at The Centre for International Governance Innovation in Waterloo, Ont.

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.