Happy 40th, NPT

Today is the 40th anniversary of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The New Republic summons its better half as J. Peter Scoblic explains why this treaty is such a boon to American interests.

Today marks the fortieth birthday of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, one of the most important pieces of paper the United States has signed in the last half century–and one of the most popular. Even Bush officials, who went on a treaty-killing spree during their first year in office, made an exception for the NPT.

Why wouldn’t they? The NPT is one of the best deals the United States has ever made: It allowed five countries (including the United States) to possess nuclear weapons, but banned the rest from ever developing them. Today, every country on the planet except for India, Israel, North Korea, and Pakistan is a member. While pressuring the nuclear states to disarm, the NPT’s most significant accomplishment has been to reassure non-nuclear states that they don’t need the bomb, and in the past four decades more countries have given up nuclear weapons programs than have started them. In hindsight, the NPT seems like a diplomatic no-brainer.

While its true that the NPT has generally works as is, it still needs help if it is to remain the foundation of the global non-proliferation regime into the future.

The treaty was based on three pillars of non-proliferation, disarmament, and legitimate civilian use. The disarmament pillar, for one, has taken a hit in recent years. Some NPT signatories have shied away from reducing their nuclear arsenal and are even developing so-called tactical nuclear weapons. For the other pillars to remain on strong footing, member states need to recommit to disarmament.

In an On Day One video, Matthew Yglesias explains why this is such a critical national security imperative for the next United States president.

Yet another way the NPT could be strengthened is through IAEA chief Mohammed elBaradei’s call for a civilian nuclear fuel bank. This is an idea that the (United Nations Foundation sister organization) the Nuclear Threat Initiative has been pushing for a long time–and for which Warren Buffet has provided a seed grant to support. The idea, in short, is for the IAEA to have a standing reserve of low-enriched uranium as an insurance policy for countries that seek to develop civilian nuclear power, but must import their enriched uranium rather than enrich it themselves. This way, countries with civilian nuclear programs can ensure that their supply of low-enriched uranium (the kind not used in bombs) will remain stable. So far, a number of governments–including the United States government–has pledged funds to develop the fuel bank.

Both these ideas underscore that the NPT, while a proven counter-proliferation tool, needs all the help it can get to remain the foundation of the global non-proliferation regime.