WASHINGTON: Fifty years after the US, Russia and other powers reached a landmark deal to halt the spread of atomic weapons, an arms race and shifting US alliances risk triggering a new scramble for the bomb, experts say.
Signed on July 1, 1968, six years after the Cuban Missile Crisis took the world to the brink of an atomic war, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) has been credited with dramatically reducing the threat of a nuclear apocalypse.
The treaty attempted to strike a balance between the security concerns of nuclear-armed powers and the atomic ambitions of the have-nots.
The five countries that already had nuclear weapons — the US, Russia, China, France and Britain, all permanent UN Security Council members — were allowed keep them, in return for commitments on reducing their arms stockpiles.
Non-nuclear-armed states agreed never to develop such weapons, in return for help from the so-called P5 countries in developing peaceful nuclear technology.
The treaty became the cornerstone of non-proliferation efforts, with 191 countries signing up.
“The NPT has been amazingly successful in keeping the number of nuclear armed states to less than ten,” said Mark Fitzpatrick, director of the Non-Proliferation and Nuclear Policy programme at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Washington.
On the disarmament front, the treaty has also exceeded expectations, with the global stockpile of nuclear warheads falling by 85 percent as the US and Russia dismantled the bulk of their huge Cold War arsenals.
But the treaty failed to prevent a handful of other countries going on to acquire atomic weapons.
Besides North Korea, which pulled out of the treaty in 2003 and built a bomb three years later, India and Pakistan have become nuclear powers after never signing up to the NPT.
Israel is also widely believed to have the bomb.
Beatrice Fihn, director of the Nobel-winning International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, argues the treaty is fundamentally flawed because it aims merely to reduce, rather than abolish nuclear weapons.
“It’s problematic because it creates a group of states that are powerful and have these weapons and others that don’t,” Fihn told AFP.
Adding to the global imbalance is the fact that the treaty contains no deadline for disarmament, relying solely on nuclear-armed states to negotiate in “good faith”.
Furthermore, the treaty does not prevent the P5 countries upgrading their arsenal, allowing them to develop bigger, deadlier weapons.
In March, President Vladimir Putin announced that Russia had developed a new array of weapons that were “invincible”, including a cruise missile that could reach “anywhere in the world”.
President Donald Trump’s administration has meanwhile announced plans to launch a range of new low-yield weapons to counter what it sees as the threat of Russia using smaller nuclear weapons in a conflict in Europe.
France and Britain are among the other countries investing billions in strengthening their nuclear deterrence.
“They could still blow up the world many many times over,” Fihn said.
Middle East conflicts, a resurgent Russia, increasingly assertive China and a bellicose Trump, who boasted earlier this year about the size of his “nuclear button”, have all been linked to the race to develop more powerful weapons.
“We’re again seeing the risk of a major conflict and that is why some countries are clinging to the importance of nuclear weapons in their defence posture,” said Corentin Brustlein, an expert on nuclear proliferation at the French Institute for International Relations.
Trump’s shifting loyalties have also been blamed for adding to global uncertainty, with allies that long enjoyed the protection of the US “nuclear umbrella” fearful the White House may no longer have their back.
Without that protection, experts say, more countries could be tempted to develop their own nuclear weapons.
For the moment however, all eyes are on Iran, which has threatened to pull out of the NPT after the US reneged on a deal offering Tehran sanctions relief in return for curbs on its nuclear ambitions.
Fitzpatrick said keeping all the signatories onboard was “vital” to the credibility of the NPT, warning it could “crack” if other countries crossed the nuclear threshold.
In the meantime, calls for an outright ban on atomic weapons are growing, with over 120 countries signing the 2017 Nuclear Weapons Ban Treaty.