Today's topic: Has the strategy to stop the spread of nuclear weapons through the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty -- in which existing nuclear powers can keep but reduce their arsenals while other nations are barred from developing bombs -- been effective? How should the U.S. and its allies distinguish between stable countries worthy of developing peacetime nuclear energy and regimes such as Iran?

The Non-Proliferation Treaty has become an excuse for inaction
Point: Gabriel Schoenfeld

Andy, we're probably in agreement that the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty has been one of the more successful arms-control agreements of the last few decades. Unfortunately -- and here's where I suspect we will immediately part company -- that's not saying much.

I don't want to slight the treaty's accomplishments. It has helped give the U.S. a better picture of civilian nuclear programs around the world, including those of countries hostile to us. It may have helped in keeping Argentina and Brazil nuclear-free, and we can also ascribe it some credit for South Africa's decision to denuclearize, although the impending end of the apartheid regime probably had more to do with it than the treaty.

But the fact is that the treaty worked best when it was needed least, back when nuclear technology was relatively inaccessible and expertise was rare. Once the technology became more widely available and thousands of people were trained to master the atom and also to gain expertise in easily hidden processes such as uranium enrichment -- in no small part thanks to the technology-sharing provisions of the treaty itself -- the value of the agreement began to drop precipitously. It is in tatters right now.

President Obama clearly disagrees. In Prague, he said that the treaty's "basic bargain is sound." But here's a mystery I hope you can unravel for me, Andy: How can the basic bargain be sound when it is broken without consequence by countries such as North Korea and Iran that are openly threatening their neighbors with incineration.

Let us not forget what we are talking about here: the control of weapons that can destroy entire cities. There are already too many floats in this terrifying parade.

North Korea signed the NPT in 1985 and, before withdrawing from it altogether, repeatedly violated it to wring concessions from its neighbors and us. Meanwhile, it has built one or more nuclear devices and has been covertly shipping nuclear equipment to other outlaw states.

Iraq signed the NPT in 1968. Unbeknownst to the world, and away from the eyes of International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors, it was months away from finalizing a nuclear device when it was interrupted by American force of arms in 1991.

Iran signed the agreement in 1968 and stands in violation of it today.

Like India and Israel, Pakistan has not signed the treaty at all. Instead, it built a nuclear arsenal in the center of Islamic radicalism and then, with a wink and a nod, it allowed one of its scientists to operate a nuclear bazaar, hawking bomb-making technology to rogue states of every stripe.

Obama seems to recognize that something is awry, but he has refrained from saying precisely what it is. Speaking of the NPT in Prague, he declared that "we need more resources and authority to strengthen international inspections. We need real and immediate consequences for countries caught breaking the rules or trying to leave the treaty without cause." Who could possibly disagree?

However, what exactly does the president propose to do if a country refuses to accept inspectors or decides to eject them? That is precisely the problem before us in North Korea.

Or what if a country accepts inspectors and then denies them full access to all of the places they would like to visit? That occurred in Iraq, resulting in a tragic war. The same problem is now being repeated in Iran.

What are the "real and immediate consequences" that Obama expects will discourage rule-breakers or those trying to leave the treaty? He has not said. If you have any insight into this second mystery, Andy, I would welcome hearing it. To my mind, it is the central question, and I hope you will address it.

Frankly, if Obama's idea of real and immediate consequences is to deliver speeches denouncing the violators, or if it is "dialogue" with the violators, or if rests upon, as you suggested Wednesday, getting Brazil, Egypt and Malaysia (why not add Liechtenstein?) to weigh in against the violators, or if it relies on measures to punish the violators that require the assent of all the members of the United Nations Security Council, including China and Russia, then we ourselves might as well sell nuclear bombs to Iran, North Korea and Al Qaeda and at least make a handsome profit before we are all blown to smithereens.

In the 1990s, the assurance provided by the NPT helped lull the world into complacency about the continuing danger of proliferation. Now, a focus on rewriting the treaty is bound to deflect the attention of the world from the urgent problem posed by Iran and North Korea. The NPT has become an excuse for inaction, a mechanism that constrains the democratic powers while giving aspiring dictators time to build their bombs. It has manifestly failed in its basic objective of stopping proliferation. Tell me, Andy, if this is a model of arms control at its best, what does it tell us about the entire enterprise?

Gabriel Schoenfeld, a resident scholar at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, N.J., is writing a book about secrecy and national security that W.W. Norton will publish next year.