Twenty-five years after the Non-Proliferation Treaty took effect, 174 nations will assemble at the United Nations today to determine whether this historic pact to stop the spread of nuclear weapons will be extended indefinitely.
For the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France, the officially acknowledged weapons states, an affirmative answer is an important strategic objective. But for some of the larger non-nuclear states, an extension for only a fixed period of time supposedly would give them leverage over the Big Power states.
It is tempting to sympathize with the concerns of such nations as Egypt, Indonesia, Mexico and Nigeria. The NPT is inherently discriminatory in that it seeks to limit membership in the nuclear club to the five nations that had such weapons in 1970 and persisted in a deadly arms race until the Cold War ended five years ago.
Nevertheless, feelings of national pride should carry little weight in a matter so fundamental. The Non-Proliferation Treaty at this stage is a success. It has slowed the spread of nuclear weaponry, made pariahs of NPT signatory states that have violated their treaty pledges and promoted peaceful nuclear energy technology on a broad scale. Scores of non-nuclear weapons states have, as a consequence, much less to fear from their neighbors. South Africa, Brazil and Argentina have abandoned ambitious nuclear weapons programs. Former Soviet states Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Belarus have given up huge inherited arsenals.
This is the only time such a permanent extension can be achieved without changing the text of the treaty, thus avoiding the chancy business of referring the pact back to national parliaments for ratification. It should be seized.
To be sure, India, Israel and Pakistan remain a problem. They have not signed the treaty and encourage the notion that they do indeed have nuclear arsenals. Their security concerns are such that only regional peace settlements of high credibility would lead them to discard such a military asset. Obviously, this prospect is stronger with an NPT in force permanently than without one.
Ironically, the larger menace comes from states like North Korea, Iraq and Iran that have signed the NPT but have ignored its provisions by pursuing nuclear weapons programs. With the treaty in effect, however, they have to permit international inspections (and even dismantling) or face sanctions for being in open violation of the treaty.
The United States and the other nuclear weapons states would have been in a stronger position to extend the NPT in perpetuity if they had been able to agree on a complete ban on nuclear testing. To achieve a decisive majority, the Big Five states will now have to convince other nations that this goal will be achieved in the relatively near future. There is nothing more crucial to human survival than control of weapons of mass destruction. World diplomacy must meet the challenge.