Sitting Ducks: The Conundrum for Non-Nuclear Powers and Urgency for NPT Revision

By: Mohammed Zain Shafi Khan and Gwen Smith

It’s a classic case of history being written by the victor. 

Powerful nations feel threatened that their power might be vulnerable. Therefore, they need to obtain as much power as they can. One such measure is the possession of nuclear weapons. 

But is it fair for nuclear powers to demand nuclear non-proliferation from all countries, nuclear and none? Depends on who you ask. 

In 1970, a total of 189 countries signed the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), leaving major powers that already had nuclear weapons at a standstill and preventing weaker countries from building such an  arsenal. 

The overarching goal of the treaty was to contain nuclear weapons and technology, promote nonviolent uses of nuclear energy and support nuclear disarmament. However, the execution of such initiatives is questionable, at best.

The NPT has no requirements explicitly stating that major powers must reduce their arsenals or halt the development of nuclear weapons. There is also no incentive to prevent countries from backing out of this agreement, if they feel provoked. 

Given these circumstances, it is evident that the premise of disarmament only makes sense if both countries are of equal standing. This would prevent a security dilemma, since neither country is threatened. However, when forcing smaller countries to halt their development of nuclear weapons, they will inevitably still feel threatened by more advanced nuclear powers.

For instance, despite its misleading title, the Cold War was arguably a time of peace in which the U.S and the Soviet Union restrained from using nuclear force while simultaneously increasing their arsenals. Although the case is an obvious success story of nuclear deterrence, it is important to remember that in the historical context, both Russia and the United States were major rising hegemonies after World War II, with similar access to nuclear intelligence.

Currently, the United States only allows its allies (Great Britain and France) to have nuclear weapons, further ostracizing other countries and maintaining this polarizing international atmosphere. When Russia attempted to do the same by supplying Cuba with missiles in 1962, all hell broke loose — resulting in the awkward period of nuclear non-proliferation known as the Cold War.

Nuclear non-proliferation doesn’t account for small countries feeling threatened, therefore prompting them to obtain weapons through illegal means. For instance, in the case of  North Korea, it is evident that the United States has done its best to prevent its progress in developing nuclear weapons. Despite this, North Korea withdrew from the NPT in 2003 and has made significant progress in producing fuel for nuclear bombs

Even current members of the treaty still tread a fine line by producing enriched uranium (commonly used to fuel nuclear weapons). After all, it is inevitable that sitting ducks will become restless and start to quack.

Although some argue it is inconsequential to consider what-if scenarios, this situation does call into question what would happen if Ukraine had not given up its nuclear arsenal to Russia as a condition of the NPT? Could Ukraine have deterred Russia from invading? 

Similarly, in modern situations of conflict such as Taiwan and Afghanistan, the control that their occupiers had over the region could have been, in a sense, avoided. Hypothetically, if both sides were equally defended, these conflicts might have been left at a standstill, like in the Cold War. 

Such scenarios display a significant downside of non-nuclear proliferation, in that it is highly dependent on one’s intentions. It does not directly prohibit the development of nuclear energy, but rather its potential uses. 

Regardless of intent, nuclear non-proliferation is forcing the international community to follow a rigged system in which major powers have the upper hand. 

The NPT needs to be seriously restructured in order to fulfill its original purpose — to avoid another Hiroshima and Nagasaki — and successfully promote nuclear deterrence. However, given that it currently benefits those that have a chokehold over the international community (namely, the United States and Russia), it is unlikely that it will be reexamined anytime soon.

For now, we are nothing more than sitting ducks.