The Paradox of the Non-Proliferation Treaty

The Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) is often labelled as a cornerstone of non-proliferation and one of the main factors curbing the spread of nuclear weapons. In a recent article, however, Orion Noda argues that the NPT is a nuclear proliferator; not of nuclear weapons per se, but of their symbolic value. 

The Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) is often labelled as a cornerstone of non-proliferation and one of the main factors curbing the spread of nuclear weapons. Its pillars – non-proliferation, disarmament, and the peaceful uses of nuclear technology – were designed by the nuclear powers to counter a perceived immediate threat at the time (nuclear proliferation), whilst promising to disarm in good time.

I argue, however, that the NPT is a nuclear proliferator; not of nuclear weapons per se, but of their symbolic value. Drawing from different fields, such as Anthropology, Linguistics, and International Relations, I suggest a theoretical model to study nuclear weapons and the NPT focused on symbolism and I reach two major conclusions.

Firstly, despite the shrinking nuclear arsenals, we are no closer to “general and complete disarmament” – one of the goals of the NPT. The treaty focuses exclusively on quantitative forms of nuclear proliferation, that is, how many nuclear devices a given state has. In that sense, the NPT overlooks a series of proliferation forms, such as qualitative and, more importantly, symbolic. Qualitative proliferation is linked to the modernization of nuclear arsenals or delivery vehicles, for instance. What I call symbolic proliferation, on the other hand, relates to the proliferation of the symbolic values of nuclear weapons. These values are often connected to ideas of power, status, prestige, modernity, and civilization. In that sense, nuclear weapons evoke and symbolize these ideas, making them valued items.

Secondly, the NPT not only fails to account for non-quantitative forms of nuclear proliferation, but also acts as a proliferator of these symbolic values of nuclear weapons. The way this works is through two mechanisms: historical and conceptual entrapment. Historical entrapment relates to the fact that the values and idea of nuclear weapons contained in the NPT was that of that specific point in time when the NPT was being negotiated. The NPT was negotiated in the 1960s, during a time when the symbolic perceptions of nuclear weapons were strongly associated with positive features, not only material (such as their unparalleled destructive power), but also subjective (such as status and prestige). In that sense, the idea of nuclear weapons brought into the NPT was that of the 1960s, an idea and a set of values unchanged until today, given the few alterations the treaty suffered.

Conceptual entrapment, on the other hand, alludes to how the NPT funnels most – if not all – discussions on the topic of non-proliferation and disarmament and, as a consequence of the historical entrapment, the NPT proliferates the values of nuclear weapons it carries within. In other words, given that the NPT embodies a specific set of Cold War-era values of nuclear weapons and the centrality of the NPT (the ‘cornerstone’ of the non-proliferation regime), most of the discussions on the topic, which goes through the NPT, are tainted with the NPT’s interpretation, perception, idea, and values of nuclear weapons.

In that sense, the NPT has, so far, failed to fulfill its promise of more than 50 years ago. There are some who argue that we should probably abandon the NPT, whilst some argue that the NPT is a stalwart of non-proliferation. In the middle, there are those who argue that although the NPT has major flaws, we would not be better off without it.

In my new article, I have shown that the NPT, in fact, has not done everything it was supposed to do: whilst the curbing of the spread of nuclear weapons may be counted as a positive NPT influence, disarmament cannot, despite the decreasing numbers. In order for the NPT to survive and function properly, it must broaden its definition of proliferation beyond the quantitative realm and, more importantly, acknowledge and reverse its position of symbolic proliferator by engaging with the debate on the immaterial values (or lack thereof) of nuclear weapons.

Orion Noda is with the Department of War Studies, King’s College London, London, and the International Relations Institute, University of São Paulo, São Paulo, Brazil. He is the author of “A wolf in sheep’s clothing? The NPT and symbolic proliferation”, Contemporary Security Policy, forthcoming, which can be accessed here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.