Proliferation Press

A webpage devoted to tracking and analyzing current events related to the proliferation of WMD/CBRN.

M.I.A. NPT: Does the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty Fail to Deter Proliferation?

Posted by K.E. White on March 26, 2007

According to two academics, the NPT “has not deterred proliferation at the systems level.”

“Enthusiasm for the NPT among proliferation opponents thus appears to be misplaced,” write Dong-Joon Jo (University of Seoul, Korea) and Erik Gartzke (Columbia University).

The academics come to this conclusion by statistically investigating factors that lead countries to proliferate around the globe.

Now one may point out the following: the NPT is not a completely globally regime. The nations that have ‘illegally’ proliferated (meaning not recognized by the NPT) are Pakistan, India, Israel, and most recently North Korea. South Africa also had nuclear weapons, but latter renounced them.

None of those proliferators were members of the NPT—North Korea left the treaty.

This is not to say that Gartzke and Jo have a point: the NPT has not reversed nuclear proliferation.

They are also correct to show that membership within a treaty should not be seen, in and of itself, as a determinate in whether proliferation occurs around the globe.

But they fail to address the legitimatizing power of the NPT, and how it has been used to restrain nuclear proliferation for over three decades.

This is a long-winded way of asking: What’s the right benchmark to gauge success?

For Gartzke and Jo they just look at the numbers: finding that nations have proliferation weapons, and that being a member or not did not seem to have as much weight as “major power status”.

But that is because they treat NPT “membership” as a number, and emphasize the cases of proliferation–(and ignores probable cases of nuclear reversal).

No where do they discuss the NPT as a vehicle for nation-states to develop nuclear policy, instead they want to reduce it to a single anti-proliferation weight.

Ian Bellany writes in Curbing the Spread of Nuclear Weapons:

A final conclusion relates to the NPT itself. Like all good arms control treaties, it should be at constant risk of failure since, like a good nuclear-free zone, it is doing a job work. Its success as an international arrangement is not therefore to be judged by occasional failures as such (which simply demonstrate the fact that it is needed) but by how well its chief backers react and adapt to these emerging realities (3).

Bellany points out an important aspect of the NPT: it is a tool for nation-states to change viewpoints on the global security context. Simply pointing at an objective aspect of the treaty—membership—does nothing to address either 1) nuclear proliferation or 2) the role of NPT plays in the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

The treaty is a forum (as Gartzke and Jo themselves argue), and its success depends on the actions of its members—particularly its permanent five members. Looking at North Korea’s isolation—caused in no small part by its withdrawal form the NPT—seems to suggest that legitimacy does matter when it comes to proliferation.

And the NPT bestows that international legitimacy.

But most troubling, Jo and Gartzke seem to pay no attention to proliferation reversals (such as South Africa and the post-Soviet Republics). They thereby only look to cases of proliferation, and not counter-proliferation, to gauge the treaty’s value.

Conclusion: Dong-Joon Jo and Erik Gartzke fail to actually substantiate their dire NPT conclusions.

Are there problems within the treaty that Jo and Gartzke point out? Yes.

May the world be on the cusp on a nuclear tipping point? Yes.

Has the NPT radically changed nation-state conceptions of international security? No.

But the NPT has undoubtedly contributed to an atmosphere of trust and predictability–as only an international agreement can foster.

Will Iranian resistance break this fragile regime? Perhaps.

But the regime, even if it ended tomorrow, has played a role in limiting the spread of nuclear weapons.

No past proliferator can be used as proof for the failure of the NPT. In fact, the limited proliferation since the NPT’s inception is proof of success.

Again, President Kennedy predicted a world of 15 to 25 new nuclear-weapon states.

And where are we today? Four.

Seems like a roaring success.

Now some may disagree with this baseline for NPT success. But Dong-Joon Jo and Erik Gartzke fail to justify their own bench line—or even articulate one.

Instead they do some statistical magic, offer no historical analysis, and come to ‘hard’ conclusions on the usefulness of the NPT.

Totally (un)impressive.

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One Response to “M.I.A. NPT: Does the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty Fail to Deter Proliferation?”

  1. Erik Gartzke said

    The author seems not to understand how multivariate statistics function, and thus misinterprets Jo and Gartzke’s finding. It is certainly reasonable to debate whether the Jo and Gartzke study is correct in concluding that the NPT has not reduced proliferation, but the critique here is pretty thoroughly misguided.

    At its most basic, asking whether the NPT works requires a comparison of which countries would have proliferated without the NPT, and which did with the NPT present. Our study builds a statistical model of who proliferates based on a number of factors (military, strategic, economic, political). We find that including whether a country signed the NPT does not significantly change the predictions of the model. NPT members don’t proliferate, but proliferators don’t join (or stay) in the NPT.

    Statistics are not “magic,” just a summary of the best available information on what has happened, and how these events relate to each other. We cannot prove that the NPT has no effect on world culture (indeed, we believe it probably does). Rather, we show that those countries that proliferated, or did not proliferate, probably would not have altered their actions even in the absence of the NPT. This was, after all, the basic objective of the treaty.

    Erik Gartzke

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