Ambassador Susan Burk: The Historic Impact of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty

The 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the international framework for nuclear weapons control and the peaceful use of nuclear materials, was the product of a unique historic context and has had a sustained, beneficial impact, U.S. Ambassador Susan Burk said at a AAAS Capitol Hill briefing.

“It has proven to be vital to U.S. and international security,” said Burk. “While it has not prevented all proliferation, it has served as a powerful political and legal barrier to proliferation and, I believe, limited the proliferation we might otherwise have seen.” She also noted the significant growth in the treaty’s membership over the years, which represents the institutionalization of an international norm of nonproliferation.

U.S. Ambassador Susan Burk Photographs by Bob Roehr
U.S. Ambassador Susan Burk | Photographs by Bob Roehr

Among the nations that had the technical capacity to produce nuclear weapons at the time the treaty was adopted were Australia, Canada, Italy, Japan, South Korea, Sweden, Switzerland, and West Germany, but because of the treaty, she said, they chose not to do so. The adherence by South Africa, which already had crossed the nuclear threshold but then agreed to give up its weapons, and Argentina and Brazil, which had nuclear weapons aspirations, were important developments in the life of the treaty.

The break-up of the Soviet Union resulted in four states with nuclear weapons on their territory. Belarus, Kazakhstan, and the Ukraine “gave up those weapons to Russia and each of the three adhered to the NPT as non-nuclear-weapons states,” according to the ambassador, who serves as President Barack Obama’s special representative with responsibilities in the nuclear non-proliferation arena.

Gerald L. Epstein
Gerald L. Epstein

Less successful have been efforts to dissuade North Korea, Iran, and Syria from pursuing activities in violation of their nonproliferation commitments. “But without the legal and political framework provided by the NPT, I believe it would be far more difficult to organize an international response, including effective multilateral sanctions, to deal with these violations, than it has been,” she said.

Burk spoke at a 15 July briefing on nuclear non-proliferation sponsored by the AAAS Center for Science, Technology and Security Policy. Center Director Gerald L. Epstein said the event is part of an effort “to bring topical issues to policy-makers and the public, and offer them an opportunity to interact with leading experts in the field.”

Treaty Principles

The world has embraced the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Its 189 parties make it the most widely endorsed international pact in history. The treaty’s three pillars are non-proliferation, disarmament, and the peaceful uses of nuclear energy, Burk explained. “It recognizes that none of these objectives can be achieved in isolation.

“States are going to be more likely to renounce nuclear weapons if, one, they are confident that other states, particularly their neighbors, are not seeking nuclear weapons, and two, they believe the states that have nuclear weapons are pursuing good-faith efforts to disarm.”

Conversely, nations that already possess nuclear technology are more likely to share that expertise for peaceful uses “if they are confident that any nuclear materials, equipment, technology, or information they provide will not lead to further proliferation,” she said.

Central to the nuclear nonproliferation regime, of which the NPT is the cornerstone, is the International Atomic Energy Agency established in 1957 to promote peaceful uses of nuclear energy and verify that nuclear materials and technology provided for those peaceful uses are not diverted to weapons programs.

Context is Crucial

Burk said the Non-Proliferation Treaty was the product of its time, a bi-polar Cold War world in which the United States and the Soviet Union both had interests in limiting the further spread of nuclear weapons.

But the political world of today is no longer dominated by two great opposing alliances, and the technical and economic barriers to developing nuclear weapons have lessened. “The conditions that enabled its negotiation no longer exist,” she said, adding that she is not sure that a similar treaty could be negotiated and enacted today.

“Preserving, strengthening, and building on the legacy in all of its aspects is a really important task,” Burk said. “While the NPT has not prevented all proliferation…without it there likely would be many more states with nuclear weapons and many more nuclear weapons than there are…and a level of insecurity and instability that would be difficult if not impossible for nations to address.

“The biggest challenge to the treaty is the issue of non-compliance. Violations have such a corrosive effect on the integrity of the treaty,” according to Burk. The broader world community can band together to impose sanctions on the violators, and there is a growing willingness to do so, but that has not yet reached a sufficiently critical mass to change the behavior of those states.

The Risks of Civilian Nuke Power

Leonard Weiss
Leonard Weiss

Does the 2008 cooperative agreement between the United States and India on civilian use of nuclear power to generate electricity undermine the NPT? asked Leonard Weiss, a scholar with the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University and a retired senior staff member of the U.S. Senate who worked on nonproliferation issues.

The question is relevant because India is one of the few countries (along with Pakistan and Israel) that possess, or are believed to possess, nuclear weapons and have not signed the treaty.

Weiss implied that such cooperation did undermine the NPT.

Burk replied that, while some may try to use the U.S.-India deal to justify their unwillingness to take steps to strengthen the nonproliferation regime, it had in fact helped to narrow the gap between NPT parties and India by the latter’s acceptance of broader safeguards application, among other measures.

Weiss cited a study demonstrating an association where “when a country receives peaceful nuclear technical assistance, the probability of their making nuclear weapons goes dramatically up.”

He believes it is an argument against providing technical assistance on using nuclear energy to generate electricity and for increased activity by the United States to assist developing countries with technical assistance on alternative and non-carbon-based methods of generating electricity. Weiss said U.S. law supports this approach “but it has never been implemented.”

Epstein said it is exchanges such as these that demonstrate the importance of this AAAS program.


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