For a safer world, we must strengthen the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty
Today we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). As chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia, the Pacific, and Nonproliferation, I co-chaired a hearing this week on the challenges faced by this landmark treaty. The hearing reinforced that while the threat of nuclear war may not feel as imminent as it did when I was a child practicing duck and cover drills with my classmates, the challenge nuclear weapons pose today is much more complicated.
Seventy-five years ago, tens of thousands of people were killed instantly in Hiroshima and Nagasaki with just two bombs. Today’s nuclear weapons are much more destructive and capable than our comparatively much smaller bombs from 1945. Today nine countries possess about 14,000 nuclear weapons, making our geopolitical situation much more complex.
Americans don’t need to understand nuclear physics to know that the spread of these weapons is an existential threat to humanity. A true solution to this problem will require global cooperation. As the only global, legal framework that works to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons, the NPT plays a critical role in addressing today’s nonproliferation challenges.
The NPT designates two categories of countries: those who had nuclear weapons when the treaty came into force and those who did not. The big compromises of the NPT were that countries without nuclear weapons agreed to never develop or acquire them, could engage in peaceful nuclear technology or energy programs and those with nuclear weapons would work towards ending the arms race and eventually eliminating their stockpiles. These three promises are held as three mutually-reinforcing pillars of the NPT, all working together to keep the treaty strong.
Unfortunately, today we face challenges to all three pillars. It is critical that the U.S. leads the international community ahead of the 2020 NPT Review Conference to support forward-looking steps to strengthen this important treaty.
First, North Korea and Iran pose serious nuclear weapons proliferation challenges. Through the NPT, Iran has committed to allowing international inspections of their nuclear programs to ensure that they are not moving towards nuclear weapons. It is in our interest to ensure Iran remains in the NPT and adheres to its commitments. North Korea withdrew from the NPT and its constraints in 2003, proceeded to develop nuclear weapons, and is continuing to develop missiles that could reach the U.S. The NPT Review Conference could be an opportunity to work with allies to discuss how to mitigate this threat.
Second, the state of U.S.-Russian arms control agreements is bleak. Both sides have let major agreements fall by the wayside, which is a bad signal from the two countries who collectively hold 90 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons. Other nations may fairly question U.S. commitment to arms control, which could undermine our leadership position in the NPT.
Finally, there is the ongoing issue of ensuring countries do not pursue weapons programs under the guise of a peaceful nuclear energy program. Nuclear technology should be used responsibly. The world needs to be moving away from new nuclear weapons states, not increasing the number of countries with these weapons of mass destruction. We can and should strengthen the safeguards to uphold this pillar.
The U.S. should continue to address nuclear proliferation challenges to make sure our country is safe. No child should ever have to learn how to duck and cover from incoming bombs in school the way I did during the Cold War. It’s time to learn from history and seek to strengthen the NPT to promote a safer world for this generation and the next.
Bera represents California’s 7th District and is chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia, the Pacific, and Nonproliferation.