The most important upcoming decision on Britain’s future might be made three days before the general election, when representatives from 188 countries gather in Manhattan to consider the future of the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The NPT codified a bargain between the five states which then possessed nuclear weapons – Britain, China, France, the Soviet Union and the United States – and the rest of the world. Countries ratifying the treaty as non-nuclear weapon states agreed not to develop or acquire such weapons. In return, they would be given access to nuclear technologies for energy production, the development of medicines and other purposes. They also obtained a commitment that the nuclear weapon states would ‘pursue negotiations in good faith . . . on general and complete disarmament’. The Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), an arm of the United Nations, monitors compliance with the treaty by sending inspectors to nuclear facilities worldwide. The NPT has been remarkably successful, in that none of the 183 ratifying non-nuclear states has subsequently acquired nuclear weapons. The only three countries to have acquired nuclear arms since 1970 – India, Pakistan and Israel – exercised their sovereign right to stay out of the treaty.
The NPT has, however, failed to achieve general disarmament. More than 30,000 nuclear weapons remain, most of them belonging to the five original nuclear weapon states. Increasingly, other countries are questioning the willingness of the powerful to keep their side of the bargain, and returning to a way of thinking that predates – and was a reason for the negotiation of – the NPT.
In Leonard Wibberley’s novel The Mouse that Roared (1955), later made into a Peter Sellers film, a tiny impoverished country declares war on the United States in the hope of being rapidly defeated, occupied and reconstructed. The plan goes wrong when the flyweight belligerent inadvertently acquires the world’s most powerful weapon, and thus the ability to defend itself. The ability of nuclear weapons dramatically to alter international power relations has not been lost on North Korea and Iran, the two remaining members of the ‘axis of evil’. After the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, Kim Jong Il speculated that George W. Bush would not have gone to war had Saddam Hussein possessed nuclear weapons. The North Korean dictator’s continued presence in Pyongyang suggests that he was right about this. Two years ago, North Korea renounced its 1994 ‘agreed framework’ with the United States under which, in return for economic aid, it had promised to stop reprocessing spent uranium fuel rods into plutonium for nuclear weapons. It also expelled the IAEA’s inspectors and announced its withdrawal from the NPT. These actions constituted a real threat to international peace and security, yet Washington neither responded militarily nor deigned to negotiate directly with Pyongyang.
In February, the North Korean government announced that it had ‘manufactured nukes for self-defence to cope with the Bush administration’s ever more undisguised policy to isolate and stifle’ the DPRK. This could be a bluff, but the information obtained by the IAEA inspectors before they were expelled suggests that Pyongyang has all the components and technological competence needed to make a plutonium bomb. In addition, the United States claims that North Korea shipped partially enriched uranium to Libya as recently as 2003, heightening concerns that it might be willing to sell weapons-grade fuel to other states or, worse yet, to a terrorist group.