Forty years ago, three winners of a big war and 50 other nations signed a document to prevent the outbreak of armageddon (as nuclear war was fearfully called at that time). They succeeded and failed. The Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) has worked in limiting the spread of nuclear arms. It failed to disarm those with these weapons.
The past four decades have shown that while superficially similar, the two goals are contradictory: Nuclear weapons are the currency of power in a world of unequal states. Nobody can dispute that. Period. If a set of states can possess them, there is no reason to deny it to others. It has proved impossible to accommodate both these goals in a single treaty framework. Perhaps they were not meant to be.
These design flaws, if they can be called that, are a serious limitation. In his 1970 book, Exit, Voice and Loyalty, economist Albert Hirschman tried to find an answer to what takes place in failing organizations (business firms, political parties, states, multilateral organizations, etc.). What are the signals that members or consumers give in response to the decline and how do managements respond to these cues? Their members/consumers respond primarily in two ways: “Exit”, by leaving the organization to show their dissatisfaction, and “voice”, whereby they try to raise their concerns by staying on and trying to rectify the situation. “Exit” is a feature of commercial organizations such as those selling consumer products, etc. “Voice” is the domain of political organizations. But, in certain situations there is significant overlap.
Within this framework, Hirschman raised some interesting questions: What would happen if an organization responded well to one signal (say “voice”, for example) but was equipped with another (“exit”)? Its path to recovery would be blocked as its managers simply would ignore what its members said. Is there an optimal mix of “exit” and “voice”? His answer was a no.
NPT presents similar challenges. In theory it’s equipped both with “exit” (Article X of the treaty permits state parties to exit in case of extraordinary situations where their supreme national interest is jeopardized) and “voice”. In practice, both were ineffective from the word go. “Voice” by NPT members, a vast majority of whom are non-nuclear countries, can simply be ignored by the permanent five (P5) who possess nuclear weapons. “Exit” has serious consequences. Though Article X is worded innocuously, its consequences can be severe. One country, North Korea, has used that path. The consequences are there for all to see. Another country, Iran, may possibly take the same route. Both North Korea and Iran pose special problems (more of them anon), but it’s clear that “exit” is not an easy option at all.
“Voice”, in any case, was sterilized right from the word go. There is documentary evidence to show this. A 5 April 1968 US state department telegram details the tactics to be employed at the United Nations General Assembly to get NPT to the signing stage. It details, with cynical precision, how countries are to be “convinced” about the benefits of NPT and the limits of US security guarantees to non-nuclear countries. The USSR cooperated with the US in this venture. It worked, but in the process killed “voice” as an effective mechanism for effecting changes in NPT.
This problem was obvious to India and Israel, which faced adverse geopolitical conditions. In fact, in late 1967, when Canadian high commissioner James George tried to put pressure on prime minister Indira Gandhi to sign NPT, she pointed out these concerns as “with China at her back, and Pakistan lurking on the sidelines, she foresaw no alternative but to keep open her option on the production of nuclear weapons”. It was a voice in the wilderness at that time.
These are problems of countries whose voice is not being heard at all. NPT is also incapable of resolving “unreasonable” demands of those countries that are its members. Both Iran and North Korea present this problem. Both want to gain nuclear weapons (their denials notwithstanding) and both can have them and walk out of NPT (as North Korea has already done). This was the “nuclear pregnancy” problem that was looked at by US state department analysts in a May 1968 report titled, After NPT, What? The path that North Korea and Iran may adopt was assessed realistically and the conclusion was that the US had little leverage in that respect. Yet it was hoped that some combination of pressure by the US and the USSR would be sufficient to dissuade members of both “blocs” from taking any such step. The world has changed and US prestige and power is much more muted today than ever before and the USSR does not exist. Yet, the same problems persist. The framework to handle them is obsolete now.
But this is a birthday party and the successes of NPT, and they have been considerable, should be celebrated. It’s also an occasion to look at the limitations of designing multilateral institutions. The repertoire of human actions is virtually limitless. To expect a single organization to respond to this vast “opportunity set” is to expect too much. Beyond a certain level of flexibility, an agreement such as NPT will cease to exist; below a threshold, it will turn brittle. Those flaws exist and cannot be wished away.
Siddharth Singh is an assistant editor (editorial pages) at Mint. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org