In a recent Foreign Policy piece Mark Hibbs offered a unique "fly-on-the-wall" perspective into the Byzantine internal machinations of the International Atomic Energy Agency as it seeks to update its safeguards procedures for nuclear materials in various countries. Though well intentioned, it appears such ad hoc tinkering with the architecture of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty safeguards system is fast running into a brick wall: many member states, citing the prerogative of national sovereignty, do not wish to extend the scope of the safeguards to which they have already agreed. And, really, no one can legally force them to.
Instead of trying to coax new tricks out of a tired old dog, what is now needed is a fresh grand bargain -- an NPT 2.0 -- that cuts through the thicket of the convoluted and endless eye-watering legal debates and actually brings about greater global security. One such idea would be to offer swift and truly massive arms reductions by the states that have nuclear weapons in exchange for much stricter curbs on the types of nuclear activities permitted in states without nuclear weapons. And instead of helping developing nations with just 1960s-era nuclear power as the current NPT prescribes, an NPT 2.0 could also encourage technologically advanced states to assist with energy efficiency and modern renewables.
The NPT has three main tenets, or "pillars" in the lingo: the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons and technology by all signatory states; eventual nuclear disarmament by the "nuclear haves"; and the recognition of the inalienable right of signatory states to develop and use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. The treaty also calls upon the technologically advanced nations to promote the further development of peaceful nuclear energy in lesser developed nations. These pillars are commonly seen as a simple bargain: in the words of Ambassador Thomas Graham, Jr., "the NPT non-nuclear-weapon states agree never to acquire nuclear weapons and the NPT nuclear-weapon states in exchange agree to share the benefits of peaceful nuclear technology and to pursue nuclear disarmament aimed at the ultimate elimination of their nuclear arsenals."
Over the years, for reasons good and bad, this bargain has become increasingly skewed. Aside from the non-weaponization obligations -- which apply only to states without nukes and which are ever more aggressively interpreted -- the United States, and most other nuclear-weapon states, no longer appear enthusiastic about the other tenets of the NPT. To the extent that the nuclear haves are interested in disarmament, this is completely divorced from any pressure they perceive from the NPT. Such nuclear arms reductions are typically negotiated bilaterally between the United States and Russia and proceed at their own sweet pace. (Between them, the United States and Russia possess roughly 18,000 nuclear weapons -- 95 percent of the world total.) This is despite the fact that the International Court of Justice interprets the NPT's nuclear disarmament clause as a legally binding obligation -- although, admittedly, it too does not impose any timeframe to accomplish this goal.
Advanced states are also no longer particularly eager to help develop nuclear energy in developing nations -- and this is actually a good thing. It is a dangerous and inherently dual-use technology and there ought to be no imperative to disseminate it world-wide, as there is in the NPT. It may have been seen as a panacea technology back when color television was still a novelty, but its dangerous underbelly -- in terms of safety, security, and waste -- has since been amply exposed.
Basically, the NPT encapsulates some dangerous and outdated prescriptions to proliferate dual-use nuclear technology while simultaneously not really having the teeth to hold nuclear-weapons states to their disarmament obligations. The one thing that those (politically powerful) states -- who also just happen to be the U.N. Security Council nations -- can seem to agree on, and one of the main reasons the treaty continues to be championed by these influential nations, is that it does still provide some legal barriers to help prevent other states from building nuclear weapons. But only some.
The articles of the treaty are sufficiently vague that the actual implementation of the NPT's "non-proliferation" and "peaceful uses" articles is done via very precise Comprehensive Safeguards Agreements negotiated bilaterally between the IAEA and individual states; more than 140 such agreements exist. These safeguards agreements spell out exactly the purpose and scope of IAEA inspections in various states. In order to preserve national sovereignty, such agreements are typically very narrowly focused and don't give the IAEA much legal scope to carry out wide-ranging investigations into nuclear-weapons related activities.