Nuclear Nonproliferation: A Means to an End

Have You Ever?

Imagine you start hearing rumors around school that students in your class have been cheating on their math tests. You’re upset because their good grades are affecting the class rankings of students who have been working hard. You decide to organize a meeting with your classmates and try to get them all to agree not to cheat. However, five of the students go on cheating, even though they agreed not to. So, what do you do? Do you cheat as well so your ranking isn’t affected? Or do you continue doing the right thing even though your grade will be worse? 


Now imagine we’re talking about something much bigger than students cheating on a math test: the danger of the world being destroyed by nuclear weapons. A few countries have nuclear weapons, but most do not. Almost all countries agree that the world would be safer if there were no nuclear weapons, but those who have them don’t want to give them up. Just like the students who are cheating on the math test, nations with nuclear weapons know that it’s in their own best interest to keep doing what they’re doing. 

And just like you organized a meeting with your classmates, international organizations like the United Nations have arranged agreements between countries to reduce the amount of nuclear weapons in the world. The most significant of these agreements is called the Nonproliferation Treaty, or NPT.

Definition: Nuclear Nonproliferation 

Nuclear Nonproliferation is the effort to eliminate and reduce the existing stockpiles of nuclear weapons and prevent the creation of more.

How It Works

The Nonproliferation Treaty was negotiated in Geneva, Switzerland, from 1965 to 1968, the NPT aims to prevent the circulation of nuclear weapons and achieve nuclear disarmament. It entered into force in 1968, and in 1995, it was extended indefinitely. There are currently 191 signatories. 

The treaty follows a three-pillar system:

  1. Nonproliferation: Under this pillar, non-nuclear states agree not to acquire nuclear weapons and to only engage with nuclear technology peacefully. Nuclear states will not assist non-nuclear states in acquiring nuclear weapons in any way.
  2. Disarmament: The article regarding disarmament vaguely states that nuclear states should move towards general disarmament of nuclear weapons. However, this aspect of the treaty is criticized for its lack of precision, allowing nuclear states to maintain their nuclear arsenal. The five nuclear states in this treaty have failed to effectively move towards disarmament, which has sparked controversy over whether non-nuclear states should uphold their end. 
  3. Peaceful Use of Nuclear Technology: The treaty recognizes the right of all nations to develop nuclear technology for peaceful purposes, such as providing electricity and energy, and demands that non-nuclear states get assistance in their efforts to develop nuclear technology.

Although this treaty currently has 191 signatories, a few nations with nuclear weapons have not yet signed the treaty, including India, Pakistan, and Israel, whose possession of nuclear weapons has not been proven yet. Because some nuclear states have not signed the treaty, there is concern around the treaty’s effectiveness. However, the Nonproliferation Treaty remains the most significant global effort to eliminate the spread of nuclear weapons. 

Why Care?

The amount of nuclear weapons in the world today are only one-fifth of what they were when the NPT was signed. However, nations who have signed the NPT, as well those who have not, continue to engage in behavior that is contrary to the goals of nonproliferation. 

In 2003, North Korea decided to withdraw from the Nonproliferation Treaty, and three years later, the North Korean government tested its first nuclear weapon. Recently, there has been concern that Iran is also seeking enough nuclear power to create a nuclear weapon and may also choose to withdraw from the NPT in order to do so. In 2015, Iran and 6 other nations reached an agreement to restrict its ability to build a nuclear weapon in what is known as the Iran Nuclear Deal. However, the United States’ withdrawal dramatically weakened the agreement and eventually led Iran to withdraw as well. 

The United States and Russia account for 90 percent of the nuclear weapons on earth. While the amount of active weapons held by these countries has drastically reduced since the end of the cold war, both continue to modernize their nuclear arsenals. Likewise, tensions between the US, Russia, and China have risen in recent years, making the goal of complete nuclear disarmament feel more distant than ever. Nonproliferation efforts teach us how difficult it can be to convince nations, or individuals, to act for the collective good rather than their own selfish interests.

Think Further

  1. What are the potential impacts if nuclear states within the NPT fail to disarm?
  2. How can the possession of nuclear weapons give one nation an advantage over nations that don’t have them?
  3. Can the NPT be successful if some of the nations who possess nuclear weapons have not signed the treaty?


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Learn More

  1. “Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.” United Nations,
  2. Durkalec, Jacek. “The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty at Fifty: A Midlife Crisis.” NATO Review, 29 June 2018,
  3. Haltiwanger, John. “Here’s What’s in the 2015 Nuclear Deal With Iran That the Country Withdrew From Amid Heightened Tensions With the US.” Business Insider, 14 Jan. 2020,
  4. O’Hanlon, Michael E., Einhorn, Robert, Pifer, Steven, and Rose, Frank A. “Experts assess the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, 50 years after it went into effect.” Brookings, 3 Mar. 2020,