Group B – Nuclear Diplomacy




The traditional goals of the 19th and early 20th century Great Power geo-political system had been to acquire a preponderance of power for one’s own nation or alliance system.  With the advent of the Atomic Age following the Second World War, this quickly changed into a bi-polar balance of power arrangement.  As the spread of nuclear weapons technology began to expand outside of the confines of the bi-polar order, especially with the advent of the nuclear program of the People’s Republic of China, it became imperative from the point of view of the nuclear “have’s” to contain the spread of this technology among the nuclear “have not’s”.  In order to accomplish this goal, it would be necessary to create a broad international structure to regulate this phenomenon and to encourage co-operation in order to achieve international stability.  The spread of nuclear weapons among states could reduce security for all, increase the risks of nuclear accidents or the criminal appropriation of nuclear devices, and heighten the chance of international miscalculations.  In the context of the Cold War, these problems could lead to an escalation of tensions and the possibility of nuclear conflict.


Historical Framework

After 1949, diplomatic efforts towards a non-proliferation regime were strengthened as the Soviet Union tested its first nuclear weapon, and again in 1950, following a similar test by the United Kingdom. On 8 December 1953, American President Dwight D. Eisenhower delivered his “Atoms for Peace” speech, which became the cornerstone in fostering the creation of a nuclear non-proliferation regime. That was the genesis of the idea to control the spread of nuclear weapons technology during the era of the Cold War. Eisenhower’s speech followed a specific line of reasoning, as he stated:

“I know that the American people share my deep belief that if a danger exists in the world, it is a danger shared by all; and equally, that if hope exists in the mind of one nation, that hope should be shared by all”

President Eisenhower signs H.R. 9757, an act “to amend the Atomic Energy Act of 1946


This speech provided the political basis of all future negotiations regarding nuclear deterrence and non-proliferation, which were joined together in the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) signed in 1968 (which became enforceable from 1970).

Eisenhower stressed that the means to produce nuclear weapons, then possessed by only a few states, would eventually spread to other countries, “possibly all others; furthermore there was the serious military threat of a surprise nuclear attack, which neither superiority in numbers of weapons” nor powerful defense systems could prevent. Originally, the states which took part in the project were the United States, Great Britain and Canada.  A “special relationship” existed among these three powers due to several factors, especially their cooperation in the Manhattan Project during the Second World War and the conclusion of the world’s first nuclear non-proliferation accord, the secret Quebec agreement of August 1943. This agreement committed the Atlantic allies not to communicate any atomic information or share sensitive technology or materials with third parties without mutual consent. This three-state policy was then extended to France, Australia and, in order to control the production of fissile material, to the major uranium producing countries, namely Portugal, South Africa and Belgium.

Eight western states were then determining the future of the global nuclear balance. The first U.N. International Conference on Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy, which took place in Geneva in 1955, was the biggest scientific conference the world had ever seen with seventy-three countries and 1,428 delegates.

Geneva Conference


In the period between 1955 and 1957 the number of countries involved in negotiations increased to twelve with the official inclusion of the Soviet Union, and Moscow began to cooperate actively in the non-proliferation policies. Finally, on July 29, 1957, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was created with the purpose of promoting the peaceful use of nuclear energy. IAEA’s structure was modified by articles III and IV of the Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) where it is written that the organization has many roles, such as establishing an international safeguards inspectorate and to serve as a multilateral channel for transferring peaceful applications of nuclear technology.

  • NPT Article III: The IAEA administers international safeguards to verify that non-nuclear weapon states party to the NPT fulfill the nonproliferation commitment they have made, “with a view to preventing diversion of nuclear energy from peaceful uses to nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices.”
  •  NPT Article IV: The Agency facilitates and provides a channel for endeavors aimed at “the further development of the applications of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, especially in the territories of non-nuclear-weapon States Party to the Treaty, with due consideration for the needs of the developing areas of the world.”

Furthermore, IAEA had acquired through time the capacity of verifying nuclear-weapon-free zones and controlling ex-nuclear weapon material with non-originally treaty powers.


The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons 

In 1962, the world faced the tension of a possible nuclear war as both the United States and the Soviet Union were dealing with the Cuban Missile Crisis. Moreover, in 1964, China conducted its first nuclear test, the so-called Operation 596, demonstrating that nuclear weapons were not a Western monopoly anymore. These events, taken together, generated the impetus that would eventually lead to the establishment of a treaty in order to prevent the further proliferation of nuclear weapons, and to lay the groundwork for eventual nuclear disarmament.[1] After extended negotiations regarding all aspects of collective security arrangements, safeguards and balanced obligations, the United States and the Soviet Union came to an agreement which they proposed as the Non-Proliferation Treaty to the UN. After amendments to the joint proposal, the UN General Assembly approved Resolution 2373 on 12 June, 1968, and endorsed the NPT [2 ]

The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, signed in 1968 and entered into force in 1970, is composed of eleven articles that rest on three pillars:

    • Non-proliferation
    • Disarmament
    • Right to use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes 

The first pillar (Non-Proliferation) deals with the prevention of the spread of nuclear weapons to non-nuclear-weapon states (NNWS), who agree not to import, build or otherwise acquire nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices. In addition, nuclear-weapon states (NWS) agreed not to transfer these devices or technical know-how to NNWS. The second pillar (Disarmament) is expressed by Article VI, which obliges all signatories “to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a Treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control”.

It is important to stress that the main objective of the NPT was not to achieve total disarmament, as NWS did not really want to renounce their nuclear arsenals. Thus article VI, which is considered  to be the world’s only legally binding obligation on NWS to reduce and ultimately eliminate their nuclear weapons, only implies a general commitment to pursue disarmament in “good faith”. Referring to the peaceful uses of nuclear power (the third pillar), all state parties agree to the full exchange of equipment, materials and scientific and technological information concerning the peaceful uses of nuclear energy. Furthermore, NNWS parties must accept and comply with IAEA safeguards. This is an important condition for peaceful nuclear cooperation. IAEA safeguards are “based on an assessment of the correctness and completeness of the State’s declarations [to the Agency] concerning nuclear material and nuclear-related activities” [3]

Every five years there is a revision of the NPT in so-called Review Conferences of the Parties to the Treaty of Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. The treaty was originally conceived with a 25 years limited duration but it was extended indefinitely by the Review Conference in New York City on 11 May 1995, thanks to the efforts made by the American Ambassador Thomas Graham Jr. Since 1970, when it was adopted, the number of countries that have ratified the NPT is currently the highest in its history. Cuba acceded to the treaty as the 188th nation to ratify it in 2002, while the Democratic Republic of Korea (North Korea) withdrew from membership in 2003, making this situation unique in the 37 years of the treaty’s existence. Today, only Israel, Pakistan and India have not signed the NPT: these countries are labeled as nuclear weapon holders (potential in the case of Israel) but, as they have not made experiments using nuclear devices since 1967, they are not considered as nuclear-weapon states as prescribed by the treaty. Their future membership could be achieved only through the elimination of their nuclear arsenals and acceptance of IAEA inspections on their nuclear activities[4]


Final considerations: is the NPT the base for an internationally recognized order?



Considering that the NPT has had a fundamental role in shaping a nuclear non-proliferation system, it is also important to underline how much this order is internationally recognized and what are the future challenges to the international balance of power. The main issue concerns the question of whether the NPT has led to a fair and equitable nuclear order, considering the direct challenges launched by many countries such as North Korea and Iran. The core element of the crisis is the asymmetry involved in the regulation of possession of nuclear weapons. NNS consider themselves discriminated against because of their agreement to a treaty that allows only five “declared” nuclear states to possess nuclear weapons. On the other hand, NS have generally considered the weakness of the mechanism surrounding the dual-use technology the main problem for international stability: the possibility to pursue nuclear weapons clandestinely , under the veil of the treaty, as North Korea and earlier Iraq did, led to reconsidering the treaty. In the past states accepted the system due to the particular framework of the Cold War, but when the Cold War ended, NNS were not willing to accept that regime anymore and they started pressing for the modification of the NPT, in particular of Article VI. The real intentions of the NS became clear during the 2005 NPT Review Conference, when these countries refused to pursue disarmament, declaring that they didn’t consider disarmament obligatory anymore. Two decades after the end of the Cold War, the situation still has not changed. The 19,000 existing nuclear warheads are still in the possession of only eight states.

Among states there are ongoing tensions about the NPT obligations and the disarmament process continues to stall. Furthermore many initiatives to reach legally binding multilateral nuclear disarmament treaties were not successful.

  •  The Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) which aimed at banning nuclear tests has never come into force as the U.S. Senate rejected CTBT ratification in 1999.
  •  Since 1996 the Conference on Disarmament (CD) has been in a perpetual stalemate over Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty negotiations.[5]



To sum up, the nuclear non-proliferation regime has mainly two objectives: to promote the peaceful uses of atomic energy and to prevent the development of military nuclear capabilities of countries that are part of the treaty. This means that the peaceful use of nuclear technology has to become more widespread while making nuclear weapons less available.

But the question remains: what is to be considered an internationally fair non-proliferation regime? What should be shared and what should be denied? And by sharing, who is going to gain a greater advantage?

What is clear from this research is that the NPT played a fundamental role in fostering the creation of an international nuclear regime, but changes in states relations and the overturning of the Cold War bipolar order leads us to believe that there is a possibility for changes in the NPT that will reflect the geopolitical reality of today.

End notes 


 [2] United Nations Documentation Research Guide,“Conventions, Declarations and Other Instruments Found in General Assembly Resolutions (1946 onwards)”, viewed at:

[3] Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development Canada, “The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty”, viewed at:


[5] Lisa Donohoe, “Toward a World without Nuclear Weapons: Progress, Prospects, and Challenges”, Critical Issues Forum,  viewed at:


Authors: Althea Cenciarelli, Andrea Jorma Buonfrate, Pierfrancesco Miccio, Richard Drake

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