Nuclear Non-Proliferation Regime: Perspectives and Imperatives for Global Security


By Michele Mignogna

Michele Mignogna discusses tensions in the current global nuclear non-proliferation regime and calls for “revision to address the evolving challenges and criticisms, particularly from states in the Global South”.

The proliferation of nuclear weapons is a critical global security concern that carries significant implications for international stability and peace. The expansion of nuclear arms and technology to additional states, and potentially to non-state entities, increases the likelihood of nuclear conflict, thus undermining global security, whether by deliberate actions or unintended circumstances.

The fundamental issue surrounding nuclear proliferation revolves around the heightened risk of nuclear weapons deployment. With an increasing number of states obtaining nuclear capabilities, the challenge of upholding strategic stability becomes more intricate and the conventional models of nuclear deterrence become increasingly fragile. This risk is exacerbated by the possibility of regional arms races, exemplified by the situation in South Asia between India and Pakistan, where the nuclear capabilities of one nation prompt neighboring states to pursue their own arsenals.

Currently, for the first time since the conclusion of the Cold War, there is a notable increase in concerns worldwide regarding the heightened risks of a nuclear catastrophe. In the last decade, the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, commonly known as the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which serves as the cornerstone of the global non-proliferation framework, has witnessed significant divisions among its member states. Moreover, the failure of two consecutive Review Conferences (RevCons) to reach a consensus on outcome documents has undermined its effectiveness. 

In this context, there is a growing level of criticism or disagreement from states in the Global South (although they are far from being a homogeneous bloc) regarding the role and future of the nuclear non-proliferation regime, particularly concerning the obligations imposed by the NPT and the perceived lack of reciprocal benefits for these countries. Such criticism has the potential to impede the efficient functioning of the NPT, potentially leading to reduced cooperation in implementing its provisions. Therefore, it is both timely and imperative to thoroughly analyze these criticisms towards the NPT and the implications for the future of the non-proliferation regime.

The Non-Proliferation Treaty 

For nearly five decades, the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) safeguards system, operating under the NPT, has been widely recognized as a significant global achievement in preventing the diversion of civilian nuclear materials for military purposes. This system has fostered collaboration in the development of nuclear energy while ensuring that materials like uranium and plutonium, as well as associated facilities, are utilized solely for peaceful endeavors and do not contribute to the proliferation of nuclear weapons. 

The text of the treaty has been reviewed several times. Remarkably, after having been initially negotiated in 1968, it was extended indefinitely in 1995, underscoring the commitment of most states to renounce nuclear weapons and utilize nuclear technology solely for peaceful pursuits.

The treaty – essentially an agreement among the initial five Nuclear-Weapons States (NWS) and other nuclear technology-interested nations – hinges on the exchange of assistance and cooperation for pledges, enforced by international oversight, to prevent diversion of nuclear materials for weaponization. States that opt not to participate in or fail to adhere to the safeguards run the risk of being excluded from international cooperation or trading with the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) for nuclear technology. 

Specifically, 189 states and Taiwan are party to the NPT, encompassing all five acknowledged NWS that had detonated nuclear weapons before 1967: China, France, Russia, the UK, and the USA. Notably absent are Israel, India, and Pakistan, with North Korea also outside the treaty as its weapon programs matured after 1970. India’s special arrangement in 2008, followed by its ratification of the Additional Protocol in 2014, has partially integrated it into the NPT framework.

The primary goals of the NPT are to halt nuclear weapons proliferation, provide security for Non-Nuclear Weapon States (NNWS), foster international cooperation in peaceful nuclear energy applications, and earnestly pursue negotiations toward nuclear disarmament, aiming ultimately for complete elimination of nuclear arsenals.

President Lyndon B. Johnson of the US addresses the UN General Assembly in June 1968 after it adopted a resolution on the Non-Proliferation of nuclear weapons, © UN Photo/Yutaka Nagata

Growing Disenchantment with the Global Nuclear Non-Proliferation Regime

The global nuclear non-proliferation regime is facing significant challenges, marked by increased tensions between major powers such as the United States and Russia. Moreover, critical confidence-building measures, such as the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty and the New START Treaty, have deteriorated, as evidenced by their current suspension, adding further complexity to the situation.

These issues have led to the inability to reach agreements at successive RevCons of the NPT. Moreover, uncertainties loom over the future of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) regarding Iran’s nuclear program, while North Korea’s nuclear and missile activities continue to escalate. Additionally, Russia’s nuclear threats amid the conflict in Ukraine further weaken the non-proliferation regime, undermining its capacity to reinforce non-proliferation efforts moving forward.  

Global South 

Another crisis that may be receiving less attention involves the legitimacy of the non-proliferation regime among countries of the Global South. There is a growing dispute stemming from the perception that discussions within the NPT have been predominantly driven by the interests of Western and Global North states. This dispute has led to new tensions emerging within the non-proliferation framework, particularly between countries of  the Global South on one side and the abovementioned NWS and NATO countries on the other. Central to these disputes are the the failure of the latter to make significant progress towards global nuclear disarmament and the challenges faced by other NPT states parties in accessing nuclear materials and technology for peaceful purposes. 

Additionally, there is minimal indication that the nine current nuclear-armed states are earnest about nuclear disarmament, and nations responsible for nuclear weapons tests have failed to offer aid or compensation to those affected.

Long story short, the growing dissatisfaction with the NPT in the Global South largely stems from the recognition that the Treaty has deviated from its initial objective of catalyzing transformation within the nuclear non-proliferation regime. Instead, it is perceived to have shifted its focus towards preserving the existing nuclear status quo and prioritizing the interests of the original NWS acknowledged by the NPT. Furthermore, NNWS from the Global South also express grievances about the NPT’s disproportionate emphasis on non-proliferation efforts over the other two pillars: disarmament measures and equitable access to peaceful nuclear energy.

Furthermore, the unequal setup of the NPT, which differentiates between NWS and NNWS, has prolonged tensions within the non-proliferation framework. Observers note that similar to the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), the NPT no longer accurately reflects the dynamics of the modern nuclear landscape. Although this inequality was initially intended to be temporary, the failure of Nuclear Weapon States to pursue nuclear disarmament has solidified this divide. Furthermore, geopolitical shifts in the international system since the late 2000s have elevated the political and economic significance of the Global South. However, under the current structure of the regime, the Global South lacks the capacity to exert influence over the NPT or the NWS.

Status of world nuclear forces, © FAS – Federation of American Scientists


The current state of the NPT and the broader nuclear non-proliferation regime underscores the pressing need for revision to address the evolving challenges and criticisms, particularly from states in the Global South. The proliferation of nuclear weapons continues to pose a significant threat to global security, as evidenced by increasing tensions between major powers, the breakdown of critical confidence-building measures, and the failure to achieve consensus at key review conferences.

Amidst the ongoing threat of nuclear proliferation driven by the advancement and expansion of many nuclear arsenals worldwide, the NPT remains the primary mechanism for curbing the further dissemination of nuclear weapons. It is imperative that efforts are undertaken promptly and collectively to preserve and reinforce the global norm of non-proliferation, safeguarding the non-proliferation regime from stagnation or potential collapse. 

However, this task is fraught with challenges. With a lack of clear leadership within the NPT community, consensus-building among Treaty states parties is increasingly complex. An extensive reassessment of the NPT and the broader regime, aimed at enhancing inclusivity and addressing the concerns of a diverse group of countries, is essential for its continued effectiveness. An integrated approach is necessary, as attempting to tackle each issue individually is difficult to implement and coordinate, given their interrelated nature. 

Consequently, central to the future non-proliferation regime should be the reinforcement of the NPT-based framework, coupled with efforts to bridge the perceived equity gap and address grievances, particularly among NNWS, notably those from the Global South. These measures are crucial for fostering greater trust and confidence in the non-proliferation regime among countries in the Global South.

Michele is a Security & Defense Consultant at NCT. He holds a double master’s degree in EU and International Law with a focus on European security & defense. Recognized by the French Embassy in Madrid for his thesis on the EU’s defense capabilities post-war in Ukraine, at NCT he collaborates with government bodies to promote inter-agency and multinational cooperation in defense. At NCT, he engages in roles opposing SWAT/SOF Units in CBRNe environments. 

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