Contemporary Challenges to Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty

1.0 Introduction

The proper implementation and compliance of any formal international treaty is severely affected by a state’s acknowledgement. Similar to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, when a state does not actualize the need to sustain membership in such a treaty, there is a gradual decline in the effectiveness of that treaty. In reality, the pattern of power politics makes sense of states’ actions, as states have sought to retain their nuclear arsenal in order to maintain the aspect of deterrence against their rivals. In this way, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) has been subject to a plethora of challenges throughout the course of time, succeeding its inception. The NPT is an institutional framework that was assessed as an immediate need in the international state-system by the major powers right after the Second World War. The bombings on Hiroshima and Nagasaki resulted in destruction at a massive scale, a scale which had never been reached before. The major powers had unitedly agreed upon the mantra that such technology could lead to a third world war, and the proliferation of such weapons may result in mass destruction, which is also termed as “nuclear winter”. Therefore, in 1968, the treaty went public for signatures, and eventually, it came into force in the year 1970. Moreover, this treaty outstated the dire need for assistance by the prevailing nuclear weapon states in order to halt the proliferation of nuclear technology to non-nuclear weapon states (NNWS), which included the acquisition and development of these weapons. The compliance of NNWS with the core tenets of the NPT is carried out through a collective collaboration among the nuclear weapon states and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which is responsible for the surveillance and inspection of such states. Additionally, the states that have signed and ratified the NPT were also made responsible to promote the peaceful use of nuclear technology. Other than that, NNWS were also required to participate in the negotiations and party talks, pertaining to the persuasion of non-nuclear states in disarmament and dismantling of their pre-existing warheads. Although the need for the NPT is largely acknowledged by all states, the framework has also been criticized as it has failed to deliver its intended function. At one hand, where the signatories have increased, the number of nuclear weapon states has also increased, and especially, ever since the emergence of international terrorist organizations, the technology has become all the more vulnerable in the contemporary era. Consequently, although the continuation of this treaty is still significant, there are a number of challenges being posed by the current era, which may hinder the effectiveness of the treaty and also the disruption in the disarmament movement. Therefore, the paper provides a thorough theoretical interpretation of the NPT framework, along with the major challenges to the NPT regime and a set of specific recommendations to cater or curb these challenges, ensuring an effective NPT regime.

2.0 Research Question

The hypothetical basis of this research revolves around the question:

  • “What are the current challenges to the NPT Framework?” as power politics and advancements in technology have greatly influence the nature of threats in the modern-day.

3.0 Methodology

This report provides a qualitative thematic interpretation of the subject matter under discussion, along with analytical research pertaining to the issue. Furthermore, the research is based on data collected through secondary sources, which were purely scholarly sources. Moreover, the paper is descriptive and provides a thematic qualitative analysis to interpret the subject matter under discussion.

Additionally, the keywords used for conducting this research involve “Threats,” “Challenges,” “NPT,” “NPR,” “Obstacles,” “Security Paradigm,” “Power Politics,” “NPT in 2022,” and “Terrorism AND NPT”. Lastly, in assistance to keywords, Boolean operators were also used in order to refine the scope of this research.

4.0 Theoretical Framework

The Nuclear Non-proliferation regime can be interpreted through several conceptual frameworks, but only three of these frameworks are utilized to interpret and explain the co-existing nexus of politics and decision patterns: Neoliberal institutional theory, realist cartel theory, and classical realism theory. According to the neoliberal institutional theory, an institution can make commitments more credible, facilitate the processes of cooperation, coordination, and reciprocity.[1] The neoliberal theory views the non-proliferation regime as utterly because it provides a platform with the necessary framework, which establishes the notion of credibility and eased coordination. The prevalence of such a regime can therefore facilitate processes or interactions necessary to develop a nuke-free international community with less anxiety of war. However, the current world cannot be considered at peace, but rather in the absence of war, which is why there is a lingering anxiety of war, pushing every state to prepare for the inevitable deed.

Furthermore, since the existence of such a framework can prevent NWSs from providing nuclear technology to their allies and prevent non-nuclear states from acquiring or developing nuclear weapons, the NWSs consider the existence of such a framework quite necessary. Additionally, it also provides the NNWSs with incentives to keep these states from acquiring nuclear weapons in the future; including economic and military benefits, such as trade opportunities, joint ventures, multilateral contracts, military security, provision of allied forces in times of need, and most importantly, these states utilize the advantage of existing under the nuclear umbrella of NWSs. When these states fail to comply with the outstated principles of the NPT, they are immediately subject to a number of economic sanctions, and in some cases, even a blockade.

On the other hand, the realist view or also known as the “cartel theory” views the non-proliferation regime as a means for the NWSs to sustain their dominance by retaining their oligopoly over the NNWSs.[2] This is because in the fog of chaos amidst the second world war, and even after the war, the nuclear weapon states assumed that providing  nuclear weapons to their allies may strengthen their block. However, the states eventually actualized that their influence over their allies and the rival block may diminish in such a scenario. Consequently, the notion of deterrence must also remain dominant over their allies as well, which will in turn allow them to lead their allied block with proper credible influence. Therefore, the NWSs support and promote the notion of disarmament and dismantling of pre-existence warheads that relatively weak states may possess, so that they can retain their dominance in the global power politics.

Lastly, the classical realist theory may beg to differ, as the theory views war as an inevitable factor, and states may never be able to discontinue the arms race to survive in this anarchic world.[3] Furthermore, the classical realists believe that the balance of power is never stable, and each state would strive to reach or surpass the military potential of their rivals, providing them with a sense of security. Therefore, the realist theory suggests that states may continue their efforts in order to achieve the infamous nuclear arsenal to gain the upper pedestal in the anarchic world of power politics.

5.0 An Improvized Model for NPT

According to Lee and Nacht, there are only a few possible interactions that may influence and outline the number of policy options for each state.[4] They have identified four major actors that influence the policy decisions each state may make. These actors include state or state’s government, the International Community (IC), Rival States, and the domestic groups responsible for heavily influencing the decision-making process of any state. These actors are crucial in the predictability of state decisions, as a state government decides whether to abide by the NPT regime or to circumvent it, whereas, while the IC provides informed incentives to the states who comply with the principles of NPT, and the negative reinforcements for the states exhibiting non-compliant behaviors. Furthermore, the rival states are responsible for the provocation of a government, which may strengthen a government’s decision of non-compliance, and lastly, the domestic political groups in a state may serve to do same; influence state decisions. Lee and Nacht have devised three most rational model of policy options, which have been evident throughout the course of time, and these policy options include full compliance, non-membership, and cheating.[5]

In the case of full compliance, states sign the NPT and abide by all the necessary rules and principles enlisted in the treaty. In such a scenario, states are provided by a number of benefits in return as a result of exhibiting compliant behavior, which may include economic benefits, along with maximum security, as promised by the regime. Since, the policy option of compliance is in the best interest of the entire IC and NWSs, therefore, such states are kept under the nuclear umbrella of NWSs, leaving them strong, and dominant among their rival states in that particular region. For instance, Japan receives full military and economic cooperation from the NWSs, as the state abides by the core tenets of the NPT, which has allowed Japan to focus on its economy, and lead the world in technological innovation. However, surrendering nuclear weapons may also leave a state vulnerable to the dictations that the NWSs may pose in order to cater their own political interests.

Secondly, in the case of non-membership, states do not sign the treaty in order to strengthen their military capability and enhance their level of deterrence over their rival states. In such cases, states have been subject to negative reinforcements or sanctions, from time to time, however, the states still perceive the option to be in their best interest, as it serves their end goal of sustaining deterrence. For instance, in the case of Israel and India, they have not surrendered their nuclear arsenal in order to retain their deterrence, and since they have not signed the NPT, they do not receive any positive incentives from the IC or even the NWSs. However, non-membership does not imply that major powers disregard such states as credible and potential allies, which is why Israel and India have remained one of the most contributing allies of the US.

Lastly, in the case of cheating, the states are immediately subject to a number of economic and military sanctions. This is because, cheating is considered as a deviant behavior, as it is both immoral and unethical to curb the regulations imposed by regime. In the case of Iran and North Korea, both states have made efforts to acquire nuclear weapons, much before they were allowed to utilize peaceful means of nuclear technology. Consequently, Iran and North Korea have been subject to a number of sanctions which hindered their economies to a large extent. Therefore, it has been evident that states have opted at least one of the three policy options mentioned in this model, and apart from these policy options, there has never been another strategic option available for states to opt.

6.0 Challenges to NPT

The nature of power politics and challenges have been constantly varying and evolving over the course of time. For instance, it was evident during the second world war, right after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, that the major powers had sought to discourage nuclear weapons as a tool in war, whereas, during the cold war, the US and Soviet Union, both sought to maximize their nuclear arsenal in order to dominate each other.[6] This is because, during the cold war, the supreme notion of power resided in the acquisition of weapons of mass destruction, whereas, the notion of power changed significantly with the course of time, and due to which major powers had also actualized that the proliferation of such a technology may one day bring the International community at a stage where the entire world would be vulnerable to a third world war. The major powers do not fear the possibility of third world war, but the usage of nuclear weapons as mean to defeat each other, which has the potential to destroy the entire planet, if used by every state. Furthermore, the notion of power evolved into a more economic oriented concept, because states who have focused on economic development, are now being considered as one of the most powerful states in the world.[7] Apart from that, the advancements in technology and the variation in the nature of threats have also influenced a state’s decision-making processes. For instance, before the advent of internet, communications were never this simple, and with the technology of today, one can even infiltrate various databases of a foreign country, which can collectively pose a number of security threats to the entire IC. Consequently, the contemporary era has also posed a number of challenges to the nuclear non-proliferation regime, which include the continued proliferation efforts by states, rise of nationalism, power competition, pre-existing proliferation of nuclear technology and burdens on IAEA, growing disparities among the members of NPT, and modified terrorism.

6.1 Continued Proliferation Efforts

Despite the efforts of the NWSs and the International community to minimize the spread of nuclear technology a number of states have chosen the opposite direction. This implies that some states have increased their efforts towards the acquisition and proliferation of nuclear technology instead of decreasing or abiding by the non-proliferation regime. For instance, the last nuclear weapon test conducted by North Korea was in 2017, and it was observed that ever since the failed party talks of 2019, the state has not conducted another weapon test up till 2022.[8] However, it was reported that North Korea has been putting effort in the development of delivery vehicles, and not only that, but the latest nuclear missile tests in 2022 have proved that the state may not refrain itself from acquiring latest nuclear technologies.[9] Furthermore, it is not possible for a state to acquire nuclear technologies on its own, which is why it is evident that North Korea has been receiving foreign support as well, implying that a number of actors are involved in the proliferation of nuclear technologies. Moreover, even though the United States had withdrawn from the JCPOA, reviewing it as a grave mistake, it was reported that Iran has been continuously striving for the acquisition of nuclear technologies and information necessary to develop centrifuges, in order to cut-back the time required to enrich a specific lot of uranium.[10] Similarly, in the South Asian region, both India and Pakistan have been producing nuclear technologies, which can be observed as a continuous arms race, as one state acquires a technological capability in order to outshine the other in the great game of power politics. Additionally, it has been evaluated that when one state acquires a specific technology, it does not matter if that state has acquired the technology for self-defense purposes, the acquisition of such technology threatens the national security of its neighboring states. Consequently, when states such as North Korea continues its effort for acquiring nuclear technology, its neighboring states would also pursue for such a technology in order to balance the power. This balance of power is quite inevitable in the case of global power politics, because states would continue to expand their military capabilities in order to retain the notion of deterrence against other states, which will in turn provoke the rival or neighboring states to pursue for the same, resulting in an unending inevitable loop of balance of power.[11] For instance, although, South Korea is one of the members of the NPT, however, due to North Korea’s growing nuclear arsenal, it plans to develop a counter-nuclear system, in order to be prepared against any offense posed by North Korea.[12] In this way, even though it is quite rational for South Korea to engage in the acquisition of nuclear technologies, however, it would also motivate other non-nuclear states to pursue for a nuclear arsenal, eventually expediting the nuclear arms race. Therefore, the continuous pursuit of nuclear technologies poses a great threat to the non-proliferation regime altogether.

7.0 Rise of Nationalism

Another challenge to the non-proliferation regime is the rise of nationalism in various states. Nationalism has been seen as a growing trend in many countries, and it has the potential to threaten the international norms and regulations, including the non-proliferation regime. When states become more nationalistic, they tend to prioritize their own interests above those of the international community. This may result in states pursuing nuclear weapons for nationalistic purposes, which could pose a great threat to international security. For instance, in recent years, there has been a rise of nationalist movements in various countries, such as Russia, China, and India, which has resulted in an increase in military spending and nuclear weapons programs. These states have justified their nuclear weapons program as a means of defending their national interests, and have even suggested that their nuclear weapons programs are necessary to protect them against external threats. Such arguments may make it difficult to convince these states to abandon their nuclear weapons programs, and may even lead to an increase in the number of states seeking nuclear weapons.

7.1 Power Competition

Power competition is another challenge to the non-proliferation regime. The competition for power among states has been increasing in recent years, and this has led to an increase in the number of states seeking nuclear weapons. In the last decade, it was evident that China developed to a major power, challenging the hegemony of the United States, which is why the two states have been engaged in a trade war.The US-China disputes over some parts of the South China Sea have never come close to any resolution. Furthermore, the oceanic military presence of both major powers have been increasing with each passing year, which can be seen as a major factor provoking arms race in the entire region. Moreover, China’s aim to take over the world through economic ventures is perceived by the United States as one of the greatest threats to the US national interests, which is why the US has re-strengthened its entire block of allies, through the provision of advance technologies, including nuclear technologies as well. These states also include India, which implies that when a non-member state receives technological support, it would also provoke other states to opt for the policy option of non-membership as well, because such an option is in the best interest of the state. Additionally, the US withdrawal from the INF treaty, which was signed between Russia and the US, in order to dismantle ground-based ballistic missiles with the ranges of 500 to 5500kms, can be considered as a huge set back to the credibility and the effectiveness of the non-proliferation regime.[13] As a result, these scenarios have not only threatened the NPT institution altogether, but the disparities among the major powers may also provoke arms race as well, which is why the great powers must take a unified stance over the control nuclear proliferation. Therefore, the rise of complex political turmoil and competition among the great powers can substantially damage the effectiveness of NPT.

7.2 Rise of Terrorism and Proliferation of Nuclear Technology

It has been speculated that the prevalence of terrorist groups worldwide can prove to be one of most detrimental threats to the NPT framework, and the reason is twofold, increased proliferation of nuclear technology, and the improvised terrorist groups of today. Although, NPT has served to minimize the spread of nuclear technology all across the globe, however, it has failed to completely cease the proliferation process, as it was reported that the nuclear facilities which are accountable to IAEA safeguards have risen by the factor of 12 percent.[14] This implies that there has been a massive spread of nuclear technologies in the recent years. Furthermore, since terrorist organizations are known to adapt with the modern technologies, it is most likely that amidst such a high rate of proliferation, terrorist organizations may come across nuclear technologies as well. This can be speculated from the incident in Iraq invasion, where it was reported that the terrorist group has a hold a particular amount of nuclear material, which they have used to develop a dirty bomb.[15] This incident can outline the potential of the terrorist groups, as 19 years have passed, and the terrorist organizations of today would have a much better understanding pertaining to the utilization of nuclear technologies, which is why the acquisition of nuclear technologies by such groups can pose not only regional, but global security threats as well. Additionally, amidst the current political turmoil, and the never-ending increase in the proliferation of nuclear technologies, can also hinder the effective surveillance and monitoring of illegal nuclear proliferation, which is why the unintentional slippage of such a technology, can lead to a state of war.

8.0 Conclusion & Recommendations

Conclusively, it has been analyzed that currently, there are a number of challenges that may not only influence the effectiveness of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, but may also sabotage the entire regime as well. Furthermore, various theoretical framework have different views regarding the prevalence of NPT. The neoliberal institutional theory views the necessity of NPT because it considers NPT as an institution that provides a platform for credible commitments and coordination. That is why such a framework is necessary to cease the proliferation of nuclear materials. On the other hand, the Cartel theory of realism views NPT as a means of the nuclear weapon states or the major powers to retain their dominance over other states, which provides a more rational reason behind the necessity of such a framework. Lastly, when the NPT framework is viewed from the classical realist perspective, it opposes the framework because, according to the classical realist perspective, the international community is in a constant state of anarchy, and in order to survive, states would be required to maximize their power by any means necessary, which is why the NPT framework can be viewed as meaningless.

Furthermore, the Lee and Nacht model for NPT has simplified the interpretation of policy options that states have and also suggests the attached benefits along with each policy option, excluding the case of cheating. However, the scholars have failed to explain the case of affairs where a non-member ally is subject to incentives, whereas, a non-member non-ally state may receive economic sanctions (India and Pakistan, respectively). Moreover, after assessing the major challenges to the NPT framework, it was evident that each of these challenges make a loop of influence, which in the end may provoke the arms race once again. In this way, all of these challenges collectively pose a great threat to the effectiveness of the NPT framework. This is because all of these factors may provide states with rational reasons to opt for nuclear counter measures and nuclear technologies to subdue the offenses that could be posed by rival states. However, there is much to be done in order to curb these challenges and ensure the effectiveness of the treaty.

Firstly, the international community, nuclear and non-nuclear weapon states, all of them should collectively ensure the cooperation among the NPT members. This can only be possible when the United States and other major nuclear powers exhibit a notion of commitment towards the institution, because great powers cannot be non-compliant, and expect non-nuclear states to be compliant at the same time. The US withdrawal from the INF can be considered as a major blow to the entire NPT framework, because these actions had a substantially negative affect on the non-nuclear states. Besides that, the great powers and the non-nuclear states, must work together in order to re-negotiate the terms of nuclear disarmament, which is outstated in the Article VI of the treaty. However, if the NWS such as US, Russia and China, continue to maximize their nuclear weaponry, the effectiveness of the NPT would continue to diminish.

The United Nations and IAEA must unify the NPT members and non-members, and make them actualize the dangers of nuclear proliferation in the modern world. Due to the rise of nationalism, states now have more aggressive behaviors, which is why, non-nuclear states would most certainly opt for acquiring nuclear capabilities, whereas, the states with pre-acquired nuclear capabilities may enhance their nuclear capabilities. Although, there would be lower credibility of deterrence worldwide, however, the actual threat lies with the terrorist groups, which may attack a state, leaving the impression that the attack has been launched by the neighboring states, which can escalate in to a war. Therefore, the Unite Nations Security Council Must remind the great powers that an arms race in the modern day world may not be as same as the arms race during the cold war, it may quickly escalate in to a third world war, leaving the earth uninhabitable. In this way, the only option that the states have is to cooperate under the institutional framework of the NPT, and before great powers or NWS ensure their role of surveillance and monitoring NNWSs, they must first exhibit a full sense of commitment to the regime, so that the credibility of the framework increases.

About the Author

Mudassar Ali is an intern at the International Institute for Global Strategic Analysis (IIGSA). He is a final year student of International Relations in Bahria University, Islamabad Campus.

Table of Contents


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[4] Manseok Lee and Michael Nacht, “Challenges to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty,” Strategic Studies Quarterly 14, no. 3 (2020): 95–120.

[5] Lee and Nacht.

[6] Brendan Rittenhouse Green, The Revolution That Failed: Nuclear Competition, Arms Control, and the Cold War (Cambridge University Press, 2020).

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[8] UK Government, “Intercontinental Ballistic Missile Test by North Korea: G7 Foreign Ministers’ Statement, 30 May 2022,” GOV.UK, 2022,

[9] Wilson Center, “Revisiting History: North Korea and Nuclear Weapons | Wilson Center,” 2022,

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[11] John J. Mearsheimer, “The Inevitable Rivalry: America, China, and the Tragedy of Great-Power Politics,” Foreign Aff. 100 (2021): 48.

[12] Edward Kwon, “South Korea’s Deterrence Strategy Against North Korea’s WMD,” East Asia 35, no. 1 (2018): 1–21.

[13] Kingston Reif, “Trump to Withdraw US from INF Treaty,” Arms Control Today 48, no. 9 (2018): 23–24.

[14] IAEA, “IAEA Increases Projections for Nuclear Power Use in 2050 | IAEA,” 2021,

[15] Shreekumar Menon and Vagish Kumar LS, “Weaponizing Radioactive Medical Waste-The Looming Threat,” International Journal of Nuclear Security 5, no. 1 (2019): 4.

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