To Go Nuclear or Not: Does the Non-Proliferation Treaty Really Matter?

"For many, the NPT is the foundation of nuclear order. Actually, the NPT is much less influential in international security than is commonly believed."

As a new book shows, in Australia’s case, the decision about whether or not to go nuclear was not determined by U.S. security guarantees, which were pitifully weak anyway. It was because by the early 1970s, the Asia-Pacific had become a much more stable region. That and the conclusion made by policy makers that Australia would not face any major nuclear or conventional threats without the United States being involved. Furthermore, Washington did little to dissuade Canberra from seeking the bomb. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara admitted himself it would be an entirely sensible option for Australia. Prime Minister Gough Whitlam signed the NPT in 1973, effectively classing Australia as a Non-Nuclear Weapon State (NNWS). It would be misleading to believe, however, that consequently policy makers did not consider nuclear weapons and nuclear deterrence as integral to Australian security. A careful examination of the language contained in successive Defence White Papers since the 1970s shows quite the opposite to be true. For example, the 1994 Defence White Paper would state:

… the use of nuclear weapons remains possible… although it is hard to envisage the circumstances in which Australia could be threatened by nuclear weapons, we cannot rule out that possibility. We will continue to rely on the extended deterrence of the US nuclear capability to deter any nuclear threat or attack on Australia.

The decision to sign the NPT did not mean that Australia did not strongly believe in maintaining nuclear deterrence, but rather that policy makers were willing to “outsource” deterrence to Australia’s new primary security partner—the United States; strategically, it was a more cost-effective option. This decision, however, was premised on the fact that Asia had become a pretty stable region in which to live.

Our research about two non-nuclear U.S. allies, West Germany and Australia—which were located in two entirely different political and strategic environments, but both profited from U.S. extended nuclear deterrence—suggests that historical analysis of individual proliferation choices should above all appreciate paramount politico-strategic calculations by decision makers and administrative elites. In both cases, the NPT had no effect on individual proliferation choices. It was really strategic and geopolitical considerations that were integral to remaining non-nuclear and thus being able to accede to the NPT. Now the geopolitical order that underpinned the NPT is on shaky foundations, which should push us to think about the real value of the NPT in international security.

Christine Leah is a Chauncey Postdoctoral Fellow in Grand Strategy at Yale University. Andreas Lutsch is an Assistant Professor, Modern History, University of Wuerzburg, Germany. Both are members of the Nuclear Proliferation International History Project.