Networked Nonproliferation: Making the NPT Permanent

  • Published

Networked Nonproliferation: Making the NPT Permanent by Michal Onderco. Stanford University Press, 2022, 224 pp.

In Networked Nonproliferation, Michal Onderco examines a critical event in the history of arms control and nonproliferation: the indefinite extension of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (commonly referred to as the NPT). Though other scholars have examined the impact of the NPT, Onderco provides the first book to examine the diplomatic maneuvering of the 1995 NPT Review and Extension Conference to explain why the treaty was indefinitely extended despite initial opposition by a majority of states.

A professor of international relations at Rotterdam’s Erasmus University, Onderco specializes in the study of nuclear politics and authored this book utilizing newly available evidence from national and diplomatic archives, as well as oral history interviews with conference participants. In his work, Oderco argues that the United States leveraged its unique position at the center of multiple diplomatic networks to partner with several influential states to gather support (and neutralize opposition) to indefinite extension.

Negotiated in the midst of the Cold War and entered into force in 1970, the NPT is one of the most successful international arms control agreements, adopted by over 190 countries to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and ultimately pursue global nuclear disarmament. A critical period during the treaty’s history occurred in 1995, when a review mandated by the treaty was held to determine if it would be extended indefinitely or only for fixed periods of time, to be decided by a majority of the treaty’s members. Most observers doubted the review conference would succeed in extending the treaty indefinitely, yet it achieved this end and did so without requiring a vote. Onderco tackles why this happened and proposes a new theory to explain this outcome: that the United States’ unique central position in an international network of nations allowed it to utilize its partners to persuade doubters, secure side deals, and neutralize opposition to indefinite extension.

The principal obstacle to indefinite extension centered on global disarmament. When the NPT entered into force in 1970, it contained a “deal” to secure the support of non-nuclear states. While they would agree to forgo nuclear weapons, the existing nuclear armed states committed to eventual disarmament of their own nuclear weapons stockpiles, though the precise time frame and mechanism were left ambiguous. As the 1995 review conference approached, many non-nuclear states grew increasingly frustrated at the lack of progress on global disarmament. Although they agreed with the United States and other major powers on the value of nonproliferation, they sought to use the review process as a way to pressure nuclear weapons states to uphold their end of the deal and make concrete steps toward disarmament.

Onderco argues that the United States ultimately succeeded by leveraging key states to influence three primary blocks of potential opposition: newly independent post-Soviet states in Eastern Europe, countries in the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM)—founded during the Cold War by states that sought to remain neutral rather than formally align themselves with either the United States or the Soviet Union—and multiple Middle Eastern countries. Rather than rely solely on pressure and side payments, the United States utilized its relationships with the European Union (EU), South Africa, and Egypt to leverage their outsized influence with these opposition blocks to gain support or neutralize opposition.

Eastern European states were eager to join the EU and exercise their newfound sovereignty, so the United States used the EU’s carrot of membership and integration to secure support for indefinite extension. Similarly, South Africa was a leader in the NAM and able to influence whether the NAM would collectively block indefinite extension. The relationship between US Vice President Al Gore and South African Vice President Thabo Mbeki secured South African support for indefinite extension over the opposition of South African bureaucrats and successfully prevented a consensus NAM opinion against the US proposal. Finally, the long-standing US-Egypt relationship allowed the United States to use Egypt’s leadership position in the Middle East. The United States wanted to secure indefinite extension without a formal vote, so was able to convince Egypt, and thereby other Middle Eastern states, to refrain from calling for this vote, ultimately allowing the motion to proceed.

Given Onderco’s access to primary documents and first-person recollections of these events, his three case studies provide compelling evidence that the US strategy relied on several key actors and used their unique positions to influence broader blocks of countries. He discusses specific meetings, negotiating positions, and strategies of the relevant players, and produces a convincing narrative of how relationships and network position convey power and influence in international diplomacy. His work also reveals the complexity of diplomacy, and that while it is tempting to focus solely on the 1995 conference, a significant amount of negotiation and diplomatic maneuvering occurred well before this conference began. This is a welcome reminder that negotiations, deals, and agreements often precede publicized gatherings, and that in many cases, these preparatory sessions and one-on-one engagements are where diplomatic successes are truly and quietly earned.

Yet the complexity of these negotiations can also challenge readers of this book. At times it is difficult to keep track of all the different meetings and changing versions of documents. Each reveals an interesting aspect of how positions changed over time, but it can be a lot for readers to digest who do not possess a baseline familiarity with the ecosystem surrounding the NPT. This makes Networked Nonproliferation an important book for scholars of nonproliferation or diplomatic history but will likely be of less interest to the casual reader or military practitioner.

Finally, the book forms a welcome reminder of a time when arms control agreements commanded the support and cooperation of adversaries like the United States and Soviet Union. The NPT sat alongside treaties like the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), START II, and the Chemical Weapons Convention as markers of a “golden age of arms control” (4). Sadly, it is difficult to imagine gaining a similar consensus among geopolitical rivals today in the pursuit of arms control or other measures to preserve strategic stability.

In sum, Onderco’s Networked Nonproliferation provides an important contribution to scholarship surrounding the NPT and outlines a compelling case for the importance of networks and relationships in international politics. It fills an important role in depicting the diplomatic maneuvering of the 1995 NPT Review and Extension Conference and offers an example of why the United States should prioritize its relationships with Allies and partners as a continued source of power in an ever-changing world.  

Lieutenant Colonel Craig Neuman, USAF

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."