Re-writing the Constitutional History of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty
A project undertaken by a global consortium of researchers aims to bring historical knowledge to bear on the past, present, and future of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.
The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons—commonly known as the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)—was created to bring order to a world abounding in fissile materials, fission reactors, and nuclear armaments. From the moment the treaty entered into force on February 5, 1970, its constitutional meanings—the marriage of its negotiating history, binding articles, preambular statements, and contemporary interpretations—has been hotly contested. Although over the intervening 50 years the agreement has become the most widely adhered to security compact apart from the United Nations Charter—from whose own constitutional substance the NPT draws legitimacy and force—consensus over the treaty’s principles and provisions remains elusive.
“Re-writing the Constitutional History of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty,” generously supported by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York (CCNY), is an effort to bring historical knowledge to bear on the treaty’s past, present, and future. The project comprises an international consortium of 21 scholars who are currently studying the NPT’s making, opening for signature, entry into force, and implementation from the standpoint of nineteen different countries and one international organization—the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). By making previously unknown documents available and using them to generate new insights from a more diverse range of national and international perspectives, the consortium is strengthening general knowledge about the NPT’s founding moment, with new information and lessons for the conduct of international nuclear nonproliferation diplomacy today.
The mission of this multi-year research project is threefold. First, it brings academic expertise and rigor to bear on an issue of supreme global importance—the fading consensus behind the NPT—with decisive implications for present-day international security and peace. Second, and relatedly, the project expands our knowledge of the treaty’s original intent and ensuing controversies. The divisions in international opinion about the treaty’s meaning have run along various lines, most notably between those who emphasize the nuclear club’s closure to new entrants and those who stress a “grand bargain” balanced atop three pillars: nuclear nonproliferation, the promotion of peaceful nuclear technology, and progress toward nuclear disarmament. To come to grips with the NPT’s present circumstances and future prospects, policymakers and publics from states that adhere as well as those who do not should revisit the common ground they shared in the past as well as the reasons why key states opted not to ratify the treaty as drafted.
Third, the project will democratize our knowledge about the treaty’s origins, not only by traditional academic publications but also a series of Sources and Methods posts hosted here by the Nuclear Proliferation International History Project under the auspices of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars’ History and Public Policy Program. These posts will contextualize from archives around the world primary sources that cast light on the attitudes and positions taken by key states: nuclear-club members such as the United States, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and France; threshold states such as Japan, Israel, India, Sweden, West Germany, Italy, and Brazil; neutral countries such as Ireland, Egypt, Yugoslavia, and Mexico; and uranium and thorium exporters such as Australia, Canada, South Africa, and Czechoslovakia. These primary sources will also be incorporated in the Wilson Center’s Digital Archive and organized into an Interactive Treaty Guide connecting preambular statements and operative articles to documents that speak to why they were drafted how they were. The Interactive Treaty Guide will also feature a photo archive, a chronology, and biographical sketches of the treaty’s major architects. These features will be rolled out over the next six-to-twelve months with the goal of making available to policymakers, practitioners, academics, and the global public a comprehensive and trustworthy resource on the treaty’s historical origins.
The NPT embodies a nuclear charter for humanity. We believe the best way to improve current debates about the meaning and purpose of the treaty is to make information about the efforts of those who collectively fashioned it as widely available as possible. In “Re-writing the Constitutional History of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty,” we not only affirm the importance of diplomacy to the rise of global nuclear governance. We better appreciate the reasons why so many embraced an inherently unequal treaty in the contexts of Cold War, territorial disputes, decolonization, and the globalization of nuclear science and technology.
Professor Kendrick Oliver
University of Southampton
Deputy Investigator + USA/USSR/France
Dr Jonathan Hunt
U.S. Air War College
Dr Malcolm Craig
Liverpool John Moores
Professor Joe Siracusa
Dr Fintan Hoey
Dr Jack Cunningham
University of Toronto
Dr Hassan Elbahtimy
King’s College London
Dr Ori Rabinowitz
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Dr Joshi Yogesh
National University of Singapore
Dr Thomas Jonter and
Dr Emma Rosengren
University of Stockholm
Junior Professor Andreas Lutsch
German Federal University of Administrative Sciences
Central European University
Professor Leopoldo Nuti & Dr Giordana Pulcini
University Roma Tre
Dr Mervyn O’Driscoll
University College Cork
Dr Michal Onderco
Erasmus University Rotterdam
Dr Anna-Mart van Wyk
University of Johannesburg
Dr Carlo Patti
Federal University of Goiás
Dr Elisabeth Rohrlich
University of Vienna
About the Authors
History and Public Policy Program
The History and Public Policy Program makes public the primary source record of 20th and 21st century international history from repositories around the world, facilitates scholarship based on those records, and uses these materials to provide context for classroom, public, and policy debates on global affairs. Read more
Nuclear Proliferation International History Project
The Nuclear Proliferation International History Project is a global network of individuals and institutions engaged in the study of international nuclear history through archival documents, oral history interviews, and other empirical sources. At the Wilson Center, it is part of the Wilson Center's History and Public Policy Program. Read more
Cold War International History Project
The Cold War International History Project supports the full and prompt release of historical materials by governments on all sides of the Cold War. Through an award winning Digital Archive, the Project allows scholars, journalists, students, and the interested public to reassess the Cold War and its many contemporary legacies. It is part of the Wilson Center's History and Public Policy Program. Read more