Addressing global threats globally is critical to securing the long-run future. I argue that understanding the important and often overlooked Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) is crucial to understanding how future treaties and international regimes can be structured to counter global threats.
I recently wrote two articles for the think tank CSIS on the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT):
- Has the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty Limited The Spread of Nuclear Weapons? Evaluating the Arguments
- Statistically Identifying the NPT’s Effect on Nuclear Proliferation: Is it a Fundamentally Unidentified Question?
I also wrote up two short Twitter threads:
I am currently a PhD candidate at the Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs, a Global Priorities Fellow with the Forethought Foundation, and I did this work as part of the 2020 Nuclear Scholars program at CSIS. You can see more on my background here: https://rdanielbressler.com/.
Why I Think Understanding the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty is Important For Longtermists
In my view, one of the most crucial factors towards avoiding existential risk and achieving existential security is to achieve strong international cooperation on global issues. My very talented Uncle and I put together a cartoon that tries to convey this point, inspired by Ben Franklin’s famous cartoon:
In practice, achieving cooperation is often elusive because the interests of individual countries on critical issues often differ from what is best for humanity as a whole (my advisor Scott Barrett has a very good book that describes this general class of issues: https://www.google.com/books/edition/Why_Cooperate/zNYTDAAAQBAJ?hl=en&gbpv=0). To understand how international cooperation can be achieved in the future, it is important to understand if, how, when, and under what conditions it has been successful in the past.
In my view, the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (the NPT for short) is the best historical example of successful multilateral international cooperation on an issue that is hard. Nearly every country in the world is a party to the treaty, making it among the most widely subscribed treaties in the world. In its 50-year history, only one country (North Korea) has withdrawn even though the treaty has an article specifying that countries can leave. The treaty requires countries to conclude comprehensive safeguards agreements that open them to International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspection. No country has successfully been able to produce nuclear weapons while subject to the NPT and its safeguards.
My articles provide an overview of the current scholarship that examines if and how the NPT has limited nuclear proliferation (read them to see the details!). I believe that the NPT has limited nuclear proliferation, perhaps significantly, but I think there remains important work to understand how and why the NPT continues to work and under what conditions it may no longer work. I am currently working on a project with Scott Barrett to address this question by constructing a game-theoretical model of the treaty.
There are a wide array of potential global catastrophic risks such as threats related to biosecurity and climate change that are many and increasing in importance. Understanding if, how, and why the NPT has reduced the risk of nuclear proliferation is crucial to understanding how future treaties and international regimes may be structured to counter these other global threats.
A Side Note
If you are interested in issues related to nuclear weapons, nuclear nonproliferation, or nuclear energy, I would highly recommend doing the CSIS Project on Nuclear Issues Nuclear Scholars program that I did this past year. They are generally looking for people that have some background experience/knowledge in nuclear issues (you can see the list of scholars in my cohort here), so I would suggest gaining some of this experience/knowledge ahead of time to be a competitive applicant.