PARIS: Fifty years after the US, Russia and other powers reached a landmark deal to halt the spread of atomic weapons, an arms race and shifting US alliances risk is triggering a new scramble for the bomb, experts say.

Signed on July 1, 1968, six years after the Cuban Missile Crisis took the world to the brink of an atomic war, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) has been credited with dramatically reducing the threat of a nuclear apocalypse.

The treaty attempted to strike a balance between the security concerns of nuclear-armed powers and the atomic ambitions of the have-nots.

The five countries that already had nuclear weapons - the US, Russia, China, France and Britain, all permanent UN Security Council members - were allowed keep them, in return for commitments on reducing their arms stockpiles.

Non-nuclear-armed states agreed never to develop such weapons, in return for help from the so-called P5 countries in developing peaceful nuclear technology.

The treaty became the cornerstone of non-proliferation efforts, with 191 countries signing up.

“The NPT has been amazingly successful in keeping the number of nuclear armed states to less than ten,” said Mark Fitzpatrick, director of the Non-Proliferation and Nuclear Policy programme at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Washington.

On the disarmament front, the treaty has also exceeded expectations, with the global stockpile of nuclear warheads falling by 85 per cent as the US and Russia dismantled the bulk of their huge Cold War arsenals.

‘Invincible’ nukes: But the treaty failed to prevent a handful of other countries going on to acquire atomic weapons.

Besides North Korea, which pulled out of the treaty in 2003 and built a bomb three years later, India and Pakistan have become nuclear powers after never signing up to the NPT.

Israel is also widely believed to have the bomb.

Beatrice Fihn, director of the Nobel-winning International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, argues the treaty is fundamentally flawed because it aims merely to reduce, rather than abolish nuclear weapons.

“It’s problematic because it creates a group of states that are powerful and have these weapons and others that don’t,” Fihn said.

Adding to the global imbalance is the fact that the treaty contains no deadline for disarmament, relying solely on nuclear-armed states to negotiate in “good faith”.

Furthermore, the treaty does not prevent the P5 countries upgrading their arsenal, allowing them to develop bigger, deadlier weapons.

In March, President Vladimir Putin announced that Russia had developed a new array of weapons that were “invincible”, including a cruise missile that could reach “anywhere in the world”.

President Donald Trump’s administration has meanwhile announced plans to launch a range of new low-yield weapons to counter what it sees as the threat of Russia using smaller nuclear weapons in a conflict in Europe.

France and Britain are among the other countries investing billions in strengthening their nuclear deterrence.

“They could still blow up the world many, many times over,” Fihn said.

Published in Dawn, June 30th, 2018