Deep Thoughts Before Armageddon



N.Y. Times, April 27, 2010, 8:48 pm

Beginning any moment now, you'll see a month-long trickle of news articles, op-eds and blog posts about the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty review conference, which gets underway in New York City this Monday and lasts through May 28. Since the fate of the world could hinge on stemming the spread of nuclear weapons, and this goal could in turn hinge on strengthening the treaty at these every-five-years review conferences, you may feel you should read much of this coverage. And your likely failure to do so may cause guilt feelings.I'm here to help. This column may not give you everything you need to know about what's likely to happen at the conference, but I'll do my best to make you feel you've paid your dues without a huge sacrifice of time.And for those who are especially pressed for time, I'll even preface my timesaving preview with a timesaving preview of my preview:1) Though there will be a valuable airing of some urgently needed treaty reforms at this conference, none will get passed.2) As this lack of tangible progress becomes evident, conservatives of the John Bolton variety will call it an indictment of the Obama administration or arms control or multilateralism or something.3) Look who's talking! One of the biggest impediments to progress at conferences like this is the policy legacy of the John Boltons of the world, along with their ongoing influence in Congress.Now back to square one.The basic idea of the nonproliferation treaty, you may recall, was to keep nuclear weapons from spreading beyond the five nations that had them in the 1960s, when the treaty was born - the United States, Russia, China, France and England. Other parties to the treaty - pretty much the whole rest of the world - agreed to foreswear nukes in exchange for a) a pledge that the big five would gradually get rid of all their nukes, and b) assistance in using nuclear energy peacefully (which would entail international monitoring of the peaceful use to make sure it stayed peaceful).Recent experience with Iran, a treaty member, illustrates one problem with this setup. The treaty lets members enrich their own uranium or plutonium, and having the technology to do your own enriching can get you closer to building an actual bomb than was generally imagined back in the 1960s. Hence what may be the most important idea that will be seriously discussed at the review conference: the multilateralization of the fuel cycle.If this idea took hold, fuel enrichment would increasingly be done not by treaty member nations themselves, but at international enrichment centers, after which the fuel would be sent to the nations. This would make it harder for a member's nuclear energy program to covertly spawn a weapons program. Alas, this idea is very unlikely to get past the discussion stage at this year's conference.A comparably important idea that has even less chance of going anywhere this year is also illustrated by Iran - specifically, by the news last year that Iran had a nuclear facility that had escaped the awareness of the International Atomic Energy Agency, which polices the nonproliferation treaty by monitoring declared nuclear facilities. In light of this surprise, it would be nice for the I.A.E.A.'s inspection powers to extend well beyond officially declared sites, so that a) suspicions of off-site shenanigans could be quickly pursued, and b) more data would be collected to begin with, so that valid suspicions would be more likely to arise.Something like this has actually happened in the form of the "additional protocol" to the nonproliferation treaty, but acceptance of the protocol is a voluntary, state-by-state thing. Some people want the protocol or some variant of it to become mandatory. Don't hold your breath.One reason neither of these worthy reforms will pass is that - as with a disconcerting number of international organizations and confabs - nothing of substance can happen at the review conference without a unanimous vote. And that's a pretty tall order when you're talking about 189 nations. On the other hand, important amendments to the nonproliferation treaty have been known to pass unanimously (notably in 1995). So change isn't impossible.But change is impossible when lots of those 189 nations are annoyed with the nations that are pushing for change. And that is the case here.Some of the annoyance gets back to the fact that one of the main ideas of the treaty - to confine nukes to the big five - hasn't entirely panned out. Though the treaty has slowed nuclear proliferation, three nations - India, Pakistan and Israel - never signed the treaty and have long had nukes. And North Korea joined the nuclear club more recently.This makes some nuclear have-nots unhappy with the United States. Not because we aided this proliferation; even Israel, our closest ally among those nations, didn't get its nuclear technology from us. (Apparently it was the French who helped out the Israelis. Go figure.) The problem, rather, is that we seem to be fine with India, Pakistan and Israel having nukes, whereas we go ballistic (figuratively) over the possession of nukes by North Korea. And North Korea, having dropped out of the treaty around the time it got a nuke, has the same status in international law as India, Pakistan and Israel. (Another idea that's going nowhere this year is to make it illegal or at least hard for treaty members to drop out - but I digress.)For that matter, Iran, though a member of the treaty, could drop out at any point and, if it then built nukes, would also share that legal status. And, clearly, this wouldn't meet with American applause.So our policy seems to be: It's O.K. to have nuclear weapons outside of the nonproliferation treaty if you're an ally of ours, but if you're not then it's an egregious and dangerous violation of vital international norms.Of course, to Americans, the policy doesn't look that way. It looks more like: It's O.K. to have nukes if you can possess them responsibly and you don't have leaders whose behavior raises doubts about their future self-restraint.    One of the main ideas of the treaty - to confine nukes to the big five - hasn't entirely panned out.But, believe it or not, not everyone shares America's views of which nations seem responsible and restrained. Some Indians aren't sure Pakistanis are responsible stewards of nuclear weapons (and might say, as we say about Iran, that Pakistan sponsors terrorism). Among some Pakistanis the feelings are mutual. And there are Arabs who consider Israel manifestly capable of disproportionate response to provocation.The point isn't that these Indians, Pakistanis and Arabs are right. The point is that if you're serious about international laws and norms, you have to make their application independent of judgment calls like this. Otherwise you wind up looking as if you're just saying that your friends can have nukes and their friends can't, which leads to annoyance.During the conference, some of the annoyed nations will be calling for a nuclear-free Middle East - which would mean Israel's giving up its nukes. The United States - and indeed all parties to the nonproliferation treaty - have embraced this idea in principle, and with good reason: If you really could verify that no one in that region, including Iran as well as Israel, had nuclear weapons, that would be good for all concerned. (If Israel's nukes served as a bargaining chip that kept Iran nukeless, they'd finally have done Israel some good.) But given the difficulties of getting from here to there anytime soon - getting Israel's buy-in, building an unprecedentedly intrusive inspection system, etc. - this idea isn't being viewed as a serious near-term proposal.True, the Arab states who vocally back it would love to see it happen, in part because they dread a nuclear Iran. But they're also floating the idea for various political reasons and as an expression of annoyance at America's our-friends-get-nukes-your-friends-don't attitude.Perhaps the most egregious surfacing of that attitude (and here we get back to the John Boltons of the world) came during the Bush administration. In 2006 President Bush reached a deal with India - which had refused to join the treaty and built nuclear weapons instead - that actually gave India American nuclear technology!Though the assistance was to the civilian part of India's nuclear program, the deal frees up resources for India to build more nuclear weapons should it decide to. So the message from Bush was: If you stay out of the treaty so you can build nuclear weapons, we'll help you build even more - so long as you're our friend. And, since the India deal remains intact, so does that message.The Bush administration also opposed ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which would keep us, and the rest of the world, from setting off nuclear explosions for test purposes (and which, notwithstanding hawk hysterics, wouldn't erode the strength of our nuclear arsenal). This is one reason that the last nonproliferation treaty review conference, in 2005, collapsed in acrimony. (For a fuller sense of how thoroughly Bush undermined the 2005 conference, read the third paragraph of this.)President Obama supports the test ban treaty, but Boltonesque Republicans in the Senate still oppose it, and it remains unratified. And things like this matter to the nuclear have-nots because, remember, the original pledge of the nuclear haves was to get down to zero nukes. Now, I don't personally favor getting there anytime soon, since I wouldn't want to surrender all nuclear weapons until we could be truly assured that no one else had them. And God knows that - even with the recently negotiated new START treaty - we're nowhere near zero nukes and won't be any decade soon. But that's all the more reason that gestures like the test ban treaty are important from the point of view of the nuclear have-nots.In sum, if you want to list specific policies that gratuitously offend the have-nots, and thus dim the chances of progress at conferences like this, the leading proliferators of such policies are Boltonesque conservatives, both back in the Bush administration and, still today, in the Senate.True, the very structure of the nonproliferation treaty - notably its requiring unanimity for revision - makes reform hard. And I'm among those who think that we can't continue to muddle through under the current structure for very long without courting grave risk. We need to radically rethink international arms control, paving the way for something much stronger than the current treaty.But the fact that we still have time to do some visionary thinking before the apocalypse sets in is a tribute to the nonproliferation treaty. In the 24 years before it was opened for signature in 1968, five nations had acquired nuclear weapons; now, 42 years later, only four additional nations have them, notwithstanding the mushrooming of nuclear know-how. The treaty has basically worked, and for now keeping it as strong as possible is crucial. And if you ask, along with some of its conservative critics, why it isn't even stronger, part of the answer is their past and present behavior.Postscript: This column benefited from informal conversations with several people over the past couple of months: Jeffrey Lewis, whose blog Arms Control Wonk is essential reading if you plan to go around bragging with any credibility at all that you're an arms control wonk; Jacqueline Shire of the Institute for Science and International Security; and Richard Parker of the American Foreign Policy Project. And here's a very nice guide to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty review conference prepared by the Arms Control Association. ? And, by the way, I realize that Bush's nuclear deal with India is framed by some as a triumph for arms control because it brings India's civilian nuclear facilities under international inspection. But the fact is that the deal is seen as legitimizing defiance of the whole point of the nonproliferation treaty, and makes nuclear have-nots who joined the treaty wonder why they should have bothered to join if you can get American assistance with nuclear energy technology even after building a bomb.