United States at the NPT: how far will the 'good guy' go?

Unless the role and value assigned to nuclear weapons in deterrence is challenged among the nuclear-armed states, the notion of nuclear deterrence will remain seductive – and a proliferation drive. Those wanting to bring about real security in a non-nuclear-armed world need to do far more at this NPT Conference. Rebecca Johnson reports from New York.

Rebecca Johnson
11 May 2010

The first week of the Conference to review the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in New York has been dominated by the US policy agenda. Yet this is a very different Conference from five years ago, when the United States was viewed as a major spoiler after the Bush administration used procedural tactics to avoid being held to account for reneging on disarmament and other treaty commitments.

This time, President Barack Obama’s initiatives have turned the United States into the ‘good guy’ – for the majority, if not all states parties to the NPT.  President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who turned up to give Iran’s opening statement in person, failed to upstage Hillary Clinton, even though in UN protocol terms Head of State trumps mere Secretaries of State.  Clinton was a clear winner with a strong speech that reiterated Obama’s pledge in Prague to seek “the peace and security of a world free of nuclear weapons” and evoked US initiatives in getting a consensus resolution on non-proliferation in the UN Security Council last September, the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) signed with Russia, and the Nuclear Security Summit the President hosted Washington in April.  Going further, she announced that the United States would make public the size of its stockpile and, within an hour of her speech, the Pentagon announced that the US arsenal has 5,113 active nuclear weapons, not counting the 4,600 kept in reserve.  Though welcoming the intentional transparency of this announcement, some couldn’t help but point out that 40 years after the NPT had entered into force the size of such arsenals should be much closer to zero.

Iran’s attempts to use procedural tactics to block discussions on strengthening the weak compliance and withdrawal mechanisms in the NPT fizzled out by the end of the first week, allowing the 2010 Conference to get on with its work, debating nuclear disarmament, energy, safeguards to prevent nuclear energy programmes being turned into nuclear weapons, nuclear-weapon free zones, and the “institutional deficit” that has left a huge question-mark over Iran’s uranium enrichment programme, and allowed North Korea to reprocess nuclear fuel to extract plutonium, pull out of the treaty in 2003 and start testing and making nuclear bombs.

Clearly defensive in view of renewed pressure and the threat of further sanctions over its uranium enrichment programme, Ahmadinejad’s speech was not as combative as many had expected, though he listed eight accusations and made eleven proposals for what should be done.  His criticisms of the nuclear weapons states and the doctrines that prevent them from complying with their treaty obligations to eliminate their nuclear arsenals found echoes in many other speeches at the Conference. Ahmadinejad’s ranting against Israel, which he repeatedly called “the Zionist regime”, prompted a walk out by some states, who also noted his silence over the nuclear weapons of India and Pakistan, allies in the “Non-Aligned Movement”.  Most notably, he said that possessing nuclear weapons was “not a source of pride” but “rather disgusting and shameful”, a sentiment that ought to be welcomed, as it would seem completely incompatible with Iran acquiring nuclear weapons.  Notwithstanding such rhetoric, Ahmadinejad’s long peroration was short on action to allay international concerns about Iran’s nuclear programme, and many still fear that Iran may try to prevent a successful outcome.

When I monitored the NPT Conferences in 1995 and 2000, it was clear by the end of the first week who would play the leading role in providing substantive input for a successful outcome. South Africa’s proposals played that role in 1995, and in 2000 the New Agenda Coalition of seven non-nuclear countries (Brazil, Egypt, Ireland, Mexico, New Zealand, South Africa and Sweden)  generated great excitement in the first week, going on to lead negotiations with the nuclear-weapon states and broker agreement on the most substantive disarmament plan of action ever agreed by NPT states parties. Nothing of comparable significance has yet been put forward in the 2010 NPT conference. Though groups of non-nuclear weapon states – notably 110 non-aligned NPT parties, the New Agenda Coalition, a new five-member “de-alerting group” and individual European countries such as Switzerland, Austria, Norway and Germany, are bringing forward good ideas, including calls to de-legitimise and outlaw the use of nuclear weapons and to set in train a preparatory process leading to negotiations on a comprehensive “nuclear weapons convention” to prohibit and eliminate nuclear arms worldwide, building on the treaties that have banned biological and chemical weapons, there does not appear to be the leadership or strategies to carry such ideas through.

On the contrary, the main calls from the non-nuclear governments are to reaffirm the principles and steps that the nuclear-weapon states committed to in 1995 and 2000 – particularly on nuclear disarmament and developing a zone free of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East, which was the subject of a resolution in 1995 aimed at putting pressure on Israel to give up its nuclear arms.  South Africa, which strongly criticised Britain over the renewal of Trident at NPT meetings in 2007-9, made only a coded comment that developing new delivery systems would be contrary to the NPT’s disarmament obligations.  After the disappointments of the previous decade of broken agreements, the “Obama effect” since the US President’s speech in Prague in April 2009 has infused the Review Conference with a degree of optimism, and as a consequence, there is less criticism than usual of the nuclear weapons states’ failure to implement their disarmament obligations.

The nuclear free governments want to support and encourage President Obama’s efforts and believe that he needs this NPT Review Conference to be a success, not only to carry through on the past year’s nuclear policy initiatives and obtain Senate ratification for the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and the new US-Russian START treaty, but also to silence his “nukes forever” domestic critics who want to portray him as weak on defence.  Their position rests on the perception that a substantial NPT success – by which they mean the consensus adoption of a final document – would strengthen Obama’s leadership and ability to move forward on a range of nuclear and security issues, including withdrawal of battlefield nuclear weapons from Europe and further cuts to the US and Russian arsenals, as well as bringing the other nuclear-armed countries into a more coherent disarmament process and embedding the CTBT and new START and their verification systems in international law.

Even more than in previous years, therefore, the United States is seen as a fixer.  The high level US delegation is everywhere – deep in conversation with the Russians in one corner, while a cluster of diplomats meets in an adjacent room with Egypt to find an acceptable compromise on the Middle East, and whispering in another corner with France and Britain, who are minor players but have to be kept on side.

There are, however, dangers in heaping all these hopes on Obama’s shoulders. The US budget for 2010-2011 actually contains more money for the nuclear weapons labs than given them by the Bush administration, in what appears to be a misguided sweetener to get the nuclear establishment’s support to ratify the CTBT and START.  And it was noticeable that amongst all the positive confidence-building measures she announced, Clinton reiterated Obama’s caveat in Prague that “the United States will retain a nuclear deterrent for as long as nuclear weapons exist”.  If the United States still thinks it needs nuclear weapons to deter, such arguments will continue to drive nuclear dependence and proliferation. Though the aggregate numbers in the biggest arsenals might come down, nuclear insecurity and dangers will continue to rise unless the role and value assigned to nuclear weapons in deterrence and military doctrines are challenged and marginalised among the nuclear-armed states and their umbrella allies.  Otherwise, the notion of nuclear deterrence will remain seductive – and a proliferation driver, especially for weak governments and states in regions of significant tension, such as the Middle East, South Asia and the Korean Peninsula.

An example of what the permanent members (P-5) nuclear weapon states in the NPT (Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States, who are also the permanent members of the UN Security Council) are prepared to do was contained in their joint statement, issued on the third day.  This made disarmament progress contingent on maintaining “international stability... based on the principle of undiminished security for all”, language that France and Russia have long used to justify their continued reliance on nuclear deterrence doctrines and substantial nuclear arsenals.  The P-5 also placed heavy emphasis on the non-proliferation and nuclear terrorism agenda contained in Resolution 1887, which the large bloc of non-aligned countries have heavily criticised for its lack of balanced commitments on nuclear disarmament.

President Obama is undoubtedly sincere and genuine in his desire for a nuclear-weapon-free world, but he has much to do to overcome powerful vested interests in the United States and the other nuclear-armed countries.  Rather than waiting for the P-5 alcoholics to vote to close down the brewery, those wanting to bring about real security in a non-nuclear-armed world need to do far more at this NPT Conference, or they could find themselves stuck with a lowest common denominator outcome that will fail to meet the real world nuclear challenges.



Get 50.50 emails Gender and social justice, in your inbox. Sign up to receive openDemocracy 50.50's monthly email newsletter.


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData