In responding to the challenge of nuclear proliferation, nuclear trade controls and nuclear disarmament have separate missions. Disarmament is a process to reduce, remove, and eliminate nuclear weapons (1). Nuclear export controls instead are intended to prevent states or non-state actors from obtaining the means to possess nuclear arms.
The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) entered into force in 1970, thereby providing a mechanism allowing these two missions to be complementary. Nearly all 190 states parties understand the treaty as a bargain consisting of obligations in three areas: nonproliferation, access to nuclear technology, and disarmament. Put simply, if “haves” disarm and share their nuclear knowledge for peaceful purposes, the “have nots” will not obtain nuclear weapons, and they will cooperate with the “haves” to prevent others from obtaining them.The genesis of multilateral nuclear export controls can in fact be assigned to the NPT itself, since Article III.2 obligates states parties not to provide nuclear items to non-nuclear weapon states unless IAEA safeguards are applied. Nearly immediately after the treaty entered into force, the NPT’s Zangger Committee established which commodities would be subject to constraints under Article III.2, as well as conditions and procedures governing export of these items.
From the outset, however, the locus of decision-making on nuclear trade controls began shifting from the NPT to the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), an association of the world’s nuclear “haves” which came into existence after India in 1974 tested a nuclear explosive device using materials which India had pledged to supplier states it would confine to peaceful-use applications. The NSG’s founders had no confidence that the NPT alone would halt the spread of nuclear arms.
In 1978, the NSG published guidelines that exceeded the stipulations of the NPT by establishing additional criteria that recipient states must meet to import nuclear goods. These included bans on explosive uses and production of high-enriched uranium, requirements for physical protection, and restrictions on retransfers and uranium enrichment and reprocessing.
Events during the 1990s contributed to the rise of the NSG as well as to conditions that encouraged an NPT-based challenge to the NSG’s supremacy. The discovery in 1991 that Iraq had a secret nuclear weapons program relying on dual-use goods galvanized the NSG to expand the scope of its controls still further beyond what the NPT required.
In 1995 supplier states linked the NSG to the NPT by requiring full-scope IAEA safeguards as a condition of supply of nuclear items to non-nuclear weapon states. This link was broken in 2008 when the NSG’s members followed the U.S. and agreed to exempt India, a non-NPT state, from its guidelines. This step marked a further departure from the NPT as the basis of multilateral trade controls.
The NSG has continued to tighten nuclear trade controls, most recently in 2011 on enrichment and reprocessing, and it is currently adding to its commodity control lists. But it faces a number of challenges to its future effectiveness:
The NSG’s participating governments are aware of the above challenges. In May 2011, the Carnegie Endowment conducted a workshop for the NSG’s participating governments during which 60 specific recommendations to address these challenges were proposed and discussed. The recommendations are available here: http://carnegieendowment.org/files/future_nsg.pdf
Separately, related to the NSG’s above-described weakened relationship to the NPT, the multilateral export control system faces a separate challenge of political will and legitimacy.
During the Cold War, the superpowers functioned as dual enforcers of global nonproliferation norms and standards. The breakdown of the balance of terror led to an erosion of nonproliferation enforcement. The U.S. emerged at the end of the 1990s as a global hegemon but has encountered resistance from revisionist states, including in the nuclear arena where the NPT continues to serve as the point of departure for most states.
The NSG founders’ prediction that the NPT would not prevent the spread of the means to develop nuclear weapons proved correct. But with the passage of time, the casting adrift of the NSG from the NPT had a profound and divisive impact on international nuclear relations.
The end of the Cold War led to an erosion of bipolar nonproliferation enforcement and the emergence of a U.S. hegemony which is now being challenged by developing countries which insist that the NPT’s bargain on disarmament and access to nuclear technology be met. U.S. credibility was severely damaged when in 2003 it fought a war of nonproliferation with Iraq after which no nuclear weapons were confirmed. Since 2003, when Iran framed the crisis over its nuclear program in terms of NPT Articles IV and VI, the Non-Aligned Movement – founded in reaction to the Cold War’s bipolarity – now directly challenges U.S. hegemony on nuclear nonproliferation issues. A majority of NPT parties are members of the NAM.
Today most non-nuclear weapon states in the NPT, and in particular developing nations, insist that their right under Article IV to exploit nuclear technology for peaceful uses be honored by advanced countries. Many of these states are unprepared to accept additional restrictions on their nuclear activities – including trade controls – unless advanced states demonstrate that they are fulfilling their obligations under both Article IV and Article VI. The NSG may be viewed as illegitimate so long as the “haves” do not disarm and do not share their technology.
The above challenges in effectiveness and political will leave us with two responses.
One option is global universalism. In the realm of multilateral nuclear trade controls, this option implies that a comprehensive global nuclear trade treaty should be negotiated by all states to establish a truly legitimate basis for restraints. The NPT itself could not serve as the basis for such a treaty, since important countries in possession of nuclear weapons and nuclear fuel cycle capabilities – India, Israel, North Korea, and Pakistan – are not parties to the NPT.
The recently successful negotiation of a global Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) covering conventional arms might renew interest in the negotiation of an export control treaty for nuclear commodities.
A decision to negotiate such an arrangement in the nuclear area would entail certain risks. These would include the possibility that the legitimacy of the existing fabric of NSG-based and other controls would diminish for as long as the pending treaty were under negotiation. That dilemma did not challenge negotiators of the ATT because there was no comprehensive global regime for controlling the export of conventional weapons. It is also doubtful that all states which are party to the negotiation of a nuclear export control treaty would agree on terms and conditions for trade. This would especially be the case should the ultimate source of conflict over nuclear trade controls prove to be programmatic North-South differences in principle among states about equity, development, and responsibility.
The alternative to the “treaty method” to address challenges to nuclear trade control legitimacy and credibility would be an incremental approach. In general, this would commit NSG participating governments to take the following actions:
(1) Evans, Graham & Newnham, Jeffrey (1998), The Penguin Dictionary of International Relations, Penguin, London, p. 131.
The Carnegie Nuclear Policy Program is an internationally acclaimed source of expertise and policy thinking on nuclear industry, nonproliferation, security, and disarmament. Its multinational staff stays at the forefront of nuclear policy issues in the United States, Russia, China, Northeast Asia, South Asia, and the Middle East.
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