Secretary Clinton will lead the U.S. delegation to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference that kicks off in New York next week. In a video Q&A, Deepti Choubey previews the conference and stresses that it is a chance for all states—not only the United States—to stabilize and strengthen the nonproliferation regime.

While success has traditionally been measured by a universal consensus final declaration, a meaningful statement that all countries agree to would be welcome, but is unlikely at this stage, says Choubey.


What is the Review Conference?

The Non-proliferation Treaty Review Conference occurs once every five years. The May 2010 conference will be the eighth conference since the beginning of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Its purpose is to assess how well the provisions of the Non-Proliferation Treaty have been implemented and to chart a path forward for those issues that have not been properly addressed. All states that are party to the treaty will be at the meeting and observers are also welcome.

How significant is the conference?

The signs of the nonproliferation regime’s ailments are evident. In the last decade alone we have North Korea withdrawing from the Non-Proliferation Treaty and conducting two nuclear tests; we have concerns about Iran’s nuclear ambitions; we have Syria possibly constructing a reactor without informing the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA); and we have the threat from non-state actors such as Abdul Qadeer Khan’s illicit network, and al-Qaeda’s declarations of trying to use nuclear terrorism.

These developments have contributed to a regime suffering a crisis of confidence. Next month’s Review Conference is an opportunity for all states that are party to the treaty to stabilize and strengthen the nonproliferation regime.

Understanding what the purpose of the review conference, however, is important. For instance, this is not an opportunity to solve the concerns over Iran or North Korea’s compliance with its nonproliferation obligations. But, it is an opportunity for states that are party to the Non-Proliferation Treaty to create or strengthen new rules to deal with states that may be cheating from within the regime and then may choose to withdraw in the future.

How does the conference relate to the Nuclear Posture Review, new START agreement, and Nuclear Security Summit?

Without a doubt the United States is an important player in stabilizing and strengthening the nonproliferation regime. The U.S. approach has definitely changed since President Obama took office—he signaled many of the elements of his agenda when he gave a landmark speech in Prague in April 2009.

Since the speech several important things have happened, including President Obama chairing the United Nations Security Council in September 2009; the conclusion of the new START agreement between the United States and Russia; the Nuclear Posture Review, which is an the expression of the role and purpose of nuclear weapons for the United States for the next five to ten years; and most recently, the Nuclear Security Summit which was an attempt to secure vulnerable materials around the world and prevent nuclear terrorism.

So looking at all of these elements, there are people who ask, “What is this Review Conference?” There may be a tendency to look at it and say this is the next chance to see how well the president has done in implementing the agenda he set out in Prague, but I think to do that is to look at it too narrowly. And the president said this himself—in Prague he said the United States can lead this effort but others will have to follow.

And right now the Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference is a real opportunity to see whether other states see stabilizing and strengthening the nonproliferation regime as the joint endeavor it actually is.

Who are the key players?

Traditionally, the Review Conference operates using universal consensus rules. What that means is that if there is a document—usually called a final declaration—that captures the consensus of the proceedings, every single state has to agree to it. So, one state can stand up and say no, and in that way all states are really important for what will happen in the conference.

This is not just about the nuclear-weapon states that are permanent members of the UN Security Council, nor is it just about the nonaligned movement and some of the key voices there. Every state will have an opportunity to contribute if that’s what they want to do.

That said, there are a set of key states that take leadership positions and are important to watch. From the nuclear weapons states perspective they include the five members of the Security Council—the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, and China. What’s been interesting to see is that there is always a lot of emphasis and focus on what the United States is doing. Non–nuclear-weapon states could advance their causes of disarmament if they also focused a little more equitably among the other nuclear weapons states, including China and Russia. 

Other key non–nuclear-weapon states include members of the nonaligned movement. For instance, Egypt is the chair of the nonaligned movement, and will try to coordinate a statement from these states. But Indonesia and Singapore—more moderate voices—will also be important. South Africa traditionally has played a very important role in trying to broker agreements and serves as a bridge between nuclear-weapon states and non–nuclear-weapon states.

And then outside of the nonaligned movement you have key states like Brazil. Brazil is an observer to the nonaligned movement but has a lot of different interests in the discussions and will be another important country to watch. 

What are the contentious issues?

In recent times there has been an increasing understanding that the Non-Proliferation Treaty has three pillars—disarmament, nonproliferation, and the peaceful uses of nuclear energy. In recent years there has been growing agreement that there needs to be a balanced approach to the issues that are captured in those three pillars. We will see this, but there are also issues that are bound to be contentious.

One is the 1995 Middle East Resolution. This was an agreement that states adopted in 1995 when the question was whether to indefinitely extend the treaty. States agreed to indefinitely extend the treaty, but only if some of other items were done. And the conclusion and entry into force of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty was one part of the package, but the 1995 Middle East Resolution creating a zone free of weapons of mass destruction was another key component. For some states in the region this is a bone of contention because they feel that not enough has been done to show any real progress in fifteen years. This will definitely be a key issue to watch and whether there are some small concrete steps that states can agree to in order to show forward momentum on this issue.

Another issue where there may be some disagreement is on progress on disarmament and how to chart a path forward. Although there are some nuclear weapon states that will have a lot to show for what they’ve done, whether it’s enough or not for non–nuclear-weapon states will really be the big question. And moving forward and understanding the complexity of the security environment today and into the future and how that relates to nuclear weapons policy—that may also be a problem in terms of charting a path forward.

Another possibly contentious issue has to deal with the fuel cycle. In the past there have been several proposals which have aimed to constrain which countries or the number of countries that can have access to enrichment or reprocessing technologies. These are the sensitive parts of the fuel cycle that can also be used to develop nuclear weapons material.

Currently though, all of the proposals on the table are voluntary. There is still a lot of bad feeling from previous efforts and there are concerns from non–nuclear-weapon states that nuclear-weapon states or other developed states are trying to constrain what they see as their Article IV rights under the nonproliferation treaty, which is the right to peaceful uses of nuclear energy. And here it’s important to clear the table of these past proposals and to recognize that the treaty does not confer the right to peaceful uses of nuclear energy to states. Instead, it acknowledges that all states have that right outside of the treaty.

What the NPT does say is that if you are a state that wants to develop a civilian nuclear energy program and you want cooperation from other states to do so, you have to sign up for a few conditions. For instance, comprehensive safeguards agreements, where the IAEA is able to come in and ensure that those activities for civilian nuclear energy purposes are not being diverted towards a military nuclear weapons program.

A final contentious issue is around Article X of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which is the withdrawal clause. Since North Korea withdrew from the NPT there are concerns about clarifying the process by which states can withdraw and the consequences for when states withdraw from the NPT if it is found that they were cheating while they were within the regime and then used what they gained while they were party to the treaty for nuclear weapons purposes.

Some states, particularly in the nonaligned movement, believe that international law governs the interpretation of Article X. There are other states that are not satisfied with that. They don’t think there are appropriate consequences in place for cheaters who then try to withdraw.

How can success be measured?

Traditionally, success has been measured in what is called a consensus final declaration. In the previous seven Review Conferences, there have only been three instances of a final consensus declaration being reached. In my opinion, too much time has been lost to actually gain a consensus final declaration that is meaningful for this Review Conference. Although this is the preferred outcome, I think states will have to be a little more politically entrepreneurial in terms of determining alternative measures of success.

What will be important is the day after the Review Conference. How do states forestall any declarations that the Non-Proliferation Treaty is dead or that the regime is failing? One way of doing that is to point to different examples showing that there is positive momentum coming out of the conference to stabilize and strengthen the regime.

Aside from a consensus final declaration there are a few other ways in which to measure success. One is in the statements that states will make, either individually or in groups (groupings may be regional or interesting groups that have gotten together in the past, such as the Seven Nation Initiative, Vienna Group of Ten, New Agenda Coalition, or any new groupings that may appear).

In these statements, states can do several things. One, they can tackle any of the individual issues that will be addressed. For instance, universalization of the Additional Protocol. If a state has not adopted the Additional Protocol, it can announce an intention to do so. That’s a good news story—it shows that there are states that are committed to taking on these kinds of measures in order to strengthen the regime. 

Another way of showing success is a coordinated statement from the nuclear-weapon states—so this would be a P5 statement. From my research, I have found that non–nuclear-weapon states find it more meaningful if nuclear-weapon states can find some common ground or common expression of what their plan is and what their approach is to dealing with today’s problems in the nonproliferation regime.

For particularly tricky issues such as the withdrawal clause, it will be very difficult to come to agreement at this Review Conference about consequences for cheaters who then try to withdraw from the regime or even on what the process is if there is a state that says it does want to withdraw. There are currently several proposals and one way of showing progress is if a set of states said they would take leadership after the Review Conference to assess the proposals, solicit views from other countries, see if there were new proposals, and then come back with some kind of assessment of what should be done for the next preparatory committee meeting or even the next Review Conference. This may be a way to show that states are committed to strengthening the nonproliferation regime.

Another measure of success is slightly more oblique and that is how would-be spoilers are treated. For instance, in the case of Iran, they have largely relied on the support of the nonaligned movement for their narrative that they have done nothing wrong and that the charges of noncompliance against them in the UN Security Council resolutions are just part of the Unite States and western powers trying to oppress Iran.

In light of last fall’s revelation of a second secret enrichment facility, it will be interesting to see what the reaction is of the nonaligned movement at the conference. Will they accept this narrative, or will they treat it with skepticism? If it’s the latter, that can be helpful for signaling to the Iranians that it’s best they change course and come back to the negotiating table. And that way, the NPT Review Conference can connect back to the negotiations that are currently happening, or the discussions happening between the major powers and Iran.  

What role will Iran’s nuclear ambitions play in the discussions?

Without a doubt, Iran will be an important country to watch at the Review Conference. They are actually slated to be the chair of the nonaligned movement for the 2015 NPT Review Conference. In the past, Iran has signaled that as long as there aren’t efforts to name or shame the country, it will generally stay quiet.

But, that may be a hard scenario to build around as there is the current push for sanctions in the Security Council. If that happens before the NPT review conference, I think we can expect to see an Iran that is less likely to be cooperative. If the sanctions effort waits until June, maybe then there’s a little more room to play with in terms of what Iran is likely to behave as.

Is this a critical moment for the global nonproliferation regime?

Over the last few years and particularly with the failure of the 2005 Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference, there’s been a tendency by some to call 2010 a make or break moment—this is a real mistake.

The Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference is an important part of the nonproliferation regime but it is just part of the regime. The reality is that the day-to-day functioning of the regime occurs in a variety of other forums, such as the IAEA Board of Governors, UN Security Council, Nuclear Suppliers Group, Conference on Disarmament, and in other UN bodies. And of course in the policies states choose to take up themselves and their bilateral relations with one another, and even multilaterally.

But, the Review Conference is an important opportunity to give voice to the vast majority of states that are otherwise disenfranchised from many of these key decision-making forums. For instance, very few states are one of the ten members of the UN Security Council that do not have a veto power at any given time. They may not be one of the 35 members of the IAEA Board of Governors; they may not be one of 46 members of the Nuclear Suppliers Group; or even one of 65 members of the Conference on Disarmament.

And although the UN General Assembly and the First Committee have more universal representation, decision making in those forums have been largely marginalized. Therefore, the nearly 190 states that are party to the nonproliferation treaty don’t actually have a voice on key issues, except once every five years.

As the future and fate of the nonproliferation regime really depends on the decisions many of these non–nuclear-weapon states will make in the future, it’s worth engaging them in one of the few forums they deem legitimate—and that is the Review Conference.