This month, nearly 190 countries will gather at the United Nations in New York to strengthen the global rules for preventing the further spread and use of nuclear weapons. Supporters of President Obama’s agenda to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons see this Review Conference of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) as a chance for him to save the nonproliferation regime. Critics view it as the next test of whether Obama’s approach to addressing North Korean and Iranian proliferation concerns will pay off. Both are wrong.
Casting this conference as a political referendum or a make-or-break moment for the nonproliferation regime is a mistake. The Review Conference is tasked with evaluating how well the terms of the NPT have been implemented and to chart a path forward to tackle unfinished business. Despite Iranian President Ahmadinejad’s appearance, it is not the place to resolve concerns about Iran or North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. But states can counteract the bad example set by Iran and North Korea by agreeing to new rules for improving how to detect and punish cheating.
Casting this conference as a political referendum or a make-or-break moment for the nonproliferation regime is a mistake.
Putting the Review Conference in proper context helps set the right expectations of what is achievable. The NPT provides the international legal framework in which the real work is done to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons while facilitating peaceful uses of atomic energy. Practical outcomes are determined in the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the Nuclear Suppliers Group, the UN Security Council and in countless episodes of bilateral diplomacy and commercial transactions. Work will continue in all of these forms after the Review Conference concludes. The Review Conference measures progress, but it is not the final arbiter of the fate of the regime.
As the Review Conference looks backwards to the last time it disastrously convened in 2005 or even further back to 2000, it must confront how developments in the last decade have destabilized the nonproliferation regime. North Korea withdrew from the NPT and conducted two nuclear tests. Iran is suspected of cheating from within the regime. Syria allegedly tried to build a reactor without IAEA oversight. The illicit procurement network created by AQ Khan was discovered. Al Qaeda is attempting to acquire the materials and capability to conduct nuclear terrorism. Commercially available sensitive nuclear technology continues to spread. Rather than forcefully address these concerns in the intervening years at the three meetings to prepare for 2010, most states dithered and waited for a new US president. Perhaps understandable, but a mistake nonetheless. US engagement is a necessary, but not sufficient condition for success in preventing the misuse of atomic energy.
Defining failure is a first step for defining success. A catastrophic Review Conference is one characterized by acrimony, no further commitments, and scapegoating. This is what happened in 2005. Fortunately, because of the positive atmosphere created by Obama and a swiftly adopted agenda, the states meeting at the UN have so far skirted that disaster.
The Achilles heel of the Review Conference is its tradition – not mandated by the NPT – of capturing the results of the proceedings in a final declaration based on universal consensus. This practice has created the expectation that a successful Review Conference is one that produces such a document. Aiming for such an ambitious goal is virtuous, but the reality is that such an outcome, although welcome, is unlikely because any state – be it Iran, Syria, or the US – could block it to protect itself from criticism.
The Achilles heel of the Review Conference is its tradition – not mandated by the NPT – of capturing the results of the proceedings in a final declaration based on universal consensus.
Thankfully, there are other ways to measure success if states can unshackle themselves from the universal consensus custom. The highest order success would be a substantive final declaration agreed to by all parties. By comparison, a meaningless, lowest common denominator document agreed to by all, would be more farce than progress. Falling short of meaningful agreement by all, the next successful outcome would be a substantive text, either an action plan or statement from the Review Conference chair that reflects a diverse group of influential states’ willingness to take steps to strengthen compliance with nonproliferation rules, further reduce the roles and numbers of nuclear weapons, and facilitate responsible nuclear cooperation. If influential countries including the US, China, Russia, Brazil, South Africa, Indonesia, and Japan could agree on such commitments, but Iran, Syria or others blocked consensus, the result should be seen as success, not failure.
Key commitments could include adopting the Additional Protocol which helps the IAEA detect cheating; clarifying the process for withdrawing from the NPT; establishing consequences for NPT cheaters that seek to withdraw; demonstrating the seriousness of nuclear weapon states to disarm; and contributing to greater transparency measures for existing nuclear arsenals.
Whatever happens in New York, the true test will occur after the Review Conference. Will nations and pundits promote disorder by crying that the nonproliferation regime is collapsing? Or will countries realize that they each have an opportunity to create positive momentum for further strengthening the regime after the Review Conference? By recognizing that stabilizing and strengthening the nonproliferation regime is a shared responsibility of all nations, any number of states can bolster prospects for success. President Obama has set the stage, but it is now time for everyone to act.