Saving the Nuclear Nonproliferation Agreement

North Korea’s recent announcement that it has manufactured nuclear weapons highlights the precarious nature of the global nonproliferation regime and particularly the failure of the Bush administration’s approach to the problem. In an official statement, North Korea indicated that the impetus for its actions was “the Bush administration’s increasingly hostile policy.” In fact, the Bush administration has dragged its feet for more than four years and made inadequate efforts to provide either security assurances or development aid to North Korea in exchange for halting its nuclear program.

Yet it is widely agreed on all sides of the political spectrum that preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons is the most important item on the U.S. national security agenda. This was the one point that President Bush and Sen. John Kerry could agree upon in their presidential debate on foreign policy.

At the center of the nonproliferation regime is the 1970 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). What most Americans don’t know is that this treaty is based upon an important tradeoff. The nonnuclear weapons states agree not to develop or acquire nuclear weapons, and the nuclear weapons states agree to engage in good faith negotiations for nuclear disarmament.

Every five years, the parties to this treaty, now 188 countries, meet at the United Nations to review progress. At the 2000 Review Conference, the parties agreed by consensus to 13 practical steps for nuclear disarmament. Unfortunately, the nuclear weapons states, and particularly the United States, seem to have made virtually zero progress in the past five years. Despite its pledges to do otherwise, the United States has failed to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty; opposed a verifiable fissile material cutoff treaty; substituted the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT), which is fully reversible, for the START treaties; scrapped the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, opening the door for deployment of missile defenses and moves toward placing weapons in outer space; kept nuclear weapons at the center of its security policies, including research to create new nuclear weapons; and demonstrated no political will toward the elimination of its nuclear arsenal.

The only small glimmer of hope in U.S. nuclear policy was Congress’ cutting the funding requested by the administration in the 2005 budget for “bunker buster” and low-yield nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, the administration is already back seeking the inclusion of this research in the 2006 and 2007 budgets.

With less than three months remaining before the beginning of the next Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference, there is a sense that prospects for the future of the nonproliferation regime are dim. I was recently at a meeting on “The Future of the NPT” held at The Carter Center in Atlanta. The conference was sponsored by the Middle Powers Initiative, a coalition of eight international civil society organizations. I was there representing one of the eight, the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. In attendance were many of the key ambassadors who will be participating in the 2005 NPT Review Conference.

Ambassador Sérgio de Queiroz Duarte of Brazil, the president-designate of the Review Conference said that there is “a persistent and serious situation of erosion of confidence in the mechanisms of the NPT and on the ability of the instrument to survive the tests it has been through.” Participants in the Atlanta meeting drew attention to the unbalanced situation in the Middle East, with Israel, not a party to the NPT, already having nuclear weapons and Iran seeming to hold its options open for developing them. They also expressed concern about North Korea’s withdrawal from the treaty and its reported development of a nuclear arsenal. The greatest concern, however, was over the lack of progress on nuclear disarmament in accord with previous promises.

Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, who spoke at the meeting, pointed out that prospects for this year’s discussion are not encouraging. He noted that the prepatory committee for the conference had so far failed even to achieve an agenda because of the “deep divisions between the nuclear powers who seek to stop proliferation without meeting their own disarmament commitments and the Non-Aligned Movement, whose demands include firm disarmament commitments and consideration of the Israeli arsenal.”

For the Non-Proliferation Treaty to fail or begin to unravel would be a disaster for the world, perhaps most for the United States. Yet the U.S. administration seems to think that it can go on with business as usual and disavow its pledges on the 13 practical steps for nuclear disarmament made in 2000. Other countries are getting restless and some, like Iran and North Korea, after having been designated by President Bush as part of the “axis of evil,” seem to be moving toward creating their own nuclear arsenal. This is a situation that cannot be countered by force without throwing the international order into chaos. It can only be dealt with using diplomacy, cooperation and a leveling of the nuclear playing field by fulfilling promises for nuclear disarmament. The nonproliferation bargain must be two-sided.

If we are going to prevent a breakdown of the nonproliferation regime, the United States is going to have to lead by example rather than by force. This would require a major shift in policy for this administration. Congress and the American public need to be active participants in order to create such a shift. Direct citizen involvement in U.S. nuclear policy has been successful in the past in ending atmospheric nuclear testing in the 1960s and freezing the level of nuclear arms in the 1980s. It will serve our common interests to end the proliferation of nuclear weapons and strengthen the global nonproliferation regime.

DAVID KRIEGER is president of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation.

David Krieger is president emeritus of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation (