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The NPT in Crisis

The NPT in Crisis

IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano (Courtesy IAEA)

Just as the self-congratulatory communiques have been issued in Seoul and pats on the back for a job well done have been distributed, Steven E. Miller has lobbed a wrench in the works.  In his very timely essay for the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, entitled Nuclear Collisions: Discord, Reform & the Nuclear Nonproliferation Regime, Miller describes a Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) in crisis.

His central tenet, one that is clearly correct, is that nuclear weapons states (NWS) and non-nuclear weapons states (NNWS) have different perceptions of the NPT’s adequacy and fairness, as well as its flaws and weaknesses. “Given this diversity of views,” he writes, “it is not surprising that states respond differently to proposed reforms of the regime; they do not agree on diagnoses of the NPT’s problems, and hence do not share the same reform agenda.”  The NPT, he rightly asserts, was created around three central pillars: nonproliferation, disarmament, and peaceful uses of nuclear technology.  However, “There are notable differences… in perceptions of the relative importance of the three pillars. One view, common in Western nonproliferation circles, holds that the core rationale and principal purpose of the NPT is to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. In this view, the existence of the three pillars is generally acknowledged, but the other two are regarded as secondary and less essential….This nonproliferation-centered view of the NPT regime collides with a widely held contrary belief that the NPT consists of three coequal pillars that together constitute the core bargain of the treaty…to many NNWS, the disarmament and peaceful technology pillars are at least as important to their understanding of the NPT and its value to their interests as the nonproliferation pillar.”

Aye, there’s the rub, one that goes back to even before the treaty was concluded in 1968.  This conflict of views plays out at every meeting of the IAEA General Conference, every NPT RevCon, and every time the Technical Assistance and Cooperation Committee (TACC) deigns to allocate funds.  The NPT and its attendant regime, believes the NNWS, are simply an instrument of the U.S. to impose its will on the rest of the world.  Many bemoan the increasing politicization of the IAEA:

“Similarly, to many in the NAM, IAEA is not a neutral and objective technical body but rather, ‘a politicized instrument of the foreign policy goals of the U.S. and other Western states.’ This sense of the IAEA as a politicized instrument is reinforced by heavy-handed efforts to pressure the IAEA, to push it in directions that Washington regards as useful, and to press upon it intelligence that shapes the IAEA agenda—all actions that have been evident in the Iran crisis, for example. This perceived politicization is widely understood as objectionable by many NNWS and produces resistance to the reform agenda and sympathy for the targets of American and Western exertions in the context of the NPT regime—including a level of support for Iran that has exasperated Washington.”

I have an awful lot of mixed feelings about these latter statements.  Having sat in TACC meetings where NAM countries grudgingly pay pittances into the TC fund and then practically demand that the U.S. and other larger donors throw in for their activities, I find these sentiments a wee bit disingenuous, to the point of extortion.  Basically, because the U.S. and the P5 have not completely and fully carried out, in word and in deed, Article VI of the NPT, they have to pay the NNWS to toe the line on nonproliferation?  When did having nuclear power become an inalienable right?  Nuclear power is no more a “right” than is driving or having children.  Sorry folks.  But these technologies come with very serious responsibilities.  And if you can’t hack it, then don’t do it.

In essence, the NAM wants the U.S., which currently contributes the largest percentage of the IAEA’s regular budget, not including a significant portion of its “voluntary” contributions which go to TC activities that benefit the NAM countries, to pay up and shut up.  That, in my view, is simply not ever going to happen.  It is unrealistic and naive to think so.  Don’t want the U.S. imprimatur up in your Kool Aid?  Then don’t take our dollars.  Simple as that.

I am most certainly not saying that the P5 haven’t done quite a lot to undermine the NPT and that they are beyond reproach.  In fact, I am very pleased that Miller includes a section on the damage the U.S.-India 123 agreement did to the NPT and its regime.  But neither has the U.S. stood still in its efforts to reduce its nuclear weapons arsenal.  But domestic political reality greatly hinders the ability of the U.S. to do much at all right now.  It was a politically herculean feat of epic proportion to get New START done and ratified.  And its embarrassing that the CTBT has languished as long as it has.

In sum, Mr. Miller has written a timely and incisive piece on the NPT at a time when it has been greatly weakened by a number of assaults, not the last of which are the dalliances of Iran and North Korea.  One can only hope that the NPT can be repaired to the extent that it retains its credibility.

It is very easy to dismiss the utility of treaties as being unenforceable, partly because countries tend to cheat.  I am not of that opinion.  In fact, Mr. Miller alludes to the challenge of implementing international law in his very first paragraph, quoting legal scholar Michael Glennon:

“The international legal system cannot compel a state to subscribe to a rule unless it consents to do so. It cannot adjudicate the application of a rule to a state unless the state has accepted the jurisdiction of the tribunal to apply the rule. It cannot enforce a rule against a state unless the state has consented to the rule’s enforcement.”

However, as Miller acknowledges, “Precisely because of its perceived value as an impediment to the spread of nuclear weapons, there has long been worry about the wounds the NPT regime has suffered and the threats to its health and long-term durability.”  So, do we try and fix the NPT or do we let it fall into hopeless disrepair?  Miller offers some suggestions about how to press ahead, followed by the responses of several NAM reps:  Wael Al-Assad (League of Arab States), Jayantha Dhanapala (Pugwash Conference on Science and World Affairs), C. Raja Mohan (Indian Express), and Ta Minh Tuan (Office of the Government,Vietnam). Miller’s suggestions have a “no-brainer” quality to them.  Don’t impose, consult.  Emphasize interests, not rights.  Right.

The real question, for me, is whether or not a country, say India, can put its own interests aside to get Iran to stop taunting the world with its nuclear aspirations.  Until it does so, fixing the NPT is a red herring.



Jodi Lieberman

Jodi Lieberman is a veteran of the arms control, nonproliferation, nuclear terrorism and nuclear safety trenches, having worked at the Departments of State, Energy and Nuclear Regulatory Commission. She has also served in an advisory capacity and as professional staff for several members of Congress in both the House and Senate as well as the Senate Homeland Security Committee. Jodi currently spends her time advocating for science issues and funding as the Senior Government Affairs Specialist at the American Physical Society. The views expressed in her posts are her views based on her professional experience but in way should be construed to represent those of her employer.

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