Taking Stock of the NPT: An Interview With U.S. Special Representative Susan Burk
Susan Burk has served as special representative of the president for nuclear nonproliferation since June 8, 2009. In that position, she plays a lead role in
Arms Control Today spoke with Burk in her State Department office January 19. She outlined her views on recent progress in strengthening the NPT regime and on the challenges that the treaty parties will have to confront at the review conference.
The interview was transcribed by Caitlin Taber. It has been edited for clarity.
The interview is part of an Arms Control Today article series, which began in the January/February 2010 issue, on topics related to the NPT and the upcoming review conference.
ACT: In April of last year, President Barack Obama said efforts to contain nuclear weapons dangers “are centered in a global nuclear non-proliferation regime,” and he pledged to strengthen the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty “as a basis for cooperation.” How does the
Burk: I think in the first instance, what we are looking at is a review conference that will revalidate the importance of the treaty for international and regional security and stability. That would be the first goal—what some officials have been calling a renewal and a reinvigoration of the NPT. That is the large strategic goal. We also think the review conference can address measures under all three pillars of the treaty that would strengthen the treaty and improve its implementation. The first would be the disarmament pillar. Obviously, the president has laid out an ambitious disarmament program, steps that he is committed to take. On the nonproliferation pillar, the
ACT: How important is a final conference document outlining specific benchmarks and goals to a successful NPT review conference and future efforts to strengthen the nuclear nonproliferation system?
Burk: If you look historically, tremendous importance has been attached to production of a consensus final document. But if you also look at the history, we see that that’s an elusive goal. I would have to say personally it would be very positive if we could agree on a statement, a forward-looking statement, and we are prepared to work very hard with our NPT partners to see what we can do on that. But we think we ought to be striving for quality, not quantity. Perhaps if we go for something brief and concise but specific, we might be able to be successful. But success can be defined in other ways as well.
ACT: I hope we’ll get into more detail on how we define that. How would you describe the political climate leading into this year’s review conference? Is it more conducive to reaching agreement on the treaty’s three pillars that you just mentioned than in 2005, and if so, why?
Burk: Well, I wasn’t involved in 2005, so I don’t want to do too much speculation. I think we’re facing a number of the same problems and concerns and stresses, if you will, on the system that we faced in 2005. That includes
ACT: In April, President Obama pledged that the
Burk: I think the case that we’re going to make is the case that I’ve been making over the six months that I’ve been on the job and the case that other administration officials have been making. The president made clear that the United States has a special responsibility for the nuclear disarmament provisions of the NPT and accepts that responsibility and to that end has committed to negotiate with Russia a new START agreement, to pursue CTBT [Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty] ratification, and to participate in negotiations in Geneva on a verifiable fissile material cutoff treaty [FMCT], and he has talked about reducing the role of nuclear weapons. How that will be translated after the Nuclear Posture Review is still to be determined, but I think we will make the case that we are committed to a number of the major initiatives that have been on the agenda. The
ACT: Is the case dependent on having START negotiations completed or the treaty ratified? To what extent is it dependent on the status of START at that point?
Burk: I have been making this point very clearly, and I would have to say that my foreign interlocutors, who are very sophisticated, understand how our political system works. They understand that treaties require the advice and consent of the Senate, and that is not something that the
ACT: At the conference last September on facilitating the entry into force of the CTBT, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton pledged to “work in the months ahead both to seek the advice and consent of the
What does the administration intend to do in the months prior to the review conference to demonstrate its commitment to achieving these goals?
Burk: The president has not set any timeline for achievement of ratification. This goes back to the point I just made—that ratification is a Senate prerogative and we can’t prejudge that. Later this spring, we’re going to see publication of both the National Academy of Sciences update to their 2002 report on the key technical issues and a National Intelligence Estimate. I think those are the two developments that we can see coming between now and May.
ACT: What is the United States doing to pursue ratification by the other Annex 2 states?
Burk: I’m not the right person to ask that question. I’m completely focused on preparing for the review conference, and I’m not involved in other negotiations. This is a full-time job.
ACT: UN Security Council Resolution 1887 recalls the five declared nuclear-weapon states’ April 1995 security assurances against the use of nuclear weapons to the non-nuclear-weapon states-parties to the NPT. In the context of the 2000 NPT Review Conference, the five declared their “unequivocal commitment” to the elimination of nuclear weapons. Are the five nuclear-weapon states considering similar statements prior to the upcoming conference?
ACT: But it is something that is under consideration?
Burk: Under consideration. It’s become sort of routine to do this, so we are engaging in consultations. So we’ll see how that goes.
ACT: And likely to be on the issue of negative security assurances or something more broadly focused?
Burk: On security assurances, we still have the long-standing negative security assurance that every
ACT: Since the last review conference, the IAEA Board of Governors has found one NPT party,
In the view of the United States, how should the upcoming review conference address the importance of compliance, and can it agree on a set of “real and immediate consequences” for noncompliance?
Burk: This is one of those issues that is a carryover from 2005. What’s important to remember is that, with very few exceptions, all the other NPT parties are in compliance with their obligations under the treaty. What we have been discussing with our partners as we engage in diplomatic outreach is the importance of full compliance with the treaty to maintaining the integrity of the treaty and the corrosive effect that noncompliance has on the treaty itself and on the understandings that other countries have had. We expect that this will be discussed in May. It has to be discussed—full compliance, full support for safeguards, and all those other measures. Exactly how it will be discussed is up in the air at the moment. There are different views on how to handle the issue. But I don’t think there is any disagreement among parties—certainly not in my consultations—that full compliance is absolutely essential.
ACT: But part of the issue here is that because a final document or any agreement there requires consensus, and one or more parties may be not complying, then how do you achieve a consensus when one of the people who would have to agree is one of the countries who would be directly affected by that?
Burk: Well it depends on what you’re saying in the document. If your goal is to censure countries, I think we all can understand that if one of the countries that you are censuring is in the room and has the ability to block consensus, we can predict how that will turn out. But there are other ways to deal with the issues of compliance and noncompliance and strengthen safeguards. It’s not clear; there are discussions going around right now on how to deal with these issues. We are all very aware of the fact that it is difficult to move forward on proposals that target specific countries if they are able to block a consensus. We’ll have to see whether the desire to have consensus—what kind of power such a veto right affords.
ACT: You said
Burk: What I have in mind when I make that comment is
ACT: What about
ACT: You mention, in the context of noncompliance, strengthening safeguards. Resolution 1887 has called on all countries to adopt an additional protocol and also to make an additional protocol a condition for nuclear supply. What are the prospects of adding some sort of an agreement at the review conference on the proposals?
Burk: There are lots of different views on the [Model] Additional Protocol, so I don’t want to speculate about what the review conference may or may not agree specifically on it. But it has become an important point for us to raise in consultations because we have ratified the Additional Protocol now and we do believe that it should become the new verification standard. But the more important point is the fact that [Mohamed ElBaradei,] the former director-general of the IAEA, before he retired, made a very strong statement, which I quote frequently, that without the Additional Protocol the IAEA has no capability to verify undeclared facilities. Our experience over the past years and discovery of clandestine nuclear facilities led to the negotiation of the Additional Protocol. We learn from our mistakes. It is very clear that we need to look forward on the Additional Protocol. There are well over 100 countries that have had additional protocols accepted by the IAEA and 90-some countries that have brought it into force. This is a critical mass of states that have adopted the Additional Protocol. We will continue to discuss with our partners how we can make it universal, invoking the words of the IAEA leadership on what they need in order to do their job, and we expect that there will be a strong statement of support for the Additional Protocol at the review conference in May.
ACT: In 2008 the Nuclear Suppliers Group [NSG] agreed to allow civil nuclear trade with
Burk: I can’t say that that, in and of itself, has complicated efforts to achieve universal adherence to the additional protocol.
ACT: Has the issue of the U.S.-Indian deal and the broader
Burk: Yes. It gets raised frequently in NPT discussions, and our response is that it was seen as a way to bring
ACT: Moving on a bit to the issue of Article 4, the Obama administration has backed proposals for international arrangements, including a so-called fuel bank, intended to give non-nuclear-weapon states an incentive not to pursue enrichment or reprocessing technologies. But as you’ve seen, there have been many countries who haven’t exactly embraced this concept. How would the
Burk: Well, addressing Article 4 issues is a broad area, and I think the fuel banks really relate to the resurgence of interest in nuclear power. But let me just make a comment about the nonpower applications. We are very mindful of not forgetting these applications in nuclear energy because, with few exceptions, NPT parties, especially in the developing world, have benefited from access to the peaceful use of nuclear energy in nonpower forms, such as medicine, agriculture, industry, universities with small reactors, and that sort of thing. In many ways, we have gotten so comfortable with this technology that we now more or less take it for granted, and we forget that it really is derived from the Atoms for Peace program of the 1950s and is made possible by the NPT.
On the power aspect of it, there is an energetic debate going on [at the IAEA] in
ACT: Can we just turn that around a bit? Because, as you say it might not be the purview of the review conference to decide something that is being discussed in Vienna, but it’s the whole issue that the divisions among countries on the fuel banks might be seen as showing the different views of how the Article 4 obligations should play out, the balance between the inalienable right versus the need to be in conformity with Articles 1 and 2. Doesn’t that divided vote at the Board of Governors indicate a very different perception among different countries about what exactly Article 4 requires, whether the dissemination of enrichment actually constitutes a proliferation risk or not, and basic, fundamental questions for Article 4 like that?
Burk: It does, and I think if you look at the review conference, this is a legitimate discussion to have in the Main Committee on peaceful uses of nuclear energy. We can debate this issue. We have to sort through some of the political debates and the more practical technical debates. At the moment, we have got a mix of both. So I can’t prejudge the discussion, but I think you framed it correctly. That is an issue we can expect to spend time on in
ACT: You mentioned earlier that
Burk: First, it is important to state up front, because there is frequently a misunderstanding, that the
ACT: That discussion has been going on for some time. Do you believe that the states-parties at this conference are close to an agreement as to what the collective response should be?
Burk: At this moment?
ACT: Is this a particular goal of the
Burk: It is one of our goals. We would like to see the conference address this issue and ideally agree on some steps. But at this moment in time, are we close to agreement on that? No. We are still talking about it and expanding the circle of countries that we are sharing specific ideas with.
ACT: Even if you manage to find agreement on all those issues at the review conference, another outstanding issue that many observers believe might need to be addressed, if there is going to be an overall agreement, is the 1995 resolution on the Middle East, which calls for the establishment of a weapons-of-mass-destruction-free zone and for all states in the region to join the NPT. At last year’s Preparatory Committee, key states, including
Burk: I’m not into predicting possibilities for agreement at this point on things. What’s important is that we are making very clear that we support fully the goals and objectives of the 1995 resolution. To the extent there was any question about that in the past, we are trying to set that straight: We support it. We support the achievement of a zone free of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction in the
ACT: But if I could just follow up: The 1995 resolution was widely supported. Since then, it has been widely supported. Yet there has been, by all measures, very little progress toward that goal, and one of the key points of friction at the last review conference was the apparent lack of progress on this goal. What ideas is the
Burk: It is important to remember that the situation on the ground in 1995 was very different than the situation on the ground in 2010. In 1995 there was one country [in the
ACT: A month before the review conference, the
Burk: That is a good question. I get asked all the time about this because the proximity of the two meetings leads to a lot of confusion about their relationship, and I am at pains to tell people that they are different events. One is an NPT forum; the other is not an NPT forum. The security summit is dealing with a very narrow slice of the problem, focusing on nuclear terrorism. At this point, it will be up to the participants in the security summit that are NPT parties, including the United States, to decide what out of that might be exportable to the review conference. I just can’t prejudge. I’m not involved directly in the preparations for the security summit. The issue could be relevant to NPT discussions, but I think we really need to leave it up to the parties to decide what to carry forward on that. That is what I have been saying when asked, and I think it’s the best way to handle this issue.
ACT: During the Preparatory Committee meeting last year, in President Obama’s personal message to the meeting, he said that the treaty needs to be strengthened and deal with nuclear weapons threats and the threat of nuclear terrorism. Is there something that the review conference can do to deal with the terrorism issue?
Burk: We haven’t been focusing on the terrorism piece, per se. We’re really focusing on the broad issue of securing and safeguarding materials, including encouraging all states to have comprehensive safeguard agreements or small quantities protocols, which not all have, and to adhere to the Additional Protocol. Sort of “Nonproliferation 101” if you will—first principles. If you can secure nuclear materials against theft or diversion, that would make a big contribution. Again, we have the nuclear security summit, but it is not a meeting of NPT parties. We’ll see what comes out of that. I have been reading articles about this and listening to people talking about the relationship between safety, security, and safeguards. To my mind, it is all part of the same thing.
ACT: You said it is part of Nonproliferation 101. The NPT specifically refers to things such as safeguards and so on, but I don’t think there are specific textual references to things having to do with nuclear security and those kinds of obligations. Yet there are countries—I’m thinking of the
Burk: Regarding the idea of a fourth pillar—what we have to be careful of is that we don’t convey the impression that we are trying to create new obligations under the NPT. If you look at strengthening the IAEA across the board—not just safeguards, but in terms of all of its programs—that then gives you additional capacity to deal with these security issues. But I do think that the threat of loose or vulnerable material is something that NPT parties could take up. Again, there is growing international interest in pursuing nuclear power and other kinds of nuclear technologies. The international community will have to be very mindful of how to do that in a safe and secure way and not contribute to proliferation.
ACT: As I’m sure you are well aware, after the review conference is over, the gavel comes down, there is still quite a bit of work to do to strengthen the disarmament and nonproliferation regime. What does the United States intend to do in the months and years ahead to try and work toward the goal?
Burk: I would say your question goes directly to a point that I have been making in my meetings with other treaty parties, which is that the NPT review conference is a very important event in the life of the treaty, a critical event, but it is not an end in and of itself. The goal here is to renew and reinvigorate the treaty and agree on some specific steps that the international community is prepared to take in all three pillars to move forward. But very importantly, a constructive, positive review conference will give important momentum to our efforts in
ACT: Are there any thoughts at this point, in January of course, about, aside from you, who else might be representing the
Burk: No, we don’t have a decision on that. I expect to be up there for the month as a working head of delegation, but beyond that, we don’t have any decision at this point. I would say that it is very clear that, at the highest levels, there is a keen appreciation of the importance of the NPT. I think the president has made that clear in statement after statement. The secretary of state, the undersecretary for arms control and international security have also done so. We’re working on an issue that we know is the very highest priority and on which we have the highest-level support for our efforts. That is a very gratifying thing.
ACT: Thank you very much.
2. Article 6 states, “Each of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.” For the full text of the treaty, see www.state.gov/www/global/arms/treaties/npt1.html.
3. Under the treaty’s Annex 2, 44 specified countries must ratify the treaty to bring it into force. Nine of those countries—
4. The five countries that the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty recognizes as nuclear-weapon states are
5. For a historical summary of
6. The 1997 Model Additional Protocol provides the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) with greater authority to verify all nuclear activities within a state, increasing the chances of detecting undeclared nuclear activities. Each country negotiates an individual additional protocol to its safeguards agreement with the IAEA based upon the 1997 Model Additional Protocol.
7. Article 4 says, in part, that “[n]othing in this Treaty shall be interpreted as affecting the inalienable right of all the Parties to the Treaty to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes without discrimination and in conformity with Articles I and II of this Treaty.”
8. For an account of recent IAEA action in this area, see Daniel Horner, “IAEA Board Approves Russian Fuel Bank Plan,” Arms Control Today, January/February 2010.
9. Article 10 of the treaty states, “Each Party shall in exercising its national sovereignty have the right to withdraw from the Treaty if it decides that extraordinary events, related to the subject matter of this Treaty, have jeopardized the supreme interests of its country. It shall give notice of such withdrawal to all other Parties to the Treaty and to the United Nations Security Council three months in advance. Such notice shall include a statement of the extraordinary events it regards as having jeopardized its supreme interests.”
10. Countries that are not pursuing significant nuclear activities can negotiate a small quantities protocol with the IAEA. Such a protocol suspends some of the requirements of IAEA comprehensive safeguards agreements as long as the country maintains only limited nuclear activities. The protocol’s requirements were strengthened in September 2005, and paragraph 15(a) of UN Security Council Resolution 1887 calls on all NPT non-nuclear-weapon states to adopt comprehensive IAEA safeguards or a modified version of the small quantities protocol. See Paul Kerr, “IAEA Board Closes Safeguards Loophole,” Arms Control Today, November 2005.
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