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"I greatly appreciate your very swift response, and your organization's work in general. It's a terrific source of authoritative information."

– Lisa Beyer
Bloomberg News
August 27, 2018
April Audit

Spurgeon M. Keeny, Jr.

When the 186 members of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) gather in New York in April for the treaty's five-year review conference, the debate will probably focus on the nuclear-weapon states' failure to honor commitments made in connection with the 1995 agreement to extend the treaty indefinitely rather than on direct threats to the nuclear non-proliferation regime. The brunt of this criticism will be borne by the United States as the leader of the nuclear non-proliferation effort. Unless the United States takes this little-heralded event seriously and pursues constructive, high-level preparations, the conference could well prove a diplomatic donnybrook. Even though it is unlikely that any member would withdraw as a consequence, such an outcome would seriously undercut the effectiveness of the nuclear non-proliferation regime.

On the 25th anniversary of the NPT in April 1995, a treaty-mandated conference decided after much debate to extend the treaty indefinitely. To achieve consensus support for this outcome in the face of a significant minority view that there should be only a five-year extension, the nuclear-weapon states, led by the United States, committed themselves to making progress in the reduction of their nuclear arsenals and to completion of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) in 1996. Future five-year review conferences were to measure progress on these issues.

Initially, this commitment was met impressively with the on-schedule completion and signature of the long-sought CTBT, the successful denuclearization of Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Belarus, and the U.S. Senate ratification of START II. In addition, there was apparent progress in dealing with the serious North Korean and Iraqi challenges to the NPT.

In the last few years, however, this early promise faded as the world witnessed serious new challenges to the NPT and failure of the nuclear-weapon states to make progress on their commitments to nuclear arms reductions. The Indian and Pakistani nuclear tests, threatening a nuclear arms race in South Asia, set back the nuclear non-proliferation regime, as did the inability of the international community to react effectively to Saddam Hussein's expulsion of UN-mandated UNSCOM inspectors. Today, the world is even faced with the specter of the possible loss of past arms control agreements, including the CTBT and the ABM Treaty.

The U.S. Senate's rejection of the CTBT, which has long been looked upon as the litmus test of the nuclear-weapon states' commitment to nuclear non-proliferation and reduction of their reliance on nuclear weapons, came as an unanticipated shock to world opinion. Despite President Clinton's assurance that the United States would continue to honor his signature of the CTBT, the entire world wondered how serious the U.S. commitment to nuclear non-proliferation was when all of the Republican presidential candidates rushed to endorse the Senate's gratuitous action against a treaty that was largely a U.S. initiative. Russian and Chinese statements in support of the treaty placed the onus for blocking progress on bringing the CTBT into force squarely on the United States.

The international community has viewed with equal alarm the growing U.S. obsession with national missile defense (NMD). Although the Clinton administration insists its program is directed solely at potential threats from "rogue states," no other nation is persuaded that the most powerful nation in the world is really interested in deploying this expensive and provocative system simply to defend itself against a most unlikely threat from North Korea or Iraq. The proposed deployment, which would weaken or destroy the ABM Treaty, is widely seen as a barrier to the further reductions promised in 1995 and as the possible start of a new high-tech arms race. The extent of this opposition was reflected in the UN General Assembly vote on a resolution supporting the ABM Treaty and opposing NMD deployment, where only three countries (Israel, Albania and Micronesia) joined the United States in opposition.

To persuade the conference to focus on measures to strengthen the non-proliferation regime, the United States must first make clear that it will continue to honor and seek early ratification of the CTBT and that President Clinton has not made a decision on NMD deployment and will not make that decision until there has been an objective review of technological readiness, the threat from rogue states, financial cost and the impact on arms control, including the ABM Treaty.

The United States should treat the meeting as an opportunity for renewed commitment to NPT objectives. New York is not the place to defend or rationalize outrageous actions by the U.S. Senate or to build the case for an as-yet-unmade presidential decision to initiate NMD deployment. Above all, the United States should listen carefully-what the rest of the world thinks about these issues should carry weight in the U.S. decision-making process.