"I want to thank the Arms Control Association … for being such effective advocates for sensible policies to stem the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and most importantly, reduce the risk of nuclear war."

– Joseph Biden, Jr.
January 28, 2004
UN Nuclear Expert Diagnoses NPT Ills, Offers Prescriptions

Wade Boese

Following a recent round of sparring between the nuclear “haves” and “have-nots” over who is most responsible for putting the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) regime at risk, the United Nations’ top nuclear expert said May 14 that all states share the blame.

International Atomic Energy Agency Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei
presented a sobering assessment of the nuclear nonproliferation regime a week after a contentious NPT states-parties meeting ended. Speaking to the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations, he described the regime as “eroding in terms of legitimacy” and warned that more thinking must be done “outside the box” if it is to be shored up.

To achieve success in stemming the spread of nuclear weapons, ElBaradei said that countries with nuclear weapons must move more convincingly to eliminate their arsenals, the international community must be more willing to punish any government attempting to acquire nuclear weapons, and states must be willing to accept greater constraints on the types of nuclear technologies they can possess.

The director-general faulted the NPT’s five recognized nuclear-weapon states—China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States—as well as non-NPT members India, Pakistan, and Israel for clinging to their nuclear arsenals and thereby suggesting that such arms confer security benefits, power, and prestige.

He extended this line of criticism to all 26 NATO members for keeping nuclear weapons as a salient feature of the alliance’s defense posture, remarking that nonproliferation was unsustainable if NATO members continued “relying on the nuclear umbrella and [saying] everyone else should sit quietly in the cold.”

However, possession of nuclear weapons by several states does not justify complacency in the face of efforts by additional countries to acquire these arms, ElBaradei indicated. He blasted the international community for failing to confront North Korea when it announced its NPT withdrawal early last year. “If that is not [a] threat to international peace and security, what is?” the director-general asked. He pointed to a widespread perception that “the international community will not respond or would respond selectively” to such violations.

To address this problem, ElBaradei suggested creating some type of UN Security Council “response mechanism.” He pointed out that France is developing a proposal for automatic sanctions if a country withdraws from the NPT.

The director-general also spoke positively of the Bush administration’s call to halt the spread of enrichment and reprocessing facilities to states that do not already possess them. Although the NPT legally permits national ownership of such capabilities, they are key to developing nuclear weapons, and ElBaradei said they simply were not necessary from an “economic point of view.” ElBaradei is convening a group of experts this summer to look at how to address this issue.

ElBaradei further praised a U.S. proposal to end the worldwide civilian reactor use of highly enriched uranium, which is an essential ingredient for nuclear weapons. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham met with ElBaradei May 26 to discuss the U.S. plan.

ElBaradei offered some suggestions of his own as well. He recommended that the current export control regime, which he described as “busted right now,” should entail legally binding, not voluntary, commitments and expand its membership because some countries with nuclear materials, such as India, Pakistan, and Malaysia, are outside of it. ElBaradei’s remarks largely pertained to the 40-member Nuclear Suppliers Group and 35-member Zangger Committee, through which the majority of nuclear suppliers seek to coordinate their export control policies.

Ultimately, ElBaradei warned, the nonproliferation regime is bound to fail if more is not done to address the insecurity that some states feel. “Unless we link nonproliferation to security, I think we will continue to…go around in circles,” ElBaradei said.

A new collective security arrangement not based on nuclear weapons must be built, the director-general argued. He volunteered no specific proposals, however, and noted that constructing such a system and building trust in it would take time.

Until then, ElBaradei suggested one possibility might be to entrust the Security Council with “some remnant nuclear arsenal to deal with…possible cheaters in the future.” He said he raised the proposal “for lack of better ideas” and encouraged more thinking by all.