"Though we have acheived progress, our work is not over. That is why I support the mission of the Arms Control Association. It is, quite simply, the most effective and important organization working in the field today." 

– Larry Weiler
Former U.S.-Russian arms control negotiator
August 7, 2018
Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty Meeting Sputters

Wade Boese

After four sterile weeks, the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) review conference ended May 27 as it began, with competing agendas, widespread distrust, and no consensus on next steps for stopping the spread of or eliminating nuclear weapons.

Egypt and the United States emerged as the main protagonists at the New York gathering, but their disputes reflected age-old splits among the 189 treaty members on how best to realize the accord’s visionary goal of a world without nuclear weapons. Still, the fissures seemed to widen and spread at the conference as some of the 150 attending states-parties, particularly Egypt and the United States, demonstrated little inclination to compromise or move beyond positions held prior to the May 2 start of the once-every-five-years event.

Many governments expressed their frustration and regret about the fruitless outcome of the conference and echoed the sentiment of UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan that the states-parties had “missed a vital opportunity to strengthen our collective security against the many nuclear threats to which all states and all peoples are vulnerable.” Still, despite the pervasive disappointment with the conference, governments refrained from suggesting that it imperiled the treaty, at least for now.

Conference president Sérgio de Queiroz Duarte of Brazil told Arms Control Today June 9 that states-parties are “progressively drifting apart” on nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament issues. He cautioned that, if this trend continues, the future of the treaty could be cast into doubt.

The divergence among states-parties stems in large part from tensions between the nuclear-weapon haves and have-nots over how to implement the treaty’s dual obligations: the five states-parties possessing nuclear weapons—-China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States—-are supposed to work toward giving them up, while all other states-parties have pledged to forgo acquiring them.

Discontent among the have-nots with what they judge as the nuclear-weapon states’ paltry progress toward nuclear disarmament has always been palpable, but the grousing has swelled since the 1995 NPT Review Conference. The non-nuclear-weapon states complain that the nuclear-weapon states have not pursued the disarmament measures to which they committed that year as part of a bargain to extend the treaty indefinitely. Specifically, the non-nuclear-weapon states protest the Bush administration’s exploration of new and modified types of nuclear weapons, opposition to the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), and withdrawal from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. All these moves contravene a package of 13 disarmament steps agreed to at the 2000 NPT Review Conference by the United States and all other NPT states-parties. (See ACT, June 2000.)

At the same time, U.S. pique with the have-nots has also risen because of its view that they have shown insufficient willingness to take to task some of their brethren, notably Iran and North Korea. Pyongyang announced its withdrawal from the NPT in January 2003 and has declared itself a nuclear-weapon power. The International Atomic Energy Agency concluded nearly two years ago that Tehran had pursued clandestine nuclear activitiesthat Washington charges are evidence of an illicit weapons program.

The mutual disenchantment between the have-nots and the nuclear-weapon states, particularly the United States, manifested itself at the conference in prolonged battles over procedural issues—-including adoption of an agenda—-that consumed almost the first three weeks of the conference. (See ACT, June 2005.) The remaining time proved too short for the states-parties to overcome their differences on substantive issues, such as how to dissuade future withdrawals from the treaty or balance a state’s access to nuclear technologies for peaceful purposes with suffi- cient guarantees that it is not secretly seeking nuclear arms.

Yet, several diplomats told Arms Control Today in interviews that more time would not have yielded different results because of the entrenched positions and acrimony on all sides.

The United States and some other Western countries blame Egypt for how the conference unfolded because it blocked consensus for action on several procedural issues. In June 9 The 2005 nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty Review Conference ended May 27 without any substantive decisions on stopping the spread of or eliminating nuclear weapons.testimony to the International Terrorism and Nonproliferation Subcommittee of the House International Relations Committee, Assistant Secretary of State for Arms Control Stephen Rademaker said that “Egypt was second to none in creating obstacles.”

Other diplomats told Arms Control Today that the seeds for the conference’s failure were planted before it began, with the Bush administration’s rejection of some of the 13 disarmament steps. One diplomat told Arms Control Today June 9 that Washington had essentially “rearranged the playing field and moved the goalposts” prior to the conference. Even though the United States has generally served as the lightning rod for non-nuclear-weapon state criticism, the other four nuclear-weapon states have also failed to embrace or have discounted some of the 13 disarmament measures.

Egypt’s permanent representative to the United Nations, Ambassador Maged Abdelaziz, told Arms Control Today June 16 that countries seeking to ignore the agreements of the past and shirk additional disarmament measures bear the real responsibility for the conference outcome. He defended Egypt’s actions at the conference as motivated by the desire to preserve the “balance of commitments” between the nuclear-weapon haves and have-nots.

Egypt’s unhappiness with the U.S. position on the 13 disarmament steps was not only shared by its fellow members of the Nonaligned Movement (NAM), but also by some Western countries. In a June 9 interview with Arms Control Today, one European official explained that “those countries that no longer accept the 2000 [NPT Review Conference] document in [its] entirety undermine the value of any [NPT] final document.”

Washington’s rigidity also sunk an effort by the five nuclear-weapon states to issue a joint conference statement. Another European official told Arms Control Today June 8 that there had been a real drive to conclude such a statement up until the final days of the conference but that in the end the United States refused to meet a Russian demand to promote the CTBT.

The contentious climate of the conference also produced rifts among groups of states that have generally tried to bridge the differences between the nuclear-weapon states and the NAM. The seven members of the New Agenda Coalition—-Brazil, Egypt, Ireland, Mexico, New Zealand, South Africa, and Sweden—-failed to produce their own final statement, and the 25-member European Union reportedly had difficulty maintaining unity when it found itself opposite the United States in a dispute because the United Kingdom sometimes broke ranks.

On the last day of the conference, Canadian Ambassador Paul Meyer ripped some countries, without naming names, for their intractable approaches. “We have witnessed intransigence from more than one state on pressing issues of the day, coupled with the hubris that demands the priorities of the many be subordinated to the preferences of the few,” he fumed.

Despite Meyer’s clear frustration, a few diplomats speculated in interviews with Arms Control Today that some capitals were likely content with how the conference turned out: the nuclear-weapon states were probably pleased to avoid any new disarmament obligations, some NAM members could take satisfaction in preserving the 2000 NPT Review Conference package rather than having it supplanted by a weaker set of commitments, and Iran had to be relieved to escape without an official rebuke of its nuclear activities.

In a closing statement to the conference, New Zealand’s ambassador for disarmament, Tim Caughley, observed that “the outcome of this review conference needs to be viewed in the context of the broader malaise and paralysis that abounds in multilateral disarmament diplomacy.”