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Co-Director of Program on Science and Global Security, Princeton University
The Conference on Disarmament: Time is Running Out
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Stephen G. Rademaker

The problems confronting the UN Conference on Disarmament (CD) were succinctly and correctly diagnosed in the June 2005 final report of the congressionally mandated bipartisan Task Force on the United Nations:

As the multilateral negotiating body responsible for the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), the Chemical Weapons Convention, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), and other agreements, the CD has in the past made major contributions to arms control and nonproliferation. But for nearly a decade, it has produced no new agreements and has spent most of its time wrangling over priorities and procedural matters. Having grown to 65 members and 37 observers, it has become much too unwieldy to do serious work, especially for an institution that operates by consensus. It has become a debating society, not a negotiating body. Moreover, the CD remains focused mainly on the traditional state-to-state arms control and nonproliferation agenda and has been slow to take up measures addressing the non-state actor threat. As it has become gridlocked, governments have begun to downgrade their participation in the forum.

The task force, co-chaired by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell (D-Maine), was established by Congress in 2004 to develop recommendations for making the UN more effective. Its members came from across the U.S. political spectrum, ranging from former Senator Malcolm Wallop (R-Wyo.) to former Democratic presidential candidate Wesley Clark, a former NATO commander, and Donald McHenry, a former ambassador to the UN under President Jimmy Carter. Yet, this ideologically diverse membership had no problem coming to a consensus recommendation: “The CD has outlived its usefulness and should be abolished.”

The CD’s period of prolonged inactivity extends back to the end of 1996, when it completed work on the CTBT. That year, the CD decided to admit 23 additional countries to full membership. Although some of the new members, such as Israel, South Africa, and South Korea, are well situated to contribute positively to the work of the conference, others, such as Belarus, Iraq, North Korea, and Syria, have been less clearly committed to advancing the conference’s objectives. Eleven of the new members belong to the Nonaligned Movement (NAM), which has predisposed them to support positions taken by other NAM members, such as Pakistan and Iran, that have contributed to gridlock at the conference.

As suggested by the task force report, it is clear that the decision to expand the conference was a mistake because, under the CD’s consensus-based rules of procedure, 23 additional members equates to 23 additional potential vetoes over any proposed action by the conference. The problem was underscored again this year when Syria single-handedly prevented the adoption of a substantive final report on the conference’s work for 2006. There is an obvious lesson here for those who might be tempted to believe that the UN Security Council can be made more effective by expanding its size and increasing the number of veto-wielding members.

The CD’s consensus requirement for decision-making has proven very useful over the years. It has prevented the CD from wasting time negotiating doomed instruments by ensuring that negotiations on proposals that lacked essential support never got off the ground. On other occasions, it has given countries that have doubted a particular proposal the confidence necessary to enter negotiations knowing that they could deny consensus should their core interests be jeopardized. In these respects, the CD’s consensus requirement has strengthened the CD and enhanced its ability to produce arms control and nonproliferation instruments of enduring value.

Since 1996, however, the consensus requirement has been systematically utilized by some countries not just to block negotiations on proposals they oppose, but also to try to force negotiations on proposals opposed by others. These countries have, in other words, intentionally denied consensus in one area in order to try to create an artificial consensus in other areas. Cloaked behind euphemistic calls for a “balanced program of work” at the CD, this misapplication of the consensus requirement has amounted in practice to nothing more than hostage-taking.

The proposed fissile material cutoff treaty (FMCT), which would end the production of fissile material for weapons purposes, is a meritorious idea that all CD members profess to support in principle. Yet, it has been blocked for nine years in an effort to coerce holdouts to acquiesce in the progress of other, unrelated ideas that they oppose, such as instruments regarding nuclear disarmament, negative security assurances, and the prevention of an arms race in outer space ( PAROS). In diplomatic parlance, negative security assurances are guarantees by the nuclear-weapon states that they will not use nuclear weapons against states that have formally renounced them.

Some have tried to suggest that the sole obstacle to adoption of a “balanced program of work” is the opposition of the Bush administration to PAROS, but both the United Kingdom and France have serious reservations to negotiations on nuclear disarmament or negative security assurances. Moreover, the Bush administration did not invent the U.S. policy of opposing negotiations on PAROS. The Clinton administration also was opposed to such negotiations, and it would be more than a bit strange for the Bush administration to retreat from that position, particularly given its relatively stronger commitment to missile defense as a national policy.

It is not surprising that members of the CD with strong attachment to particular ideas, such as nuclear disarmament and PAROS, would consider using all tools at their disposal, including hostage-taking, to advance their favored ideas. What is surprising is the tolerance of other countries for the tactic. Currently, the vast majority of delegations in Geneva pay lip service to the need for a “balanced program of work” at the CD. The accumulated frustration from nine years of inactivity is directed primarily not at the hostage-takers—after all, they are merely seeking to compel adoption of a “balanced program of work”—but rather at those countries that have refused to pay the ransom demanded.

This mindset on display today in Geneva is nothing less than a diplomatic manifestation of the Stockholm syndrome. After nine years of captivity, most of the prisoners in Geneva today identify more closely with their captors than with those who are working for their unconditional release. This attitude, widely embraced by those in Geneva with the purest of intentions and unquestioned commitment to the CD as an institution, is in fact no less of a threat to the CD than continued inactivity because, as everyone knows, paying ransom does not end hostage-taking. Rather, it encourages more of it. Virtually every country at the CD either has or could quickly come up with some favored arms control or nonproliferation idea that today is a nonstarter. The moment the CD grants the demanded negotiations, other countries that until now have exercised self-restraint will decide to join the queue.

The CD’s salvation lies not in propitiating this behavior but in returning to what has worked for it in the past: finding a single serious idea that can command consensus on its own merits and negotiating on it until a consensus product emerges. For nine years, delegations in Geneva have put forward new ideas in hopes of sidestepping the gridlock over a “balanced program of work,” but so far no idea has come close to an FMCT in terms of the seriousness of its subject matter or the degree of consensus it commands. Unless a brilliant new proposal emerges that has eluded CD members for nine years, the CD will only regain its relevance if it commences negotiations on an FMCT. It will continue its drift into irrelevance if it does not.

A key point that needs to be made at the outset of any discussion of an FMCT is that the United States is not the obstacle to concluding such a treaty. An FMCT would ban the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons purposes. It would not ban the production of fissile material for other purposes, such as the manufacture of medical isotopes or naval propulsion systems. The United States stopped all production of fissile material for weapons purposes in 1988 and has no foreseeable need to resume production of such material in the future.

Presently, the United States is grappling not with the problem of too little fissile material but rather with the problem of too much. As a result, the United States is spending billions of dollars to dispose of excess fissile material left over from the Cold War. Highly enriched uranium (HEU) that was produced at great expense is being downblended to produce fuel for civil nuclear reactors, and a facility is being constructed to convert weapons-grade plutonium into mixed-oxide fuel for power reactors. If the United States had any concern that its need for fissile material might grow in the future, the first thing it would do is stop spending billions of dollars to eliminate fissile material it currently has, not block the negotiation of an FMCT.

The principal obstacle to conclusion of an FMCT is countries, such as Pakistan and China, that today either are producing fissile material for weapons purposes or harbor plans to do so in the future. None of these countries will say that it opposes an FMCT. To the contrary, they insist that they favor a properly constructed treaty. It is no coincidence, however, that they are at the forefront of those CD delegations that have conditioned commencement of FMCT negotiations on progress on other unrelated issues, such as PAROS. Nor is it a coincidence that these countries are among the most outspoken advocates of including extensive verification measures as part of an FMCT.

It is counterintuitive that countries wanting to produce fissile material would be so keen to undergo intrusive international inspections of their most sensitive nuclear facilities, until one considers that the elaboration of such verification measures is sure to prolong the conclusion of any FMCT negotiation for many years, if not indefinitely. In the case of Pakistan’s insistence that FMCT verification extend beyond new production of fissile material to include existing stocks of such material—a demand that has been rejected by all nuclear-weapon states—one has to suspect that the real objective is indefinite postponement.

It was in part to avoid such delays that the United States proposed in July 2004 that the CD negotiate an FMCT containing no verification provisions. Not only would this expedite the conclusion of the treaty, but it would avoid creating a costly yet ineffective new verification mechanism.

A careful U.S. review had determined that even an ideal international verification mechanism would have serious deficiencies and would have great difficulty detecting cheating by countries determined to produce fissile material in violation of the treaty. Moreover, U.S. officials had concluded that, as a practical matter, an ideal international mechanism would not emerge from FMCT negotiations at the CD. Inevitably corners would be cut in order to minimize the financial costs of establishing and operating such a mechanism as well as to avoid intrusion into facilities of national security concern. The United States is not alone in having these concerns. Taking into account the limited effectiveness of the verification mechanism that was likely to be agreed at the CD, as well as the lengthy delays in concluding an FMCT that necessarily would be required in order to reach agreement, the United States had come to the view that seeking to establish such a mechanism was more trouble than it was worth.

The United States stressed that this approach did not mean that an FMCT would be unverified, any more than the BWC is unverified because it has no international inspectorate. Rather, responsibility for making compliance judgments would fall to the parties to the treaty, each of which would be expected to use its own capabilities to detect cheating. Such national capabilities have often been able to detect covert nuclear activities, the detection in 2002 of North Korea’s centrifuge-based enrichment program being a recent case in point. That program was first detected on the basis of intelligence information relating to suspicious procurements by North Korea, precisely the kind of information that an international inspectorate would never be able to generate on its own. If such an inspectorate existed today, it still would not be able to generate proof of the existence of that program using the tools available to it, primarily because it would not have the slightest clue where to go in North Korea to find the program.

In May this year, the United States followed up on its July 2004 announcement by tabling the text of a proposed FMCT. The United States said it can no longer support a mandate for FMCT negotiations that presupposes an outcome contrary to its position on verification, such as the so-called Shannon Mandate, with its requirement that an FMCT be “internationally and effectively verifiable.” Yet, the United States has not called for a mandate that requires its preferred outcome on verification. The mandate proposed by the United States is simply silent on the issue of verification, allowing all parties to come to the negotiations and advocate whatever outcome they prefer with respect to verification. Therefore, although the U.S. proposals are controversial among those who want an FMCT to include verification measures, no one should question the good faith of the United States in putting forward its ideas.

In a similar vein, some details of the U.S.-proposed text for an FMCT have drawn the fire of critics. Some have faulted the U.S. proposal for permitting the continued production of HEU for naval propulsion purposes. This criticism is somewhat strange, given that even the widely supported Shannon Mandate provided only for the negotiation of a treaty “banning the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices.” Inasmuch as naval vessels are plainly neither nuclear weapons nor nuclear explosive devices, there would have been no basis under the Shannon Mandate for negotiating a ban on the production of HEU for naval propulsion purposes.

Therefore, those who fault the U.S. proposal for permitting the continued production of HEU for these purposes are really faulting an FMCT as traditionally conceived. They are essentially calling for a treaty banning the production of all fissile material, full stop. There are arguments to be made in favor of such an approach, but there is one compelling reason to reject it, namely that it would be flatly unacceptable to many of the key governments at the CD. All nations with nuclear-powered navies stand with the United States in rejecting the notion that an FMCT should extend to the production of HEU for naval propulsion purposes. Further, those states that are investing in the full nuclear fuel cycle, including plutonium reprocessing, would never agree to prohibit the production of plutonium for nuclear fuel-cycle-related purposes. The United States, of course, is not among the latter group of states.

Some critics of the U.S. proposal have also quarreled with the provision that would have an FMCT expire after 15 years, subject to the ability of the parties to extend it at a review conference. Critics of this provision gloss over the fact that the NPT contains a similar provision, albeit one that provided for expiration of the treaty after 25 years. Obviously, there is a difference between 15 years and 25 years, but certainly the figure of 25 years set forth in the NPT was the product of a negotiation in which some countries initially advocated a shorter period. The larger point is that this particular provision, as well as the rest of the U.S.-proposed text, is merely a proposal. It was put forward to provide a basis for discussion and expressly not as a “take it or leave it” offer.

The record of the past nine years provides little basis for optimism that the CD is going to be able to rise to today’s challenges. International organizations being what they are, the recommendation of the Task Force on the United Nations that the CD be abolished caused hardly a stir in Geneva. The international civil servants there have continued their work secure in the knowledge that they will be collecting their paychecks long after hard copies of the task force’s final report have been removed from the shelves of research libraries. Meanwhile, countries will likely follow the example set by New Zealand and Sweden and withdraw their full-time ambassadors from the CD. The real work of confronting today’s security threats will shift to other fora that are producing results for the international community, such as the International Atomic Energy Agency, the Proliferation Security Initiative, and (one hopes) the UN Security Council.

Stephen G. Rademaker is policy director for national security affairs and senior counsel for Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.). During 2002-2006, he served as an assistant secretary of state, heading at various times the Bureaus of Arms Control, Nonproliferation, and International Security and Nonproliferation. Over the previous two decades, he held high-level positions in the House of Representatives and in the White House during the George H. W. Bush administration.