Renewing the Bargain

Rüdiger Lüdeking

The nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) regime is in a state of crisis. That at least has been a leitmotif of discussions among experts during the past decade. The failure of the 2005 NPT Review Conference to arrive at an agreed result clearly seemed to support this notion.

Indeed, the NPT regime has been facing a risk of erosion, which is essentially twofold. On the one hand, the last decade has witnessed serious nonproliferation challenges. To this day, Iran and North Korea have not been complying with their legally binding commitments. Syria also refuses to cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in solving open questions regarding its nuclear program. At the same time, there has been a perception that the fundamental disarmament obligation contained in Article VI of the NPT is not being honored. There has even been a sense of a “renaissance” of nuclear weapons and an impression that the nuclear-weapon states intend to cling indefinitely to their nuclear weapons. Finally, the U.S.-Indian nuclear cooperation agreement has given rise to the concern that strategic and economic interests might take precedence over nonproliferation interests.

This state of affairs should prompt all NPT states-parties to join forces to avert an erosion of the nuclear nonproliferation regime and to maintain and strengthen the integrity and authority of the NPT. Indeed, today there are signs of a new momentum toward that end. President Barack Obama has given nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation top priority and, in his Prague speech on April 5, 2009, set out his vision for a nuclear-weapon-free world. The position adopted by the Obama administration can fundamentally change the prospects for the forthcoming NPT review conference. However, looking at some of the debates in fora such as the Conference on Disarmament and the IAEA, the overall mind-set on the part of many of the key players in the NPT context does not seem to have changed. Many discussions and arguments follow familiar and well-entrenched ideological lines. Consequently, there does not seem to be much confidence that the forthcoming review conference will achieve a successful outcome.

What will it take to achieve a successful NPT review conference?

First, the parties must have a joint vision. In his Prague speech, Obama underlined the U.S. commitment to seeking a world without nuclear weapons. That should be the guiding vision for the conference. Restating this ultimate goal of the NPT in a clear and unambiguous way should help to rekindle a sense of common purpose. As George Shultz, William Perry, Henry Kissinger, and Sam Nunn so pointedly wrote in their 2007 Wall Street Journal op-ed, “Without the bold vision the actions will not be perceived as fair and urgent. Without the actions the vision will not be perceived as realistic or possible.”[1]

Second, there is a need for leadership. The United States is ready and willing to provide leadership. However, it is important that all five nuclear-weapon states join in this leadership role. To do so, they should embrace without qualification the vision of a world without nuclear weapons and demonstrate their commitment to fulfilling their obligations pursuant to Article VI of the NPT. This commitment could, for example, be expressed in a joint declaration submitted by the nuclear-weapon states to the review conference. Such a statement could include the following elements:

• an unambiguous commitment not to produce fissile material for weapons purposes and a commitment to enter into negotiations on a nondiscriminatory, effectively verifiable, and legally binding fissile material cutoff treaty;[2]

• a commitment jointly to pursue nuclear disarmament by way of an incremental process leading to “global zero”;[3]

• a commitment to existing security assurances and a readiness to explore ways of formalizing them;

• a commitment to pursue determined efforts to bringing all existing nuclear-weapon-free zones into force;

• possibly additional commitments creating confidence and implementing the “cessation of the nuclear arms race” obligation contained in Article VI of the NPT (e.g., diminishing the role of nuclear weapons in nuclear doctrines, establishing obligations for accountability and reporting, “capping” of nuclear arsenals); and

• reiteration of the commitment to an early entry into force of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

Multiple Leaders Needed

Although the leadership of the nuclear-weapon states is very important, it must be matched by leadership on the part of influential member states of the Nonaligned Movement. That leadership should focus in particular on the nonproliferation aspects. This kind of leadership, however, seems as yet to be lacking. The position of many nonaligned countries still seems to be primarily characterized by an emphasis on the maintenance of their rights, particularly the peaceful use of nuclear energy, and by demands for rapid progress on nuclear disarmament.

A third requirement for a successful NPT review conference is a sense of common purpose and responsibility. The obvious lack of it is possibly the most serious problem for the forthcoming conference.

What is necessary to re-establish a sense of common purpose and a sense of responsibility for the whole treaty regime? For a start, every effort must be undertaken to reinforce the credibility of the NPT by reaffirming and strengthening the fundamental bargain underlining the treaty: the firm relationship that the treaty establishes between nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation. Indeed, there is a clear interdependence between nonproliferation and disarmament. Proliferation threats reduce the prospect of progress on disarmament because nuclear-weapon states would be reluctant to get rid of nuclear arms as other states are seemingly poised to acquire them. At the same time, a lack of disarmament momentum is liable to boost proliferation risks because the continuing retention of nuclear weapons would be a seen as an affirmation of their value. This should prompt countries to reconsider some of their long-held positions on key aspects of the treaty. Thus, the issue of compliance with nonproliferation commitments under the NPT should also get the necessary attention.

In this context, NPT parties should unambiguously commit to strengthen the IAEA safeguards regime by making the Model Additional Protocol, together with a Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement, the verification standard under Article III of the NPT. They also should consider, in light of the Iran experience, further enhancing IAEA verification rights to go beyond the terms of a state’s additional protocol if necessary. The strengthening of the safeguards regime is a necessary step toward the attainment of a nuclear-weapon-free world.

The strengthening of compliance also requires a strengthening of the role of the UN Security Council as the final arbiter of the consequences of noncompliance. No state in breach of its nonproliferation obligations and unwilling to rectify the situation should get away with such behavior. This should apply to Iran, which has consistently defied its international legally binding obligations and has not yet been ready to take up offers to arrive at a negotiated solution that would re-establish confidence in the exclusively peaceful nature of the Iranian nuclear program.

Cooperation on Hard Issues

The joint responsibility for the NPT regime should prompt cooperation and joint efforts to manage the issues that have the potential to jeopardize the successful outcome of the review conference. In this regard, two specific issues seem to stand out.

Nuclear fuel assurances/multilateralization of the nuclear fuel cycle. Reconciling the development and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes with the need to prevent the use of nuclear knowledge and hardware for the development of a nuclear weapons program is a particularly daunting challenge. It is not a new issue. Since the 1946 Baruch Plan, several efforts have been undertaken to come to terms with it. The subject has again come to the fore in the face of concerns about the development of an enrichment capacity that Iran has clandestinely pursued over a period of nearly 20 years. The proposals for fuel assurances and the establishment of fuel banks and of an enrichment facility under multilateral control have met with considerable opposition. At the heart of the controversy is the issue of the consistency of such arrangements with the “inalienable right” to peaceful nuclear energy as enshrined in Article IV of the NPT. Although the concerns expressed by important nonaligned countries have to be addressed, all the proposals on the table provide for voluntary options and do not impose restrictions on activities that countries want to pursue. The proposals all explicitly recognize the right under Article IV. In the final analysis, the effective prevention of any misuse of civilian nuclear programs for military ends should be in the interest not only of some but of all NPT parties.

The establishment of a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the Middle East. There is understandably a great deal of frustration at the lack of progress in the implementation of the 1995 resolution on the establishment of a Middle East nuclear-weapon-free zone. Indeed, there is a need for a fresh start, but this presupposes a readiness on the part of both sides in the Middle East to seriously re-engage in dialogue. In doing so, some basic facts must be recognized.

A nuclear-weapon-free zone cannot be imposed but must be the result of negotiations among the parties concerned. Progress toward a peace settlement will have a positive impact on efforts toward the establishment of a nuclear-weapon-free zone. Likewise, confidence building in the military field and steps toward the establishment of a nuclear-weapon-free zone can significantly contribute to boosting the peace efforts. These seem to be commonsense observations, but the question of whether a peace settlement or a nuclear-weapon-free zone comes first has been one of the key stumbling blocks preventing progress. Further stalling on the issue will only exacerbate the proliferation risks in the region; already a solution regarding the Iranian nuclear program has become of key importance for making progress. All parties, despite their impatience, should accept that quick solutions are not achievable and that an incremental approach instead seems to offer the only way forward.

No NPT party should let the two questions above develop into showstoppers. No single state should be allowed to exploit the above or other issues to detract from its own failures to live up to its NPT obligations or to block a successful outcome of the conference.

Ambition and Realism

A fourth requirement for achieving a successful outcome of the conference is the need for an ambitious and forward-looking but realistic approach. Such an approach should include confirmation of the commitments undertaken at the 1995 and 2000 review conferences. These commitments must continue to be considered as relevant and binding because failure to do so would call into question the very purpose of review conferences and undermine confidence in the good faith of states-parties and in the viability and dependability of multilateral agreements. At the same time, however, it would be naïve and unrealistic to ignore developments since 2000. Therefore, merely dwelling on past disappointments and deploring shortcomings in the implementation of past agreements does not provide a recipe for progress.

Apart from reaffirming the guiding principles and basic commitments, the approach to be adopted should define clear tasks and objectives on the nonproliferation track and the nuclear disarmament track. Germany, in a working paper for the second session of the Preparatory Committee for the 2010 NPT Review Conference, has suggested basic elements for such an approach and has called for the establishment of a “New NPT Implementation Baseline.”[4]

The result to be achieved must pass a rigorous reality check as well. Obama has been criticized by some for declaring in Prague that a world without nuclear weapons will not be reached quickly and perhaps not during his lifetime. Indeed, a careful examination of the prerequisites for a nuclear-weapon-free world clearly militates against sweeping demands and possibly a fixed timetable for the abolition of nuclear weapons. In a working paper submitted during the previous NPT review cycle, Germany set out the key prerequisites for a nuclear-weapon-free world.[5] Of particular significance in this regard is the need to prevent a breakout from a universal prohibition of nuclear weapons by, inter alia, ensuring the nonavailability of weapons-grade fissile material and for effective and rigorous verification based on reliable and disaggregated data encompassing all potentially relevant facilities and activities. The need for the latter is partly illustrated by the fact that the technologies and necessary know-how for the production of nuclear weapons will continue to exist even after a nuclear-weapon-free world has been established. Finally, nuclear disarmament cannot be divorced from overall security. Nuclear disarmament is not an end in itself but a means to enhance overall security and stability. It must not increase the risk of large-scale conventional wars or lead to the revaluation of other weapons of mass destruction.

It must be the joint ambition of states-parties to achieve what is doable at this juncture and set the course for realizing the vision of a nuclear-weapon-free world through an incremental process. Those bent on trying to foil a successful outcome should not be allowed to prevail. Responsible behavior and a genuine endeavor to achieve a positive result must be expected from all parties, be they nuclear-weapon or non-nuclear-weapon states.

Rüdiger Lüdeking is Germany’s permanent representative to the Office of the United Nations and to other international organizations in Vienna. Before being named to that position in 2008, he served in the German Federal Foreign Office as deputy commissioner of the federal government for arms control and disarmament. The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of the German government.


1. George P. Shultz, William J. Perry, Henry A. Kissinger, and Sam Nunn, “A World Free of Nuclear Weapons,” The Wall Street Journal, January 4, 2007, p. A15.

2. In the face of the current deadlock in the Conference on Disarmament, a new approach to achieving progress on a fissile material cutoff treaty (FMCT) needs to be considered. For the incremental approach proposed by Germany in a working paper, see Preparatory Committee for the 2010 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, “Creating a New Momentum for a Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT),” NPT/CONF.2010/PC.II/WP.21, April 30, 2008.

3. Following a successful conclusion of a START follow-on treaty, the statement might also refer to the commencement of a process on nonstrategic nuclear weapons, the category not yet covered by formal arms control agreements. For a proposal for an incremental arms control approach, see Rüdiger Lüdeking, “Safeguarding the Future of the NPT,” in NATO and the Future of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, ed. Joseph F. Pilat and David S. Yost (Rome: NATODefenseCollege, 2007), pp. 54-62, In addition, it is of particular importance that China, France, and the United Kingdom underline their obligation to participate in the disarmament process.

4. Preparatory Committee for the 2010 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, “Working Towards a Successful 2010 NPT Review Conference,” NPT/CONF.2010/PC.II/WP.22, April 30, 2008.

5. Preparatory Committee for the 2005 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, “Attaining a Nuclear Weapon Free World,” NPT/CONF.2005/PC.I/WP.4, April 11, 2002.