Toward Consensus on a Strengthened Nuclear Nonproliferation System

Presentation to the American Political Science Association, September 2, 2005

Daryl G. Kimball 
Executive Director, Arms Control Association

More than three decades ago, the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) established one of the most important international security bargains of all time: states without nuclear weapons pledged not to acquire them, while nuclear-armed states committed to eventually give them up.

Since then, the NPT has helped to limit the number of nuclear weapon states to the five with nuclear weapons at the time of its entry into force (U.S., U.K., France, Russia and China) and the three other known nuclear weapon states (India, Israel, and Pakistan), which have refused to join the treaty. Dozens of other states might have the bomb today if not for the NPT and associated measures, including nuclear export controls, nuclear weapons free zones, negative nuclear security assurances, and intrusive international weapons inspections.

The NPT has also fostered arms control efforts that have also reduced the threat posed by U.S.-Soviet/Russian nuclear weapons. Bilateral nuclear arms control agreements such as SALT, the ABM Treaty, and START helped corral the Cold War arms race, prevented a defensive missile arms race, reduced offensive arsenals, and increased transparency and opportunities for diplomacy, thereby reducing instability and the risk of nuclear war.

Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, new cooperative programs have successfully dismantled and secured vast quantities of Cold War weapons stockpiles at dozens of locations. In addition, the NPT process helped spur progress in the decades-long effort to ban nuclear testing, which culminated in the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and the current de facto global test moratorium, which are valuable because they make it more difficult for all states to improve their nuclear arsenals.

Today’s Proliferation Challenges

Despite these very significant accomplishments, the nuclear nonproliferation system, including the NPT, is under great stress.

During the past five years, the NPT has endured successive crises involving Iraqi and North Korean nuclear weapons programs. In 2002, the IAEA confirmed that Iran had for some 18 years been pursuing secret nuclear activities that could provide it with bomb-making capability in the not too distant future. If the international community fails to turn North Korea and Iran away from the nuclear arms path and either of these two states acquire nuclear weapons, the global security and proliferation situation will take a severe turn for the worse.

India , Israel, and Pakistan have advanced their nuclear weapons programs with relative impunity. India and Pakistan have, as recently as 2002, teetered on the edge of open warfare, which, if repeated, could lead to a nuclear conflict. The specter of terrorism and the existence of nuclear black market networks based out of Pakistan’s government-run weapons laboratories have added a new layer of risk.

The Iranian, North Korean, Pakistani, Indian, and Israeli programs are also reminders that additional countries could acquire the capacity to produce fissile materials and manufacture nuclear weapons under the guise of “peaceful” nuclear endeavors. As the NPT has been interpreted, countries can acquire technologies that bring them to the very brink of a nuclear weapons capability without explicitly violating the agreement, and can then leave the treaty without penalty.

There are also the dangers posed by the existing global stockpiles of highly enriched uranium and plutonium, the fissile materials that are the fuel of nuclear bombs. These materials remain far too accessible to terrorists as a result of inadequate security and accounting at nuclear facilities throughout the former Soviet republics and in dozens of other countries.

Meanwhile, the United States and Russia have failed to capitalize on key opportunities to substantially and verifiably dismantle significant portions of their still massive Cold War–era stockpiles of strategic and tactical weapons. To be sure, the United States and Russia have made steady progress in dismantling and securing large portions of their Cold War nuclear stockpiles declared excess under the first START agreement of 1991. And with the 2002 Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty, the two states have pledged to reduce operationally deployed strategic nuclear forces to fewer than 2,200 warheads by 2012.

But these actions are far behind pace and they would allow each side to redeploy launchers and warheads. Even after SORT, the United States and Russia will still likely possess some 4,000 to 5,000 strategic nuclear warheads in various states of readiness. The situation is even worse in other areas. Talks with Russia on verification measures and tactical nuclear weapons remain on the backburner. The U.S. maintains about 1.300 such weapons including 480 stationed in Europe, while Russia is estimated to possess at least 3,000. The U.S., along with Russia has made not progress in accounting for and reducing the 3,000 plus Russian arsenal of more portable tactical nuclear warheads, which pose a long-term threat of falling into terrorist hands.

The administration has also initiated research on new and more “usable” high-yield nuclear weapons, stiff-armed progress on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and blocked progress on multilateral negotiations on a global fissile material cutoff treaty because of its opposition to the negotiation of a verification protocol for the treaty.

President George W. Bush has also approved nuclear-use policies that undercut previous commitments to nonuse of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon states in the context of the NPT. Specifically, NSPD-17— the classified version of the United States’ 2002 “National Strategy to Combat Weapons of Mass Destruction” —calls for the possible use of nuclear weapons to counter chemical and biological threats. The military doctrine that flows from that policy is the subject of an excellent article in the forthcoming issue of Arms Control Today.

As the United Nation’s recent High-Level Panel Report A More Secure World concludes: “We are approaching a point at which the erosion of the nonproliferation regime could become irreversible and result in a cascade of proliferation.”

Enter the Bush Administration

In my view, the Bush administration’s response to this broad range of nuclear weapons proliferation challenges has been inadequate and, in some areas, it has further damaged the system. The wisdom of the policies have to be judged by the record … and the record is clearly disappointing.

Most Bush officials argue that the NPT has failed to stop proliferation in South Asia, North Korea, Iraq, and Iran. Arms control and nonproliferation agreements, they say, are ineffective against problem states and irrelevant for friendly states, including Russia.

In response, the Bush administration has emphasized the need to enforce compliance with nonproliferation standards with an emphasis on stopping unfriendly states from getting nuclear weapons. The administration has also emphasized the importance of closing down the supply side of nuclear proliferation by modest improvements in some nuclear export controls and halting construction of uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing facilities in states that do not already possess them. It has also put a great deal of faith in counterproliferation, including harmonizing efforts to interdict dangerous weapons shipments through Proliferation Security Initiative.

But the record of the administration even it its chosen areas of policy focus have been disappointing to say the least.

Until recently refused to effectively engage with North Korea to achieve a lasting solution, allowing a dangerous situation to get worse. While North Korea was pursuing uranium enrichment capabilities, the administration bungled the case when it confronted North Korea about it and later leaked the exchange to the press in October 2002, and then decided to cut off heavy fuel oil shipments in November. In response the North Koreans restarted the plutonium production facility that was verifiably frozen under the terms of the 1994 Agreed Framework.

Its response to the Iranian situation has been, until recently, principled by not pragmatic. Even now, the administration has failed to outline what and how UN Security Council referral of Iran’s open nuclear file could turn Iran away from using its uranium enrichment capabilities to make highly enriched uranium for weapons.

Though better controls on the global trade of dangerous weapons are a vital line of defense against the spread of nuclear weapons, they are insufficient and we certainly cannot afford to compromise them, as the administration is proposing to do under the terms of the U.S.-India nuclear cooperation deal announced July 18. The deal calls for broad civil nuclear cooperation for the first time since India’s 1974 nuclear test explosion. This radical new approach, if implemented, would effectively grant India highly sought-after access to sensitive nuclear technology only accorded to states in full compliance with global nonproliferation standards. It would also treat India in much the same way as the five original nuclear-weapon states by exempting it from meaningful international nuclear inspections. It is a virtual endorsement of India’s nuclear weapons status and would make the job of blocking the spread of nuclear weapons more difficult, if not now, then in the future.

When the Bush administration is challenged on its dedication to nonproliferation, officials like to point to the two-year-old Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) as evidence of the administration’s nonproliferation bona fides. Officials repeatedly hail the initiative for its role in intercepting nuclear contraband destined for Libya and thereby helping persuade that country to renounce its illicit nuclear weapons program. Yet, it is now apparent that the Libya interdiction did not occur because of PSI. Nor, I would add, did Libya make a strategic decision to cash in it nascent nuclear program because of the invasion of Iraq.

The U.S. and other allies have stopped proliferation in transit prior to PSI’s launch. The initiative does not legally empower or obligate countries to do anything that they previously could not do. Still I would agree that the PSI is a useful initiative if it can be made to work.

Unlike past U.S. administrations, this Bush administration has failed to respect and even acknowledge important disarmament obligations made in the context of the NPT. In an April 27, 2004 speech at the NPT Preparatory Conference, Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security John Bolton declared, "[W]e cannot divert attention from the violations we face by focusing on [disarmament] issues that do not exist." U.S. officials took that same attitude into the 2005 NPT Review Conference and, along with Iran and Egypt, effectively blocked the conference from reaching agreement on a concrete action plan to strengthen the treaty.

The U.S. disdain for disarmament alienates others, even allies, undermines useful U.S. proposals, and further erodes the willingness among certain states in the non-nuclear-weapon majority to fulfill their own treaty obligations, much less to agree to strengthen the regime.

The Need for A New Nonproliferation Consensus

Instead, the threat of nuclear proliferation must be met with firm resolve and dealt with through a balanced and comprehensive array of strategies. More than anything, the treaty’s success – and international security – requires that the United States and other nations work together to achieve universal compliance with strengthened rules against nuclear weapons possession, trade, development, and use.

The NPT remains vital—and future opportunities such as the upcoming UN Heads of State Summit—must not be squandered. Congress can and must play a stronger role in evaluating and correcting U.S. nonproliferation policy. I would point you to S. Con. Res. 36 and H. Con. Res. 133 as examples of constructive bipartisan policy proposals across a broad range of nonproliferation issues.

Avoiding further setbacks will not be easy but are possible, especially if the United States can adopt a more balanced, pragmatic, and flexible strategy.

The most urgent tasks are the resumption of talks leading to the verifiable dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear capabilities and the successful conclusion of an agreement between the European Union and Iran that recognizes Iran’s “right” to pursue peaceful nuclear endeavors but produces a voluntary and indefinite freeze of its uranium enrichment program. Failure on either front could lead neighboring countries to rethink their nuclear options and/or lead to a military confrontation.

The Bush administration must build upon the modest progress of the fourth round of six-party talks and be prepared to offer a new and more practical proposal to resolve the crisis.

Even as the EU and the U.S. take steps toward referring the Iranian nuclear files to the UN Security Council, they U.S. must try to increase Iran’s incentives to cooperate and comply with the NPT by making it clear that it will not seek regime change and that it will support the guaranteed and controlled supply of nuclear energy fuel as a substitute for an Iranian uranium enrichment program.

To prevent the further production and proliferation of weapons-usable nuclear material, the United States, EU, and others should back an indefinite moratorium on all new uranium enrichment and plutonium separation plants. Even with tougher international inspection authority and tighter controls on nuclear technology transfers, confidence in the nonproliferation system will erode if more states produce more nuclear bomb material. The pause would provide time to consider options for the guaranteed supply of nuclear energy fuel services and launch long-stalled talks on a global and verifiable ban on the production of fissile material for weapons.

The United States and its European allies must work even more closely with Russia to lock-down the remaining quantities of nuclear weapon-usable material scattered throughout its nuclear complex, with special emphasis on returning highly enriched uranium to secure storage for blend-down and accelerating security and accounting at remaining nuclear and research facilities throughout Russia and the former-Soviet Union.

Finally, the leaders of the nuclear-weapon states must restore confidence that they will continue to reduce the number and the role of nuclear weapons. It is in the United States’ self-interest to resume talks with Russia on verifiable strategic nuclear reductions before START I and its verification provisions expire in 2009. NATO should move to withdraw the obsolete U.S. tactical nuclear weapons stockpile in Europe to encourage Russia to account for and reduce its even larger tactical nuclear arsenal, parts of which could fall into terrorist hands. The nuclear-weapon states should also disavow the development of new types of nuclear weapons and the use of nuclear weapons against nonnuclear- weapon states and targets.

The dangers of the bomb are obvious and the need for action is as clear as ever. As the devastating effects of Hurricane Katrina and the 60 th anniversary accounts of the impact of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki remind us, the only cure for mega-disasters is prevention. Now is the time to do all we can before it is too late.