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Keeping critical mass against nuclear weapons

Almost every country is at a conference to affirm a central plank of world order, the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Even with modest progress to implement the pact, a moral imperative against nuclear weapons is maintained. 

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    U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry addresses the 2015 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) review conference, in the United Nations General Assembly April 27.
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Of all global gatherings in recent decades, perhaps none have contributed more to world order than those dubbed “the RevCon.” These “review conferences,” held every five years, have kept a bright spotlight on almost every country to abide by a treaty aimed at preventing the spread of nuclear weapons.

The latest review, which began in April, is not expected to make any big leaps in better implementing the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The “have” countries with nuclear weapons, for example, have yet to fulfill their side of the bargain in getting rid of their warheads. North Korea and Iran remain threats to the treaty because of their nuclear advances. And a newly belligerent Russia has backed off some nuclear commitments.

But the NPT has endured for 45 years because the 191 signatory nations have gathered regularly and made at least some progress on a few issues. Each review nudges humanity forward in embracing the vision of a world free of its most destructive weapons. These often-boring “talk shops,” which last about four weeks, are necessary reminders of the moral imperative against the use of nuclear arms as a tool of war.

The latest review could result in an agreement on Russia and the United States speeding up efforts to take more of their nuclear missiles off high alert, thus reducing the danger of a cyberattack or a miscalculation in a crisis. Another step is that Israel has rejoined as a RevCon observer after a 20-year absence, reviving hopes for a plan to establish a nuclear-weapons-free zone in the Middle East.

A tentative agreement reached in April to close off Iran’s possible pathways to a nuclear weapon has also reinforced the necessity of the NPT as a central plank for global security. If a final deal is reached with Iran, it will be a rare moment in which an NPT country has been brought back into conformity with the treaty and under an intrusive inspections regime. This would create hope that North Korea can be persuaded to follow suit. An Iran deal would also prevent a potential nuclear arms race in the region.

Since the end of the cold war in 1991, and along with it the threat of a Soviet-US nuclear war, public interest in nuclear issues has declined. This raises the importance of the NPT review as a way to tighten the lid on proliferation and further reduce the still-large Russian and American arsenals.

With the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki this August, the world can use the occasion to celebrate the fact of a near-universal acceptance against repeating those events. The NPT, even though incomplete in fulfilling its promise, at least brings almost every nation together every five years to affirm a critical path for peace.

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