UN conference on nuclear proliferation a big test for Obama
The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty conference opens at the United Nations on Monday. Reducing nuclear weapons is a key issue for President Obama, but there are many challenges.
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That may be too much to ask of any American president, even one who has managed to put nuclear issues at the top of the international agenda while remaining a globally popular leader. But Mr. Obama faces what may be the biggest challenge so far to his vision of a world of steadily reduced nuclear risks when the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) review conference opens at the United Nations May 3.
Frequently an arcane and bureaucratic speechfest for the 40-year-old treaty's nearly 190 signatory countries, the once-every-five-years review of one of the pillars of international security often highlights the divisions between the world's nuclear haves and have-nots more than anything else.
But this year the profile of the month-long conference has been raised for two reasons – only one of which has to do with Obama.
Yes, the president's attention to the threat posed by nuclear weapons – starting with his April 2009 speech in Prague, Czech Republic, calling for a world free of nuclear bombs and including April's Washington summit on keeping nuclear materials out of terrorists' hands – is a key reason for heightened interest in this year's conference. Obama wants steps taken to strengthen the NPT, and for the past year has set his administration's nuclear security experts to work on that goal.
But another is the challenge posed to the NPT by Iran and North Korea (which tested nuclear weapons in 2006 and 2009 after leaving the NPT in 2003). There are worries among some nonproliferation experts that – Obama's vision aside – the world could be on the threshold of a dangerous period of proliferation.
'Pretty high expectations'
"There are some pretty high expectations out there for this conference because of Obama making it Part 4 of his four-act nuclear drama," says Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center (NPEC) in Washington. He cited Obama's Prague speech, the new START nuclear disarmament treaty reached last month with Russia, and the administration's new Nuclear Posture Review, in which the United States forswears using nuclear weapons on nonnuclear countries.
"But those expectations are very likely misplaced," he adds. "If anything, making any progress is going to be more difficult now – because of Iran and North Korea, for starters."