Atomic Logic

The problem with multinational treaties is that they often need an enforcer. That's especially true of the 35-year-old Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which is up for a month-long review starting Monday.

The NPT has not stood the test of time. It's failed to keep nations such as North Korea, Israel, Iran, South Africa, Iraq, Pakistan, India, Taiwan, and Libya from seeking or building atomic weapons in the past or now.

And it hasn't done much to reach its goal of eliminating the nuclear arsenals of Britain, China, France, Russia, and the United States.

These failures to achieve the NPT's global bargain of containing nuclear weapons should compel the more than 180 nations meeting in New York next month to look at different ways to keep nuclear materials and know-how in a lockbox.

The outlook for the review conference, which is held every five years, looks bleak. The old way isn't working well. A stalemate in the talks could spell the end of the NPT.

The treaty's watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, hasn't fared well in catching cheater nations, like Iraq and Iran, that have hid their nuclear research. Nor has it done well in keeping North Korea in the treaty. Nor did it prevent a Pakistani nuclear scientist from running a nuclear black market.

Before Sept. 11, 2001, such problems might have been tacitly accepted or dealt with quietly. But the US, fearing terrorists may easily obtain a nuclear device, isn't patient anymore. It can't, and shouldn't, wait for drawn-out diplomacy or years of economic sanctions to bring errant nations to heel.

And the US also happens to have the military capacity to knock out a country's nuclear facilities or keep it from exporting such weapons.

In other words, the US has the strongest motive of any nation to prevent nuclear proliferation and the means to do it.

One sign it's becoming a global antinuke sheriff is a Bush administration idea to set up a sea and air "quarantine" around North Korea to keep it from exporting nuclear weapons. The US recently began to interdict North Korean ships suspected of carrying weapons.

The Pentagon also wants to build a nuclear device that can burrow deep into an enemy's underground nuclear facility. Neither the US nor Israel has ruled out a military strike on Iran's hidden nuclear sites. President Bush also seeks a global ban on any sales of nuclear-fuel technology to any nation other than those that already have it.

It's lonely being a threatened superpower in the age of terrorism.

The US feels compelled to preemptively attack a presumed nuclear-armed enemy, thus acting as the responsible keeper of world peace. And yet this type of rogue behavior may push some anti-US nations to seek nuclear weapons in defense, perhaps defeating this US strategy.

An alternative may lie in a stricter NPT treaty that addresses urgent US concerns and creates a more aggressive watchdog that's allowed to have robust and swift enforcement.

Only then can the US and other nations join to eventually eliminate the threat of nuclear weapons - and perhaps the weapons as well.

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