Pessimists of the world, take heart. Most nations came together in May with the goal of fixing the loopholes in a 35-year-old treaty that's worked pretty well to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons.
Optimists, take heed. This conference, a twice-a-decade affair to review the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), ended last Friday with no agreement on which loopholes to fix.
The loopholes are serious and many. The big nuclear powers don't suffer from not seeking disarmament, as the treaty calls for; North Korea was able to easily exit the treaty and make such weapons with no penalty; Iran was able to cheat on the NPT for two decades and, after being caught, is still allowed to make bomb-grade nuclear material; and three non-NPT signatories, India, Pakistan, and Israel, have the bomb despite a potential for war in their regions.
For two of those problems, Iran and North Korea, the US is relying on a coalition of nations to attempt a solution through negotiations.
It's also recognized the NPT's failings and set up the Proliferation Security Initiative, a multinational effort to stop any ship, plane, or train suspected of carrying nuclear materials. A Libya-bound ship containing nuclear related material, for instance, got caught in 2003 under this dragnet.
Short of fixing the NPT, these US-led enforcement efforts send a strong warning to any nation to think twice before moving toward making, testing, or exporting nuclear weapons.
The NPT's grand bargain still holds: Nuclear nations must move to reduce their nuclear arsenals while nonnuclear nations agree not to seek the bomb in return for gaining access to nuclear power plants.
But addressing the NPT's shortcomings will probably need to happen outside it, led by the one nation with the biggest stake in preventing loose nukes getting in terrorist hands.