Rift grows between nuclear haves, have-nots. What can be done?

The increasingly acrimonious standoff between the world’s major nuclear-weapons powers and dozens of non-weapons states has been playing out at the monthlong NPT review conference winding up at the UN this week.

Richard Drew/AP/File
Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif addresses the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty review conference at the United Nations on April 27.

The nuclear nonproliferation order that for decades has kept the world remarkably free of the spread of nuclear weapons is at risk of breaking down.

Challenges to the global regime enshrined in the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, or NPT, include widening access to the technologies that produce nuclear-weapons fuels, the chilling example of a rogue North Korea expanding and honing its nuclear arsenal in an increasingly tense Northeast Asia, and uncertainty over the impact of an Iran nuclear deal in the volatile Middle East.

But now a new challenge is taking shape in the growing confrontation between the world’s major nuclear-weapons powers – primarily the United States and Russia, as well as China, Britain, and France – and dozens of non-weapons states. These countries say the nuclear powers are not upholding their part of the “grand bargain” that made the NPT possible.

In essence, the deal was that while everyone would have access to peaceful uses of nuclear energy, countries without the bomb would not try to get it, while those possessing it would reduce their arsenals until the world reached the goal of being nuclear-weapons free. However, weapons-free states say disarmament has stalled and if anything, weapons states are modernizing or even expanding (China) their arsenals. 

The increasingly acrimonious standoff between the bomb’s haves and have-nots has been playing out at the monthlong NPT review conference winding up at the United Nations in New York this week. As weapons states have rebuffed charges that their nuclear arsenals pose a grave threat to humanity, nonproliferation experts worry that the conference – which is supposed to set a course for disarmament and nonproliferation for the coming five years – could be the least productive of the post-cold-war years.

“The nuclear-armed states have been very aggressive in the discussions on disarmament and very defensive about their arsenals, much more than in past years,” says Ray Acheson, director of Reaching Critical Will, a project of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom that monitors and promotes disarmament and nonproliferation efforts. “The text [of a final conference document] is looking very minimalist.”

That’s quite a shift from the 2010 NPT review, which was held in the afterglow of President Obama’s 2009 speech in Prague, Czech Republic, in which he envisioned a world free of nuclear weapons. That review also came after the New START treaty, under which the US and Russia agreed to further reductions in their nuclear arsenals.

The 2010 conference concluded with a long action plan for more disarmament and tighter nonproliferation standards, and a plan for delivering a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East.

But little progress was made on those plans – particularly on the Middle East nuclear-free zone, which went nowhere. And although the US and Russia have continued to implement New START, Russia has ignored Mr. Obama’s calls for a new round of disarmament talks, while it has hardened the place of nuclear weapons in its national security doctrine.

Despite his lofty Prague rhetoric, Obama has pursued hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of nuclear arsenal modernization. And China, which possesses a much smaller nuclear arsenal than the US and Russia, has been busy bulking up its nuclear muscle.

The stalled disarmament actions, coupled with mounting proliferation pressures in volatile regions like East Asia and the Middle East, are prompting some nonproliferation experts to warn that the world could be on the threshold of a dangerous expansion of nuclear weaponry – and that the risk of “unthinkable” nuclear conflict is growing.

Those concerns are leading to renewed expressions of support for the NPT, and for finding new ways to strengthen the 45-year-old “bargain” on nonproliferation, disarmament, and peaceful uses of nuclear energy.

“The fact is, the NPT’s existence makes the world a much safer place,” says Steven Pifer, director of the Brookings Institution’s Arms Control and Non-Proliferation Initiative in Washington. In the pre-NPT early 1960s, Mr. Pifer notes, President Kennedy warned that, unchecked, the world would see as many as 20 nuclear-weapons states within a decade. All it takes is to imagine where those nuclear weapons could have emerged “for some chilling scenarios to form pretty quickly,” he says.

The NPT scorecard is less than half Kennedy’s prediction: Today the world has nine nuclear-weapons states – the five post-World War II powers, India and Pakistan, bad-boy North Korea, and Israel, which does not acknowledge possessing a nuclear arsenal.

Every country in the world is an NPT member but four – India and Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea (which withdrew in 2003). As such, the treaty exerts a kind of “moral restraint” on nations not to “go nuclear,” Pifer says.

“Once you’ve taken on that obligation, it creates a certain moral barrier to acquiring nuclear weapons,” he says.

What worries nonproliferation experts are the cracks they see forming in the barrier the NPT has provided.

The emerging Iran nuclear deal divides those experts. Many of them laud the deal as a reinforcement of two NPT pillars: Iran would be blocked from any fast breakout to acquiring a nuclear weapon while being allowed to pursue “peaceful” nuclear energy uses. But some see the deal undermining the global nonproliferation regime.

“You can’t escape the fact that this agreement legitimizes Iran having a native uranium enrichment program, and if your concern is nonproliferation, I think that’s a bad thing,” says Sharon Squassoni, director of the Proliferation Prevention Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington.

Of course the NPT’s existence – and the fact that Iran is a signatory to the treaty – is what has made international negotiations to limit Iran’s nuclear program possible, Ms. Squassoni says. But, she adds, the NPT’s silence on restricting access to uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing – the two technologies that allow for creation of nuclear-weapons fuel – leaves countries with those technologies a path to a nuclear weapon.

“The world has got some clearly significant security benefits from this treaty,” she says, “but at the same time there are some things not in the treaty that defy modern understanding.”

Her concern, she says, is that bestowing an international seal of approval on NPT-member Iran’s enrichment program would set a precedent and “have a cascade effect in the Middle East.” And if the world were to stand by as Saudi Arabia, and then Jordan and Turkey, and others “field an enrichment capability, it will be too late to try to put those proliferation pressures back in the bottle.”

Another crack that Pifer of Brookings identifies is the growing rift between the US and the nonnuclear-weapons states that are disappointed by what they see as the lost promise of Obama’s vision for ridding the world of nuclear weapons.

“Even at Prague, Obama said that until the world could get to zero, the US would need to maintain an effective and credible deterrent,” Pifer says. “I really do think the US has a pretty good story to tell on disarmament,’ he adds, “but my worry is that the frustration we’re seeing among the non-weapons states [over stalled disarmament] may make them less susceptible to the US pressing them to join ... in pressuring others not to go for nuclear weapons.”

Ms. Acheson of Reaching Critical Will says the US can expect renewed goodwill from the roughly 100 countries that have signed on to a “humanitarian pledge to ban nuclear weapons” once it engages in honest disarmament discussions – something she says it and other nuclear-weapons states haven’t done at this year’s NPT conference.

“We’d also like to see renewed action on a disarmament program that has slowed down considerably,” she says.

While it may be too late to expect anything from this year’s NPT conference, Squassoni of CSIS says that “very soon” the world must address two gaps in what she calls “a very useful but imperfect” treaty: a failure to impose safe practices on civilian nuclear programs, and the NPT’s silence on possessing enrichment and reprocessing technologies.

“Right now there are safety guidelines and suggestions [issued by the UN’s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency], but countries are not obligated to implement anything,” she says. “If we want to get serious about nuclear energy,” she adds, “we’re going to have to put in place some pretty tough rules and regulations that everyone will be required to follow.”

As for the nuclear-fuel technologies, few experts are sanguine about the prospects for some kind of “NPT II” that would spell out restrictions to keep civilian nuclear energy programs from resulting in nuclear weapons.

But Squassoni says solutions exist – such as schemes for the multilateral provision and handling of nuclear fuels – and must be taken up before there is a surge in countries with these technologies.

“The world needs to say, ‘We’re lucky we’ve got the NPT, but we didn’t do enough in 1970,” she says. “It’s time to get serious and take a different approach to the dangers we now know a lot more about.”

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