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.

Alex Brandon/AP
President Obama spoke with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak (far l.) at the opening plenary session of the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington on April 13. Mr. Obama has put nuclear issues at the top of his foreign-policy agenda.

Can President Obama bring "sexy" back to nuclear non-proliferation?

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."

Others paint an even more dire picture. John Bolton, US ambassador to the UN under President Bush, says the conference will do nothing to bolster "a treaty on the verge of breaking down" because nothing will be done to "name and shame" the NPT's violators.

"The most important question for a treaty review should be who's in compliance and who's not, and is [the treaty] influencing behavior in the way intended?" says Mr. Bolton, who also served as undersecretary for arms control and international security.

Iran and North Korea key issues

"It undercuts your purpose to ignore the 800-pound gorilla in the room," he adds, "but I'm confident it will happen at the NPT review because it just happened at Obama's nuclear security summit, where Iran and North Korea were kept off the table."

Despite such pessimism, a number of nuclear experts still hold out the possibility that the added attention from the world's sole superpower could pave the way to some strengthening of the nonproliferation regime.

"Obama has so many balls in the air right now in terms of nuclear policy, and all these balls interact and are going to have an impact on the review conference," says Charles Ferguson, president of the Federation of American Scientists. "The capital Obama has built up should at least guarantee some pretty serious consideration of ways we might strengthen" global nonproliferation rules, he adds.

The NPT, which took effect in 1970, is based on a set of international "grand bargains" aimed at reducing the threat of nuclear conflagration hanging over the world. The large majority of NPT member states without nuclear weapons agreed to stay that way, even as the world's nuclear powers (five at the time of the treaty signing) committed to steady and serious disarmament. In addition, NPT countries keeping their no-nukes commitment were guaranteed the right to peaceful nuclear power generation.

By most accounts, the NPT has been a success. Despite dire predictions over the decades of a cascade of countries going nuclear, only a pariah state like North Korea has been willing to leave the NPT and proclaim possession of a nuclear weapon. (Nuclear powers India and Pakistan are nonsignatories of the NPT, as is Israel, which refuses to affirm its nuclear status.)

A new wave of nuclear states?

Still, predictions are once again mushrooming of a new wave of nuclear states. One reason is Iran: As evidence suggests Tehran is pursuing the means of building a nuclear weapon, Middle East experts warn that other countries in the region are likely to reconsider their NPT commitments in the face of an Iranian bomb.

"If Iran or North Korea can violate the treaty and get away with it, it tells everyone else – 'you can do the same,' " says Bolton.

Another reason is the civilian nuclear cooperation deal the US signed with India. Under a provision OK'd by the Obama administration, India will be permitted to reprocess US-provided fuel into plutonium – ostensibly for its power plants, but potentially for making new bombs.

At a recent Washington forum, Obama's special representative for nuclear nonproliferation, Susan Burk, said the India deal is "a unique agreement" and "not a precedent for other agreements." But many nuclear experts say it is doubtful that other countries see it that way.

"To think such arguments resonate with anyone outside the State Department is pretty fanciful – just ask Pakistan," says NPEC's Mr. Sokolski. "The problem is that India, a nonsignatory, is being offered all the benefits of being an NPT member without being held to any of the requirements of membership."

Some nuclear proliferation experts say the NPT review conference is simply an opportunity for topical discussions. Other organizations – the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency, the multilateral Nuclear Suppliers Group, or the Security Council – are the appropriate venues for action, they say.

But Mr. Ferguson says he is hopeful the conference can at least agree on some steps to strengthen the NPT: for example, a tightening of the rules on withdrawal from the treaty.

"A country that withdraws should be required to open up to a special inspection so the international community can determine if it abused the privileges of membership," he says.

Israel's nuclear arsenal

Another topic certain to surface is a resolution from the 1995 review conference that calls for a nuclear-weapons-free zone in the Middle East. US officials say they support the "objectives" of the resolution and see it as one means of pressuring both Iran and Syria on their suspicious nuclear activities. But Egypt, Turkey, and others warn that they will label any focus on the Middle East resolution "hypocritical" if it lacks a call for Israel to give up its arsenal.

On that issue, as with many others, all eyes will be focused on the US and the positions it takes under a president who has made the nuclear issue a top priority. But US officials are clear that the job of reducing and ultimately ending the nuclear threat cannot be America's alone.

"The president's agenda is really very significant. It's been very well received, but there should be no illusions that the US alone is going to ride in on the white horse and save the day," says Ambassador Burk, Obama's nonproliferation adviser. "It's going to be a collective effort either way."


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