Assessing the NPT Debates So Far

Remarks to a conference sponsored by the Partnership for a Secure America and Hudson Institute.

Senior Director for WMD and Counterproliferation, National Security Council

Good afternoon, and my thanks to the Partnership for a Secure America for its support in making this event possible. It has been a pleasure to participate in this series of PSA and Hudson events, and I'm particularly happy to have the chance to talk about the 2010 Review Conference (RevCon) of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) – which concludes at the end of this week.

I. The Ideology of Pillar-Balancing

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton came to the RevCon ready, and apparently expecting, to make a deal. With her boss, President Obama, a firm believer in what I have called the "credibility thesis" – the idea that long-overdue improvements in other countries' cooperation in meeting the proliferation threats that confront the NPT regime can be, in effect, "purchased" by demonstrating American "credibility" in moving toward nuclear disarmament – Clinton was keen to implement this agenda. Indeed, she offered the clearest explication of the Obama Administration's theory to date, spelling out how current U.S. officials believe things work, highlighting the disarmament concessions that have already been made, offering a few more such concessions, and asking others to return the favor by finally taking much-needed steps to constrain the spread of nuclear weapons and hold proliferators accountable for their actions.

Quoting President Obama about the importance of seeking a "world without" nuclear weapons, Clinton said that "[w]e know there are doubts among some about whether nuclear weapons states, including my own country, are prepared to help lead this effort." But she wished to show them that this was not the case: "I am here to tell you as clearly as I can: The United States will do its part. I represent a President and a country committed to a vision of a world without nuclear weapons and to taking the concrete steps necessary that will help us get there."

With the Obama Administration already having made numerous concessions in order to bring U.S. policy more in line with the conventional wisdom that has prevailed in the disarmament community since her husband's administration, Clinton offered a few more concessions to bolster her case for American credibility in this regard. The administration, she announced, would seek ratification of the African and South Pacific Nuclear Weapons Free Zone (NWFZ) treaties. She also endorsed the idea of implementing "practical measures" to rid the Middle East of nuclear weapons (e.g., eliminate the nuclear weapons everyone presumes Israel to have), pledged $50 million in additional U.S. payments to help the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) spread nuclear technology around the world, and announced that the United States would make public both the total number of nuclear weapons in its stockpile and the number it had dismantled since 1991.

In a remarkable – albeit so far almost entirely unremarked – intellectual concession, Secretary Clinton also suggested that the Obama Administration felt that the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty was an instrument first and foremost about disarmament. The U.S. commitment to the NPT, she declared, "begins with our efforts to reduce the role and number of nuclear weapons in our own arsenal." "Begins" is a potentially significant choice of phrasing, for it suggests that it is apparently now U.S. policy that the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty is first and foremost about disarming the nuclear weapons states.

At any rate, Clinton's speech was the clearest account yet of the administration's thoroughgoing acceptance of the "credibility thesis," which is predicated upon a theory that the NPT is structurally made up of "three pillars" – nonproliferation, disarmament, and promoting the peaceful uses of nuclear energy – that exist in a "balance" with each other. Let us not mince words, however. As a matter of historical fact, the administration's theory is nonsense. Neither in the original vision of the Treaty as it was articulated at the time by those involved in drafting it, nor in the NPT's text itself, was stopping the spread of nuclear weapons ever merely one element that needed to be balanced against other equally important elements. Nowhere was it ever agreed or even, to my knowledge, even said that nonproliferation was an element not to be pursued in disproportion to disarmament movement or the provision of nuclear technology benefits. Nonproliferation was, rather, unquestionably seen as the animating purpose and overriding goal of the NPT: something that was understood to serve the interests of all participations, and the non-nuclear weapons states perhaps most of all.

Nor were there felt to be "three pillars" of the Treaty. That formulation is actually a slogan developed by U.S. diplomats involved in the NPT review process during the 1980s, who concocted it in an effort to encourage – in the name of "balance" – greater focus upon nonproliferation among delegations who seemed to think that nuclear disarmament should be the only item on the agenda. The taxonomy of pillars is thus, in this sense, both ahistorical and arbitrary. (Why single out Article VI and Article IV as the textual embodiments of additional "other" elements that must be counterpoised against nonproliferation? Why not, for instance, Article V – a "fourth pillar" of carrying out "peaceful nuclear explosions" around the world? Now that's something that would indeed need to be carefully "balanced" against nonproliferation!) In the intervening years, however, "three pillars" ideology has become the reigning conceptual orthodoxy of NPT diplomacy. Ironically, given its origins as a U.S. rhetorical gambit to encourage more emphasis upon nonproliferation, the "three pillars" mantra is now frequently used to justify efforts, in the name of "balance," to prevent too much emphasis upon stopping the spread of nuclear weapons.

But though this regnant orthodoxy may be an intellectual muddle and historical error, it seems to have been enthusiastically embraced by the Obama Administration, which from the outset proclaimed itself eager to commoditize nonproliferation cooperation by announcing a policy of purchasing it with disarmament concessions – concessions, moreover, that Washington would make up front, in the expectation of receiving some kind of nonproliferation payoff in return. In her speech to the RevCon, Clinton declared her adherence to the idea of a grand NPT "bargain" amongst interests represented by the "three pillars." As the United States works "to uphold our end of the basic bargain of the NPT," Clinton said, "we are asking all signatories to do the same, to work with us to strengthen global nonproliferation rules and hold accountable those who violate them. … [A]s we pursue progress on these pillars, we must recommit our nations to bolster the nonproliferation regime."

Secretary Clinton was not without some suggestions about what she hoped to get in return for U.S. disarmament concessions. As part of the "recommit[ment]" to nonproliferation she sought to elicit, Clinton urged that the Conference "consider automatic penalties for the violation of safeguards agreements such as suspending all international nuclear cooperation or IAEA technical cooperation projects," "tightening controls on transshipment and enhancing restrictions on transfers of sensitive technology," and "dissuad[ing] states from utilizing the treaty's withdrawal provision to avoid accountability." The meeting's work on these issues, Clinton declared, "must provide a foundation for future actions."

As we assess the RevCon so far, I thought it would be useful to survey countries' approaches to these issues. In assessing the Conference, of course, most observers will look to whatever final document or report is eventually agreed. It can be very useful to analyze such documents, though historically only about half of RevCons produce consensus agreements at all. The bargaining that goes into any such agreement, however, frequently dilutes its content. I thought it would be interesting today to explore the contours of the NPT debates in New York themselves – that is to say, the substantive positions actually articulated by national delegations, rather than merely the bargained-down phrasings, if any, upon which they agree at the end. Such statements offer a valuable window upon governments' attitudes toward NPT issues, and thus seem a reasonable place to look in judging whether Obama Administration concessions are changing other countries' perspectives upon our disarmament credibility and the desirability of the nonproliferation policies we support.

President Obama sent a message to the Review Conference – conveyed to the delegates by Secretary Clinton – in which he pointed out that "the eyes of the world are upon us." "Over the coming weeks," he said, "each of our nations will have the opportunity to show where we stand." The RevCon is not yet over, but I think it is useful to survey where indeed those very nations say they stand. To what extent have U.S. disarmament concessions in fact led others to give Washington the disarmament "credibility" that it seeks? To what extent has the Obama Administration's year of heady disarmament diplomacy brought about a change in perspective among those who had so vociferously and for so long urged disarmament "credibility" upon us?

II. Disarmament Credibility?

Let me say at the outset that I am deeply indebted to Ray Acheson and her colleagues at Reaching Critical Will for their tireless and impressive work in making quickly and easily available to the public detailed accounts of the proceedings at the 2010 Review Conference. Ray and I probably agree on relatively few substantive issues discussed at the RevCon, but I salute her hard work and devotion to helping all observers follow its proceedings. RCW's daily news briefs and fine website ( are great resources for the diplomatic play-by-play, and for the texts of documents and national governments' remarks. I have leaned heavily upon RCW's materials in researching this paper. In my experience, if you are serious about following these issues, you are missing out if you aren't turning to their website frequently.

At any rate, what does a look at these sources show on the issue of some newfound American disarmament "credibility"? Unfortunately, not much.

A. The "Irreconcilables"

As a general rule, of course, one should not expect perennial anti-American troublemaker governments – most obviously, the regimes presently in power in Iran, Cuba, and Venezuela – ever to be willing to afford the United States any disarmament credibility whatsoever. The reactions of those governments should clearly not be the standard by which to judge the success or failure of the Obama Administration's effort to purchase goodwill and nonproliferation cooperation by disarmament concessions. Nevertheless, in following the course of the disarmament debates at the RevCon, I found it striking the degree to which the articulated views of many states closely track the fulminations of these three "irreconcilables." On most broad issues of disarmament and general nonproliferation policy, except of course matters of rhetorical tone and their customary stylistic hyperbole, these governments' arguments are not nearly as far out of the Review Conference mainstream as one would hope and expect.

Let me outline some relevant disarmament-related points made by the troublemakers. All three purport to be strong advocates of the "three pillars" NPT ideology, using the notion of inter-pillar-"balance" in order to drive up the "price" for nonproliferation cooperation even while defining the meaning of Treaty-appropriate nonproliferation policy down to a lowest-common-denominator standard of empty blandishments. "Balance" was an important mantra for the Iranians in particular, with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad using "imbalance in the pillars of the NPT" as the title of a sub-section of his rambling diatribe he delivered on the first day of the Conference.

As for U.S. disarmament movement under the Obama Administration – which has been undertaken, as we have seen, in part in the name of achieving a better "balance" between the "three pillars" – Venezuela took the floor to sniff that the "New START" strategic arms agreement with Russia is "more an arms assessment agreement than a reduction agreement." Since the new treaty is thus completely inadequate, Venezuela demanded further cuts. Offering additional suggestions about what the United States must do if it is ever to be taken seriously with regard to disarmament, Iran and Cuba demanded an end to nuclear weapons state (NWS) weapon deployments on other countries' territory – phrasing aimed, of course, at America's deployment of small numbers of nuclear gravity bombs on NATO soil, but that carefully said nothing about Russia's enormous stock of so-called "tactical" nuclear weapons.

As a blueprint for what the United States needs to do in order to restore its disarmament bona fides, Cuba and Venezuela also both called for the implementation of the so-called "13 practical steps" on disarmament articulated in the Final Document of the 2000 NPT Review Conference. This is a remarkable document to insist upon in 2010, insofar as it includes calls for adherence to the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, ratification of the START II agreement, and the conclusion of START III. (The ABM Treaty dissolved in 2002, START II ratification has long since been abandoned, START III was never negotiated, and both of the latter two proposals have been superceded by the "New START" deal.) Notwithstanding the fact that any list of "steps" that includes these anachronisms thus sets forth what is by definition an unmeetable objective – or, more likely, precisely because it is effectively impossible fully to implement them, thus ensuring that nothing the NWS can ever do will demonstrate disarmament "credibility" – the "13 steps" were fondly embraced by the three irreconcilables. Even these steps were for them inadequate, however, for both Cuba and Venezuela also called for the NWS to go beyond them. In particular, Cuba urged the RevCon to adopt a clear plan of action with a deadline for entirely eliminating nuclear weapons by 2025.

To be sure, the irreconcilables sometimes went rather out on a limb. President Ahmadinejad, for instance, declared that the nuclear threats facing the world today are due to the "distancing of some States from the teachings of the Divine Prophets" – suggesting perhaps that global conversion to Islam must be part of the international disarmament agenda as Tehran sees things. For the most part, however, the disarmament perspective articulated by the troublemaker states was notable for the degree to which it was not different from the views expressed by many other countries – which is another way of noting that many governments remain closer to Iranian, Cuban, and Venezuelan views on critical issues than they are to our own. A major focus of disarmament argumentation seemed to be to articulate continuing dissatisfaction with the NWS – and above all, with the United States.

B. Other Positions

The Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) – a loose group of some 112 states generally from the developing world that acts together by taking joint positions in the NPT review process and elsewhere – opened its participation in the Review Conference with a prepared statement that left little to the imagination. Speaking on behalf of the NAM, Indonesia's foreign minister quickly and perfunctorily noted that there had been "some positive signs in the field of nuclear disarmament," but went on to explain that the nuclear weapons states (NWS) still had a long way to go before they could be said to have demonstrated any real disarmament credibility. To hear the NAM tell it, all that has been done to date – that is, the Obama Administration's frenetic year of disarmament positioning, on top of two decades of reductions that have produced the elimination of many thousands of weapons and delivery systems and cut the American arsenal to a fifth of its peak size – amounts to no more than mere "words." According to the NAM statement, the NWS still needed to "demonstrate, in deeds, not mere words, their commitment to nuclear disarmament."

This position was joined by other states taking positions that amounted to little more than disdain for the disarmament progress made to date. According to Switzerland, there has not yet been any fundamental shift of thinking by the NWS, which still have a long way to go in order to give others confidence that they are serious. Other countries also offered dismissive assessments – with Brazil, for instance, sniffing about a "lost decade" in which it said no disarmament progress had been made.

Not always by name, but always unmistakably, the United States was repeatedly singled out as still being a problem. A month before the Review Conference, the Obama Administration had released a new and purportedly more restrictive U.S. nuclear declaratory policy in the form of a Negative Security Assurance (NSA) spelled out in its 2010 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR). The review had stressed the degree to which this change was "intended … to persuade non-nuclear weapon states … adopt effective measures to strengthen the non-proliferation regime." Various NAM statements at the RevCon, however – as well as specific written suggestions for alterations to a draft text being circulated by the RevCon's first committee (NPT/CONF/2010/MC.I/CRP.2) – complained quite explicitly about the Obama NPR, expressing "concern" about the "continued insufficiency" of NSAs provided to the non-nuclear weapons states (NNWS), and attacking "certain States' nuclear posture reviews" for violating disarmament commitments. (This is, of course, far more direct criticism than the NAM ever musters with regard to Iran or North Korea.)

Comments by China and Egypt also stressed the need to end deployments of nuclear weapons on foreign soil – a phrasing obviously designed to cover the Americans' deployment of a handful of weapons on NATO territory while leaving unaddressed Russia's arsenal of thousands of non-strategic weapons within range of NATO governments. In its edits to a draft text in Main Committee II (NPT/CONF/2010/MC.II/CRP.1), the entire NAM endorsed this one-sided dig at the United States. The NAM's edits in Main Committee I (NPT/CONF/2010/MC.I/CRP.2) also staked out a position opposing plans endorsed by the Obama Administration for modernizing the U.S. weapons infrastructure in hopes of avoiding any future need for nuclear explosive testing by emphasizing computer simulation and sub-critical testing: the NAM called not just for a complete test ban but for not "conducting nuclear weapon tests in alternative ways."

For his part, the Indonesian foreign minister, speaking for the NAM, also sneered at the Obama Administration's "New START" agreement with Russia, declaring that the new treaty fell "below the international community's expectations." Nothing the Americans have yet done, apparently, was good enough to show real seriousness. According to Brazil, it was pointless to discuss nonproliferation steps like the IAEA Additional Protocol until the NWS had come down much further, to "very, very low numbers." Costa Rica simply declared that all the nuclear reductions undertaken so far "have been almost irrelevant."

(During the course of the debates, some governments also seemed eager to raise the ante in disarmament discussions by introducing the idea of cutting back on United States non-nuclear capabilities too, on the grounds that other NWS would not be willing to agree to a nuclear "zero" while America remained so strong. Germany spoke out about the need to reduce conventional arms, an this idea was also endorsed by Jamaica – which called for immediate negotiations on a treaty on general and complete disarmament. Adding fuel to these flames, Russia chimed in to note ominously that nuclear weapons elimination could only be discussed in context of "security for all," while the entire NAM decried [U.S.] national missile defense as a cause of arms races and nuclear proliferation. For its part, China suggested that a treaty on weapons in space would help make disarmament possible – that is, that Beijing would only consider ending its own nuclear build-up if the possibility of U.S. space weaponry were foreclosed – and urged the adoption of language decrying ballistic missile defense and space weapons as destabilizing. Perhaps revealingly, China also suggested deleting language calling for nuclear weapons states to increase the "transparency" of their nuclear and military doctrines.)

This criticism was set forth within the framework of the "three pillars" ideology of NPT "balance," with the clear point being that the NWS – and particularly those "certain States" which had just announced nuclear posture reviews (i.e., the United States) – need to do much more in order to have real disarmament credibility. As the Indonesian foreign minister put it on behalf of the NAM, "all three pillars of the Treaty … should be pursued in a balanced and non-discriminatory fashion." In implementing the Treaty, "a balance" was needed between NWS and NNWS duties, and in order to achieve this the NWS needed to "demonstrate greater political will and discharge their multilaterally agreed obligations and commitments on nuclear disarmament."

These themes were widely echoed. The "three pillars" ideology was also endorsed by South Africa's Abdul Minty, who called for work to "strengthen all three pillars of the NPT" under a theory of "the NPT's 'Grand Bargain'" in which NWS must move to disarm, in return for which NWS not develop nuclear weapons. While Minty conceded, with a strange diffidence, that implementing nonproliferation is "undoubtedly of importance," he stressed the need to implement Treaty provisions "under the other two equally important pillars of the Treaty, namely nuclear disarmament and the peaceful uses of nuclear energy." This was not merely an idiosyncratic assessment, however, for the 27 nations of the EU also publicly reaffirmed their longstanding agreement with three-pillars thinking. According to the EU statement, the NPT is indeed "based on the three mutually reinforcing pillars of non-proliferation, disarmament and the peaceful uses of nuclear energy."

As for what might perhaps demonstrate disarmament credibility, the NAM agreed fully with the irreconcilables in calling for "full implementation of the 13 practical steps" on disarmament set forth in the 2000 Final Document. Fulfillment of this list, the NAM declared, "continues to be crucial to the credibility of the Treaty." (NAM members clearly viewed NWS disarmament compliance as the principal problem under the NPT.) Numerous individual delegations also spoke up to endorse the "13 steps" as the sine qua non of disarmament seriousness.

Switzerland had the good grace to follow U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon in admitting a need to "update" the steps, but – as had Moon – it also argued for going beyond them. Chile, however, argued against "renegotiating" the "13 steps," and most governments were content simply to insist upon them as written. According to South Africa, implementing the "steps" was "long overdue," at it was necessary to reaffirm them as the way forward on disarmament. Algeria, Brazil, Canada, Egypt, Indonesia, Italy, Iraq, Kenya, Mexico, Nigeria, Norway, and Syria all flagged the "13 steps" as the basis upon which progress must be made – with some delegations (e.g., Brazil) arguing that even fulfilling the "steps" would not constitute adequate progress.

In their edits to a draft text in the RevCon's first main committee (NPT/CONF/2010/MC.I/CRP.2), the hundred-odd members of the NAM endorsed language – already written in by the committee chairman on the apparent assumption that it would enjoy general approval – "reaffirming the continued validity of the practical steps agreed to in the Final Document of the 2000 NPT Review Conference." The NAM did the first draft one better, however, by declaring that negotiations on the "13 steps" must begin "not later than 2011." Showing no qualms about actually rewriting the text and ignoring the negotiating history of the Treaty's Article VI, the NAM also demanded language "reaffirming that the nuclear-weapon States are required by the Treaty to reduce and eliminate all types of their nuclear weapons."

Indeed, much discussion at the RevCon centered on the purported need to set a deadline by which the total elimination of nuclear weapons would take place. Many delegations agreed with the irreconcilables in this regard, speaking up to call for the establishment of such a timeframe. The seven countries of the "New Agenda Coalition" – that is, Brazil, Egypt, Ireland, Mexico, New Zealand, South Africa, and Sweden – made this point, as did Algeria, Indonesia, Libya, and the Philippines. The NAM's suggested edits in Main Committee I called for a specific timeframe for complete disarmament, as well as the establishment of a mechanism for ensuring NWS compliance with the deadline. Even Canada endorsed the "timeframe" idea in principle.

Occasionally, flashes of insight were offered into the philosophical positions underlying some of these disarmament positions. Helpfully, South Africa and Ireland both spoke up to offer an explanation of why it is that the dramatic and ongoing reductions made by the United States and Russia since the end of the Cold War do not count towards disarmament credibility. Their representatives drew a distinction between "reductions" and nuclear weapons "elimination," stressing that merely cutting nuclear arms does not necessarily translate into a real commitment to abolition because cuts could occur for many reasons. These comments were one of the few public explications of an argument I have myself repeatedly heard from figures ranging from South Africa's Abdul Minty to the head of the United Nations' Office of Disarmament Affairs, Sergio Duarte: arms cuts only count as "disarmament" if the devices eliminated were ones that a weapons state felt it then still needed for its national security. (Cutting because weapons are no longer necessary is thus by definition not a route to disarmament credibility; reductions apparently only amount to "disarmament" when they imperil one's security.) Left unspoken behind these comments is the clear implication that essentially no cuts that are ever likely to be undertaken by the NWS states will result in them being afforded disarmament "credibility."

Another reason why no real "bargain" for nonproliferation cooperation may perhaps ever be expected to work may be seen in RevCon discussions of the "unequivocal" nature of NWS disarmament commitments. Phrasing about an "unequivocal undertaking by the nuclear-weapon States to accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals" is part of the "13 steps" set forth in the 2000 Final Document, and numerous governments – e.g., Colombia, Egypt, and the entire NAM – called at the 2010 RevCon for the NWS to honor this "unequivocal" commitment. They also made it clear that many supporters of the "13 steps" really do take "unequivocal" to mean more than just its first dictionary definition of "clear." Instead, they seem to insist that "unequivocal" disarmament must be undertaken according to the word's second dictionary definition of being "not subject to conditions or exceptions." Egypt and Mexico carefully explained that as a purported legal requirement of the NPT, disarmament must occur no matter what the prevailing conditions in the global security environment. As the Egyptians made clear, disarmament of the nuclear weapons states must therefore go forward whether or not nuclear weapons continue to spread to other countries. For these governments, in other words, insisting upon a "balanced" approach to the so-called "pillars" only justifies calling for more disarmament: insisting on more nonproliferation work is inappropriate, because disarmament must be "unequivocal." Bargain? What bargain?

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