The NPT endures

The dust has settled on last month’s Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty review conference, but pressing questions that will help define the world’s nuclear future remain unanswered. 

For instance, should we care that there was no consensus on a final document? Does the treaty even still matter?   The answer to both is an emphatic ‘yes.’   

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Why? Because the NPT remains the only global treaty that bars the spread of nuclear weapons and promotes a world without them.  Imagine a world with dozens of nuclear states, with each case of proliferation building pressure for others to follow, raising the specter of nuclear war.  

The NPT steers us away from that dire future, charting a safer, more responsible course.  Now 45 years old, the NPT’s basic bargain is sound: states with nuclear weapons agree to work toward their elimination, and states without nuclear weapons continue to forgo them, but may access peaceful nuclear technology under strict verification.  

The NPT is not perfect.  No negotiated instruments are.  There were no timelines for eliminating nuclear weapons, no penalties assessed to violators, and a few states – India, Pakistan, and Israel – never signed it.  North Korea announced its withdrawal after the regime’s secret nuclear program came to light.   

Nuclear disarmament is a special source of tension in the NPT review cycle.  While huge progress has been made to reduce global nuclear weapon stockpiles, some nevertheless advocate going outside the NPT to outlaw nuclear weapons, much as was done for landmines and cluster munitions in recent years.  But nuclear weapons are not ordinary munitions and the conditions for eliminating them do not exist in today’s world.  With nuclear disarmament, there are no shortcuts.    

Difficulty, though, is no excuse for inaction. There are steps we must push for now.  An early priority is to negotiate further cuts in U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals.  The New START Treaty completed several years ago will bring U.S. and Russian deployed strategic warheads down to levels not seen since the late 1950s.  The president has made clear our readiness to pursue a further one-third reduction below New START levels; the ball is in Russia’s court.   

Entry into force of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and completion of a treaty to end production of fissile material for use in nuclear weapons are also priorities.  Both agreements complement the push toward lower numbers of nuclear weapons.  Each also fills a gap by involving states outside of the NPT in nuclear arms control. 

Nuclear zero is a sensible goal—one President Obama embraced in Prague in 2009—but states will only move as fast as their security allows.  No responsible leader would trade more disarmament for less security.  Disarmament and security must advance hand-in-hand. 

This holds true in the Middle East, where the ambition for a regional agreement to eliminate all weapons of mass destruction is running ahead of practical realities.  As a start, Israel and other states held productive talks on terms for a regional conference to discuss this idea.  Unfortunately, those talks stalled, leading some to use the NPT review meeting to impose terms that states of the Middle East could not reach on their own.  This is not a pathway to successful dialogue.

And so, an otherwise solid final document for the Review Conference became one that the United States decided to reject.  This was not a decision taken lightly, but we know from many precedents—five nuclear weapon free zones are already in force around the world—that such zones can only succeed if based on the voluntary support and consent of all involved states.  We should expect nothing less in the Middle East.   

The NPT will survive this test as it has survived others.  The absence of a final document is disappointing, but it could well serve as motivation to identify new ways to strengthen and support the NPT.  The vast majority of states, like the United States, want the NPT to succeed.  Working together, we will continue the long march toward a safer, more secure world.   

Scheinman is the Special Representative of the President for Nuclear Nonproliferation, Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation, U.S. Department of State.