America's broken nuclear promises

Bush has endangered us all by doing his utmost to frustrate the talks on the nonproliferation treaty.

Published May 27, 2005 2:20PM (EDT)

Not a day goes by without a member of Team Bush lecturing us on the threat from weapons of mass destruction and assuring us of the absolute primacy they give to halting proliferation. How odd then that the review conference on the nonproliferation treaty (NPT) will break up this Friday evening, barring an eleventh-hour miracle, with no agreements. And how strange that no delegation should have worked harder to frustrate agreement on what needs to be done than the representatives of George W. Bush.

The tragedy is that, for all its faults, the nonproliferation treaty has hitherto been the best barrier put up by the international community against the spread of nuclear weapons. With the support of all but a handful of nations, the treaty provided a robust declaration that the development of nuclear weapons is taboo. That peer-group pressure has since resulted in more countries abandoning nuclear weapons than acquiring them.

South Africa disowned and dismantled its nuclear weapons after the collapse of the apartheid regime. New states to emerge from the Soviet Union, such as Ukraine, renounced the nuclear systems they inherited on their territory. Argentina and Brazil dropped the nuclear capability they were developing after negotiating a nonnuclear pact between themselves. Even Iraq turned out to have abandoned its nuclear weapons program, although in that particular case the success of the nonproliferation regime was more of an embarrassment to Bush.

Previous review conferences, which come around every five years, have been used as an important opportunity to regenerate support for the treaty. Not this time. The full weight of Washington diplomacy was focused on preventing any reference in the agenda to the commitments the Clinton administration gave to the last review conference. As a result, the first two weeks of negotiation were taken up with arguing over the agenda, leaving barely one week for substantive talks. Robert McNamara, the former U.S. defense secretary and no peacenik, has observed that if the people of the world knew about it, "they would not tolerate what's going on in the NPT conference."

Observance of the nonproliferation treaty rested on a bargain between those states without nuclear weapons, who agreed to renounce any ambition to acquire them, and the nuclear weapons powers, who undertook in return to proceed in good faith to disarmament. It suits the Bush administration now to present the purpose of the treaty as halting proliferation, but its original intention was the much broader ambition of a nuclear-weapons-free world. The acrimonious exchanges inside the present review conference reflect the frustration of the vast majority of states, which believe they have kept their side of the deal by not developing nuclear weapons but have seen no sign that the privileged elite with nuclear weapons have any intention of giving them up.

It was to bridge the growing gulf between the two sides that the British delegation, led by Peter Hain, at the last review conference in 2000 helped broker agreement to 13 specific steps that the nuclear weapons powers could take toward disarming themselves. Labor scores reasonably well against those benchmarks. Britain has taken out of service all nonstrategic nuclear weapons and as a result has disarmed 70 percent of its total nuclear explosive power. It has also halted production of weapons-grade material and placed all fissile material not actually in warheads under international safeguards. This positive progress will be comprehensively reversed if Tony Blair proceeds as threatened to authorize construction of a new weapons system to replace the Trident, but until then Britain has a good story to tell.

Not that it gets heard in the negotiating chambers, where it is obscured by our close identification with the Bush administration and our willingness in the review conference to lobby for understanding of its position. Its position is simply stated: Obligations under the nonproliferation treaty are mandatory for other nations and voluntary for the U.S. Even while the review conference was meeting, the White House asked Congress for funds to research a bunker-busting nuclear bomb -- although to develop new nuclear weapons, especially ones designed not to deter but to wage war, is to travel in the opposite direction from the undertakings the United States agreed to in the last review conference.

The rationale for the bunker buster is revealing. Its objective is to penetrate and destroy deeply buried arsenals of weapons of mass destruction. Perversely, the current regime in Washington does not perceive its development of nuclear weapons as an obstacle to multilateral agreement on proliferation but as the unilateral means of stopping proliferation. Whatever may be said for this muscular approach to proliferation, there is for sure no prospect of negotiating an agreement on it that the rest of the world would legitimize.

Any progress on the nonproliferation treaty is therefore likely to be on hold until Bush is replaced by a president willing to return to multilateral diplomacy. This is worrying, as there are other pressing problems that should not be left waiting.

One of the design flaws of the treaty dates from its negotiation in the pre-Chernobyl era of rosy optimism about nuclear energy. As a result it turned on a deal in which the nuclear powers undertook to transfer peaceful nuclear knowhow in return for other nations forswearing the military applications of nuclear technology. At the time, many of us warned that it was inconsistent to enshrine the spread of nuclear energy in a treaty trying to halt the spread of nuclear weapons.

It therefore is no surprise that we now have a crisis over the advanced nuclear ambitions of Iran. One of the weaknesses in the West's negotiating position is that there is nothing in the nonproliferation treaty to prohibit Iran from acquiring a declared nuclear energy program, although it seems implausible that the country has any urgent need for one, as it practically floats on a lake of oil.

The desirable solution is for an addition to the treaty banning countries without nuclear weapons from developing a closed fuel cycle for nuclear energy, which would stop them from acquiring the fissile material for bombs. But this would deepen the present asymmetry between the nuclear powers and everyone else, and is only going to be negotiable if there is some evidence that the nuclear powers are serious about disarmament.

If the review conference breaks up in a failure to agree, I suspect there will be some in Washington celebrating Friday night, perhaps not with anything as foreign as French Champagne, but in the Napa Valley imitation. Within their own narrow terms they will have succeeded. They will have stopped another multilateral agreement and will have escaped criticism for not fulfilling their commitments under the last one. But in the process they will have weakened the nonproliferation regime and made the world a more dangerous place. The next time they lecture us on their worries about weapons of mass destruction, they do not deserve to be taken seriously.

By Robin Cook

Robin Cook is a former Labor Party minister who resigned from Tony Blair's cabinet over the Iraq war.

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