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Progress on Nukes at the UN?

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Well, it depends on what you mean by progress.

United Nations member states met for most of the month of May to review the most important global treaty on nuclear disarmament, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The treaty calls for existing nuclear weapons states to get rid of their nukes, while non-nuclear states agree not to acquire them. And it guarantees access to treaty members to "peaceful uses" of nuclear energy. Depending on one's perspective, the conference outcome was a victory for global cooperation on things nuclear; an "incremental success" that staved off the prospects of total disaster; or a deeply disappointing result that avoided endorsing the most promising solution, the negotiation of a binding convention on the elimination of nuclear weapons. But first it's worth looking at why the treaty matters.

The treaty has its flaws, but it has succeeded in curbing the worst case scenario of a world of dozens of nuclear weapons states, an outcome that could have occurred without it. The question now is whether it can be strenghtened in the face of major challenges such as Pakistan and India's nuclear arsenals and North Korea and Iran's nuclear programs. And then there is the question of Israel's nuclear arsenal, which is well known to exist albeit not formally acknowledged. And there is ongoing criticism from non-nuclear states about why, 40 years after the treaty went into force, major players like the U.S., Russia, the U.K.., France and China have yet to meet their obligations under Article VI of the treaty to get rid of all of their nuclear weapons.

There was little reason to think that these thorny problems could be resolved in New York. The best that could be hoped for was a renewed pledge to address them, ideally with concrete commitments to pursue real solutions. Whether -- and to what degree -- this was accomplished has been the subject of much debate.

The range of mainstream opinion can be seen by looking at the headlines of dueling analyses in the Washington Post and Time magazine. The Post article is entitled "At Nuclear Conference, U.S. Expects Little, Gains Little," while the piece in Time lauds "A Surprising Consensus on Nuclear Nonprolferation."

The "surprising consensus" school, of which I am a card-carrying member, notes that the NPT conference approved a consensus document that reaffirmed the treaty's core commitments and mandated some steps -- albeit modest -- to carry them out. Given that many analysts assumed in advance that there would be no consensus document, this represents a real victory. As Deepti Choubey of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace put it, "This was a win for multilateralism. I was very pessimistic about the chance of achieving this outcome. But the document moved the treaty forward. It had several key advances in it." The final document included a list of 64 actions agreed to or encouraged by the states that are signatories of the treaty, from encouraging "those States with the largest arsenals" to lead efforts towards nuclear disarmament; to urging ratification of the global test ban treaty; to calling on all states to agree to more thorough inspections of their nuclear facilities; to taking concrete steps towards a 2012 meeting to discuss the creation of a Nuclear Weapons Free Zone in the Middle East. It also called on major nuclear-armed nations to report back by 2014 -- a year before the next review conference -- on actions they have taken to eliminate their nuclear stockpiles.

Much of the language endorsing these steps has been criticized as being too diluted to make much of a difference, but these arguments need to be weighed against the fact that the final document was reached through consensus, a consensus that included every nation from the U.S. to Iran (Israel did not attend the meeting as it is not a signatory of the treaty). The "modest progress" school includes the Arms Control Association -- which applauded the meeting's "modest but important forward-looking plan of action on disarmament, strengthening safeguards, and achieiving universal adherence to NPT norms." And in an interview with Bernard Gwertzman of the Council on Foreign Relations, George Perkovich of the Carnegie Endowmwnt for International Peace called the meeting's outcome an "incremental success," noting that at least it didn't "end in disaster," as many had feared. Michael Krepon of the Henry L. Stimson Center adopted a slightly different formulation, calling it a "lowest common denominator success" that averted an "ugly mess."

The promotion of talks regarding a nuclear free zone in the Middle East drew the most controversy, with some suggesting that it was simply another way to beat up on Israel while others saw it as an opportunity for Israel to achieve increased acknowledgment of its right to exist simply by virtue of siting down at the same table with Arab nations that have yet to formally do so, and to address the issue of Iran's nuclear program in a multilateral forum. As George Perkovich put it in his interview with Bernard Gwertzman:

"That means that Iran would have to recognize Israel, which it doesn't now, as would Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Syria, and so forth. So if this conference is to happen, those states will have to find some way to sit with Israel, which is a welcome challenge to the whole region. Israel can't be forced to give up its nuclear capability. Rather than being defensive and pretending that this hasn't been an issue all these years, it's better for Israel to step forward and invite the other states in the region and say, "OK, you want to make this a zone free of weapons of mass destruction? What are you prepared to do?"

Another approach was to point out that real progress towards ridding the world of nuclear weapons needs to move outside of the NPT process towards the negotiation of a legally binding international convention for the elimination of nuclear weapons, complete with concrete timelines for progress. The idea of a convention was endorsed by many of the non-nuclear states attending the conference, and the final document did at least reference the concept, saying that "The Conference notes the Five-Point Proposal for Nuclear Disarmament of the Secretary-General of the United Nations, which proposes inter alia consideration of negotiations on a nuclear weapons convention . . ." But taking note of something falls far short of encouraging it, much less endorsing it. Advocates of the convention were the most vocal critics of the conference. For example, John Burroughs of the Lawyers Committee on Nuclear Policy asserted that the conference ended with "more of a whimper than a bang." Ray Acheson of the Reaching Critical Will project of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom argued that whatever its strengths or weaknesses, "a document is just a document" and the real issue involves "the weak points of the NPT process itself." She closes by noting that "We do not need to rely on the NPT process alone to eliminate nuclear weapons. The vast majority of states have called for the negotiation of a nuclear weapons convention to outlaw nuclear weapons."

Given these diverse views, what is the bottom line? My own take is that we need to support any and all efforts designed to reduce the number of nuclear weapons on the planet and move us toward zero. That means supporting incremental steps like the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) between the U.S. and Russia; major moves forward like the entry into force of a global ban on all nuclear testing (the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty), starting with its ratification by the U.S. Senate; and taking any and all measures needed to keep existing nuclear weapons and bomb-making materials out of the hands of terrorists. These actions should not be viewed as being inconsistent with longer-term efforts to enact a convention outlawing nuclear weapons. If the two approaches (the first of which might be thought of as "arms control-plus") can't be pursued in concert -- which I think they can -- they should certainly be able to proceed in parallel.