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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 13, February - March 1997

A New Beginning for the NPT
by Joseph Cirincione


This April, the States Parties to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) will begin a new era in the treaty's history. Representatives from many of the 186 nations who have signed the Treaty will gather at the United Nations in New York for their first meeting under the new, strengthened review process. As with everything else in this venerable Treaty's history, it will likely be contentious.

Since its entry into force in 1970 the NPT has been widely regarded as the cornerstone of global efforts to stop the spread of nuclear weapons and materials. When the treaty was first negotiated, five nations had nuclear weapons - the United States, the Soviet Union, Great Britain, France, and China - and experts feared that nuclear weapons would soon spread to dozens of countries. The treaty regime stifled this threat. Today only three other countries (India, Pakistan, and Israel) have nuclear weapons, and they remain outside the Treaty. Few of the non-nuclear treaty nations have even tried to build nuclear devices.

The Treaty successfully created an international standard against the spread of nuclear weapons, changing the acquisition of such weapons from a source of national pride to an object of official denial. It established the international inspection regime that helps prevent the diversion of nuclear reactor fuel to bombs. It provided the diplomatic framework that allowed Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakstan to give up the thousands of nuclear weapons they inherited from the former Soviet Union and to join the treaty as non-nuclear nations. It encouraged first Sweden and most recently South Africa, Argentina, and Brazil to abandon their nuclear programs and become members of either the treaty or regional nonproliferation pacts. It is the main reason the 1994 crisis over suspected North Korean nuclear activities could be resolved through inspection and negotiation rather than war.

Points of Procedure

The main point of contention among the members States has always been the slow implementation of Article VI of the Treaty, which commits the nuclear-weapon States to eliminate their arsenals. This was especially true at the 1995 Review and Extension Conference in New York called to decide the future of the Treaty after its original 25-year term. Through the skillful presidency of Sri Lankan Ambassador Jayantha Dhanapala, the leadership of nations such as South Africa and Canada, and the good will of most members, the conference unanimously adopted a decision trinity: indefinite extension of the Treaty, strengthening of the review process, and specific goals for judging implementation of the Treaty. As a result, Ben Sanders has noted, the review process has now become a virtually on-going process. The NPT members have created an unprecedented nearly annual international forum dedicated to assessing global nuclear non-proliferation progress.

The Treaty itself provides for a review conference every five years. Previously, it required a decision by each conference to hold the next one. Paragraph 2 of the first of the three decision documents, "Strengthening the Review Process for the Treaty," makes these five-year reviews automatic starting with the year 2000. Paragraph 3 of that document mandates Preparatory Committee meetings in each of the three years preceding the Review Conference. Further, these PrepCom meetings are not only to decide important procedural issues, but are expressly empowered by paragraph 4 to:

"consider principles, objectives and ways in order to promote the full implementation of the Treaty, as well as its universality, and to make recommendations thereon to the Review Conference. These include those identified in the Decision on Principles and Objectives for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament adopted on May 1995."

The sparring at the April PrepCom will take place around differing interpretation of how to implement this paragraph and various proposals "to promote full implementation." For example, Ambassador Jayantha Dhanapala, in his concluding remarks as President of the 1995 NPT Conference, said the "review and evaluation process will be on-going, regular and action-oriented." He anticipated "a sharper focus on Review Conferences of the future and their Preparatory Committees. These fora of rigorous accountability will play a more crucial role in the operation of the Treaty than ever before."

Some States, on the other hand, emphasize the procedural aspects of the upcoming PrepCom. Assistant Director of the US Arms Control Agency Lawrence Scheinman, for example, cautions that in the US view the PrepCom "should not pre-empt the work of the Review Conference." While it needs to consider "objectives, ways and means" to promote the full implementation of the Treaty and forward those recommendations to the Review Conference, he says, "it should not undertake activities that are the prerogative of the Review Conference, including drafting a final document." (Address at the Monterey Institute, 28 September, 1996)

A central procedural issue will be whether the PrepCom can take note of progress in the non-proliferation agenda and decide on new ways to promote treaty objectives. That is, just how dynamic is this process to be?

This will also involve the issue of how to measure progress in implementing the Treaty. In both cases, the focus will be on the second decision document mentioned above and regarded as the yardstick for measuring progress, "Principles and Objectives for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament." This document delineates twenty priority action items. Since 1995, there has been significant progress on several of the key goals. Whether or not it is sufficient, or whether new goals are now warranted and within the power of the PrepCom to declare, will be vigorously debated.

Forward Motion

There has certainly been a good deal of progress since April 1995 on a number of the objectives established at that time, including a global ban on nuclear weapons tests, creation of nuclear free zones, expanding the Treaty's membership to all nations, improving the inspection and safeguard regimes, and reducing global nuclear arsenals.


Most importantly, the nuclear-weapon States have finally delivered on a long-promised goal and one specified in the Principles and Objectives: "The completion by the Conference on Disarmament of the negotiations on a universal and internationally and effectively verifiable Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty no later than 1996." Although Chinese nuclear tests after the April conference (including one just days after it had ended) raised serious doubts about the sincerity of the negotiating efforts, since the United Nations approved the test ban in September 1996 no nation has tested and it appears none will pending the entry into force of the treaty. The CTBT has been signed by over 130 nations to-date.

Nuclear Free Zones

There has also been considerable progress on another key objective, the establishment of Nuclear Free Zones. In March 1996, the United States, the United Kingdom and France signed the Treaty of Rarotonga, which established a nuclear free zone in the South Pacific and effectively ended French testing by the inclusion of their Pacific test site in the zone. In April 1996, the US signed the Protocols to the Treaty of Pelindaba, which establishes a nuclear-weapon-free zone in Africa. The US may soon reach agreement with the nations of South East Asia and agree to the Treaty of Bangkok, which declares yet another region of the world as one free of nuclear weapons.


The number one objective listed in the 1995 declaration has also advanced: universal adherence to the Treaty. At the time of the conference, there were 174 Members; there are now 186, or all the nations of the world save for Brazil (which is a member of the Treaty of Tlataloco, the South American nuclear free zone treaty), Cuba, and the three undeclared nuclear-weapon States, India, Pakistan and Israel.


Negotiations are proceeding at the International Atomic Energy Agency on another objective: strengthening the safeguards system. This should increase the level of confidence the NPT parties can have about the non-proliferation commitment and activities of their neighbors - and potential foes.

Fissile Material Cut-Off

There has been little progress on negotiating a ban on the further production of fissile materials (plutonium and highly enriched uranium) used in nuclear weapons. India and Pakistan, however, are blamed for the roadblocks in these talks, and few fault the nuclear-weapon States.


On the central issue of nuclear disarmament, since the April conference the US Senate has ratified the START II agreement, which would cut deployed strategic warheads by almost 50 percent from the START I levels of 6000 deployed strategic warheads each. The Russian Duma may soon act as well, and the US is trying to establish guidelines for a new START III agreement that would further reduce deployed arsenals to between 2000 to 2500 strategic warheads each. Since the April 1995 conference, the US and Russia have continued to decrease their strategic nuclear weapons stockpiles, pursuant to these agreements. They each deploy under 7000 strategic warheads today, down from the 11-13,000 each deployed in 1990.

Is It Enough?

So much for the good news. The bad news, likely to be reiterated at the April PrepCom, is that the pace of reductions is much too slow, given the collapse of the Soviet Union, and that prospects for serious nuclear disarmament remain precarious.

While US spokespersons are fond of saying that the Clinton Administration is "pursuing the most ambitious arms control agenda in history," this mantra confuses agenda with accomplishments. For every success due to Clinton Administration efforts, such as conclusion of the CTBT and Senate ratification of START II last year, there are matching setbacks and disappointments. Former President George Bush, in fact, accomplished more in four years that President Clinton has in his first term, not only completing the negotiations for and signing the START I treaty, but negotiating and signing the START II treaty and the Chemical Weapons Convention, implementing sweeping reductions in tactical nuclear weapons, and unilaterally taking US nuclear bombers off alert for the first time since the start of the Cold War.

Meanwhile, danger signs abound that the progress of the past few years could quickly unravel. The CTBT faces an uncertain future: its entry into force could be blocked by India's continuing refusal to sign the treaty, or by the Republican-controlled US Senate or the Communist-dominated Russian Duma refusing to ratify the pact. Similarly, the failure of either body to ratify the Chemical Weapons Convention would cast a pall over all arms control efforts for years. Moreover, while the US administration is committed to ending nuclear weapons tests, observers are understandably concerned and confused by the huge $4 billion it devotes annually to its nuclear stockpile stewardship program. Fears that laboratory tests using expensive new laser and super computing systems could substitute for actual nuclear tests are exaggerated. However, the program does keep employed a considerable number of scientists and officials ready to lobby for renewed tests at the slightest provocation and encouraged to do so by well-organized right-wing interest groups.

There is also concern that the Administration is ready to expand the role of nuclear weapons in US national security policy from a purely deterrent force to a force that could be used to retaliate for attacks using chemical or biological weapons or for preemptive attacks on biological or chemical weapons facilities. Most recently, the US press reported that the Clinton Administration, as part of its efforts to secure ratification of the Chemical Weapons Convention, was prepared to formally declare to Congress that it would plan to use nuclear weapons in these new roles. This is just the latest setback in the decades-long efforts by the non-nuclear-weapon States to obtain legally binding commitments that the nuclear powers would never use nuclear weapons against them.

Non-proliferation experts repeatedly point out that as long as the nuclear-weapon States postulate real and continuing military roles for their weapons, it will be unrealistic to expect other States not to seek to acquire nuclear weapons for similar roles in their respective national defense strategies. The Report of the Canberra Commission concluded in August 1996 that "This situation is highly discriminatory and thus unstable; it cannot be sustained. The possession of nuclear weapons by any State is a constant stimulus to other States to acquire them."

Finally, the conservative Congressional solution to nuclear proliferation - spend more money on more defenses - threatens to ruin chances for deeper cuts in nuclear arsenals, particularly by its aggressive promotion of national missile defense. Repeated test failures and lack of popular or military support for such a program haven't deterred US Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott from vowing to push for a national system again this year, further hindering the already fragile START process.

Conclusion: Growing International Expert Consensus

Debate and discussion of these issues at the PrepCom will be constructive and helpful to building the global pressure for serious, faster reductions in the threat posed by the existing stockpiles of nuclear weapons. The international community deserves a coherent, sustained, and concerted program of action to reduce and ultimately eliminate nuclear dangers.

The Canberra Commission report is proving to be an important contribution to these efforts by clearly outlining such a program and bringing international attention to the logic and necessity of eliminating, not merely slowly reducing, nuclear weapons. During 1997, over a dozen new reports and studies of these issues will be published in the United States alone by some of that nation's leading nuclear policy experts, including the prestigious National Academy of Sciences, the Atlantic Council, the Brookings Institution, the Henry L. Stimson Center and the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The directors of fifteen of these projects have together formed the Committee on Nuclear Policy to demonstrate the growing expert consensus on practical, near-term steps for reducing nuclear dangers as part of a program for the elimination of all nuclear weapons through verifiable international agreements.

Some nations at the PrepCom will site the work of these groups in pressing for further action. In a recent speech to the Conference on Disarmament, for example, Swedish Foreign Minister Lena Hjelm-Wallen urged the conference to explore proposals by the Canberra Commission to take nuclear forces off alert. She said, "This step could and should be taken immediately by the nuclear-weapon States. Such a measure would greatly reduce the risk of an accidental or unauthorized nuclear weapons launch." For many experts, de-alerting nuclear forces is the single most important step that could be taking in the near future. Increased attention to this issue at the PrepCom and subsequently could help develop the political pressure necessary to force government action.

Less promising lines of debate likely to be heard at the PrepCom will include demands for a time-bound framework for nuclear disarmament. It is very unlikely that any State would commit to an arbitrary plan for disarmament imposed by other nations. Further decreasing the impact of this approach is the fact that the demand is often advanced at United Nations' fora by States with questionable motives, such as India and Iran. Many believe that some of these States have used the argument for a time-bound framework to mask their own nuclear ambitions. India, in particular, has blocked consensus on both the Comprehensive Test Ban and starting negotiations on a fissile materials cut-off by insisting that neither could proceed without agreement by the nuclear-weapon States for disarmament by a date certain. Additionally, criticism by some States, such as Indonesia, might actually be welcome by the United States, whose President has recently been accused of accepting political donations from foreign countries in return for favorable treatment of those nations' concerns.

As the 5 December, 1996 Statement on Nuclear Weapons by international Generals and Admirals noted, "It is clear, however, that nations now possessing nuclear weapons will not relinquish them until they are convinced that more reliable and less dangerous means of providing for their security are in place. It is also clear as a consequence that the nuclear powers will not now agree to a fixed timetable for the achievement of abolition."

Rather than derail promising negotiation through what Patricia Lewis calls "preconditions to progress" (Disarmament Diplomacy, January 1997, p. 6), the PrepComs in 1997 and the remainder of the century will be judged successful if they help advance specific, achievable agreements. This would enlarge and enhance the growing international consensus that it is far safer to pursue the rapid reduction of nuclear arsenals than to live with the dangers of the existing stockpiles of almost 40,000 nuclear weapons and risk adding even more national arsenals to this deadly dynamic.

Joseph Cirincione is a Senior Associate at the Henry L. Stimson Center in Washington, DC and Executive Director of the Committee on Nuclear Policy. Further information on the NPT and nuclear policy issues, including the text of the three decision documents, is available on-line at: www.stimson.org

© 1998 The Acronym Institute.

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