Analysis:  A Review Conference for Rebuilding

March 4, 2010

A series of developments over the last year will make this Review Conference an especially important opportunity to strengthen all three pillars of the NPT—nuclear disarmament among the five nuclear weapon states, nonproliferation, and peaceful uses of nuclear technology.

Where past review conferences have wavered over a lack of progress by nuclear weapon states on disarmament (or leadership by the United States and Russia in this critical area), this conference is coming on the heels of President Obama’s renewed commitment to deep cuts in arsenals and nuclear disarmament.  It is also coming just after the April release of a U.S. Nuclear Posture Review that, while perhaps not perfect in the view of many disarmament advocates, is expected to further devalue the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. national security and defense policy.  It is apparent that the Obama administration will pursue disarmament incrementally and gradually, but the administration’s commitment to achieving this goal is unprecedented and presents a unique opportunity to develop a review conference document that can go far beyond previous ones on the key issue of nuclear disarmament and the path to achieving that goal.

Unfortunately, many view that progress toward broader disarmament amounts to “too little, too late.”  Some in the non-aligned movement, for example, believe that the nuclear weapon states have done far too little to reduce their nuclear arsenals, implement controls on stockpiles of fissile material, and legally commit to banning tests of nuclear weapons.  What’s more, they believe that nuclear weapons will play roles in the national defense postures of these states for decades to come.  By focusing on past lapses of the United States and other nuclear weapons states, all parties to the treaty risk undermining a historical opportunity opened by the dramatic changes in the U.S. position on disarmament.

Disarmament is only one pillar of the NPT.  As important as achieving steps toward disarmament is the need for strengthening the pillar of nonproliferation.  Although there is pressure on nuclear states to do more and to commit to doing more on a timetable, the flip side of the issue, stopping additional countries from proliferating is just as important and in many ways more pressing.  Some non-nuclear weapon states will push the zero sum outcome of objecting to nonproliferation during a time when many of their regional neighbors may be weighing their options for developing a nuclear program, or at least for hedging their bets. 

The Review Conference has a historic opportunity to adopt in the Conference document additional measures to strengthen the nonproliferation pillar of the treaty, including securing commitments from all states to implement the Additional Protocol, making withdrawal from the treaty more difficult in cases where countries have been found recently in noncompliance with safeguards obligations, and taking steps to prevent illicit nuclear trade.

The conference may be a time for airing grievances about a lack of progress on disarmament, but this should not be a squandered opportunity to renew the spirit and commitments of the 1995 indefinite extension conference document, especially amid the new global momentum on establishing a clear path to nuclear disarmament for every state.  All have much work to do, and the result can be monumental.