Saving the Nuclear Nonproliferation Agreement; the U.S. Administration Thinks That It Can Disavow Its Pledges on the 13 Practical Steps for Nuclear Disarmament Made in 2000

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North Korea's recent announcement that it has manufactured nuclear weapons highlights the precarious nature of the global nonproliferation regime and particularly the failure of the Bush administration's approach to the problem. In an official statement, North Korea indicated that the impetus for its actions was "the Bush administration's increasingly hostile policy." In fact, the Bush administration has dragged its feet for more than four years and made inadequate efforts to provide either security assurances or development aid to North Korea in exchange for halting its nuclear program.

Yet it is widely agreed on all sides of the political spectrum that preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons is the most important item on the U.S. national security agenda. This was the one point that President Bush and Sen. John Kerry could agree upon in their presidential debate on foreign policy.

At the center of the nonproliferation regime is the 1970 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). What most Americans don't know is that this treaty is based upon an important tradeoff. The non-nuclear weapons states agree not to develop or acquire nuclear weapons, and the nuclear weapons states agree to engage in good faith negotiations for nuclear disarmament.

Every five years, the parties to this treaty, now 188 countries, meet at the United Nations to review progress. At the 2000 Review Conference, the parties agreed by consensus to 13 practical steps for nuclear disarmament. Unfortunately, the nuclear weapons states, and particularly the United States, seem to have made virtually zero progress in the past five years. Despite its pledges to do otherwise, the United States has failed to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty; opposed a verifiable fissile material cutoff treaty; substituted the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT), which is fully reversible, for the START treaties; scrapped the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, opening the door for deployment of missile defenses and moves toward placing weapons in outer space; kept nuclear weapons at the center of its security policies, including research to create new nuclear weapons; and demonstrated no political will toward the elimination of its nuclear arsenal.

The only small glimmer of hope in U.S. nuclear policy was Congress' cutting the funding requested by the administration in the 2005 budget for "bunker buster" and low-yield nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, the administration is already back seeking the inclusion of this research in the 2006 and 2007 budgets.

With less than three months remaining before the beginning of the next Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference, there is a sense that prospects for the future of the nonproliferation regime are dim. I was recently at a meeting on "The Future of the NPT" held at The Carter Center in Atlanta. The conference was sponsored by the Middle Powers Initiative, a coalition of eight international civil society organizations. …