Friday, March 03, 2006

The NPT: Does It Even Matter Anymore?

Yesterday (March 2) President Bush, during his first state visit to India, moved one inch—perhaps mile—closer to completely rendering obsolete what some would argue is a cornerstone in international security: The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Before talking about the consequences resulting from such actions, a short review of the NPT (its role in international security, successes, and failures) is probably in good order.

The basis for most non-proliferation agreements over the past 35 years have been firmly grounded in the NPT which opened for signing in 1968 and was put into force in 1970. Since then, this landmark treaty has provided a grounded international framework for the recognition, dismantling, and restriction of Weapons of Mass Destruction, primarily nuclear weapons (although it can be argued that the NPT itself spawned work on both the Chemical and Biological Weapons Conventions). The majority of the international community (186 nations to be exact) has signed-on recognizing the dangers posed to the world through the further development of nuclear weapons. The three most important exceptions are Israel, Pakistan, and India. Pakistan and India have, of course, openly tested nuclear weapons while the existence of Israel’s program, which is suspected to have been under development since 1968, has been neither confirmed nor denied by its government (even though its existence is clearly agreed upon). Additionally, it is generally accepted that Iran, who is a signatory to the NPT, is actively developing nuclear weapons. Indeed, the Iranians may view regimes such as the NPT as nothing more than an opportunity to acquire information, facilities, and material for the development of nuclear weapons programs under the auspices of peaceful development.

Notable successes of the NPT include encouraging nuclear powers to steadily dismantle existing weapons systems, and sparking nations such as Argentina, Brazil, Ukraine, Belarus, South Africa, and Uzbekistan to give up or cease the development of weapons. Its failures are many, though, as seen in the cases with North Korea, the A.Q. Khan Network, Iran, Israel, Pakistan, and India. In these cases, the NPT did not prevent states--even those that were signatories--from pursuing or acquiring weapons, nor did it prevent extensive international networks (or probably even “rogue” states) from proliferation efforts. Of these listed failures, 4 of the 6 have occurred within the last decade pointing to a rise in nuclear acquisition attempts, not decline. So, the question then put before us is: “Has the NPT become irrelevant?” Based on the actions of the President this past week in India, I would venture to say that yes, if the NPT is not yet dead, it is one nail in the coffin away from being so.

Just to bring anyone that may be lagging up to speed, President Bush on this past week’s trip to New Delhi wrapped up negotiations that had begun on India’s nuclear program last July. Essentially, this week’s “historic” breakthrough (the President’s words, not mine), approved a plan by India to separate its civilian program (used for energy purposes) from its weapons program (a program that, as already stated, is, in the current international language, illegal). This separation allows the US (pending approval from Congress of course) to aid the development of India’s nuclear energy program and hence, it is supposed, help transform India’s growing energy demands away from oil and gas. Additionally, this deal is intended to strengthen US ties to India, a nation that is becoming increasingly important to US security efforts in the region and who’s international economic influence is on the rise (to put it mildly). US support of putting India in a “special category” all its own for nuclear states brings many issues to the fore, not the least of which is the viability of the current nonproliferation regime defined primarily by the NPT. This brings us to the critic’s arguments.

And there are many. I will focus, for the sake of brevity, primarily on the arguments of one of the leading experts in nonproliferation, Dr. Joseph Cirincione of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (He attacks this new policy in his recent article The US’s Nuclear Cave-In. You can link to it at the Carnegie website). In short, he believes President Bush has all but scrapped the NPT regime that has existed for over 35 years. He has done what all his predecessors refused to do in regards to India; that is, condone its methods for developing weapons (which he believes resemble those of the internationally condemned Iran), and condone the weapons themselves. The results: Pakistan now expects a similar deal, and Israel will soon be waiting for equal treatment. Iran will cry hypocrisy. On top of that, he believes, India, in this deal, retains too much say in the reactors they allow for inspectors to inspect, and have been less than forthcoming with the reactors they proclaim as “peaceful” reactors. On the surface, all very troubling indeed. Except for a few missed points…..

1. First, this is India we’re talking about, not Iran (or even Pakistan for that matter). Dr. Cirincione does not draw a distinction where one certainly must be drawn.
2. Second, India does not have a history of proliferation (except unto itself).
3. Three, the regime the NPT has overseen was on its deathbed well-before the Bush
Administration’s proposal. This is the most important point and the one I want to briefly touch on.

The most telling statement regarding this last point comes from the man who will, in the short term at least, have to deal most with this agreement’s immediate impacts. You guessed it… Dr. Mohammed Elbaradie, director of the IAEA, came out in support of the US-India deal. Here’s his quote:

"This agreement is an important step towards satisfying India´s growing need for energy,
including nuclear technology and fuel, as an engine for development. It would also bring India closer as an important partner in the non-proliferation regime. It would be a milestone, timely for ongoing efforts to consolidate the non-proliferation regime, combat nuclear terrorism and strengthen nuclear safety. The agreement would assure India of reliable access to nuclear technology and nuclear fuel. It would also be a step forward towards universalisation of the international safeguards regime. This agreement would serve the interests of both India and the international community."

Sounds like a pretty strong endorsement. Why? Because this agreement is a realistic interpretation of how the non-proliferation regime has evolved over the past few years; an evolution that has focused more on action then mere words. While the NPT was a document that bound its signatories towards noble transparencies and obligations, it was, in effect, not realistic in regards to the various regional security dilemmas and energy needs the international community as a whole consistently faces. The various “violations” that coupled the NPT’s implementation throughout its long history are evident of this fact.

So what exactly is this “new” nonproliferation regime that has been, in my opinion, cemented in the US-India breakthrough? It is one founded primarily on transparency as defined best by acquiescence towards IAEA inspections. With the US offering to share civilian technology with India, India’s reciprocal offer to allow open-inspections (although, admittedly, not in every site), and the IAEA blessing of this deal, I would argue a new era has been born in nuclear state classification and negotiation. The key in this new regime is not a state’s signature on any particular document, but rather the concession to periodic and sweeping inspections. In other words, the new regime is not based on the fact of whether or not a state has programs or weapons, but rather on its willingness to take action to prove its intents regarding those programs and weapons. (And yes! Even states that have nuclear weapons could have developed them in order to achieve peace).

Is this what we want? Do we want a world that allows states to develop nuclear programs without signing onto any overarching document that establishes guidelines for the development of such programs? Can’t states demonstrate up front through the signing of documents, such as the NPT, that they are peaceful? Perhaps, but the facts in this case prove otherwise. But is an absence of oversight what is really happening here? Or, are the rules changing for the better and actually getting stronger? I think so. While its comforting to have a document that supposedly dictates rules and regulations for such internationally dangerous endeavors, if its not working-indeed maybe even acting counterproductively-is it not best to adjust the rules so as to allow certain players in the international bazaar (borrowing a term from Dr. Stempel :) flexibility in achieving what would be perceived by most to be legitimate objectives (both energy and security wise) without incurring ostracism from the rest of the world?

The key in this new nonproliferation regime appears to be the old Russian proverb so famously thrown back at the Soviets by President Reagan: “Trust, but verify.” If one is willing to submit to verification, then one deserves to be trusted. And if a country is being less than forthcoming, than the international community has more room under these rules, and legitimacy I might add, to maneuver. I think this is the way Elbaradei sees it, especially since his agency will bear the greatest responsibility in this new enforcement. Yes, Iran is a member of the NPT, and no, India is not. But where one’s signature is or isn’t will not ultimately determine my comfort level regarding those regimes and their ambitions. Verification and one’s willingness to submit to such measures is what it all boils down to. The NPT is finished. Good. A regime of words has been replaced with a regime of action. I’m comfortable with that.


Jesco said...

This was a really insightful analysis of what is currently happening with nuclear nonproliferation. Making concessions to India in the hope that Indians will reciprocate with greater transparency and cooperation is a creative approach to harnessing India's nuclear ambitions. But how likely is it that they will cooperate to the extent they have promised? There seem to be a lot of risks in this approach, because the ball is in India's court. If Indian officials decide that they are unwilling to have limits put on their nuclear arsenal, Bush's promise may just cause even greater tension with Iran and between Pakistan and India.

The Enforcer said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Robert Farley said...


I'm not sure about your conclusions, here, but perhaps you can clarify them a bit.

You say that verification is important, but as far as I can tell, the only mechanisms that we have available to help verify the compliance of states like North Korea has been under the aegis of the NPT. Now, it might fairly be argued that these didn't work as well as hoped, but without NPT there wouldn't have been any cameras at Yongbyon at all, and the outcome probably would have been worse than otherwise.

I suppose I don't fully understand your replacement solution. Without the NPT, there will be no legal mechanism through which proliferators like North Korea and Iran can be brought to the UN Security Council, or to any other legitimating body. This leaves the US in a bit of a pickle; while the NPT exists, we can at least make an international law argument. If it doesn't, then the question of US action resides simply on whether or not the US likes a country, which is not a standard that's going to be convincing to many others....