A paper by: Adam Scheinman
As I am here just days after the U.S. presidential election, I’m sure that many wish to know what direction the new Administration will take on nuclear nonproliferation and arms control. Since it is too early to know or even predict, I thought I would instead offer some perspective on the issues we were asked to cover and policies I hope will continue. One element of constancy in U.S. nonproliferation policy concerns support for the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). I expect the new Administration to undertake a thorough review of what can be done to further strengthen implementation of the treaty and ensure its long-term integrity.
There has long been bipartisan agreement in the United States that the NPT is central, and that this ‘center’ must hold if we are to prevent more nuclear weapons proliferation or the risk of nuclear weapons being used, something that has thankfully been avoided in the more than 70 years since end of World War II. We have seen disappointments, but also major achievements in the NPT space in recent years, from the New START Treaty that will reduce U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear forces to levels not seen since the 1950s, to the conclusion of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (or JCPOA).
The current Administration and many others rightly view the Iran agreement as a “win” for the NPT, as the single greatest threat to the future of the treaty is the emergence of new nuclear weapons states in unstable regions where others will feel compelled to follow. The JCPOA relies not on good intentions, but robust verification and physical constraints to demonstrate that Iran’s nuclear program is not directed toward pursuit of a nuclear weapon. The agreement will face implementation challenges, but it seems certain that it will remain the best available alternative to address this serious proliferation challenge.
Since I’m sharing the podium with Dr. Zerbo, it is important that I address the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), especially from the standpoint of advancing NPT goals. No measure is more historically or closely aligned to implementation of Article VI of the NPT than the CTBT. Yet, the full potential of the CTBT remains unfulfilled, since the treaty has not entered into force. Anticipating the day it does, the United States has continued to support the treaty and its organization – the CTBTO and Provisional Technical Secretariat that Dr. Zerbo leads. Our commitment extends to unmatched monetary and technical support, efforts to ensure the verification regime is completed and functions as intended, inspector training and transparency actions in the United States, and support for major on-site inspection field exercises, including one held here recently in Jordan.
But we know the treaty will not enter into force absent U.S. ratification. The truth is that the CTBT is a politically fraught issue in the United States, and one that would benefit from a public debate that we have not engaged in for many years. In the United States, that debate could make clear the security benefits, as well as the military and scientific judgments that bear on U.S. ratification. I cannot predict what the new Administration will do on CTBT, but I note that other states need not wait on the United States to act. Adherence, for instance, by all states in this region would be a useful step toward a Middle East free of all weapons of mass destruction and systems for their delivery, and it would allow states to cooperate on verification concepts relevant to that larger ambition.
NPT Review Conference
Let me turn now to the 2015 NPT Review Conference. As everyone here knows, the Review Conference did not reach consensus on a final document. This was not entirely unexpected given differing priorities among parties and a difficult political climate. But it was a disappointment nonetheless, certainly for the United States. However, the inability of parties to reach consensus in 2015 should not be confused with a failure of the NPT itself. The treaty will endure as an instrument of security for all its parties and therefore for the world. While negotiated in a different time, the NPT remains as we say ‘fit for purpose,’ both as an irreplaceable bulwark against proliferation and as a set of bargains that brings order and stability to our nuclear affairs.
As all here know, the NPT is the only international legal treaty obligating all its members to pursue nuclear disarmament and prevent the further proliferation of nuclear weapons. It is also the basis for international nuclear export controls and for peaceful nuclear trade. It is a basis for international actions to enforce compliance against states that break rules that other accept. It is not a perfect instrument, but it is one that the vast majority of parties embrace, giving the treaty its vitality.
Let me say a few words on the Middle East WMD free zone, which was the issue that blocked consensus at the 2015 Review Conference and which I know is a focus for many here today. Support for a Middle East free of WMD is a long-standing U.S. policy. It is one I expect will continue into the future, and one for which the current Administration sought to make a start toward with the regional conference called for in the 2010 NPT Review Conference final document. Although the regional conference was not held before the 2015 Review Conference, it was not for lack of trying. We expended enormous effort with the UK, Russia, the UN and the Facilitator to bring regional states together to agree on terms for a conference. This process led to five face-to-face meetings of Arab and Israeli officials in Switzerland during 2013-2014, and could have led to agreement had it continued. Unfortunately, invitations for further discussions in 2014 were declined, and a new proposal was introduced at the Review Conference that in our judgment was flawed and could not have secured participation by all states in the region, as required in the 2010 decision.
It should be clear that only a strategy of cooperation and consensus, not pressure or coercion, is the pathway to a conference and progress toward a Middle East zone. “Arrangements freely arrived at among the states of the region" is a cardinal principle of the UN Disarmament Commission guidelines for nuclear weapon free zone treaties – of which there are five in existence. It’s not realistic to expect that the Middle East will operate by some other principle.
We made our position on this issue very clear from the start of the Review Conference and throughout—from the first day to the last. Yet, no serious effort was made to address our concerns. Instead, we saw efforts to maneuver around them. The draft final document outlined a process that would not build the foundation of trust necessary for holding a productive regional conference. It was out of step with our expectations and our belief that the NPT review process not be manipulated to secure agreement on a single issue above all others. The NPT is a global treaty, and the idea nothing is agreed until all is agreed is not a healthy development; it’s also not factual, because in fact much was agreed across all three NPT pillars.
Where we go from here on the Middle East poses a dilemma. As we are in a political transition, I am hopeful that the United States and all concerned parties will return to this matter with fresh eyes and a renewed sense of purpose. We didn’t get to Helsinki in the last review cycle, but the objective of holding a regional conference remains worthy of our collective pursuit. If the states of the region are committed to resuming a process that is rooted in consensus principles, then they can expect U.S. support, though again the next Administration will need to review the bidding.
Restoring Balance in the NPT Review
Looking to the 2020 NPT Review Conference, we understand that expectations are high in this 50th anniversary of the Treaty and 25 years from the decision to extend it indefinitely. Now is a good time to focus on shared interests and common ground, and resist being defined by our differences. Parties could make a start by working to restore balance to the NPT dialogue. The NPT cannot resolve disagreement on nuclear disarmament or the Middle East zone, yet the review process focuses disproportionately on these issues. And it does so at the expense of discussion of practical measures to strengthen the treaty and of other challenges that affect the treaty’s viability, not least of which is the North Korean nuclear program, full implementation of the JCPOA, and continued efforts to strengthen IAEA safeguards and discourage abuse of the NPT’s withdrawal right.
I expect the new Administration to express support Article VI of the NPT, just as past U.S. Administrations have. But the focus should be on what is realistic and achievable. In our view, the rhetoric for nuclear disarmament, and in particular the call to negotiate a nuclear weapons ban treaty, is running ahead of what is realistic and achievable. Advocates for a ban treaty miss a fundamental point, which is that nuclear disarmament and security are inseparable aspects: neither can be divorced from the other. For the United States, we would have to know that a world of zero nuclear weapons would be at least as safe and secure as today’s world. That’s not evident to most American observers. What is evident is that the conditions for nuclear disarmament are hugely demanding and assume political, technical and verification requirements that we should work on, but that today do not exist. This is not an argument for inaction or complacency: it’s an argument for continued pursuit of steps that reduce nuclear dangers where we can.
The United States understands better than anyone that nuclear weapons are a special category of weapon and pose unique dangers. This is why we are transparent about our nuclear weapons programs and why we make massive investments to ensure they remain safe, secure and under effective control. It is why we have said it is in the global interest that the record of non-use of nuclear weapons be extended forever; it is why we have supported the CTBT, a fissile material cutoff treaty, and further negotiated reductions with Russia. It is also why we have challenged Russia to return to negotiations and address concerns about arms control treaty violations. The new Administration will of course not take a more positive view of the ban treaty, not least of which because it cannot achieve its objectives. It will not lead to the elimination of a single nuclear weapon, because no NPT nuclear-weapon state will participate. Nor will it serve as an impetus to disarmament: it will not bring India and Pakistan to negotiate nuclear disarmament; it will not create new opportunities in the Middle East for negotiation of a zone; and it will not lead North Korea to abandon its nuclear and missile programs.
The ban treaty can, however, further fragment the NPT political process and take us farther from consensus as a goal in the review cycle. This would be unfortunate, as it would cheapen the NPT’s currency and make stalemate a permanent feature of the NPT reviews. I’m confident that we can aim higher and work harder to make 2020 a success. This would be a good place to start as we launch the review cycle leading to the 50th anniversary of the NPT.