Is the United States Undermining Nuclear Non-Proliferation?
The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) is much in the news due to North Korea's announced withdrawal, its steps toward the resumption of the production of plutonium, and its apparent treaty-violating program for the production of highly enriched uranium dating back several years. What has received no attention is that the United States is also undermining the NPT by ignoring recent political commitments to implement the treaty's disarmament obligation.
Under the leadership of the United States and the Soviet Union, negotiations on the NPT were completed in 1968, and the treaty entered into force in 1970. It bars most states from acquiring nuclear weapons, and charges the International Atomic Energy Agency with monitoring nuclear power facilities to prevent the diversion of nuclear materials to weapons. The record of compliance with the non-acquisition obligation has been reasonably good, with only two violators identified since 1970, Iraq and North Korea. Under Article VI member states, including the nuclear powers Britain, China, France, Russia, and the United States, agree to "pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control."
During the negotiations, Sweden, Brazil, India, Mexico and other countries sought to make Article VI more specific, advocating insertion of measures including a comprehensive test ban, a cutoff on production of fissile material for weapons, and assurances of non-use of nuclear arms against non-nuclear states. The United States and the Soviet Union rebuffed those proposals, but did agree to placing them on the agenda for disarmament negotiations in Geneva. In 1978 and again in 1995, the nuclear states also provided assurances they would not use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states. None of this was enough to induce India to join. Ironically, apprehension that India would go nuclear following China's 1964 test was a major reason the United States promoted negotiation of the NPT.
For non-nuclear states, there were three main benefits to the NPT. One was to enhance security by preventing the further spread of nuclear weapons, including in the region of concern to a given state. This has remained fundamental to most states, and accounts for the continuing strong support for the NPT by countries bitterly disappointed by the lack of compliance with the disarmament obligation. A second for many was the promise of assistance with the development of nuclear power set forth in Article IV. The third was the nuclear-armed states' promise to pursue nuclear disarmament.
Over the years those factors, combined with pressure from the United States, led to a steady increase in NPT members. Notably, South Africa relinquished its small nuclear arsenal and joined the treaty, as did Brazil and Argentina, both of which ended their nuclear weapons programs. Former Soviet republics turned nuclear weapons on their territory over to Russia and joined the treaty. Only three countries remain outside the regime, all, however, nuclear-armed, India, Pakistan, and Israel.
For their part, the nuclear states have long viewed the NPT as an asymmetrical bargain, imposing specific, enforceable obligations in the present on non-nuclear states, while committing the nuclear states only to a vague obligation to negotiate nuclear disarmament pacts, to be brought to fruition in the distant future if ever. In the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, NPT Review Conferences in 1995 and 2000, reinforced by a 1996 International Court of Justice opinion, decisively rejected that view. It is now established -- at least in principle -- that the NPT has a symmetry of obligations.
In 1995, the year that the NPT was due to expire, the United States and other nuclear states pressed for the treaty to be extended indefinitely. That objective was achieved by including as part of a larger package a set of disarmament commitments mirroring those demanded by non-nuclear states when the treaty was negotiated. They included negotiation of a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) by 1996, negotiations on a fissile materials treaty, and "systematic and progressive efforts to reduce nuclear weapons globally, with the ultimate goal of eliminating those weapons."
In 1996, the International Court of Justice, the judicial branch of the United
Nations, offered an interpretation of the Article VI obligation. In an advisory
opinion on nuclear weapons requested by the UN General Assembly, the Court unanimously
held that states are obligated "to bring to a conclusion negotiations
leading to nuclear disarmament in all its aspects under strict and effective
At the 2000 Review Conference, the "New Agenda" group of Brazil, Ireland, Mexico, New Zealand, South Africa and Sweden took the lead in pressing for further disarmament commitments. Their efforts were crowned with success in the final document approved by all participating states including the United States. A key element is "an unequivocal undertaking by the nuclear-weapon states to accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals." Other new measures include adherence to the ABM Treaty; applying the principle of irreversibility to nuclear weapons reductions; further developing verification capabilities; measures to further reduce the operational status of nuclear weapons; and a diminishing role for nuclear weapons in security policies.
Measured against the standards set in 1995 and 2000, the nuclear powers, especially the United States, are failing to comply with the disarmament obligation. While negotiation of the CTBT was completed in 1996, the Senate failed to approve its ratification in 1999, and prospects for entry into force are presently dim due to the Bush administration's opposition and the uncertain attitude of India and Pakistan. Negotiations on a fissile materials treaty are stalled. The United States withdrew from the ABM Treaty in June 2002. The lack of compliance lies, however, not only in the lack of progress in particular areas, but above all, by reason of the failure to make disarmament the driving force in national planning and policy with respect to nuclear weapons. The Defense Department's Nuclear Posture Review submitted to Congress at the end of 2001 demonstrates this point in several ways.
First, it signals the end, or at least the suspension, of verified and irreversible arms control endorsed by the 2000 Review Conference. Following a schedule and approach announced by the Nuclear Posture Review, the short and starkly simple Moscow Treaty signed in May 2002 requires only that the United States and Russia each limit "strategic nuclear warheads" to 1700-2200 by the year 2012. Unlike START I, START II (signed but never entered into force), and other bilateral nuclear arms reduction agreements, the Moscow Treaty does not require the destruction of any delivery systems, nor does it mandate dismantling warheads as was projected for a START III agreement. It contains no provisions for verification or transparency. According to the Bush administration, the Moscow Treaty limit refers in the U.S. case at least to what the Nuclear Posture Review labeled "operational" strategic deployed warheads. Under the Defense Department plan, the United States will retain many thousands of additional warheads, including large numbers -- probably more than 1000 a decade from now -- in a "responsive force" capable of redeployment within weeks or months. A more blatant rejection of the NPT principle of irreversible disarmament could hardly be imagined.
Second, there is no indication in the Nuclear Posture Review or elsewhere that the Bush administration will seek to reduce the readiness level of deployed strategic forces, for example by separating warheads from delivery systems. Today, both the United States and Russia each have about 2,000 warheads on high alert, ready to launch within minutes of an order to do so.
Third, the Nuclear Posture Review reveals new trends toward making nuclear arms more usable in an enlarged range of circumstances, including in response to non-nuclear attacks or threats involving biological or chemical weapons or "surprising military developments." Among the "immediate contingencies" it identifies for possible U.S. nuclear use is "a North Korean attack on South Korea." Thus far from diminishing the role of nuclear weapons in security policies as promised in 2000, the Bush administration is moving towards expanding options for nuclear use, in the process undermining the longstanding assurances of non-use of nuclear arms made to non-nuclear NPT states.
Indeed, the reference to a U.S. nuclear use in response to a North Korean attack -- not necessarily a nuclear attack -- was one of a series of provocative Bush administration statements spurring North Korean nuclearization. Those statements included naming North Korea as a member of the "axis of evil"; strategy documents embracing "preemptive" military actions as a possible response to states' acquisition of nuclear, chemical, biological, and radiological weapons; and the depiction of a potential future North Korean missile threat as a major basis for withdrawal from the ABM Treaty.
Overall, the Nuclear Posture Review's core assumption of indefinite U.S. reliance
on nuclear forces is contrary to the thrust of commitments made in the post-Cold
War era to implement the NPT disarmament obligation. If North Korea's present
defiance of the NPT is to remain an aberration not imitated by other countries,
the United States will have to learn that a viable nonproliferation regime depends
crucially on the implementation of the obligation to disarm nuclear weapons
as well as the obligation not to acquire them.