The Duck of Minerva

The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)

28 May 2005

The collapse of the most recent NPT conference is already gone from the headlines. The general tenor of the reporting has gone, more or less, like this:

When the conference began on May 2, countries had hoped to agree on a plan to plug loopholes in the treaty that enable countries to acquire sensitive atomic technology and to hear from Washington and the four other NPT members with nuclear weapons that they remained committed to disarming.

But it quickly descended into procedural bickering, led by the United States, Iran and Egypt, and ended after approving only a document that listed the agenda and participants.

In a clear swipe at Washington, which angered developing countries by refusing to reaffirm previous pledges to scrap its own nuclear arsenal, Canada’s chief delegate blasted countries that tossed aside earlier commitments.

“If governments simply ignore or discard commitments whenever they prove inconvenient, we will never be able to build an edifice of international cooperation and confidence in the security realm,” Ambassador Paul Meyer, the head of Canada’s delegation, said in a speech to the conference.

The United States has denied undermining the conference. Privately, U.S. officials blamed Iran and Egypt, who they said hijacked the block of non-aligned nations in an attempt to focus criticism on the United States and Israel.

NPR carried a particularly good report on the broader issues at stake in the conference, including the question of why states “go nuclear” in the first place. Among those interviewed was Scott Sagan, one of the foremost scholars of nuclear proliferation. Scott argued, as he has in print, that signals from the current nuclear powers play an important role in nuclear proliferation and nuclear strategy. From this vantage point, recent high-profile changes in US (and Russian) nuclear doctrine – away from policies of “no first use” against non-nuclear powers – undermine the normative and institutional components of the non-proliferation regime.

The big question, of course, is how much blame for these developments can be laid at the feet of the US. Are we witnessing the mounting costs of anti-Americanism engendered by the Bush administration, or the more or less inevitable consequences of unipolarity, the spread of weapons technology, and other factors? The answer is probably both. At the very least, the growing antipathy towards US foreign policy, combined with the fact that the nuclear powers – including the US – aren’t exactly taking their NPT obligations seriously, provides rhetorical cover for states like Iran.1

All of this assumes, of course, that the spread of nuclear weapons is dangerous. Not all scholars agree. Kenneth Waltz, in particular, argues that more nuclear powers will be a net positive for peace and stability.2 Another line of thinking is that a focus on counter-proliferation undermines US interests. It may be, for example, that the US ought to drop the nuclear issue and try to reestablish a strategic relationship with Iran.

1See Articles IV-VI.
2The best guide to the debate over the desirability of nuclear proliferation is The Spread of Nuclear Weapons: A Debate Renewed, by Sagan and Waltz.