June 23, 2005

NPT Conference Ends in Failure: Diplomatic Disaster Opens Nuclear Trap-Door

By Sean Howard

Writing for this website in mid-March (‘Nuclear Disaster or Nuclear Disarmament? Decision Time for an Endangered World’), I previewed the slim hopes for progress, and rich potential for deadlock, at a crucial upcoming meeting (May 2-27) of the 188-state nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Despite the impassioned exhortations of UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, echoed by a large number of angry and frustrated delegates, the conference proved, as Canadian journalist and author Gwynne Dyer noted on May 31, an almighty “mess” achieving “absolutely nothing.”

Dyer’s syndicated article was entitled: ‘Failure of Nuclear Talks May Not Be Quite As Bad As It Sounds.’ In contrast, Annan warned of “paralysis” in the face of “dangers that threaten humanity”; Mohamed ElBaradei, Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency, called the impasse “distressing”; and the head of Canada’s delegation, Ambassador Paul Meyer, lamented the waste of “precious time” caused by the “intransigence” and “hubris” of “more than one state” – interpreted by observers as a reference to both the United States, which blocked debate of disarmament, and Iran, which refused to discuss its nuclear programme. Any serious analysis of the conference, I believe, suggests that Annan, ElBaradei and Meyer are right to be appalled at the outcome, and that Dyer’s complacency is misplaced and dangerous.

Negotiated in the 1960s, amidst widespread predictions of wildfire proliferation, the NPT commits all but five countries – the US, Russia, Britain, France and China – to non-nuclear status, while binding the nuclear-powers to a process of progressive, systematic and complete disarmament. In terms of containing the Bomb, the Treaty has hitherto proved highly effective. Only three states – India, Israel and Pakistan – have remained outside the NPT and ‘gone nuclear’. Three NPT states – Libya, Iraq and North Korea – are known to have sought the Bomb clandestinely, with Pyongyang having withdrawn from the Treaty in 2003. The record isn’t perfect, but the line has held.

On the disarmament side of the ledger, however, lies a massive unpaid debt. Since the accord entered force in 1970, the nuclear-five have yet to spend a day in disarmament talks. There were around 30,000 nuclear weapons in the world on Day 1 of the NPT; there are around the same number now. The US and Russia have scaled back their forces from Cold War levels, but still deploy thousands of warheads each day – on land, at sea and in the air – on ‘hair-trigger’ alert, running what former US Senator Sam Nunn has called “the irrational risk of an Armageddon of our own making.”

Russia and China are currently modernizing their forces, with Britain and France seemingly set to follow suit. And in Washington, a new, pre-emptive ‘global strike’ doctrine has been unveiled, blending conventional superiority, unproven missile defences and nuclear strike options. Add to the mix the Pentagon’s thirst for new, ‘usable’ nuclear weapons (‘mini-nukes’ and ‘bunker-busters’) and weapons in space, and America’s lectures on non-proliferation at the NPT conference become the equivalent – to quote Daryl Kimball, Director of the US Arms Control Association – of “preaching temperance from a barstool.”

However deplorable its actions – and however loathsome its regime – North Korea’s rejection of the NPT has clearly been motivated by fear of a US attack. Suspicions surrounding the nuclear ambitions of Iran, another member of the ‘axis of evil’, must likewise be seen in the context of a perceived American (and Israeli) commitment to ‘regime change’, by violent means if necessary.

Dyer suggests that the worst consequence of an ineffectual NPT would be limited and manageable proliferation by Iran and North Korea. Throughout the Treaty’s lifespan, however, dozens of states have built nuclear reactors not only to generate energy but also to hedge against a collapse of the ‘grand bargain’ – non-proliferation in return for disarmament – at the heart of the Treaty system. The fear of many observers is that, in combination with Washington’s ‘new nuclearism’, proliferation by Tehran and Pyongyang could prove the ‘tipping point’ into a profoundly unpredictable, unstable future. As the September 2004 report from the UN High-Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change cautioned: “We are approaching a point at which the erosion of the non-proliferation regime could become irreversible and result in a cascade of proliferation.”

Speaking to reporters at the NPT conference on May 24, former US Defense Secretary Robert McNamara predicted that Japan, South Korea and Taiwan “are likely to follow” North Korea to the Bomb in Asia, while in the Middle East, “Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Syria may well follow” Iran. And, as former US arms control diplomat Thomas Graham observed, in “a world with nuclear weapons so widespread, every conflict would run the risk of going nuclear and it would be impossible to keep nuclear arms out of the hands of terrorist organizations.”

The next major NPT review is not until 2010. Given the pace of developments, concerted action at other levels is clearly necessary to avert disaster. As traditional diplomacy has faltered, for example, municipal leaders have begun to play a more prominent role. In November 2003, the Mayors for Peace campaign, based in Hiroshima, launched its ‘2020 Vision’ detailing a phased transition to a nuclear-weapon-free world. Speaking in New York on May 2, Donald Plusquellic, Mayor of Akron, Ohio and President of the US Conference of Mayors, insisted: “Weapons of mass destruction have no place in a civilized world. We have pledged to remain engaged on this important issue until cities are no longer under the threat of nuclear devastation.”

Over 1,000 municipalities have joined Mayors for Peace, including 72 in the US and 16 in Canada. A local citizens’ group, Peace Quest Cape Breton, has asked Cape Breton Regional Municipality (CBRM) Mayor John Morgan to become the first municipal leader in Atlantic Canada to join the initiative. As the Mayors of Toronto and Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary and elsewhere have understood, lifting the nuclear cloud from the planet is the most basic and pressing ‘local’ issue of all.

Sean Howard is adjunct professor of political science at Cape Breton University and a member of Peace Quest Cape Breton. A briefing paper on the outcome and implications of the NPT Review Conference will appear on this website in July. For more information on the Mayors for Peace campaign, see http://www.pcf.city.hiroshima.jp/mayors/english/index.html, and Peace Quest Cape Breton, http://discovery.capebretonu.ca/pqcb.





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