An Alternative to Another Set of Unkept NPT Review Conference Promises – Collective Withdrawal

I don’t attend the annual Carnegie nuclear policy conference. Lots of reasons. But I did take a look at the video of one of the panels tonight – the one on the prospects for the upcoming 2015 RevCon. You can find it here.

I had a number of reactions watching the panel. One was simply a reminder of how much I hate listening to politicians talk. They never say anything interesting. Just endless platitudinous twaddle.

Another reaction was to remember, and identify strongly, with a previous post I did here a couple of years ago entitled “Should the Entire NAM Collectively Withdraw from the NPT?”  I guess I was put so much into mind of that post because, as I listened to the various diplomats talk about the upcoming NPT RevCon and its “challenges,” I was struck once again by how useless a thing the NPT itself is. I wrote about this already in the post I referred to.

Think about it. The original idea of the NPT from the superpowers’ perspective, was to stop proliferation of nuclear weapons from spreading outside the five that had already tested at the time. This clearly didn’t work out well. At least five other states have manufactured nuclear weapons since 1968 (I’m counting South Africa), and four of these still have them. And I think one would be hard pressed to show that the NPT itself has actually proven to be a meaningful independent variable in stopping any country from developing nuclear weapons when they wanted to do so. This is going to be a difficult experiment without a control case, of course. But I think the “proliferation success stories” that are usually pointed to, including South Africa and Brazil, would probably have happened in much the same way they did without the NPT in place, but rather simply with an international norm having been expressed in General Assembly resolutions and elsewhere against nuclear weapons proliferation. These success stories, as well as the failure stories (e.g. North Korea), have occurred mostly due to factors outside of any direct influence of the NPT itself. They have occurred because of the particular political, historical, and economic circumstances of the state(s) involved, combined with a general international norm against nuclear proliferation, which as I said earlier could have been accomplished without the conclusion of the NPT.

As an international lawyer I know how complicated the whole idea of international law as an independent variable in influencing state behavior is. I suppose I just see the track record in this area as being pretty low on cases where respect for the law, or even incentives/disincentives specifically built into and made a part of the treaty structure, themselves played a meaningful role in influencing any state’s behavior with regard to the decision to acquire nuclear weapons.

From the developing states’ perspective, while they generally supported the nonproliferation objectives of the NPT, they also saw the treaty as their way to get quid pro quo concessions from the superpowers and other nuclear supplier states, in exchange for the obligation not to acquire nuclear weapons. These concessions are of course in Articles IV and VI of the treaty respectively.

So how are those going? I would say the current climate of international trade in nuclear materials and technologies doesn’t betray any sort of real meaningful effect of the Article IV right and obligation on supplier states. Nuclear supplier states trade with whomever they want to trade.  And if they don’t want to trade with a state, or allow their private parties to trade with that state, they simply won’t, with very little regard for the Article IV(2) obligation that they are presumably under. Trade in nuclear materials and technologies is, again, all about politics and economics. And again, I think that in the absence of the NPT, the landscape of international trade in nuclear technologies would look very much the same as it does now.

And what about Article VI? Well I think it’s pretty clear that no nuclear weapons possessing state has ever been significantly influenced by the obligation in Article VI to move towards disarmament in good faith. After more than 45 years the nuclear weapons states do just exactly what they want to do with regard to nuclear disarmament and no more. All of the changes that have been made would, I think, have been made in the absence of the NPT. The Cold War ramp up, the efforts of arms control during and after it, cuts over the past 25 years – none of these would have been any different had the NPT not been in place I suspect.

So if the NPT has failed in the ways I have described, why does every diplomat, from Russia to Nigeria, still pay lip service to the NPT as the cornerstone of the nonproliferation regime, and speak of it in hallowed terms? For the nuclear weapons states I think its clear why. They still benefit from having a treaty that allows them and no one else to have nuclear weapons, and that doesn’t seriously constrain them in any way. A treaty they can use as a normative cudgel against their enemies, but which carries very few costs for them and their friends.

But what about for developing non-nuclear weapon states? What do they get out of NPT membership? Again, the concessions they wanted out of the NPT have not been granted to them in the systematic and meaningful way they were promised in the NPT. They get nuclear supplies if and when they are on good enough political terms with supplier states. If not, they don’t. And 45+ years of waiting for the nuclear weapon states to disarm has yielded not one disarmed state among the NWS – and in fact it has produced a net addition of four more nuclear armed states outside of the treaty.

And yet in return for these promised but undelivered benefits, NNWS continue to submit to IAEA safeguards on their nuclear facilities, and to hypocritical critiques by nuclear weapon states of their failure to live up to their NPT and IAEA commitments. So I ask again, what are they getting out of NPT membership?

The answer that many will give is that NPT membership is, kind of like human rights treaties, one way that you signify as a developing state that you are among the “responsible members of the international community,” and that its simply not worth making a fuss about the non-functional NPT and rocking the boat, resulting in having your country placed on the “bad actors” list with regard to economic cooperation, and possibly even becoming the next target of the UN Security Council (kind of like the eye of Sauron that is ever searching for suspicious developing countries).

That’s where my previous post comes in. In it, I propose a walkout from the NPT en masse by the members of the Non-Aligned Movement. I’ll let you read my reasoning there. But I suppose I’m writing this to say that, there are in fact other options than just limping along year after year, RevCon after RevCon, with a treaty that ceased long ago to give non-nuclear weapon states any real benefit to their bargain. Maybe this year’s review conference will be the one when the NNWS finally say “enough!”


4 Comments on “An Alternative to Another Set of Unkept NPT Review Conference Promises – Collective Withdrawal”

  1. yousaf says:

    I agree that a lot of the non-proliferating would have happened anyway: nukes are complicated and expensive and the bulk of nations would not have acquired them anyway, NPT or no NPT.

    That said, I think the politics of the NPT are more important for many people than the detailed legalese and that is mainly why it keeps limping along. The most important thing about the NPT is the many signatures….not what it says!

    What is really interesting is the active anti-intellectual attitude prevalent in the non-proliferation-industrial complex (e.g. Carnegie conference, etc.) that it is unhealthy to even think of alternatives to the NPT because that may upset the apple-cart and people might have to start thinking original thoughts instead of y’know just doing circle-jerks at conferences.

    I think we need fresh ideas to think up new frameworks for when the NPT dies. My view is here:

  2. masoud says:

    The NPT is a fine treaty. The problem is the IAEA. The deal the NPT presents is the only sane deal there is. If everyone walked out of the NPT and then renegotiated another treaty it would have to be identical in all of its particulars, except maybe putting some teeth in the disarmament provisions. The difference would be that its implementing body would be functional and independent.

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