As world governments gather in May to review the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), hopes are that the new Washington-Moscow commitment to reduce nuclear warheads will produce long-overdue progress on the treaty.
Normally, the every-five-year review takes place in conference rooms in New York and Geneva with little notice. In 2000 and 2005, the gathering produced no consensus agreement even as nuclear capability has spread.
But this year, there is unusual momentum. US President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on April 8 sealed the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, New START.
In addition, nearly 50 heads of state or their representatives recently recognized nuclear terrorism as a major threat to world security during an April summit hosted by Mr. Obama. And the White House released a new nuclear defence policy that reduces reliance on nuclear warheads.
The 1970 NPT is the cornerstone of nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation, but has been unable to stop nuclear weapons from spreading beyond the five lead signatories - the US, Russia, China, France and Britain.
The May 3-28 review will likely focus on four maverick countries: Iran and North Korea, NPT signers in violation of the rules; and nuclear-armed India and Pakistan, which have not signed the NPT.
Also on the agenda will be Israel’s unacknowledged possession of nuclear warheads, which the Arab governments view as violating the notion of keeping the Middle East free of nuclear weapons. Israel is also not a member of the NPT.
Obama, perhaps the strongest supporter for a successful NPT review, was upbeat about the New York talks as he announced the New START treaty in March.
“... The United States and Russia ... send a clear signal that we intend to lead (in stopping) the spread of these weapons,” Mr. Obama said.
Michael Gorbachev, the Russian leader who presided over dismantling the Soviet Union, agreed, writing in The New York Times that New START showed the world that the US and Russia were “serious” about their NPT obligations “to move toward eliminating nuclear weapons.” According to the UN-funded International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament, the world now has 23,000 nuclear warheads. The number represents considerable progress from the 50,000 nuclear warheads at the height of the Cold War, according to Hans Blix, the former head of the UN Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission.
Nevertheless, “there is also frustration at the lack of progress on many important items relevant to the treaty,” Mr. Blix wrote recently in The New York Times.
Particularly frustrating was the 2005 review, when it took two weeks to agree on the agenda. That year, former U.S. ambassador John Bolton, an arch-conservative Republican, insisted that the conference target Iran’s gathering speed in uranium enrichment.
This year, former US president George W Bush, famously hostile to all international multilateral agreements, is gone. Obama, more attuned to the art of negotiation, laid a firm groundwork for the multilateral NPT talks by meeting one-on-one with leaders of smaller, non-European countries during his nuclear terrorism summit in Washington.
It has been 19 years since Russia and the US agreed to destroy some warheads. With the New START and reduction by another third, the impetus toward global disarmament is even stronger, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon noted.
The U.N.’s commission on non-proliferation believes the 2010 review could recapture lost ground and has proposed high goals for the meetings.
Topping the list: Resolution of the Iran and North Korea nuclear disputes and harsher punishments for NPT signers who leave the treaty, such as North Korea did. The conference comes as Obama is trying to ratchet up the pressure on Iran to comply with international demands on its nuclear activities and is pushing for another round of Security Council sanctions.
The commission is also calling for a strong statement urging Geneva’s U.N. Commission on Disarmament to begin negotiations to limit the amount of any country’s fissile material - nuclear substances that are needed for weapons.
Other goals could include counter-nuclear-terrorism measures and stronger powers for the UN nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
In his Times piece, Mr. Blix wryly noted that the long-term goal of full disarmament was not necessarily “naive and utopian.” Citing the growing interdependence of the world for its security, Mr. Blix concluded that this spring’s nuclear efforts were “only a hopeful start on a long journey.” The NPT talks will offer a final test of just how successful Obama has been in pushing nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation to the top of the global agenda. His anti-nuclear efforts won him the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo. The question now is, will they make a difference in New York?