Two Cheers for Multilateralism

By James Traub | 09 June 2010

Let us now praise modest achievements. The U.N. review conference for the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty concluded at the end of May with a 28-page document (pdf)  that contained no new commitments by the nuclear-weapons states to move toward the abolition of such weapons. Nor did the non-weapons states bind themselves to accept more intrusive inspections of their nuclear facilities. The parties made few other substantive new commitments. Rebecca Johnson, a one-woman nuclear conscience who runs a British advocacy group puckishly named the Acronym Institute and who wrote an indispensable blog from the conference, describes the final document as “mostly smoke and mirrors.”




That probably explains why the agreement has been largely greeted with a yawn. But Johnson, as well as other anti-nuclear advocates, believe that the agreement constitutes a historic breakthrough for which the Obama administration — though not only the Obama administration — deserves profound credit. I think they’re right.



Until recently, the nuclear threat waxed and waned according to relations between the United States and Russia. That’s history; the nightmare scenario of the post-Cold War world is not World War III but a nuclear strike by a rogue state or terrorist group. The U.S. cannot counter this threat without the active cooperation of many other states, and that is why both as candidate and as president, Obama has vowed to revitalize the non-proliferation treaty.


At the core of the NPT is a bargain in which the five states that had the bomb in 1968 when the treaty took effect — the five permanent members of the Security Council, as it happened — agreed to move toward disarmament while the other signatories agreed to work to prevent new states from acquiring a weapons capacity. In exchange, all states would be granted the right of access to peaceful nuclear technology. That bargain is often generously described as “frayed,” as Israel, India and Pakistan have since developed a bomb without ever signing the treaty, while North Korea and Iran threaten to add to the list. The five official weapons states have mostly honored their disarmament pledge in the breach. And yet a dozen or more states that could have developed a weapons capacity have chosen not to do so. Many states have voluntarily accepted the intrusive inspections, known as “additional protocols.”


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Excerpt reproduced with permission from Foreign Policy, Copyright 2009 Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive LLC. Read the full article at [] 

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