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Experts Warn NPT Conference Will Test Obama’s Nonproliferation Goals
WASHINGTON -- U.S. President Barack Obama's ambitious nuclear nonproliferation agenda will be tested next year at a major summit, according to experts (see GSN, July 15).
If the May 2010 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty review conference at the United Nations is a "debacle," there is a "real danger in the American political psyche that people will say 'It's not worth it,'" analyst Lewis Dunn said Thursday during a panel discussion.
Review conferences are held every five years to assess the operation of the treaty and strengthen its execution. The 2005 summit ended badly as member nations failed to reach consensus on substantive issues (see GSN, May 21, 2005).
Obama has been a vocal proponent of nuclear disarmament, in April laying out an expansive arms control plan that called for U.S. ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and securing all loose nuclear materials worldwide within the next four years. He and his Russian counterpart, Dmitry Medvedev, have also pledged to seek further reductions to their nations' nuclear arsenals.
Dunn, referencing his recent article on the treaty, said next year's conference is an opportunity for all parties, not just the United States, to "reinvigorate" the agreement. "Everyone has some water that they better carry," he said.
Delegates should seek agreement on "action plans" to promote the treaty's three core tenets of nonproliferation, disarmament and peaceful use of nuclear energy, Dunn said. The plans "ought to be short and to the point" and contain a brief description that details a long-term vision for the next several decades, he added.
Diplomats might call for strengthened compliance with the nonproliferation treaty, according to Dunn. They might also affirm their support for U.N. Security Council Resolution 1540, which is intended to prevent nonstate actors from obtaining weapons of mass destruction, their means of delivery and related materials, Dunn said.
Dunn said the treaty's parties should endorse the use of international fuel banks, which would provide material for nations' nuclear-power programs while deterring them from developing capabilities that could produce nuclear-weapon substances.
Next year's conference also will have to address the Middle East, particularly Iran's pursuit of nuclear technology, Dunn told the audience. The treaty's nuclear powers should demand, possibly through a resolution, that Tehran comply with its obligations under the pact and "not go all the way" in achieving nuclear weapons, he said.
He told the audience at last week's event that the United States should ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty after the May conference in order to strengthen ties with the international community.
Dunn said his perception is that "a lot of parties want the treaty to look like they're pulling back together again" since the 2005 conference failed.
No matter what happens regarding the nonproliferation conference, the president will face domestic difficulties in enacting disarmament cuts, Miles Pomper, a senior research associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, said during the discussion.
In a telephone interview this week with Global Security Newswire, Pomper said the president will encounter resistance from Republican lawmakers to an aggressive nonproliferation agenda in the wake of the nuclear blast test by North Korea and Iran's continued missile launches.
The Obama Agenda
The president's personal involvement in nuclear issues is a "wild card" that could push the federal bureaucracy to more aggressively pursue to take on his nuclear-policy preferences, said Dunn, a senior vice president at Science Applications International Corp.
"When the bureaucracy gets a phone call from the White House everyone jumps," Sharon Squassoni, a senior associate in the nonproliferation program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told GSN this week.
The government's instinct is to move "incrementally," but Obama's engagement can help eliminate "interagency squabbles," she said.
Obama's engagement also serves as a "tremendous asset" in persuading other nations to press nonproliferation, according to Dunn.
Pomper said that while he is surprised that Obama has put nuclear nonproliferation at the top of his administration's agenda, that does not ensure success.
Nuclear nonproliferation "is an elite issue. There's very little popular support. If you look at the polling on the whole, the U.S. public does not want to get rid nuclear weapons," he said, without citing a specific opinion poll. "It's very skeptical of the approach. If there's resonance in the public it's about the issue of nuclear terrorism."
Given the issues facing the country, such as health care reform and the continuing economic downturn, it is unclear how much political capital the president will want to spend on nonproliferation, Pomper said.
"I think it's an 'elite issue' to tie evaluations of policy success or failure to whether or not a diplomatic conference produces a final document," Christopher Ford, a senior fellow and director for the Center for Technology and Global Security at the Hudson Institute, said in an e-mail message to GSN this week.
"I doubt the American people much care what happens at a NPT Review Conference ... [they] care a lot whether countries such as Iran acquire nuclear weapons," according to Ford, who led the U.S. delegation to 2007 and 2008 preparatory meetings for the NPT review conference. "That's the yardstick by which the public will surely judge President Obama's nonproliferation policy."
The president "raised expectations" for the May conference with his April speech in Prague and will have difficulty delivering on some of his pledges, including Senate ratification of the test ban treaty, according to Pomper. He said U.S. National Security Council officials recently admitted that the scientific studies intended to underpin the administration's case for ratification would not be ready until after the NPT conference.
Dunn agreed during last week's discussion that ratification of the testy ban treaty will be a "tough road." "I never promised you a rose garden," he told Pomper.
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