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."
Obama believed that other states would make good on their nonproliferation commitments if the U.S. took the disarmament side of the bargain seriously; the Bush administration, which sought to build new weapons even as it reduced the overall size of the arsenal, did not. The NPT is reviewed every five years, and the 2005 conference during Bush's presidency was an unmitigated fiasco. In 2004, John Bolton, then the assistant secretary of state responsible for arms control, had announced that the administration would not be bound by agreements that had been painstakingly reached in previous review conferences, infuriating many of the non-weapons states and licensing would-be spoilers to throw their own spanners in the works. Signatories spent the first half of the month-long review conference fighting over an agenda, and the second half blaming each other for a failure that felt foreordained.
By contrast, Johnson notes, "the Obama administration put people in place a year ahead of time, especially Susan Burk" -- the president's special representative for nuclear nonproliferation -- "to really work the whole field." The single greatest impediment to an agreement was Egypt's longstanding campaign to establish a nuclear-weapons-free zone in the Middle East -- a zone that would, of course, include Israel, the only nuclear state in the region. A 1995 agreement to advance the concept was the chief target of Bolton's sweeping 2004 edict. This year, Egypt would come into the review conference as the president of the Non-Alignment Movement, giving it far more leverage over other states than it had in the past. Cairo, and the NAM, insisted that the conference would be stalemated once again absent real progress on the Middle East, but Egyptian diplomats quietly stipulated that they would be open to a compromise outcome. Washington began negotiating in earnest months before the meeting began. And on the final day of the conference, all sides agreed on a non-binding conference to be held under the auspices of the U.N. secretary-general in 2012.