A breakdown in the nuclear family

By Philip Stephens

Financial Times

Published: May 13 2005

North Korea announces it is reprocessing more plutonium for its nuclear weapons programme. Iran says it intends to end a voluntary freeze on uranium enrichment activities. The rest of us are reminded that nuclear proliferation remains the most serious single threat to global security. Hawks and doves argue about whether sticks, carrots or what combination of both might persuade Tehran and Pyongyang to back down. The danger, though, extends beyond the ambitions of two "rogue" states. The big spur to proliferation comes from waning confidence in the global order.

The nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT) has served the world community well. A few years before it was agreed in 1968, President John F. Kennedy had worried that the then five nuclear powers would be joined by perhaps another 20 in the following decades. In fact the number has been kept to three or four - Israel, India, Pakistan and, if Pyongyang is believed, North Korea.

Yet the sense that the treaty is under unprecedented strain is palpable. Kennedy's gloomy prediction looks credible again. North Korea's decision to quit the NPT and Iran's apparent determination to develop a nuclear capability threaten to overturn the balance that has persuaded other states to disavow such weapons. If North Korea has the bomb, why not South Korea and Japan; if Iran, why not Saudi Arabia, Syria and Egypt?

The present NPT review conference at the United Nations aims to tighten the present regime. The International Atomic Energy Agency is pressing for more intrusive inspections and new limits on the spread of nuclear fuel cycle technology to restrict uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing. In parallel, a US-led coalition of more than 60 countries has agreed measures to interdict illegal shipments of nuclear materials and a UN resolution has criminalised proliferation.

These are necessary and important measures. But they address symptoms as much as causes. The NPT faces a deeper crisis of legitimacy. The question asked by signatories - not least states that could develop weapons - is whether it any longer reflects a commitment to multilateral security arrangements shared by the nuclear "haves" - above all, the US - as well as by the "have-nots".

The treaty has always had its contradictions. The initial bargain - that others would abjure nuclear weapons in return for a pledge from the five officially-recognised nuclear states to pursue disarmament - was more illusory than real. There was never a realistic prospect that the US or, as it then was, the Soviet Union would dismantle their nuclear arsenals. Double standards were later evident in the west's almost casual response to the nuclear activities of Israel, India and Pakistan.

More recently, though, US repudiation of commitments made at the 2000 NPT review conference, American research into smaller and "cleaner" atomic weapons and a continued refusal to disavow their first use against non-nuclear states, have raised more troubling doubts. Washington's attitude seems to be that the NPT's provisions apply to everyone else. Nuclear weapons are ever more deeply embedded in the Pentagon's strategic posture. How can others be expected to respect the NPT when its most powerful signatory scorns the treaty's long-term ambitions?

All this speaks to the instinct in George W. Bush's administration that says international agreements are fine, even necessary, as long as they do not constrain the US. The effect of this disdain is a corrosion of the legitimacy of those accords. Multilateralism works only when the rules are seen to apply to everyone. And when it does not work, even the world's sole superpower does not escape the consequences.

The point is well made in a forthcoming book* written by a former senior US official. Richard Haass, now the president of the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations, served as the State department's head of policy planning in the run-up to the Iraq war. A hard-edged multilateralist, he sees an opportunity for the US to shape a new international order comparable to that built by Roosevelt and Truman 60 years ago. He also sees the risk that the chance will be squandered.

The choice before US policymakers, Mr Haass writes, is between an effective multilateralism that buttresses American interests and either a gradual return to a world of great power competition or one overwhelmed by chaos. He cites Mr Bush's frequent comment that the US does not need a "permission slip" from the UN or anyone else to defend its vital interests. That, though, tells only half the story. The post-invasion chaos in Iraq, and, for that matter, the looming confrontations with Iran and North Korea, tell the other: "In the end, the US does not need the world's permission to act but it does need the world's support to succeed."

To European ears, Mr Haass's arguments are scarcely revelatory, even if they are eloquently put. Ever since September 11 2001, good friends such as Tony Blair, the UK prime minister, have been urging Mr Bush to recognise America's self-interest in exercising its leadership through a rules-based global system. It is important nonetheless that these arguments are now being made by Americans to Americans.

It may be too late to prevent North Korea and Iran joining the nuclear weapons club. That should not prevent Europe and the rest of the international community joining the US in trying hard to avoid another step towards nuclear anarchy. For all their justified irritation with Washington's exceptionalism, it is also in the interests of the nuclear have-nots to plug the loopholes in the NPT. Proliferation makes everyone less secure. Ultimately, though, global security rests on the willingness or otherwise of the sole superpower to support what Mr Haass calls an integrated international system. It is America's choice.

*The Opportunity: America's Moment to Alter History's course, PublicAffairs,
New York.