Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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March 15, 2005
By: Brad Plumer

NUKES OF HAZARD.Okay, enough about evolution and mental stress, and back to more serious matters. Tuesday's New York Times is reporting that President Bush wants to rewrite the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), because the darn thing makes it way too easy for rogue nations to develop nuclear weapons:

At the heart of Mr. Bush's concern is a fundamental flaw in the treaty. As long as nations allow inspections and declare their facilities and nuclear work, they get the atomic agency's seal of approval and, often, technical aid. But there is nothing to prevent a country, once it has learned how to enrich uranium or reprocess spent nuclear fuel rods, from withdrawing from the treaty and moving full-bore toward a bomb. North Korea did exactly that two years ago, and now says it reprocessed a huge cache of spent nuclear fuel to make it suitable for weapons.

That part seems undeniable; the treaty is badly flawed. What will probably raise a few hackles, though, is the fact that Bush doesn't want to renegotiate the treaty, because he has, quote, "neither the time nor the patience." That sounds like a horrendous bit of anti-multilateralism, doesn't it? In this case though, Bush might well be right. Re-negotiating the treaty with all 189 other countries could, potentially, take a lifetime and a half. Alternatively, if Bush could get a select group of countries with an interest in squelching nuclear proliferationthe United States, the EU, Japan, South Korea, etc.together and tells them, let's all adopt strict nonproliferation requirements and agree to levy sanctions on any country that doesn't comply, well, that could work out quite nicely. In theory.

The proposal outlined above somewhat replicates the sort of international pressure that induced countries like South Africa and Brazil to give up their nuclear programs. But the only alternative I see is to do what the Carnegie Endowment recommends and pass a new UN resolution imposing harsher measures on any country that withdraws from the NPT. Sounds fantastic, but of course China and Russia may not want to take part in this sort of deal, and might even actively ignore itas they seem to be willing to do in the case of Iran. So if the UN route's out (though first let's find out for sure), and if renegotiating the NPT can't work, then the Bush way does seems like the best way forward. Of course, the devil's all in the details here, and I'll allow that the White House will probably screw this up somehow...

UPDATE: Since agreeing, however slightly, with the president always makes me nervous, here's a dissenting essay by Daryl Kimball arguing that there are, in fact, realistic steps for strengthening the existing NPT framework. Not sure Kimball's proposal would have enough teeth to deal with rogue states like Iran and North Korea, but it's also true that our nonproliferation strategies should be a good deal more far-sighted than focusing solely on Iran and North Korea. It also goes without saying, I think, that the ways in which the U.S. is undermining the current non-proliferation regime"bunker busters," etc.are clearly unhelpful.

Brad Plumer 1:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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