The Failure of Nonproliferation

Nuclear nonproliferation talks may not be at a dead end just yet, but the major players must chart a new course.

Are nuclear nonproliferation talks at a dead end?

Today the nuclear question is as politicized as it was during the Cold War. But the leading players in the dispute have changed, making reaching an agreement more difficult. Now the main tension is not between the United States and Russia but between the United States and North Korea, Iran and, to a lesser extent, China.

Last month’s Moscow Nonproliferation Conference offered a pessimistic outlook for the future proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Russian speakers were encouraging all countries to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) but primarily focused their criticism on the United States for delaying the treaty’s ratification. The treaty was opened for signature in September of 1996—sixteen years ago.

But U.S. concerns focus on Iran and North Korea, not Russia. The United States adamantly resists their acquisition of nuclear weapons, which would threaten U.S. allies in the Middle East and East Asia. Russia and China share these concerns, though to a lesser degree.

The North Korean and Iranian representatives at the conference made clear that this will prove a difficult goal to achieve.

A North Korean speaker said that his country was prepared to shut down its nuclear program only when it stops feeling threatened by the United States. For this to occur, he insisted that the United States must shut down its own nuclear program and dispose of its nuclear arsenal, since even the Obama administration refused to assure North Korea that the United States would not use nuclear weapons against it.

The Iranian speakers in Moscow denied the military focus of their nuclear development and accused the United States of using the nuclear file as a pretext to intervene in Iran’s internal affairs.

Thus, negotiations cannot move forward while no consensus is reached between the United States and the countries it considers most dangerous. More than any other nation, Americans feel threatened by the desire of terrorists to acquire nuclear weapons. Many Americans also consider ratification of the CTBT as a distraction or even a detriment to U.S. security.

Another reason why Washington is not in a hurry to disarm: China’s nuclear arsenal is growing, and some Russian analysts already consider the PRC’s stockpile of nuclear warheads to number in the thousands. Such nuclear potential would make anyone cautions, even without any existing conflicts between countries. However, China’s relationships with India and Japan have become more tense, and Sino-Japanese relations have recently flared up over the Senkaku islands.

In light of such unneighborly relations, Chinese stocks of nuclear weapons become a bigger concern for the world community. Meanwhile, China evasively offers to engage in negotiations over disarmament only when the nuclear arsenals of Russia and the United States decrease to China’s level. But PRC representatives have refused to give any formal guarantees to this end. Such a stance undermines both countries’ efforts to promote nuclear disarmament.

Despite Russia's confidence that U.S. ratification of the CTBT will push the treaty toward universal acceptance, such an outcome is highly unlikely. Complex competitive relationships—between Israel and Iran, North and South Korea, and among Pakistan, China and India—do not bode well for smooth global disarmament in the near future. Thus, the probability of the treaty's entry into force anytime soon is close to zero.

New technology may even make the treaty obsolete for nations with advanced technology. U.S. and Russian stockpile-stewardship programs, which help these countries keep their weapons operable without field testing—and even allow them to develop new weapons with some confidence that they will work—make the treaty selective and directed only against countries that haven’t yet reached the same level of nuclear-weapons development.

To convince the world community not to deploy nuclear-weapons programs, the United States, Russia and China should not engage in designing and manufacturing new types of nuclear weapons that do not require field testing. The development of weapons of mass destruction will only increase if leading nuclear states continue to find ways to bypass agreements such as the CTBT.

If the process of nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation is going to advance, the United States, China and Russia must take steps toward compromises that build trust between countries; the United States should ratify the CTBT, Russia should stop developing new nuclear weapons and China should engage more in nonproliferation negotiations. Only after these bold steps will the big three powers be in a better diplomatic position to require transparency from Iran, North Korea and other countries developing nuclear weapons.

Nuclear nonproliferation talks may not be at a dead end, but the major players must chart a new course.

Natalia Sharova is a Moscow-based international-security analyst at the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration.