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Representatives from the 187 signatories to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty convene in New York today to assess the status of that treaty. Every five years that gather for one month; this year’s meeting promises to be especially acrimonious. Since the last such forum, India and Pakistan have exploded nuclear bombs, and the nuclear powers — Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States — have made scant progress in reducing their nuclear arsenals. The disarmament drive needs a renewed push; without it, the entire movement could collapse.

In its simplest terms, the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty is a bargain. The nuclear “have-nots” abandoned their nuclear ambitions in exchange for safe nuclear technology and a commitment by the five nuclear “haves” to eventually disarm themselves. The “have-nots” have abided by their pledge; the nuclear powers have not.

Controversy is not new to the review conference. Only two of the previous five sessions produced a final document that all parties could agree on. This year could be more contentious than ever, however.

The first item on the agenda will be the failure of the nuclear powers to take seriously their pledge to reduce their arsenals. Almost all the countries attending will demand an “unequivocal commitment” by the “haves” to do just that. They are also likely to call for a declaration of “no first use” by those same countries, and the decoupling of warheads from missiles to decrease the danger of accidental use.

Fortunately, the U.S. and Russia will be able to point to the START-II treaty, ratified earlier this month by the Russian Parliament, which will cut the number of their nuclear warheads from 6,000 to no more than 3,500 on each side by 2007. That commitment has been delayed for seven years, as Russian legislators refused to ratify the agreement. Now the two countries are ready to begin a third round of arms reduction talks to cut their arsenals still further.

Although the treaties have decreased the two countries’ weapons by 80 percent since the height of the Cold War, nonproliferation advocates dismiss the moves. Rationalization is driving the restructuring of nuclear forces, not a genuine commitment to disarmament. That logic is confirmed by the continuing subcritical nuclear tests carried out by the U.S., as well as Washington’s refusal to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. In a welcome move — and one designed to upstage the U.S. — the Russian legislature ratified the CTBT last week.

The failure of the nuclear nations to work seriously on disarmament has emboldened other nations to proliferate. The Indian decision to test nuclear devices two years ago was motivated, in the main, by domestic concerns. But China’s arsenal, developed in response to Russian and U.S. weapons, played a role. And India’s test prompted Pakistan to respond in kind. The logic of this nuclear chain reaction is strengthened by the political privileges and status that flow from a nuclear arsenal. That is the single common denominator among the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council.

Erosion of the NPT regime could unravel the entire disarmament process. Both India and Pakistan — as well as Israel, another “suspected” nuclear power — are not members of the NPT. (That means they will not even be at the conference in New York.) They are also among the so-called gray states that must ratify the CTBT before it can go into effect. In addition, U.S. efforts to pursue a national missile defense program threatens the viability of the Antiballistic Missile Treaty. As the momentum behind those agreements slows, it will be even more difficult to push negotiations to end the production of bomb-making fissile material. Those talks are considered to be the next step in multilateral nuclear disarmament. Foreign Minister Yohei Kono announced last Friday that Japan hopes to complete the “cutoff” treaty by 2005 at the latest.

That is an ambitious proposal, but it is doable. It will require a serious commitment on the part of all nations if it is to be realized, however. Japan, in particular, has a critical role to play. This nation has long aspired to a higher international profile, and on no issue is Japan better suited to lead than this. Japan’s unique history and its nonnuclear principles provide the foundation for a concerted foreign policy that would aim to make disarmament a reality. Relations with key countries, including the U.S., Pakistan and even North Korea, give the government the opportunity to turn 50 years of rhetoric in support of disarmament into a nuclear-weapons free future.

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