Despite North Korea’s recent nuclear test, it has generally been a good year for arms control. For the past decade, the very idea of agreements limiting weapons and their delivery systems has been looked at with disdain. While it is tempting to blame the United States for this sad state of affairs; in fact, most nations have contributed to the delegitimization of arms control. The tide has turned, however, and arms control is once again a source of hope, not frustration and finger-pointing.
Last week, two important developments occurred. The first was a breakthrough at the Conference on Disarmament (CD), a 65-nation forum for arms control negotiations in Geneva. Established in 1979, it helped create the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), and the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). The CD has not yielded another agreement for over a decade; its members have been deeply divided over priorities. Some seek a treaty banning the production of fissile material such as enriched uranium and plutonium, which would make it harder to build nuclear weapons, while others focus on a treaty barring the militarization of space. Since the CD operates by consensus, the inability to find common ground meant its work ground to a halt.
That deadlock was broken last week when representatives adopted a “program of work” that will guide CD activities. The program will tackle disarmament generally, but will also focus on a fissile material regime. A working group will also be established “to prevent an arms race in outer space,” while another group will tackle “negative security assurances,” promises by states that have nuclear weapons that they will not use them against countries that do not.
Also last week, Russia and the U.S. formally opened a plant in Siberia that will destroy the huge stockpile of nerve agents that Russia accumulated during the Cold War. The facility, the largest in the world devoted to the destruction of chemical munitions, is intended to eliminate some 2 million artillery shells and warheads loaded with sarin, soman and VX. This vast stockpile is only about 14 percent of the 40,000 tons of chemical agents declared by Russia under the CWC; the U.S. had another 31,000 tons of its own. The CWC obligates both nations to destroy their entire stockpiles by 2012. By May, Russia had destroyed a little less than a third of those weapons, while the U.S. had doubled that amount. This new facility, built with $1 billion of U.S. money, will help Russia pick up the pace.
There has been progress on other fronts too. The U.S. and Russia have resumed talks on extending the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), which expires at the end of this year. And last month, the Preparatory Committee for the 2010 Review Conference of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) agreed on an agenda for that meeting. Discussions at the last review conference, in 2005, were crippled because the agenda was not agreed on until the meeting itself.
What accounts for the flurry of activity? Much of the credit goes to the new U.S. administration. The Bush administration was suspicious of arms control. It felt that such agreements would not work without extremely intrusive verification regimes and did not want U.S. hands tied.
The Obama administration has put arms control back on the U.S. diplomatic agenda. President Barack Obama signaled his desire to press for a world free of nuclear weapons in his landmark speech in Prague in April this year. Members of the CD credited the U.S. shift on verification measures with helping to break the logjam on the fissile materials treaty.
Mr. Obama recognizes that a nuclear-free world is a long way off and that nuclear weapons will continue to play an important role in the defense of the U.S. and its allies, by deterring any would-be adversary. Mr. Obama also understands that the U.S. must embrace the logic of a nonnuclear world to get other nations to back U.S. priorities, such as stronger efforts to fight the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
In fact, it is a mistake to blame the U.S. for the long silence at the CD, or for the failure of more general progress on arms control. This is not a problem just for the U.S., or the other four nuclear weapon states acknowledged in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (Britain, China, France, Russia), or the four “gray nuclear states” (India, Israel, North Korea and Pakistan), or any of the other proliferation suspects. All nations must take seriously the entire NPT bargain — that nonnuclear states will forgo military nuclear options while nuclear weapon states will reduce and eventually eliminate their nuclear arsenals.
Success in this endeavor demands that all governments take their responsibilities seriously. All states must demand compliance with these obligations by all parties — even those that have opted out. Mr. Obama’s shift signals a new approach by the U.S. He must follow through and other nations must now do their share as well.
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