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Has the Bush Administration Made Nuclear Proliferation Inevitable?

On May 27, the 2005 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) review conference, designed to shore up the international commitment to creating a nuclear-free world, concluded in shambles. According to Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei, director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the gathering accomplished “absolutely nothing.” He added: “We are ending after a month of rancor . . . and the same issues continue to stare us in the eyes.”

Originally signed in 1968 and entering into force in 1970, the NPT provides that non-nuclear nations will forgo the development of nuclear weapons and that nuclear nations will divest themselves of their nuclear weapons through disarmament measures. Review conferences, designed to secure compliance with the treaty’s provisions, occur every five years.

For decades, the NPT worked reasonably well. By 1997, no additional nations possessed nuclear weapons and, through arms control and disarmament treaties or unilateral action, the nuclear powers substantially reduced the number of nuclear weapons in their stockpiles. As late as the NPT review conference of 2000, the declared nuclear powers professed their “unequivocal” commitment to nuclear abolition.

But, since that time, the Republican-dominated U.S. Senate rejected ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (negotiated and signed by President Bill Clinton), India and Pakistan became nuclear powers, and the Bush administration withdrew the United States from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, pressed forward with the deployment of a national missile defense system (a latter day version of “Star Wars”), dropped nuclear disarmament negotiations, and proposed the development of new U.S. nuclear weapons. Furthermore, two new nations may be acquiring a nuclear weapons capability: North Korea (which claims it is) and Iran (which claims it is not).

This unraveling of the NPT is a serious matter, and became the focal point of an acrimonious debate among the delegates of 188 nations at the NPT review conference, which opened on May 2, at the United Nations.

The non-nuclear nations hit sharply at the failure of the nuclear powers, and particularly the United States, to honor their commitments to nuclear disarmament. Furthermore, a number of countries, led by Egypt and Iran, demanded that the nuclear powers pledge never to attack non-nuclear nations and that Washington ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

The U.S. government, in turn, sought to keep the spotlight on the alleged transgressions of North Korea and Iran. In one of the conference’s opening addresses, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Andrew Semmel also accused the International Atomic Energy Agency of failing to report Iran’s non-compliance with the treaty to the U.N. Security Council. At the same time, U.S. officials argued that the United States was complying with the treaty’s requirements.

Even many of Washington’s traditional allies found the U.S. position unconvincing. Apparently referring to the Bush administration, Paul Meyer, the Canadian representative at the conference, remarked acidly: “If governments simply ignore or discard commitments whenever they prove inconvenient, we will never be able to build an edifice of international cooperation.”

U.S. credibility was further undermined by the Bush administration’s decision to send lower-echelon officials, rather than Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, to represent it at the conference. According to observers, this snub represented an attempt to undercut the significance of the review conference and, thereby, mute the criticism that would emerge there of the U.S. government’s disdain for nuclear disarmament—or at least for U.S. nuclear disarmament.

Criticism of the U.S. role at the conference was particularly sharp among peace and disarmament groups. “The United States has had four weeks to demonstrate international leadership on nuclear proliferation,” remarked Susi Snyder, secretary general of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. “Clearly, the U.S. delegation never wanted to strengthen the treaty. Instead, they have spent four weeks . . . refusing to recognize agreements they made 5 and 10 years ago.” According to Alyn Ware of the Lawyers Committee on Nuclear Policy, it was “impossible to prevent” nuclear proliferation “while the nuclear weapons states insist on maintaining large stockpiles of weapons themselves.” It was “like a parent telling a child not to smoke while smoking a pack of cigarettes.”

Given the obviously self-defeating nature of U.S. nuclear policy, why does the Bush administration cling to it so stubbornly? Why has it spurned the efforts not only of the world community, but of the U.S. government’s closest allies to strengthen the NPT and continue progress toward a nuclear-free world?

One possible explanation is that the Bush administration believes that it has the military capability to deter current nuclear nations and to destroy hostile nations that reach the brink of becoming nuclear powers. For example, if Iran continues to produce fissionable material, Washington will simply launch an all-out military attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Therefore, the Bush administration sees no need to maintain the bargain between non-nuclear and nuclear powers that was struck decades ago through the NPT. As Bush administration officials frequently say, conditions in the world have changed, and U.S. policy will change with them.

A second possible explanation, which does not exclude the first, is that the Bush administration is getting ready to use nuclear weapons in future wars. Despite the massive advantage the U.S. government enjoys over other nations in conventional military forces, these U.S. forces are now overstretched in fighting an insurgency in a small country like Iraq. Furthermore, dispatching substantial numbers of U.S. combat troops overseas is quite expensive, and their death in large numbers undermines political support for a war—as it is now doing. In this context, the development and use of nuclear weapons to maintain what the Bush administration defines as U.S. “national interests” seem quite logical to U.S. national security managers. Ominously, the new nuclear weapons for which the Bush administration has requested funding from Congress are considered “usable” nuclear weapons: so-called “bunker busters” and “mini-nukes.”

As a result, the collapse of the NPT review conference of 2005 and the hard-line nuclear policies of the Bush administration that have contributed to it have seriously undermined the willingness of nations to dispense with nuclear weapons. Indeed, these factors seem to place the nations of the world back in the nuclear arms race and, perhaps, on the road to nuclear war. Of course, popular protest and wise statesmanship have turned around situations like this in the past, and they might well do so again. But, in the meantime, we should recognize that evading disarmament commitments and plunging forward with nuclear weapons development and use is a surefire recipe for disaster.