Nuclear Collisions: Discord, Reform & the Nuclear Nonproliferation Regime

A Different Point of View on Reform of the Nonproliferation Regime

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Steven E. Miller, Wael Al-Assad, Jayantha Dhanapala, C. Raja Mohan, and Ta Minh Tuan
Global Nuclear Future

Wael Al-Assad

It is almost impossible to maintain absolute objectivity when commenting on an issue as controversial as the reform of the nuclear nonproliferation regime. This topic carries within it long-term political, and even cultural, biases and misconceptions by all parties across the divide. Steven Miller’s paper is one of the very few I have read that attempts to provide a balanced presentation of the disagreements over the effectiveness, efficiency, relevance, and credibility of the regime.

The paper comprises three distinct parts: the introduction, the panoramic description and analysis of the problems (and their roots), and the conclusions. I take note of this division because my evaluation of the quality of each part is different.


  • Miller’s introduction refers to an emerging agenda for reform and notes that “large constellations of states (such as the Non-Aligned Movement) reject or dispute substantial portions of the reform agenda.” This statement gives the impression that the NAM opposes reform per se. In fact, there is no one agenda for reform, and the NAM has its own agenda based on the three pillars of the NPT, not the nonproliferation reform agenda alone. Miller slightly corrects and clarifies this point later in the essay, but his early statement could be misleading.
  • Miller argues that the durability and adaptability of treaty regimes depend on the attitudes and perceptions of the states that participate in the arrangements. Thus, the adaptability, durability, and future of the NPT must be evaluated in light of the growing discontent of many members within regime. When viewed in this way, a very negative picture of the future of the regime emerges.
  • Miller describes the history of the NPT as “schizophrenic,” which is an accurate and appropriate term to use. From an Arab perspective, the treaty was originally conceived as a three-legged bargain—nonproliferation by NNWS, disarmament by NWS, and rights to peaceful uses of nuclear energy—and Miller clearly lays out this point of view. However, the treaty, from its inception, has been of a transitional nature; it is more of a road map leading to the overall objective of nuclear disarmament. It is for that reason only that NNWS have tolerated being party to a discriminatory treaty that has two classes of membership, each with different sets of rights and obligations. The NPT was never intended, by default, to be permanent; the expectation was that each class of members would eventually fulfill its obligations under the treaty. Yet when the NPT was extended “indefinitely” in 1995, it created the misperception (at least to some members) that “indefinitely” means “permanently.”


In this part of the paper, Miller clearly and objectively describes the different aspects of the nonproliferation regime, the different opinions about the regime, and the obstacles facing it. This section considers the criticism that each group has of the other and how each perceives the NPT. Miller focuses on a number of important and controversial issues, such as rights to the peaceful uses of nuclear energy; the universality of the treaty; reinterpretations of the different articles, particularly the withdrawal clause; and the establishment of a nuclear-weapons-free zone in the Middle East.

The nonproliferation regime has faced serious crises ever since its inception, but this has been particularly the case since the end of the seemingly successful 2000 NPT Review Conference.1 The multilateral community has been divided over a host of controversial issues relevant to the regime, including: compliance and noncompliance; universality of the NPT; the status of the three non-NPT members (India, Israel, and Pakistan); nuclear disarmament, including reductions in strategic and nonstrategic nuclear arsenals; modernization and replacement of nuclear weapons systems; preventing nuclear terrorism; concerns about nuclear doctrines and policies, including the use of nuclear weapons; security assurances; the CTBT and FMCT; IAEA safeguards and the Additional Protocol; export controls; nuclear-weapons-free zones, especially in the Middle East; concerns relating to the nuclear programs of Iran and North Korea; nuclear energy rights under the treaty; the dilemma of nuclear fuel supply versus the proliferation risks posed by fuel enrichment; the destabilizing force of the U.S.-India nuclear deal; and the questions related to the right to withdraw from the NPT.

These are serious differences and points of contention; however, they are also symptoms of far deeper problems:

  1. The discriminatory nature of the NPT has created two classes of members: the haves and the have-nots.
  2. The imbalance between the negotiating powers of the two groups has led many to judge the regime as biased and coercive.
  3. Structural deficiencies in the treaty prevent serious progress; these include an “institutional deficit”: that is, the lack of direct and effective structures or mechanisms for NPT parties to address issues of compliance, implementation, accountability, and withdrawal. Miller touches on this topic, but I believe it requires further analysis.
  4. There is a disconnect between the three pillars of the NPT, with NWS focusing on nonproliferation and compliance while NNWS insist that disarmament by NWS is an integral part of the commitments under the treaty.
  5. International discourse on nonproliferation has been distorted into talk of “responsible” and “irresponsible” states, and the different rights of each category, without establishing criteria to determine what constitutes a responsible state and who has the authority to stigmatize or classify states.
  6. Certain groups and powers have attempted to reinterpret the NPT to serve their interests.

Miller discusses some of these six issues, but not all. Addressing these issues head-on would help advance the debate around an amended reform agenda.


  • Miller’s conclusions appear not to be solutions to the problems, but rather an enumeration of ways for the haves to overcome the oppositions of the have-nots.
  • In his subsection “Political Diversity and Diplomatic Opportunity,” Miller brilliantly analyzes the NAM opposition and exposes its weaknesses. But he then goes on to explain how to overcome NAM opposition to the Western reform agenda! We must start by merging the different sides and then amending the reform agenda into something comprehensive and viable that takes these various perspectives into account. Certainly, this is a more difficult task, but we must work on gathering support for it.
  • “The reform agenda” should not be used as shorthand for what is in fact the Western nonproliferation reform agenda.
  • On “The Broad Common Interest,” I agree that the majority, if not all, of the states parties to the NPT would prefer what the treaty offers as opposed to living in a heavily proliferated world. However, Miller frames this idea as if those are the only two alternatives available, and as if working toward a more balanced agenda that includes disarmament is not possible or practical.
  • On “Interests, Not Rights,” I agree that denying rights will produce resentment; but claiming that “it is not rational or profitable to enrich” is also controversial. Equating rationalism with profitability is not a winning argument, because when it comes to states’ security, profitability is not the only motive for attempting to develop the full nuclear fuel cycle. States that refuse the profitability logic should not automatically be viewed as harboring nonpeaceful motives! Some states may deem it more beneficial to their security to enrich rather than be under the thumb of other producers or at the mercy of shortages in the market.
  • In terms of “Universal Means Everybody,” I fully subscribe to Miller’s conclusion, particularly his point that “if the United States and other NWS would exempt themselves less frequently, bend the rules less often, and conform occasionally even to rules or obligations they find onerous or inconvenient, it would reduce the sense of injustice and grievance that is so common in the regime today.” Yet I have to admit that this sentiment is more wishful thinking than practical mechanism.

In summary, Miller’s essay offers one of the most objective viewpoints that I have read on the obstacles and challenges facing the nonproliferation regime. It covers most of the important areas of contention, analyzes the major players and their positions, and resists judging whether the cup is half-full or half-empty, opting instead to give a comprehensive view of the entire cup. Miller’s conclusions are controversial, but this is to be expected when dealing with such a controversial subject.


1. Success should be measured by results and implementation and not by simply agreeing on resolutions and documents that no one intends to implement.