Nuclear Collisions: Discord, Reform & the Nuclear Nonproliferation Regime

How Do We Read the NPT?

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

Ta Minh Tuan

Steve Miller’s paper is comprehensive, offering in-depth analysis of the debate over the NPT. He examines its weaknesses and how its member states view the treaty and use it as a diplomatic instrument to advance their national interests in the international arena. I would like to offer a few thoughts on some of the arguments that Miller puts forth in his paper.

  1. In the section titled “Core Bargain or Design Flaw?” Miller argues that the NPT is inherently flawed, leading members of the nonproliferation community to interpret the treaty differently. Although both proponents and opponents have their own perceptions, that does not change the fact that the treaty has existed for more than four decades and has remained the centerpiece of the nonproliferation regime. This suggests that the original signatories of the NPT might not have differed sharply on the three pillars. They generally were able to reach compromise and agreement in order to adopt the treaty as it is. It would be a good idea to investigate briefly the question of why and how the NPT was agreed on in the first place. Did the original parties not see the “inherent weaknesses” and “loopholes”? Were those issues purposely left unresolved because the parties failed to reach a consensus, or did they concur on the three pillars? If the latter, does it mean that the problems arose only after the NPT had entered into force, becoming unintended points of contention?
  2. Miller’s discussion on whether the NPT is an “Instrument of the NWS or Expression of Collective Interest?” presents those conflicting notions of the NPT. Nevertheless, the interpretations share a common point: namely, that national interest is a priority. The frustration has run deep on either side of the divide, but the two sides still try to keep the NPT alive. Except for a few countries, such as North Korea, it appears that the member states cannot afford to stall implementation of the treaty completely. It does not serve nations’ interests to insist on having their demands met without making any compromises. This fact could explain why we have seen progress on compliance with the NPT worldwide, no matter how small the progress has been. But what if we did not have the NPT? Do we have an alternative or a better option? Perhaps it is clear that the haves and the have-nots ought to find ways to support the NPT, and that they do not dare kill it. This, in turn, suggests that we can encourage advancement of the legitimate interests in the NPT, while also insisting that both sides keep their promises. Blocking positive efforts to introduce reforms that would strengthen the nonproliferation regime is irresponsible, but adopting a double standard by failing to meet disarmament obligations is equally so. After all, the NWS have benefited the most from the NPT, so they should take tangible steps toward fulfilling their commitments before pointing the finger of blame at the NNWS. Fair treatment is a legitimate interest of the NNWS. Reducing nuclear arms to zero may be impossible to achieve in the foreseeable future, but we should not lose sight of this ultimate goal because it is the only way to assure that the agreement between the NWS and the NNWS is equitable.
  3. Miller’s analysis of the interpretation of Article IV is most interesting because it touches on the core of the contemporary debate over the NPT. The “inalienable right” to peaceful nuclear technology does not, of course, necessarily imply assured access to the nuclear fuel cycle. However, neither does it mean that the NPT member states are forbidden or denied nuclear fuel cycle capabilities. The terms of Article IV are open to different interpretations and to manipulation. But we will remain locked in this controversy if we do not consider the issue from a different angle. In fact, the current perspective obscures the real concerns of the NNWS:
    1. It is unfair to allow some countries to possess nuclear fuel cycle capabilities while barring all others, even when their nuclear programs are genuinely peaceful. This restriction significantly thwarts these nations’ development and constrains their choices.
    2. Though it is possible to purchase nuclear fuel in the international market, there is no way to ensure that the market will remain stable and reliable. Building nuclear power plants is very costly; therefore,no country is entirely comfortable depending on a foreign fuel supply to power its plants. Certainly, producing fuel domestically is a more secure option. Moreover, mastering nuclear technology is a matter of national pride, a feat that not many countries can accomplish and one that proves a nation’s technological advancement and achievement. South Korea is a telling example. The NWS and nonproliferation advocates may not want to hear this argument, but the psychological aspect exists anyway and should not be ignored.
    3. National security could constitute another reason for considering nuclear fuel cycle capability. Once a country possesses this capability, it is much less exposed to international pressure and thus has more space in which to conduct foreign policy. Nuclear power is not merely an economic issue but a security one as well. A threat to
    4. cut off nuclear fuel supply when the recipients and the suppliers have diplomatic problems or even become antagonists could pose an immediate risk to a recipient state’s national security. Policy-planners and policy-makers must foresee worst-case scenarios such as this and work out a contingency plan to respond to them.

    Iran’s case clearly reflects the anxiety of the nuclear have-nots with regard to the restrictions introduced by the NWS and their like-minded partners to curb the enrichment and reprocessing capabilities of the NNWS. Iran received offers from a number of international fuel suppliers, but all failed to give Iran sufficient assurance and confidence in their services. Stricter export control regulations and unilateral imposition of additional rules by the NSG only reinforce the belief that the international market is not reliable, as the recipients have no choice but to depend on the terms dictated by the suppliers. Most recipients feel even more frustrated by the NSG’s recent actions. It remains the NSG’s right to set regulations; however, rules that alienate recipients and fail to earn their support will bring dangerous consequences. First, the recipients could be compelled to develop indigenous nuclear technology, which in turn would mean uncontrolled proliferation. Notwithstanding the fact that such technology developed domestically may be much more expensive and less sophisticated, as India’s nuclear industry has demonstrated, the nuclear have-nots could continue to venture into this area. Second, illicit trade of nuclear material and technology will spread more quickly if certain recipients seek them in the black market when needed. Hence, while the NSG’s measures to strengthen the nonproliferation mechanism could be welcome, they should not be undertaken at the expense of the recipients. The more burdens the recipients are forced to shoulder, the more resentment they will have toward any reform proposal.

  4.  Miller frequently cites the NAM’s position on various issues. Although the NAM often adopts a common stand on a number of sticky points related to the NPT, it has become clear that the movement is by no means a homogenous grouping. To consolidate their bargaining power vis-à-vis the NWS, NAM members have found ways to iron out their differences; but when it comes to voting, they will often act individually. Discrepancies exist largely because the NAM comprises both nuclear haves and have-nots. The interests of India, Pakistan, Indonesia, and Malaysia must differ, for instance, from those of Cambodia, Chile, and Sudan. NAM members that have a nuclear energy program should be more concerned about the NPT reform agenda or the NSG’s new regulations on the transfer of nuclear technology than those members that do not intend to develop nuclear energy. Thus, it is interesting to explore how the NAM has solved its own problems to reach consensus, such as that presented in the position paper it submitted to the 2010 NPT Review Conference. Although Miller briefly mentions the divide and struggle among NAM members, he should expand on that topic, thereby removing the wrong impression that the NAM is a strong grouping that works for the interests of all member states.

Miller’s conclusion is extremely useful and well thought-out. However, I would suggest that he restructure this section and put the points and arguments under a new subtitle, something along the lines of “Some Thoughts about the Way Forward.” This revision would highlight Miller’s valuable suggestions and observations that could help policy-makers think through the various issues discussed in the paper.