Moving Forward to Strengthen the NPT

Posted by Adam Scheinman
June 1, 2015
An aerial view of United Nations Headquarters, New York, NY [UN Photo/Andrea Brizzi]

In diplomacy, as in life, sometimes hard work pays immediate dividends, and sometimes the results don’t materialize like you hoped. Such was the case for delegations from parties to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which spent the month of May in New York, working arduously to find ways to strengthen the NPT. Despite best efforts, the 2015 NPT Review Conference ended without consensus on a final document.

This is not the outcome the United States hoped for, but it is not unprecedented. It does not indicate any lessening of support for the NPT, nor does it affect countries’ legal obligations under the treaty. Since 1975, NPT parties have gathered every five years to review the treaty. Not every Review Conference produced a consensus final document -- three did not -- reflecting differences one might expect on major security issues.

The United States’ delegation worked intensively with the other NPT parties to forge consensus, and we made real progress in advancing the discussion on global nonproliferation policy, nuclear disarmament, and peaceful uses. The draft final document on these three central “pillars” of the NPT was not perfect, but reflected a general agreement that we were prepared to join.

In the end, however, we could not support language in the draft document concerning the proposed conference on a Middle East WMD-free zone. We fully support holding this conference, but not on terms that are unbalanced or that would not allow for consensus-based discussions among all regional states. While we sought to work with other delegations to improve the text, the final proposed document outlined a process that would not build the foundation of trust necessary for holding a productive conference that could reflect the concerns of all regional states. 

In his opening remarks to the Review Conference, Secretary Kerry called the Middle East WMD-free zone “a hugely ambitious goal and fraught with challenges, but ambitious goals are always the ones worth pursuing.”

Rest assured that if states in the region are ready to resume the process of building such a zone through consensus, direct dialogue and an agreed agenda, the United States stands ready to be their strongest supporter.

We have long supported regional nuclear and WMD weapons-free zones, when properly crafted and based on arrangements acceptable to all states in the region. This is the universally accepted criterion for such zones.

The UK and Canada joined the United States in opting not to support the final document due to concerns with this language. We made clear that we were prepared to conclude this Review Conference without a final consensus document rather than endorse a bad final document, just as we have said about other matters in the international arena.

Despite the disappointing outcome, Review Conference participants made clear that the NPT remains the enduring cornerstone for the global nonproliferation regime and will continue to serve as the focus for our efforts to achieve a world without nuclear weapons. We agree.

Throughout the Review Conference, we reaffirmed the central role of the NPT in international security and the importance of compliance. We committed to enhancing the role of the International Atomic Energy Agency by making the Additional Protocol more universal, and increasing transparency among nuclear weapons states. The U.S. track record on disarmament is not in dispute. The number of nuclear weapons in our active stockpile now stands at 4,717 -- an 85 percent reduction from its Cold War height. The United States has irreversibly eliminated 10,251 warheads over the past two decades, and Secretary Kerry announced our intent to seek funding to increase the pace of dismantling retired U.S. warheads by 20 percent.

In addition, the United States will continue to promote disarmament education, in particular by fostering international collaboration through a new International Partnership on Nuclear Disarmament Verification that we launched in March. We committed an additional $50 million to the IAEA’s Peaceful Uses Initiative over the next five years. And we advanced discussion on methods to address abuse of withdrawal rights under the Treaty.

Moreover, we made clear that we understand and share the widespread concern of the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons use. It is precisely our understanding of those consequences that drives our efforts to reduce -- and eventually eliminate -- nuclear weapons, and to extend forever the 70-year record of non-use of nuclear weapons. Lasting nuclear disarmament will only be achieved through a sustained, collaborative effort to create the conditions for a world without nuclear weapons. 

The United States remains unwavering in our support for the NPT, and we believe that this Review Conference has demonstrated the broad international support for the Treaty and the critical role it plays in global security. 

As Secretary Kerry said, “Have no doubt: Every step … makes our planet safer. And one day when we finally approach the finish line, when we have conditions that allow us to go from a hundred warheads to zero, we will already be living in a world that is transformed, and transformed for the better.”

About the Author: Adam Scheinman serves as the Special Representative to the President for Nuclear Nonproliferation.

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