It takes two

When Barack Obama promised, in Prague a year ago, to “seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons” and won a Nobel peace prize for it, even he felt that the accolade was a bit premature. His Prague to-do list was long: reduce the role of nuclear weapons in America’s defences; cut the number of nukes, too, in a bold new treaty with Russia; win Senate ratification of the test-ban treaty; seek a United Nations ban (or “cut-off”) on making fissile material for bombs; and meanwhile secure all nuclear materials from terrorist reach.

The real prize Mr Obama was after was international support for a stronger Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) at its upcoming five-yearly review in May. For North Korea, Iran and others have battered its anti-nuclear foundations.

Mr Obama will be back in Prague on April 8th to sign the promised new strategic-arms reduction treaty with Russia’s Dmitry Medvedev. Even as he lifted the spirits of would-be disarmers a year ago, Mr Obama acknowledged that a world without the bomb would probably not come in his lifetime. Since then he has found that ticking off items on his “getting to zero” list is considerably harder than he imagined.

In principle, the new treaty with Russia should have been easy to bag. Both sides want the new verification rules it would bring. But negotiations dragged on. Nor is this quite the bold document Mr Obama talked of. Over ten years it will cut each side’s deployed strategic warheads to 1,550 (a reduction of a third below the maximum 2,200 to be allowed by 2012 under a previous accord) and the number of deployed missiles and bombers to 700 apiece. By contrast, a joint commission backed by the Australian and Japanese governments recently called for far deeper cuts: to 2,000 warheads worldwide by 2025, with no more than 500 each, of any sort, for America and Russia.

Mr Obama will shortly make public his nuclear posture review. It may not contain the clear pledge some have lobbied for: that America will never use its nuclear weapons first in a crisis. But it will constrain thinking about such use to the direst of circumstances facing America or its allies. Contrary to his predecessor’s efforts to replace older American warheads with fewer ones of simpler, safer but more modern design, Mr Obama insists there will be no new bombs on his watch.

According to the original NPT bargain, the five recognised powers, America, Russia, Britain, France and China, were to take steps towards nuclear disarmament, while other treaty members vowed not to seek nuclear weapons and to confine themselves to peaceful uses of nuclear power. Whoever leads the effort to strengthen the treaty, therefore, will need others to follow. But the mood going into next month’s review is not overly optimistic. Two items high on everyone’s NPT-support list, negotiation of a verifiable fissile-material cut-off treaty (FMCT, for short) and entry into force of the test-ban treaty, both seem as far away as ever.

In 2009, after years of stalemate, the UN’s 65-member Conference on Disarmament was poised to start inking in a fissile-material treaty, when Pakistan balked. It was miffed at a nuclear deal that the Bush administration had struck with its rival, India. This exempted India from global restrictions on civilian nuclear trade that are meant to apply to countries outside the NPT and, like both India and Pakistan, with nuclear arsenals outside its rules. But allowing nuclear imports for civilian use also eases the bottlenecks for India’s military programme. Pakistan therefore wants a similar deal.

There ought to be fat chance of that after the proliferation activities of a former top nuclear scientist, Abdul Qadeer Khan. So Pakistan has turned to China for help in making enriched uranium and plutonium to keep up with India. Neither country is keen on an FMCT, but India is happy to let Pakistan take the flak.

So Mr Obama is hoping that a special nuclear-security summit in Washington, DC, on April 12th and 13th will provide some needed momentum going into the NPT review. The idea is to bring together disparate efforts to prevent illicit trade in nuclear technologies and materials, as part of parallel efforts to encourage countries to buy in nuclear-fuel services from reputable suppliers, rather than make it themselves with technologies that can also be abused for weapons.

But will this be enough? Mr Obama wants to strengthen the NPT’s rules, by getting everyone to sign up to an Additional Protocol of tougher inspections and by making it harder for a cheat simply to shrug off the treaty when caught, as North Korea did. Yet even those obvious steps run into opposition.

Iran is still a treaty member—in good standing, it claims, though others suspect a hidden military programme—and will resist moves that could cramp its nuclear style. Egypt has long refused to accept more intrusive inspections until there is progress on making the Middle East a zone free of weapons of mass destruction. This is a dig at Israel’s arsenal, though others are suspected of having chemical and biological weapons too, and Syria is suspected of having been planning to produce plutonium at a secret nuclear reactor built with North Korean help, and possibly Iranian finance, that was bombed by Israel in 2007 shortly before its completion.

But the achievement that would most symbolise America’s commitment to its end of the NPT bargain, and re-enthuse others about theirs, is Senate ratification of the Comprehensive Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT). The last time it considered the treaty, in 1999, it threw it out on a partisan vote, with Republicans calling the treaty unverifiable; they said that to ensure the safety and effectiveness of its arsenal America should keep testing options open. The same partisans on the Republican side are gunning for the ctbt again. If it is shot down a second time, with it would go whatever remaining goodwill there was for non-weapons states to accept tougher checks on their own nuclear activities.

The first task, however, will be to get the new strategic arms treaty passed by the Senate and by Russia’s Duma. The cuts envisaged may not be ambitious, but the treaty does other useful things. By setting a single ceiling for warheads and delivery systems, it allows each country to configure its forces to suit its own needs. This simpler sort of treaty allows the burden of inspection to be reduced, while setting out principles for more precise checks that will make possible deeper cuts in future.

Indeed, both countries seem keen to press on with cutting once this treaty is ratified. America and its NATO allies worry about Russia’s far larger arsenal of tactical nuclear weapons; Russia frets about the larger number of strategic weapons America keeps stored away for a rainy day. But a warhead is a warhead, whatever the range for firing it. An obvious next treaty could cut both sorts down to size, though monitoring weapons dismantling would require more transparency than Russia has so far been ready to accept. Meanwhile, no treaty would be required for Russia to pick up the proposals Mr Obama has made to discuss co-operation on missile defences.

Despite all this, Mr Obama has yet to earn that peace prize—though he has made a start. Weapons cuts are steadily mounting. Will other governments at next month’s review conference do their bit and strengthen the anti-nuclear rules that are the other part of the NPT bargain?

Source: The Economist