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Are Attitudes Changing on Nuclear Weapons?

Interviewee: Henrik Salander, Chairman of the Middle Power Initiative
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
May 3, 2010

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The 2010 Review Conference for the Nonproliferation Treaty, which aims to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons, runs from May 3 to 28. The previous conference in 2005 ended without consensus and Henrik Salander, a veteran Swedish diplomat who has spent much of his career working with arms control issues, says some experts worry the 2010 conference could also fail. "With all that has happened in between--North Korea's nuclear testing and concerns about Iran--many think that the same thing will happen as in 2005 [and] that the NPT treaty itself is in a crisis," he says. However, he says there is a new feeling that perhaps nuclear weapons can eventually be banned. He says just as biological and chemical weapons are now outlawed, "there's a growing recognition that perhaps we are not safer with these weapons than without them, and if we keep our weapons, that will guarantee that there will be more nuclear weapons states in, say twenty or forty years."

What do you think can actually happen at this forthcoming Review Conference for the Nonproliferation Treaty in New York, which opens on May 3 at the United Nations?

Let's take a look back to understand what is probable and what is needed. Five years ago, the last review conference was a total failure. It was impossible to agree either on the agenda for the conference or on a consensus document to end the conference.

Why was it so hard to get a consensus document?

This was mainly due to Iran and Egypt, which focused on one issue: Israeli nuclear weapons. This contrasted with the situation in 2000 when expectations were low partly because the U.S. Senate had refused to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) in October 1999. But the 2000 conference ended with a very full, lengthy consensus agreement including the so-called Thirteen Practical Steps, which contained quite a lot of different measures that had been discussed for many years and, in some cases, still haven't even been started or negotiated.

That was the past, but what about this conference?

With all that has happened in between--North Korea's nuclear testing and concerns about Iran--many think that the same thing will happen as in 2005 [and] that the NPT treaty itself is in a crisis. That feeling is widespread. I hope for a consensus agreement, a document, addressing all the critical issues, but the problem is that at this kind of conference you never know what an agreement is worth. This is due to several factors, including that the NPT doesn't have its own enforcement mechanism. After a few years, some states realize that this or that promise hasn't been kept.

What caused the collapse of the 2005 NPT Review Conference? Was it the Bush administration's policies--refusal to seek ratification of the CTBT treaty? The problems with Iran's nuclear program?

Nuclear weapons can be prohibited if the political will is there. It has to be then combined with an enormous verification apparatus, which would be very complicated but is not impossible.

Basically it was a combination of the United States and Iran that made it impossible to not only get a consensus for a final document but also an agenda. Iran is not complying with its obligations under the NPT treaty, to which it is a signatory, nor to its obligations to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The Iranians have tried to run circles around us for twenty years. But it is also clear that the Iranian issue as such cannot be solved at this NPT Review Conference. Efforts to contain Iran's nuclear program will have to be carried out in the current negotiating framework, involving the five nuclear-armed Security Council members and Germany with Iran. But the process can be complicated or even wrecked at this conference if Iran finds it necessary to stop any effort to point to them or to have a formulation in the final document that in any way implies that they are a problem.

So, you're saying that it would be a mistake for the major powers to press too hard for some discussion of Iran in the final document?

Exactly, and I'm not sure they will. If they reason, as I do, that this issue cannot be solved in the conference but has to be solved by very persistent negotiations in the years to come, then they probably will not press too hard to have lots of formulations about noncompliance or even mentioning Iran by name.

Regarding the CTBT treaty, I know the Obama administration wants it ratified, but right now the Senate's agenda seems so clogged up that it's uncertain this will come up at all this year.

On the CTBT, the treaty was signed in 1995 and not enough countries have ratified it yet. It is a problem, a big problem.

There's still an unofficial moratorium on testing in effect, right?

That's true, but when the NPT was indefinitely extended in 1995, twenty-five years after its entry into force in 1970, there was a lot of arm wrestling because already many non-nuclear weapons states didn't want the treaty indefinitely extended but only [by] five or ten years. But the United States, Britain, Russia, China, and France managed to get it extended indefinitely by promising four different things: They promised to negotiate and enter into force the CTBT, which was partially done. The negotiations were completed the next year, in 1996, but then ratifications didn't happen. In the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty [FMCT] case to curb leakage of uranium and plutonium that could be used for weapons, negotiations haven't even started in Geneva.

That's because Pakistan refuses?

Yes, but before that it was Russia, and the United States, and others. During the Bush years it was the United States, but this has changed now so it's mainly Pakistan. The third thing promised is the Middle East resolution (PDF) taken in 1995 to make that area non-nuclear, which was also part of the package to extend the treaty. There has been no progress on that, and Egypt is very angry and will push this issue in this very conference next month.

We had this episode with Syria trying to build some sort of nuclear reactor with North Korean help.

There have been many things since 1995, including Iran and Syria. And in 2000, there was a big problem of mentioning Iraq. There are always problems related to the Middle East. But this time Egypt is very persistent, pointing to the fact that nothing has happened for fifteen years and now's the time to do something.

The fourth "promise" in 1995 was a paragraph about the Nuclear Five to enter into what was called at the time "systematic and progressive efforts" for drawing down their arsenals and fulfilling Article 6 of the NPT.

What does that article say?

It says that, "Each of the parties to the treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control."

But what about the U.S.-Russian negotiations, including the New START treaty?

Numbers have gone down, that's true. Arsenals have gone down in size and are smaller than they were in 1995. But for non-nuclear weapons states, it's not a dramatic difference if the five nuclear powers have 70,000 weapons or 22,000 weapons.

You would like to see an abolition of nuclear weapons, but that's not at all likely in the near future is it?

No. Of course that's the goal of many of nonproliferation organizations, but the Middle Powers Initiative (MPI) has a quite narrow niche. We work with non-nuclear weapons governments and their diplomats trying to influence them and prepare for the negotiations with the Nuclear Five. That's our mission, so to say. I am for extermination of nuclear weapons. That's clear. But on the other hand, I'm very clear that this will take a very long time, and it's a very difficult project. But I don't think it's impossible, because the main counterargument, which is that nuclear weapons can never be uninvented, is a false argument. Biological weapons and chemical weapons also cannot be uninvented, but they are now forbidden. They are prohibited.

So you think nuclear weapons can also be "prohibited"?

There's a growing recognition that perhaps we are not safer with these weapons than without them, and if we keep our weapons, that will guarantee that there will be more nuclear weapons states in say twenty or forty years.

Nuclear weapons can be prohibited if the political will is there. It has to be then combined with an enormous verification apparatus, which would be very complicated but is not impossible. A new element, which may affect this conference, is that compared to ten or twenty years back when the argument on the side of the abolitionists were mainly ethical and moral about these weapons being too terrible to use, now the debate has changed somewhat, especially after the Wall Street Journal articles calling for an end to nuclear weapons by former secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger, former secretary of State George P. Shultz, former Defense secretary William Perry, and former Senator Sam Nunn.

There's a growing recognition that perhaps we are not safer with these weapons than without them, and if we keep our weapons, that will guarantee that there will be more nuclear-weapons states in, say, twenty or forty years. That's a guarantee, because other states will not accept that eight states---the Nuclear Five plus India, Pakistan, and Israel--tell them, "We're going to keep these things, but you can't have them." So that's a guarantee that there will be ten or fifteen or twenty nuclear weapons states in a number of years. Then the reasoning goes that well, finally, something will happen. They will be used at some point, on the Korean peninsula, or in the Middle East, or somewhere else.††

Talk about North Korea. Nobody really knows what North Korea wants. That's a problem, isn't it?

North Korea presents a problem in NPT terms because they, of course, have left the treaty. Like Iran, they were earlier an NPT party and then they left, which we didn't accept to start with but which is a fact now. They have tested weapons twice even though those tests probably weren't very successful. So it's similar to the Iran situation. It will not and cannot be solved in this review conference. It has to be solved outside. The difference is that North Korea will not participate in the conference, like Iran will.

Of course Israel will not attend either.

Egypt and others will push this issue, but of course, this issue will not be solved in the NPT Conference. But something is needed for Egypt and many Arab states to accept a final document.

So without some Middle East discussion in the final document there won't be a final document.

Exactly.

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