Opinion: Farewell to nuclear nonproliferation


LOS ANGELES — On Nov. 26 in his final report to the International Atomic Energy Agency's Board of Governors before retiring after a long distinguished career, Director General Mohamed ElBaradei dared to utter what no other senior public figure would about Iran's nuclear portfolio: “We have effectively reached a dead end."

Coming from the individual who has done the most to coax Tehran away from developing a nuclear weapons breakout capacity, the statement proved to be stark acknowledgement that diplomacy has failed.

ElBaradei’s remarks come at a time when the nuclear nonproliferation regime finds itself in increasing distress from multiple quarters, not just Iran. North Korea, now a former NPT party, continues to produce nuclear weapons material. Syria persists in ignoring IAEA requests to come clean about its suspect nuclear activities. The agency's effort to get members to sign and ratify the Additional Protocol — the means that would allow nuclear inspectors expanded access to suspect activities — has failed to attract many. And the September 2009 Security Council summit to promote nonproliferation provided little new to materially buttress the objective.

Given the grave risks that nuclear weapons pose, what explains the unwillingness of the international community to implement more effective instruments to combat proliferation? One answer comes from the NPT itself: The enforcement mechanism clearly is not up to the task. But there remains a deeper problem, the apparent belief by some critical countries that we can live in a nuclear weapons expanding world with little risk.

Article III, the NPT’s compliance mechanism, illustrates the first problem. It is not an enforcement device. It is a fire alarm of sorts without the means to douse the flames. In the treaty’s language, non-nuclear weapons parties accept IAEA safeguards “with a view to prevent diversion of nuclear energy for peaceful uses to nuclear weapons …” Safeguards — cameras, seals, access to operating records and inspections monitoring sensitive material — provide the alarm. And then what? Once the sirens go off, agency staff attempt to gain access to suspect sites, documents and personnel. They issue findings. The director general then calls upon the nuclear violator to provide more transparency and reverse violations subject to new safeguards. He gets the endorsement of the Board of Governors. The process repeats and repeats again in order to cajole, and, absent progress, IAEA refers the matter to the U.N. Security Council for action.

The plan has a certain logic. The council, not IAEA, has the authority to combat threats to peace and security. But repeatedly the organ has turned out to be a paper tiger. Its protocol to address nuclear cheaters — condemnatory resolutions, often unenforced compliance timelines and weak economic sanctions — has failed to move violators for any sustained duration. Never has the Council put itself behind initiatives that inflict sufficient pain through total commercial and political isolation, military blockade and armed action to promote unfettered compliance.

The failure reflects not only political divisions among Council members but different sensitivities toward proliferation. China, for one, appears almost blase about weapons spread, which is surprising considering it faces more nuclear armed states on its borders — Pakistan, India, Russia, North Korea and U.S. nuclear forces offshore — than any other country.

Apparently Beijing has learned to live with the bomb held by potential adversaries. By contrast the United States finds itself on the other end of the spectrum pushing hard for nonproliferation despite the absence of any neighbor with nuclear weapons. In the middle Britain and France share America’s views but not its urgency. Then there remains Russia which, at best, is lukewarm about spending too much political capital on nonproliferation. The result sends the message to nuclear violators: play off differences within the council and buy time to get the bomb.

The history of the nuclear era adds to the ability of cheaters to get their way. Had the past 60-plus years since the atomic bombings of Japan witnessed a repeat, anxiety over yet more war time detonations no doubt would have spurred dramatic action to enforce nonproliferation.

But history, fortunately, did not go in that direction. Remarkably, nuclear-armed states repeatedly accepted military defeat rather than use their arsenals. America's experience in Southeast Asia, the Soviet debacle in Afghanistan and China’s retreat from Vietnam provide but three examples.

The result, the “dead end” nonproliferation diplomacy about which Mohamed ElBaradei laments, arguably may not be so bad after all. But that remains only a bet we will have to endure given the absence of practical options.

Bennett Ramberg served in the Bureau of Politco-Military Affairs in the George H.W. Bush Administration.