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The illusion of nuclear non-proliferation

The illusion of nuclear non-proliferation
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First Published: Sun, May 09 2010. 09 36 PM IST
Updated: Sun, May 09 2010. 09 36 PM IST
These are strange days for New York City’s finest. Recently, they deployed in force to find the terrorist who tried to bomb Times Square. Then, they deployed in force to protect the terrorist who is President of Iran. One of these guys works in propane, fireworks and petrol; the other in enriched uranium, polonium triggers and ballistic missiles.
That other guy—the one who didn’t roll into town in a Pathfinder—was in Manhattan to unload on this month’s UN review conference of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). And unload he did: on the Truman administration, on the Obama administration, on “the Zionist regime”, on UN secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon, on NPT itself. For all this, Iran is still considered a member in good standing of the treaty, entitled to its seat at the International Atomic Energy Agency and its right to the nuclear reactors.
Does this make sense? In the upside-down universe of Turtle Bay—the same one in which Iran was just elected by acclamation to the UN’s Commission on the Status of Women—it does. What’s stranger is that it also makes sense to US President Obama, who has called NPT the “cornerstone of the world’s efforts to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons”. If that’s the cornerstone, it’s no wonder the edifice on top of it is collapsing.
The case for NPT is that it has slowed proliferation by offering a bargain between the world’s nuclear haves and have-nots. The haves promise to work towards the elimination of their arsenals through arms-control treaties; the have-nots get access to civilian nuclear technology while promising not to build weapons of their own. As a show of global good citizenship, last month Obama signed another arms-control treaty with Russia, and recently disclosed previously classified information about the exact size of the US nuclear arsenal. Yet, a biting UN sanctions resolution on Iran is nowhere in sight. The regime’s nuclear bids proceed undeterred. Countries such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt are openly entertaining doubts about US seriousness—while entertaining nuclear futures of their own.
And it turns out that when it comes to a UN beauty contest, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad beats Barack Obama every time. Twenty-four countries walked out of Ahmadinejad’s speech. Another 168 remained in their seats.
There’s a reason NPT has failed the administration. It enshrines a status quo that is 40 years out of date. Four of the world’s nine nuclear-weapons states are not signatories to the treaty. Of these, three—India, Israel and Pakistan—are democracies and allies of the US. And yet NPT treats them as pariahs for not subscribing to a treaty that fails to recognize their imperative national security interests, at least as they themselves perceive them. The Canadas of the world may be happy to go along with NPT, secure as they are under the US’ nuclear umbrella. That was a luxury India, Israel and Pakistan did not enjoy when they embarked on their nuclear programmes.
Now Iran, in connivance with the usual West Asian suspects, is trying to use NPT as a cudgel to force Israel to disarm. That makes sense if you subscribe, as Obama does, to the theology of nuclear disarmament. It makes no sense if you think the distinction that matters when it comes to nuclear weapons is between responsible, democratic states, and reckless, unstable and dictatorial ones.
The world today is moving toward what strategist Andrew Krepinevich calls the “second nuclear age”, in which deterrence no longer works as it did during the Cold War. Yet we haven’t even begun to think seriously about how to navigate these waters. Hillary Clinton’s mindless calls about strengthening NPT won’t do.
One day a Pathfinder may park itself in Times Square with something more than propane tanks in the back seat. We may not be able to stop it. But we will live more securely if the driver of that car knows exactly what we intend to do next.
Bret Stephens is a columnist for The Wall Street Journal.
The Wall Street Journal
Edited excerpts. Comments are welcome at otherviews@livemint.com
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First Published: Sun, May 09 2010. 09 36 PM IST
More Topics: Nuclear | Non Proliferation Treaty | NPT | Nuke | US |