A wasted month of nuclear negotiations
Will we sleep any less easily because a month-long conference of some 189 countries ended in New York yesterday without any agreement on anything to bolster the nuclear non-proliferation treaty? No. Some of the previous five-yearly reviews of the NPT have been equally unproductive and the world did not end. Unless they border on North Korea or Iran, most countries feel the threat of nuclear proliferation to be infinitely more remote than daily scourges of disease and poverty.
Should we sleep less easily? Yes - this is not a good time for inaction on the nuclear front. In addition to what we know about Pyongyang's avowed nuclear weapons programme and Tehran's suspected one are the subliminal activities of terrorist groups and a clandestine trade in nuclear materials that may continue beyond the forced "retirement" of the chief black marketeer, A.Q. Khan of Pakistan. READ MORE
Many governments will still say the chance of a nuclear weapon explosion remains very small. In this they are right, but were it to happen, they would be flat wrong to believe it would be anything but a mega-disaster. A nuclear bomb would surpass any known chemical and biological weapon in death and destruction, and if one was set off (though it might depend where) the panic effect on the world's governance and economy would be far greater than that of September 11 2001.
Paradoxically, however, NPT review conferences progress more in quieter times. The high point was in 1995 when it was agreed to extend the treaty indefinitely. This was at a time when North Korea was still negotiating a deal with the Clinton administration, before Iran emerged as a problem, before India and Pakistan exploded their bombs, before the scale of Mr Khan's activities was known and before al-Qaeda burst upon the scene.
What has gone awry since? The main problem is that recent events have led to calls for more radical non-proliferation moves, and at the same time increased nervousness about any drastic tampering with the NPT status quo. So in New York the US found little support for its proposal to bar fuel-cycle technology to countries that did not already have it, and Mohamed ElBaradei, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, found no echo for his call for a five-year moratorium on building any enriching or reprocessing plants. The Bush administration has also not helped its general case by effectively scuppering negotiations for a fissile material cut-off treaty that included the three non-NPT signatories of India, Pakistan and Israel. It announced it did not believe such a cut-off could ever be verified.
The world clearly cannot pin its hopes on the next NPT review conference in 2010. Maybe nothing constructive can any longer come out of a 189-country negotiation. France hopes its proposal to make countries such as North Korea pay a price for quitting the NPT will fare better at the Group of Eight summit in July. Paris proposes NPT "quitters" should return technology obtained under the NPT. This proposal's fate may depend on whether Pyongyang returns to the six-party talks. Negotiations with Iran are even more relevant to the NPT's future. While North Korea is the only country ever to have quit the NPT, Iran is one of the 184 NPT signatories that have forsworn nuclear weapons. What happens with Iran will determine whether the NPT can develop an effective series of sticks and carrots to keep countries from bolting its stable door.