Terms of Engagement

Two Cheers for Multilateralism

Why the nuclear review conference was a minor triumph for Obama.

Chris Hondros/Getty Images
Chris Hondros/Getty Images

Let us now praise modest achievements. The U.N. review conference for the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty concluded at the end of May with a 28-page document (pdf)  that contained no new commitments by the nuclear-weapons states to move toward the abolition of such weapons. Nor did the non-weapons states bind themselves to accept more intrusive inspections of their nuclear facilities. The parties made few other substantive new commitments. Rebecca Johnson, a one-woman nuclear conscience who runs a British advocacy group puckishly named the Acronym Institute and who wrote an indispensable blog from the conference, describes the final document as "mostly smoke and mirrors."

That probably explains why the agreement has been largely greeted with a yawn. But Johnson, as well as other anti-nuclear advocates, believe that the agreement constitutes a historic breakthrough for which the Obama administration — though not only the Obama administration — deserves profound credit. I think they’re right.

Until recently, the nuclear threat waxed and waned according to relations between the United States and Russia. That’s history; the nightmare scenario of the post-Cold War world is not World War III but a nuclear strike by a rogue state or terrorist group. The U.S. cannot counter this threat without the active cooperation of many other states, and that is why both as candidate and as president, Obama has vowed to revitalize the non-proliferation treaty.

At the core of the NPT is a bargain in which the five states that had the bomb in 1968 when the treaty took effect — the five permanent members of the Security Council, as it happened — agreed to move toward disarmament while the other signatories agreed to work to prevent new states from acquiring a weapons capacity. In exchange, all states would be granted the right of access to peaceful nuclear technology. That bargain is often generously described as "frayed," as Israel, India and Pakistan have since developed a bomb without ever signing the treaty, while North Korea and Iran threaten to add to the list. The five official weapons states have mostly honored their disarmament pledge in the breach. And yet a dozen or more states that could have developed a weapons capacity have chosen not to do so. Many states have voluntarily accepted the intrusive inspections, known as "additional protocols."

Obama believed that other states would make good on their nonproliferation commitments if the U.S. took the disarmament side of the bargain seriously; the Bush administration, which sought to build new weapons even as it reduced the overall size of the arsenal, did not. The NPT is reviewed every five years, and the 2005 conference during Bush’s presidency was an unmitigated fiasco. In 2004, John Bolton, then the assistant secretary of state responsible for arms control, had announced that the administration would not be bound by agreements that had been painstakingly reached in previous review conferences, infuriating many of the non-weapons states and licensing would-be spoilers to throw their own spanners in the works. Signatories spent the first half of the month-long review conference fighting over an agenda, and the second half blaming each other for a failure that felt foreordained.

By contrast, Johnson notes, "the Obama administration put people in place a year ahead of time, especially Susan Burk" — the president’s special representative for nuclear nonproliferation — "to really work the whole field." The single greatest impediment to an agreement was Egypt’s longstanding campaign to establish a nuclear-weapons-free zone in the Middle East — a zone that would, of course, include Israel, the only nuclear state in the region. A 1995 agreement to advance the concept was the chief target of Bolton’s sweeping 2004 edict. This year, Egypt would come into the review conference as the president of the Non-Alignment Movement, giving it far more leverage over other states than it had in the past. Cairo, and the NAM, insisted that the conference would be stalemated once again absent real progress on the Middle East, but Egyptian diplomats quietly stipulated that they would be open to a compromise outcome. Washington began negotiating in earnest months before the meeting began. And on the final day of the conference, all sides agreed on a non-binding conference to be held under the auspices of the U.N. secretary-general in 2012.

Because NPT conferences operate by consensus, which any one state can block, a final report requires the threading of many needles. Only two previous conferences, in 1985 and 2000, even concluded with such documents. This year, Iran came to play the spoiler, starting with a defiant opening speech by President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad. The Iranian delegation made a last-minute bid to forestall consensus by asking Egypt to convene a meeting of the NAM countries the day before the conference ended; Egypt, refused. Unwilling to be isolated, Iran signed the final agreement. Tehran made no concessions on its apparently inexorable march toward nuclear-weapons capacity; an NPT review conference is not the setting for such high-stakes diplomacy. Nevertheless, the Obama team, always searching for evidence, however tenuous, that its engagement policy has helped realign global opinion on Iran, can cite the non-aligned countries’ pragmatism in the face of Iranian intransigence as a new data point.

There is, it’s true, much less than meets the eye in the 64 "action" points of the final document. France and Russia adamantly opposed the idea of a new treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons and requiring their abolition by a specific date (and Britain and the U.S. weren’t enthusiastic either). Instead, the report said, the conference "notes" a suggestion by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon that "proposes … consideration" of such a treaty. The conference also recognized "the legitimate interests of non-nuclear-weapons States" in having the weapons states agree to things they wouldn’t, in fact, agree to, like lowering the "alert status" of weapons to allow more time for a decision in the midst of a crisis. In his nuclear posture review, released in April, Obama also refused to make this concession.

But that’s how consensus documents sound: You slice the salami finer and finer until you’ve reached a razor-thin point of agreement. The specific commitments matter less than the fact of commitment.

Daryl G. Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, puts the case negatively: "Given all the stresses and strains on the treaty at the moment, what would the effect be on our ability to deal with these challenges if these countries could not come to agreement on a final document?"

John Duncan, Britain’s ambassador for multilateral arms control and disarmament, states the positive case: "What is described in this document is a political process," rather than a set of outcomes. Recognizing the "legitimate interests" of others is not an eloquent dodge, Duncan says, but a pledge to be held accountable. And that, he asserts, is something genuinely new.

In the recent past, of course, states have asked to be held accountable on fully funding development assistance, or reducing their carbon output, or stopping atrocities abroad, and haven’t so much as blushed when they failed to make good. That’s the limitation of the contractual approach to international affairs that Obama holds dear. But consider the alternative: the truculent John Bolton was not about to win concessions on nonproliferation, or anything else for that matter, from developing nations. Thanks to Obama’s expressions of good faith — in the New Start treaty with Russia; in his nuclear posture review, however compromised; in his speeches at home and abroad — those states were willing to make pledges on nonproliferation they had never made before. Bolton and others of his ilk, whom I described in my column last week as Hobbesians, would say that such pledges aren’t worth paying for. A Lockean like Obama would say, at the very least, that you cannot know until you try.

Modest achievements are just about the only kind multilateral diplomacy offers. And because such agreements require innumerable compromises, they’re easier to attack than to defend. Obama’s commitment to "the international order," so prominent in the recently released National Security Strategy, requires a measure of trust, but it also rests upon a willingness to accept small, incremental improvements, and thus, at least at its best, upon a prudent sense of how much you can hope to move the world beyond your borders. There is more "realism" in the slow and often frustrating effort to promote international norms than there is in the self-defeating battle cry of "you’re with us or you’re against us."

James Traub is a regular contributor to Foreign Policy, a fellow at the Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book "John Quincy Adams: Militant Spirit."

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