Any conference that requires consensus, with almost two hundred potential vetoes, has two most-likely outcomes: a lowest common denominator success or an ugly mess. The 2005 NPT Review Conference was an ugly mess. The 2010 Rev Con was a lowest common denominator success. It still had its regrettable aspects — some of which were highlighted by President Obama and other USG officials, others by NGO watchdogs. A third potential outcome — the possibility that friends of the Treaty might agree on higher standards by jettisoning the consensus rule – seems too hard or too risky. Key non-nuclear-weapon states will insist on higher standards for disarmament, while key NWS will insist on higher standards for nonproliferation. Since it is hard for both camps to agree on all points, a “friends of the Treaty” third way could produce two separate action plans, which would clarify differences rather than unifying themes. At least the lowest common denominator outcome this time around did not entail back-peddling from either camp. One reason why the 2005 Rev Con was such a ugly mess was that some nuclear weapon states, led by the Bush administration, insisted on lower-than-previously-agreed standards for disarmament.
Treaty guardians have bought a few more years of time, but new challenges lie ahead, one of which is a conference of Middle Eastern states to promote a NWFZ, as championed by Egypt. Convening a conference on this subject without the proper ground work is akin to complaining that NWS are slow-balling disarmament, requiring a timetable to speed up the process. In both cases, unforgiving political conditions are not improved by setting dates and convening conferences.
The 2015 Rev Con is shaping up at this early date to be very challenging. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu excels at handing Hamas the victim card and fraying what few ties Israel has in the Muslim world. A NWFZ conference that places a bullseye on Israel’s back while soft-soaping Iran’s nuclear program could become a harbinger of the NPT’s demise. If, at the same time, the CTBT remains in limbo, and Iran continues to flaunt its disregard for the UN Security Council and the IAEA Board of Governors, the NPT’s 2015 Rev Con will likely be an ugly mess.
What other actions could badly weaken the NPT? Here are my top five choices. If you have other candidates, speak up.
1. Another battlefield use of nuclear weapons.
2. The resumption of nuclear weapon testing with cascade effects.
3. The resumption of nuclear testing by India, without cascade effects other than Pakistan. The NSG would take a huge hit after granting India a pass on nuclear commerce.
4. Israel seeks an NSG waiver, and secures U.S. support.
5. US relations with Russia and/or China deteriorate badly.