Michael KreponThe Dunn Theorem

Lew Dunn, the Bronx’s gift to the Nonproliferation Treaty, has a theory about NPT Review Conferences. The Dunn Theorem is that back-to-back successes are a rarity; more likely, every other RevCon is a flop. If Lew is right, the next RevCon may be a rough ride.

A very imperfect standard of success or failure for RevCons is agreement on a final document. By this standard, the first RevCon in 1975 can be considered a success, despite the squabbling, because Swedish diplomat Inga Thorrsen drafted a final document in the closing hours of the conference and persuaded Washington, Moscow, and London to accept it for the good of the NPT.

The 1980 RevCon failed, in Lew’s view, even though the parties made good progress on peaceful uses and safeguards, when the Carter Administration moved too late to make a concession on how the final document would handle the CTBT. Lew recalls a senior U.S. official being sent to Geneva with a good compromise, but too late. This conference ended with no final document, much to the chagrin of Non-Nuclear-Weapon States, which lost useful language on the CTBT and peaceful uses.

Lew was the Reagan administration’s NPT RevCon point person in 1985, and his timing couldn’t have been better. U.S.-Soviet relations were awful during the first term of the Reagan administration, but an upswing seemed possible in the second term. In 1985, the regime gained a third pillar, with the addition of peaceful uses to non-proliferation and nuclear disarmament. The main stumbling block of CTBT was resolved with the artful language that, “the Conference except for certain states” endorsed the CTBT. Why did the 1985 RevCon agree on a final document? Here’s Lew’s analysis:

In 1985 everyone was sort of scared by the breakdown in 1980 and worked for consensus agreement. Also Presidents Reagan and Gorbachev were scheduled to have a Summit in Geneva – the first between them and the first after the collapse of arms control negotiations in 1983 – in November 1985. So everyone pulled hard for consensus. As a self-serving remark, I also spent two years on the road consulting with everyone – setting the precedent that Susan Burk followed 25 years later.

In 1990, the RevCon flopped. In 1995, the parties agreed to the NPT’s indefinite extension, a significant accomplishment, but failed to agree on a consensus document. In 2000, the Conference agreed to a major consensus document, including thirteen steps to be taken to strengthen the regime. (This partly breaks Lew’s mold of alternating failures and successes, depending on how one scores the mixed result in 1995 of indefinite extension and failure to reach a consensus document.) The 2005 RevCon was a debacle, while 2010 was a success, returning to Lew’s pattern.

Does this mean another downer in 2015? Here are Lew’s thoughts:

Now I would not make too much of the five year on, five year off point — but it is an interesting track record overall. In some ways, if you look at each conference, there are unique factors involved in each: quality or lack thereof of the leadership of the conference and of different delegations (not only the US); the overall global context; US positions and those of other countries; and so on.

But I have always thought there is a sense among the NPT parties overall that the NPT is an important treaty and that notwithstanding its weakness and flaws, it serves the security of its parties, not least by helping prevent proliferation; is an important prod toward nuclear disarmament, being the only such legal obligation on the NWS and a critical foundation of peaceful uses. But countries differ on how well it is serving those goals and also like to use the Review as a means of pressure, especially of the NWS. So sometimes they push too hard and too far; sometimes they don’t want to agree on compromises to create a sense of shared future. I think that then when there is a breakdown of the NPT process, the countries go away and reflect on it – and then almost scare themselves a little. Sort of gee: what if we did this two times in a row, if we had a double debacle – maybe it would be really bad for all of us and we actually still need this treaty. Then there is a new desire to work hard for success.

Do I have any data or is this just my gut instinct? My answer: My recollection of 1985 (which actually was the first time a “real” consensus document was achieved by hard work of all the parties) was that the countries remembered 1980 and wanted not to repeat it — plus given the coming Reagan-Gorbachev summit, they did not want to do anything that would undercut hope for better relations and a resumption of arms control between the two countries. The US and Soviets also cooperated very well in the run-up to 1985 and at the Conference.

In addition, in speaking to persons after the 2010 Review, it was very clear to me based on what individuals across the NPT spectrum said that the 2005 breakdown was something that everyone wanted to avoid repeating in 2010. Again and again other diplomats that I came across in one or another context after 2010 noted the importance of not doing a 2005 in 2010 – they feared it would put the NPT at risk. As a result the parties pulled together and produced what I think is a very solid Action Plan – even as they compromised in doing so.

What about today? In Lew’s view – and I fully agree – the greatest challenge for the 2015 NPT Review is to break this pattern of five years on, five years off. The challenge is for the NPT parties to show that they can cooperate and work together to serve their shared interests, even as they differ on how best to do so and how quickly progress can and should be achieved.

The Obama administration clearly will approach 2015 with that goal of working cooperatively with other supporters of a robust NPT. But there will be significant hurdles. Some states will be frustrated by the lack of speedy progress on the Prague agenda. The CTBT and the FMCT may still remain in limbo. North Korea has amplified its nuclear threats. Egypt has become more of a wild card and, not surprisingly, the process of engagement toward the goal of a WMD-free zone in the Middle East has floundered. Also, not surprisingly, it has become harder to hold the line against reprocessing after the US-India civil nuclear deal. And to top off the NPT’s woes, Iran continues to pursue a near-nuclear weapon capability (or worse), while Saudi Arabia warns that, if diplomacy fails, it, too, will acquire the Bomb.

It will be tough, but not impossible, to break the Dunn Theorem. Prospects for success in 2015 rest on concerns over the NPT’s demise and broad-based efforts to make progress on the 2010 Action Plan. If dissatisfied parties take the RevCon hostage, they will further weaken the NPT without hastening the pace of disarmament.


  1. Bradley Laing (History)


    By Hans M. Kristensen

    Although the U.S. Navy has yet to make a formal announcement that the nuclear Tomahawk land-attack cruise missile (TLAM/N) has been retired, a new updated navy instruction shows that the weapon is gone.

    The evidence comes not in the form of an explicit statement, but from what has been deleted from the U.S. Navy’s instruction Department of the Navy Nuclear Weapons Responsibilities and Authorities (SECNAVINST 8120.1A).

    While the previous version of the instruction from 2010 included a whole sub-section describing TLAM/N responsibilities, the new version published on February 15, 2013, contains no mentioning of the TLAM/N at all and the previous sub-section has been deleted.

    The U.S. Navy is finally out of the non-strategic nuclear weapons business. The stockpile has declined and a substantial number of TLAM/N warheads (W80-0) have already been dismantled.

  2. Bradley Laing (History)


    The documents revealed that Douglas MacArthur, then the US ambassador to Tokyo, knew in 1958 that then Japanese Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi thought it was imperative that Japan had its own nuclear weapons. Kishi was looking towards a “defensive” nuclear capability to protect the nation from the Soviet Union as the Cold War raged. Kishi at that time had apparently argued that the constitution “did not prohibit Japan from having those kinds of weapons”.

  3. SQ (History)

    Lew Dunn’s cyclical theory is appealing. But is the greatest challenge of 2015 really “to break this pattern of five years on, five years off”? Maybe it’s just to find something to agree on beyond the agreements of 2010, which included a lot of agreements to disagree.

    Also, he mentioned Susan Burk’s two years on the road prior to 2010. Who is on the road now?

    • krepon (History)

      Excellent question, assuming Susan holds fast in her refusal to re-enlist. If her successor has been chosen, I haven’t heard about it.

  4. Barry Blechman (History)

    Why does everyone consider the 2010 RevCon a success. It made no progress toward establishing a process that might one day result in strengthening the NPT, such as penalizing states for withdrawing, or providing incentives for states to move away from national fuel cycles and toward multinational enrichment/reprocessing facilities. Yes, there was an agreed statement — which singled out Israel and didn’t mention Iran. And the key deliverable, a conference on creating a nuclear weapons free zone in the Middle East, is already beyond its sell-by date (2012) and seems most unlikely to happen at all. We need a better measure of success or failure than whether or not there is an agreed statement.

  5. krepon (History)

    Dear Co-founder,
    You make a compelling case that agreement on a Final Document is less important than what’s within it — or what happens outside of it.

  6. Dunn (History)

    Hi Barry — and Michael, too
    My measure of success is reflected in the 2010 Action Plan (the heart of the Final Document from 2010). With its limitations, the Action Plan still provides what I think is a very valuable game plan for future actions (especially in terms of the goal of nuclear disarmament) and has already resulted in an ongoing and now-institutionalized process of P-5 engagement (which will be critical to slow but steady advances by the five in multiple areas). Progress in the Action Plan actually will strengthen support for the NPT — and at least in the eyes of many NNWS, make implementation of its obligations more balanced over time. More broadly, I believe that as long as the NPT (weaknesses and all) remains an essential part of the global security fabric, it is better to have its Parties recognize their common future and shared interests in the NPT — rather than have them emphasize their differences. On the Middle East issue, this is a matter that we can discuss in person some time down the road.