The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) was dealt yet another reeling blow by the recent U.S.-India nuclear deal. The Bush administration not only turned a blind eye to India’s development of nuclear weapons without signing the NPT, it lauded India for its strong nonproliferation record. When you preside over a nuclear arsenal the size of ours, it’s possible to think that India’s 100 unassembled nuclear weapons are no big deal.

Still, India was forced to make some concessions. It must allow intrusive inspections of its civilian facilities, continue to refrain from testing, comply with a proposed treaty prohibiting further production of weapons-grade uranium and plutonium, and help prevent the spread of uranium enrichment and reprocessing technologies.

But the deal fails to require India to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). Nor will India allow itself to be constrained from building future nuclear facilities, whether for energy or weapons. Furthermore, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) will continue to be barred from inspecting its weapons-grade reactors. In other words, India can purchase nuclear power fuel from abroad while using the fuel it produces itself for nuclear weapons.

Failure to Lead

Traditionally, the United States has, however sporadically, led the way on nonproliferation — from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, to the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaties (SALT) I and II, to the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT). Yet, by enabling India’s proliferation and ignoring its nonparticipation in the NPT, we abdicate our leadership.

This is merely the last item in a list of leadership failures. Under the Bush administration, the United States has maintained much of its nuclear arsenal on hair-trigger alert, refused to renounce first-use, and sought to develop a new generation of nuclear weapons. Also, we’ve signed a preliminary deal to station interceptor missiles in Poland. Ostensibly intended as a defense against Iranian missiles, it’s perceived as a threat by Russia, which reacted by moving missiles of its own to its border with Poland.

It’s natural to assume that the momentum behind these policies will decline with the Bush administration. But in reality, the engine of nuclear proliferation is a perpetual motion machine: Militaristic think tanks never stop generating strategies and networking.

The think tank that’s most active promoting nuclear weapons, as well as missile defense, is the National Institute of Public Policy. A product of the Reagan years, NIPP and its President, Keith Payne, later produced a study titled “Rationale and Requirements for Nuclear Forces and Arms Control,” which served as a blueprint for the Bush administration’s 2002 Nuclear Posture Review. But in the years between Reagan’s and George W. Bush’s presidencies, organizations like the Smith Richardson Foundation provided NIPP with grants that enabled it to continue its work advocating missile defense and withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. It still does.

Following closely is the Center for Security Policy (CSP), headed by Frank Gaffney, the hard-right ideologue whose columns scorch the Web. During the last Democratic administration, it circulated a famous letter signed by neocons far and wide urging former President Bill Clinton to attack Iraq. It also played key roles in the two Rumsfeld Commissions (one promoted missile defense; the other, space weapons), and was instrumental in abolishing the government’s Arms Control and Disarmament Agency.

Meanwhile, the conservative Heritage Foundation is trying to generate buzz for a documentary it’s releasing early in 2009 entitled 33 Minutes, which is intended to promote (or scare viewers into acquiescing to) missile defense.

Finally, in a recent interview, William Kristol intimated that the Democrats’ rise to power might call for a new PNAC. The original Project for a New American Century, founded by Kristol and Robert Kagan during the Clinton years, called for the United States, dominant since the demise of the Cold War, to become a “benevolent hegemony” via, when necessary, the preemptive use of force. Also, in a recurrent conservative theme, PNAC condemned arms controllers for concentrating on getting rid of weapons, rather than the regimes that possessed them.

Disarmament in Name Alone

The studies, papers, and articles militaristic think tanks and individuals produce are critical for their efforts to undermine arms control while advocating weapons systems. In a policy brief for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace entitled “Abolishing Nuclear Weapons: Why the United States Should Lead,” George Perkovich wrote that, in recent years, U.S. officials “sometimes invoke lawyerly arguments either to dispute the nature of the disarmament obligation under the NPT or to argue that it is being met.”

A perfect example is a piece by Christopher Ford, the Bush administration’s special representative for nuclear nonproliferation — until, that is, he recently resigned and himself joined a militaristic think tank, the Hudson Institute. Published by the Nonproliferation Review in November 2007 — oddly enough, the organ of an arms control organization — “Debating Disarmament: Interpreting Article VI of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons” is basically a handbook of the objections conservatives have to the NPT and treaties in general, as well as their techniques for sabotaging them.

With a new Democratic president, one might be inclined to dismiss such concerns. But the tricks conservatives use to defend a Republican president for dragging his feet on nonproliferation, as well as obstructing it, are the same they will use to cast an administration that dares to be sympathetic to the NPT as soft on security.

The preamble and Article VI of the NPT are the sections of the treaty that deal with disarmament itself. But the creators of the treaty left themselves wide open to attack with, for starters, Article VI’s talk of “measures relating to the cessation” (emphasis added) of the nuclear arms race. It fails to make 100% clear that negotiations toward nonproliferation and eventual disarmament actually need to be completed.

A nation that’s truly committed to strengthening nonproliferation would seek to nail down the wording to guarantee that negotiations run their course. Ford, the nuclear voice of the Bush administration, instead attacks those who seek it.

To him they’re laboring under the delusion that the United States is failing to fulfill its obligations to the NPT. The danger then is that it provides other NPT nations with an excuse to dodge their own nonproliferation obligations.

Ford supports his argument by citing a passage in the NPT’s preamble in which the subject of negotiations is first broached. Those nations that are party to the NPT declared “their intention to achieve at the earliest possible date the cessation of the nuclear arms race and to undertake effective measures in the direction of nuclear disarmament.”

There’s no denying it’s tough to pin a state down with the phrase “earliest possible date” and “in the direction of.” To Ford, these passages give him license to claim that no actual obligation to finalize a disarmament agreement is required. Nor is it necessary, he writes, for nations that are party to the NPT to actually “bring their stockpiles to zero before the final achievement of general disarmament.”

Aspirational Provision

First, Ford states that just negotiating toward, not concluding, an arms-control agreement is sufficient for compliance with Article VI (and to suggest otherwise makes you guilty of undermining the NPT). Then, he declares that Article VI can be understood as more of an “aspirational provision than one with which strict compliance was expected” (emphasis added). Few terms damn more with faint praise these days than “aspirational.”

Furthermore, he writes, “The negotiating record could hardly be clearer. Specific disarmament steps are not required by Article VI.” It’s hard to believe how tone-deaf Ford is to the possibility that his message can be interpreted: “We don’t really have to disarm. We just have to look like we are.”

Then Ford claims that “the disarmament burden falls not only on the nuclear weapon states,” but on non-nuclear nations that have signed the NPT. In a “Does he think what I think he means?” moment, we asked a friend in the disarmament field his opinion. He replied: “Is Ford saying that Suriname should be leading the charge for nuclear disarmament?” In fact, deflecting blame to other states is a common ploy for the NPT-averse.

With no apparent concern for consistency, Ford calls determining the seriousness about negotiations of a nation that’s party to the NPT a “subjective task.” Nor does it trouble him if a nation fails to provide a “comprehensive list of compliance (or noncompliance) indicia.”

Is this a representative of the same administration that’s been pressuring the IAEA to come up with the nuclear goods on Iran? We already know it’s not the Treaty on Non-proliferation, but the nonproliferation of treaties, that strikes a chord in the hearts of conservatives. But where do they get off proposing anything less than the strictest monitoring and accounting?

“Reasonable observers,” Ford writes, “should avoid fetishism about compliance criteria.” As an example, he cites a product of the 2000 NPT Review Conference known, however portentously, as the 13 Steps. In fact, though they’re not legally binding, they provide useful compliance criteria.

Ford fears that a “talismanic obsession with the [13 Steps] as the sine qua non of… compliance would do a disservice to serious compliance assessment.” Furthermore, “fixation upon the 13 Steps should not prevent analysis of whatever facts are at hand.”

Fetishism, talismanic obsession, fixation — it’s odd to hear this kind of talk from an administration that has used everything but a witch doctor to cast a spell over the IAEA, in hopes of inducing it to refer Iran to the United Nations for sanctions.

The Future: Instead of Treaties an Honor System

What does the future hold for the NPT in the eyes of conservatives? To Ford, a U.S.-Russian nuclear disarmament relationship might one day consist of only “the reciprocal exchange of various sorts of transparency and confidence-building measures.”

In the spirit of the aforementioned “good faith,” we might be able to accept that as a positive development. If only Ford had quit while he was ahead. But, he adds: Each “party will make its own procurement decisions.” It’s “more appropriate to the current strategic situation than the pursuit of further Cold War-style arms control agreements.” Then, he acknowledges that “such a new paradigm might indeed perplex old-school arms controllers.”

True — in fact, it sounds like a recipe for all hell breaking loose.

All things considered, you can tell the NPT is still a force to be reckoned with to conservatives by the contortions in which their leading nuclear weapons representative twists himself while addressing it. Its loopholes, though, are visible to all.

That doesn’t mean the NPT should be scrapped. However, it’s in urgent need of shoring up. In a 2008 New Left Review article, “The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty,” Norman Dombey writes that the NPT was “was conceived as an early step towards nuclear-arms control…Through its Preamble and Article VI, it envisaged other measures, in particular a comprehensive test-ban treaty and an agreement to cut off supplies of fissionable material for weapon use.” In other words, it was meant to stem the tide, not turn it.

Dombey continues: “With a new administration in Washington in 2009, it is possible U.S. policy will revert to reducing the number and importance of nuclear arms. [Then] the NPT will be a central plankin the framework governing nuclear trade and global security.”

Besides the CTBT and the proposed Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty, other posts and beams must be erected to shore up that framework. For instance, states that are party to the NPT must adopt its enhanced system of safeguards known as the Additional Protocol. Also, funding needs to be increased for the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, which secures loose nukes in the former Soviet countries.

More nuclear weapon-free zones, such as those in Central Asia and Africa, would be an encouraging development. Meanwhile, with nuclear power apparently here to stay, a fuel bank must be established to divest countries of the inclination to enrich nuclear fuel themselves. Finally, if only to allow humankind to breathe one small sigh of relief, all nuclear weapons must be taken off hair-trigger alert.

Left to stand by itself, though, Dombey warns, “the NPT will join the ABM treaty, the League of Nations and other historical relics.”

Get more news like this, directly in your inbox.

Subscribe to our newsletter.