The Woes of Non-Proliferation

Three separate events this week provide a good case study of the international community’s struggling non-proliferation strategy.

In Washington today, President Bush signed into law the United States-India Peaceful Atomic Energy Act. The bill, passed by Congress before it adjourned for the year, rescinds American prohibitions against civilian nuclear technology exchanges with India. These sanctions had been in place since 1974, when India first detonated a nuclear weapons and officially became an atomic weapons wielding nation.

Meanwhile in Beijing, a North Korean delegation met with representatives of the United States, China, South Korea, Japan and Russia. The meeting was the first time that six parties met since North Korea detonated a nuclear device earlier this fall, which earned the North minimally deterrent Security Council sanctions.

Finally, at the United Nations, diplomats may be closer than ever to imposing long-threatened sanctions against Iran. According to the Security Council Report, final touches are being worked out on a resolution that will likely place a travel ban on Iranian officials and embargo of “proliferation sensitive” items. The Security Council Report hints that these sanctions may be imposed before Christmas.

The number of countries with nuclear ambitions seems to be ever-expanding. But instead of aggressively protecting international non-proliferation standards and building up tough multi-lateral mechanisms to deal with violators, the trend is quite clearly toward ad-hoc responses to proliferation crises as they arise. And so far, it seems that the world is worse off for it.

1968’s Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty provides the international community with a reasonable framework to combat the spread of nuclear weapons. But the fact that a growing number of countries seem to calculate that their national interests would be better served by violating the treaty underscores NPT’s vulnerability. (And to be sure, the NPT is further threatened each time a signatory carves out exemptions for itself or its allies.)

It is well past the time that the major powers entrusted with enforcing the treaty re-affirm their commitment to strong and consistent frameworks to deal with violations as they occur. Given his background as South Korea’s Foreign Minister, Ban Ki-moon is well positioned to make a priority of strengthening multi-lateral non-proliferation standards. The UN, after all, is the most logical conduit through which to establish a new international bulwark against proliferation. The alternative–a haphazard, ad-hoc response to each new crisis–simply does not work.