Is nuclear disarmament, however slowly, turning into something more than a slogan? When Barack Obama committed America, in a speech in Prague in April, to "seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons", he singled out two treaties as being essential first steps in realising his vision.One, agreed on years ago though still not in force, bans all nuclear testing. The other would end the production of fissile materials for bombs. Last week the 65-nation Conference on Disarmament (CD) broke a decade-long stalemate, agreeing that negotiations on this treaty can now start. But how far will they get?
The agreement to negotiate a fissile-material cut-off treaty (FMCT, to disarmament buffs) involved a patchwork of compromises. Until recently China, backed by Russia, had blocked the path, insisting that there must also be parallel talks on a treaty to curb an arms race in space (read: American missile defences). Instead there will be less formal "discussions". Two other working groups will explore more binding "negative security assurances" (promises by those that do have bombs not to use them against those that do not) and broader disarmament issues.
Yet an FMCT will still be hard to achieve. Even small diversions from civilian stocks can be militarily useful. According to recent studies published by the Washington-based Nonproliferation Policy Education Centre, such cheating is hard even for the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN's nuclear guardian that backs up the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), to detect in a timely fashion.
And that points to the deal's most controversial compromise. The Bush administration had opposed negotiating a "verifiable" FMCT, as the original mandate required, on the ground that if they could be made effective at all, international inspections would be too costly and intrusive for governments to tolerate. Instead America supported a less ambitious treaty that relied on "national means and measures" (spy satellites and the like), which few others have. The treaty to be negotiated is now supposedly back to being "verifiable", but it remains to be seen whether the CD can agree on how to do that.
The politics are as treacherous as the technicalities. North Korea eventually signed up last week, but it had just staged a bomb test that brought swift condemnation from the UN Security Council and had announced that it is stepping up plutonium production. It may enrich uranium too. Hardly encouraging.
Some governments had found the old, inflexible America useful to hide behind and will miss it. India could profess its commitment to an FMCT, thus burnishing its non-proliferation "credentials" despite the fact that it had built and tested bombs outside the NPT, in the certain knowledge that it could go on churning out weapons materials regardless. The treaty is still far from being agreed on, but India's ambassador to the CD insisted her country would accept no obligations that hinder its "strategic programme".
Pakistan, seeing itself at a disadvantage to its bigger rival, has long argued that past stocks should be monitored too. India says no. With China's help, Pakistan had already been expanding fissile-material production. It was alarmed by a controversial nuclear deal between America and India last year that created a loophole in anti-nuclear rules. This allows India, uniquely among those like Pakistan and Israel that have stayed outside the NPT, to get civilian nuclear help and fuel from abroad. Inevitably India will now be able to direct more of its scarcer domestic uranium to its military needs. That development and talk of an FMCT, however remote, will in all probability encourage Pakistan to make the stuff even faster still.
At home, Mr Obama will have a fight to persuade the necessary two-thirds of the Senate to ratify the other treaty deemed essential for progress in disarmament: the Comprehensive Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT). It was rejected in 1999, on a partisan vote. Mr Obama's Democrats have more seats this time, but still not enough. Debate will once again revolve around whether a test ban can be properly verified, and whether America can afford to do without testing indefinitely (it stopped in 1992) as its own nuclear warheads age.
But some things have changed in ten years. At home, powerful computers for modelling test explosions have managed to solve problems that had once had even the testers stumped, and America's warheads have been shown to be more robust than first thought. The global system of monitoring stations being built to back up the CTBT was just a plan in 1999 but is now nearing completion (with some in America). North Korea's second nuclear test, in May, was also a test of the system's capabilities which it passed easily.
A concern has resurfaced that Russia, which has ratified, might be cheating by conducting very small nuclear tests, although America formally withdrew this complaint some years ago. Where such doubts arise (some also suspect China), there is provision for on-site inspection.
But as things stand, such inspections can be invoked only with the treaty in force. Several required ratifications are still outstanding. America's could prompt China, and a couple of others, to follow suit. But India will not even sign the CTBT, let alone ratify it. Pakistan will not if India does not. And North Korea clearly is not in the mood.
Banning bomb materials and bomb tests: Making a start, Economist, June 4, 2009