Since it was opened for signature in 1968 the NPT has become the most conspicuous rallying point for nuclear abolitionist around the globe. Why?
The treaty itself never had an objective intent or goal. It has always been open to subjective interpretation. Many of its articles were designed to be malleable and iffy. Ask an antinuclear activist and you'll get a sense that the NPT was implemented as a first step toward the total abolition of nuclear weapons, and that states have merely failed to abide by its law. Ask a representative of a non-nuclear state, especially a formerly colonized nation, and you'll get a sense that the NPT was agreed upon as part of a broader de-colonization movement. The NPT therefore was an effort to create a more equitable, post-colonial regime of management for atomic technology. Ask a representative of the USA, USSR, or other nuclear armed states with full atomic energy capabilities, one of the "big dogs," and you'll get the sense that the treaty, when all is said and done, was created to stabilize the nuclear status quo, mostly by stemming proliferation — this is in the treaty's very name of course.
If the treaty has never really had an objective meaning then why do so many nuclear abolitionists, be they in government, NGOs, or academia, consider the NPT a linchpin of disarmament politics? Many abolitionists obviously approach the treaty much the same way activists across a broad range of issues approach the constitutions of democratic countries like the USA: these are idealistic documents upholding inalienable freedoms and human rights which we can pressure the powers that be to live up to. In this respect it's a battle over the meaning of the treaty. The goal is to steer interpretations of all parties more and more toward the abolitionist impression, binding them to live up to their rhetoric, making incremental progress along the way.
This strategy has never worked with respect to nuclear weapons. It is a failure. And not only has it failed, today, through the ironic mobilization of anti-nuclear rhetoric by president's and elder statesmen across the nuclearized world, it has actually become an impediment to the pursuit of nuclear disarmament. The failure of this strategy to shift interpretations and implementation is especially true if we consider disarmament to be one part of a much broader movement toward a peace that is based on justice — that is a redistribution of power giving the poor control over their lives and the capital they need to freely develop their communities.
We all now live and act in the era of anti-nuclear imperialism. The ideal of nuclear disarmament is actually being used against the material reality of nuclear disarmament. We are now told that in order to seek "a world free of nuclear weapons" we must spend more on them than we ever have, upgrade them endlessly, maintain their deployment in the thousands, building new delivery systems for them, etc. Cordial engagement in the NPT by the nuclear weapons states is only one of many "peaceful" postures comprising this new arsenal for nations wishing to extend their nuclear-armed power far into the future. Those of us who seek nuclear disarmament as necessary condition for justice need to radically transform our approach if we are to be effective in this bizarre political environment. We must drastically shift our focus from elite levels of international politics, state-craft, diplomacy, military policies, and treaties, to more localized and humble levels concerned with the social and economic impacts of decisions made at the top.
The NPT's flaws are well known. Following the preeminence of the USA, nuclear armed states have long argued that Article VI does not in fact require disarmament, but only that state parties take good faith steps toward the creation of a process that will eventually lead toward disarmament. This interpretation, as cynical as it might seem, is not wrong. The treaty language was written precisely this way at the behest of the United States and USSR.
The NPT's central concern is not contained in Article VI and has little to do with limiting the powers and dangers posed by nuclear armed states. Rather the treaty was designed from the very beginning as a counter-proliferation device. During the Cold War it served to stabilize and formalize the relationships being cultivated between the Soviet Union and its satellites, and the USA, UK, France and their favored client states with respect to nuclear energy and military synchronization. The NPT may or may not have prevented many more states going nuclear. The truth is that those states that had a compelling geopolitical interest to attain nuclear status and build up a formidable nuclear arsenal did so, treaty or no treaty. The NPT therefore merely ratified a process underway, guided by the the polarized rivalries of the first and second worlds.
The end of the Cold War and the now waning era of unipolar American hyper-power have altered the treaty's usefulness. For US neo-imperialists there was a greater need to aggressively pursue nonproliferation missions against ambitious regional states as the Soviet Union's sphere of power crumbled. The Americans stepped in, often very un-welcomed, and usually with a mixture of military force and their vast powers of economic coercion, to consolidate gains in the Middle East, Central Asia, and Southeast Asia.
But the post-Cold War era brought problems as well as opportunities for the USA. First and foremost was the sudden lack of justification for nuclear weapons which had been valorized for decades as the most important form of deterrence against the USSR, an enemy that evaporated. It was in response to this crisis of legitimacy for nuclear weapons that the politics of antinuclear nuclearism was created. It is as if the harsh language and the unthinkable strategy of MAD and deterrence so warped our senses of perception, of real and illusion, that when state leaders began speaking in lofty idealized terms about their desire to rid the world of nuclear weapons, our actual organized opposition to the nuclear weapons establishment was abandoned so that we might fight amongst one another for a "seat at the table" or to appear in the media so as to praise the noble agenda. Meanwhile the reality, the vastly over-inflated numbers of weapons, the environmental and health consequences of nuclearism, the opportunity costs, all this and more were essentially unchanged. In fact noble antinuclear speeches condemning these weapons have even served at times to justify aggression, invasion, and intimidation.
States like North Korea and Iran now appear to believe it is in their interest to go nuclear with full atomic energy capabilities, and nuclear weapons capabilities. Given the geopolitical conditions that exist, and the recent record of wars prosecuted by the "big dogs" against smaller states, who would be so foolish to say it is not in their interest to obtain a weapon that could likely deter the US military superpower, or Russian, Chinese, Indian, European, and other great power aggression? And given the nature of the capitalist world system, with its incentives to dominate other states via economic power and military power when necessary, who would say ambitious states like Iran shouldn't go nuclear?
It is in this Hobbsian realpolitik that treaties like the NPT, CTBT, and the recently signed New START are negotiated and ratified, and we must always keep this in mind. Try as we might to change the meaning of these treaties, the simple fact is that state parties to these instruments have crafted their language and delineated the processes of their implementation with very careful eyes to strategic details. The NPT, but especially the CTBT and New START are not about disarmament. In this geopolitical context they are entirely about the kind of politics that is merely the extension of war by other means. They are ways of stabilizing the balance of powers, but also enforcing the unjust dissemblance of superpowers. Might may not make right, but it does make a mean treaty.
The NPT has been used for two decades now to browbeat any nation that would dare develop nuclear weapons. Indeed, it was under this treaty's long shadow that the United States justified and launched its 2003 invasion and running occupation of Iraq. The NPT is being used with incredible effectiveness by the United States to beat the drums of war against Iran and call for increasingly grisly forms of sanctions against the isolated and impoverished state of North Korea.
Most recently there has been the New START. Most disarmament advocates have hailed it as a "good first step," and gone on to send out action alerts or make press statements in support of the treaty, calling upon the US Senate to move toward a quick ratification. It is this kind of abstracted and idealistic politics that focuses on the lofty rhetoric of elites that is the problem. The gritty reality of the New START is that only reduces a fraction of the massively redundant overkill capacities of US and Russian arsenals. In this respect the treaty is a means of economizing and further rationalizing the ability of two states to destroy most life on earth, not at all a progressive step toward disarmament in the context of justice. Furthermore, the treaty makes room for the creation of a US missile "defense" system. As is obvious to military leadership in virtually every other nation, the United States' ambitious missile system is part of its larger gambit to maintain its exponential superiority over nearly all other states in all military matters. Missile defense is meant to negate the ability of most nations to inflict possibly deterring strikes against the US mainland or its allies in the Middle East, Europe, or Asia.
But it's the treaty's purpose with respect to the US nuclear weapons establishment that is most problematic. Most nuclear abolitionists have been blind to this angle because of their fixation on idealistic rhetoric, rather than their sober concern with the material conditions of things as they play out on the ground. The sad fact is that the New START, if it is to be ratified by the US Senate, and this is a big if, will come only after the investment of many billions of dollars into the US nuclear weapons complex. This investment is specifically for the construction of massive plutonium and uranium processing and manufacturing facilities. Reinvestment in the complex has already been promised by the Obama administration with its $5 billion dollar increase for the National Nuclear Security Administration's budget over the next five years, expressly for the construction of the CMRR at Los Alamos, NM, and UPF at Oak Ridge, TN. Having traded all of this away already, it would appear that pro-nuclear Senators will attempt to wring further concessions out of the White House so that the Obama administration might have a political "win" with respect to "nuclear disarmament." Ominously it appears that the cost for this deeply flawed treaty's ratification may even include the go-ahead from Congress and the White House for the weapons labs to design new nuclear warheads, something the Bush administration failed to secure. All of this is for a treaty that does nothing with respect to disarmament, if that word is to have any meaning.
The CTBT, which the Obama administration and other Democrats have proposed for ratification would of course demand an even more costly price for any movement whatsoever.
We cannot win at this level. We probably cannot even make small incremental gains. Especially not with the advent of the new politics of anti-nuclearism in which the Obamas and Medvedev's of the world pronounce lofty intentions while prepping their nuclear weapons establishments for the next 100 years. From my perspective, straddling the worlds of academia and the daily grind of professional NGO efforts, the hard work of many disarmament organizations appears not only to be lost, but in fact co-opted in favor of giving nuclear weapons a life far into the future.
So what is the solution? It follows from this simple dictum: money makes policy. We should not focus on abstracted policy statements like the Nuclear Posture Review or President Obama's Prague speech, or concern ourselves with the possible ratification of treaties (especially ones like the New START which do practically nothing positive), or worry about the diplomatic maneuverings of states during the NPT RevCon. Taking our eyes off these inherently elitist levels of action we should refocus ourselves in the communities that are most directly effected by the nuclear weapons establishment. If money makes policy, rather than words, then we should focus our energies on military budgets, line items, programs, capital construction projects, and similarly "concrete" aspects of the nuclear armed state. If we are truly about nuclear disarmament we must publicly oppose the United State's huge investments in the nuclear weapons complex, its controversial warhead "modernization" efforts, and its two keystone projects to maintain nuclear weapons generations into the future: the CMRR at Los Alamos, and the UPF at Y-12. The concrete is now literally being poured into the foundations of this militaristic infrastructure.
Will we be so blinded by abstract ideas that we miss the material realities all around us?