International Order & Conflict

Getting to Work on Fissile Material Production and Space Security

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By Michael Krepon – The 65-nation Conference on Disarmament in Geneva is tied up in knots because it operates by consensus and because it proceeds as if the Cold War never ended.  Its last substantive achievement was the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in 1996. A fragile consensus was reached last May to tackle an agenda that includes negotiations on a treaty banning fissile material production for nuclear weapons and discussions on new measures to enhance space security.  But this work program has once again been stymied by the CD’s consensus rule. This time, the most reluctant party is Pakistan, which has backtracked by raising concerns over the scope of a prospective cutoff treaty.  Because the CD’s agenda items are linked, discussions on preventing further tests of anti-satellite weapons can also remain in limbo.   

In 1999, the Tokyo Forum, a group of international experts assembled by the Government of Japan, reached the following conclusion: “The Conference on Disarmament should suspend its operations unless it can revise its procedures, update its work program, and carry out purposeful work.”  There can no longer be any doubt that alternative means and venues are required to work on fissile material production and space security.  My suggestion is to create small, ad hoc bodies organized by states with vested interests in successful outcomes.  Results-oriented states can now send a clear signal of their intentions by dispensing with the consensus rule in these ad hoc bodies.  Participating states can provide progress reports to the moribund CD, and if talks produce worthwhile agreements, they can be sent to the CD for approval.  Alternatively, as was the case with the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, an agreed text can be routed directly to the United Nations General Assembly to receive that body’s overwhelming endorsement. 

Accords reached in this manner risk losing the adherence of key states that feel disenfranchised – a significant drawback if the outliers are major powers. But the alternative – if consensus remains elusive – is no meaningful discussions or negotiations whatsoever. The first option is regrettable.  The second option is much worse than regrettable.  

The perils of not securing consensus were on display in the negotiating end game of the Test Ban Treaty.  New Delhi withdrew its support for the CTBT in Geneva at the eleventh hour, which led to the Treaty’s unusual submittal to the United Nations. We cannot, however, blame the consensus rule for the CTBT remaining in limbo, because India has company: ten other countries (including Pakistan) have yet to sign the CTBT, while the United States, China, and seven other key countries have yet to deposit their instruments of ratification. The real culprit here is not the consensus rule, but the CTBT’s wretched entry-into-force provision, which requires no less than 44 states to ratify. This poison pill provision – the handiwork of Great Britain, France, Russia and China – offers foot draggers incentives rather than penalties.   

Islamabad’s concerns over the scope and timing of a fissile material cutoff treaty clarify the obvious: this treaty faces a very long and bumpy road. The few countries now producing fissile material for nuclear weapons are doing so because of deeply-felt national security concerns. They are also extremely leery of monitoring required for confidence in compliance.  

Islamabad’s blocking maneuver may be temporary, but it speaks volumes about the mindset of Pakistan’s nuclear stewards.  Even before the U.S.-India civil nuclear cooperation agreement championed by President George W. Bush, Pakistan was planning the construction of two additional plutonium production reactors.  Prospects for progress on the cutoff became more remote after the U.S. Congress and the Nuclear Suppliers Group endorsed the deal, which loosened global rules of nuclear commerce to benefit India without requiring compensatory steps to shore up global nonproliferation norms. A similar deal was nixed for Pakistan. 

Islamabad’s stiffened response reflects concerns over India’s plans for fast breeder reactors that can produce large quantities of bomb-making material, its new ability to purchase fuel from nuclear suppliers, as well as growing concerns that Washington and Beijing may not be counted on to provide back-up when needed.  

It will be very hard to bring Pakistan, India and Israel on board the cutoff treaty. But the road ahead does not improve by delaying the trip. Security concerns may be alleviated in part by a combination of remote and in situ monitoring, which were dismissed by the Bush administration, but which can now be contemplated – yet another reason for an ad hoc body to begin discussions on the cutoff. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and a cutoff treaty may evolve from many prior steps, including a moratorium among major powers that becomes a test bed for monitoring arrangements.   

Discussions on space security measures also face tough sledding.  Agreements limiting military options in space are extremely rare: the last major accomplishment, the Outer Space Treaty, was negotiated over forty years ago.  Nuclear negotiations usually take priority over space talks, and useful advances can easily be lost through overreaching. If, for example, Moscow and Beijing now insist on renegotiating parts of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, a rare opportunity to prevent anti-satellite tests will be lost.  Time is wasting – and important opportunities can be lost by waiting for the CD to get its act together. 

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