April 27, 2005 3:00 am
Robert McNamara, the Vietnam-era US defence secretary and star of the Oscar-winning documentary Fog of War, recently lambasted the US for failing to fulfil its obligations under the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT).
Summing up his objections in the current edition of Foreign Policy magazine, he wrote: "I would characterise current US nuclear weapons policy as immoral, illegal, militarily unnecessary and dreadfully dangerous." His criticisms are likely to be resurrected at the 2005 NPT review conference in New York next week.
At the last conference, in 2000, participants agreed on 13 steps towards nuclear disarmament. Since then, however, many non-nuclear states have grown concerned that the five NPT nuclear states - Britain, Russia, France, China and, in particular, the US - want only to curtail the nuclear ambitions of other countries.
"While claiming to be protecting the world from proliferation threats in Iraq, Libya, Iran and North Korea, American leaders not only have abandoned existing treaty restraints but also have asserted plans to test and develop new weapons," former US president Jimmy Carter wrote last month.
One concern is the nuclear "bunker buster". President George W. Bush has asked Congress for money to study the feasibility of such a bomb, aimed at destroying targets that rogue regimes bury deep underground. Congress last year rejected a similar request.
Opponents concede that the bunker buster would not legally contravene the NPT. But they say it runs counter to the 13 steps, which include calls for "a diminishing role for nuclear weapons in security policies".
Jean du Preez, of the Monterey Institute for International Studies, says that by considering such a weapon the US is putting strain on the NPT regime by making non-nuclear states feel insecure.
Spencer Abraham, a former energy secretary, says the US is simply studying whether such a bomb would be more appropriate than convention weapons. He also points to the 2002 Treaty of Moscow, which requires the US and Russia to reduce strategic nuclear warheads by almost two-thirds by 2012, as evidence that the US is serious about disarmament.
Arms control advocates are also concerned about US administration moves to start "concept and feasibility" studies to replace the existing nuclear stockpile. A senior government official this month told Congress the administration believed it could develop a more reliable stockpile that was better suited to future threats but which would not require nuclear testing.
The move towards replacing existing warheads grew, in part, from the Pentagon's 2002 Nuclear Posture Review, which concluded the US needed weapons with lower explosive yields that were less likely to cause collateral damage and were more suited to destroying biological and chemical weapons.
"It raises concerns among other states about whether the US is trying to reduce the roles and missions of nuclear weapons," says Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association.
But the Bush administration brands this a "novel interpretation", saying the nuclear states have consistently developed new weapons. "Until now there has never been an argument that a nuclear weapons state is prohibited under the [NPT] treaty from doing feasibility studies or research and development, production or deployment of new types of nuclear weapons," a senior administration official told the FT.
Arms control advocates say US policy runs against the grain of the 13 steps. Steven Rademaker, assistant secretary of state for arms control, recently said they were a product of their era, suggesting they would not be reaffirmed at next week's conference. Opponents say this creates a big problem for the NPT.
"If one group of states decides to cherry pick which articles, which parts of agreements - whether they are legally or politically binding - are applicable to them, then why can Iran not do the same?" says Mr du Preez.
George Perkovich, of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says the US has adopted a fundamentally new position on nuclear weapons. "Nuclear weapons are not the problem - the problem is bad guys with nuclear weapons," he says.
In light of North Korea's withdrawal from the NPT and its claim to have nuclear weapons, and increased concerns about Iran's nuclear ambitions, the US argues that the NPT conference must change its focus.
The senior administration official said the US would emphasise issues about compliance with non-proliferation obligations at the conference. His views are echoed by Mr Abraham, who says a key challenge for the NPT will be how to deal with situations such as North Korea, where a country can legally go to the brink of developing nuclear weapons and then withdraw from the treaty.
Some observers go further, saying the NPT is impeding the US from maintaining a credible nuclear deterrent while permitting countries such as North Korea to remove the shackles on their nuclear programmes.
Frank Gaffney, founder of the Center for Security Policy, says the US should make it clear it considers itself a nuclear power and needs to maintain a credible nuclear deterrent, which he says requires a renewed debate about the need for nuclear testing.
Only on one point - that there are serious cracks in the NPT - is there agreement on all sides. Mr du Preez says that, to prevent the NPT from becoming an anachronism, the 2005 conference must address North Korea's withdrawal.
"If the NPT states cannot express themselves very clearly on probably one of the most significant events in the history of the treaty - a state that has actually walked away from the treaty and developed nuclear weapons - then what is the purpose of this treaty?"
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