scholars and rogues

The Deproliferator: Can an FMCT restore our faith in disarmament treaties?


In his recent Arms Control Today article, Five Plus Three: How to Have a Meaningful and Helpful Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty, Christopher Ford writes of the Obama administration’s intention to conclude the Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty. However vaguely obscene the name might sound to the public, it would be advised to note that “a treaty cutting off production of fissile material, highly enriched uranium. . . and plutonium, for nuclear weapons,” as he describes it, is as noble as any international enterprise.

The FMCT, Ford continues, “has been a key objective of the UN Conference on Disarmament (CD) for many years, [but] that organization seems unable to break out of its now customary paralysis [which] should encourage the Obama administration. . . to look to another forum for realization. … because pursuit of an FMCT as currently contemplated at the CD might well [wind up] gravely undermining the nuclear nonproliferation regime.”

For those unfamiliar with Christopher Ford, he served as the Bush administration’s special representative for nuclear nonproliferation. His writings at that time exhibited the Bush administration’s aversion to international organizations as well, of course, as treaties such as the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

For example, in his November 2007 Nonproliferation Review piece, Debating Disarmament: Interpreting Article VI of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, he claimed that because of vague language, “Specific disarmament steps are not required by Article VI.” All that’s required are negotiations in good faith, which don’t even need to be concluded.

Beyond that, he conjectured that a United States-Russian nuclear disarmament relationship might one day consist of only “the reciprocal exchange of various sorts of transparency and confidence-building measures.” Which are “more appropriate to the current strategic situation than the pursuit of further Cold War-style arms control agreements.” Yes, he actually believes that a major nuclear power would disarm without binding agreements.

Nor did he make any attempts to hide his contempt for the arms control movement, whose “conventional wisdom,” he wrote in that piece, is “still all too wedded to Cold War-era concepts and approaches.” But it was in a November 2008 Arms Control Today, piece entitled A New Paradigm: Shattering Obsolete Thinking on Arms Control and Nonproliferation, that he really laid into the arms control community, even though he’d left the employ of Bush & Co. by then (all emphases added):

“The Bush administration. . . brought into office a profound skepticism about traditional arms control negotiations, which officials tended to feel were anachronisms predicated on a tense and competitive Cold War stalemate that no longer existed.” It found ways to “engage constructively with foreign counterparts. . . in a fashion intended to contribute to [help] the arms control community catch up with modern realities.”

“Sooner or later, [the arms control] community will. . . have to struggle with how to adapt its conceptual paradigms to the 21st century. When it does. . . the arms controllers will owe the Bush administration much for having opened the debate.”

Presumably arms control publications saw fit to publish him because he represented the friendly opposition. As if the Bush administration were lacking for a media forum. In any event, now ensconced in the Hudson Institute (once the haunt of Herman Kahn) Ford seems to have freed himself of the need to contort himself into untenable positions to inflate the Bush administration’s record. In fact, unless this author’s exclusion from the field prevents him from being privy to a hidden agenda on his part, Ford has developed a newfound commitment to nonproliferation.

As his remark in his new piece about its “customary paralysis” demonstrates, he’s still no fan of the UN. But, as evidenced by all the thought he’s given to overhauling plans for an FMCT, he’s no longer treaty-averse, as he was when he nit-picked the NPT’s Article VI and Preamble to death with petty legalistic arguments. In his new piece, his skepticism is more constructively engaged with, for the most part, the issue of verification.

Verification: Where the Rubber Meets the Road

Before we continue with Ford’s revisions to an FMCT, let’s address the article that precedes Ford’s in the March Arms Control Today, Complete Cutoff: Designing a Comprehensive Fissile Material Treaty, by Arend Meerburg and Frank N. von Hippel, who also propose a new approach to the FCMT. Initial negotiations, they write (emphases added):

. . . began and sputtered out. . . stalled largely over disagreements about the negotiating agenda of the CD. For years, many countries have supported a proposal to have a CD work program that [also included] nuclear disarmament, [an] agreement by the nuclear-weapon states not to use. . . nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon states, and the prevention of an arms race in outer space. The U.S. position, however, has been that negotiations on an FMCT should not be linked to negotiations on other issues.
To facilitate negotiations. . . the International Panel on Fissile Materials (IPFM), of which we are members, decided to produce an alternative to the U.S. draft FMCT. [It] would prohibit using. . . pre-existing stocks of non-weapons fissile materials for nuclear weapons and include verification. … Because it goes beyond a cutoff of future production, we designate the IPFM draft treaty as a fissile material (cutoff) treaty [FM(C)T].

Inserting parentheses — “(cutoff)” and “(C)”: talk about your bold strokes. Sorry, couldn’t resist. Fleshed out, their proposals are actually sound. First, though, they write:

By calling for a verifiable treaty, the Obama administration appears to have rejected the Bush administration’s position that an FMCT could not be effectively verified. The [latter’s] draft FMCT. . . did not contain any provisions for international verification.

Meerburg and von Hippel acknowledge the challenges that verification presents:
1. Detecting diversion of HEU in naval reactors to weapons.
2. The need for all nuclear-weapon states to agree to the Additional Protocol.
3. Overcoming objections from those who favor a “‘focused approach’ to verification. . . that only banned new production of fissile materials.” They write: “The focused [try “exclusionary” – Ed.] approach would be insufficient. . . for the more extensive treaty we envision, which should capture as much fissile material as possible, not only that newly produced.” [Emphasis added.]
4. Detecting undeclared (old) HEU production at enrichment plants. The authors point out that Princeton fissile material expert Alexander Glaser believes that the state of the art in “age-dating [of] small particles of HEU [should make it] possible to distinguish new particles from pre-1988 particles.”

In summary, Meerburg and von Hippel write:

The work done by [our group] thus far encourages us to believe that it should be feasible technically for an FMCT to capture under IAEA safeguards pre-existing stocks of fissile material in civilian use, … military use, and in naval fuel reserves and to verify the treaty about as well as the NPT can be verified in non-nuclear-weapon states.

Ford, however, still shares the Bush administration’s skepticism that verification can succeed. In fact, he hopes to sidestep it with a “focused approach” of his own.

. . . NPT non-nuclear-weapon states are already prohibited by NPT Article II from “manufactur[ing] or otherwise acquir[ing] nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices,” … The only reason that an FMCT would be interesting [typical Ford. — Ed.] or valuable, therefore, lies in its potential to constrain fissile material production for weapons purposes in the NPT nuclear-weapon states and in countries such as India, Israel, and Pakistan presently outside the NPT but which have demonstrated or are presumed to have nuclear weapons. [For the countries in the second category], an FMCT would. . . formally constrain the size of their nuclear weapons programs for the first time. [Emphasis added.]

In other words, he writes, it would be necessary “to relax the reflexive requirement. . . that an FMCT be nondiscriminatory and universal.” Treat, that is, “possessors of nuclear weapons differently than nonpossessors. … Because an FMCT would not add meaningfully to the obligations of NPT non-nuclear-weapon states anyway, why bother with all the. . . negotiating headaches of. . . having to wrestle with accommodating an additional four or five dozen members [phrase inserted from elsewhere. — Ed.]. . . [of the] CD when all one really wants to do is reach eight states (China, France, India, Israel, Pakistan, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States)?

Limiting one’s FMCT approach to the “Five Plus Three” countries “would. . . tailor [the FMCT] to the wrong of fissile material production for nuclear explosive purposes in the only countries for which this is not already prohibited by international law.”

Ford retains some of his distaste for treaties in general: “. . . diplomats’ instinctive faith in the power of diplomacy to improve the world should not be allowed to become naivete: where interests fundamentally diverge, fine talk and clever drafting cannot be expected to bridge them.” But in the end, he’d like to see this one work: “. . . a flexible approach outside the CD, however, may offer the best chance there is for an FMCT.

Trying to unify 65 states will likely yield, at best, a watered-down treaty. The plans that Meerburg and von Hippel, as well as Ford, have devised seem, to these inexpert eyes anyway, to offer more realistic opportunities for success.

The Deproliferator (the column’s title, not the author’s nom de plume) will cover nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament, with an emphasis on treaties, negotiation, and diplomacy. The author is not employed in the arms control field.

A term coined by sociologist and professor of international relations Amitai Etzioni, “deproliferation,” he writes, “calls for removing the access to nuclear arms and the materials from which they can readily be made — first and foremost in unstable and noncompliant states, and only then in all others.”

Whatever the merits of this approach, it lends itself to reinforcing the distinction between the nuclear haves and have-nots. Fond of his phrase, though, we’re appropriating it to our own ends. For the purposes of this column, deproliferation means, simply, disarmament.