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Ford responds to Russ Wellen’s questions on FMCT


Russ Wellen – who blogs as “The Deproliferator” – wrote to ask Ford three tough questions in response to the first NPF posting (on July 20, 2009) on Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty (FMCT) verification and Ford's March 2009 article on FMCT in Arms Control Today. [His comments appear as a “guest blog” on this site, as the previous NPF entry.]

1) First, Wellen wonders how one could ever expect North Korea, Iran, India, and Pakistan – which he terms “the problem countries” from an FMCT perspective – to “sign on to a protocol with a voluntary or unmonitored elements such as independent judgment and consultations.”

It’s a good question, but it’s also a question that isn’t any less tough when applied to an FMCT protocol that has involuntary and monitored verification elements.  (If anything, that would make it tougher.)  What reason do we have to believe these countries would accept a treaty with even a modestly serious attempt at verification?

North Korea threw a tantrum and walked away from the Six-Party Process – expelling international verifiers, announcing plans to reopen the plutonium production reactor at Yongbyon, and declaring a nuclear weapons test in the process – after being presented with a U.S. plan designed to verify the denuclearization that Pyongyang had repeatedly promised.  Iran won’t accept even the IAEA’s Additional Protocol, denies ever having violated its comprehensive safeguards agreement, and continues to play rope-a-dope with IAEA inspectors over evidence of Tehran’s work on weaponization.  And the speechifying that accompanied the May agreement by the U.N.’s Conference on Disarmament (CD) to its current FMCT-inclusive work plan already saw the Indians and Pakistanis arming up for a political war of suggesting mutually-incompatible verification provisions in these treaty negotiations.

Wellen seems not to trust such countries with compliant behavior under a purely normative FMCT – as the United States preferred under the Bush Administration – and I certainly share some misgivings.  I wonder, however, whether these countries would ever agree to an FMCT.  Moreover, having “real” verification measures might actually make their agreement harder.  These are clearly not governments very keen to empower foreign inspectors to poke around their nuclear establishments, and the closer to “effective” the  verification system would become – and we shouldn’t forget that the CD’s negotiating mandate now again requires “effective verification” – the more they would presumably squirm.

As I understood the Bush Administration position on FMCT – and I think I understood it pretty well! – Washington had no illusions about the trustworthiness of negotiating partners such as Iran and North Korea, and some skepticism about whether the CD would ever be able to birth such a treaty.  It was certainly understood that there would be scope for cheating in an FMCT without international verification provisions.  It was felt, however, that because of the inherent difficulty of the project, there would be significant scope for cheating no matter what verification protocol was negotiated.  That was precisely the problem: “effective verification,” it was felt, was essentially impossible under any FMCT U.S. officials felt could be negotiated.

At least honestly admitting that it couldn’t be done, it was thought, would do something to prevent the international community from sitting back complacently on its haunches, assuming that the problem had been solved because some inspectors were on the payroll.  Without verification provisions, countries would understand the need to watch each other by “national means and methods” which includes spying – and one wouldn’t be confronted with silly arguments that things must be alright because some cadre of inadequately equipped international inspectors with insufficient legal authority hadn’t found anything in a troublesome country.  (Knowing that you don’t know is much better than not realizing it!)

In any event, the problem of agreeing upon verification measures wouldn’t be greater in the “Five Plus Three” FMCT I advocated in my March 2009 article in Arms Control Today than it now will be in the CD.  All Wellen’s “problem countries” are still in the mix, with consensus required in order for the CD to do anything at all.  Compared to my proposal, the CD’s current approach adds more than 50 additional governments – countries whose views would have to be accommodated, but for which an FMCT would add in no meaningful way to their nonproliferation commitments.  (Non-weapons states are already prohibited, by the NPT, from producing fissile material for weapons.)

By contrast, with my extra-CD approach, there would not only be fewer cooks in the negotiating kitchen, but one would also be free to work verification problems on something other than a rigid, “one-size-fits-all” basis.  (Moreover, if some country really proved to be a problem, it could perhaps be bypassed.)  One virtue of a more ad hoc approach outside the CD is that it could develop flexibly, and need not emerge in one great negotiating spasm involving more than 60 delegations.

True, maybe it wouldn’t work.  But that doesn’t distinguish my “Five Plus Three” scenario – or the Bush Administration’s preferred approach of a universal but purely normative FMCT – from the current negotiating mandate agreed upon by the CD.  In the end, none of these ideas might fly.  The question, however, is which one has the best chance both of being negotiated and of actually providing a useful contribution to global security upon its entry into force.  Unfortunately, as I indicated in my previous blog on this subject, I think the CD may now have picked the worst of the three approaches.

2) Second, Wellen asks how countries could be convinced to sign on to my “Five Plus Three” approach when my suggestion of moving the FMCT question out of the U.N. Conference on Disarmament (CD) seems “out of step – whether behind or ahead – with the times” because “unilateralism ... [and] self-policing” no longer finds political favor.

In response, I would note first that in my “Five Plus Three” article I don’t dig in my heels in favor of a solely normative FMCT and against any attempt at international verification measures.  To be sure, I have my doubts about whether such measures could do what’s needed, and I think it’s not much short of crazy just to assume “effective verification” can be achieved.  But I’m not opposed to looking into the question, and I’d be pleased to be surprised by finding such verification possible after all.

Indeed, my suspicion is that if there is any chance of “effective  verification,” it probably lies not with the CD’s current approach but with something along the lines of my “Five Plus Three” suggestion.  Doing things among the “Eight” amongst themselves, as I indicated above, allows for at least the possibility of flexibility in negotiating verification measures.  Is it a given that each actual or presumed weapons possessor must be subject to precisely the same measures?  Perhaps an extra-CD approach could tailor verification measures to the specific circumstances of each of the “Eight.”  The process would even permit supplementary bilateral deals, or multilateral solutions among a subset of participants, that could be designed to meet specific concerns (e.g., one country’s particular worries about a regional rival) without burdening everyone with those particular arrangements.  Who knows?  Maybe things could work without having to fit every circumstance into the same template.  And maybe not.  But why preclude such flexibility in advance by assuming that everything must be worked out by consensus, on a global basis, at the CD?

As for whether “self-policing” is in or out of political favor, Wellen may be right.  I guess we’ll just have to see.  If the Obama Administration runs into a negotiating wall with its high hopes for a consensus-agreed “effectively verifiable” Treaty – and doesn’t just play hide-the-ball by simply pretending that effective verification has been achieved – perhaps you’ll see Washington warm up again to the idea of a purely normative FMCT.  If the choice starts to look like one between a Bush-style treaty and no treaty, the Obama team might start to change its tune.  (And there’s already a very carefully crafted U.S.-written normative treaty draft out there, just waiting for support ….)

3) Third, Wellen wonders how I would hope to “sell the CD on confining the FCMT to the ‘five NPT
nuclear-weapon states and the three non-NPT outliers,’ as [I] advocate.”

Well, I don’t advocate selling the CD, per se, on a “Five Plus Three” FMCT plan.  In fact, I would support pursuing such a treaty outside the CD entirely.  I admit that the CD would probably resent this, for reasons both of principle and of crass self-interest. As I acknowledge in my article, there would surely be resistance to moving FMCT work out of the CD because this would be seen as a vote of no-confidence in the U.N.’s arms control negotiating body.  Delegations to the CD from countries not involved in “Five Plus Three” talks might also feel slighted, and suspect that the shifty nuclear weapons possessors were conspiring to come to a “separate peace” behind the backs of the more virtuous non-possessors.  And many diplomats would probably resent missing the chance to guarantee their full employment in the comforts of Geneva while negotiating a universal FMCT for years to come.

Nevertheless, perhaps we should accept bruising some feelings at the CD if in return we could actually have a good FMCT.  I suspect that if a good treaty were developed outside the CD, it could be “sold” to the rest of the international community on precisely those merits, even if it had been brought about by unorthodox means.  (“If you build it, they will come.”)  In the end, perhaps good substance wouldn’t sell.  But if the substance isn’t good, who cares if it makes the diplomats happy?  I, for one, would be perfectly happy with no FMCT if the alternative were to have a bad one.  Arms control is too important not to be done right; if you can’t do it in a way that actually contributes to international peace and security, it’s perfectly appropriate just to walk away.

– Christopher Ford

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