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Some Thoughts on NPT “Guardians,” “Spoilers,” and “Free Riders”


This is the written version of remarks delivered at an event in Washington, D.C. on April 28, 2010, jointly sponsored by the Henry L. Stimson Center and the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies.

Good morning.  Let me begin by thanking the Stimson Center and the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies for organizing this event.  The 2010 Review Conference for the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) begins next week, and a panel discussion of the Treaty’s “guardians, free riders, and spoilers” is both very timely and a useful way to explore dynamics within the NPT today.

I.          Guardians and Guardianship

It won’t surprise anyone to hear that I consider the United States to be the Treaty’s foremost and truest “guardian” – though it is not the only one.  Co-drafter of the text that became the final version of the Treaty and steadfast promoter of the NPT in subsequent years, Washington has an unequaled record in this respect.  Much of this leading role has resulted from America’s size, power, and position.  The United States feels a strong interest in ensuring the success of the regime, and because it is the most powerful state on the planet, the rest of the world generally looks to it in order to set the broad direction of international nonproliferation policy.  Washington retains a significant ability to set policy trends on its own, while without its support no one else’s approaches are worth too much: one can perhaps be a wrecker without America’s support, but it remains very hard to build constructively without Washington on board.

Supporters of the Treaty should be thankful for America’s longstanding and continuing support.  It has led international efforts to work compliance enforcement concerns through the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Board of Governors and the U.N. Security Council.  It has provided huge and indispensable sums of entirely voluntary, extra-budgetary funding for IAEA safeguards, and the U.S. taxpayer has provided many billions of dollars to fund nuclear material control initiatives around the world.  The United States has helped lead the way in developing more proliferation-resistant nuclear energy technologies, and has pioneered innovative approaches such as the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism (GICNT), and Security Council Resolution 1540 – cornerstones of the international community’s response to the challenges of trafficking of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) technology and non-state actor access to nuclear materials.  And even as U.S. nuclear forces have been cut dramatically, to about a quarter of their Cold War highs – a process which is still ongoing – American non-nuclear military muscle continues to underpin the nonproliferation regime as the world’s “last resort” in the face of nuclear provocations.  No other country is able, or has shown any desire, to play such an extraordinary and pivotal role.  Without such U.S. guardianship, there would today be no meaningful nonproliferation regime at all.

This much, I think, is inarguable.  One problem with the idea of “guardianship,” however, is that it is a category into which all sorts of other players also see themselves falling – and in quite inconsistent ways.  Depending upon how various portions of the NPT are interpreted, and of which part of the Treaty each player regards itself as being a particular champion, things can become quite problematic.

There exists a sizeable bloc of countries, for instance, that purport to regard themselves as the “guardians” of NPT equity with respect to disarmament.  It is open to argument how faithful this vision actually is to the Treaty – for many such partisans hew, in effect, to a version of the Treaty’s disarmament provisions that was never actually adopted, and championing interpretations based upon subsequent political expectations rather than the text or meaning of Article VI.  Their self-assigned role in support of disarmament equities, however, is no less real for all that.  This bloc – centered upon the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) but including no small number of additional players – tends to downplay nonproliferation as a policy priority, at least relatively, and even in some cases implicitly to excuse proliferation on the grounds that disarmament of the NPT nuclear weapons states (NWS) has not occurred with sufficient rapidity.  When expressed in such manifestations, disarmament “guardianship” tends to pull collective NPT policy formation in directions inimical to the Treaty’s overarching purpose of preventing the further spread of nuclear weapons.

A second group, led rather mischievously and with obvious self-exculpatory interest by Iran, present themselves as “guardians” of NPT standards with respect to the peaceful uses of nuclear energy.  (These groups are by no means mutually exclusive, however, and in fact they overlap considerably.)  As members of this group claim to see it, the most important part of the Treaty – or at least a part having an importance coequal to nonproliferation, and with which nonproliferation policy must to some extent compromise its objectives – is the NPT’s language about sharing the benefits of nuclear technology.  Through the interpretive prism they offer, this general principle of benefit sharing is reified into a legal obligation to share, and a concomitant legal “right” of every country to develop any nuclear technology it likes, provided that it is devoted to “peaceful” purposes.  By their lights, the Treaty refuses to condition technology development and technology transfer upon proliferation risk, and it is positively offensive – or worse – for anyone to do so.  (This argument, for example, underpins Iran’s remarkable claim that nonproliferation export controls are violations of the NPT.)  This vision of “guardianship” is highly problematic, turning Article IV into a weapon gleefully employed to undermine the nonproliferation regime by facilitating the spread of fissile material production capabilities and thus driving us toward a world of ubiquitous “virtual” nuclear weapons states.

These two groups both claim, at least, to have the real interests of the NPT at heart, so it’s hard to know what to make of the idea of Treaty “guardians.”  My own view is that the politicized antics of the “Article IV” faction and the “Article VI” faction have been terribly damaging to the NPT, and to the nonproliferation regime as a whole.  I have heard it suggested in reply, however, that my own “Article II” faction – those states focused above all upon addressing the crisis of nonproliferation noncompliance facing the regime today – is really the one that has things wrong.  With these debates having long since become highly politicized, we face something of an intellectual stalemate – or rather a non-intellectual one, for matters have regressed to the point where NPT theology counts for more than textual or historical analysis.

Displaying its characteristic discomfort with making hard choices in the national security realm, the Obama Administration has in effect declared these competing positions to offer no more than false choices.  We can, it suggests, have our cake and eat it too, as it were, by simultaneously strengthening all three “pillars” of the Treaty.  Trying obligingly to be all things to all critics, however – or at least to all critics abroad, at any rate, for domestic ones tend to be ignored – the administration has so far refused usefully to clarify its views of what Articles IV and VI actually mean, desperately seeking to avoid giving offense to foreign audiences by sticking to vague platitudes that seem not to contradict the proliferation-facilitating Treaty-interpretive hokum articulated by others.

A false belief in the existence of false choices, however, provides no resolution.  It is unlikely that at this upcoming Review Conference (RevCon), U.S. diplomats will be able to avoid some entanglement in these debates, and it is improbable that their ceding of the intellectual field and the moral high ground to their opponents will end up being of much value.  America’s continuing guardianship role in the regime will continue to be simultaneously under-appreciated and taken advantage of by free riders, while U.S. rhetorical and substantive concessions to the Article IV and Article VI factions will probably not win us much in the nonproliferation compliance enforcement struggles upon the successful resolution of which hinges the future of the regime.  America’s guardian role will continue, but it seems more difficult than ever.

II.          Spoilers

The most obvious potential “spoiler” for the upcoming Review Conference, of course, is Iran.  At a hearing last week, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Howard Berman expressed his belief that under the circumstances, a successful conference would be one “united in its condemnation of Iran’s nuclear program.”  Obama Administration officials, however, quickly downplayed Berman’s admirable idea of success.  My successor as America’s lead NPT diplomat, Susan Burk, pointed out that the NPT forum usually operates by consensus, and that Iran will be in the room – limiting what it will be possible to achieve.  And it is true that Iran has played procedural games and caused considerable trouble at past meetings, and it certainly could do so again.

At the very least, we may therefore expect that it will prove very difficult to say anything particularly useful or constructive about nonproliferation noncompliance – and that this will, in turn, limit the RevCon’s ability to contribute to solving the NPT regime’s problems.  The conference is thus caught in a bind.  To say anything particularly meaningful about the regime’s current crisis over Iran seems procedurally problematic on account of the presence of the Iranians themselves in a largely consensus-based group, yet not to address this most pressing of issues will surely powerfully damage the credibility of the Review process.  The NPT forum has already said next to nothing about North Korea’s withdrawal from the Treaty in 2003, with delegations still embarrassingly at odds over whether Pyongyang is actually still a State Party, and successive chairmen stuck in a weird and continuing game of literally hiding North Korea’s placard behind the podium in order to avoid having to rule on the issue.  Is the NPT Review process now to ignore Iran’s nuclear defiance too?  This would be another grave blow.

Discussion of Iran as a “spoiler,” however, really belongs under the taxonomical category of NPT “cheats”: its spoiler role is derivative of its status as a scofflaw.  Of course a treaty violator that is permitted to keep coming to meetings as if it were a member in good standing of the regime community will exercise a malign influence in keeping those meetings from properly addressing the challenge it is itself creating.  More interesting, perhaps, are the spoilers who aren’t cheats, but who have played a role – or who could play a role – in derailing things.

The most obvious player in this regard is Egypt, though it is hardly alone and must today be counted merely as the de facto leader of a group of Arab governments who have been beating the diplomatic drum over the Israeli nuclear question.  I share Michael’s suspicion that this may really have to do more with Iran than with Israel, but for RevCon procedural purposes that distinction is not necessarily important.  Either way, Egypt is well positioned with pre-prepared excuses for causing trouble – as it did by scuppering last-minute efforts to reach consensus on key issues at the 2005 Review Conference.

It is not clear whether Egypt will choose to obstruct the upcoming RevCon, what concession it might hope to be given in return for any forbearance, or even whether Cairo’s objective is in fact really to obtain some concession at all.  (It is not impossible that its whole point is to pick an unresolvable fight.)  To be sure, Egypt suffered considerable embarrassment from its behavior at the 2005 RevCon, for while a number of countries enjoyed spreading stories that it was (of course!) the United States that was really responsible for the deadlock there, participants were well aware of Egypt’s role as spoiler – and this has hardly been forgotten today.  Yet Cairo seems determined at least to encourage the belief that it might choose to sink consensus in 2010 as well.  It is anybody’s guess, at this point, how things will develop.

Interestingly, the Egyptian case points us to the fact that the role of “spoiler” and the role of “guardian” can sometimes get entangled.  To hear its diplomats tell the story, Egypt is the true guardian of one of the NPT’s most cherished ambitions: treaty universality.  It is in the name of this value – specifically, the accession of Israel to the Treaty as a non-nuclear weapons state (NNWS) – that Egypt has all but explicitly threatened to take the 2010 RevCon hostage, and this issue was also central to the Egyptian-led debacle in the procedural endgame in 2005.  Nor was even 2005 the first instance in which soi-disant guardianship of multilateral diplomatic principles led countries deliberately to undercut efforts to handle NPT crises through multilateral diplomatic mechanisms.  Two years earlier, one will recall, European diplomats’ desire to teach America a post-Iraq lesson led Britain, France, and Germany to delay and sabotage efforts to deal with the Iranian crisis through the IAEA Board of Governors and the U.N. Security Council by cutting a concessionary side deal with Tehran.  We are still suffering the consequences of that move even today.

At any rate, it seems clear that self-assigned “guardian” status can sometimes lead to paradoxical results – a point which those same Europeans would perhaps also have made, in the context of the Iraq War, about America’s role as the only available military “muscle” behind the nonproliferation regime – and even to the development of a “spoiler” role.  In the absence of a greater sense of shared values, common understandings about what the core principles of the NPT and the nonproliferation regime actually are, and agreement about the prioritization of Treaty-related objectives, we should expect that such dynamics will not abate any time soon.

III.          Free Riders

The idea of a “free rider” could encompass various situations, though some uses of this label are more heuristically useful than others.  It’s not uncommon, for example, to describe NPT “outliers” – that is, non-parties such as India, Pakistan, and Israel – as free riders.  Such non-parties, one hears it said, take advantage of NPT adherence and compliance by its NNWS: the Treaty prevents weapons development by the NNWS, which serves the interest of nuclear-armed non-parties in avoiding competition.

I’m not sure how useful the “free rider” concept is in dealing with the outliers, however.  India and Pakistan, for instance, don’t seem to “free ride” in any really significant way on NNWS compliance with the NPT, since the focus of their strategic and political-military concern is not with NPT NNWS but with other outliers (each other) and, for India, with an NPT nuclear weapons state (China).  Through the prism of Indo-Pakistani strategic planning, the Treaty probably adds little, if anything, of value: their main concerns lie with neighbors and rivals who aren’t NNWS as all.  For its part, by this standard, North Korea was in some sense a free rider for a while, violating the NPT while within it, but this period is best discussed as an example of a “cheating” rather than “free riding.”  Since Treaty withdrawal in 2003, moreover, Pyongyang isn’t too usefully described as a free rider either, except insofar as the NPT still helps keep South Korea from building up a formidable and sophisticated countervailing arsenal.

Israel, which most commentators not implausibly assume to possess nuclear weapons, is perhaps the clearest case of a “free rider” outside the regime.  If one believes publicly-available accounts of its nuclear program, however, Tel Aviv didn’t undertake its nuclear development in the expectation of anyone else’s compliance with the NPT, or even with any eye to NPT dynamics at all.  Israel is reputed to have developed nuclear weapons before the NPT existed, and its calculations in going down this road seem to have had essentially nothing to do with other countries’ nuclear forbearance.  (Instead, the basic problem appears to have been quite structural and non-nuclear, at least originally.  Israel was – and remains – a tiny country run by a people with an acute historical experience of near-catastrophic genocidal oppression, and who are today still surrounded by hostile, larger neighbors some of whom still feel its very existence to be offensive and illegitimate.)  It is certainly in Israel’s interest that others in the region both adhere to and comply with the NPT – and here Iran comes most obviously to mind – and in this sense Tel Aviv could indeed be termed a free rider, but free riding does not appear to be a driver of Israeli policy.  The term, in fact, is an unhelpfully shallow and dismissive one with which to describe a motivation of basic survival, and doesn’t seem a very useful prism in this case.

I don’t disagree with Michael’s identification of the People’s Republic of China as a free rider within the NPT system.  Heading “the wrong way” in its nuclear build-up while happily hiding behind its own protestations of disarmament rectitude and taking advantage of the disarmament community’s preference for anti-American rhetoric, Beijing clearly is.

To my eye, however, a more interesting discussion of free riders wouldn’t confine itself to nuclear weapons development, but would rather acknowledge that most NPT NNWS are “free riders” within the NPT, in the sense that they “consume” the public good of general NPT compliance – a resource created in great disproportion through the blood, sweat, and tears of real Treaty “guardians” such as the United States – without doing much of anything in return.  On one level, an NNWS that would have developed nuclear weapons but for the NPT might be said to have “paid” for this public good by such forbearance, but this argument only goes so far.  For one thing, maintenance of a serious international regime requires more than just a lazily self-satisfied focus upon one’s own compliance: it requires work to ensure compliance by others and otherwise shore up the regime when and where this is needed.  Those who look only to tending their own garden, leaving compliance enforcement entirely to others, cannot call themselves good citizens of the regime in the truest sense of the term.  Second, most NNWS aren’t interested in developing nuclear weapons anyway, or they lack any meaningful ability to do so, or both.  In political terms, this limits the ability of such states to claim credit for nuclear forbearance, for in practice they pay no opportunity cost by complying with Article II.  At best, theirs is a theoretical sacrifice, and while it is not quite nothing to forebear on such terms, one should not weigh such merely notional “costs” too highly against the concrete sacrifices made by others on behalf of the regime.

Most NNWS thus take advantage of the commitment to nonproliferation shown by leader states – most prominently the United States – that are willing to bear burdens in support of nonproliferation policy.  In my experience, while almost all governments pay lip service to the importance of preventing the further spread of nuclear weapons, depressingly few are willing to work hard toward this end when such work is actually demanding.  Instead, they seem to assume that in the end, proliferation is really an American problem and will thus be dealt with, if it can be dealt with at all, by the United States.  If it can’t be dealt with, of course, this is all the more reason not to stick one’s neck out now.  In either case, the result is the same: national inaction and free riding.

Operational passivity by free riders also comes in handy if the costs of compliance enforcement prove high, if actions taken against violators end up producing unintended bad side effects, or if problems arise when action is taken on the basis of faulty information.  In such cases, one can always blame the actor who presumed to take such steps “on its own.”  In short, life is easy for a free rider as long as the big guys do the work and are blamed for any adverse consequences.  (By contrast, of course, regime successes are regime successes: they tend to be claimed as a collective triumph.)

I don’t mean to suggest that anyone would ever expect differently-situated countries to make identical contributions to the public good of nonproliferation compliance enforcement, irrespective of power, wealth, size, and position.  Nevertheless, too few countries seem willing to pull even their modest nonproliferation weight, and it seems clear that the free rider phenomenon is alive and well.

I would imagine that free-riding is to some extent inevitable in any system in which actors retain a measure of operational free will.  It only becomes really problematic when it leads to the under-production – or non-production – of the resource that is consumed.  In the NPT context, this would occur if the behavior of NNWS who benefit from the Treaty regime, but who rely upon “guardians” to do the hard work of actually stopping the spread of nuclear weaponry, led to the failure of leader-state efforts to prevent proliferation.  If production of the public good of nonproliferation compliance enforcement comes to require real work and cooperation by many states, the system can begin to break down unless habits of free riding by the passive, resource-consuming majority can be broken.  The worry, of course, is that this is precisely what is happening today with respect to Iran and the global proliferation of fissile material production.

IV.       Conclusion

This, therefore, is a glimpse into what one might call the NPT bestiary – an exploration of a few issues surrounding the general categories of Treaty guardian, spoiler, and free rider.  (In the interests of brevity, I’ll leave for some other time the material I prepared yesterday on “outliers” and “cheats,” though they’re plenty interesting too.)  All such categorizations, of course, are just heuristics, and they are imperfect ways of understanding all the subtleties of real-life countries’ interactions in the NPT context.  I hope that this account, however, will be useful in helping acquaint you with the wildlife, for all these strange creatures will soon come out to play in New York, beginning on Monday with the start of the Review Conference.  We should understand them as best we can.

-- Christopher Ford


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