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Ignoring the U.S.'s "Bad Atoms"

For the New York Times, Washington is NPT's enforcer, not a violator
By Steve Rendall,

The U.S. is violating the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

That view, far from exotic or extreme, was expressed repeatedly by arms control experts and international officials at the month-long NPT review conference held at the U.N. in May. It is embraced by U.S. establishment figures such as former President Jimmy Carter and Kennedy-era Defense Secretary Robert McNamara.

In a Washington Post op-ed (3/28/05), a month before the conference opened, Carter wrote: "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."

McNamara was quoted earlier this year (Foreign Policy, 5-6/05) bluntly declaring the U.S. a nuclear outlaw: "I would characterize current U.S. nuclear weapons policy as immoral, illegal, militarily unnecessary and dreadfully dangerous."

But it's a view rarely expressed in mainstream news media, the Carter op-ed being a notable exception. Instead of telling the global story of disarmament, journalists seem to take a more nationalistic perspective, often portraying disarmament in terms the White House prefers: the U.S. policing the likes of Iran or North Korea, or squabbling with European officials for being too soft on such "rogue states."

In such one-sided reporting, failure to challenge official misstatements is common, disarmament experts who say the U.S. is in breach of the NPT are ignored and the larger story of NPT division, between nuclear weapon haves and have-nots, is missed.

New improved nukes

The NPT’s preamble calls on nuclear weapons states “to facilitate the cessation of the manufacture of nuclear weapons, the liquidation of all their existing stockpiles, and the elimination from national arsenals of nuclear weapons and the means of their delivery.” Article VI of the NPT explicitly obliges signatories “to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.”

Thirty-seven years after agreeing to these conditions, the U.S.—the only nation to have ever used nuclear weapons against human beings—spends $40 billion a year to field, maintain and modernize nuclear forces, including an arsenal of 10,000 warheads, 2,000 of which are on hair-trigger alert.

When details of a secret White House planning document, called the Nuclear Posture Review, were leaked in 2002 (Washington Post, 3/23/02), they revealed that the Bush administration intended to create and test new nuclear weapons, and outlined a broad array of contingencies under which the U.S. might use nuclear weapons. Among these contingencies: using nuclear weapons against countries with no nuclear weapons capacity, such as Iran, Iraq and Syria. (To be fair, Presidential Directive 60, signed by President Bill Clinton in 1997, had earlier added these countries to nuclear targeting lists, canceling assurances that went back to 1978 that the U.S. would not use nuclear force against a non-nuclear country—Disarmament Diplomacy, Fall/98.)

In May, congressional funding was approved for the Reliable Replacement Warhead, a program to modernize U.S. nuclear weapons, while the White House’s campaign for a smaller nuclear warhead known as the “nuclear bunker buster” was stalled when Congress failed to approve its funding (Washington Post, 5/14/05). This last item is particularly troubling to arms control advocates, who say smaller warheads with lower explosive yields blur the lines between conventional and nuclear weapons and are thus more likely to be used.

Add up the current arsenal, new weapons development and modernization, and the White House’s opposition to the Nuclear Test Ban and Anti-Ballistic Missile treaties—and it’s hard to argue that the U.S. is not violating at least the spirit of the NPT.

The letter of the law

On the final day of the NPT conference, John Burroughs, the executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee on Nuclear Policy, a nonprofit group concerned with disarmament issues, told Extra! that U.S. behavior posed a profound threat to the NPT framework:

The U.S. reliance on nuclear weapons as a core element of its national security has always created serious tension within the non-proliferation regime, because it reinforced the double standard: Some countries can have nuclear weapons, others can’t. But the Bush administration’s antagonism to multilateralism, articulation of an aggressive doctrine of preventive war and aggressive statements about possible use of nuclear weapons have placed enormous strain on non-proliferation negotiations, so much so that many fear for its survival.

Burroughs argues that, more than just the spirit, the U.S. is clearly violating the letter of the NPT law. He points to agreements made at NPT review conferences in 1995 and 2000 regarding the implementation of NPT disarmament obligations that he says “committed the U.S. to pursue a comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty, a treaty banning production of fissile materials for nuclear weapons, verifiable and irreversible cuts in nuclear weapons, and reduced operational readiness of nuclear forces.”

Under well-established rules for treaty interpretation put forth in the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, Burroughs says “agreements made subsequent to a treaty’s inception are considered an integral means of understanding the treaty’s requirements.”

Since the Senate’s rejection of the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in 1999, the U.S. has failed in these commitments across the board, says Burroughs: “Accordingly, the U.S. is in violation of the ‘good faith negotiations’ requirement for nuclear disarmament, set forth 35 years ago in the treaty text.”

The Western States Legal Foundation (WSLF), another NGO concerned with arms control, says these requirements must be carried out in a timely manner. The group’s director, Jacqueline Cabasso, cites a decision by the International Court of Justice (ICJ), the U.N.’s judicial branch, and the foremost arbiter of international law. In 1996, the ICJ unanimously held that nuclear weapons states under Article VI of the NPT must “bring to a conclusion negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament in all its aspects under strict and effective international control” (WSLF Information Bulletin, Fall/03).

Burroughs emphasizes the ICJ decision too, putting it in the larger context of U.S. shortcomings regarding NPT: “It says talk is not enough; talk must be followed by action. But when you add it all up, and with U.S. failures to meet its 1995 and 2000 commitments, the case is overwhelming that the U.S. is in breach of its NPT obligations.”

Cabasso agrees: “The U.S. is simply out of compliance with the NPT.” She says one of the key problems arms control advocates have is the lack of media coverage: “I’m not aware of any U.S. press coverage of U.S. compliance.”

Rewriting the bargain

To test Cabasso’s observation, Extra! surveyed New York Times coverage of the NPT for the entire year of 2004. We looked at Times coverage because the paper tends to cover issues more regularly and in greater depth than many other mainstream outlets, and because it is a newsroom trendsetter.

Of the 58 stories published by the Times on the NPT in 2004, the majority (30) focused on nations the U.S. has dubbed “rogue states”: Twenty-five focused on Iranian compliance; five stories were primarily about North Korea (which withdrew from the NPT in 2001). A smattering of articles dealt with other countries, including Brazil (3), Israel (3) and South Korea (2). Other articles looked at issues such as the role Pakistan’s A.Q. Kahn played in the proliferation of nuclear weapons technology.

Not one Times story focused on U.S. compliance, despite the many arms control experts who see this as a crucial disarmament issue. Just three of 58 Times stories made passing mention of the charges that the U.S. is in violation of the NPT.

One of those stories, a sprawling 7,700-word article in the New York Times Magazine (6/13/04), the most in-depth article on the subject published by the paper in 2004, misrepresented the terms of the NPT in its opening paragraph. There Times contributing writer James Traub described the treaty as a “grand bargain” under which non-nuclear weapons states agree “to place their nuclear programs under a system of international inspection and forgo the development of nuclear weapons” in exchange for access to nuclear electrical generation technology—what Traub calls “access to the expected atomic bounty.”

Not until the 48th paragraph of a 50-paragraph article does Traub, who argues for more stringent non-proliferation measures on non-nuclear weapons states (e.g., forbidding them from doing any sort of enrichment), hint that there is another part of the grand bargain:

Many non-weapons states complain that the U.S. wants to rewrite the rules so that they cannot produce nuclear fuel and must sign the additional protocol—but itself flagrantly violates the commitment to pursue disarmament enshrined in the NPT.

The requirement for nuclear weapons states to disarm is indeed enshrined in the NPT, but apparently not important enough to gain mention in the first 47 paragraphs of Traub’s story. But then Traub only seemed to be bringing it up at all in order to let the White House knock it down. “This is not considered a serious argument inside the Bush administration,” wrote Traub, offering none of the critics’ evidence and allowing the administration to dismiss concerns about its massive nuclear arsenal as “rhetorical.”

In the end, Traub suggests that it would be impossible for the U.S. ever to live up to its commitment to disarmament: “After all, no responsible president would ever expose the United States to the possibility of nuclear blackmail.” He fails to explain why, if nuclear disarmament is tantamount to submitting to blackmail, any “responsible” leader would elect to forgo nuclear weapons.

The Times has made a habit of misrepresenting the NPT bargain. Times reporter Craig Smith (9/23/04) made no mention of the Article VI disarmament obligations when he described the NPT agreement as “a system under which countries without nuclear weapons that signed the treaty were promised full support in developing other nuclear technologies in exchange for renouncing nuclear weapons.”

As a columnist in 2003, current Times executive editor Bill Keller described what he called the “essential bargain” and the chief appeal of the NPT for non-nuclear weapons states: “If you pledge to refrain from arming yourself with bad atoms, you will be rewarded with a supply of good atoms—a peaceful nuclear energy program.” Keller’s patronizing comment fails to acknowledge the disarmament part of the bargain, or that non-nuclear countries are very interested in seeing nuclear weapons states get rid of their “bad atoms” too.

Front-page departure

New York Times coverage of the NPT review conference in May 2005 was not much better. There was still no report focusing on U.S. compliance, though the view that nuclear weapons states needed to disarm was a central theme of the gathering.

The closest thing to it was an editorial (5/8/05) that chided the White House for a lack of leadership in NPT progress and for the low priority it had assigned to the conference. On the issue of disarmament, the message of many conferees appeared to be getting through, at least partially, in the editorial’s description of the NPT bargain: “The major nuclear weapons states committed themselves to reduce their own stockpiles significantly in exchange for non-nuclear states’ renouncing the ambition of joining their ranks.” That description may be more accurate than previously mentioned Times attempts, but the NPT actually requires nuclear weapons states to negotiate an elimination of their arsenals, not merely a reduction.

As the NPT review conference closed on May 27, it was declared a failure by nearly everyone involved. The next day, the Times did a rare thing: In a front-page departure from its standard NPT narrative, the paper acknowledged that there are critics who say the U.S. is not living up to its NPT obligations, and it reported on the global story of NPT division:

A month-long conference . . . ended Friday in failure, with its chairman declaring that the disagreements between nuclear-armed and non-nuclear states ran so deep that “very little has been accomplished.” . . . For most of the four weeks, non-nuclear states insisted that the United States and other nuclear powers focus on radically reducing their armaments, reminding them of commitments made five years ago by the Clinton administration.

To Times readers who’d taken to heart the paper’s running narrative portraying the U.S. as an impartial sheriff policing the latest nuclear rogue, this departure must have come as quite a surprise.



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