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Shunning The Talks Table

This column was written by Wade Boese.
By Bush administration officials' accounts, there is no greater threat than nuclear terrorism, and no government takes that danger more seriously than ours does. Yet the administration's insistence on getting its own way and refusal to discuss other countries' security concerns are blocking treaty negotiations aiming to limit the amount of nuclear-weapon materials worldwide that terrorists could buy or steal.

The 65-nation Conference on Disarmament in Geneva is trying to launch negotiations on a fissile material cutoff treaty (FMCT), which would forbid governments from producing plutonium and highly enriched uranium for weapons purposes. On their own, terrorists lack the capacity to produce these two materials, at least one of which is needed to make a nuclear bomb.

Despite publicly supporting an FMCT, the administration has been the chief culprit in blocking negotiations. Given that the conference operates by consensus, no negotiations can move forward without U.S. support.

Forestalling the start of FMCT negotiations is the administration's refusal to consent to parallel talks (not negotiations, just discussions) on issues important to other governments. Specifically, fellow conference members want, or at least do not object to, talks on preventing an arms race in outer space, nuclear disarmament, and assurances by states possessing nuclear weapons that such arms will not be used against states without them.

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U.S. opposition to these three issues is not new. The Clinton administration also resisted foreign entreaties to tackle these subjects. However, at that time, other countries sought formal negotiations on nuclear disarmament and outer space; now, they say they would settle for informal talks.

Still, the Bush administration argues that even this is too much. The concern is that talks could open the door for further action. Emblematic of this deep-seated sentiment is then-Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security John Bolton's July 2001 admonition that "from little acorns, bad treaties grow."

Other countries, even close U.S. allies, find the Bush administration's inflexible position preposterous. Chris Sanders, a veteran Dutch ambassador to the conference, has complained, "I fail to see how discussions on improving security in space or how discussions on dealing with the subject of nuclear disarmament could threaten anyone's security interests."

The United States said for years that it would be willing to entertain talks on outer space in exchange for FMCT negotiations, but Beijing would not bite because it argued that the two subjects deserved equal treatment. Yet now that China has compromised and is willing to accept simply talks, "the Bush administration rejected it out of hand, effectively blocking any forward movement on an FMCT agreement," explains Ambassador Robert Grey, who represented the United States at the conference from 1997 through 2001.


China, along with Russia, continues to press for talks on outer space. Chinese Ambassador Hu Xiaodi argues, "The practices of only selecting items of concern to oneself while refusing to consider items of high priority to others … are not conducive to the work in [the Conference on Disarmament]."

Support for outer-space talks reflects growing international worries about U.S. missile-defense plans, which envision basing a few missile interceptors in orbit and testing them as early as 2012. At an April missile-defense conference in Washington, the head of the Pentagon's Missile Defense Agency, Lieutenant General Henry Obering, said space-based interceptors have "a lot of attractiveness" and are "worth the experimentation."

Nor is the Bush administration in line with the rest of the world when it comes to an FMCT itself.

In 1995, conference members, including the United States, agreed that a future FMCT should be "effectively verifiable," meaning that the treaty would have provisions to deter and detect violations. But the Bush administration announced last year that it had concluded that it is impossible for a final treaty to meet this standard -- cheaters will cheat is the argument -- so it will oppose the start of negotiations with this as an objective, or that even specifically mentions verification as a topic to be addressed. Instead, Washington wants an agreement "without verification."

Because the proposed agreement would allow countries to possess and produce plutonium and highly enriched uranium for peaceful purposes, most governments and nongovernmental experts see verification as essential for ensuring that such materials are not surreptitiously diverted to weapons. A verification system would also provide greater assurance that permitted materials are less vulnerable to terrorist theft because they would be subject to international supervision.

The Bush administration's resistance to FMCT verification measures may also stem from the Navy's longtime opposition to allowing international inspectors some oversight of the U.S. naval nuclear propulsion program, which some countries say the treaty should require. When asked whether this was the case in a February interview, Chris Ford, the principal deputy assistant secretary of state for verification and compliance, replied, "There are countries that have naval nuclear propulsion programs that would not agree to a treaty that would allow verifiers into all aspects of those programs; countries, plural."

Japanese Ambassador Yoshiki Mine stated June 28, "Issues on verification should be resolved through negotiation, not necessarily before."

Certainly, other hurdles loom for concluding an FMCT, such as whether the treaty should apply only to stopping new production of plutonium and highly enriched uranium for weapons or reducing existing global stockpiles as well. But countries are being denied the opportunity to hash out their differences on these issues because of the Bush administration's obstructionism.

President Bush has said that the greatest danger "lies at the crossroads of radicalism and technology," and that the "only path to peace and security is the path of action." Alas, the administration's action plan does not include talking or negotiating with other governments.

Wade Boese is the research director at the nonprofit, nonpartisan Arms Control Association, which publishes the monthly journal Arms Control Today.

By Wade Boese
Reprinted with permission from The American Prospect, 5 Broad Street, Boston, MA 02109. All rights reserved

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