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On Killing the NPT


So, Michael Dobbs at the Washington Post, in his capacity as debate fact-checker, made the argument that Barack Obama’s claim that the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty “fell apart” during the Bush administration is a stretch:

There have certainly been a lot of reverses over the last seven years, particularly on North Korea, but things weren’t great under Clinton. It was under Clinton, after all, that India and Pakistan both tested nuclear weapons, which put a huge hole in the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.

Daryl Kimball of the Arms Control Association sent an e-mail to Dobbs noting that neither Pakistan nor India were parties to the NPT, and that, moreover, the Bush administration has enjoyed significant reverses in several other regions on the non-proliferation issue. Dobbs reply was largely unresponsive (claiming that Pakistani nukes are a threat to the US is really sidestepping the issue), but did make the following argument:

Nevertheless, the twin nuclear tests by India and then Pakistan in 1998 came as a huge shock to the Clinton administration, and did much to undermine the international non-proliferation norms established by the treaty. Once those two countries went nuclear, other countries lost the incentive to abide by the treaty.

This may seem fairly arcane, but there’s really a lot going on here. Much of the problem revolves around the question of what, specifically, a treaty like the NPT is supposed to do. The “surprise” part of Dobbs argument above is simply a non-sequiter; whether anyone was surprised by the tests (and we certainly weren’t terribly surprised by the Pakistani test) is utterly irrelevant to whether the NPT was effective or not. The incentive bit is also wrong; neither Pakistan nor India were signatories to the NPT, so if incentives were changed it was by the international reaction to the tests, rather than the tests themselves. In this there was a clear, largely, and blindingly obvious distinction between the Clinton and Bush administrations; Clinton treated both states harshly, and Bush has essentially rewarded both (especially India). The Clinton reaction reinforces the NPT incentive structure, while the Bush reaction undermines it. Another way of putting this is that while the violation of a norm does tend to undermine that norm, the reaction to the violation is often just as important, and the reaction of Bush and Clinton was quite different. As such, Dobbs essentially has no case.

And then there’s all the other stuff that the Bush administration has done to undermine the NPT, including the inadvertent facilitation of North Korea’s nuclear program, the neglect of the CTBT (a treaty that established norms complimentary to that of the NPT), the drive for RRW (reliable replacement warhead), the various loose talk of developing new bunker buster nukes, and finally the establishment of a new non-proliferation norm that runs something like this: States that the US likes get to have nukes, and states that the US doesn’t like get bombed.

All in all, I’d say that the Bush administration has done a pretty effective job of killing the NPT. Moreover, given the contempt that the administration has had for any kind of international agreement that places any restrictions on US behavior, this is hardly surprising; I think they’re actually rather proud of their effort.

Jeffrey Lewis has more.

Cross-posted to TAPPED.

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