A Fork in the Road to an FMCT

Mar 2, 2011


  By Terrence P. Smith

This week Secretary Clinton joined the mini-parade of U.S. officials calling for the resumption of serious negotiations on the Fissile Material Cut-Off Treat (FMCT). Negotiations, which have been held within the Conference on Disarmament, a UN affiliated forum, have been in complete deadlock for well over a decade (besides a few miniature bleeps of mild success). With the treaty receiving renewed international interest -- and U.S. interest through the Obama administration, -- what is the future of the treaty and the talks? Secretary Clinton said this week that if the stalemate continues, “then the United States is determined to pursue other options.” Several prominent experts have argued that those options should include negotiations outside of the UN, but U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon came out last week and said such actions could undermine the Conference on Disarmament and its objectives.

Hope for the FMCT and the 65 member, consensus driven Conference resurfaced in 2009 when the 10 year deadlock was broken by an agreement on a work plan that would address “the potential treaty and three other issues: nuclear disarmament, the prohibition of space-based weapons, and an agreement by nuclear-armed states not to use their strategic weapons against nations that do not possess such armaments (GSN).”

Those glimmers of hope soon crashed on the rocks when Pakistan, who has been the poster-boy for the opposition to the FMCT, withdrew its initial endorsement of the plan and demanded further considerations. The treaty then retreated back into the “not looking so likely” side of the nuclear security/nonproliferation wish list.

Despite the largely antagonistic facts on progress with the FMCT, Ban Ki-moon in his recent statement said, that in a broader sense

We have collectively done much to move the disarmament agenda forward in recent years.

He added,

But now, we must intensify these efforts or risk the very real possibility of sliding backwards. This is why disarmament and nonproliferation are among my top priorities for 2011.

While it is likely that others, such as China, are simply hiding their resistance to the treaty in Pakistan’s shadow, on the surface Islamabad’s repeated and stubborn opposition to the ban appears to be the main obstacle that has so far stymied progress on the FMCT. Officials from Islamabad tirelessly argue that such a treaty would resign them to a strategic disadvantage with their chief rival and nuclear-armed neighbor, India. This argument always seemed like a stretch to me, but particularly now with the new reports that Pakistan has discreetly pushed its weapons arsenal to over 100, surpassing India. (Two PONI blog posts from February took a look at Pakistan’s build up, found here and here.) According to Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association,

[India and Pakistan already have] more than enough nuclear weaponry to deter attack by the other… More plutonium and highly enriched uranium will not make Pakistan any safer, and it will only deepen nuclear security problems in South Asia and the world.

Regardless of the rationale, its legitimacy, or its uniqueness, Pakistan’s opposition at the Conference has been killing the consensus driven body. Perhaps, bolstered by their new superiority over India in the reported number of nuclear weapons, Pakistan could somehow be turn around to support the treaty. But even then, it is unclear whether new opposition would not emerged and be vocalized from the likes of China, pushing the negotiations into a similarly unproductive, new level of stalemate. Either way, member countries, such as the U.S., have gotten increasingly “impatient” with opposition to the treaty, which has led many to weigh pursuing preliminary talks outside the Conference. The UN head however, argued that

Such a parallel mechanism risks weakening the [conference's] relevance and credibility.

But my question is, after well over a decade with close to zero results, if there ever was any, is there any credibility left now? The pursuit of formal treaties has gotten us only so far, perhaps it’s time to go after and seriously consider the potential utility of informal talks and pacts.

For now, the Conference still has considerable support. In his statement, Ban Ki-moon praised China and the United States for their joint statement back in January declaring their support for a prompt resumption of negotiations within the conference framework.

At a meeting of the Conference early this week, Secretary Clinton said,

Nearly 20 years after the end of the Cold War, the world has more than 20,000 nuclear weapons. As I speak to you today, centrifuges around the world are spinning out more enriched uranium… [Halting the production of weapons grade material] is in the interest of every country.

Clinton also reiterated the American call for the resumption of negotiations on a FMCT “without further delay.”

Her plea:

[If the world is] serious about reducing the possibility that fissile material could fall into terrorists’ hands, then we must reduce the amount of such material that is available.

Our patience is not infinite. There is no justification for a single nation to abuse the consensus principle and forever thwart the legitimate desire of the 64 other states to get negotiations under way on an agreement that would strengthen our common security.

If the stalemate continues, she said, “then the United States is determined to pursue other options.

She did not comment directly as to what those other “options” would be, but Bloomberg reports that “alternatives may include separate talks outside the UN’s Conference on Disarmament to negotiate a verifiable fissile material production halt, according to Daryl Kimball.”

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Rose Gottemoeller in January issued the following advice to the Conference’s FMCT critics: you will have greater influence over the terms of an eventual pact if you allow negotiations to move forward within the Conference on Disarmament versus outside of it. In other words, step aside or be left out. However, it is not clear whether this threat, if it was one, will have any impact on Pakistan who already operates its nuclear program almost completely outside of any international agreements.

Gottemoeller also showed her support of the conference, saying, "Let me just place full emphasis and priority today on my main message, which is to launch the negotiations this year on a fissile material cutoff treaty in the Conference on Disarmament.”

Allowing the current deadlock to continue is "not a viable option," she said. "If we cannot find a way to begin these negotiations in the Conference on Disarmament, then we will need to consider options." She also made a call to experts to address the details surrounding a pursuit of the alternative option of securing a pact through informal talks outside of the conference.

So there you have it, twice in one month we have had two top U.S. officials (Clinton and Gottemoeller) issue strong verbal indications that the U.S. is running out of patience with the Conference and indirectly and directly with Pakistan, and is preparing to push forward with other “options.” What these “options” will mean for Pakistan, who through the conference format has been enjoying a rare veto privilege, and the future of the FMCT is still unknown, but there are some indications that this time around the U.S. means business.