On Monday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will travel to New York to convince the world that the United States is working toward a world free of nuclear weapons. He has a stronger case than you might think.
The occasion is the review conference for the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), which has been convened every five years since its entry into force in 1970. World diplomats will work to ensure that the treaty’s basic bargain is still sound: as long as the five original nuclear powers work to eliminate their nuclear arsenals, the rest of the world’s states promise not to develop their own. This year, the nonproliferation regime faces a major test: Fed up with the slowest nuclear arms reductions since the end of the Cold War, a coalition of states are moving to draft a global ban on nuclear weapons. In response, the United States will attempt to assure the world that it is making progress toward a world free of nuclear weapons. In fact, the Obama administration’s record on disarmament has been strong, but it will have to work harder to revitalize the fragile NPT.
The wording of Article VI of the NPT makes compliance with the treaty seem more complex than it is. The tortuous wording—nuclear weapons states will “pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating the cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament”— has led some analysts to argue that the United States is only committed to undertake periodic arms control negotiations, not necessarily to actually eliminate its arsenal.
This view is wrong for three reasons. The first is that the nonnuclear weapon states understand the NPT differently. If they believe the United States has abandoned the goal of a world without nuclear weapons, the treaty could collapse and lead to a cascade of proliferation that spreads around the
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