The peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons. That was the vision held out by President Barack Obama last year in Prague and it needs a new nuclear road map.
Disarmers still blame America and Russia for the worlds nuclear troubles. Their cold-war rivalry could have incinerated the planet and made the cinders bounce. The two are bound by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) along with Britain,France and China,the other official nuclear powers eventually to give up their bombs as part of a wider disarmament effort. That was their side of a bargain which over the years has won the promise from many others never to seek the bomb. Progress has always been slower than most of the disarmers would like,which is why nuclear cuts still matter. The latest will leave America and Russia with 1,550 strategic warheads apiece still over-armed,but down from many thousands more in the cold war.
Yet the risk of global conflagration is past. For those intent on peace and security,let alone that nuclear-free future,bigger dangers lurk. If a terrorist group such as al-Qaeda fails to get its hands on enough fissile material for a crude nuclear device,it wont be for want of trying. The longer Iran is allowed to defy the UN inspectors trying to discover the truth about its nuclear work,the greater the risk that others in the Middle East and beyond will start rethinking their nuclear options too.
These dangers can be avoided,if at all,only by tightening anti-proliferation rules which were agreed when the treaty was negotiated 40 years ago and are now dangerously dated. Without more intrusive checks,even countries intent only on peacefully exploiting the carbon-free benefits of nuclear power are a threat: technologies and materials for civil use could be abused by those who would beg or steal them for bombs.
During the month of May the NPTs members,gathered for the treatys five-yearly review,have the best opportunity in years to chart a new path. There will be proposals for toughened safeguards for all,to expose would-be cheats and make civilian fuel-stocks and nuclear waste more secure. France has plans to make it harder for countries to cheat inside the treaty and then make a dash for the bomb as North Korea did,and Iran is suspected of trying to do. There are schemes for nuclear-fuel banks to assure countries planning their next civilian steps of a reliable supply,without having to go to the costly,proliferation-prone effort of making the stuff themselves.
Calling all responsible treaty members
It is not a lack of technical ideas that threatens progress,but the NPTs poisonous politics. Iran and a coterie that includes Cuba,Syria,Venezuela and sometimes Libya (North Korea,thankfully,will be absent) will block what they can though consensus minus this crew would be no dishonour. If others played spoiler too it would be more damaging still. Some want deeper cuts by the weapons states before they consider tighter rules. Brazil and South Africa (understandably) resent a nuclear deal struck with India that exempted it from the restrictions NPT members are being asked to accept,even though it stayed outside the treaty to get the bomb. Egypt demands that Israel,another NPT hold-out,first be obliged to start negotiating away its nuclear arsenal.
These concerns carry weight. But if they are allowed to destroy the conference in a blaze of recrimination,the only victors will be Iran and North Korea. The worlds future would be neither secure nor even remotely nuclear-free. This is a time to put the collective interest first.