Renewal talks for the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) are scheduled for May, yet the United States and other nuclear powers seem indifferent to its fate. This is remarkable, considering the addition of Iran and North Korea as states that either possess or seek nuclear weapons programs. A recent United Nations report warned starkly: "We are approaching a point at which the erosion of the non-proliferation regime could become irreversible and result in a cascade of proliferation."
A group of "Middle States" has a simple goal: "To exert leverage on the nuclear powers to take some minimum steps to save the non-proliferation treaty in 2005." Last year this coalition of nuclear-capable states -- including Brazil, Egypt, Ireland, Mexico, New Zealand, South Africa, Sweden and eight NATO members -- voted for a new agenda resolution calling for implementing NPT commitments already made. Tragically, the United States, Britain and France voted against this resolution.
So far the preparatory committee for the forthcoming NPT talks has failed even to achieve an agenda because of the deep divisions between nuclear powers that refuse to meet their own disarmament commitments and the nonnuclear movement, whose demands include honoring these pledges and considering the Israeli arsenal.
Until recently all American presidents since Dwight Eisenhower had striven to restrict and reduce nuclear arsenals -- some more than others. So far as I know, there are no present efforts by any of the nuclear powers to accomplish these crucial goals.
The United States is the major culprit in this erosion of the NPT. While claiming to be protecting the world from proliferation threats in Iraq, Libya, Iran and North Korea, American leaders not only have abandoned existing treaty restraints but also have asserted plans to test and develop new weapons, including anti-ballistic missiles, the earth-penetrating "bunker buster" and perhaps some new "small" bombs. They also have abandoned past pledges and now threaten first use of nuclear weapons against nonnuclear states.
Some corrective actions are obvious:
The United States needs to address remaining nuclear issues with Russia, demanding the same standards of transparency and verification of past arms control agreements and dismantling and disposal of decommissioned weapons. With massive arsenals still on hair-trigger alert status, a global holocaust is just as possible now, through mistakes or misjudgments, as it was during the depths of the Cold War. We could address perhaps the world's greatest proliferation threat by fully securing Russia's stockpiles.
While all nuclear weapons states should agree to non-first use, the United States, as the sole superpower, should take the lead on this issue.
NATO needs to de-emphasize the role of its nuclear weapons and consider an end to their deployment in Western Europe. Despite its eastward expansion, NATO is keeping the same stockpiles and policies as when the Iron Curtain divided the continent.
The comprehensive test ban treaty should be honored, but the United States is moving in the opposite direction. The administration's 2005 budget refers for the first time to a list of test scenarios, and other nations are waiting to take the same action.
The United States should support a fissile materials treaty to prevent the creation and transport of highly enriched uranium and plutonium.
Curtail U.S. development of the infeasible missile defense shield, which is wasting huge resources, while breaking our commitment to the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty without a working substitute.
Act on nuclear proliferation in the Middle East, an increasing source of instability in that region. Iran has repeatedly hidden its intentions to enrich uranium while claiming that its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes only. This explanation has been given before, by India, Pakistan and North Korea, and has led to weapons programs in all three states. Iran must be called to account and held to its promises under the Non-Proliferation Treaty. At the same time, we fail to acknowledge how Israel's nuclear status entices Iran, Syria, Egypt and other states to join the community of nuclear weapons states.
These are vital questions, and the world will know the answers during the NPT conference in May.
Former president Carter is founder of the Carter Center in Atlanta.