The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, or NPT, is the legal cornerstone of international efforts to control the spread of nuclear weapons. Under terms of the pact, non-nuclear states are bound not to acquire nuclear weapons, while the five declared nuclear states (the United States, France, Britain, China and Russia) pledge to disarm.
Delegates from more than 180 countries met for four weeks at the United Nations last month to review the NPT. The review conference, which is held every five years, was to focus on ways to revise and strengthen the treaty to meet the nuclear challenges in the years ahead.
At the end of the month-long session, the president of the conference, Brazilian
diplomat Sergio de Queiroz Duarte, expressed his frustration, saying very little was accomplished in terms of results and in terms of agreements.
Ambassador Thomas Graham is a former U.S. representative to previous NPT review conferences and has been involved in every major arms control agreement in the past 30 years. He was even more candid about the outcome of the NPT conference.
Mr. Graham says, "If anything, the (Brazilian) ambassador is being somewhat cautious and restrained. I think the conference was a failure, and I think it was the worst failure in NPT history, because it's not that very little was agreed - nothing was agreed. Usually, at review conferences, where there is a failure to reach agreement, there was agreement in areas related to peaceful nuclear programs. But this time, there was nothing."
Analysts say the conference was bogged down in procedural matters. It took delegates three of the four weeks just to agree on an agenda, giving participants little time to discuss substantive issues, such as Iran's nuclear energy program, North Korea's unilateral withdrawal from the NPT and previous disarmament commitments made by the nuclear weapon states.
Daryl Kimball, head of the Arms Control Association, an independent research organization, attended the conference. He says there were fundamental disagreements among states about what topics should be discussed and to what extent previous nuclear disarmament commitments should be reaffirmed.
According to Mr. Kimball, "The United States argued at this conference that the focus should be on the crisis of compliance, concerning the North Korean and Iranian activities -- their transgressions relating to the treaty, and, in Iran's case, their nuclear safeguards agreements. And they argued that nuclear disarmament was a non-issue. And they argued even further, that the commitments made by the United States at the 1995 review and extension conference and the 2000 review conference regarding specific steps toward the fulfillment of U.S. and other states' Article Six disarmament commitments should not be referred to or reaffirmed."
Mr. Kimball says non-aligned nations responded by insisting that the United States and other nuclear powers radically reduce their armaments.
Analysts say that protracted debate was never resolved, and led to rancor on both sides. They say that was a major reason for the lack of progress on other issues during the month-long meeting.
Looking ahead, experts say, despite the conference's outcome, the NPT regime will continue until the next review conference in 2010.
Gregory Jones is a nuclear non-proliferation expert with the RAND Corporation. He says, "The failure of the conference has only meant that the regime wasn't modified in any way. Certainly, the structure that exists will continue, and there is already talk about what will happen at the next review conference in 2010. But certainly, before then, some sorts of actions are likely going to have to be taken to handle North Korea and the Iranian programs, and this might be done through the broader U.N. Security Council, the International Atomic Energy Agency or outside either of those structures."
For his part, Ambassador Graham says the United States must provide the necessary leadership in the years ahead to strengthen the Non-Proliferation Treaty and address other nuclear issues.
"We're the most powerful country in the world, the most influential country in the
world," says Mr. Graham. "And, in the past, we've always been the country that really took the lead on making, on putting together nuclear arms control and disarmament agreements. There is no substitute for U.S. leadership."
As a sign of leadership, Ambassador Graham urges the ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty prohibiting all nuclear weapon tests and other nuclear explosions. The United States signed the treaty in 1996, but the Senate failed to ratify it three years later. The Bush administration has refused to ask the Senate to reconsider the treaty, but has pledged to abide by its provisions.
This report was originally broadcast on VOA News Now's Focus program. For other Focus reports, click here