Last December, the United States and Belarus entered into an agreement that was hailed as a non-proliferation success. Under the deal, Belarus agreed to hand over several hundred kilograms of highly enriched uranium in its possession to Russia for downblending. But on August 19, Belarus announced that it was suspending the agreement in response to economic sanctions imposed by Washington over its crackdown on the opposition.
While the United States often engages in such moves to ‘promote respect for human rights,’ what has made this case especially interesting is the use of nuclear material as a bargaining tool. Clearly, the contemporary threat perceptions of the United States outlined in the Nuclear Posture Review of 2010, namely the twin threats of nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism, have led Belarus to believe it has a winning hand.
From 1991 to 2001, the United States saw the breakup of the Soviet Union, the return of nuclear weapons from breakaway states to Russia, the successful engineering of the indefinite and unconditional extension of the Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the conclusion of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). A prosperous United States appeared to tower above all around it. But then September 11 happened, an event that shook the US to the core and forced it to confront the threat of terrorism to its own shores.
The attack changed US threat perceptions, and a new approach to nuclear proliferation and terrorism began to take shape. This shift has largely driven US policies and actions over the last decade, and last year’s Nuclear Posture Review highlights the three essential planks that have formed in US nuclear policy:
Reinforcing the non-proliferation regime centred on the NPT, including the IAEA – Examples include the constructive behaviour of the United States at the NPT Review Conference in 2010, the inclusion of NPT membership and insistence on Additional Protocols for nuclear cooperation agreements, the recent language linking enrichment and reprocessing transfers to the NPT and the provision of negative security assurances to NPT compliant countries.
Accelerating efforts to secure vulnerable nuclear materials worldwide – This is seen through the Nunn-Lugar initiative, George W. Bush’s push for UN Security Council Resolution 1540, Barack Obama’s Nuclear Security Summit and considerable spending on securing materials around the world, including a reported $100 million in Pakistan.
Pursuing arms control and disarmament – the New START treaty, Obama’s explicit desire to get the focus on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and the US desire to get negotiations started on the Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty all indicate efforts in this direction.
But while these objectives appear logical and necessary from a US perspective, its ability to implement them, or at least get them to meet the objectives they were designed for, appears to be seriously hamstrung by domestic and other considerations. For example, despite the US president’s personal desire to have the CTBT ratified, no action looks possible because of a lack of domestic consensus.
Another example of the mismatch between US policy objectives and its ability to take action is its treatment of Pakistan. Despite the US affirmation that ‘overlap between states that sponsor terror and those that pursue WMD compel us to take action,’ and despite it being clear that these two realities co-exist in Pakistan, the United States has been unable to take any meaningful political action.
The problem the United States faces with Belarus, meanwhile, again illustrates the limits to Washington’s ability to implement its policies. While the United States is keen to secure vulnerable materials from around the world to minimize the risks of nuclear terrorism, and despite it having spent huge sums of money in enhancing physical security at several sites across the world, including providing countries with detection equipment, the nuclear terrorism threat still looms.
Much of the success or otherwise of these measures is dependent on the will and behaviour of the host country. As a result, while the Nuclear Posture Review and other official US policies might make the right noises on how the United States should address its new threat perceptions since 9/11, the reality on the ground appears to pose enormous challenges, and could derail even the best of intentions.
The use by Belarus of highly-enriched uranium – a weapons usable nuclear material – as a bargaining chip once again highlights the utility of nuclear materials. At a time when it’s clear that non-proliferation isn’t eternally sustainable, such cases can only increase the temptation for others to acquire nuclear capabilities. The United States will have to do some serious soul searching over how best to achieve its goals, and it will have to take the rest of the international community along with it.
The threats of nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism can’t be solved by a single nation, however strong it is. The key is in the politics of inter-state relations.