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Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Turns 50


It's been weeks since President Trump declared talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un as a great success. But today, the Washington Post is reporting that U.S. intelligence officials have concluded North Korea does not intend to fully surrender its nuclear stockpile.

We thought this would be a good moment to check in with someone who spent decades working on arms reduction and denuclearization treaties. Especially today - it is 50 years after the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty was presented for signatures. Lawrence Weiler was one of the American negotiators of the treaty. He had a long career in government service. He served as the ambassador and U.S. Coordinator for the U.N. General Assembly special session on disarmament and worked under six different presidents - from Dwight D. Eisenhower to Jimmy Carter.

Earlier this week, Ambassador Weiler welcomed us into his home for a conversation, and I asked him what he thinks about the latest denuclearization talks with North Korea.

LAWRENCE WEILER: Well, I think it's a good thing that we're talking. That was a major step - whatever the reasons - that we are now talking to each other about the subject of their returning, presumably, to the Non-Proliferation Treaty. They did withdraw from it. And, from this point to the next, success in the negotiations may be quite a while. And it's going to be hard. We'll see what happens.

MARTIN: But, given that they have a history of changing their minds, I think a lot of people are trying to figure out how to assess the possibility of progress. I mean, some people are just deeply skeptical because they feel that this signifies just a willingness to - they just want to have the talks to have them because it serves purposes of their own. What is your thought on that?

WEILER: Well, you're never going to succeed unless you start to talk. So starting to talk is important. That's an important step, really talking to each other during the Cold War period with the test ban and the hotline and the - and then the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Someone had to start talking each time. And it will be - my guess is it's going to be a long haul in the North Korean case. But it's in both sides' interests in the long run to reach a successful conclusion. That's the hope.

MARTIN: It certainly is. But can you just talk a little bit about what the benefit is of holding talks even if progress doesn't appear to be imminent? And the reason I ask is that, you know, people feel these are very different contexts. I mean, you know, public opinion matters in a democracy.

WEILER: It does matter.

MARTIN: It matters a very great deal less in an autocracy. So could you just talk from the standpoint of a person who's been in those talks of what is the benefit of just having talks when they have very different pressures on very different levers pushing each side?

WEILER: The benefits are that you have to gin up the capacity to have talks. That means, in both capitals, you have to have enough competent, informed people to be your spokesman. And that is not always present in either capital all the time. I don't doubt - I don't know whether it's the case here. I doubt it because I - we haven't been in talks, and it takes time to build up a competence.

We had it in time for the Non-Proliferation Treaty because we had just established the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, which added about a hundred-fold to the capacity to have negotiators and was probably one of the reasons we got the Non-Proliferation Treaty when we did. That was the result of public pressure to strengthen the government's capacity to negotiate on arms control.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, do you have any advice for the Trump administration as they proceed?

WEILER: How long have you got?


MARTIN: I've got time.

WEILER: No, I - if I were giving advice to the president, I would urge him to engage in talks. I would urge him to do something about the Iranian problem different than what's being done.

MARTIN: Talk a little bit more about Iran, if you would. What would you do differently?

WEILER: We've got to accept the fact that Iran is a member of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. As a result of the negotiations, they're being held to certain things as sort of semi-punishment for the fact that we didn't feel - the world didn't feel that they had been forthcoming many years ago. And the feeling that they can remain excluded from full participation in the benefits of the Non-Proliferation Treaty is, my judgment, incorrect. But it's necessary to have some minimum amount of relationship with Iran. And I wouldn't go any further with that right now. But - and I think we have to talk to the Russians about stability.

So we need to beef up the staff for dealing with arms control. That's a - perhaps a parochial thing because I've worked on this for - with six different presidents, and it makes a difference how energetic the staff is. It's sort of a national scandal that we put so little effort into government in developing staff. And not that - the present staff is competent, but so little time. So that means you're just not as well-equipped.

MARTIN: I don't know if you think in these terms, but, given your experience and given current events, I'm wondering if you are optimistic or not.

WEILER: I'm always optimistic. I don't know when the effort will be made, but I've been through too many times when it didn't seem like things were possible. The - we had at the end - or the beginning of the end of the Cold War, we went through a trauma - the Cuban missile crisis - and that changed the feelings and the attitudes of leaders on both sides, obviously. And I hope we don't have to have that kind of a thing to stimulate the effort. I think we have a better understanding now of the dangers of a world with nuclear weapons and with no control over them on - in terms of arms agreements. There will always be problems in life, but it's a different world than when we had the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

MARTIN: Ambassador, thank you so much for speaking with us.

WEILER: It's my pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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