Christine Sylvester tackles nuclear disarmament in graduate thesis

Written by Michelle Sarver

Christine Sylvester, a second-year master's degree candidate in the School of International Affairs (SIA), unraveled the intricacies of nuclear disarmament at a recent Center for Global Studies graduate lecture. Acknowledging the potential devastation from failed maintenance or misuse of nuclear weapons, Sylvester's presentation “Nuclear Disarmament: Creating a Nuclear Weapons Free Middle East” covered the history of nuclear weapons and considered current and proposed regional approaches to establishing nuclear weapons free zones.

After months of research and development under the direction of Ambassador Richard Butler (Ret.), Penn State's Distinguished Scholar of International Peace and Security, Sylvester's thesis has been approved. Her next step is to draft the paper to fulfill the capstone requirement for the master's of international affairs degree. Her research studied the longevity and utility of treaties governing nuclear weapons free zones and assessed the applicability of using such a tool in the Middle East.

Sylvester's presentation offered a comprehensive reflection and analysis balanced with light-hearted humor and witty cartoons. She explained the early processes of disarmament first tackled in treaties and formal agreements. International and national approaches to deal with nuclear weapons became paramount as threats of mutual assured destruction kept nuclear weapons at the forefront of discussions worldwide. Despite these global or domestic efforts and the agenda-setting weight of nuclear proliferation concerns, an effective tool for the elimination of nuclear weapons has yet to be found. Thus, Sylvester suggests that regional approaches, specifically nuclear weapons free zones, may in fact be more useful. Permitted under Article VII of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), these regional approaches presently cover nearly half the globe.

Nuclear-free zones to cover Middle East

Sylvester devoted last summer to mastering the components of and arguments for and against zonal treaties and their embedded protocols. Based on her research, Sylvester developed a proposal for the creation of a Nuclear Weapons Free Zone (NWFZ) in the Middle East. Annual resolutions proposing the development of a nuclear weapons free zone, which would likely cover an area from Israel to Iran and Syria to Yemen, have yet to be implemented in the Middle East.
Sylvester recommends a number of policy and diplomacy measures to move the process forward: (1) political will; (2) preparatory work; (3) caps on existing stockpiles; (4) managing the peaceful uses of nuclear technology; and (5) treaty negotiations. She emphasizes the role of nations in the region, commenting on the high success rates when similar treaties have been negotiated from within.
She argues that the critical groundwork to creating a NWFZ in the Middle East is the assertion of political will and the will of regional parties to be bound by such a treaty. En route to establishing treaty terms and negotiations, Sylvester recommends essential measures to maintain stability to prepare for future negotiations.

Strategy incorporates contingencies

These measures include discussing a no-first-use policy, a cap on Israel's nuclear stockpile, and limitations on Iran's enrichment level. She addresses the obstacles, such as sensitivity to disarmament, declaring “don't ask for their gun,” and the anticipated slow course of the project. However, participation and compliance during these early stages can indicate willingness to negotiate and commitment to the establishment of the zone by individual countries. These small efforts form a stronger foundation on which to build the NWFZ in years to come.
Like any good strategy, Sylvester allows for disruption to the proposed plan. Events such as the 2012 U.S. presidential election could impact the direction of negotiations. Additionally, steps one through four will determine the shape of step five outlining and negotiating the terms of the treaty. Thus, she admits her inability to predict exactly what final treaty negotiations will look like.
Sylvester addressed audience questions on the ethics or unfairness within the NPT between weapons and non-weapons holders, influential U.S. presidents in non-proliferation, and the impact of political and religious leadership within the Middle East. Responding to a question on the issue of sovereignty from SIA Professor Sophia McClennen, Sylvester expressed her disappointment of the current U.S. national dialogue on nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation. Overall, Sylvester said she received valuable feedback on her research. For further comments or questions on her research, contact Christine Sylvester by email at