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UN conference on nuclear proliferation a big test for Obama

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Others paint an even more dire picture. John Bolton, US ambassador to the UN under President Bush, says the conference will do nothing to bolster "a treaty on the verge of breaking down" because nothing will be done to "name and shame" the NPT's violators.

"The most important question for a treaty review should be who's in compliance and who's not, and is [the treaty] influencing behavior in the way intended?" says Mr. Bolton, who also served as undersecretary for arms control and international security.

Iran and North Korea key issues

"It undercuts your purpose to ignore the 800-pound gorilla in the room," he adds, "but I'm confident it will happen at the NPT review because it just happened at Obama's nuclear security summit, where Iran and North Korea were kept off the table."

Despite such pessimism, a number of nuclear experts still hold out the possibility that the added attention from the world's sole superpower could pave the way to some strengthening of the nonproliferation regime.

"Obama has so many balls in the air right now in terms of nuclear policy, and all these balls interact and are going to have an impact on the review conference," says Charles Ferguson, president of the Federation of American Scientists. "The capital Obama has built up should at least guarantee some pretty serious consideration of ways we might strengthen" global nonproliferation rules, he adds.

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