TCS Daily

The New Imperatives of Non-Proliferation

By Jamie M. Fly - May 20, 2004 12:00 AM

A little more than a decade after the United States dropped atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a young Harvard professor named Henry Kissinger predicted that this new technology would quickly proliferate:

"Within a generation the peaceful uses of atomic energy will have spread across the globe. Most nations will then possess the wherewithal to manufacture nuclear weapons. Foreign policy henceforth will have to be framed against the background of a world in which the 'conventional' technology is nuclear technology."

Although nuclear technology has indeed spread across the globe, it is not yet the "conventional" war fighting technology. Membership in the nuclear club remains exclusive -- the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, China, India, and Pakistan are all declared nuclear powers, while Israel and North Korea are widely believed to have nuclear arsenals.

In recent decades, many countries were convinced to cease their nuclear programs or give up their weapons peacefully (among them several former Soviet republics, Argentina, Brazil, South Korea, South Africa, and Libya). Others had their programs slowed or destroyed by force (Iraq), while some that posses the scientific know-how and industrial capability have chosen not to develop weapons (Canada, Germany, and Japan are prominent examples).

Despite these successes, after the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, nonproliferation became a hot topic in Washington policy circles, as the United States became concerned that the Soviet Union's vast arsenal of poorly secured weapons might fall into the wrong hands.

But as is common inside the Beltway, a multitude of experts did not result in a multitude of sensible ideas. Washington's foreign policy establishment quickly coalesced around a consensus that stressed multilateral cooperation and international treaties and conventions to keep the nuclear genie in the bottle.

The Clinton administration adopted the Washington consensus wholeheartedly -- pay off the former Soviet Union to keep their nukes under lock and key, employ Russian scientists to preclude them from traveling to warmer climes, and encourage countries to sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treat (NPT), thus requiring them to submit to inspections. Only infrequently was the threat of force used as a tool to prevent proliferation.

Upon taking office in January 2001, the Bush administration quickly discovered that the diplomatic band-aid approach that characterized the Clinton years was not sustainable. Iran and North Korea were flagrantly violating the NPT's restrictions, while using their status as signatories to escape approbation.

Then came September 11, and with it a starker awareness of the frightening reality that al Qaeda and other terrorist groups are trying to obtain weapons of mass destruction for a catastrophic attack on an American city. This gave new and added impetus to efforts to contain the spread of nuclear weapons technology.

The Bush administration believes that September 11 changed the world. That horrible day exposed the true threat posed by fundamentalist Islam. As noted in the administration's National Security Strategy of 2002, the use of weapons of mass destruction by terrorist groups is the "gravest danger" facing the United States.

The administration understands the big picture, but needs to take three immediate steps to implement its vision:

First, it must emphasize to our allies in Europe and Asia that there is no universal right to nuclear weapons. There is no reason that rogue regimes such as Iran, Iraq, or North Korea need nuclear weapons. An international consensus must be developed that possession of nuclear weapons by rogue states is cause for action to disarm these regimes.

Second, the administration must increase security at America's ports, which receive 95 percent of all non-North American U.S. trade. As was noted at an Ethics and Public Policy Center event on the subject in late April, a series of tests by weapons experts and media organizations have shown the ease with which uranium can be smuggled into this country. It is impossible to stop all such materials at the border, but we can surely stop some, and our current defenses are utterly overwhelmed.

Finally, the administration should continue to threaten the use of force in cases where rogue regimes do not disarm. Libya's recent disarmament is an example of the benefits of robust action in Iraq. The United States cannot be caught unaware simply because our European allies want to slowly explore every diplomatic option. If the European approach is taken, regimes can develop sufficient stockpiles of weapons to make a military solution practically impossible, the strategy pursued by North Korea during the 1990s, and a tactic used currently by Iran.

In the end, winning the war on terror and thus eliminating the potential consumers of weapons of mass destruction is the key to reducing the threat to America's cities.

Our response must be more than meaningless words on paper. September 11 has changed the equation for American policymakers. As on many issues, the administration's critics need to realize that the security of America's streets cannot be left to international bureaucrats in paneled conference rooms in New York and Geneva.

President Bush understands this. One hopes it will not take a mushroom cloud in the skyline of Washington, New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles to win the nonproliferation "experts" over to his side.

Jamie M. Fly is a Research Associate working on national security issues at the Council on Foreign Relations. This is his first contribution to TCS. The views expressed here are his own.


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