TCS Daily

The Rumblings of an Atomic Avalanche

By James Pinkerton - May 6, 2005 12:00 AM

Editor's note: This article is the first of two parts.

Since 9-11, concern about nuclear proliferation has, shall we say, gained momentum. But whereas the subject of proliferation is interesting, and even morbidly entertaining, the legal underpinnings of non-proliferation are dull, musty, and abstract. All of which should tell us that proliferation has a much -- unfortunately -- brighter future than non-proliferation. We should all make our plans accordingly.

The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons has been signed by 189 countries. Shorthanded as NPT, it came into existence in 1970, and has been reviewed by the UN every five years since. Each such review is junket-op for international-crats. And while no doubt the UN's finest have thunk many bien pensées and drunk many equally fine bottles of champagne over the course of those sessions, the positive results of all that thinking and drinking are hard to detect: overt membership in the "nuclear club" has increased from five to seven during the last 35 years -- and to eight if one includes Israel, which is a covert member.

To put the situation another way, since the NPT came into force, nuke-club membership has increased by three. That's a 60 percent jump. And since North Korea is almost certainly yet another member -- it claims to be, even if it hasn't exploded a bomb that we know of -- that means that club membership stands at nine, which means that the club has increased by 80 percent since 1970.

Part of the problem is that the original five nuclear powers -- the US, the USSR/Russia, Great Britain, France, and China -- all of which are NPT signatories, have not lived up to their part of the bargain. Article Six states in full:

        Each of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations 
        in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms 
        race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a Treaty on 
        general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international 
        control. [emphasis added]

UN Secretary General Kofi Annan restated that position on Monday, declaring, yet again, that the goal is for "our world to be free of such weapons."

But since no such disarmament is happening -- and in the eyes of many Americans, less likely to happen if Annan is for it; whatever he's for, they're against it -- then it's little wonder that the NPT, as a worldwide mechanism, is breaking down amidst cynicism and disinterest. Even The New York Times, which has rarely met an international agreement it doesn't like, gently dissed the rag-tag anti-nuke demonstration that poked through Manhattan; in Monday's edition the paper observed that "the march yesterday had an anachronistic quality about it, with ardent antiwar chants and dove-festooned peace banners that have changed little in decades."

Instead, the nine-member nuclear club could easily jump by another 80 percent in the next three decades -- or maybe a lot more, and a lot sooner, given the general acceleration of everything in the 21st century.

So what went wrong? What's going on? And what's going to happen?

For answers, we might consider the five forces that are working against non-proliferation, in favor of proliferation.

First, it's a dangerous planet. More weapons flood the world, as does more wealth with which to buy them. And while many observers predicted that the enormous rise in prosperity of the last half-century would make the world more harmonious, it doesn't seem to have worked out that way. As one tiny example, we might consider the fierce words of Jennifer Granholm, the Democratic Governor of Michigan, who sounds a Xena-like note when she declares that in the global economy, one must either "eat or be eaten." As she told the Detroit Economic Club on Monday, "I for one refuse to let Michigan become another country's meal, and I hope you agree with me." She got a big cheer -- although given the ferocity of Granholm's stated vision, one might wonder if the folks in the audience had any real choice but to clap. Oh, and did I mention 9-11? In any case, for lots of reasons, there's not much lion-and-lamb-lying-down-together anywhere these days.

Second, if boys like toys, real men like nukes. If you're a big power, nukes keep you big, and if you're a small power, they make you big. Consider Russia; its economy is smaller than Holland's, but its 22,000 or so nukes keep Moscow in the macht-politik big leagues. And Pakistan, of course, would still be a doormat for India were it not for its 75 or so I-(for Islamic) bombs. Finally, if you're a rogue country, well, it's better to be feared if you can't be loved. Roguesters might ask themselves, "Do I want to be Slobodan Milosevic and Saddam Hussein, sitting in a jail cell somewhere, or do I want to be like Kim Jong Il, who is treated with kid gloves by a fearful world?" Meanwhile, even the Americans, not leaving well enough alone, are hard at work on their next-gen nukes. Sure, one can make a good PowerPoint-y case for why the US needs new and different a-bombs for specialized missions, but every other country can make such a case for its special needs, too.

Third, technology has a compelling, even compulsive, logic of its own. From Pandora and her box, to Dr. Frankenstein and his creation, to Gordon Moore and his law, humanity has always been drawn toward what's possible -- especially if it seems to be impossibly forbidden. The historian Lewis Mumford argued that people couldn't help themselves when it came to runaway technological development; he depicted humanity itself as a kind of "mega-machine," clanking and whirring itself toward its ultimate eschaton. We would inexorably travel along a giddily spectacular arc, from acropolis to metropolis to necropolis. For Mumford, who admittedly was not the most jolly of fellows, atomic weapons were just one more tool to make our bones bounce.

Fourth, the United Nations is a dud mechanism for doing much of anything. A long series of follies, foibles, and scandals -- peacekeepers-as-do-nothings-in-Rwanda, peacekeepers-as-rapists-in-Congo, and oil-for-food-in-Iraq being only the latest -- have undercut what remains of its institutional credibility. Part of the UN's problem is that too many cooks have spoiled its broth. When the UN was only 50 or so countries back in the '40s, it was feasible to run it according to informal rules of comity and consensus. But as more countries joined -- current membership is now 191 -- the place, well, got out of hand. The 1975 "Zionism is Racism" resolution spelled the end of the General Assembly as a useful forum for dealing with significant questions. If Zionism-is-racism was what some lefty liberationists and Third Worlders wanted to be believe, so be it. But they couldn't and can't get the big countries to sign on to such windy rhetoricizing. And so UNGA, RIP. And as for other UN bodies, such as the Commission on Human Rights, fuhgeddaboutit. Any "human rights" group that includes such repressive regimes as Cuba, Saudi Arabia, and Zimbabwe is not going to have much influence this side of the Lubyanka. Yes, there's still UN Security Council. But even that body was marginalized, to some degree, by the US when it went to war in Iraq without an authorizing resolution. If John Bolton gets confirmed, the situation in the UN may or may not get better, but the mere fact of his nomination reveals much about popular American attitudes toward the "Tower of Babble" overlooking Turtle Bay. Sad as it may be, if Kofi Annan says that we must eliminate atomic weapons, many if not most Americans will reach for their nuclear trigger, just for the reassurance that that it's always ready to be pulled.

Fifth, international law itself is cracking. A system that grew out of common European norms was always going to be stressed if it had to stretch to encompass the whole wide world. And just as the UN now has too many countries to be effective, so international law has too many subject-areas to be fully operative. If international lawyers could confine themselves to relatively simple issues, in which countries come to agreement through enlightened self-interest -- such as, say, the World Trade Organization -- then international law might succeed. But unfortunately, the natural tendency of UN-ocrats is to think big, too big, as in the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928, which outlawed war. Or, more recently, the Kyoto Treaty and the International Criminal Court, two more non-starters. And yet, sadly, when the prestige of international law is broken by overpromising, it's darn hard to put the pieces back together again.

Given that five-fold litany of pro-proliferation forces, it's little wonder that the US government is not seeking to rally the world back to the NPT flag. Instead, the US is seeking to use the UN conference for one single purpose: stop Iran's nuclear program. Iran, of course, is half of the remaining "axis of evil," and it is intent upon building an I-bomb, in keeping with its sense of Persian Muslim destiny. As Dennis Ross said on Fox News last year, in Iran, "even the moderates want nukes."

The other remaining "axis" country, of course, is North Korea. But the US seems to have given up on stopping, or, perhaps more accurately, undoing, Pyongyang's nuclear endeavor. This bifurcated American strategy -- run straight at Iran, run away from North Korea -- has been evident for some time now. The influential neoconservative columnist Charles Krauthammer signaled this shift in a January 3, 2003 column entitled "The Japan Card," in which he declared that a nuclear North Korea should be Asia's problem, not America's. Or, as Krauthammer expressed himself, in a moment of personal self-revelation, amidst his usual punditical persuasion, "It's time to share the nightmares."

Which is to say, the whole and sole focus of American anti-proliferation efforts is now Iran. The headline in Tuesday's Washington Post put it plainly: "U.S. Urges Punishment for Iran Nuclear Work."

But the Americans will not win easily, if at all. A story in the same day's Financial Times was headered, "Iran nuclear threat increases transatlantic friction" -- making the point that the Iran issue was dividing the anti-nuclear efforts of the Europeans on one hand and the Americans on the other. Meanwhile, the Iranians, left alone for now, are completely defiant; Tuesday's Reuters headline reads, "Iran determined to pursue nuclear enrichment".

Of course, the rest of the world has little stake in the issue. It's true that some countries, including Israel, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia, are not keen to see their Persian neighbor get nukes, but two of those three nations have their own nuclear arsenals, created since the NPT was enacted -- so who are they to talk? Indeed, if the international legal norm of the NPT has broken apart, then the campaign to de-nuclearize Iran looks less like an issue of justice and more like an issue of power. That is, if Tehran wants nukes and Washington -- looking hypocritical, of course, sitting on top of its own huge arsenal -- wants to keep Iran from getting nukes, with which country is the rest of the world more likely to sympathize?

Still, it's possible that the US will succeed in thwarting Iran's nuclear program. We have a lot of carrots, and a lot of sticks, in our rucksack. Moreover, if the US has made a "generational commitment" to the Middle East, as Condi Rice insists, then it's likely that we will remain in the region to supervise any arrangement with Iran for a long time -- however that arrangement is hammered out.

But if America muscles Iran, the likelihood of further proliferation elsewhere in the world -- either in nukes or other WMDs -- is likely to increase. Consider: if the US succeeds in disarming Iran, then other states will conclude that the ayatollahs' mistake was that they didn't nuclearize soon enough, as did Kim Jong Il. And of course, if the US does not succeed in disarming Iran, then the world will know that the Great Satan can be stood down. That would be a watershed in world affairs, a Clausewitzian test of wills that the US lost.

So either way, this year, 2005, the 60th anniversary of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, is likely to witness a sea-change in atomic attitudes. The NPT is no longer seen as an instrument of collective international norm-setting. Instead, it is seen as a cloak for the assertion of individual American will. Yet other countries have wills of their own, too. And such countries, and some people within those countries, have proven they can get access to both scary weapons and asymmetrical techniques of warfare.

Thus begins a cascade that's likely to last all through the 21st century, whether we like it or not, whether we are ready or not. In the words of that great astropolitical strategist, Kosh Naranek, the Vorlon Ambassador from "Babylon 5": "The avalanche has already started. It is too late for pebbles to vote."

So what do we do, as we listen for the rumbles of that atomic avalanche? That's the topic of next week's piece, which will be a guide for the plutonium-perplexed.


TCS Daily Archives