Bush’s Nuclear Revolution A Regime Change in Nonproliferation

George Perkovich. Foreign Affairs. Volume 82, Issue 2. March/April 2003.

The Bush administration’s new “National Strategy to Combat Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD),” announced in December, is wise in some places, in need of small fixes in other places, and dangerously radical in still others. Most important, the strategy’s approach to nuclear issues seems destined to reduce international cooperation in enforcing nonproliferation commitments rather than enhance it. America’s willingness to use force against emergent WMD threats, as in Iraq, can stir the limbs of the international body politic to action. But a truly effective strategy to reduce nuclear dangers over the long term must bring along hearts and minds as well.

The WMD proliferation problem involves biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons, but the third raises the most telling issues. Chemical and biological weapons are legally prohibited by treaty, and so the challenge they pose is basically one of enforcement. Nuclear weapons, on the other hand, are temporarily legal in five countries, not illegal in three others, and forbidden essentially everywhere else—a complex and inconsistent arrangement that presents a unique set of dilemmas.

This regime was established by the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, signed in 1968 and extended indefinitely in 1995. Shaped largely by the two superpowers, the NPT posited that the world would be more secure if proliferation did not extend beyond the five states (the United States, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, France, and China) that at the time possessed nuclear weapons. It reflected the widely held judgment that the more nuclear weapons holders there were, the greater the risks would be that some weapons would go off, either accidentally or on purpose.

The vast majority of countries, however, felt that “total elimination of nuclear weapons is the only absolute guarantee against [their] use,” and enshrined this conviction in Article VI of the NPT. That is, nuclear weapons per se are a problem, even if they could serve as effective deterrents against certain threats. The United States and the other four nuclear powers accepted this proposition and in May 2000 reaffirmed their “unequivocal undertaking” to eliminate their nuclear arsenals.

To persuade the rest of the world to give up its right to future acquisition of nuclear weapons, in other words, the nuclear weapon possessors had to promise to give up their own eventually. They had to offer other incentives as well: a pledge not to use their weapons to threaten non-possessors, help in acquiring and using civilian nuclear technology for states that renounced nuclear weapons and accepted international monitoring, and the enhanced security of knowing that the treaty would also help keep one’s neighbors from acquiring nuclear weapons. On this foundation, the United States and other countries have constructed over the years a nonproliferation regime of norms, laws, rules, institutions, sanctions, and, ultimately, un-backed coercion.

Since the NPT was agreed to in 1968, only five states have acquired nuclear weapons: Israel, India, Pakistan, South Africa, and perhaps North Korea. The first three never signed on to the treaty, and so their ongoing possession is morally, politically, and strategically (although not juridical) akin to that of the original five nuclear powers. South Africa subsequently gave up its weapons and joined the regime as a nonpossessor. North Korea, which did sign the NPT in 1985, has been caught twice escaping its obligations and is now trying to cut a new deal.

Argentina, Brazil, South Korea, and Taiwan ceased their suspected nuclear weapons development programs over the years. Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine inherited nuclear weapons upon the Soviet Union’s dissolution but opted to relinquish them in favor of joining the NPT. Iraq had a clandestine illegal nuclear weapons program that was detected and largely dismantled as a result of the last Persian Gulf War. Today, therefore, Iran is the only state known to be actively seeking nuclear weapons—in violation of the spirit, if not the letter, of its nonproliferation commitments—that is not also under some form of “arrest.”

Most analysts would agree that the arms control regime has worked better and longer than expected but nevertheless needs to be strengthened to better handle new circumstances and challenges. The Bush administration thinks otherwise. It concludes from the few problem cases that “traditional nonproliferation has failed,” as one White House official recently told The Washington Post.

To administration radicals such as Robert Joseph (the National Security Council’s senior counterproliferation official), Douglas Feith (undersecretary of defense), John Bolton (undersecretary of state), and Stephen Cambone (principal deputy undersecretary of defense), nuclear weapons per se are not the problem—”bad guys” with them are. Rejecting the fundamental premise of the NPT, these officials seek not to create an equitable global regime that actively devalues nuclear weapons and creates conditions for their eventual elimination, but rather to eradicate the bad guys or their weapons while leaving the “good guys” free of nuclear constraints. Ballistic missile defense, in this vision, will protect against the few weapons that get away, while Special Forces and the Department of Homeland Security will protect against non-missile-borne threats.

The administration has enunciated this position with admirable clarity in its new national security strategy. Commentators have fixated on the invocation of “preemptive” military action to counter enemies seeking “the world’s most destructive technologies.” Yet this is not the crazy idea it is often portrayed to be. To enforce a robust nonproliferation regime, preemption might actually make sense in certain cases. The real problem in the new strategy is not preemption but narrowness—the focus on three wretched governments and terrorists, and the emphasis on force, coercion, and selective treaty enforcement as the main instruments of national policy.

For Me but Not For Thee

Conservative defense intellectuals and officials deserve credit for highlighting the fact that effective nonproliferation requires changes in the policies or governments of states unwilling to abide by international laws and norms. Yet they then proceed to make the reverse mistake, looking only at the outlaws and ignoring the challenges posed by nuclear weapons in general. So long as some states are allowed to possess nuclear weapons legitimately and derive the benefits that flow from them, then other states in the system will want them too—including, perhaps, the successors to the governments the Bush administration currently opposes. The proliferation threat thus stems from the existence and possession of nuclear weapons and theft-prone materials, not merely from the intentions of today’s “axis of evil.” Redressing this larger threat requires cooperation from Russia, China, Japan, South Korea, and others, as the administration has discovered now in dealing with North Korea.

The nonproliferation radicals recognize that the good guys of today can become the bad guys of tomorrow. So they say the United States must retain and “upgrade” an enormous strategic arsenal forever to deter or defeat any adversary. At the same time, they argue that the new bad guys (rogue states and terrorists), unlike the old bad guys (the Soviet Union), cannot be deterred and contained and so must be eliminated quickly. The Bush administration thus essentially favors a strategy of repeated regime change plus a large, steadily modernizing nuclear arsenal.

This bleak vision makes sense only if the determination to retain deployed nuclear arsenals forever does not exacerbate proliferation risks, and if the weapons being retained provide a necessary, usable, and effective deterrent against threats that are greater than proliferation. Since neither of these assumptions is valid, the strategy is flawed.

On the “supply” side, the longer worldwide stockpiles of weapons, fissile materials, precursor technologies, and expertise remain and grow, the greater the risk of their being diverted to proliferation. (Think of Russia today and Pakistan over the next 30 years.) It is true that even without operable nuclear weapons, fissile materials would pose a proliferation threat and would have to be zealously accounted for and secured. But securing sensitive assets would be much easier in a zero-arsenal world than in one where multiple states maintain operational nuclear forces and large related infrastructures with little or no transparency and international monitoring.

On the “demand” side, the fact that several powerful countries continue to assign great value to their nuclear arsenals reinforces just how important these weapons can be as sources of power and prestige and raises their attractiveness for others. This role-model effect does not by itself cause other states or terrorists to seek nuclear weapons. But it does impede efforts to persuade India, Pakistan, Iran, North Korea, and Iraq to curtail their acquisitions. It could also cause Japan, Brazil, and others to rethink their abstinence. Moreover, the administration’s “emphasis on tactical uses” of nuclear weapons “increases the motivation of” targeted states “to improve and extend their own nuclear force, or to get one if they don’t have it,” as notes Michael May, the former director of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. The behavior of North Korea and Iran seems to confirm May’s warning.

Nonproliferation radicals counter by changing the subject. They say the massive U.S. nuclear arsenal and the doctrine of first use together avert proliferation on the part of American allies such as Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, and Germany. Each of these states could readily acquire nuclear weapons, but, according to this view, chooses not to because the American arsenal gives it a deterrent shield. Yet, South Korea, Germany, and Japan today seem more alarmed than reassured by U.S. strategy. Rather than the nuclear-heavy status quo, they would prefer at least a serious attempt to remove, in a verifiable and step-by-step manner, nuclear weapons from national arsenals, as called for by the NPT.

How Much Is Enough?

The Bush administration justifies its maintenance of vast nuclear arsenals as a response to three types of threats: terrorists, rogue states, and great-power rivals such as Russia and China.

Yet it is hard to see how nuclear weapons could play any role whatsoever in either deterring or responding to terrorists, who are determined, mobile, small in number, and hard to target. It is almost as hard to see how nuclear weapons are necessary and appropriate to confront the challenges posed by rogue states, something the current Iraq and Korea crises should demonstrate.

Obliterating cities is not a credible U.S. option. And as for bunkers hiding rogue leaders or weapons, May points out that even if they can be located precisely, “small nuclear weapons have only marginally more effectiveness than U.S. conventional weapons against most targets … [and] are more difficult to use.” American use of nuclear weapons against Iraq (or Iran), meanwhile, would inflame Muslim hatred around the world, add fuel to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and mobilize massive European protests against U.S. hegemony—all major strategic costs to the United States.

As for Russia, a full-scale war between it and the United States now seems inconceivable. Given the desires for larger cuts in nuclear forces that Russia displayed in negotiating the 2002 Moscow Treaty, Russia hardly seems enough of a threat to justify the size and forward-leaning posture of America’s present arsenal.

China currently possesses roughly two dozen nuclear weapons that could reach the United States and a few hundred more that could hit targets in and around Taiwan. China is modernizing and expanding its arsenal, moreover. But whether this process will proceed indefinitely, either qualitatively or quantitatively, depends largely on the political and strategic environment the United States itself shapes.

Yet rather than seek a multilateral framework in which the United States, Russia, and China could set the lowest possible limits on their forces, Washington hawks seek to “impress” China with “greater, rather than fewer weapons,” in the words of an influential 2001 think tank report signed by several people who went on to key positions in the Bush administration. “Authoritarian states and leaders seem to place special emphasis on large numbers,” the report noted, “perhaps because … dictators find in large numbers a promise or manifestation of the unlimited force they want to exercise.” (This would be more insightful if China had several thousand nuclear weapons and the United States a few hundred, rather than the other way around.)

Instead of maintaining such an arsenal, many argue, the United States should lead the other nuclear powers in an effort to render nuclear weapons taboo—the vision, that is, behind the international nonproliferation regime the administration appears to scorn. Bringing such a taboo into effect would obviously require decades and enormous changes in international relations. Yet promulgating it emphatically as a goal would help motivate states, customs officials, scientists, and others around the world to be more vigilant in combating the spread of nuclear weapons.

Nonproliferation revolutionaries scoff at the value of norms against nuclear weapons. They argue, somewhat correctly, that bad guys do not follow norms, but overlook the fact that many people whose cooperation we need do. Ironically, elsewhere the administration finds the concept of norms to be useful. Undersecretary of Defense Feith, for example, demands universal acceptance of the norm against terrorism. “Worldwide moral battles can be fought and won,” he said recently; “no decent person any more … supports or excuses slave trading, piracy, or genocide. No decent person should support or excuse terrorism either.”

Selective Service

Instead of trying to make nuclear weapons anathema, the hawks prefer to focus on “enforcement.” In the new strategy’s words, “We will hold countries responsible for complying with their commitments.” This is welcome; enforcement of nonproliferation regimes should indeed be strengthened. Yet the administration does not seem to recognize that it is easier to make others comply with their commitments if you comply with yours, both within treaties and across them. The United States does not, in fact, comply with important commitments it has made under the NPT, such as the promise to move toward giving up its weapons, and Washington clearly has no intention of doing so.

The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty represents the single clearest and most immediate commitment the nuclear weapons states have made to fulfill their disarmament obligations under the NPT. “We’re not for that,” a Bush administration official says. How about the “unequivocal undertaking” to eliminate all nuclear arsenals? “We’re not for that, either,” the official says. Indeed, the White House’s new counter-proliferation strategy does not mention any nuclear weapons state obligations or commitments to reverse the salience, size, and modernization of nuclear arsenals, beyond urging negotiation of a ban on further fissile-material production “that advances U.S. security interests.”

As evidence of compliance with NPT disarmament obligations, Bush administration officials cite the recent Moscow Treaty with Russia. Yet this treaty “requires” the United States and Russia only to reduce deployed strategic forces from 6,000 today to between 1,700 and 2,200 warheads. Because the treaty lacks a schedule of phased reductions, either party could defer cuts until December 31, 2012, at which point violations would be moot because the treaty expires on that day. The treaty also does not require the elimination of a single nuclear missile silo, submarine, missile, warhead, bomber, or bomb.

The radicals’ concern for enforcement, therefore, suffers from triple selectivity. It deems some states’ nuclear weapons good, while others’ are bad. It selects one treaty, the NPT, for enforcement while dismissing others. And it selects only some provisions of the NPT—the constraints on others—for enforcement. Such selectivity mocks the equitable rule of law and engenders apathy and resistance from other states that makes stopping WMD proliferation even harder than it would otherwise be.

Win One for the Gipper

Real security against weapons of mass destruction requires all relevant states and individuals to enforce vigorously the treaties, rules, laws, and procedures that have been established to outlaw chemical and biological weapons and to contain, and ultimately eliminate, the threats posed by nuclear arsenals. Some argue that this is a fantasy because nuclear weapons, and chemical and biological weapons, cannot be disinvented. This ignores the fact that they do not have to be. The Reagan administration and Moscow did not disinvent intermediate-range nuclear missiles, but they eliminated them from their arsenals. South Africa did not disinvent its nuclear arsenal, but it did decommission it.

As Ronald Reagan, for one, envisioned, nuclear weapons can be verifiably withdrawn from the serviceable arsenals of states. This will take many decades to accomplish and will be finished only if and when the world in general has achieved the sort of integration and obedience to the rule of law that the Western hemisphere and Europe have developed in the past 50 years. This rule of law will have to be backed by internationally legitimate and robust instruments of coercion for the dangers to be kept at bay. Merely stating such a goal makes clear how far we are from it at present. But unless the United States and other leading countries vigorously proffer this vision the proliferation problem will get more dangerous rather than less.