Think Again: Nuclear Proliferation

With all the headlines on the Iranian and North Korean nuclear programs, it’s easy to think that the world is witnessing a boom in the number of nuclear-armed countries. Don’t count on it. Low demand for nukes, coupled with more targeted nonproliferation diplomacy, will ensure that the nuclear club remains small and exclusive.

The Number of Countries with Nuclear Weapons Is About to Grow Dramatically

The Number of Countries with Nuclear Weapons Is About to Grow Dramatically

We’ve heard all that before. In 1964, five states possessed nuclear weapons. The previous year, President John F. Kennedy had predicted that number would expand to between 15 and 25 nuclear weapons states within a decade. Ten years later, the top U.S. arms controller, Fred Ikl, foresaw as many as 35 nuclear states in the world by 1990. But, even though nuclear technology did diffuse widely, the nuclear weapons club had only expanded by two new members by 1980. And during the 1980s, membership in the club did not grow at all.

At the end of the Cold War, experts again braced themselves for rampant proliferation. Even optimistic scenarios anticipated that key global players such as Germany would seek nuclear weaponry. The predictions again proved to be wrong. Indeed, since the end of the Cold War, more states have actually given up their nuclear weapons arsenals than have created new ones. True, no one can be certain that those who come bearing dark predictions today wont turn out to be correct after all. Past performance is not necessarily indicative of future results. But if the proliferation prophets were managing your money, youd have fired them by now.

The Nonproliferation Regime Deters New Nuclear Weapons States

Hardly. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) does good work, and the agency and its director general, Mohamed ElBaradei, deserve their Nobel Peace Prize. But to say that a flood of new nuclear weapons states has been blocked by the international nonproliferation regime is like saying that Bill Gates is rich because he saved a bundle by switching to GEICO.

Has the nonproliferation regime been helpful? Yes. But it has not been a determinative factor in preventing proliferation. After all, the regime is flimsy. It suffers from ambiguous and erratically enforced rules, myriad technical loopholes, and chronic underfunding. The case of pre-1991 Iraq showed how easily a determined state can hide the true extent of its nuclear program from the IAEA. Monitoring and inspection procedures have tightened up a great deal since then, but even a closely watched Iran managed to develop an extensive secret nuclear program over an 18-year period, until the truth started leaking out in 2002.

In addition, the regime has been weakened by the ambiguous message it sends to states. The Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) does not create a level playing field between states, as most international treaties try to do. Rather, it separates states into two categoriesthe nuclear weapons states versus the othersand most of the onus for compliance falls on the latter group. The nuclear weapons states have only halfheartedly pursued nuclear disarmament, as the NPT says they must, and they have increasingly refused to meet their other major treaty obligation of disseminating civilian nuclear technology. Meanwhile, the Bush administration has recently made it clear that it intends to treat NPT holdout India as a legal nuclear weapons state. So its difficult to say that the nonproliferation regime today offers nonnuclear weapons states much of a reward for staying that wayif, indeed, it ever did.

Then theres the overriding fact that, even when the chips are down, most states have little desire to acquire nuclear weapons. The nonproliferation regime is billed as having been wildly successful because few states have gotten the bomb, but this logic ignores the fact that a vast majority of the worlds countries quite simply have no interest in doing what the NPT prohibits.

States Want the Bomb Because It Is a Great Deterrent

Its not that simple. Its true that most states who get the bomb want it mainly for the deterrent effect they think it provides. But many states, even among the handful that face high external levels of threat, dont automatically accept that having the absolute weapon will make them safer. Consider the case of India. In 1964, two years after India had fought and lost a bloody border war with China, the Chinese went nuclear. At the time, India had the technical wherewithal to try to follow suit. It did not. Rather than playing with the fire of mutually assured destruction, Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri focused on bolstering the countrys conventional military forces to secure Indias borders.

Shastri didnt believe in the theory of nuclear deterrence. But even most of those leaders who do believe in deterrence theory are not rushing out to get a couple of nuclear missiles. Building a small nuclear arsenal to face a much larger one does little more than invite a preventive attack. It is only once a state develops a secure second-strike capabilitythe ability to absorb the enemys first blow and then respond in kindthat it can begin to feel safe. For instance, in the wake of Chinas 1964 nuclear test, petrified Australian leaders also seriously contemplated exercising their nuclear option. What held them back was the belief that Australia couldnt build that crucial second-strike capability.

States Want the Bomb for International Status

Thats not the whole equation. Nonnuclear states are certainly keenly aware that the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council are also the five legal nuclear weapons states under the NPT. But the desire for status or prestige on its own is rarely enough to motivate a decision to go nuclear.

Take, for instance, the case of Argentina in the 1970s and early 1980s. From its grandiose staging of the 1978 World Cup to its 1982 invasion of the Falklands (Malvinas) Islands, the Argentine military juntas appetite for nationalist self-expression appeared to have no bounds. The junta also embarked upon an enormous, economically questionable expansion of Argentinas nuclear technology base, seeking to have at least six operating nuclear power reactors and achieving mastery of the nuclear fuel cycle. But, contrary to what many experts think even today, it did not embark on a nuclear weapons program, and indeed no influential voices within the state even wanted to do so. In fact, when the growth in its nuclear program threatened to entrap it in a nuclear arms race with Brazil, Argentina swallowed some pride and sought a diplomatic rapprochement with its neighbor. Argentinas military rulers understood that introducing the prospect of mutual annihilation into a region characterized by limited conflicts of interest would bein one admirals wordsa strategic absurdity. Its a point of view also shared by many of the worlds nonnuclear states today.

Rogue States Are More Eager to Go Nuclear Than Are Others

Nonsense. Much recent press attention has focused on the nuclear activities of the unpleasant regimes of North Korea and Iran. It previously focused on Iraq and Libya. Those countries nuclear programs clearly do (or did) give cause for alarm. But they are hardly the only ones that have played fast and loose with the rules of the nonproliferation regime. For instance, last year, even democratic South Korea informed the IAEA that as late as 2000 it had been secretly producing weapons-grade uranium, in violation of commitments not to do so.

Indeed, if we use history as our guide, we might want to worry as much about the South Koreas as we do about the Libyas. For in fact, few of the members of the nuclear weapons club actually fit the rogue state designation. Apart from the original five, we find India, a democracy with international credentials so strong, it even has a chance for permanent membership in the U.N. Security Council. And then we find Israel and Pakistan, states that may not be universally admired but certainly have long enjoyed a close embrace from the United States. And it might be added that all three of these nuclear gatecrashers were headed by democratically elected leaders when they made their crucial decisions to cross the nuclear threshold. In short, few states may want the bomb, but no regime type provides a sure vaccination against nuclear weapons ambitions.

Countries That Master the Nuclear Fuel Cycle Want to Produce Weapons

Dont jump to conclusions. The desire to produce or amass plutonium or enriched uranium is a red flag, but its not a smoking gun that proves nuclear weapons ambitions. In fact, it can be driven by all sorts of motives apart from a desire for nuclear weapons.

Resource-poor states such as Japan view the mastery of the nuclear fuel cycle as a necessary correlate to their goal of energy independence. Japans choice is arguably driven by economic motives, but there are other motives unrelated to the bomb. For instance, Argentina started its secret uranium enrichment program in 1978, when the United States cut off enriched uranium exports to states that had not accepted the NPT. Without enriched uranium, Argentina would be unable to fuel its self-designed research reactorsa particular point of pride for a country with little in the way of high-technology industry. It also wanted to be able to fuel a pair of German-made TR 1700 diesel attack submarines, which it was considering transforming into nuclear subs. Thus, even though the work was conducted in total secrecy, Argentine scientists built their enrichment plant to make reactor-grade, not bomb-grade enriched uranium. Today, the world is closely watching Irans progress on enrichment. The Iranians may very well want enriched uranium as a pathway to the bomb, but it would be unwise to dismiss as mere propaganda the other motivations that they cite.

Policymakers Need Better Data on States Nuclear Capabilities

Not only. Overstating Iraqs nuclear progress has certainly given U.S. intelligence a black eye, but former weapons inspector David Kay is also right to note that the real challenge for intelligence is going to be giving to our political leaderships not just judgment about capabilities, but judgments about real intentions. And that is tough. Thats true. But still, the intelligence community could develop much better judgment than its showing now. It could begin by simply considering nascent nuclear programs innocent until proven guilty. For ultimately, most states either dont want or dont think they can muster a credible nuclear deterrent. Recognizing that the world is not full of nuclear illuminati would allow the international community to relax a bit, avoid offending large swaths of states, and concentrate resources on the few dangerous governments that really do want a bomb.

Still, how does one determine where the real threats are? The late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan made an incisive suggestion after the 1998 Indian nuclear tests caught the intelligence community napping: Learn to read. After all, Moynihan pointed out, Indias Bharatiya Janata Party, newly elected at the time, had publicly advocated going nuclear for a decade. Moynihan was basically right, and not just about India. People who want nuclear weapons tend to want them badly. They therefore find it hard to resist telegraphing their intentions.

Of course, bluntly telling the world you want nuclear weapons is not for everyone. Thats why its essential for the intelligence community not only to learn to read, but to learn to read between the lines. A good deal of analysis can be done long-distance, using open sources. But diplomats, spies, or politicians can also glean critical information by meeting key players face to face. Unfortunately, American experts and envoys have often squandered such opportunities, showing a decided tendency to lecture rather than listen. They could do worse than to follow the lead of Henry Kissinger, who, as secretary of state, responded with restraint to Indias peaceful nuclear explosion of 1974and was reciprocated by an Indian state that ended up waiting another quarter-century before deciding to build an actual nuclear arsenal.

Judging state demand for nuclear weapons is tough, but we can do better than were doing today. And we have no other choice but to try.

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