The Nuclear Option

The policies designed to halt the spread of nuclear weapons are only making things worse.

The diffusion of new technology, whether gunpowder or cell phones, is unstoppable. Nuclear weapons technology is no exception. On the contrary, U.S. policies for preventing proliferation have actually accelerated it. First, the United States shared its nuclear know-how with Britain and France. Then it was benignly permissive toward Israel’s clandestine program. More recently, its swift reversal from hostility to accommodation of India’s and Pakistan’s programs — after each demonstrated a nuclear explosion — has made a joke of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the global non-proliferation regime. Now, as the "axis of evil" states are the primary focus of U.S. non-proliferation policy, President George W. Bush’s threat of regime change has only driven Iran and North Korea to accelerate their efforts. North Korea has already called the president’s bluff, and Iran may delay but will not yield. Bombing their nuclear facilities might set them back, but nothing short of a ground invasion will stop them outright at this point.

As a result, pursuit of nonproliferation is undercutting the very security interests it was intended to promote: regional stability. Since the end of World War II, regional stability has been the United States’ highest priority interest in both the Persian Gulf and Northeast Asia. Strangely, though, the United States pursues a destabilizing and feckless non-proliferation policy at the expense of that interest. Rather than recognizing that states most often seek nuclear weapons when they feel insecure, the administration has pushed the world’s most fragile and dangerous regimes into a corner. The results have been predictable. The invasion of Iraq has made that region less stable than at anytime since 1945. U.S. policy in Northeast Asia has already yielded a nuclear-capable North Korea. Worse yet, many South Koreans interpret this U.S. policy as "discrimination" against Koreans in general and now openly side with their northern neighbor. Others quietly expect to inherit North Korea’s nuclear weapons, either in the event of reunification or a two-state solution on the peninsula. A nuclear-armed Korea without U.S. troops is a sure formula for Japanese nuclear proliferation. Not only will this push Korea into the Chinese security orbit but also launch Chinese-Japanese strategic nuclear competition. East Asian economic prosperity is unlikely to survive in those conditions.

What is to be done? First, recognize that two new nuclear states plus regional stability is a better outcome than two nuclear states with regional upheaval. Second, recognize that preventing nuclear proliferation requires making states feel secure. That requires specific strategies for each country, aimed at meeting its security needs. For example, if Washington were to renounce its "regime change" policy, drop the proliferation issue, and seek direct, bilateral talks with Tehran, Iran would almost certainly respond positively. After all, Tehran opposes both al Qaeda and the Taliban, abhors drug trafficking from Afghanistan, would like to buy U.S. oil production technology, and prefers stability in Iraq — all interests shared by the United States. No single thing would more enhance U.S. capacity to redress the power balance in the Middle East than U.S.-Iranian cooperation.

Where such diplomacy fails, regional deterrence strategies, not preventive war, are the sensible alternative. That is the unique responsibility and frustrating burden of the world’s only superpower.

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