Friends with Benefits

No, Mr. President, it's not OK if our allies get nuclear weapons.

By , director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies.
Library of Congress/Records of the Office of the Secretary of Defense
Library of Congress/Records of the Office of the Secretary of Defense
Library of Congress/Records of the Office of the Secretary of Defense

Barry O. is going to talk about nuclear weapons again. Someone sober up the Nobel Peace Prize committee.

Barry O. is going to talk about nuclear weapons again. Someone sober up the Nobel Peace Prize committee.

Speaking at the Munich Security Conference — think of it as Davos for people who love armored formations — Vice President Joe Biden indicated that the president would use the forthcoming State of the Union address to advance "a comprehensive nuclear agenda to strengthen the nonproliferation regime, reduce global stockpiles, and secure nuclear materials."

The trope of Joe Biden indulging in all manner of low-class pleasures is now firmly established thanks to the tireless efforts of the Onion. I couldn’t read that passage of his speech without imagining Biden riling up the crowd before some especially awful hair metal band takes the stage: ARE YOU READY FOR SOME BARACK OBAMA? I CAN’T HEAR YOU!

Obama will say all the right things, of course. He’ll probably declare victory on his campaign promise to secure all vulnerable fissile material during his first term. He may call on the Senate to ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. If he’s feeling it, he may threaten to take negotiations on a treaty banning the production of fissile material out of the deadlocked Conference on Disarmament. Finally, he might also say a few words about the administration’s increasingly poorly named 90-day Nuclear Posture Review Implementation Study, which the administration started in the summer of 2011.

As the president surveys the landscape of all things nuclear, it would be nice — well, I would appreciate it, at any rate — if he said a few words about what may turn out to be the most consequential decision he makes in his second term: How he plans to respond to nuclear programs in North Korea and Iran.

Oh, he’ll say something, of course. Obama will surely express the normal platitudes about not "accepting" nuclear weapons in either country, offering an outstretched hand if they would only unclench their fists, yada, yada, yada. But there is one subject that no one in his administration is willing to touch, unless they stumble into it sideways before apologizing and moving on. The interesting question isn’t how to stop North Korea or Iran, but how we manage the inevitable pressures from our friends and partners to seek their own nuclear weapons capabilities in response.

One of the oldest problems in the book on nuclear weapons is the so-called "Nth country" problem — the simple idea that each new nuclear state inspires or terrifies yet more to join the club. It’s worth taking a moment to reflect on U.S. nonproliferation policy and how we’ve dealt with this problem throughout the nuclear age.

One of the simplest questions I get asked when I give talks to a general audience is this: Why is it OK for the United States to have nuclear weapons, but not Iran or North Korea? It’s a good question and the answer matters a great deal.

The initial U.S. position on the spread of nuclear weapons was basically, "It’s good when our friends do it, but bad when our enemies try." The early history of U.S. approaches was a mixture of efforts to preserve a nuclear monopoly and, when that failed, proliferate selectively to our friends. The United States helped the United Kingdom build nuclear weapons, it stationed its own nuclear weapons overseas as an advertisement for the wonders of nuclear deterrence, and it pushed NATO towards accepting something called the Multilateral Force whereby U.S. nuclear weapons would be stationed on NATO ships with multinational crews. If you’ve ever seen Cédric Klapisch’s L’auberge Espagnole, it would be like that — but with nuclear weapons. The Italians even outfitted a cruiser with launch tubes.

The real problem in the early nuclear age was encouraging states to get into this ghastly business in the first place. One of the clearest statements of this line of thinking was offered by a Harvard professor named Henry Kissinger: "One of the chief tasks of United States policy in NATO, therefore, is to overcome the trauma which attaches to the use of nuclear weapons and to decentralize the possession of nuclear weapons as rapidly as possible." And you thought Ken Waltz was the only person who thought like that!

Eventually, the idea of selective proliferation gave way to a slightly more reasonable approach. As China neared its first nuclear detonation in the early 1960s, the U.S. foreign policy elite went into a minor panic. (Quivering hands must have dropped countless cucumber sandwiches on Mr. Pratt’s parquet.) All the usual approaches were considered — but they seemed especially ridiculous when transplanted to Asia. Actual policy proposal: Help India build a nuclear weapon to counter China! Eventually, as in the case of most knotty problems, a commission was formed. Lyndon Johnson asked Roswell Gilpatric, a former deputy secretary of defense and shall we say "man about town," to look at the problem.

Unlike most commissions, this one produced something useful. (I’ll give you a minute to recover.) The Gilpatric Report figured out what I take to be the central fact of the nuclear age: that nuclear weapons pose a shared danger to all countries — this, only two decades into the nuclear age. Narrowly speaking, the commission observed, if both the United States and Soviet Union encouraged their friends to acquire nuclear weapons, pretty soon everyone would have them. That would be unwelcome. So, despite our deep ideological differences, the superpowers had an incentive to cooperate. The Gilpatric Report laid out a sensible set of nonproliferation measures that the United States might pursue with the Soviet Union, including treaties against proliferation, nuclear testing, and the production of fissile material. Fifty years later, we’re still working on Roswell Gilpatric’s list of recommendations.

I don’t want to oversell how dramatic the shift in U.S. policy was after the Gilpatric Report. This isn’t a Hollywood movie. Henry Kissinger didn’t slap his forehead and say "Oh, vat an ass I’ve been," although that certainly would have been appropriate. The Nixon administration, for example, agreed to seek ratification of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) — but only on the condition that we never, ever ask any of our friends to sign it, least of all the West Germans. Privately, the Nixon administration accepted Israel as a sub rosa member of the nuclear club and initiated a robust program of nuclear cooperation with France that might have seemed at odds with our newfound interest in nonproliferation, if it hadn’t been kept secret for a couple of decades.

The NPT has plenty of flaws. It was, among other things, about 20 years too late — but better late than never. By 1970, five states already had tested a nuclear weapon. The treaty recognized this reality, striking one of many bargains: no more nuclear weapons states, with those already in the club agreeing to good-faith efforts toward disarmament. The deal isn’t fair — life, you may have noticed, is like that — but it was the only deal possible and better than none at all. People who talk about an NPT 2.0 are either fools or on staff at the Physics Research Center in Tehran. This is the best deal we’re getting; we need to make it work.

Despite a cottage industry of claiming the NPT is doomed, the treaty has done rather well in several respects. Over time, nonproliferation became the norm for U.S. policy. We did eventually encourage and, when necessary, strong-arm our friends into signing the treaty, halting nuclear weapons programs in places like Australia, Sweden, South Korea, and Taiwan.

We’ve gotten to the point today where there does seem to be something untoward about building nuclear weapons, with proliferation at the moment largely occurring among states that are relatively isolated within the international community. Advocates of the NPT like to mention John F. Kennedy’s remark that, without action, 15 or 20 or 25 states might acquire nuclear weapons by 1970. The number gets the headlines, but it’s worth looking at the intelligence estimate his comment was based upon. The 15 or 20 or 25 states included all the states that could build nuclear weapons. Noticeably absent are many of today’s problem children. Where the NPT succeeded was in limiting proliferation to the hard cases — whether we call them pariahs, rogues, or states of concern. That is no mean feat. When military dictatorships in Argentina and Brazil ended, so did their nuclear weapons programs. When South Africa gave up apartheid, it also gave up the bomb.

At the same time, the norm against proliferation is something we must work to maintain. That cottage industry I derided — and of which I am part — is necessary. Left to their own devices, most diplomats, regionalists, and politicians would fatally compromise the nonproliferation regime with ever more exceptions and excuses. The United States has never made nonproliferation its top priority. At best, it’s one of many interests — and often the losing one. The Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979, so the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations looked the other way while Pakistan built nuclear weapons with Chinese assistance. There is a special place in nonproliferation hell for the George W. Bush administration, which hijacked the nonproliferation agenda as an excuse to invade Iraq and then, in some misguided geopoliticking, sought a waiver (or blew a gaping hole) for India in the Nuclear Suppliers Group, making India the only country in the world eligible for nuclear imports without the obligations that would come with joining the NPT. Mr. Obama, despite his lofty nonproliferation rhetoric, has been as willing as any other president to bend the rules for his friends.

Which brings us back to his State of the Union address. After declaring all that "vulnerable" fissile material secure and reminiscing about the good old days in Prague, Mr. Obama will have to say something about North Korea and Iran. He’ll take a swipe or two — more in sadness than anger — at their intransigence. But what he really ought to do, and what would be hard, is to talk about how he’ll respond when our friends want to start down the same road.

North Korea is about to test a nuclear weapon for the third time. The usual types in South Korea and Japan have made all manner of irresponsible statements. Negotiations with Iran are going nowhere. Whether or not you believe that Iran’s program is paused, as I do, Tehran’s neighbors are also sounding worried. Our friends aren’t going to ask for the bomb directly, at least not at first, but they’ve already started asking if, perchance, we might not bend the rules a little here or there. Maybe, they ask, we could agree to let them develop longer-range ballistic missiles, or would we mind if France sold them really great cruise missiles? Or borrow the plutonium out of the reactor fuel we sold them? Or spin a few centrifuges?

Not for nuclear weapons, of course! Oh, no, no, no. Did you mention hedging? I didn’t mention shrubbery. Topiary is an interesting hobby, don’t you think?

There is every temptation to respond to these hard cases by making more exceptions. They are our friends. None of them has had active nuclear weapons programs for at least 20 years. (You did what in 2000? Never mind, we’re good.) Historically, the United States helped build the norm against proliferation by making it clear to some of our friends that the choice was between nuclear weapons and an alliance with the United States. Today, Seoul or Riyadh might reasonably conclude that the formula works in reverse: Would Washington abandon an ally over an act of proliferation? What are a few nuclear weapons among friends, anyway? What if they keep it on the DL?

At some point, the exceptions will destroy the rule. Having five nuclear weapons states was a necessary compromise, but a compromise all the same. The holdouts of the 1970s were toughies. Israel already had built nuclear weapons by 1970, but just not tested them — isn’t that better than overtly joining the club? India tested in 1974 when the treaty was still young, claiming its nuclear test was a "peaceful nuclear explosion." Pakistan couldn’t sign because India wouldn’t. After India tested again in 1998, we simply had to "deal with the realities" of India’s de facto nuclear weapons possession in seeking special treatment for New Delhi at the Nuclear Suppliers Group. And so on, and so on.

Every single one these exceptions made perfect sense at the time. And that’s the problem: so will all of the exceptions that Barack Obama’s national security teams asks him to make in the next four years. Do we put nuclear weapons back into South Korea? Consent to their reprocessing of American-made spent nuclear fuel? Sell the Jordanians, Saudis, or Emiratis who knows what? Each of these decisions will represent a perfectly sensible opportunity to strengthen relations with a key partner at only a small cost to the broader nonproliferation regime as a whole. We’ll tell ourselves that the harm we do pales in comparison to harm already done by North Korea or Iran. This will be true, but will be beside the point. The aggregate wisdom of the foreign policy community, over time, will doom the regime as a whole.

I don’t think the administration sees it this way, which worries me. A certain administration official derided some of the people critical of their nonproliferation policies — okay, me — as nonproliferation "purists" because we believe that the rules ought to be applied in a consistent and impartial manner to our friends, as well as our enemies. Worrying about special pleading, however, doesn’t make one a "purist." It makes one aware that the legitimacy of any international regime is a fragile thing. It makes one careful not to let too many small changes accumulate catastrophically. The diplomat’s preference to treat every case as sui generis amounts to having no rule at all, save that of the jungle. Yet if there is one realization of the nuclear age, it is the law of the jungle is simply too dangerous in a nuclear-armed world. That is the logic behind Kennedy’s fear of 25 nuclear-armed states. And behind Gilpatric’s conclusion that "the spread of nuclear weapons poses an increasingly grave threat to the United States." And it was, I thought, the logic behind why Barack Obama stated his "commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons."

We must have rules, even for our friends. We have enough exceptions already.

Jeffrey Lewis is director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program for the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. Twitter: @ArmsControlWonk

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