The Iraq war’s monopoly on America’s political energy has now stretched to five years. During what is an eon in a time of fast-moving global change, a number of international security problems have grown, from neglect, into full-blown crises. Unless a major effort is made to reverse current trends, the fissures now spreading across the global nonproliferation regime could easily become the worst of these crises and among the greatest of the war’s long-term costs.
Of all the challenges we face, only nuclear weapons pose an
existential threat to the United States. Because it is far and away the
world’s largest conventional military power, the United States would
suffer the greatest relative loss in a world of 20 or 30 or more states
possessing the “great leveler.” And while deterrence still works
against states, it does not apply to terrorists with neither
populations nor territory to protect. That’s why it is imperative for
the United States to rescue and then rejuvenate the nonproliferation
regime. It is critical to our security interests in the Middle East, a
region in which a nuclear arms race could be fatally destabilizing, and
throughout the world.
The nonproliferation regime is a massive body of rules,
institutions, and trade and technology controls, built around the
central pillar of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). Now 40
years old, the NPT has kept the number of nuclear states far lower than
its authors dared hope. Since the 1960s, many more nations have given
up nuclear weapons programs than have started them. There are fewer
nuclear weapons in the world today, and fewer nations with nuclear
weapons programs, than there were 20 years ago. In 1995, a
quarter-century of progress under the treaty was capped by an agreement
to transform it from a 25-year commitment to an open-ended one.
The subsequent years were very bad ones, however. In 1998, India and
Pakistan each set off a series of nuclear explosions. Though the two
were not treaty members, the regime had failed to prevent countries
that had fought three wars in rapid succession from crossing the
nuclear threshold. Later, the events of September 11, 2001, awoke the
world to the immense threat from technically sophisticated terrorists.
In 2003, another non-state threat appeared, this time from a commercial
group. A network headed by Pakistan’s A.Q. Khan, involving scientists
and businessmen from a dozen countries, had for years been selling
nuclear bomb designs and equipment to all comers.
The 1990s also brought to light covert programs in Iraq and North
Korea, and a few years later in Iran. Each country used the cover of a
legal, civilian nuclear program to pursue an illegal weapons program.
These programs revealed an Achilles’ heel in the international rules.
They showed that no safeguards can provide real protection when a
country has direct access to bomb fuel–either through enrichment
technology that can produce highly enriched uranium or reprocessing
technology, which produces plutonium.
For the past six years, the Bush Administration has not only been
fixated on Iraq but it has set a course of ending the United States’
traditional leadership in the pursuit of arms control. Its 2002
National Security Strategy argued that the proliferation threat comes
from the nexus of a small number of outlaw states, nuclear weapons, and
terrorists. This new formulation attracted little attention at the
time. Most of those who did notice believed it was designed solely to
support the case for war in Iraq. But it was not. It was a radical
change–and the core of a new nonproliferation strategy. Whereas all
previous presidents had focused on the weapons, Bush focused on the
regimes that have or seek them. From there it is a natural, short step
to regime change–rather than arms control–as the means to control the
Pursuit of regime change led to the catastrophe in Iraq and years of
indecision while nuclear programs proceeded in North Korea and Iran. In
the latter two cases not even the most ardent supporters of regime
change could come up with a promising plan, but the lingering desire to
somehow find a military option blocked meaningful diplomatic effort.
During this period, the NPT’s nuclear weapons members–Russia, Great
Britain, France, China, and the United States–continued to observe a
moratorium on nuclear testing, and they undertook some real reductions
in their nuclear arsenals. Yet as the years after the end of the Cold
War rolled by without more significant reductions, the conviction grew
among nonnuclear states that the weapons states never intended to
uphold their end of the NPT bargain. The treaty was an explicit
tradeoff: Nonnuclear states renounced nuclear weapons forever in
exchange for a pledge of nuclear disarmament by the nuclear states. The
Bush Administration’s decision to shelve the Comprehensive Test Ban
Treaty, for which the United States had fought for decades, and its
determination to develop new nuclear bomb designs were steps the rest
of the world saw as directly and aggressively opposed to that explicit
This disenchantment grew just as it was realized that the treaty needed to be substantially strengthened if it was to succeed: strengthened to impose meaningful costs on states that used it as a cover for illegal weapons programs; strengthened to eliminate direct access to bomb fuel in nonnuclear weapons states; and strengthened to address the unanticipated threats from terrorists and corporate networks. The nonnuclear states’ willingness even to consider such steps evaporated in the face of what many saw as nonperformance by the nuclear states.
The urgent U.S. nonproliferation agenda, then, is first to rescue,
and then repair, the global regime. This is not to say that the nuclear
programs in North Korea and Iran need not be addressed. Failure to
reverse the weapons programs in either one would in all likelihood
fatally undermine the regime. But racing from one national crisis to
the next is not enough. It is a course that leads to nothing but
stopgap measures–and more crises. The underlying regime itself is the
most critical patient.
Before it can hope to lead, Washington first needs to reestablish
its own credentials. Ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty
and cancelation of new nuclear weapons programs are the essential steps
and are entirely within our own choosing. Doing so will not alter North
Korea’s thinking, or Iran’s, or that of would-be emulators, but it will
help to isolate these states and make it possible for a united
international community to take effective action against them.
Reestablishing arms control momentum with Russia is another priority
to change the way nonnuclear states now see the NPT bargain. Key steps
include extending provisions of the START I Treaty, which will expire
in 2009, and taking the long overdue step of lowering the alert status
of strategic nuclear weapons so as to reduce the risk of accidental
launch. Unfortunately, the Bush Administration’s decision to base an
antimissile system in Poland and the Czech Republic derails any hope
for progress in this direction for the time being. Pushing ahead with a
system that does not yet work, against a threat from Iran that does not
yet exist, and at the expense of relations with a state, Russia, whose
participation is essential if the threat is to be prevented, is a
choice that can only be labeled incomprehensible.
Once it is again in a position to lead on this issue, the United
States must make strengthening the nonproliferation regime a top
foreign policy priority. Critical steps include the completion of an
international agreement to halt the production of fissile material for
weapons use and–even harder–a new bargain to prevent construction of
enrichment and reprocessing plants in nonnuclear states where they do
not now exist. This will entail finding a way to provide an ironclad
guarantee of what are called nuclear fuel services–the provision of
fresh reactor fuel and handling of the radioactive wastes–to all
nonnuclear NPT member states in good standing, at some significant
discount from the market price.
All of this is an enormous diplomatic challenge. Beyond it lies an
even greater one. Forty years ago, when the five original weapons
states signed the NPT, they affirmed that nuclear disarmament is
desirable. The question that has never been asked, though, is whether
it is feasible. With its thousands of government engineers and
analysts, the United States has not a single individual whose job is to
analyze any of the dozens of highly technical and politically complex
issues that underlie an answer. When its human resources, and those of
the other nuclear states, are deployed to this momentous research
agenda, the international community may finally be in a position to
start to complete the extraordinary task it set itself to in 1968.