Sebastian Bertalan on Thu, 13 Mar 2003 11:16:25 +0100 (CET)

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[Nettime-ro] A Regime Change in Nonproliferation

The New York Times
March 11, 2003

Bush's Nuclear Revolution: A Regime Change in Nonproliferation

>From Foreign Affairs March/April 2003 issue.

George Perkovich is Vice President for Studies at the Carnegie Endowment for
International Peace and author of India's Nuclear Bomb.

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

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 juridically) 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.


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

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

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.


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."


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 counterproliferation 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


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.

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