Non-Proliferation after Iraq

Why were the non-proliferation standards set too low before the war in Iraq? Why had WMD-interested states been able to trick their way through the inspections game? Why can the standards be raised now? Why was a war needed to raise the standards?Low

Why were the non-proliferation standards set too low before the war in Iraq? Why had WMD-interested states been able to trick their way through the inspections game? Why can the standards be raised now? Why was a war needed to raise the standards?

Low standards were all that was possible during the Cold War. America and the Soviet Union were, first of all, competing strategically, only secondarily cooperating on proliferation issues. The standards were set by multipolar negotiations among enemies, not by a cohesive leadership group. The result was a system aimed at slowing proliferation, not stopping or reversing it.

The problem was that there was no single country or group of countries willing and able to act as a reliable power center on proliferation issues, pushing through the necessary standards and taking the necessary steps to enforce them. To be sure, in the early 1960s, Jack Strachey, a reformed Labour leftist, advocated that the U.S. and USSR band together to constitute such a power center, enforce tough inspection requirements and apply preventive war in extremis. But the Cold War rivalry forbade it.

Rather than a forerunner of a future cohesive world order, Strachey's proposal looked like a fading tail-end of efforts to get a truly robust global non-proliferation regime. Back in the late 1940s, the Baruch Plan, backed by the U.S., provided for global control and management of uranium and for UN enforcement actions without veto. It was meant to stop proliferation before it got started; but the plan itself was stopped by the Soviet veto.

Bertrand Russell and James Burnham advocated the only way out of this logjam: a threat of preventive war against the Soviet Union, to keep the atom bomb from spreading beyond its initial unipolar home in America. To improve chances of success and broaden the bases for this policy, they advocated a Union of the free countries of Europe with America, as a nucleus of world order which might expand and bring in other countries as they became free and modernized. Even then the outcome would have been uncertain.

By the 1960s, far less seemed possible. To be sure, the Maoist regime in China accused the two superpowers of conducting a Strachey-style global "condominium" or "co-imperium", but it was in a sense attributing too much rationality to them. Similarly, in the 1940s the Soviets accused America of following Russell's and Burnham's policy; they were attributing to America what they assumed any rational power would do.

Of course, it would have been a risky, heroic form of rationality to follow a policy of preventive war against a great power. In the 1940s, it would have required not just nerves of steel, but, as Burnham and Russell explained, a huge effort at expanding the base of action by constructing a political union on the Atlantic level. America, with half of the world's functioning economy and a nuclear monopoly, could have probably built such a union had it wished, but it would have been no small effort, and the unipolar strength of America, while then temporary, created an illusion of lack of need. In the 1960s, it would have required an even more daring effort: to build a quasi-Union, with a reliable joint policy-and-enforcement structure, across the Communism-democracy divide. Arguably that task was impossible.

What was done was more modest. The U.S. proposed the Baruch Plan, but let the USSR veto it. The U.S. meanwhile sponsored the building of a Euro-Atlantic community, as Russell and Burnham advocated, but here it went only half-way; it left all the heroic work of deep integration to the European level. On the Atlantic level, it built a military alliance and an economic cooperation regime, which it also extended indirectly to Japan. By providing military security and economic stability and transmuting occupation into an assymetrical alliance, it maintained and enhanced its levers of influence and was able to prevent proliferation within the alliance to Germany and Japan. It was also able to slow proliferation beyond the alliance through "suppliers clubs" for regulation of dual-use sales. But a goal of reversing proliferation was beyond its reach.

In the 1960s, similarly, the two superpowers did not reject the Strachey proposal in total. They acknowledged a joint interest and joint responsibility for non-proliferation, but implemented it in a watered-down form: by playing a leading role in creating the NPT-IAEA regime.

This regime declared any further proliferation of nuclear weapons illegitimate, and provided mechanisms to slow it down. It was a continuation of the traditional Westphalian view of the special responsibility of great powers, a responsibility that always included special rights and discriminatory enforcement -- nothing else would be realistic or workable in a system of primarily independent states. The responsibility had grown only more urgent with the advent of nuclear weapons, and the concomitant boiling down of the five great powers into two superpowers.