Tool of First Resort

Preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons has taken on a new level of urgency in the last two years as crises in Iran and North Korea continue to make headlines.

Preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons has taken on a new level of urgency in the last two years as crises in Iran and North Korea continue to make headlines.  In the September 10 issue of In The National Interest, Peter Huessy makes the case for looking beyond arms control to prevent proliferation in "Séances by Candlelight."  Unfortunately, Huessy ignores the unique role that the arms control approach can play, a role that recognizes the absolute necessity of international cooperation for a realistic proliferation prevention strategy.

Huessy begins by describing two different approaches to preventing nuclear proliferation - arms control vs. Bush's counter-proliferation strategy.  Arms controllers, Huessy argues, attempt "peace through paper" by relying on international agreements and their enforcement bodies to prevent proliferation.  The Bush strategy, on the other hand, relies on a broad toolkit that includes robust nuclear deterrence, missile defense, preemptive threat of force and, occasionally, arms control treaties.  Huessy makes two basic arguments in favor of Bush's strategy.  First, the lack of a credible enforcement method for arms control treaties makes them an ineffective tool for prevention.  Citing Iran, Iraq and North Korea, Huessy argues that the arms control approach merely rubber stamps clandestine nuclear programs, legitimizing nuclear programs that should be stopped.  Second, he argues that, in the 21st century, the US faces new and unpredictable threats that require a more flexible approach to preventing proliferation.

Before going into more depth, the arms control approach should be more clearly defined.  Arms control attempts to constrain the spread of military nuclear technology through a network of formal bilateral and multilateral agreements.  These agreements are reached through international negotiation, ratified by member-states, and actualized through international enforcement bodies, such as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and International Monitoring System.  The cornerstone of nuclear weapons arms control is the 1970 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).  Other important measures include such agreements as the Limited Test Ban Treaty, Strategic Arms Limitation Treaties (I and II), and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.  Historically, the arms control approach has had mixed results.  On the one hand, the NPT was central in preventing or reversing nuclear programs in South Korea, Argentina, Brazil, several former Soviet states, and South Africa.  On the other hand, India, Pakistan, Israel, and (probably) North Korea successfully developed nuclear weapons under the treaty's watch.

Huessy does not mince words in his criticisms of the arms control approach.  While he raises some valid points, several of his complaints are based on over-simplifications or outright inaccuracies.  The most obvious of these is his attack on the IAEA.  He argues that the IAEA declared North Korea nuclear-free, then proceeds to argue, several paragraphs later, that the IAEA never attained enough access to declare North Korea nuclear-free.  Which is it? Huessy concludes the article by writing that the IAEA was unable to inspect the North Korean nuclear program because of a lack of "full cooperation" from Pyongyang; yet his second paragraph makes the claim that the IAEA "was sound asleep while North Korea, Iraq and Iran, all signatories to the NPT, developed clandestine nuclear weapons programs while being given a clean bill of health by the IAEA."  In truth, the IAEA never gave North Korea a "clean bill of health."  In fact, it was the IAEA's refusal to issue such a clean bill of health that nearly precipitated a war on the Korean peninsula in 1993-1994 - hardly the behavior of a negligent doctor. 

Huessy's article raises, but does not address, a much larger debate about the reasons states seek to acquire nuclear weapons and what those motives mean for nonproliferation strategies.  Not all states seek nuclear weapons for the same reasons-some for immediate national defense, some as a way to hedge their bets against change, some as a power grab; likewise, most states do not seek nuclear weapons for one singular reason.  The hardest efforts to stop are those motivated by immediate, regional security threats from a rival country.  Pakistan is a good example. Once Islamabad came to believe India's nuclear capability was inevitable, Pakistan's drive to proliferate was nearly impossible to halt.  Less difficult to stop are states attempting to gain international prestige or regional hegemony via nuclear weapons, such as Brazil and Argentina.  Finally, there are instances where a country's proliferation is driven primarily by the threat posed by the US arsenal itself, the Soviet Union being the most obvious example.  The arms control and Bush approach have strengths and weaknesses in different scenarios.