Security First Forum: A Response

Should preventing the spread of nuclear weapons be the central organizing principle of U.S. foreign policy? After penning the

opening salvo

in the Security

We all owe a vote of thanks to the editors of The National Interest online for providing a forum in which ideas can be exchanged online in a civil manner. The forum profits from the fact that participants are identified rather than being allowed to hide behind aliases, that they stick to the subject at hand rather than vent whatever angers them and that we are provided with more than one round of give and take. In this spirit, I am starting "round two" of the Security First Foreign Policy Forum on deproliferation.

On the subject of irrationality of terrorists and others: Ted Galen Carpenter  writes that Nazi leaders in invading Russia and the Japanese in bombing Pearl Harbor did not act irrationally but merely miscalculated. However, my point still stands. In both cases, the means of warfare at their command were employed in ways that defeated their purpose; the sailors in Pearl Harbor and the people of Leningrad were just as dead, and Germany and Japan ended up paying a huge price for these "mistakes", whether caused by irrationality or simple miscalculation. In the same way, it matters little if terrorists take out, say, Chicago because they act irrationally (e.g., seeking a shortcut to heaven) or because they have miscalculated (e.g., that such an attack will lead the United States to collapse). It makes little difference if one acts because one ignores or misunderstands facts or the logical conclusions that follow from them, or out of some passion or misbegotten values.

A deeper issue is a familiar one in social science: the insistence of some of my colleagues, especially in economics, public choice and law that all actors are rational, whatever they do. Such thinking produces damaging tautologies which prevent us from separating rational from irrational acts (e.g., if they commit suicide, they "must" value the afterlife more than life). This thinking fails to warn us that precisely because of eschatological thinking, fanatics-such as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Kim Jong-Il or the Taliban after they take over Pakistan-may use nuclear arms even if it makes no sense for us or for them or for anyone else.

Such leaders may consider the ensuing counterattack as ensuring their place in heaven and guaranteeing their earthly legacy; they may have read Herman Kahn and believe that their nations will survive such an attack and flourish again. Also, one should note that nuclear forensics has not developed to the point that we will be able to tell with assurance where these bombs came from (one may recall the great difficulties the West had in determining who planted the bomb on Pan American flight 103, or who blew up the discotheque in Berlin). Or, Ahmadinejad and Kim Jong-Il might be ignorant of the most recent classified advances of nuclear forensics available to the CIA and DoD, and would hence (perhaps wrongly) believe that they will not be found out as suppliers of nuclear devices.

I strongly agree with the excellent points made by Charles Ferguson.  Just as it is uninformed at best to assume everyone is rational all the time, so it is unwise to assume that some governments are "good" and hence can be helped to develop nuclear assets, while only "bad" ones need to be stopped. Governments can change overnight (keep an eye on Pakistan) and democratic ones can make major mistakes (e.g. Israel's recent incursion into Lebanon).

Anatol Lieven  fairly points out that in the brief opening statement of this dialogue I focused only on arguing that nuclear terrorism is a major threat, not on what policy conclusions follow, nor did I note that the wrong ones might follow (for instance bombing anyone who has nuclear bombs if they do not yield them). In dealing with Russia, where the budget for the Nunn-Lugar program has not been increased since 9/11, it seems to me that Russia would agree to such an expansion if the U.S. would drop the building of a missile defense system in their backyard, which we should not be doing in the first place! In dealing with North Korea we are now following the best model of deproliferation; the way we dealt with Libya, in effect forgoing forced regime change as long as the government is willing to give up its efforts to build WMD and cease supporting terrorism. It is too early to tell if this will work out in North Korea, but the approach seems to me a valid one. The same should be tried with Iran, though it is necessary not to take any options off the table in this situation if peaceful resolutions are to work out.

I was not familiar with the fine work of my colleagues at the Saga Foundation.  It turns out that this forum provides a side benefit: getting to know others whose findings and insights help us to confront the threat of nuclear proliferation. Maybe we can form an informal community of those who share the recognition that nuclear terrorism is a very serious threat, and that it can be curbed in many ways without incurring undue costs. So far, the risks may have been a bit overblown, but surely the actions taken have been underwhelming.

Amitai Etzioni is Professor of International Relations at the George Washington University and, most recently, the author of Security First: For A Muscular, Moral Foreign Policy  (Yale University Press, 2007).