Security First Forum: Nuclear Proliferation

Should preventing the spread of nuclear weapons be a central organizing principle of U.S. foreign policy? Amitai Etzioni fires the opening salvo in the Security First discussion forum. Ted Galen Carpenter is the first to http://nationalin

By now, pointing out the unrealistic assumptions of the Bush Administration's foreign policy has become like shooting fish in a barrel. We need a new barrel. Here follows an examination of a different foreign policy, one which puts security first. It is here examined through the lens of a single, albeit highly important issue: the threat of nuclear terrorism.

This is not a minor question. The thesis that the proliferation of nuclear weapons and the risk of such devices falling into the hands of terrorists poses the most serious threat to U.S. security is shared by parties as diverse as the US intelligence community (2007 National Intelligence Estimate; "The Terrorist Threat to the US Homeland"), some of Harvard's leading scholars (e.g. Graham Allison, author of Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe), other highly respected academics like Charles Ferguson (Council on Foreign Relations), William C. Potter and Leonard Spector (the Monterey Institute), and Indiana Senator Richard Lugar. (I added a few points in support of this thesis in my book Security First).

For those of us who acknowledge the gravity of this threat, it holds many ramifications for the foreign policy of the United States, that of its allies, and indeed all who are concerned with the well being of nations. It focuses attention on Russia, as a prime location where terrorists may acquire, in one way or another, ready made small nuclear arms or the materials from which at least dirty bombs can readily be made. It would lead one to drop the unrealistic pressures on Putin to democratize, and focus instead on developing the very realistic Cooperative Threat Reduction Initiative (the Nunn-Lugar program)-funding for which has not been increased since 9/11! It would suggest that the US and others should offer Iran a guarantee that regime change by force is off the table, in exchange for giving up their nuclear program. It would urge an acceleration of the Global Threat Reduction Initiative which seeks to replace the weapons grade uranium currently being used in reactors in failing states like the Congo and Nigeria with low-enriched uranium. And, rather than continuing the unreliable method of battling for inspection of the dual-use nuclear assets that can be used for both civilian and military purposes in order to ensure that they are used only for benign ends, it points to seeking conversion of all such plants into ones that can only be used for peaceful purposes. It is a policy we have pursued successfully in Libya and are now working towards in North Korea.

But what if the concern with the proliferation of nuclear weapons has best vastly exaggerated? This argument, made most recently by professor John Mueller in the pages of The National Interest, holds that the costs of attempting to deal with the threat of nuclear proliferation are much higher than the risks involved, and that the danger of a nuclear attack by either a rogue state or terrorists is statistically unlikely.

Mueller and others who discount the danger of nuclear terrorism do so in part on the grounds that terrorists are unlikely to be able build such weapons on their own and that no state would slip them such weapons out of fear of retaliation. This is an outgrowth of the "rational actor" school of political science that assumes that human beings in general and heads of state in particular behave as rational actors who will not engage in acts that are against their interests.  This school, an extension of neo-classical economics to the non-market realms of human behavior, has proven to be very apt at "proving" that whatever an actor does, it is in his best interest, is rational. For instance, a person who commits suicide is typically said to have acted rationally either because his life in this world was so miserable that he was better off leaving it, or because suicide was a way of ‘maximizing his after-life fortunes' (e.g. deflowering seventy virgins per capita).

In fact, as critics long have shown, people often act irrationally both in the economic sphere (see e.g. ‘irrational exuberance' and ‘freakonomics'), as well as in many other aspects of life (from love to war). Nor are heads of state immune from irrational behavior (e.g. Hitler's irrational attack on the USSR, opening a second front, and leading to German defeat).  It seems unnecessary to add that religious fanatics, with their messianic ambitions, might not be accurately analyzable by this rational-actor model, nor effectively deterrable by a rational cost/benefit analysis.

Further, many of those who say there is little to worry about from the proliferation danger assume that governments are in charge of their states. Yet, most of the small nuclear arms and good part of the fissile materials from which they can be made are to be found in a failing state, where the government clearly has limited degree of control. In Russia, the central government has been unable to prevent local commanders, criminals, or others who seek a quick profit-from wheeling and dealing in nuclear materials. True, so far none of them has sold a tactical nuclear weapon to a terrorist organization. But this is one of those situations in which the disutility of failure is so high that even a low probability deserves implementing counter-measures.


Are the costs inordinate?