Missed Opportunities: Washington Politics and Nuclear Proliferation

Missed Opportunities: Washington Politics and Nuclear Proliferation

Mini Teaser: The determination of one of the world's least rational regimes to build nuclear weapons highlights the importance of developing an effective policy to control proliferation and to respond to proliferants when our efforts at control fail.

by Author(s): Heather Wilson

In his first press conference after winning the election, Bill Clinton listed his top five foreign policy priorities. Third on his list, after cutting the defense budget and reducing nuclear arsenals, was "working hard to stop the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction." That President Clinton gave this task such salience reflected the increasing seriousness of the proliferation threat.

In recent months, the proliferation problem has become specific and acute. In early November, as North Korea made menacing noises about the possibility of UN sanctions and increased its troops along the DMZ, President Clinton acknowledged that North Korea's likely development of nuclear weapons is a "grave issue" for the United States. At the same time, he admitted that there is "a lot of disagreement about what we should do" to stop them.

The determination of one of the world's least rational regimes to build nuclear weapons highlights the importance of developing an effective policy to control proliferation and to respond to proliferants when our efforts at control fail.

This same lesson should have been learned from the Gulf War. Through the mechanism of UN inspections, we discovered after the war that our intelligence about the Iraqi nuclear weapons program had woefully underestimated the progress the Iraqis had made. While the intelligence community spent months on lessons learned, the most important lesson didn't require much analysis: countries like Iraq can build nuclear weapons and we can't be confident we know about it. The cold reality of fighting a war against a regional power which was on the verge of having weapons of mass destruction revealed our vulnerabilities, even if we were fortunate enough to have escaped paying a huge price.

In the months following the Gulf War, the collapse of the Soviet Union reduced the danger of a global thermonuclear war almost to zero. But in an ironic twist of fate, its collapse also ushered in an era of disorder in which the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and the expertise to build them has accelerated.

In response to this growing threat, the United States should by now have adopted a comprehensive non-proliferation program. Such a program would have focused, to begin with, on developing new defensive technologies and enhancing and integrating intelligence capabilities. This should have been coupled with an effective emergency assistance program to accelerate safe and secure dismantlement of the former Soviet arsenal and to ensure that former Soviet bomb builders do not ply their trade in hostile countries. An active regional strategy should have been combined with a strengthening of export controls to deter potential proliferants. Finally, single Washington agencies should have been empowered to coordinate and implement the different elements of the non-proliferation program, with specific policy guidance from the White House. None of this has happened.

The Gravity of the Threat

For a long time, the nuclear club was one of the world's most exclusive: the United States, the Soviet Union, China, France, and Britain were the only acknowledged members. Even before proliferation became a significant concern in the late 1980s, there was a handful of states which probably qualified for membership in this exclusive group, most notably India, Israel, South Africa, and Pakistan. But the neighborhood around the club is changing and more states are aspiring to membership. The spread of computers and advanced technology and the growth of scientifically trained elites is making it possible for less wealthy states to begin to develop and maintain a nuclear capability.

While states engaged in nuclear weapons research may choose to terminate their programs before they actually develop weapons, Taiwan, Iran, Algeria, and Libya are conducting such research. Argentina and Brazil went beyond research and began to develop nuclear material production facilities before their widely praised decisions to refrain from further development. Iraq actually had succeeded in producing nuclear weapons material and North Korea not only has produced it, but is probably developing nuclear weapons in which to use it. Most of the countries which are developing nuclear weapons are also developing or already have ballistic missiles. Even when sounding rockets and space launch programs are excluded, most Middle Eastern countries, North and South Korea, India and Pakistan, South Africa, Brazil and Argentina, Libya and Tunisia have or are developing ballistic missiles of varying ranges and payloads.

Germany, Japan, and Canada could almost certainly develop nuclear weapons in a fairly short period of time but have chosen not to do so. Japan's recent flirtation with the idea of developing it's own nuclear deterrent in response to the North Korean threat illustrates how proliferation can fuel regional arms races.

The collapse of the Soviet Union and the aftershocks which continue to rock the successor Republics have increased the risk of proliferation. In a process that might be described as proliferation by disintegration, the Soviet Union went from a single unified military command structure with control over an arsenal of some 28,000 warheads, to a loosely affiliated Commonwealth which included four nuclear armed Republics.

It is difficult to describe the magnitude of the proliferation threat caused by the collapse of the Soviet Union. Potential proliferation threats used to be discussed in terms of grams of special nuclear material which might be in the wrong hands.

It takes only about 15 kilograms of highly enriched uranium or 6 kilograms of plutonium to make a nuclear weapon. Just as a result of the arms control agreements already signed, by the end of the decade between 300,000 and 500,000 kilograms of uranium and 60,000 kilograms of plutonium will have been released from the arsenal of the former Soviet Union.

Building a nuclear weapon is relatively easy compared to the difficulty of refining uranium and plutonium to the concentrations required to make a nuclear explosion. The breakdown of central control in the Soviet Union and the surfeit of weapons-grade nuclear material raise the prospect that countries determined to develop nuclear weapons will not have to make their own nuclear material; they'll just buy it.

There have been too many reports of attempts to sell or buy nuclear material from the former Soviet Republics to be complacent about the security of the former Soviet stockpile. Just based on its value for use as nuclear fuel, the uranium and plutonium in warheads from the former Soviet stockpile destined to be dismantled is worth an estimated $7 billion. In a country where inflation was 1000 percent in 1993, where the currency is worthless, scientists are going unpaid by the institutes which employ them, and selling state property for private gain is common, the temptation to sell "just a little bit" of this valuable material is very great indeed.

Even if our diplomatic efforts to limit proliferation are reasonably successful, we must anticipate that, over the next ten years, more states will join the nuclear club. Some of them will have interests very different from our own.

Plane Tickets to Moscow

In the closing months of 1991, the Bush administration and several members of Congress recognized that the failed August coup and the triumph of the reformers in Russia offered an opportunity to influence the future composition and posture of the nuclear forces in the former Soviet Union. Senators Nunn and Lugar sponsored the Soviet Nuclear Threat Reduction Act of 1991. Signed by the President in December of 1991, the Act allowed $400 million of reprogrammed Defense Department funds to be used to ensure the safety and security of weapons of the former Soviet Union, to accelerate dismantlement of those weapons, and to prevent proliferation. $800 million more was added in the FY93 and FY94 budgets for a total of $1.2 billion available to make secure and dismantle former Soviet weapons.

Designed as an emergency effort to deal with a critical problem, the Nunn-Lugar program has failed in practice. Two years after its establishment, about $100 million has been spent on a laundry list of peripheral activities. Legalistic arrangements for implementation remain uncompleted and unratified, and missiles remain targeted against the U.S. With further aftershocks rocking the collapsed Soviet empire, our failure to act decisively may become one of the greatest lost opportunities of this decade.

In a classic example of Washington bureaucratic politics, no senior official in the Bush administration actively supported Nunn-Lugar, but every agency wanted to be in charge of it. While the bill specified that the Department of Defense was to be the executive agent for the program, in a move that spelled disaster for rapid action, dod ceded control to an interagency arms control policy working group with participants from the State Department, the Department of Energy, the National Security Council Staff, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, and the intelligence community. Within the State Department, at least three different offices vied for leadership responsibility for the program.

While this interagency group had effectively managed complex arms control negotiations like START and CFE, it was entirely incapable of the rapid decision making needed for a program like Nunn-Lugar. At a time when the Russian government was reeling with rapid changes and internecine suspicions, and the governments of other Republics were just forming, the U.S. team chose to use formal bilateral arms control as the diplomatic paradigm for running the Nunn-Lugar program. Delegations of dozens, representing all agencies, trooped to Moscow in November and December 1991 and January 1992, forcing the Russians to sit across the table similarly represented but reluctant to talk because of the distrust and disagreement among players on their own side.

A less charitable view of this arrangement can also be offered. By bogging the program down in bureaucracy in Washington and putting the Russians in a forum where it was virtually impossible for them to articulate their needs, senior administration officials could ensure the program's failure. While plausible, this explanation ignores the fact that these same senior officials were under increasing political pressure from the Congress to show some progress.

By late January 1992, Secretary of State Baker made it clear that he wanted to reach initial agreement on areas of cooperation when he went to Moscow in February. Now feeling the heat, the bureaucracy developed a laundry list compiled largely of notions picked up from cocktail party conversation with members of the Russian delegation. The intent was not to promote U.S. security interests, but to make some progress that was politically sustainable with the Congress.

Baker and his delegation of dozens went to Moscow in February 1992. Sitting across the table from a phalanx of men who distrusted each other, Baker recited a list of possibilities to prompt a discussion. There was none. The Russians did not know what they needed and each item on the list appealed to the parochial interest of one or another Russian ministry. Yeltsin said all of the ideas sounded good to him and Baker was able to announce a shopping list of initial areas of assistance: fissile material containers, armored blankets, conversion of Russian rail cars, accident response equipment, nuclear materials storage, and reprocessing of uranium and plutonium.

Throughout this process, there was never an attempt to evaluate the weaknesses in the Russian system in order to identify where U.S. assistance might make the most difference. Likewise, the U.S. never evaluated its own security interests so as to target programs in a way that would maximize benefits to the United States.

Divisions and competing agendas on the Russian side provided opportunities that the U.S. could have seized if it had evaluated its own interests and had been prepared to act more flexibly to pursue them. In a tradition which will be familiar to Americans who have dealt with corrupt city machine politics, the Minister for Atomic Energy, Victor Mikhailov, wanted the $400 million turned over to him to build a storage facility, with a percentage certain to go into unrelated projects and the pockets of functionaries. Academician Velikov, advisor to Yeltsin and Vice President of the Russian Academy of Sciences, wanted to use the money to keep his scientists employed at his institutes. General Zelentsov of the Ministry of Defense was less self-serving than the rest, but initially insisted that storage for warheads must be hardened against nuclear attack--presumably from the United States. The Russians were divided and did not know what they needed. The February agreement in principal on areas of assistance was a classic case of providing the solution without knowing the problem or knowing our own interests. Once the shopping list was publicly announced by Secretary Baker, the bureaucracy was committed to pursuing and defending this agenda, even if the programs made no sense.

The next mistake the U.S. made was to negotiate detailed formal agreements on each area of assistance. Instead of signing a general agreement and moving forward with practical assistance, Baker turned his agreement in principal over to technical working groups to work out details. What began as emergency assistance became full employment for arms controllers. As one member of the U.S. delegation commented some months later, "What we'll get for the $400 million is a lot of plane tickets to Moscow." These technical teams spent months negotiating details in formal government-to-government agreements, some of which are still unfinished or unratified. With a plausible story to report to Congress and a course of cooperation charted, much of the political pressure abated and senior officials paid little attention to the implementation of the Nunn-Lugar program.

Nuclear Scientists

While the control of nuclear warheads was the initial focus of attention when the Soviet Union collapsed, the future of Russian nuclear weapons scientists quickly became an area of concern. Repressive Soviet policies which kept bomb designers in their closed cities in Cheliabinsk and Arzamas dissolved with the Union. In testimony before Congress in early 1992, the cia estimated that there were some 1 million people employed in the Russian nuclear weapons complex, some 1000 to 2000 of whom had the ability to make a nuclear device.
In January of 1992, while the U.S. government was reviewing visa requirements and exploring possible cooperation between U.S. and Russian national laboratories, a consortium of three American Fortune 200 companies proposed to the U.S. government that they absorb large numbers of these scientists and retain them to do commercial work while remaining in Russia. At that time, a top Russian scientist could be retained for about $1,000 a year. These companies, which already had operations in Russia and could use their infrastructure to provide basic supplies and food stuffs to employed scientists, believed that access to food, the opportunity to get commercial experience, and a chance to stay in their own country would be very attractive to many nuclear weapons scientists even if they were paid considerably less than they might get if they emigrated to a country trying to develop nuclear weapons. With the consortium's combined revenues of $15 billion per year and 100,000 employees, gainfully employing 1,000 to 2,000 scientists at these rates would not have been difficult.

Senior officials in the Bush administration were not interested in this kind of a private sector initiative. Instead, in February 1992, they announced their intent to establish a $25 million science center jointly with the European Community and Japan which would accept grant applications from former weapons scientists. The bureaucratic application and sponsorship procedures established by the United States, ec, and Japan have not yet delayed any applications because the sponsors chose to negotiate a formal government-to-government agreement to establish the center, and it hasn't been approved yet. Almost two years after the problem was identified, not one dollar of Nunn-Lugar funds has been used to redirect Russian nuclear weapons scientists to non-weapons work.

Senator Hank Brown (R-Colorado) was eager to ensure that Russian nuclear weapons builders would have the opportunity to come to the United States if they were determined to emigrate. He sponsored the Soviet Scientist Immigration Act which became law in October of 1992. The law allows 750 unused immigration slots to be used by scientists formerly employed in the Soviet nuclear weapons program. Unfortunately, the Immigration and Naturalization Service cannot decide how to write the regulations. Over a year after the passage of the law, not one former Soviet bomb builder has been allowed to come to the United States under this special rule. One assumes countries like Iraq don't have these kinds of problems.

The Ukrainian Blunder

In December 1991, Secretary Baker visited the capitals of all four of the former Soviet Republics which had nuclear weapons. He succeeded in getting the three non-Russian Republics to agree to give up their strategic nuclear weapons and return the warheads to Russia for dismantlement. This agreement was formalized in May 1992 at a meeting in Lisbon, where the three non-Russian Republics agreed to implement the START I Treaty and accede to the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty as non-nuclear weapons states.

After we got a commitment from the Ukrainians to become non-nuclear, we ignored them. Large delegations continued to go to Moscow to discuss financing the Russian arms reduction program, and in Washington aid to Russia was a major issue. All the while, the Russians made clear that they intended to keep their nuclear weapons. But there was no assistance for--or even a foreign policy toward--Ukraine.
In April 1992, Ukraine formally requested assistance from the U.S. for destroying ICBMs. While continuing to threaten to block any assistance unless Ukraine ratified START and acceded to the NPT, in the summer the U.S. began discussions with Ukraine on providing assistance.

As right wing resistance to giving nuclear warheads to Russia without recognition of Ukrainian borders grew in the Rada, the U.S. reached agreement with Russia to buy highly enriched uranium from dismantled warheads. Because some of the uranium would come from warheads now in Ukraine, the Ukrainians argued that they deserved some compensation. In addition, they were balking at implementing some of the expensive technical requirements of the START I Treaty unless they received some assistance. While continuing to dangle carrots for the Russians, the U.S. used a stick on the Ukrainians, threatening no assistance unless Ukraine went non-nuclear. The contrast with our policy towards the Russians only served to inflame the political problem in Kiev. In November 1992, when Prime Minister Leonid Kuchma formally announced that Ukraine was unwilling to give strategic nuclear weapons on its soil to the Russians, the U.S. finally offered $175 million in dismantlement assistance to Ukraine if and only if Ukraine ratified START and acceded to the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

From the administration's perspective, linking financial assistance to START ratification and NPT accession was leverage to get Ukraine to go non-nuclear. In reality, this linkage made little sense. The assistance the U.S. would provide, if used properly, would bring Ukraine into de facto compliance with the terms of the start treaty even if the Rada did not ratify it. Rather than work the practical problem, de-mate the warheads, and destroy the ICBMs and their silos, the U.S. held out for Ukrainian ratification of a document negotiated before Ukraine existed as an independent state.

The Clinton administration continued the policy of linking aid to START ratification and NPT accession. In the spring of 1993, Clinton refused to meet with Prime Minister Kuchma, fueling the perception in Kiev that the U.S. was so fixated on the need to give political and economic support to Russia that it was turning a blind eye to Russia's relations with its neighbors.

In April 1993, while talks on Ukrainian compliance with start and the npt were clearly stalled, U.S. company which had been working quietly with Ukraine to develop a program for the safe destruction of ICBMs received a letter from Ukrainian Minister of Engineering V. Antonov who has responsibility for implementing the missile destruction program. Antonov said that Ukraine was now prepared to proceed with a joint venture to remove nuclear warheads from SS-19s so that liquid fuel could be removed and the missile destroyed. The company informed the U.S. government. While key U.S. officials thought the Antonov letter was a positive indication that the Ukrainians were now prepared to move forward, the company was told that formal agreements between the U.S. and the Ukrainian governments were not finalized. Without an agreement to provide assistance as well as ratification of start i and npt accession, the U.S. would not contract to provide assistance. The U.S. company informed the Ukrainian government that they were unable to proceed and another opportunity was lost.

In June of 1993, the Clinton administration did initiate a more reasonable approach to Ukraine. Secretary of Defense Aspin proposed to accelerate dismantlement by de-mating warheads, destroying the icbms and putting the warheads under international control in Ukraine, pending transportation to Russia. The uranium in the warheads would be purchased by the U.S. or returned to Ukraine as reactor fuel. While initially promising, the U.S. took the position that the details of this arrangement must be worked out by Ukraine and Russia, and that the U.S. would remain on the sidelines. Without U.S. follow through, this initiative quickly lost momentum.

In July, Ukraine confirmed that it had asked the Russians to return to Ukraine to de-mate the warheads from a field of ten icbms for safety reasons. Published reports in September 1993 illustrate the need for a more active U.S. policy. Apparently, the de-mated warheads were stored in a poorly designed storage shelter or a shelter not designed for the number of warheads deposited there. The bunker began to overheat. At a recent conference in Kiev, Ukrainian government officials suggested that the Russians had over-dramatized the problem to illustrate the need to return the warheads to Russia promptly, but they never denied that there had been a problem and that the warheads had been improperly stored.

The Kravchuk-Yeltsin agreement in early September 1993 to relinquish the Black Sea fleet and return all nuclear weapons to Russia was a surprise. The agreement requires ratification and Kiev is unlikely to take any further action until the outcome of the current political crisis in Russia becomes clear.

A Slow Start

In the year since President Clinton made his pronouncement that preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction was one of his top three foreign policy priorities, the rhetoric about the importance of non-proliferation has continued unabated. But the administration has largely failed to develop coherent policies to meet this new challenge.

To be fair, Clinton did not inherit a well-oiled policy machine as far as non-proliferation is concerned. During the campaign, the Clinton team correctly identified non-proliferation as a foreign policy area where changes were needed, changes for which the new President could take credit. But aside from creating some new offices and position titles and turning up the volume about the importance of the problem, very little of substance has been done.

Last summer an administration task force attempted to develop a new policy for non-proliferation. Unfortunately, to do the job they relied on the same interagency mechanisms and many of the same people who had been running non-proliferation policy previously. Announced by President Clinton in his speech to the UN General Assembly on September 27, 1993, this new policy contains some new initiatives, but has several serious flaws. Far from providing a new framework, the policy rehashes current programs with a few new twists and steps gingerly around the bureaucratic knots which have hindered decisive action for the past two years. More importantly the general preference for multilateralism which characterizes much of the Clinton foreign policy threatens to sidetrack the development of adequate defenses against proliferants in the event that diplomacy fails--and in the area of proliferation, it is very likely that our diplomacy will fail. Finally, responding to pressure from industry and the Commerce Department, the Clinton administration will relax controls on exporting missile technology. The parameters of these new export control rules are still being developed, but the direction is troublesome. America, in a state of denial and bureaucratic stasis for nearly two years, can no longer afford idle rhetoric about proliferation.

Clinton's new policy emphasizes multilateral strategies including harmonization of export controls and coordination of sanctions. While an activist diplomacy to strengthen non-proliferation norms is not, on its own, objectionable, there are elements of the administration which consider multilateral diplomacy to be inconsistent with developing the military capability to defend against proliferants when diplomacy fails.
The last White House policy document from the Bush administration on non-proliferation, NSD-70, broke new ground by directing the Defense Department to develop capabilities to defend against proliferants, including capabilities for pre-emptive military action. Reportedly, in last summer's review, there were strong disagreements between State and Defense about whether we should develop this counter-proliferation capability. As far as the policy is concerned, it appears that State won. Improving our defenses and developing military options has received almost no support from the White House.

To their credit, Defense Department officials are continuing to pursue counter-proliferation programs. Assistant Secretary of Defense Ash Carter and Under Secretary of Defense John Deutsch are proceeding from the reasonable assumption that if we are involved in a conflict with a regional power in the future, it is likely that they will be armed with nuclear weapons. Defense is identifying gaps in our current program so that they may be filled. The question is whether dod officials can sustain a program to fill those gaps without the policy support of the White House, and with open opposition from State.

For all the rhetoric about making non-proliferation a higher priority, the new policy loosens constraints on exports of missile technology in deference to U.S. industry that wants to enter the international commercial space market. Even with all its caveats about selling only to countries which support non-proliferation norms, it will be more difficult for the U.S. to convince other countries not to export missile technology to their friends if we export to ours. Moreover, today's friends can become tomorrow's enemies. Would the U.S. have sold missile technology to the Shah of Iran before his fall? If so, we would certainly regret that decision today.

Bureaucratic politics continues to bedevil U.S. non-proliferation strategy. Because everyone wants to be in charge of a presidential priority, turf fights emerged anew as the Clinton team took office. There are now at least three directorates on the National Security Council Staff with overlapping responsibilities for non-proliferation. The intelligence community's non-proliferation center claims to be the focal point for intelligence policy, but does not coordinate closely with DOD and the Department of Energy which spend millions each year on research, analysis, and collection on non-proliferation. In an effort to put one person in charge, Strobe Talbott at the State Department was named as the focal point for all matters relating to the former Soviet Union, but he is not actively involved in non-proliferation matters, leaving this to Ambassador Jim Goodby. At the same time, Under Secretary of State Lynn Davis has responsibility for political-military affairs, which include non-proliferation and arms control. Predictably, there have been serious turf fights between State and Defense where Ash Carter has attempted to take a leadership role in ways that the State Department thinks is within its purview.

The summer policy review failed to cut through this bureaucratic Gordian knot. It is not unusual for the White House to direct certain departments to take responsibility for particular programs or initiatives. Clinton's non-proliferation policy, however, is silent on agency responsibility. According to one insider, "That was just in the too hard pile." As a result, we can expect policy by committee and consensus to continue to be the painfully slow mechanism for action.

Finally, Clinton's non-proliferation policy says virtually nothing about the arsenal of the former Soviet Union. While this may initially appear to be a curious omission, the sad truth is that it is probably a reflection of arbitrary bureaucratic lines of demarcation. It may be difficult to believe, but the people who work on non-proliferation are not the same people who work on the Nunn-Lugar program. Rather than develop a comprehensive policy, the Clinton administration accepted the turf as it found it and circumscribed its policy accordingly.

Toward a Proactive Policy

In February 1992, in testimony before Congress, Under Secretary of State for International Security Affairs Reginald Bartholomew said, "In sum, I think the prospects are good for beginning some tangible assistance efforts [for the Former Soviet Union] in the next several weeks." Almost two years later, virtually nothing has been done. We have delivered 500 armored blankets, some emergency response equipment, and a few prototype nuclear material containers to the Russians. We have also experimented with safety modifications to a Russian rail car and done some work on designs for a storage facility. It is difficult to see how any of these activities have accelerated dismantlement, helped prevent proliferation, or even contributed measurably to the safety and security of the Russian stockpile.

With another political crisis rocking Russia, the opportunity to facilitate the dismantlement of the former Soviet stockpile and prevent proliferation from that program may have already passed. Nevertheless, the U.S. still needs a comprehensive non-proliferation policy and the will to implement it.

We must anticipate that the enemies we are likely to face in any regional conflict in the future will be armed with weapons of mass destruction. The acquisition of these weapons will be driven by regional factors largely beyond U.S. influence. It is also probable that the U.S. will be unable to deter the use of these weapons simply by possessing a nuclear deterrent of its own.

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