In the previous issue of The National Interest, John Mueller argued that the threats from nuclear proliferation, nuclear terrorism and nuclear war are exaggerated. William C. Potter responds.
THE ESSAY "Radioactive Hype" by John Mueller makes a number of intriguing and counterintuitive assertions. Most provocatively, it raises questions about the human costs and other unintended consequences of a "non-proliferation first" foreign policy. It also reiterates the important-but now familiar-warning that one should not exaggerate the proliferation threats posed by terrorists or states.
Mueller is correct in highlighting the by-products of past ill-conceived military ventures undertaken in the name of WMD non-proliferation and the potential for similar, if not greater, casualties should military initiatives be launched against other "axis of evil" states. He also is right on, although probably for the wrong reasons, in disputing Graham Allison's forecast about the proliferation chain effects that a North Korean bomb would trigger. (The concept of a "chain reaction" itself is suspect given the process by which states make nuclear decisions.)
A fatal flaw in Mueller's thesis, however, is that the situation he depicts-an alleged U.S. foreign-policy fixation on WMD non-proliferation-bears no resemblance to current U.S. policy. Indeed, the hallmark of the Bush Administration's new approach to nuclear-weapons spread is acquiescence to and management of-rather than prevention of-proliferation. This policy is most evident with respect to the three latest states to test nuclear weapons: India, Pakistan and North Korea. There is little reason to believe that the U.S. response to Iran's nuclear machinations will be any different. Although the administration relishes a tough-guy image and would like the public to believe it employs a set of finely calibrated tools toward each would-be proliferator, the underpinning of its policy is the same-"proliferation is inevitable; learn to live with it." In the case of India, this disregard for non-proliferation has led the administration to jettison nearly three decades of U.S. nuclear export-control policy and to disregard commitments made by the United States when the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty was extended indefinitely in 1995. In the North Korean case, we have returned to a diplomatic status quo ante, with the important exception that Pyongyang now has a much larger stock of nuclear-weapons material and a demonstrated weapons capability.
Mueller's attempt to dismiss the threat posed by nuclear terrorists as alarmist fantasy also falters due to a number of mistaken assumptions. Unfortunately, contrary to Mueller's assertion, there is substance and not only rumor about terrorist efforts to acquire fissile material and nuclear weapons. Although the number of relevant terrorist groups involved is small, it is neither zero nor one. In addition to a larger body of evidence involving Al-Qaeda that Mueller acknowledges, there is solid documentation about the sustained efforts in the early 1990s by the Japanese religious cult Aum Shinrikyo to obtain nuclear weapons and their components. Among the obstacles that proved most difficult for both Aum and Al-Qaeda to overcome was access to the fissile material needed to build an improvised nuclear device-that is, a crude but real nuclear explosive. The two organizations were also inhibited by their dearth of in-house technical expertise, unfamiliarity with the nuclear black market and lack of access to potential nuclear suppliers. However, what is fantasy is not the difficulty of building such a device but Mueller's confidence that the luck we have enjoyed to date will hold indefinitely.
An optimistic undercurrent in Mueller's essay is the conviction that no grand proliferation imperative is at work. This view is a sound one, and the author is correct to observe that dire proliferation forecasts in the past have been well off the mark. It does not follow, however, as Mueller would have us believe, that nuclear renunciation decisions occurred in a vacuum or were preordained because nuclear weapons are "dangerous, distasteful, costly and likely to rile the neighbors." In fact, much of the credit for the slow pace of weapons spread may be attributed to U.S.-Soviet cooperation to counter proliferation during the Cold War, the implementation of the NPT and its nearly universal adoption, the rapid spread of nuclear weapons-free zones and the adoption of stringent nuclear export-control guidelines-all of which led leaders in a number of potential proliferators to conclude that the economic and political costs of "going nuclear" would outweigh the benefits.
In short, non-proliferation efforts in the past, while not uniformly successful, have served U.S. and international security well. The answer to the excesses Mueller observes is not to abandon non-proliferation as a foreign-policy priority, but to restore its proper emphasis on diplomacy, export controls, physical protection, international safeguards, intelligence collection and analysis, and respect for legally binding treaties. To advocate such measures is not hype, but common sense.
William C. Potter is the director of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies and the Sam Nunn and Richard Lugar Professor of Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. He is a co-author of The Four Faces of Nuclear Terrorism (Routledge, 2005).
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