Alarmists about proliferation (which seems to include almost the totality of the foreign-policy establishment) may occasionally grant that countries principally obtain a nuclear arsenal to counter real or perceived threats. But many go on to argue that newly nuclear countries will then use nuclear weapons to dominate the area. This argument was repeatedly used with dramatic urgency for the dangers to world peace and order supposedly posed by Saddam Hussein, and it is now being dusted off and applied to Iran.
Exactly how this domination business is to be carried out is never made very clear. The United States possesses a tidy array of thousands of nuclear weapons and can't even dominate downtown Baghdad-or even keep the lights on there. But the notion apparently is that should an atomic Iraq (in earlier fantasies) or Iran (in present ones) rattle the occasional rocket, all other countries in the area, suitably intimidated, would supinely bow to its demands. Far more likely is that they will make common cause with each other against the threatening neighbor, perhaps enlisting the convenient aid eagerly proffered by other countries, probably including the United States and conceivably even Israel.
Proliferation of the bomb, particularly to terrorists, may indeed be the single most serious threat to the national security of the United States. Assessed in appropriate context, that could actually be seen as a rather cheering conclusion.
John Mueller is a professor of political science at Ohio State University and the author of The Remnants of War (Cornell University Press, 2004). His most recent book, Overblown (Free Press, 2006), concerns exaggerations of international threats including the one presented by terrorism.Essay Types: Essay