Reversing Proliferation

Reversing Proliferation

Mini Teaser: For the first time since Hiroshima, we have the objective conditions for halting and reversing WMD proliferation. All we need is for the great powers to cooperate.

by Author(s): Ira Straus

We also need to modernize our general thinking on proliferation in the light of these new realities. The NPT's leveling demand for universal disarmament was always unrealistic; it is now obsolete. The superpowers have drastically reduced their arsenals, and the danger from them is not in their numbers but in their security. As the former Russian parliamentarian and non-proliferation think-tanker Alexei Arbatov pointed out in June, only a supranational world government would make it possible to pursue general nuclear disarmament without destabilizing effects along the way. Today the NTT's disarmament demand could be replaced with an obligation for the nuclear powers to manage their arsenals better, take them off hair-trigger alert, coordinate them with joint planning, and even--though this is a very long-term goal indeed--aim at their ultimate integration. This is the only way back to the Baruch Plan, which aimed at unified control of nuclear resources and dangers.

For the moment, this ultimate vision seems almost as utopian as disarmament itself. But some aspects of it, as we have seen, are realistic and necessary now. It provides the right orientation for practical steps. General acceptance of Western global leadership is a condition for the success of non-proliferation. In any social order, norms can be efficiently enforced from above only if they are broadly supported and most of the time mutually enforced horizontally. Fortunately, the leadership role of the nato/oecd/G-8 countries is more widely accepted than it may seem at first sight. They have long been the leaders in global modernization and in providing the public goods of global security and efficient trade. Awareness of this reality has grown as the Western countries have ended their former centuries of internecine warfare. This awareness is in turn illustrated by the very fact that they have come to organize themselves as a core of global cohesion. Legitimacy has accrued accordingly. The old Cold War controversies have dissipated. The UN has come to accept NATO's regional and global roles. Other nations seek nowadays to be included in their joint structures, rather than trying to overturn them.

The period from the end of Soviet communism to 9/11 was a lost decade for non-proliferation. With the Gulf War, the process of reversing proliferation seemed to be getting underway, but little was done afterwards. Two administrations let opportunities slip through their fingers. Clients of the two sides of the Cold War proceeded to spin out of control and develop independent strategic identities. Islamism got a second wind. Terrorists gained global reach and WMD ambitions. The dangers metastasized.

September 11 finally changed that--with preventive war, in cooperation with Russia (among other states), against the Taliban, coercive diplomacy over Iraq, and then war. Despite embarrassments over Iraq, the process has continued with semi-coercive diplomacy against proliferation elsewhere--diplomacy that has borne unprecedented if uncompleted fruit in Libya and Pakistan. But Iran and North Korea remain as serious unsolved problems and potential crises. If both countries are persuaded by some combination of diplomacy and the use of force to abandon their nuclear programs, then the rollback of nuclear proliferation will have begun. If not, the other countries in those neighborhoods will inevitably acquire nuclear weapons for self-defense. Europe may instinctively prefer diplomacy to force in countering proliferation; the United States may reason that force is needed to help diplomacy work. Whatever their differences, both Europe and the United States jointly have the best chance since 1965 to institute a serious regime of counter-proliferation. It may also be their last.

Ira Straus is U.S. Coordinator of the independent international Committee on Eastern Europe and Russia in NATO.

Essay Types: Essay