In the previous issue of The National Interest, John Mueller argued that the threats from nuclear proliferation, nuclear terrorism and nuclear war are exaggerated. Graham Allison responds.
"RADIOACTIVE HYPE" by John Mueller sharpens the barbs from his recent book, Overblown, in ways that demonstrate that he is, above all, a committed contrarian. One can agree with many points in his article and book. But his central propositions about the danger and appropriate responses to terrorism, nuclear terrorism and the proliferation of nuclear weapons are profoundly mistaken. Specifically, "Radioactive Hype" argues that:
-"Threat-mongers"-for which the 9/11 Commission, my book Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe and presidential candidates of both parties are the poster children-have greatly exaggerated the threat of terrorists exploding a nuclear weapon in one of our cities.
-An "obsessive quest to control nuclear proliferation-particularly since the end of the Cold War-has been substantially counterproductive."
-This "nuclear obsession" drove the United States into "the current disastrous Iraq War" and now threatens war with Iran.
Given the space allotted, my response to each proposition must be abridged but will reference my earlier work on this topic and other analyses from the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, where these issues are addressed in greater depth.1
How Serious is the Threat of Nuclear Terrorism?
MUELLER IS entitled to his opinion that the threat of nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism is "exaggerated" and "overwrought." But analysts of various political persuasions, in and out of government, are virtually unanimous in their judgment to the contrary. As the national-security community learned during the Cold War, risk = likelihood x consequences. Thus, even when the likelihood of nuclear Armageddon was small, the consequences were so catastrophic that prudent policymakers felt a categorical imperative to do everything that feasibly could be done to prevent that war. Today, a single nuclear bomb exploding in just one city would change our world. Given such consequences, differences between a 1 percent and a 20 percent likelihood of such an attack are relatively insignificant when considering how we should respond to the threat.
Richard Garwin, a designer of the hydrogen bomb who Enrico Fermi once called "the only true genius I had ever met", told Congress in March that he estimated a "20 percent per year probability [of a nuclear explosion-not just a contaminated, dirty bomb-a nuclear explosion] with American cities and European cities included." My Harvard colleague Matthew Bunn has created a model in the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science that estimates the probability of a nuclear terrorist attack over a ten-year period to be 29 percent-identical to the average estimate from a poll of security experts commissioned by Senator Richard Lugar in 2005. My book, Nuclear Terrorism, states my own best judgment that, on the current trend line, the chances of a nuclear terrorist attack in the next decade are greater than 50 percent. Former Secretary of Defense William Perry has expressed his own view that my work may even underestimate the risk. Warren Buffet, the world's most successful investor and legendary odds-maker in pricing insurance policies for unlikely but catastrophic events, concluded that nuclear terrorism is "inevitable." He stated, "I don't see any way that it won't happen."
To assess the threat one must answer five core questions: who, what, where, when and how?
Who could be planning a nuclear terrorist attack? Al-Qaeda remains the leading candidate. According to the most recent National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), Al-Qaeda has been substantially reconstituted-but with its leadership having moved from a medieval Afghanistan to Pakistan-a nation that actually has nuclear weapons. As former CIA Director George J. Tenet's memoir reports, Al-Qaeda's leadership has remained "singularly focused on acquiring WMDs" and that "the main threat is the nuclear one." Tenet concluded, "I am convinced that this is where [Osama bin Laden] and his operatives want to go."
What nuclear weapons could terrorists use? A ready-made weapon from the arsenal of one of the nuclear-weapons states or an elementary nuclear bomb constructed from highly enriched uranium made by a state remain most likely. As John Foster, a leading U.S. bomb-maker and former director of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, wrote a quarter of a century ago, "If the essential nuclear materials are at hand, it is possible to make an atomic bomb using information that is available in the open literature."
Where could terrorists acquire a nuclear bomb? If a nuclear attack occurs, Russia will be the most likely source of the weapon or material. A close second, however, is North Korea, which now has ten bombs worth of plutonium, or Pakistan with sixty nuclear bombs. Finally, research reactors in forty developing and transitional countries still hold the essential ingredient for nuclear weapons.
When could terrorists launch the first nuclear attack? If terrorists bought or stole a nuclear weapon in good working condition, they could explode it today. If terrorists acquired one hundred pounds of highly enriched uranium, they could make a working elementary nuclear bomb in less than a year.
How could terrorists deliver a nuclear weapon to its target? In the same way that illegal items come to our cities every day. As one of my former colleagues has quipped, if you have any doubt about the ability of terrorists to deliver a weapon to an American target, remember: They could hide it in a bale of marijuana.
READERS OF Mueller's judgment that policies aimed at preventing proliferation have been "obsessive" and "counterproductive" should be aware of his criteria for what constitutes an "overreaction." In Overblown, he argues that America's reaction to Pearl Harbor was exaggerated. America's overreaction led it to declare war on Japan, when a policy of "military containment and harassment" would have been sufficient to pressure Japan to withdraw from its empire.
Mueller's claim that the quest to control proliferation has been "substantively counterproductive" misunderstands the impact successful policy has had in preventing what would have been catastrophic outcomes. Mueller takes to task President John Kennedy's 1962 prediction that if states acquired nuclear weapons at the rate they achieved the technical ability to build bombs, there could be twenty nuclear powers by 1975. He argues the claim was exaggerated simply because it did not happen. But the purpose of Kennedy's warning was to awaken the world to the unacceptable dangers of unconstrained nuclear proliferation. The United States and other nations' refusal to accept those consequences motivated an international initiative to create the non-proliferation regime, the centerpiece of which is the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Thanks to this regime, 183 nations, including scores that have the technical capability to build nuclear arsenals, have renounced nuclear weapons. Four decades later, there are only eight and a half nuclear-weapons states, not twenty or forty. (North Korea is the only self-declared but unrecognized nuclear state.)
The gravest challenges to the non-proliferation regime today are North Korea and Iran. If each succeeds in becoming a nuclear-weapons state, we are likely to witness the unraveling of the non-proliferation regime and a cascade of proliferation. As Henry Kissinger recently said, "there is no greater challenge to the global nuclear order today than the impending proliferation of nuclear weapons and the increasing likelihood that terrorists may conduct a nuclear 9/11."
Nukes and Iraq
SENATOR CHUCK Hagel (R-NE) identified the war in Iraq as "the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam." I share many of Mueller's criticisms of the Bush Administration's wrongheadedness in launching an unnecessary war and incompetence in its conduct of the war. Where we part company, however, is on the cause of the war, which he traces to our "nuclear obsession." Yes, in making the case for attacking Iraq, President Bush focused on the danger that Saddam would transfer nuclear weapons to terrorists who attacked us on 9/11. But this was not only a false premise; it was a flimsy argument. There was and is a real danger that Al-Qaeda would get a nuclear bomb and attack an American city. A sober assessment of that danger should have led the United States to urgently pursue an agenda to prevent that catastrophe-that agenda did not include attacking Iraq.
As Nuclear Terrorism argues in detail, the appropriate response to the real threat of Al-Qaeda acquiring nuclear weapons should have been to undertake a global campaign to prevent nuclear terrorism. A strategy to that end should be organized under a "Doctrine of Three Nos": No loose nukes, no new nascent nukes and no new nuclear-weapons states. Had half the energy and resources devoted to the misguided Iraq War been focused on the real nuclear danger, the risk of nuclear terrorism today would have been reduced to manageable levels.
The most important truth about this issue is that there exists a feasible, affordable agenda of actions that, if taken, would shrink the risk of nuclear terrorism to nearly zero. Exaggerated contrarian claims add to the fog generated by Bush Administration rhetoric to distract from doing what so urgently needs to be done.Essay Types: Essay