Riding the Tiger

Riding the Tiger

Mini Teaser: Preventing the spread of atomic weaponry is less in our control than we think.

by Author(s): Henry S. Rowen

Henry D. Sokolski, Best of Intentions: America's Campaign Against Strategic Weapons Proliferation, 1945-2000 (Westport, CT: Praeger Books, 2001).

American administrations have struggled for over fifty years to control "the bomb." They have tried to limit the ability of the Soviet Union to destroy us with it; to keep other governments or private groups from getting it; to give us timely warning if those efforts should fail; and to reduce the likelihood of its inadvertent or deliberate use. All of this has involved dealing with states possessing vastly different degrees of power, whose relations with the United States ranged from close friendship to great hostility, and whose domestic politics varied greatly, from the stable to the mercurial and everything in between.

What can be said about the success of these efforts? There has been no military use of atomic weaponry since 1945, and there is but one notable exception--that by Iraq--to the non-use of chemical agents. As for the spread of the bomb, the number of countries that could make nuclear weapons today if they so desired (probably around fifty) is far greater than the number that actually has them (eight, or nine if North Korea has enough readily fissionable material). Similarly, the number of countries that possess rockets that can travel at least several hundred miles is much lower than the number capable of producing them.

As Henry Sokolski observes in Best of Intentions, however, to attribute this state of affairs to our specific non-proliferation policies would be a mistake. Many factors contributed to it, including alliances, pressures and inducements applied by the United States and others, and domestic politics. NATO and the formation of the European Community, for example, ended all major military rivalries in Western Europe. The Central Europeans could not have their own nuclear weapons while incorporated in the Soviet empire. The ending of South Korea's and Taiwan's weapons programs in the 1970s came from quiet U.S. pressure. And South Africa's white government got rid of its nuclear weapons of its own accord.

Arguably, more important than the number of countries possessing such weapons is the question of who possesses them. It is gratifying to know that entire continents are free of nuclear weapons and long-range rockets (South America, Africa, Australia), but a single government or terrorist organization armed with such weapons and a serious intent to do harm could cause a great disaster. Here the news is not so good. There are at least three countries that currently have weapons of mass destruction, or advanced programs for acquiring them, that are poised to cause a lot of trouble: North Korea, Iraq and Iran. Com-pounding this danger is the uncertain security of Russia's thousands of nuclear weapons.

Sokolski gives us a history of five of the major initiatives to control these weapons: the Baruch Plan (1946), the Eisenhower administration's Atoms for Peace Program (1953), the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, or NPT (from 1958), several technology control initiatives (from the 1970s on), and counter-proliferation (1990s). As Sokolski demonstrates, the focus of U.S. concerns shifted over time. Initially, it was to use a technology of great economic promise while preventing its military uses. Then, the growing ability of the Soviet Union to destroy American cities became of paramount concern. Subsequently, we became worried about the spreading of the bomb to other countries and about the intensity of the U.S.-Soviet arms competition. In the 1970s, the advanced countries devised quieter ways to slow the flow of technology to troublesome countries. In the 1990s, military action on a large scale against Iraq reflected more direct efforts toward the same goal.

The boldest proposals came early, between 1944 and 1946. The pioneers of the nuclear era saw the spread of nuclear weapons as potentially disastrous because those who acquired them would be tempted to crush adversaries. The United States itself would not be safe. An international energy authority under strong American leadership was thought to be the solution, a body that would have monopoly power over all potentially dangerous nuclear activities. The Baruch Plan held that the authority would need the power to punish nations that seized its plants or tried to develop dangerous facilities independently. (One can see shades of this plan in the 1991 UN resolutions authorizing the destruction of Iraq's weapons plants and the sending of inspectors.) The plan also required amending the recently enacted UN Charter to eliminate an encumbering Security Council veto over the authority's affairs. But the authors of the plan recognized this as difficult to achieve, and therefore concluded that nuclear energy's putative peaceful benefits would need to be shared in order to bring nations on board. Today it is easy to regard this plan as terribly unrealistic, but it should be remembered that not only was the technological revolution (and the experience of Hiroshima and Nagasaki) still very fresh, but this was a time when the urge to rectify the failure of the League of Nations by a more powerful and legitimate United Nations was strong.

Sokolski, who keeps a measured tone throughout, describes some of the atomic energy policies as "at war with themselves." Here the palm for incoherence should probably go to the Eisenhower administration's Atoms for Peace Program, although the NPT offers stiff competition. Atoms for Peace was prompted by the Soviet Union's testing of a thermonuclear device and the subsequent build-up of its nuclear arsenal. The program's architects were focused on a "critical date" (mid-1954) by which time the Soviet Union would potentially have two hundred bombs. They missed the crucial point that it was not the number of bombs in stockpiles that mattered but the number that could survive an attack. If neither side could achieve a significant advantage by striking first, a more stable balance could be reached.
Atoms for Peace called for the United States and the Soviet Union to contribute fissile material to an international pool, which would be used to develop civilian nuclear energy activities. Safeguards would prevent the diversion of these activities to military ends. To make the safeguards more palatable, the program contained an offer to help countries acquire nuclear technology for civilian purposes. Indeed, many countries that have had such programs (for example, India, Pakistan, Israel, Iraq, Argentina, Iran and Brazil) got useful technology for them from the United States, Canada, France and Germany.

There was to be an International Atomic Energy Authority, but, unlike the bold authority envisioned in an earlier era, it lacked a provision for keeping countries from seizing materials and reactors or from developing facilities independently. The omission was a concession to opposition from the many countries that did not want to be deprived of possible uses of nuclear energy. This was not very disturbing to the American negotiators, given their view at the time that only large numbers of nuclear weapons constituted a serious threat. Thus the Eisenhower administration undertook to spread rocket technology in its Space for Peace program. All of this led Albert Wohlstetter, in his frustration, to quote Florence Nightingale: "At least hospitals shouldn't spread disease."

The next major initiative, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, also required non-nuclear countries to renounce the bomb and nuclear-armed ones to share technologies. The first three articles of the treaty prohibit sharing or accepting nuclear weapons technology; the fourth and fifth articles protect the right of non-nuclear states to use nuclear technology for peaceful purposes without discrimination, while calling on the nuclear-armed states to share their technology without reservation; the sixth article calls for total disarmament, while the tenth says that if non-nuclear states feel threatened they are free to acquire weapons. There was something in the treaty for everyone, including the non-nuclear states that had weapons programs at the time (such as India and Brazil). Sokolski notes that two of the most vocal critics of the superpowers' arms race, Sweden and India, were then considering developing nuclear weapons themselves. Indeed, India later proceeded to do so. (Of course, one could argue with some cogency that, by not disarming, the great powers possessing nuclear weapons had failed to keep their side of the bargain.)

Sokolski reminds us that the United States in 1958 had enacted a law enabling it to transfer any military-related nuclear technology to Britain, that we were moving nuclear weapons to Europe (under American legal control), and that we were also trying to persuade the Europeans and Congress to create a collective West European force (the Multilateral Force). Once that idea died and we had a large stockpile of nuclear weapons in Europe, we were ready to push the NPT.

Severe tensions were inherent in the situation. One was the difficulty of distinguishing between the haves and the have-nots, with the former using high-minded principles to try to deny technology to the latter, and the latter objecting to the discriminatory character of the treaty. Another arose from treating all the have-nots in the same way; after all, it is quite a stretch to treat as equivalent, say, Sweden and Iraq. Much, too, hinged on the definition of "peaceful." That turned out to be a matter of semantics, not technology, as India showed when it labeled its first nuclear explosion in 1974 a "peaceful" one. In so doing, it went through a large loophole created in the 1950s by theoretical American and Soviet "peaceful" nuclear explosion programs for creating harbors, loosening up tight gas fields, and building canals.

This history suggests a theorem: Any effort to constrain weapons-related transfers of technology through an international agreement causes governments that want these weapons, or believe they might someday want them, to demand a close approximation of the prohibited technologies as the price of adherence. So there is a further, and crucial, tension between getting signatures on a given agreement and advancing the purported aim of that agreement. Partly to counter this, the United States and other governments of the advanced countries secretly agreed to restrict transfers of sensitive technologies to countries deemed dangerous. Some-times this strategy has been effective, sometimes not.

How have we handled warnings of moves toward the bomb? Sometimes by doing nothing, as with the case of Israel; or very little, as in the American and Canadian responses to India's diversion of equipment and heavy water, originally supplied for civilian purposes, to further its bomb program; or forceful, arm-twisting diplomacy, as with Brazil's and Argentina's bomb and missile efforts; sincere discussions (Taiwan and South Korea); cutting off military aid (Pakistan); bribery (North Korea). And, as a last resort, direct action, as in the attacks on Iraq's weapons plants in 1991 and later.

Clearly, the focus needs to be on actual and potential troublemakers. Collective action is usually needed and is usually difficult to arrange (and we have not always been energetic in seeking it). Nor are things getting easier. Given the many ways bombs can be moved about, the challenges to enacting effective active defenses are growing. Inexorably, many countries are finding that the barriers to having the bomb, or other weapons of mass destruction, are falling.

At the heart of the problem is the intimate connection between civilian and military uses of these technologies--a fact on which, as Sokolski shows, the pioneers of atomic energy policy were clearer than some of their successors. Both applications use fissile materials, the main difference being between those usable directly in a bomb and those that need some processing to be so used. A parallel is that between the military and civilian uses of rockets: The main difference between an intercontinental ballistic missile and a civilian space launch vehicle is simply the intended destination of its payload--a point on earth as opposed to an orbit in space.

Confusion persists in the public discourse on the issue. One example is the popular notion that plutonium produced in civilian reactors is "safe." However, it has long been public knowledge that such plutonium can be used in bombs at a penalty in explosive power and predictability. How much this penalty would matter to a user would depend on circumstances. For instance, in what sense should the two nuclear power reactors being given to North Korea, as part of the price for its shutting down its plutonium production reactor, be regarded as "safe"?

The fact that large parts of the world are without weapons of mass destruction offers a glimmer of hope. The greatest danger is centered in a small number of authoritarian regimes located in turbulent regions. In the long run, as countries in these troubled regions develop, they are likely to become more liberal and peaceful. That is not much comfort in figuring out what to do now about Saddam Hussein and his unconventional weapons programs, but it seems to be the only hope.

Essay Types: Book Review