Commentary

Disarming the World

McCain’s plan against nukes is counterproductive.

One of John McCain’s more surprising policy positions is his explicit endorsement of complete global nuclear disarmament.

“A quarter of a century ago,” McCain noted, “President Ronald Reagan declared, ‘Our dream is to see the day when nuclear weapons will be banished from the face of the Earth.’ That is my dream, too.”

The statement in a May 28 speech marked another effort by the Arizona senator to distance himself from the deeply unpopular incumbent president. His statement also reflects an emerging bipartisan consensus that advocates American leadership in the global effort to abolish nuclear weapons.

But numerous arms control experts also argue that a hyperactive American military presence around the world is a crucial factor that drives the desire by weak states to obtain nuclear technology.

Because McCain talks tough about Iran and North Korea — including his suggestion that “the use of force may be necessary” — he must decide which road he intends to travel, as it appears his larger strategic agenda for extensive use of the U.S. military will undermine his ambitious nuclear “dream.”

McCain has championed the Iraq war’s continued prosecution, threatens military action against Iran, and proposes the overthrow of other rogue regimes, such as North Korea’s. His policy distance from the Bush White House, therefore, appears cosmetic, as he, too, endorses unilateral action, preventive war and military dominance.

But non-military options for preventing nuclear proliferation have not been adequately explored post-9/11, and there are two main problems with the United States trying to stop the spread of nuclear weapons via military force.

First, the overuse of the military may inadvertently create powerful incentives for weak states to obtain nuclear technology, and even deploy nuclear arsenals.

A second problem with using military force to stop the spread of nuclear weapons is that Washington selectively enforces its counter-proliferation policy, condoning Brazil’s and India’s uranium enrichment activities while condemning North Korea’s.

Because America’s counter-proliferation policy is applied arbitrarily, this may increase the incentive for some states to seek nuclear technology through surreptitious means. The most notable example is Iran, which for two decades thwarted International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards.

America’s counter-proliferation policy is symptomatic of a deeper problem within the global non-proliferation system. The international institutions meant to slow or halt the spread of nuclear weapons, the IAEA and the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (the NPT), have no clear enforcement mechanisms independent of the members of the U.N. Security Council.

Under the Bush administration, the United States has assumed the role of de facto enforcer of civilian nuclear compliance. In this respect, the threat of invasion and occupation by a global superpower becomes the context in which a small power perceives threats to its sovereignty. In the long-term, a policy that embraces military strikes forfeits the opportunity to examine safer and more effective ways to stop states from going nuclear.

Rather than an emphasis on the military option, a positive step toward limiting nuclear proliferation would be to retool the NPT and strengthen safeguards aimed at timely detection of a country’s diversion from civilian nuclear materials to nuclear weapons.

Unfortunately, McCain’s incoherence on nuclear policy is nothing new. Several weeks ago he pledged to work with Russia to deter nuclear proliferation. It is unclear how this spirit of cooperation would be fostered, however, since McCain has also expressed a willingness to antagonize Moscow by excluding it from the G-8 and deploying a missile-defense shield on Russia’s western border.

Before he promotes a reduction of the global nuclear stockpile, McCain should overhaul his counterproductive foreign policy agenda.

Malou Innocent is a foreign policy analyst at the Cato Institute.