Commentary

Not All Forms of Nuclear Proliferation Are Equally Bad

The conventional wisdom is that all instances of nuclear weapons proliferation threaten the stability of the international system and the security interests of the United States. Indeed, that is the underlying logic of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, adopted by the bulk of the international community in the late 1960s, which is the centerpiece of the existing nonproliferation system. Members of the arms control community have over the decades spent an enormous amount of time and energy agonizing over the possibility that stable, democratic status quo powers such as Germany, Japan, Sweden and South Korea might decide to abandon the treaty and develop nuclear weapons. Indeed, they have devoted at least as much attention to that problem as they have to the prospect that unstable or aggressive states might build nuclear arsenals. The recent flap over the small scale (and probably unauthorized) nuclear experiments in South Korea is merely the latest example of such misplaced priorities.

The hostility toward all forms of proliferation is not confined to dovish arms control types but extends across the political spectrum. As the North Korean nuclear crisis evolved in 2002 and 2003, some of the most hawkish members of the U.S. foreign policy community became terrified at the prospect that America’s democratic allies in East Asia might build their own nuclear deterrents to offset Pyongyang’s moves. Neoconservative luminaries Robert Kagan and William Kristol regarded such proliferation with horror: “The possibility that Japan, and perhaps even Taiwan, might respond to North Korea’s actions by producing their own nuclear weapons, thus spurring an East Asian nuclear arms race … is something that should send chills up the spine of any sensible American strategist.”

That attitude misconstrues the problem. A threat to the peace may exist if an aggressive and erratic regime gets nukes and then is able to intimidate or blackmail its non-nuclear neighbors. Nuclear arsenals in the hands of stable, democratic, status quo powers do not threaten the peace of the region. Kagan and Kristol — and other Americans who share their hostility toward such countries having nuclear weapons — implicitly accept a moral equivalence between a potential aggressor and its potential victims.

America’s current nonproliferation policy is the international equivalent of domestic gun control laws, and exhibits the same faulty logic. Gun control laws have had little effect on preventing criminal elements from acquiring weapons. Instead, they disarm honest citizens and make them more vulnerable to armed predators. The nonproliferation system is having a similar perverse effect. Such unsavory states as Iran and North Korea are well along on the path to becoming nuclear powers while their more peaceful neighbors are hamstrung by the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty from countering those moves.

The focus of Washington’s nonproliferation policy should substitute discrimination and selectivity for uniformity of treatment. U.S. policymakers must rid themselves of the notion that all forms of proliferation are equally bad. The United States should concentrate on making it difficult for aggressive or unstable regimes to acquire the technology and fissile material needed to develop nuclear weapons. Policymakers must adopt a realistic attitude about the limitations of even that more tightly focused nonproliferation policy. At best, U.S. actions will only delay, not prevent, such states from joining the nuclear weapons club.

But delay can provide important benefits. A delay of only a few years may significantly reduce the likelihood that an aggressive power with a new nuclear weapons capability will have a regional nuclear monopoly and be able to blackmail non-nuclear neighbors. In some cases, the knowledge that the achievement of a regional nuclear monopoly is impossible may discourage a would-be expansionist power from even making the effort. At the very least, it could cause such a power to configure its new arsenal purely for deterrence rather than for aggressive purposes.

Washington’s nonproliferation efforts should focus on delaying rogue states in their quest for nuclear weapons, not beating up on peaceful states who might want to become nuclear powers for their own protection. The other key objective of a new U.S. proliferation policy should be to prevent unfriendly nuclear states from transferring their weapons or nuclear know-how to terrorist adversaries of the United States. Those objectives are daunting enough without continuing the vain and counterproductive effort to prevent all forms of proliferation.

Ted Galen Carpenter, the Cato Institute’s vice president for defense and foreign policy studies, is the author of six books and the editor of 10 books on international affairs.