June 24, 2020 11:52AM

Reflections on “Nuclear Alarmism: Proliferation and Terrorism”

In October 2014, Cato published the book, Dangerous World? Threat Perception and U.S. National Security, which Christopher Preble and I edited. I also contributed a chapter, Nuclear Alarmism: Proliferation and Terrorism,” and this is now being made available online as part of Catos Project on Threat Inflation.

The chapter argues that the obsession with nuclear proliferation over the last three‐​quarters of a century has been unwarranted. The few countries that have acquired the weapons have used them simply to stoke their egos or to deter real or imagined threats, and that continues to be the case. Moreover, nuclear proliferation has proceeded at a remarkably slow pace and the nuclear club has remained a small one, confounding the somber prophesies of generations of alarmists: even the supposedly optimistic forecasts about nuclear dispersion have proven to be too pessimistic. When North Korea first tested a nuclear weapon in 2006, alarm had been voiced that this would unleash a proliferation cascade, or, in the words of Mohammed El‐​Baradei, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, that it would signal the beginning of the end of our civilization.” These predictions have gone unfulfilled. There was little sign of the warned‐​about cascade in 2014, and that remains so today: thus far, no country in the region has altered its commitment to remain a nuclear‐​weapons‐​free state.

Sadly, however, nearly six years after the books publication, hysteria about nuclear proliferation remains about as strong as ever, and in result, so do the destructive consequences of the anti‐​proliferation regime. In recent years, it has been focused on North Korea—evolving into a full‐​fledged food fight between North Korean leader Kim Jong‐​un and President Donald Trump in 2017.

The chapter argued that alarmed anti‐​proliferation efforts, as in the U.S. war in Iraq, have proved to be exceedingly costly, leading to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. In an important sense this has continued for the North Korean case. Indeed, a recent United Nations report contends that widespread food shortages and malnutrition,” caused in part by efforts to deal with the Covid 19 pandemic in which the border with China has been cut off, are currently being exacerbated by the sanctions.

Moreover, the U.S. governments demand that North Korea relinquish its nuclear weapons and the sanctions that accompany that demand stand in the way of a highly desirable development. Specifically, there is a reasonable prospect that North Korean leader Kim Jong‐​un is genuine about wanting to see his country become developed—he has already instituted some notable, if limited, reforms. In this atmosphere, it seems likely that relations between the North and South can gradually be normalized, a development that could become permanent. This does not mean unification is in the offing, nor does it mean that the regime and the privileged elite in the North will cease to exist or even necessarily be weakened. But the prospect of armed conflict in the area would decrease substantially following normalization. In turn, the plight of the North Korean people—the chief victims of the current stalemate—would markedly improve.

Given the current state of tensions and distrust, the removal of North Koreas nuclear arsenal is essentially a nonstarter for the North under just about any condition, and the sanctions seem to be having little or no effect except to make the North Korean people even more miserable. Whatever happens, the regime is likely to remain in control while passing on any negative consequences to its people. In addition, the sanctions include a set of secondary sanctions on other countries that hamper efforts in the South to reach out to the North at this crucial time. The sanctions, then, are doubly foolish. I have written a Cato Policy Analysis paper on this issue, published on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the start of the Korean War.

If destructive concerns about nuclear proliferation have not abated since 2014, there does seem to have been something of a diminishment in hysteria about nuclear terrorism. As the chapter notes, it was once widely predicted that, because al‐​Qaeda operatives used box cutters so effectively on 9/11, they would, although under siege, soon apply equal talents in science and engineering to fabricate nuclear weapons and then detonate them on American cities. For example, President Barack Obama urged in a speech on April 11, 2010, that The single biggest threat to U.S. security, short term, medium term and long term, would be the possibility of a terrorist organization obtaining a nuclear weapon.” A popular estimate was that such a disaster might well happen by 2014—the year of the publication of A Dangerous World?

In contrast, the chapter argues that, given the decidedly limited capabilities of terrorists, this concern was substantially overwrought: terrorist groups have exhibited only limited desire and even less progress in going atomic. That lack of action may be because, after a brief exploration of the possible routes, they—unlike generations of alarmists—have discovered that the tremendous effort required is scarcely likely to be successful.

At any rate, concern about atomic terrorism seems to have declined. This is particularly impressive in that the period since the publication embraced the alarming rise and fall of Islamic State, or ISIS, in the Middle East, an especially vicious group that occupied territory, had a great deal of (confiscated) wealth, was competently organized and run, and seemed to have worldwide allure. The group generated very considerable alarm at its peak: a poll conducted in the spring of 2016 asked the 83 percent of its respondents who said they closely followed news stories about ISIS whether the group presented a serious threat to the existence or survival of the US” and fully 77 percent agreed, more than two‐​thirds of them strongly. Additionally indicative, perhaps, is an episode in 2015 in which a woman in Salem, Illinois, misunderstood a telephone message stating that retired minister Michael Ice and his wife were coming to her church, and called the Sheriff to report with alarm that the ISIS” were coming.

Polls suggest that there has not been much change in the degree to which people voice concern about international terrorism. But, despite the alarming experience of ISIS, it does seem that the once‐​routine concerns about the atomic terrorist have waned some.