Is There a Proliferation ‘Hysteria’?

October 9, 2007 • Commentary
This article appeared in National Interest (Online) on October 9, 2007.

Amitai Etzioni raises some difficult and highly relevant issues in the debate about the dangers posed by nuclear proliferation and America’s policy options. His willingness to grapple with real issues is a refreshing contrast to the often surreal proposals that pass for serious policy discussions in the arms control community. A current favorite panacea of that faction is to work for a treaty abolishing all nuclear weapons, including those in the American arsenal. If that scheme were not utopian enough in the abstract, the goal is to have the treaty signed by 2013. A treaty mandating a nuclear‐​free world would be extraordinarily ambitious if the target date were 2113.

Moreover, the more zealous arms control types are oblivious to the danger of unintended consequences. For example, an agreement to abolish all nuclear arsenals would create a huge incentive for a party to cheat and hide away a small number of weapons. In a world where all potential rivals had disarmed, a nuclear monopoly with even twenty or thirty warheads would give the perpetrator a sizable, perhaps definitive, advantage. Arms control types also ignore the possibility that eradicating nuclear weapons might well make large‐​scale conventional war between great powers thinkable again. It is likely that at least one reason why the world has been spared such conflicts for more than six decades is that all great powers understand that conventional war could easily escalate to the horrors of a nuclear exchange.

In contrast to fantasy land schemes like a nuclear‐​free world, Etzioni focuses on concrete, troubling matters, and offers some realistic suggestions. His concern about Russia as a possible source for leaked nuclear materials — and perhaps operational nuclear weapons — is especially pertinent. Indeed, if Al‐​Qaeda or another terrorist organization manages to acquire such a weapon, the Russian mafia is a far more likely source than Iran, North Korea or any other state actor. He is also correct that Washington should be doing more to strengthen both the Cooperative Threat Reduction Initiative with Russia and the broader Global Threat Reduction Initiative to lock down sources of fissile material as much as possible.

Etzioni’s critique of John Mueller’s thesis that the dangers of nuclear terrorism is overblown is less convincing. Although I believe that Mueller understates that danger somewhat, Etzioni’s argument that state actors might supply terrorist groups with nuclear weapons, even though such conduct might seem irrational, is far‐​fetched. When he cites Nazi Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union as an irrational act, he conflates miscalculation with irrationality. The German government expected to prevail in its invasion strategy — and had a respectable amount of evidence for that expectation. Similarly, Japan thought that attacking Pearl Harbor (and America’s other possessions in the Pacific) would force the United States into a compromise peace. Both Berlin and Tokyo were overly optimistic, but their calculations were not irrational.

By contrast, if Iran or North Korea decided to give a nuclear weapon to Al‐​Qaeda, that would be a profoundly irrational act. Iranian or North Korean leaders would certainly understand that Al‐​Qaeda would likely detonate such a weapon in Israel or the United States and that their governments would be at the top of a very short list of probable suppliers. The U.S. response would almost certainly be massive retaliation in kind. In other words, the regimes in Tehran and Pyongyang would know in advance that transferring a weapon would lead to regime annihilation.

Contrary to the prevailing mythology, neither the North Koreans nor the Iranians have a history of acting irrationally. Iran, for example, has not transferred chemical weapons to Hezbollah or Palestinian groups even though those weapons have been in the Iranian arsenal for decades. Why should we assume that Tehran would be more promiscuous with nuclear weapons when the probability of massive retaliation for a terrorist incident would be even greater? Moreover, Iran’s policies on other matters have been quite rational and calculating. For example, the clerical regime vowed never to make peace with Saddam Hussein in the Iraq‐​Iran war during the 1980s. But when Iranian generals told the clerical leadership in 1988 that the war might drag on for at least five more years with no likelihood of victory, the ayatollahs signed a peace treaty — and one that was not advantageous to Iran. That is hardly the behavior of a fanatical, utterly irrational regime.

On another matter, Etzioni unduly minimizes the potential costs and overstates the successes of Washington’s nonproliferation policy. The Iraq war is certainly an example of a very high‐​cost counter‐​proliferation venture. And Etzioni’s list of low‐​cost nonproliferation successes is unintentionally revealing. Yes, the United States has been quite successful in strong‐​arming Germany, South Korea, Taiwan, Brazil, Japan, and other peaceful, status quo‐​minded countries into renouncing any ambitions to acquire nuclear weapons. But Washington has been decidedly less successful in dissuading such repressive and possibly revisionist states such as China, North Korea, Pakistan, and Iran from doing so. As a result, we have the international equivalent of domestic gun control laws, which do an effective job of disarming honest citizens and leaving them at the mercy of society’s aggressive elements.

Finally, Etzioni is too quick to dismiss the prospect that Washington might resort to forcible regime change in the name of nonproliferation as a “defunct belief.” The danger that the Bush administration might attack Iran because of that country’s nuclear program (and Tehran’s meddling in Iraq) is all too real. Certainly, hawks in the administration have not given up on that goal. Such a conflict would raise the costs of nonproliferation policy considerably.

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