Washington’s Nonproliferation Hysteria

June 18, 1998 • Commentary

India’s nuclear tests confirm what a few perceptive experts have noted for years: Washington’s simplistic “just say no” nonproliferation policy is unraveling. U.S. leaders should view New Delhi’s decision to bring its nuclear‐​weapons program out into the open as an opportunity to reassess an inherently unsustainable approach to the problem of nuclear proliferation. Instead, the Clinton administration has reacted with the foreign policy equivalent of a temper tantrum.

Admittedly, the administration did not have a great deal of latitude in crafting a response. The misguided 1994 Nuclear Proliferation Prevention Act requires the imposition of sanctions against any nation that has the temerity to pursue a nuclear weapons program — much less test such weapons. Some of the sanctions (the mandates to oppose new World Bank loans and terminate bilateral aid flows) may inadvertently benefit India by weaning that country from the narcotic of foreign aid. Other sanctions, especially the restrictions on private bank loans and technology exports, are certain to inflict economic pain. They are also likely to embitter relations between India and America and cost American firms market share without having any realistic prospect of getting New Delhi to abandon its determination to acquire a modest nuclear deterrent.

A more intelligent and constructive approach is needed. India’s acquisition of a nuclear‐​weapons capability — or even the deployment of a small arsenal — does not threaten America’s security. New Delhi’s actions were motivated by a variety of considerations, including growing worries about China’s military clout and intentions, a desire to intimidate Pakistan and establish India as the undisputed preeminent power in South Asia, and the governing party’s need to consolidate its domestic political position by playing the card of Indian patriotic nationalism. New Delhi’s actions were not motivated by any desire for a military confrontation with the United States, now or in the future.

Although India’s conduct may exacerbate an already unstable strategic environment in South Asia (given the long‐​standing hostility between India and Pakistan), the United States has no vital interests in the region that would inevitably entangle this country. Moreover, Washington learned to live with the acquisition of nuclear weapons by Stalinist Russia and Maoist China; U.S. leaders can certainly tolerate such weapons in the hands of democratic India.

The United States must reassess its entire policy on nuclear‐​weapons proliferation. It is hardly surprising that the nonproliferation system — symbolized by the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty — is breaking down. Basic nuclear technology is now more than a half‐​century old, and it is unrealistic to assume that only the five openly declared nuclear‐ weapons powers have the requisite technology, engineering talent, and financial resources to build arsenals.

The United States must maintain a vigorous strategic deterrent and reject the siren call of those who contend that complete nuclear disarmament should be the ultimate goal.

Not only is the ability to develop nuclear weapons becoming more widespread, the strategic incentives to do so are increasing for a significant number of countries. Regional disputes that were often submerged during the Cold War rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union are now resurfacing with a vengeance. India’s focus on China and Pakistan is the most prominent example, but there are others.

Instead of fighting a futile rearguard defense of the NPT, U.S. leaders should accept that some proliferation of nuclear weapons is inevitable and adjust U.S. policy accordingly. One important adjustment would be to substitute discrimination and selectivity for the current uniform, unrelenting hostility. It ought to make a difference to Americans whether nuclear weapons are acquired by a stable democratic state or an aggressive anti‐​American dictatorship. Current U.S. policy makes no such distinction.

To the extent that it continues to pursue a nonproliferation policy, Washington should concentrate on making it difficult for rogue states to acquire the technology and fissile materials they would need to become nuclear powers. U.S. policymakers ought to be realistic about the limitations of even that more focused strategy; at best, U.S. actions will only delay, not prevent, such states from joining the nuclear weapons club.

Other adjustments are crucial as well. The United States must maintain a vigorous strategic deterrent and reject the siren call of those who contend that complete nuclear disarmament should be the ultimate goal. In addition to maintaining a powerful retaliatory capability, the United States should move to develop and deploy defenses against missile attack as soon as the (admittedly daunting) technological obstacles can be overcome.

Finally, Washington ought to use its diplomatic skills to ameliorate some of the more harmful effects of proliferation. In particular, U.S. officials should help such emerging nuclear‐ weapons powers as India and Pakistan to develop reliable command and control systems to prevent accidental or unauthorized launches. The United States can draw on lessons learned during its long standoff with the Soviet Union to assist in the creation of hotlines and other confidence‐​building measures that can stabilize regional nuclear rivalries. Such assistance would at least reduce the chances of a nuclear conflict’s erupting because of miscalculation or misunderstanding.

A policy of gracefully adjusting to proliferation is not a panacea. It is, however, vastly superior to the emotional, antagonistic, and ultimately futile policy toward India now being pursued.

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