How I Learned to Stop Worrying…

This article appeared in the American Conservative on July 30, 2007.

In 1963, President John F. Kennedy described his alarm over one possible course of world politics. "I am haunted," Kennedy admitted, "by the feeling that by 1970, unless we are successful, there may be 10 nuclear powers instead of four, and by 1975, 15 or 20."

To the relief of many, Kennedy was overly pessimistic. By 1970, only China had joined the United States, the Soviet Union, Britain, and France as the fifth member of the nuclear club, and by 1975, there were only six nuclear states, India having tested in 1974. Even today the nuclear club has only nine members. Still, nuclear technology is more than 60 years old, and its proliferation is governed by an agreement that will turn 40 next year. It is unlikely that the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty will constrain the spread of nuclear weapons indefinitely, and with North Korea having attained nuclear status and Iran apparently trying determinedly to do the same, the stresses on the NPT are severe and growing.

The accepted view on all of this is that the NPT will hold because it must. The uncertain world that lies beyond its reach is so frightening to many, including much of the arms-control community, that we dare not countenance it.

Not so for William Langewiesche. In his new book, The Atomic Bazaar: The Rise of the Nuclear Poor, Langewiesche concludes starkly, "Diplomacy may help to slow the spread [of nuclear weapons] , but it can no more stop the process than it can reverse the progression of time. The nuclearization of the world has become the human condition, and it cannot be changed."

This revelation comes early on, and it sums up the sense of fatalism that pervades the book Langewiesche opens with an icy discussion of the American use of nuclear weapons against civilian populations in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, followed by a similarly antiseptic description of the physics of nuclear weapons. A national correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly, Langewiesche is a skillful writer, and both treatments induce awe and queasiness, reflecting our deep ambivalence about our nation's relationship with nuclear technology. Langewiesche cannot resist pointing out that by any fair definition of the word "terrorism," the American attacks on Hiroshima — and certainly on Nagasaki — constituted the gravest acts of terrorism the world has ever seen.

This discussion sets up an explanation of how revulsion over Hiroshima led the founding fathers of the nuclear bomb to create the Federation of American Scientists, a group that to this day attempts to educate policymakers and the American public on the implications and dangers of nuclear weapons. The book also offers a brief explanation of the logic of the NPT — it was intended not to constrain, let alone reduce, the number of nuclear weapons in the world but rather to limit membership in the club of nuclear nations — before moving swiftly on to Langewiesche's bread and butter, investigative reporting.

He frames this section by putting the reader in the position of the head of a non-state group attempting to acquire nuclear weapons for first-use against the United States. Recounting the many obstacles to achieving this goal, Langewiesche takes readers on a tour of the southern Caucasus, Kurdistan, and other locales in which he has investigated the nuclear trade. Langewiesche has a deepseated cynicism about the U.S. government's efforts to constrain the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and he highlights numerous instances of American fecklessness and lack of seriousness.

One particularly galling example is the case of the formerly closed Russian town of Ozersk, a place that now houses tons of highly enriched uranium and plutonium in shakily secured facilities. The Russians — paranoid but not without real enemies — only reluctantly agreed to cooperate with the U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration in enhancing their security measures in Ozersk. But as Langewiesche observes, the Russians are "concerned less about thieves or terrorists than about American spies." In 2004, the Russians turned skittish when an NGO called "Planet of Hopes" began investigating ecological and social problems around Ozersk. Russian authorities responded by lashing out against the group and accusing it of having been funded by the ClA, a charge that was disproved only once it was revealed that the National Endowment for Democracy was financing the group's investigations.

The episode is but one example of how Washington's policies abroad jeopardize American national security. A rational foreign policy would recognize that quietly funding groups to investigate the Russian government could cause already suspicious Moscow to close off further, endangering more important American objectives such as improving security at Russian nuclear facilities. But urged on by men like Sen. John McCain, the National Endowment for Democracy and other democracy-promotion vehicles continue to foster suspicion of those who are responsible for important American security initiatives abroad.

Langewiesche's investigation leads him to conclude, "regions beyond government control are rarely as chaotic as they seem to be to Western officials." The implication of this is that "Western agencies that could find a way to lay traplines in [these areas] would have a better chance of stopping a terrorist attack than any port-inspection program, bureaucratic reshuffling, or military maneuvering can provide," but he finds scarce evidence that American policy-makers have interest in such initiatives.

One of the most neglected topics in the post-9/11 world — and of discussions of weapons of mass destruction — is risk assessment. Langewiesche has a derisive view of our tendency to respond with panic to dangers that, as John Mueller has pointed out in his book Overblown, are less than the risk of drowning in a bathtub or dying from anaphylactic shock after being stung by bees. Langewiesche notes that the actual threat posed by "dirty bombs" is largely chimerical and that they "would be mere nuisance bombs if people would keep their calm. But of course people will not." Such rationality is unrealistic "in societies where even outdoor tobacco smoke is called a threat."

Though it is beyond the purview of The Atomic Bazaar, this line of thinking points to the absurdity of the idea that a people that cowers in fear of any variety of bogeymen from Hugo Chavez to transfats should set out to transform the Islamic world at gunpoint. Snifflers and HDLwatchers make bad imperialists, and the American populace at large seems bent on withdrawing into a cocoon of effete worry-mongering. Although this backdrop of risk aversion makes irrational policy lash-outs more likely, it simultaneously makes the public unwilling to sustain the very high costs of such policies over the longer term.

Langewiesche concludes the book with a short history of the proliferation network led by Abdul Qadeer Khan, the father of the Pakistani atomic bomb and the most successful proliferator of the nuclear age. His investigation in Pakistan leaves Langewiesche oozing with contempt for the country, a "morally bankrupt and corrupt nation, where cowardly and illegitimate rulers, propped up by massive infusions of American dollars and dependent on their soldiers' guns, suppress genuine inquiries because they would be implicated themselves and, in the embarrassment that would follow, would be cut off from foreign aid, and driven from power by their own people, who almost universally now detest them. " Those with a particular interest in the Khan network will find a much deeper and more thorough treatment of the topic in Gordon Corera's Shopping for Bombs, but Langewiesche covers the basics.

After informing readers up front that proliferation is inevitable and then cataloging the ineptitude of the American government's efforts to stop proliferation, what is Langewiesche's conclusion? Is the world destined for destruction, a future in which proliferation leads to nuclear holocaust? Langewiesche's fatalism is somewhat softened by his claim that "the spread of nuclear weapons, even to such countries as North Korea and Iran, may not be as catastrophic as is generally believed and certainly does not meet the category of threat that can justify the suppression of civil liberties or the pursuit of preemptive wars."

But perhaps the most salient observation of The Atomic Bazaar is that of a Pakistani analyst whom Langewiesche quotes at length:

You cannot have a world order in which you have five or eight nuclear-weapons states on the one hand, and the rest of the international community on the other. There are many places ... which have legitimate security concerns — every bit as legitimate as yours. And yet you ask them to address those concerns without nuclear weapons, while you have nuclear weapons and you have everything else? It is not a question of what is fair, or right or wrong. It is simply not going to work

Nuclear American exceptionalism is not a sustainable approach to the question of nuclear proliferation.

Perhaps the best we can do is take our shots as they come, placing obstacles in front of would-be proliferators to make their jobs more difficult. All is not lost on this front; an aspiring AQ. Khan starting out today would have a much tougher time than Khan did while getting his start in the 1970s. But one huge step the U.S. government could take would be to work to reduce or eliminate the "legitimate security concerns" for countries such as Iran that are examining nuclear weapons as a defense strategy. Whether a course correction on this front would now come too late to affect the spread of nuclear weapons remains to be seen, but it would be folly to continue blindly on our current path and refuse, at the very least, to try.