Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Nuclear Issues: Prioritizing Nuclear Nonproliferation

Source: International Relations and Security Network (ISN)

With concerns about potential nuclear threats from Iran, North Korea and aspiring nuclear terrorists, nuclear weapons seem to have as much prominence on the security agenda as they did during the Cold War. Giving them such notoriety may, however, be doing more harm than good.

By Justin Alger for ISN Insights

In 1994, William Arkin, a long-time US security commentator, dubbed the nuclear nonproliferation profession the "sky-is-still-falling" profession because of its tendency for alarmism. It is, perhaps, an understandable tendency. The effects of a nuclear weapon are well known, and it is clearly a priority to ensure that they are never used again.

Preventing the spread and potential use of nuclear weapons has been so high a priority in the West that it has achieved what perhaps no other issue has: according to Arkin, it "binds arms controllers, disarmament advocates, environmentalists, proliferation experts, unreformed nuclear advocates, conservatives, moderates and liberals together." But in focusing on the sensible goal of preventing nuclear weapons from spreading, we may have forgotten how to be critical of our approaches. Some of these approaches may be hindering rather than helping the cause.

The now infamous example of bad decision-making in the field of nonproliferation was the US-led coalition's decision to invade Iraq on the grounds that then President Saddam Hussein still had a WMD program. False evidence of nuclear skullduggery helped galvanize politicians and the public in the states that invaded Iraq, revealing just how powerful rhetoric that uses nuclear weapons to incite fear can be.

Then US National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice famously stated in a CNN interview that "We don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud." Though there are many theories about the motivation for the invasion - ranging from neoconservative ideology to claims about US interest in oil - nuclear weapons were the rallying call. It is indeed highly problematic if exaggerations regarding the magnitude and imminence of nuclear threats (and other WMDs) are used to persuade rational decision-makers into action that they would not otherwise consider.

Handling current challenges

Iran's enrichment technology and probable interest in a latent or actual nuclear weapons capability is now one of the key issues in global politics. Unfortunately, ongoing efforts to curb Iran's progress are likely an exercise in futility. No amount of sanctioning or political denigration to punish Iran will prevent it from acquiring a nuclear weapon if it so chooses. These efforts so far appear to have done little more than goad Iran. For example, they have probably had the unintended consequence of solidifying President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's power, since many Iranians now view him as a strong leader willing to stand up for Iran - a view that was virtually nonexistent prior to the fiasco surrounding its nuclear program.

America's military presence in the region, increasing isolation and the ever-present threat of an Israeli strike on Iranian nuclear facilities - similar to strikes against Iraq in 1981 and Syria in 2007 - are, if anything, only going to encourage Ahmadinejad to go through with building a weapon. The practice of dissuading states from nuclear weapons by threatening them only serves to reinforce the arguments of the hardliners that want them in the first place.

Nuclear terrorism poses a similar problem. So much has been written about how terrorists could go about acquiring a nuclear weapon that proliferation experts are well on their way to providing said terrorists with "An Idiot's Guide to Nuclear Terrorism". The views on how easy it would be for terrorists to actually do so vary immensely. Graham Allison, author of the influential Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe , maintains (the claim was initially made in 2004) that if more is not done, a nuclear terrorist attack in a major American city in the next ten years is "more likely than not."

At the other end of the spectrum, in his book Atomic Obsession: Nuclear Alarmism from Hiroshima to Al-Qaeda, John Mueller rather conservatively calculates the odds of a terrorist being able to successfully carry out a nuclear attack as being roughly one in 3.5 billion. Obviously there is a disparity between the two risk assessments. Worst-case scenarios are almost always the fuel for claims of how imminent and frightening nuclear terrorism could be, but the reality is that nuclear materials and technology are reasonably well secured from terrorists. The security of Russia's nuclear material, for example, has dramatically improved since 1991. Pakistan, considered a perennial concern, has been making strides as well, enough so that US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated that President Barack Obama's administration has a "high degree of confidence" that the country's nuclear weapons are secured. This is not to say we should not continue efforts to secure them, but nuclear terrorism cannot become a rallying cry for wasteful spending, or potentially destructive policies.

The 'nuclear myth'

Part of the challenge in prioritizing nuclear nonproliferation policies is what Tanya Ogilvie-White referred to as the "nuclear myth" in her award-winning 1996 Nonproliferation Review article. The nuclear myth is the idea that the utility or value of nuclear weapons is entirely based on perception since their practical worth is unclear. These are, after all, weapons that states have stockpiled en masse for decades without ever intending to use them.

North Korea is an example of exactly this challenge. It has had a small nuclear stockpile since 2006, but the dynamic on the Korean peninsula has remained remarkably stable, with a seemingly never-ending cycle of periods of tension followed by periods of d├ętente between North, South and their respective allies. Tensions reached a peak in March 2010 when North Korea torpedoed a South Korean warship, sinking it, which eventually elicited a mild response from the UN Security Council. Despite the incident, tension levels are now back to normal, with the six-party talks aimed at dismantling the North's nuclear program set to resume once again, with the expectation that they are likely to be as frustrating for negotiators as they have been since 2002.

Generally speaking, by over-committing to nuclear nonproliferation, we may be having the adverse effect of actually increasing the perceived worth of nuclear weapons.

On balance

It is easy to point out the flaws in the current approach to nuclear nonproliferation, and it is certainly more challenging to propose alternatives. Exaggerating their risks and waging diplomatic wars against states that show an interest in them, whether implied or explicit, nonetheless runs counter to the more important objective of devaluing them in international relations.

Nuclear nonproliferation is too big an issue to ignore, but nonproliferation policies need to be based on thorough risk assessments, and not worst-case scenario fantasies. There is also an opportunity cost in terms of the resources used - be they financial, political or human - to combat nuclear proliferation. With global challenges like climate change, energy security and poverty, it is important that we do not prioritize nuclear nonproliferation to a degree that is detrimental to progress on these other fronts.

Justin Alger is a researcher at the Canadian Centre for Treaty Compliance (CCTC) at Carleton University, in Ottawa, Canada. He has worked on nuclear nonproliferation and energy research for the past four years as a primary researcher on the Nuclear Energy Futures Project and as a part of his graduate studies. He holds an MA in International Affairs from Carleton University.