I worry about nuclear proliferation as much as anyone else, but the level of our hysteria over the creeping nuclearization of Asia is only met by our inability to do anything serious about it. I think it would be far more intelligent for us to start thinking seriously about strategy in a nuclearizing world. But we don’t; instead, we insist on a vision of nuclearization that ended decades ago when Israel became the first unofficial member of the nuclear club. Frequently we evoke nightmare images (‘a smoking gun in the shape of a mushroom cloud’) that scare the hell out of the West, but we have no palatable options to stop these programs. Slow but steady nuclearization increasingly seems likely beyond the ‘approved’ nuclear powers of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). So let’s get used to it and think about it differently.
I say this because it looks like the nuclear hysteria machine is gearing up again around Iran. You remember the last two iterations of this show – Iraq in 2002, and India and Pakistan in 1998. But short of Iraq-style invasions, which no one wants to repeat, it does not seem like there is much outsiders can do to stop a sovereign state’s determined nuclear drive. The technology is out there – the genie can’t go back in the bottle – and there are too many profiteers like North Korea or A. Q. Khan willing to sell nuclear technology. Further, we undermine the NPT regime when we look the other way on some states’ nukes (Israel, India) but flip out over others – Iran, Pakistan, NK.
We seem to have a cycle whereby we claim that ‘absolutely cannot tolerate’ Country X – especially with its dangerous record – with nuclear weapons. We write hyperventilating editorials like this and this. We create bloviating right-wing think-groups with scary names like the Committee on the Present Danger who tell us that WWIII or another 9/11, only with nukes this time, is around the corner! Then, we go to the UN Security Council to get some sanctions and what not, and then we go back again, and again, and then again. We hypocritically invoke the sacred NPT, even though the nuclear-haves have made no serious effort to meet their NPT obligations to the nuclear have-nots. Country X presses on anyway, because nuclear weapons, as de Gaulle famously said, are a prerequisite for great power status. Finally at some point, the CIA says Country X is 1-2 years away from weaponization, and we start talking about air strikes. If you think this sounds familiar, it should. We did this on NK in 1994 and then again after 9/11, Iraq in 2002-03, and today on Iran. At some point, I am sure Huge Chavez will say he needs nukes to defend the revolution against imperialism, and the US Senate will absolutely bananas. All we need to complete the show is an appearance by Dick Cheney to say that if there is even a 1% chance that Myanmar has weapons of mass destruction, we should bomb them. However the show ends with Country X getting the nukes after all, and no does anything because it is too scary, expensive, and unpopular at home.
If I sound cynical, it’s only because the reality is that we are in fact adjusting ourselves to an increasingly nuclear world. I don’t want these shady regimes to have nukes any more than anyone else, but, 1. what are we going to seriously do to stop them? and 2, it increasingly looks like we can slow their drives for awhile and contain their worst proliferation instincts.
1. Short of invading them or setting up an extremely strict UN cordon, it is nearly impossible to stop states committed to nuclearization. NK has proved this. It endured the worst (man-made) famine since the Great Leap Forward in the 1990s, but it still clawed its way into the nuclear club. We could attack incipient nuclearizers, but we tried that in Iraq, and it was a hugely unpopular disaster. No one is willing to invade NK or Iran or Pakistan simply over the nukes. The other alternative would be extremely tight UN sanctions to prevent the inflow of the parts and technology necessary. But the only serious UN cordon effort – of Iraq in the 1990s – failed badly, because the neighbors cheated so much, and because the cordon’s PR was atrocious. Saddam made the world think that Iraqi children were starving because of US/UN cruelty. So the sanctions were eased with the ‘Oil-for-Food’ program. But Saddam of course immediately pilfered that program, and, in UN HQ, ‘Oil-for-Food’ degenerated into corruption. In short, it is practically impossible to seal the nuclearizer off enough, and no one wants to go to war just over a nuclear program.
2. For as much as we worry about spiraling proliferation, we have managed to retard its spread, and more generally, we are learning to live with it. The new US Proliferation Security Initiative has helped contain NK nuclear technology. We bullied Kaddafi in 2004 into giving up any hopes of nukes or other weapons of mass destruction. Remember how the Indo-Pakistan nuclear competition was supposed to lead to rolling proliferation in Asia and the Middle East? That has not happened too much. We can get UN sanctions that will slow nuclear drives, even if total isolation is impossible.
In short, there are steps we can take to slow nuclearization and dampen proliferation. So the process need not occur too fast. We can buy time. But it increasingly it looks like we need to adjust to third world, particularly Asian, nuclearization. We need to start thinking about how to adjust beyond apocalyptic, all-or-nothing declarations about how we can never tolerate the spread of nukes and that military options need to ‘be on the table.’ That sort of moralizing, black-white rhetoric encourages nuclearizers to buck up and stick it to the ‘empire’ for telling them what to do. Besides, we never follow up on these threats – it’s just too dangerous and democratically unpopular. So we just look foolish in the end.