Order and Disorder in the Second Nuclear AgeA new era has put the nonproliferation regime under pressure

Posted in Other | 08-Oct-06 | Author: Michael Ruehle

"The attacks of September 11, 2001 highlighted yet another dimension of the nonproliferation conundrum:Nuclear terrorism"
"The attacks of September 11, 2001 highlighted yet another dimension of the nonproliferation conundrum:Nuclear terrorism"
In his acclaimed study of the early nineteenth-century European state system, A World Restored,1 Henry Kissinger concluded with a dire warning: even a wealth of historical experience is of little use if one does not grasp the nature of the epoch in which one himself is living. Statesmen at the time were apparently well aware of the potential consequences of a revolutionary situation, yet, since they failed to recognize that they themselves were living in one, their experience proved worthless. Thus, according to Kissinger, the foremost challenge of statecraft is to correctly evaluate one’s own era. His observation applies remarkably well to the current debate on the future of the nuclear nonproliferation regime. For one thing, this debate features numerous terms that seem to come straight from the political discourse of the early nineteenth century. There is talk of regimes and their legitimacy, of rising powers that challenge the established order, of revolutionary forces that seek to upset an existing equilibrium, and of anarchy that will inevitably result if these developments are not kept in check. In short, it is the language of a period of upheaval.

There is little disagreement that the nonproliferation regime has entered a period of upheaval. Last year’s failure of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) review conference was one clear indication, as are the perennial debate on North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and the ongoing controversy over Iran’s nuclear program. Last March, the nonproliferation regime came under attack from yet another angle. While the international community was trying to deny NPT member Iran the right to enrich uranium, the United States agreed a nuclear co-operation deal with India, a country that remains outside of the NPT. Nothing could demonstrate more clearly that the nonproliferation regime is facing an existential crisis. However, when it comes to the question of who is to blame for this crisis and how it can be overcome, two schools of thought hold diametrically opposed views.

For members of the liberal arms control community, the case is clear. In their view, the root cause of the present crisis is the unwillingness of the nuclear weapon states to live up to their part of the NPT bargain and commit to real disarmament. According to this school of thought, the United States’ selfish and contradictory policy bears most of the blame for the erosion of the nonproliferation regime. The US refusal to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the obsession with "rogue states," the war against Iraq, the continuing search for nuclear military options, and not least, the agreement with India have pushed the nonproliferation regime into a major crisis of credibility, which has made dealing with the (few) violators particularly difficult. In the view of this school, only a fundamental change of US policy offers a chance to repair the damaged nonproliferation regime. 2

The charge that American “double standards” are the major cause of the nonproliferation crisis is easy to make. After all, no country can seriously claim to conduct a foreign and security policy that is entirely free of contradictions, least of all a country that carries most of the burden of maintaining international order. Moreover, if one assumes that the United States, as the world’s strongest military power, should act as a kind of trustee of the nonproliferation regime, contradictions in American policy can have far-reaching implications. But does this interpretation, which sees the United States in the role of a challenger of the established order, still reflect current nuclear realities? Or is it rather an example of the phenomenon described so eloquently by Kissinger, namely the inability to recognize a revolutionary situation and to draw appropriate conclusions from it?

For those, at least, who are convinced that today’s strategic environment differs fundamentally from the past, current US security policy is not the cause of the nonproliferation crisis, but rather a response to it. For those who believe to be living in a "second nuclear age” in which the norms of the bipolar era no longer apply, the golden age of the classical nonproliferation regime and its main intellectual foundations is past. The end of the cold war and the accelerating process of globalization have exposed the structural weaknesses of the traditional nonproliferation regime. In the view of this school, too much has changed to keep clinging to the belief that a regime that emerged four decades ago under specific political and military conditions could retain its importance without major modifications, such as bilateral initiatives or military coercive measures. Consequently, there is no point in holding on to the illusion that a more conciliatory, unabashedly multilateral US policy could somehow rejuvenate the nonproliferation regime. The causes of the crisis lie elsewhere.

The NPT and its Discontents

With currently 187 signatories, the NPT has turned into a truly global regime, yet its intellectual roots lie in the cold war. It was inspired first and foremost by the common interest of the nuclear rivals the United States and Soviet Union to prevent the emergence of new nuclear powers beyond the current five (the United States, Soviet Union, United Kingdom, France and China.) It was felt that in the absence of a far-reaching arms control regime many more states would seek to acquire nuclear status–including key allies such as Germany and Japan. In 1963 President John F. Kennedy forecasted pessimistically that in ten years’ time the world would have to deal with 15 or even 20 nuclear powers.

How should a treaty look that sought nothing less than a formally agreed unequal status between a few nuclear powers and many nuclear “have-nots”? How could a system be designed that, according to some critics, formalized a kind of “nuclear apartheid”? The NPT provided the answer by offering non-nuclear signatories various forms of compensation. First, they would benefit from a predictable strategic environment. The nuclear-weapons states would not pass on nuclear technology that was militarily relevant, they committed themselves to nuclear disarmament, and they pledged not to threaten or attack a non-nuclear state with nuclear weapons. Second, they would get support for the civilian use of nuclear power. Given the general euphoria at this time about nuclear energy, this was a very attractive option. Finally, the duration of the NPT was limited and included the option of withdrawal if superior national interests were at stake.

This complex deal provided the basis for the NPT, which was signed in 1968. Right from the beginning, its structural problems were obvious. For example, while the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) provided an instrument to verify compliance with the treaty's provisions, no sanctions were foreseen in the event of a violation. The inequality implicit in the treaty was at least somewhat compensated by its limited duration, yet it also made the treaty vulnerable to changes in the international environment. Most importantly, however, even at the time of its signing it was a foregone conclusion that sooner or later the non-nuclear weapons states would insist that the nuclear-weapons states would live up to their disarmament commitments–either out of true conviction, or as an alibi to justify their own quest for nuclear status.

The true Achilles heel of the NPT, however, was its energy dimension. In a nutshell, the NPT sought to prevent military proliferation by fostering civilian proliferation. However, since civil and military nuclear technologies are almost indistinguishable, some experts were concerned that a situation might arise that may now come true in Iran: a country could use its civilian nuclear program to advance right to the threshold of becoming a nuclear military power. Only the final steps to produce nuclear weapons were prohibited – steps that a determined regime would take right after it had withdrawn from the Treaty.3

Despite these well-known weaknesses, the NPT became a success. Over time, almost all of the world's countries adhered to the treaty. For most of these countries, signing the NPT was a not a controversial move, since the political and economic opportunity costs of a nuclear military program far exceeded its military benefits. More and more, however, nuclear nonproliferation was also seen to become a universal moral norm, transcending a mere cost-benefit calculus. In the late 1980s, as it moved towards democracy, South Africa abandoned its advanced nuclear weapons program. Soon thereafter, at the end of cold war, the new independent states on the territory of the former Soviet Union transferred their nuclear weapons to Russia and joined the NPT as non-nuclear weapons states. The apogee of this positive trend was the agreement on an unlimited extension of the NPT in May 1995.

The Erosion of Nonproliferation

Michael Rühle: "Democracy will also be the key for coping with a multinuclear world."
Michael Rühle: "Democracy will also be the key for coping with a multinuclear world."
This apparent triumph of the logic of nonproliferation could not hide the fact that things had already started to change. The end of the cold war had removed the specific political and military context in which nuclear weapons had contributed to mutual deterrence and restraint. The lack of new nuclear rules, together with an ever-accelerating process of globalization, sparked various developments that put tremendous pressure on the traditional nonproliferation regime. One pillar of the nonproliferation regime that started to crumble was the assumption that nuclear weapons were a category of their own. Right before the 1991 Gulf war, when the United States had to expect the Iraqi use of chemical weapons against coalition forces, Washington warned Saddam Hussein that such an action would mean the end of his regime. This implicit nuclear threat did not amount to an abrogation of the so-called negative security assurances, which prohibit nuclear states to threaten non-nuclear states with nuclear weapons. However, it did underline that biological and chemical weapons of mass destruction had to be included in the US nuclear calculus. As future opponents of the United States might be armed with such weapons, the option of a nuclear threat had to be retained–at least rhetorically.

The next disappointment followed soon thereafter. In the wake of the 1991 Gulf war, it turned out that Iraq had been working on a comprehensive military nuclear program that had only been a few months away from detonating a nuclear device. For the IAEA this revelation turned into a fiasco. Despite regular inspections, the program was not uncovered. In response, the international community agreed on an additional protocol to the NPT, which extended the authority of the IAEA to conducting surprise inspections. Yet doubts about the verification of the non-proliferation regime persisted, all the more so as the crucial question of how to deal with treaty violations remained contested.

The Middle East was not the only region where proliferation acquired new significance. In the 1990’s, Asia emerged as a new hotbed of proliferation, featuring a combination of regional rivalry, aggressive nationalism and nuclear arms that had been absent in cold war Europe. In 1994 the United States managed to pressure North Korea to freeze its nuclear weapons program, yet the crisis sparked by Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions continued, culminating in North Korea’s withdrawal from the NPT in 2003. In spring 1998, nuclear tests by India and Pakistan, two of the few states that had not joined the NPT, dealt another heavy blow to the nonproliferation regime. At the same time, these developments raised the question of how to deal with states that remained outside of the NPT. Should they be isolated in order to emphasize the importance of the nonproliferation norm? Or should they be recognized as official nuclear powers, in order to bring them into the NPT? To this very day, that question divides the experts.

9/11 and its Consequences

The attacks of September 11, 2001 highlighted yet another dimension of the nonproliferation conundrum: nuclear terrorism. The emergence of non-state actors posed new challenges to the interstate nature of the nonproliferation regime. States, even so-called "rogue states," can be assumed to have an instinct of national self-preservation that will induce nuclear restraint. However, such assumptions do not apply to Al Qaida and other terrorist organizations that are trying to obtain nuclear material. Rationality and the will to survive–the two essential ingredients of a stable deterrence system–are absent. Worse, even the assumption that it is too difficult technically for terrorists to acquire a fully-fledged nuclear device has now been put into question. The debate about a possible “talibanzation” of Pakistan that emerged in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 offered a frightening scenario: rather than stealing a nuclear weapon from existing arsenals, extremists could take over a nuclear weapons state and gain control over an entire nuclear infrastructure.

Against the backdrop of 9/11 it becomes particularly clear why the United States’ perception of the proliferation problem is so alarmist. Objectively, 9/11 may have changed little or nothing in terms of proliferation, yet US tolerance toward certain proliferators has decreased dramatically. It is for this reason that well-meant suggestions to concentrate on the political roots of terrorism remain without resonance. For such an approach to succeed would require decades–time that is no longer available given the urgency of nuclear terrorism. This threat perception accounts for much of the current US political activism–an activism that climaxes in the pursuit of "regime change" in certain nuclear threshold countries. In the “second nuclear age” nothing must be left to chance.

The uncovering of the nuclear smuggling network of A. Q. Khan in early 2004 has dealt yet another heavy blow to the nonproliferation regime. The "father of the Pakistani atom bomb” had traded in nuclear know-how, assisting North Korea, Iran, Libya and many other states in realizing their nuclear ambitions. This quasi-private market eroded another fundamental assumption of the nonproliferation regime: a state with nuclear ambitions is no longer dependent on the assistance of the classical nuclear powers. Each new nuclear power thus increases the risk of a further acceleration of proliferation. This tendency is reinforced by the large number of nuclear physicists educated in the West and the former Soviet Union, as well as by the trade in “dual use” goods, which many industrialized countries supply irrespective of export controls. Thus, even if the number of declared nuclear weapon states has remained remarkably small to date, the number of "turnkey states," able to rapidly convert their civilian nuclear program into a military one, will continue to increase.

All of these developments explain why a mere review of individual clauses of the NPT will not restore the integrity of the nonproliferation regime. To be sure, numerous suggestions for reform have been put forward, for instance the adoption of stricter verification procedures or making withdrawal from the treaty more difficult. Yet none of these steps can hide the fact that, in the final analysis, the nonproliferation regime depends less on legal fixes than on international political developments. Nor can they hide another structural dilemma of the NPT: the promotion of civilian nuclear energy includes the risk of military abuse. In principle, this problem could be solved by restricting civilian nuclear cooperation. Suggestions to this end exist as well, but they all have the same drawback of adding yet another element of discrimination on top of the military-nuclear "apartheid." The implicit bargain of the NPT, namely to reward military abstinence through civilian benefits, would become almost obsolete. And how smart is a strategy that seeks to limit the use of nuclear energy, given the growing scarcity of fossil fuel?

The Energy Paradox

There is yet another reason why a reform of the NPT would not suffice to remedy the current malaise, namely the different interests in the UN Security Council (UNSC). Large parts of the arms control literature may depict the NPT as an objective set of rules transcending national interests, yet the fact remains that the treaty is, in essence, a mechanism run by the United Nations, with the Security Council at the top. It is this body that decides on how to treaty should be interpreted and if and how violators should be punished. And it is the balance of power in the Security Council that determines the policy of the UN’s sub-organizations, including the IAEA and its Board of Governors. In the current case of Iran, the UNSC has thus far succeeded in establishing a common position of the permanent five; whether this consensus will also include tougher sanction remains to be seen, however. As an important oil supplier of China and a close business partner of Russia, Iran enjoys a degree of protection that makes far reaching measures against Tehran appear quite improbable. The case of Iran may thus mark the paradoxical reversal of the equation that once underpinned the NPT. Rather than assisting a country in coping with its energy needs, the issue now is about whether to tolerate Iran’s nuclear ambitions in exchange for the continued access to its fossil energy supplies. Once again, the image of the nonproliferation regime as a set of norms that transcend national interests is being revealed as a myth. The regime remains highly dependent on – and vulnerable to – specific political and economic developments.

In light of these developments it should not come as a surprise if the United States comes down on the side of the "proliferation pessimists." Upholding the formal nonproliferation regime remains a major US interest, for only this regime offers the framework for identifying and sanctioning unwanted behavior. However, there is little hope that the system could be stabilized by reforms. Despite the success of US and British diplomacy in talking Libya out of its nuclear program in 2003, several powerful trends are working against the nonproliferation principle. Just as the question of Iran today is tied to its status as an oil exporter, and Pakistan is needed in the fight against terror, the geopolitical importance of a cooperative India is simply too great to permanently forego the option of civilian nuclear cooperation with the country. The American-Indian agreement, which gives India access to civilian nuclear technology and fuel, yet at the same time makes it more difficult to transfer it to others, is one possible approach to realign classical nonproliferation principles with new and compelling geopolitical requirements. Hence, it is not without reason that the director of the IAEA, Mohamed El Baradei, has welcomed the agreement.4

Reverse Militarism

"At that time an excessive focus on military detail and symmetry diverted attention from the political-psychological causes of the East-West…
"At that time an excessive focus on military detail and symmetry diverted attention from the political-psychological causes of the East-West conflict."
It goes without saying that such a selective bilateral approach cannot satisfy the arms control purists. But if it is true that the "second nuclear age" has already begun, the orthodox arms control school needs to question its own approach as well. Large parts of the arms control community remain wedded to the hope for a restoration of global arms control regimes. Consequently, the United States, a country that doubts the effectiveness of the current regime and seeks to cope with the nuclear reality in other ways, is widely designated as the major security risk and Iran’s nuclear ambitions are often viewed more sympathetically than US and European demands for an end to its program. Worse, it has almost become a ritual within this community to play down the significance of treaty violations by pointing to the lack of disarmament of the nuclear weapons states. Some have even just stopped short of justifying nuclear weapons as an insurance for smaller powers against a potential American intervention.

In clinging to such beliefs, the liberal arms control school runs the risk of repeating the fatal error that pretty much pushed it into political oblivion at the end of the cold war. At that time, an excessive focus on military detail and symmetry diverted attention from the political-ideological causes of the East-West conflict. Questions about the legitimacy of the political system of the Soviet Union were hardly raised at all, whereas a democratic United States was easily identified as the main source of the "arms race" and thus the real threat to peace. In the end, of course, political change in the Soviet Union was not caused by changes in the West’s military posture or a more conciliatory US policy. The Soviet Union failed because of its internal contradictions. It was democratization in the East that finally allowed for far-reaching arms reductions–and not the other way around. The liberal arms control to community’s central credo–that military changes were the precondition for political change–had been revealed as a case of reverse militarism.

Historical analogies are risky, yet the parallels with the current nonproliferation debate are too obvious to ignore. In this debate, as well, a strong tendency to blame the United States is coupled with an unshakeable belief in traditional arms control instruments. And despite the fact that nonproliferation’s greatest victories were victories of democratization, there remains a solid aversion to burdening the arms control process with such issues. Yet just as the end of the East-West conflict was brought about by more democracy rather than fewer weapons, democracy will also be the key for coping with a multinuclear world. By ignoring this connection yet again, the liberal arms control school runs the risk of repeating its cold war mistake. Once more, to use Kissinger’s point, policy would then be based on a flawed understanding of one’s own era.

Personal views of the author. Special thanks to Rad van den Akker for comments and suggestions.

First published in "Internationale Politik - Transatlantic Edition", Vol. 2, No. 4 /2006.


1 (Victor Gollancz Ltd. 1977, [Orig. 1957]), pp. 331-332.
2 See William Walker, Weapons of Mass Destruction and International Order (IISS, 2004).
3 See Albert Wohlstetter, "Spreading the bomb without quite breaking the rules," Foreign Policy, Winter 1976-77.
4 "Rethinking Nuclear Safeguards," Washington Post, June 14, 2006, p. 23.

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