Nuclear Armament: Scandalous Hypocrisies

Commentary No. 332, July 1, 2011

The world has been worried about a nuclear Armageddon ever since the United States dropped two nuclear weapons on Japan in 1945. These were, be it said, the only two bombs ever used in actual warfare. 

U.S. possession of the atomic bomb gave it, of course, an enormous military advantage. It followed that the United States wanted to keep a monopoly on the weapon, and other countries wanted to break the monopoly. First and foremost, the Soviet Union wanted to do this, and succeeded in 1949. Feared as a great catastrophe, this turned out to be a marvelous boon. From that point on, the two “superpowers” were locked in a mutual unspoken agreement not to be the “first” user of the bomb. Despite the constant suspicions of each other, the tacit accord held fast – to this day. 

There were others, however, who thought they deserved to be part of the club. Great Britain was invited in by the United States. And both France and China ignored all the pleas and pressures to remain non-nuclear. So, by the 1970s, all five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council were nuclear powers.

It was at this time that the United States made an attempt to close the club to further members. They promoted a Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NNPT), which essentially offered a deal. If everyone else (other than the five) would renounce developing nuclear weapons, they would get in return two things: (1) the right to develop the peaceful uses of atomic energy; and (2) a promise by the nuclear five that they would negotiate a reduction in their nuclear arsenals, heading towards an eventual zero point.

The whole world signed this treaty, except three countries: Israel, India, and Pakistan. All three proceeded to develop nuclear weapons. And despite initial reprimands of various sorts, the uninvited members of the club became de facto members.

There have been from the start two problems with the deal. The first problem is that none of the nuclear five (and even less the additional three) had ever had the least intention to reduce its nuclear arsenal, and they have never done so. Most recently, in order to get the U.S. Congress to ratify an extension of the NNPT when the initial twenty-five years envisaged in the treaty expired, President Obama announced the upgrading of U.S. weapons. This no doubt is being emulated by all other nuclear powers.

The second problem was a technical one that had enormous political implications. It seems that, in order to ensure the so-called peaceful uses of atomic energy, a country needs to achieve levels of technical competence such that it is very easy, then, to go one step further and build nuclear weapons. This right, however, was the big carrot that had been offered to non-nuclear powers to agree not to “proliferate.”

That leaves us where we are today. The nuclear five (and no doubt the nuclear right) are “improving” their weapons. Simultaneously, the United States (and some others) is trying hard to deny non-nuclear powers the one right they had in the treaty that they had signed. This is the issue being debated with Iran. What the United States and Israel argue vociferously is that Iran cannot be trusted to exercise the right the treaty gives Iran because Iran will then, whatever it says now, go one step further. And, they imply, Iran will use the bomb to attack Israel.

North Korea has withdrawn from the NNPT (albeit a bit ambiguously), and is now the ninth nuclear power. A whole series of countries are in fact going down the same path as Iran, that is, augmenting the technical level of their nuclear processes. But the United States seems to think they are more “trustworthy” and is therefore not making a public scandal about it.

Everyone is lying through their teeth. Countries are not working to avoid a nuclear catastrophe. They are working to maintain and/or improve their geopolitical position vis-à-vis their presumed antagonists. Nobody wants a bomb in order to drop it on someone else. Everyone wants a bomb so that none will be dropped on them.

This is a total stalemate, and will continue to be one. It is in no country’s self-interest to make concessions. The world is therefore moving towards proliferation all over the place. Is this dangerous? Of course. Will it guarantee a catastrophe? This has a very low probability. Even one chance in a thousand, however, is one too much. But since nothing will change, we shall have no choice but to hope that the one chance in a thousand doesn’t occur before we all come to our senses. A de facto tacit accord not to use the bomb worked for the United States and the Soviet Union. It has worked for India and Pakistan. Why shouldn’t it continue to work with more nuclear powers in the game, which is now not only a game of seeking geopolitical advantage but also one of prestige and pride?