Nuclear Proliferation – What If…

No. 263 - August 15, 2009

At least since the 1990s, if not longer, a major and very public concern of the United States (and to a slightly lesser extent western Europe) has been the prospect of North Korea remaining and Iran becoming a nuclear power.

The only serious debate within the U.S. government has been on the tactics to use to achieve the objective of stripping both countries of any potential to be nuclear powers. The hard-liners have argued that both regimes are dissembling, have always been dissembling, and fully intend to achieve the objective of becoming established nuclear powers. This group has therefore advocated the use, sooner rather than later, of hard action against the regimes – if necessary military action.

Their internal opponents have argued for attempting a more diplomatic approach. They have emphasized the need to get other major powers to be in accord with U.S. pressures. In the end, this has meant getting China and Russia to agree to their diplomatic moves. This group has however always said that, if this were to fail, they could not rule out the ultimate use of military power.

The diplomatic camp has been able for twenty years to hold off the hard-liners, even during the presidency of George W. Bush. This is so for several reasons. The other powers – both on the one hand the close allies of the United States (western Europe and to a lesser extent Japan) and on the other hand Russia and China – have dragged their feet about the use of military force. So, in point of fact, have most of the U.S. military. The only non-U.S. unremitting voice in favor of the military option has been Israel (in the case of Iran).

What can be said after twenty years of the diplomatic tactic is that it hasn’t been noticeably successful in getting either North Korea or Iran to agree to what the United States has been demanding. The hard-liners constantly point this out.

I have a fantasy. Let us play what scientists call a mental experiment. Suppose that the United States just dropped the issue, and made no further attempt to stop either North Korea or Iran from becoming an established nuclear power. Suppose the United States also made it clear to other powers – close allies or not – that they would not collude in or tolerate military action on their part. This of course means primarily Israel. What would then happen?

To answer that, we have to analyze the presently-predicted consequences of those who are insisting on the renunciation of nuclear power by North Korea and Iran. There are a number of different scenarios that have been put forth. (1) These two countries would threaten and intimidate their neighbors with these weapons. They might actually use them. (2) These countries would sell their technology to other countries. Worse still, they might sell it to non-state actors (for example, al-Qaeda). (3) If these countries become established nuclear powers, other countries will seek to follow suit. (4) The more countries that have nuclear weapons, the more likely accidents might happen. (5) The more countries that have nuclear weapons, the less likely there is to be any worldwide reduction of the present nuclear weapon stockpile.

None of these presumed consequences stands up very well under close scrutiny. North Korea has been threatening South Korea for some fifty years. Why would having a nuclear weapon or two make any real difference? The only countries Iran has ever threatened have been Iraq and Israel. In the case of Iraq, is an attack on an Iraq politically dominated by Shi’ite politicians really plausible? As to Israel, why would Iran bomb Israel and wipe out uncounted millions of Palestinians, knowing full well that Israel would retaliate, and wipe out millions of Iranians? To fear either of these scenarios is to presume that the present and future leadership of both these countries are totally irrational. Nothing they have done in the past gives any credence to this kind of assumption.

Would these countries sell their bombs and technology to other countries and, even worse, to non-state actors? Well, let’s see. North Korea has done something of this sort. So has Pakistan. So have various actors in western Europe and the United States. If anything, state control over such actions seems to me tighter in North Korea and Iran than in most of the rest of the world’s nuclear powers.

Would other countries follow suit? Of course. They are preparing to do so in any event. Does the United States seriously think it can hold on to a quasi-monopoly of nuclear weapons? It was unable historically to stop Russia, France, China, Israel, India, and Pakistan from acquiring nuclear capacity. Why do we expect it to do better with Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Iraq, Egypt, Turkey, South Africa, Sweden, Italy, Spain, Brazil, Argentina, or Canada? The very question indicates the absurdity of the expectation. In twenty years they will all have nuclear weapons.

May accidents happen? Of course. This is already a great possibility. Either true accidents or rogue military are very much to be feared – everywhere, and starting with the United States.

Will this slow down the reduction of nuclear weapons among those already holding them? There hasn’t been much progress along these lines up to now. If anything, further proliferation might speed up disarmament.

As I said, this is a fantasy. The political likelihood of the United States simply shrugging its shoulders on this question is probably zero. Why is everyone so agitated? For one simple reason: acquisition of nuclear weapons by anyone does change the geopolitical balance. That’s why everyone wants nuclear weapons. That’s why no one wants anyone else to have them. So, those who have them threaten those who don’t. If we’re worried about accidents, we should be looking first of all at the countries who presently have nuclear weapons.