To proliferate or not?

One of the central questions debated among nuclear policy thinkers- perhaps the central question- is whether the world will be a safer place by allowing a little nuclear proliferation or by aiming for complete disarmament. This is essentially a debate between realists and idealists the way I see it. The idealist approach is not wrong. But the realist approach may be more feasible.

The realists say that nuclear weapons are here to stay. But they put great faith in the concept of deterrence and contend that if every nation in the world has a few nuclear weapons, all of them will be deterred and the threat of nuclear war will actually reduce. The realists also think that the potential threat from nuclear weapons can also limit the extent of conventional warfare.

The realist way of thinking is not new. After the Second World War, Robert Oppenheimer, AEC Chairman David Lilienthal and Secretary of State Dean Acheson convened meetings to discuss and propose a daring plan called the Acheson-Lilienthal plan. Their report started out by saying that nuclear technology can be obtained and used by anyone, no matter how much the United States would like to think of it as a secret. In such a scenario, it is better to provide the know-how to states and then have an international body keeping an official watch on these states so that such a situation is much safer than states developing such technology clandestinely. The existence of an international nuclear energy watchdog who kept a check on all states was key to the proposal.

The plan looked radical then; it would unfortunately be viewed as radical now. Naturally given the antagonistic political atmosphere of the times, the plan was not accepted without a great deal of modification by the administration and not surprisingly, promptly rejected by the Soviets.

The idealist way of thinking says that no matter if the realistic position works to some extent, it has fundamental flaws. The first flaw is that even if the probability of a nuclear war is extremely low, what if a madman decides to use his weapons? The very existence of nuclear weapons means that we will have to face the consequences of them being used, even if the probability of such a use is low. Secondly, the distribution of nuclear weapons does not exactly solve the problem, but pushes it under the rug. The peace such a situation entails can only be an uncertain, strained peace.

I have always been in two minds when it comes to this debate. I agree to a large extent that nuclear weapons are here to stay, and that it better to have an states possess them and then have an international body keep an official watch on them, rather than to have states clandestinely develop them. Right now, about 30 countries have the material and technology to build a crude nuclear bomb virtually with their bare hands. This knowledge cannot be taken away from them. I also think the realist position is strengthened by the existence of something that the original realists did not have to consider- nuclear terrorism. In the light of this plausible catastrophe, it becomes even more important to stop states from developing nuclear technology clandestinely and passing it to terrorists. We have seen several instances of such proliferation involving Iran, North Korea and especially Pakistan. Pakistani scientists have been known to have briefed Osama Bin Laden and Ayman Al-Zawahiri on WMDs. A. Q. Khan’s nuclear black market is well-known. From the realist point of view, it is far better to have nuclear material accounted for and officially distributed and tracked to stop it from falling into terrorist hands. The problem with the realist plan is that it depends on an unbiased system of international cooperation where countries don’t browbeat or lobby the international body to advance their interests. As we know from the examples of the UN and the IAEA, this seldom happens and more often than not such a policy results in the existence of certain nations who wield even bigger influence than the international body on key matters. Realism will also, just like the idealistic scenario described below, need the US and Russia to largely dismantle their nuclear fleet to level the playing field.

On the other hand, the idealistic position if it can be realised sounds blissful indeed. A world free of nuclear weapons. The idealists have a point when they say that only a world free of these weapons would have gotten completely rid of the possibility of them being used, no matter how small. Also, the idealistic scenario is not completely idealistic. After all, many countries have renounced their nuclear programs for various reasons. They have felt comfortable with their conventional forces, have decided to send out positive messages to other nations, have prospered in trade with nations that otherwise would not trade with them, and have obtained reassurances that the nuclear powers will help them out in case of an imagined emergency. The idealistic position seems to call the realistic position of assuming that nuclear weapons are going to be inevitable into serious doubt. The idealistic position also seems to minimize the risk of nuclear terrorism.

For the idealist position to succeed, many problems would have to be solved. Treaties, viewed as unrealistic by many and condescendingly rejected by others, will have to be enforced. Countries will have to become much more cooperative. The illusion that only by having more nuclear weapons than your neighbor would make you safe needs to disappear. Most importantly, the two countries which have the largest numbers of weapons, the US and Russia, need to start on an expedited program of dismantling them. This program needs to have the urgency of the arms reductions programs in the late 80s. Such programs should aim to bring down the number of weapons on each side to perhaps a thousand, a goal that seems very far from the tens of thousands of weapons currently in their arsenals.

But the idealist position is on the table precisely because for many it does not sound idealistic. Former Secretary of State George Schulz and Senator Sam Nunn are drafting a radical proposal, perhaps similar to the Acheson-Lilienthal plan, to rid the world of nuclear weapons. The proposal necessarily needs to have a crash program for reducing US and Russian arsenals down in a few years. Then only will it gain enough weightage to dictate what to do in the rest of the world.

In the short term, the realist proposal seems to be feasible. Unfortunately, it will completely defeat the idealistic proposal of having a weapons-free world. I wish we could in fact implement the idealist plan. It might even be feasible to a limited sense. I think events in the next few years will dictate if it seems feasible or not. As of now, I am leaning more towards the realistic plan. In any case, international cooperation will be necessary, and the discussion of conditions for this to happen goes much beyond the limited issue of nuclear proliferation.

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