The Nuclear Threat

In response to:

The Nuclear Threat: A Proposal from the June 27, 1991 issue

To the Editors:

Hans Bethe, Kurt Gottfried and Robert McNamara address the question of future nuclear policy, and stress two dangers: one arising from the excessive stockpiles of nuclear weapons in the possession of the superpowers, in particular of the Soviet Union, and the other from proliferation. Their proposal to negotiate the reduction of these stocks to a minimum deterrent of perhaps 1,000 warheads each is aimed mainly at the first danger, and it deserves the strongest support.

However, the authors also claim that their proposal, coupled with a strengthening of the inspection regime of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) could also lead to an elimination of the second danger. This seems to me based on wishful thinking. It is true that the present enormous arsenals are an obstacle to non-proliferation; indeed the NPT includes a clause requiring the nuclear powers to cease the arms race and to negotiate arms reductions. Their failure to do so is serving as an excuse for some countries not joining the treaty.

While therefore a drastic reduction of stockpiles by the nuclear powers would remove an impediment to eliminating nuclear proliferation, it will not achieve this by itself. It will not eliminate India’s fear of Chinese nuclear attack (even with reduced numbers of weapons) or Pakistan’s fear of Indian nuclear weapons. It will not dampen the adventurous spirit of dictators like Saddam Hussein to work clandestinely on some nuclear projects. Improved inspection may (perhaps) help to discover breaches of the NPT, but the treaty has no teeth; there are no penalties for violations. There is also no mechanism for inducing countries who have not signed the treaty to do so.

What can be done? I have no solution to the proliferation problem to put forward, but it seems evident that such a solution must involve some interference in the internal affairs of states. This conflicts with the UN Charter; respect for national sovereignty is firmly embedded in international policies. But its restriction may be necessary to avert a greater danger to international security. Besides, it is already happening to some degree. One example is the present position of Iraq, which after losing a war and still under the effect of sanctions gives the UN the leverage to take action beyond what would normally be authorised under the NPT. Another example, though not related to nuclear weapons, is the recent threat by the European Community to withhold aid from Yugoslavia unless the country accepted mediation. Such interference has wide approval.

Clearly there are great problems in providing for such action on a broader basis, and in reducing the risk of misuse. The present time, when most of the world’s most powerful nations are in agreement on many basic issues, might offer a chance of making progress.

The intention of this letter is not to detract from the appeal of the authors’ proposal, but to point out that other, equally drastic, ideas must be found before both dangers from nuclear weapons are eliminated.

Rudolf Peierls
Nuclear Physics Laboratory
Oxford University
Oxford, England

Hans Bethe, Kurt Gottfried, and Robert McNamara reply:

We agree with Sir Rudolf Peierls’s view that deep reductions by the nuclear powers will not, by themselves, stop nuclear proliferation. For precisely this reason we wrote “the barrier to proliferation…can be maintained for the long term only if the international community creates increasingly credible and enforceable guarantees against aggression for all states….” This would, as Peierls points out, require “some interference in the internal affairs of states.” How this Gordian Knot is to be cut was, we admit, not addressed by us.

On the other hand, we are more optimistic than Peierls seems to be. Rogue regimes, like Iraq’s, at bottom pose only a regional and not a global security threat, and are likely to be swatted down by the international community. The greatest risk from proliferation comes from states that believe that their real security concerns can be solved only by “going nuclear.” India and Pakistan seem to illustrate this syndrome.

However, according to knowledgeable observers, public and even elite opinion in India might well be swayed if the United States and the Soviet Union were to make deep cuts; and if all nuclear powers (and especially China) were to submit to rigorous inspections like the non-nuclear signatories of the Non-Proliferation Treaty and to agree to the Comprehensive Test Ban—in short, if they adopted the regime that we advocate. Should India follow the example of South Africa, Pakistan would, we believe, have to follow suit if it were given adequate security guarantees.

As to Professor Miller’s informative letter, we were aware that the IAEA apparently had the authority to carry out “special inspections,” but at the time this article went to press no such inspections had, to our knowledge, been performed. We too hope that an important precedent has been set by the UN actions in Iraq. At the same time, it is distressing that Iraq had, apparently, succeeded in hiding a large-scale electromagnetic separation facility from US intelligence, and that it took a war to discover it. This adds force to Professor Peierls’s arguments.