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Hurry Up Please It’s Time

According to Robert McNamara, quoted with approval by Joseph Cirincione in his invaluable new book, Bomb Scare: The History and Future of Nuclear Weapons, the continued possession of large nuclear arsenals by the US and its NATO allies is “insane…immoral, militarily unnecessary and destructive of the non-proliferation regime.” Mr. McNamara was referring to the failure of the original nuclear states to abide at this late date by their commitment under the Non-Proliferation Treaty negotiated in 1968 to agree to dispose of their nuclear weapons.

The former secretary of defense speaks with the vehemence of a reformed sinner while Cirincione, who has served as director for nonproliferation at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and on the professional staff of the House Armed Services Committee, writes as a seasoned Washington observer alert to the hazards of overstatement. His sobriety is both a virtue and a problem for his book, which ought to be read by everyone as a matter of life and death, is not one of those glib, one-theory-fits-all exercises that reside for months on best-seller lists but a tightly reasoned attempt to avert an avoidable apocalypse.

It is difficult, if not impossible,” he writes, “to convince other states to give up their nuclear weapons ambition or adhere to nonproliferation norms when immensely powerful nuclear weapons states reassert the importance of [these] weapons to their own security.” Thus there “is a real possibility…of a system-wide collapse of the nuclear nonproliferation regime. If this were to occur it could bring the world back to the brink of annihilation for the first time in some twenty years.”

To address this threat Cirincione outlines a series of steps that the original nuclear powers might take, of which the first and by far most urgent is to prevent terrorists and other nations from obtaining the bombs and components scattered throughout the vast, ramshackle nuclear facilities of the former Soviet Union, a process that has been underway in Russia with United States funding since the Soviet collapse. With additional funding, Cirincione writes, this all-important threat reduction program “could be accelerated to secure or eliminate the vast majority of nuclear weapons and materials by 2010.” The Harvard nonproliferation experts Matthew Bunn and Anthony Wier, however, observe that by the end of 2005, “just over 54 percent of the 230 buildings…containing weapons-usable nuclear material” had been made secure.1 The 2007 military budget, moreover, provides only $1.1 billion for this purpose while allocating $11 billion for missile defense and $60 billion for the Iraq war. Graham Allison, another Harvard nonproliferation expert, conjectures that a $10 billion crash program could secure the most vulnerable facilities in a hundred days if President Bush were so inclined.2

Cirincione also proposes a new system controlled by the International Atomic Energy Agency to guarantee a supply of nuclear fuel to countries that need it for civilian use, provided that they agree not to acquire the means to produce their own fuel—whether in the form of enriched uranium or plutonium. Thus Iran, for example, would no longer be able to pursue nuclear weapons under the guise of building uranium enrichment facilities for its civilian energy program.3 Less convincingly Cirincione argues that the emergence of new nuclear states might be prevented by intensive efforts to solve entrenched conflicts in such places as the Middle East and Central Asia. Israel, for example, might be convinced to shut down its nuclear program and turn its nuclear material over to the IAEA if all other states in the region agreed to do the same.

It is the tension between Mr. Cirincione’s rational proposals for multilateral nuclear disarmament and the irrational forces in opposition that lends his fine book an unexpected tragic dimension. Following the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, President Truman, joined by the British and Canadian prime ministers, proposed an international nuclear disarmament plan enforced by the new United Nations. Stalin’s rejection of this plan in late 1945 led to the first wave of nuclear proliferation. By 1949 the Soviets had tested their own bomb and by 1964 China, citing threats from the United States and its former ally, the Soviet Union, also had a bomb. According to Jaswant Singh, a former Indian foreign minister, “no responsible Indian leader could rule out the option of following suit.”

Once India detonated its “peaceful nuclear explosive” in 1974, Pakistan claimed it had no choice but to begin a weapons program of its own. “If India builds a bomb,” Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto said, “we will eat grass or leaves, even go hungry but we will get one of our own.” “As one state goes nuclear,” Cirincione writes, “another state is forced to do so and then another and another. In short ‘proliferation begets proliferation,’” as in the case of Iran’s putative effort to produce a bomb. The question raised tacitly by Cirincione is whether the reverse may also be true: that disarmament will beget disarmament.

A rapidly accelerating arms race led to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, “a mainstay of the international security system,” which entered into force in 1970 and was reaffirmed indefinitely in 1995 by 188 countries. Only India, Pakistan, and Israel have refused to sign, while North Korea has withdrawn. Under the treaty only the five states that already had nuclear weapons, the United States, Russia, Great Britain, France, and China, may own them but may not transfer them to other states while states without such weapons must agree not to seek or develop them. All parties to the treaty, however, may produce nuclear energy, a major loophole since the technology to produce nuclear fuel by enriching uranium can be adapted to make bombs. The treaty also calls upon the five nuclear powers to dismantle their arsenals under a future agreement calling for “general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.”

The treaty has been successful in limiting the spread of nuclear arms to only four states—India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea—in addition to the five original nuclear powers, and in providing inspectors to monitor nuclear programs. But the promised accord on general disarmament does not yet exist and as the original nuclear powers, especially the United States, continue to pursue new nuclear technologies, the treaty’s effectiveness becomes increasingly precarious.

There is enough fissile material in the world today for 300,000 bombs, Cirincione writes, “shared in ‘weapons usable form’ by some fifty countries.” More than thirty states now have at least one metric ton of this material. Forty states, according to the IAEA, can now build a nuclear weapon while the eight or nine nuclear states themselves still possess 27,000 bombs, nearly all held by the US and Russia, each bomb capable of destroying a city, and generating a vast cloud of nuclear poison. In 1991, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, senators Richard Lugar and Sam Nunn sponsored legislation to reduce nuclear stockpiles and prevent the spread of nuclear technology from the former Soviet facilities under the program for threat reduction mentioned above. Under the Nunn-Lugar legislation the number of weapons held by Russia and the United States will be reduced to about 19,000 warheads by 2007, far fewer than the 50,000 in 1980, but still enough to sustain Mr. McNamara’s diagnosis of insanity.4 Unless the treaty is enforced by all parties, still more states and nonaffiliated groups will feel free to follow the example of the original nuclear powers, rendering nonproliferation meaningless. The “brink of annihilation” will then have been reached or worse.

The example of India, Pakistan, Israel, North Korea, and now perhaps Iran suggests that neither persuasion nor threats by the major nuclear powers acting individually and often at cross-purposes with the others will prevent further proliferation and its highly probable result. This leaves only the shared interest of the major powers in their own survival as the basis for effective universal nuclear disarmament, but this cannot be contemplated much less achieved until these powers themselves overcome their differences, honor the NPT—especially Article Six which calls for general and complete nuclear disarmament under strict international control—and offer the other nations incentives to comply, including security guarantees.

This may seem a utopian solution, but there is no other, for in a multilateral nuclear environment effective deterrence, as Cirincione argues, is highly questionable, if not impossible, and there is and will be no defense. Should the major nuclear powers resolve to take such a démarche, the step-by-step disarmament process described by Cirincione provides a clear map of how it could be achieved. Far less complex technologically than a solution to the problem of global warming or the AIDS plague, universal nuclear disarmament requires only the willingness of the participants to preserve life on earth, including their own lives and those of their families and compatriots. In the case of nuclear disarmament, where there is a will, there is a way, but the converse is no less true. In 1981 George Kennan wrote that

we have [piled] weapon upon weapon, missile upon missile, new levels of destructiveness upon old ones…helplessly, almost involuntarily, like the victims of some sort of hypnotism, like men in a dream, like lemmings headed for the seas.

Cirincione, an optimist at heart, wants to awaken us short of the brink, but will we—can we—respond?

Today’s impending nuclear arms race echoes the frenzied militarization of a century ago when the European powers still had time to avert the senseless catastrophe that would soon befall their people, a catastrophe whose unforeseen consequences include, among others, the Bolshevik Revolution, Hitler, World War II, nuclear weaponry, the Holocaust, the cold war, and the unstable entity known as Iraq. Urgent disarmament proposals dismissed then as naive, impractical, blind, and so on must be seen in light of the madness that followed to have been the greatest wisdom. It was the sleepwalking war makers who proved to be naive, impractical, and blind as they led their countrymen into the abyss from which emerged the disasters of the twentieth century and beyond. The difference between then and now is that there may be no one left to render a similar retrospective judgment should the nuclear powers fail to disarm.

Without compliance under the Non-Proliferation Treaty the world faces a multilateral nuclear environment whose inherent instability will be greater by orders of magnitude than the fragile cold war truce whose near violation during the Cuban Missile Crisis was much on the minds of Reagan and Gorbachev when they hoped but failed to eliminate their suicidal weaponry twenty years ago at Reykjavik, joking bravely about throwing a party for the world when the last weapon was junked. Instead the world awaits what those leaders dreaded, a spark—the kidnapping of a girl named Helen, the murder of a trivial archduke in a minor country, the fantasies of ideologues, fools, and fanatics, of which recent history provides so many examples, to bring the history of our armed and dangerous warrior species to an end.

  1. 1

    Matthew Bunn and Anthony Wier, Securing the Bomb, 2006 (Project on Managing the Atom, Harvard University/Nuclear Threat Initiative, July 2006), p. 51; cited in Carl Robichaud, “Reversing the Spread of Nuclear Weapons” (Century Foundation, August 29, 2006), p. 4.

  2. 2

    Graham Allison, Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe (Times Books, 2004), p. 132, cited in Robichaud, “Reversing the Spread of Nuclear Weapons,” p. 5.

  3. 3

    Cirincione’s proposal is designed to address the problem that the equipment used to produce plutonium and enriched uranium for civilian energy programs can also be used to make nuclear weapons. His solution, which was first formulated by a group of American security experts and scientists in 2005 and is called the Assured Nuclear Fuel Services Initiative, would provide both kinds of fuel under IAEA control to countries that promise not to build their own facilities for producing them. Countries that already possess such facilities could also qualify, provided that they agree not to sell the technologies to countries that do not. As a further part of the agreement, nuclear waste from civilian energy reactors would be removed by the IAEA, thus eliminating the cumbersome problem for national governments of dealing with nuclear waste.

  4. 4

    Psychosis: any mental illness or disorder that is accompanied by hallucinations, delusions, or mental confusion and a loss of contact with external reality (Oxford English Dictionary).

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