The problem with nuclear nonproliferation

(Ronald Zak/AP) (Ronald Zak/AP)

This is a guest post from Campbell Craig and Jan Ruzicka of the Department of International Politics at Aberystwyth University.

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Preventing the spread of nuclear weapons and seeking their eventual abolition have long been official objectives of the international community.  Who would not want to prevent more states from obtaining nuclear weapons?  Who would oppose the goal of a world free of them? These lofty ideals have given rise to a powerful institution, which we call in our new article the nonproliferation complex, a collection of international and governmental agencies, think tanks, and NGOs spanning from the IAEA to the Monterey Institute to the Pugwash conference.  Indeed, there are so many nonproliferation institutions now that new umbrella networks, like the EU Non-Proliferation Consortium, have recently formed.  Steady, generous funding comes from many governments and large foundations, making the further growth of the complex a good bet.

Like most institutions, the complex has come to privilege its own interests over the founding principles which guided those concerned with nuclear weapons in the 1950s and 1960s.  They aimed to prevent nuclear world war by twinning nonproliferation with general disarmament.  The complex has over the years, and especially since the end of the Cold War, hitched its wagon to the status quo policies advanced by the great nuclear powers, especially the United States.  By doing so, it has been able to secure lavish financial support and wield enviable influence.  But this has come at a price.  Its refusal to antagonize the nuclear “haves” has perverted the original mission, turning the founding principles into a regime dedicated only to stopping the spread of the bomb to nations opposed to the West.  And when a powerful international institution gets gamed, bad things eventually happen.

The invasion of Iraq in 2003 stands as example number one.  We do not wish to blame the war on the complex; the invasion might well have happened without it.  But the nonproliferation complex’s perpetual alarm about the dangers of proliferation provided the war’s architects with an unchallengeable justification for their adventures.  The Bush administration merely took the decade-long warnings about Iraq’s nuclear proliferation potential seriously and decided to, finally, do something radical about them.  Even those within the complex who opposed the war at the time, and there were not many, were caught in a trap of their own making:  how can you vociferously oppose a war when your own arguments are being used to justify it?  This trap has not gone away, and we will likely see it snap again.  Will it be Iran, North Korea, or somewhere else unforeseen?

Some might argue that an occasional mishap, even on such a tragic scale as the Iraq debacle, is simply the price that we (or rather they) have to pay for a stable international order.  Yet there are two deeper consequences.  First, the order is built on a massive hypocrisy.  The fact that none of the great nuclear powers has moved even nominally towards disarmament, and that they have indeed permitted several states to get the bomb, sends one message to the rest of the world: nonproliferation is a scam, and those who believe in it are fools.  While the architects of the Nonproliferation Treaty in the 1960s realized that a degree of temporary inequality was inevitable, their core argument was that the world could not endure nuclear anarchy forever.  Many nations and peoples agreed.  But after forty years of hypocrisy, few still take seriously the idea that permanent nuclear peace can be achieved by existing institutions.

A second consequence, therefore, of the complex’s domination of nuclear politics is its stifling of thinking about serious alternatives to the current nuclear order.  The complex has managed to craft the false notion that nuclear peace can be accomplished incrementally without requiring unusual forms of political action.  “Muddling through to nuclear disarmament” could be its motto.  But as many thinkers and politicians understood at the outset of the atomic age, the unique characteristics of nuclear weapons—they are small, easily hidden, and strategically decisive—make conventional forms of disarmament in a world of sovereign states impossible.  As such loony utopians as Henry Stimson, Niels Bohr, and Hans Morgenthau argued, unless we wish to accept an international order where nuclear weapons are available to all, a logical alternative articulated by Kenneth Waltz, but abhorred by most in the complex, we must start pondering the invention of a world government.

Such a solution might seem unrealistic and is certainly unfashionable.  But at least it provides a serious answer to the existential threat of nuclear destruction.  The complex has long abandoned that aim; indeed, by subordinating itself to great power interests and focusing only on selective nonproliferation, it has accepted the permanent nuclearization of international politics–precisely the outcome its founders were so determined to prevent.

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Erik Voeten · October 9, 2013