We Need a New Deterrent
"Present at the Creation" was the title Dean Acheson gave to his memoir about the founding of the post-World War II order. Now, with North Korea claiming to have tested a nuclear weapon in defiance of the international community, and Iran seemingly on the way, Harvard professor Graham Allison argues that we are present at the unraveling.
The North Korean bomb test is a seismic event for the world community. It tells us that the structure created to maintain global security is failing. The five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council -- the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France -- all warned North Korea against taking this step. Yet the leaders in Pyongyang ignored these signals and in the process blew open the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
The North Korean leadership, puny in everything but weapons technology, has been marching toward this moment since the 1950s. It's unrealistic to think that, having brazened their way to detonating what they say is a nuclear bomb, the North Koreans will now give it up. The proliferation machine isn't going to run in reverse. In that sense, the question is less how to repair the old architecture of nonproliferation -- practically speaking, it's a wreck -- and more how to build a new structure that can stop the worst threats.
What are the right cornerstones of this new security structure? I put that question to Allison, who is a national resource when it comes to matters of nuclear proliferation and deterrence. He wrote the definitive book, "Essence of Decision," on the Cuban missile crisis, the world's closest brush with all-out nuclear war. In recent years he has been studying the danger of nuclear terrorism, and he edited a prescient discussion of the implications of a North Korean breakout that appears in the September issue of the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science.
Allison believes that the world must focus on what he calls "the principle of nuclear accountability." The biggest danger posed by North Korea isn't that it would launch a nuclear missile but that this desperately poor country would sell a bomb to al-Qaeda or another terrorist group. Accountability, in Allison's terms, means that if a bomb explodes in Manhattan that contains North Korean fissile material, the United States will act as if the strike came from North Korea itself -- and retaliate accordingly, with devastating force. To make this accountability principle work, the United States needs a crash program to create the "nuclear forensics" that can identify the signature of fissile material of every potential nuclear state. Arms control expert Robert Gallucci describes this approach as "expanded deterrence" in his article in the September Annals.
President Bush seemed to be drawing this red line of accountability when he warned Monday: "The transfer of nuclear weapons or material by North Korea to states or non-state entities would be considered a grave threat to the United States, and we would hold North Korea fully accountable for the consequences of such action."
Tough words, but are they credible? That's why the second essential pillar of a new security regime is a restoration of deterrence. The Bush administration warned North Korea over and over that it would face severe consequences if it tested a nuclear weapon. So did China and Russia, but Kim Jong Il went ahead anyway. Iranian leaders are similarly unimpressed by Bush's saber rattling, viewing America as a weakened nation bogged down by an unwinnable war in Iraq. To restore deterrence, the West needs to stop making threats it can't carry out. And the United States must salvage its strategic position in Iraq -- either by winning or organizing the most stable plan for withdrawal.
After the Cuban missile crisis, President John F. Kennedy got serious about preventing nuclear war. He installed a "hotline" so the White House and the Kremlin could talk when crises arose; he negotiated the 1963 test ban treaty; and he began the discussions that led to the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty. That treaty worked adequately for almost four decades. Instead of the 20 nuclear states that Kennedy feared would exist by 1975, we had just eight, until last weekend. But the North Korean test threatens to begin what a 2004 U.N. commission warned would be "a cascade of proliferation" that could spread to Japan, South Korea, Iran, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
We are present at the unraveling. We must "think about the unthinkable" with new urgency. The United States and its allies must begin constructing a system that can succeed where the Non-Proliferation Treaty has failed. A terrorist nuclear bomb in Manhattan or Washington isn't a thriller writer's fantasy; it's a probability, unless America and its allies establish new rules for nuclear accountability that are clear and credible.