The Magazine

Advice for the Nuclear Abolitionists

Yes, Ronald Reagan wanted to rid the world of nuclear weapons, but he was a stickler for verification.

May 12, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 33 • By GARY SCHMITT and HENRY SOKOLSKI
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In the old TV commercials for the E.F. Hutton brokerage firm, conversations would come to a screeching halt when someone dropped the Hutton name, and everyone would lean in to hear what E.F. Hutton was advising. The tagline: "When E.F. Hutton talks, people listen." The Washington version of this is now playing. In January 2007 and again this year, the Wall Street Journal published an article on its influential opinion page calling for the abolition of nuclear weapons. What is most remarkable about these two articles is their joint bylines: Sam Nunn, William Perry, George Shultz, and Henry Kissinger. Sam Nunn is a former chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Bill Perry was secretary of defense in the Clinton administration; both are men respected for their common sense and relatively hawkish approach to security affairs. And of course George Shultz and Henry Kissinger are former secretaries of state for presidents (Reagan, Ford, and Nixon) not known for seeing the world through rose-tinted glasses.

Given the authors' reputations, their recommendations will be taken seriously and could well become points of departure for a fundamental change in U.S. security policy when a new administration enters office next January. When Nunn, Perry, Shultz, and Kissinger talk, people listen. But are they listening as carefully as they should?

A road to zero?

The ultimate goal, Nunn and company argue, is to reach a world in which nuclear weapons no longer exist. Short of that, in the interim, there should be as few of these weapons as is possible. Unless the measures they outline to reach that goal are adopted, they conclude, we will live in a far more dangerous world, in which nuclear proliferation is the norm and a policy of nuclear deterrence may no longer be viable.

Nunn and company recommend several U.S.-Russian arms control undertakings. The Wall Street Journal pieces focused on proposals to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, extend key provisions of the START I (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) agreement of 1991, reduce tactical nuclear weapons deployments, and develop joint European theater missile defenses with Russia. All of these are primarily bilateral efforts between Moscow and Washington, designed to reduce the size and readiness of U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals and to manage the future of our strategic forces.

Much of what they recommend in this area is already declared U.S. and Russian policy. And what isn't--for example, turning the existing nuclear testing and military fissile production moratoriums into legally binding treaties--is judged to be unverifiable not only by arms control skeptics, but by the State Department's own Bureau of Verification, Compliance and Implementation. More to the point, the specific proposals to cap "vertical" proliferation (great powers expanding their existing arsenals) have little or nothing to do directly with the problem of "horizontal" proliferation (the spread of nuclear weapon technology to nonnuclear states). Yet it is the latter that is the key nuclear threat we now face.

Russian cooperation on nonproliferation, for example, has never been tied to its calculations about the strategic balance between the United States and itself. Nor is there evidence that reductions in nuclear weapon stockpiles on the part of Moscow and Washington have had a significant impact on the strategic desires of third countries, like North Korea or Iran, to acquire weapons or of countries, such as Libya, Ukraine, and South Africa, to reverse course and get out of the nuclear weapon business.

As for the argument that these measures might allow the United States to come to global nonproliferation issues from the moral high ground--having shown it is serious about reducing its own stock of nuclear weapons--the reality is that neither Russia nor China (let alone India, Pakistan, or Israel) is ever likely to give up its nuclear arsenal entirely. Any state that has conventional forces inferior to its key adversaries or possible competitors will view its nuclear capability as a strategic life insurance policy. Conversely, states such as Mexico, Egypt, and South Africa, are unlikely to be impressed with any arms control "progress" that falls short of total nuclear disarmament. Renewed efforts on the arms control front with Moscow may have benefits in bilateral relations, but creating substantial momentum on the global nonproliferation front is unlikely to be one of them.

Deterrence's end?

In their push for disarmament, Nunn and company appear to throw cold water on the future viability of nuclear deterrence. In their latest Wall Street Journal op-ed, for example, they remarked that the steps the United States and rest of the world are "taking now to address" the threat of proliferation "are not adequate to the danger. With nuclear weapons more widely available, deterrence is decreasingly effective and increasingly hazardous."

It certainly is true that the greater the number of nuclear weapons states, the more difficult it is to defend one's interests and guarantee the security of allies. And it is also true that we need to take nuclear proliferation more seriously and that the steps we have taken so far to reduce the threat are insufficient. Yet arguing that deterrence is "increasingly hazardous" for U.S. and allied security is at the least premature and at worst misleading. Few, for example, would argue that the United States should terminate existing nuclear security guarantees to Japan, South Korea, Australia, or NATO. And there is good reason: Doing so would only encourage more proliferation, among both friends and adversaries and increase the chances that serious disputes would escalate into war.

Nor is it the case that "superpower" arsenals have been a roadblock to addressing the danger of proliferation. Since the Cuban Missile Crisis, the United States has dramatically reduced the aggregate yield and number of deployed warheads in its nuclear arsenal. And today, few would question the desirability of continuing to follow the logic of military science, which through precision guidance and other revolutions in the fields of computation, sensors, and software is making America's and Russia's potential use of indiscriminate weapons, e.g., nuclear weapons, far less likely or necessary.

Over the last four decades, the United States and Russia have both heeded this logic; they have reduced their stockpiles, the yields of the weapons they retain, and the numbers deployed by more than three quarters. Beyond recommending the substitution of lower yield and nonnuclear weapons for existing nuclear bombs, this logic also allows us to secure arms understandings with the Russians and others to visibly reduce the world's reliance on nuclear weapons to maintain security. Where this can be done within reasonable bounds of verifiability--as in START and SORT, the strategic arms reduction treaty signed by Bush and Putin in 2002--we have done so. Where verification has been less certain--as in the comprehensive test ban treaty and the fissile material cutoff treaty, which would ban further production of uranium and plutonium for weapons--we have used mutual announcements of national policy to promote such efforts politically.

That said, America's nuclear guarantees still matter and have served to keep other states from going nuclear themselves. The problem is that with more nuclear or near-nuclear nations, the chances for war and strategic miscalculation increase, even with such nuclear guarantees. This suggests the need to think through the effective steps that can be taken to stem nuclear proliferation, rather than focusing on symbolic Cold War-style arms control measures or prematurely abandoning deterrent postures that have actually served the cause of nonproliferation.

Stemming proliferation?

The few proposals put forward by Nunn, Perry, Shultz, and Kissinger that are specifically tailored to address the problem of nuclear proliferation are likely to be ineffective or may actually compound the proliferation challenges we face. One such proposal is to adopt a treaty that would cut off the production of plutonium and other fissile material for military purposes. A fissile material cutoff treaty (FMCT) would permit any state that now has nuclear weapons to enrich uranium and reprocess plutonium so long as this activity served nonmilitary purposes and was internationally monitored. The goal would be to cap current stockpiles of fissile material being used by weapon states for military programs and, in turn, presumably lessen the possibility of leakage from either the civilian or military stockpile.

Unfortunately, whatever increase in safety one might gain by tightening controls over dedicated weapons material production, one loses in allowing fissile production for peaceful purposes, because it is impossible to ensure such programs remain "peaceful." There is no safeguards program that can reliably detect a covert weapons program, deter an abrupt diversion of civilian fuel production into a military program, or adequately account for what nuclear fuel plants produce.

But the more important problem from a nonproliferation point of view is that would-be nuclear states will use the FMCT framework to reassert their right under the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to have a fuel production cycle, as long as it is internationally monitored. And if monitored fuel production for "civilian" energy is legitimate for weapon states, why not for non-weapon states, as well? What's good for the goose is good for the gander, after all. Yet it isn't. It is this "right"--asserted by Iran, for example--to have a "peaceful" fuel production cycle that has caused the current nonproliferation crisis.

Perhaps to head off this outcome, a second proposal from Nunn and company would have the advanced nuclear countries provide "reliable supplies of nuclear fuel, reserves of enriched uranium, infrastructure assistance, financing, and spent fuel management" to any country so long as it opens up its nuclear energy program to international inspections. Here the idea would be to try to entice states not to exercise their right to make nuclear fuel by making it for them, and thus avoid the kind of problems we now confront with North Korea and Iran.

But if history is any guide, having a large civilian nuclear energy program (with or without a declared fuel production capability) has not precluded any state from dipping its fingers in the nuclear weapons jar. Civilian nuclear energy and nuclear research programs in countries that had no declared nuclear fuel-making plants, such as South Korea, Sweden, Taiwan, Israel, and Iraq all were accompanied by nuclear weapon-related activities. There is no reason to believe that once a state has the civilian nuclear infrastructure it needs, it will forgo examining the nuclear weapons options it wants, especially if it is their "right" to do so as an adjunct to developing "peaceful" nuclear energy. North Korea's example demonstrates that you can game the NPT, get the bomb, and even be rewarded for doing so.

The suggestion that nuclear states such as the United States or Russia might provide the fuel for countries that have not yet built or acquired reactors has captured the attention of a good number of Arab states--but probably not for the reason Nunn and his coauthors would hope. These states are worried about Iran and the reliability of the American security umbrella for the region; as a result, they have become increasingly interested in developing nuclear weapons options of their own. They also understand that the smartest way to accomplish this is to follow Iran's example of developing nuclear power for "peaceful" purposes, exploiting the duality of the technology, and getting as close to acquiring a weapon as they can in order to give themselves the option of "going nuclear" if they think it necessary.

To make matters worse, backers of such proposals (including Senator Hillary Clinton and President Bush) have insisted that the fuel be made available at "affordable" or "reasonable" prices. This really means at subsidized prices of course, which would have the effect of encouraging even more countries to go down the nuclear road and would further complicate nonproliferation efforts.

What should be done

A paramount goal of the U.S. government should be to see that our allies (and as much of the world as is possible) begin to interpret the Non-Proliferation Treaty correctly. Most nations, and unfortunately our own State Department, mistakenly interpret the NPT as recognizing and protecting a country's right to acquire all the technology and materials related to a nuclear energy program so long as it is declared to be for civilian use only and is open to monitoring by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). What this means in practice is that, should a country so desire, it can come within days of acquiring nuclear weapons under the guise of a "peaceful" nuclear program. So long as this view of the rights and obligations of the NPT goes unchallenged, "strengthening" the NPT as outlined by Nunn, Perry, Shultz, and Kissinger will only make it more difficult to fend off nations following the examples of North Korea and Iran.

Legally, historically, and technically, there is little to support the argument that the NPT recognizes or grants a state the right to any specific nuclear technology. Instead, there is ample evidence that only the development and sharing of nuclear materials and technology that are "beneficial" (i.e., economically viable), "peaceful" (i.e., non-weapons related), and "safeguarded" (capable of being monitored to detect diversions to bomb-making in a timely fashion) are protected under the treaty.

The NPT--it bears repeating--is a treaty to promote nonproliferation and the benefits of peaceful nuclear energy, not an accord to spread nuclear materials and activities for uneconomical programs or backdoor ways of acquiring nuclear weapons. What civilian nuclear energy materials and projects the NPT does support, moreover, must be "peaceful." That is, the activity and materials must not help a state acquire nuclear bombs and must be capable of being safeguarded. On all these points, the United States and other like-minded countries need to lay down clear diplomatic markers. Rather than agreeing with states like Iran that it has an unqualified right to develop any nuclear project so long as it has some conceivable civilian application and is occasionally inspected by the IAEA, Foggy Bottom needs to lead and argue otherwise.

Washington and our allies would also do well to learn the lessons of the last two decades and apply them. After the nuclear inspection gaffes in Iraq, Iran, and North Korea, we should have learned that we cannot reliably detect covert nuclear fuel-making activities. We should also have learned that declared nuclear fuel production programs, whether of uranium or plutonium, can all-too-quickly be diverted into making bombs.

A conference reviewing the NPT will be held in 2010. It is incumbent on Washington and whoever is then in the Oval Office to articulate these points in advance of the conference. To be sure, initially, these arguments may not persuade many nations. But any hope of establishing a more sensible and coherent reading of the nuclear proliferation rules will probably depend on leadership from Washington.

A second goal would be to enhance IAEA safeguards with additional funding and authority and, most important, to get the agency to speak more candidly about what nuclear materials and activities it can and cannot reliably safeguard against military diversions. The key assumptions behind the current IAEA nuclear safeguards system were made nearly 40 years ago and need updating. These assumptions include how much time it takes a country to make a bomb from various nuclear materials, how much nuclear material is needed to make a bomb, and how frequently the IAEA needs to inspect various nuclear sites in order to detect possible military diversions. In the past, IAEA inspections erred on the side of laxity, so as not to hinder the progress of nuclear power. Now, they need to be recalibrated in light of what we have learned about the increased dangers of proliferation.

It is imperative therefore that the IAEA's Department of Safeguards budget be significantly increased to enhance known safeguards techniques that work and to help develop others that might. The IAEA will not be able to undertake more aggressive inspection efforts unless it is adequately funded. More should be spent on staffing and training, wide area surveillance, near-real time surveillance, staff retention, imagery, and environmental sampling analysis. The IAEA's director general has raised the possibility of assessing a user fee on countries with civilian nuclear industries, proportional to the generating capacity of their plants. This would be the most equitable way to pay for the needed inspections. If the board refuses to adopt such reforms, it should be seen for what it is--a denial of the real problems facing the IAEA and a demonstration of lack of seriousness when it comes to addressing the agency's core tasks.

The U.S. government and like-minded states should also establish "country-neutral" enforcement measures to be imposed on states that cannot be shown to be in full compliance with their nonproliferation obligations, as well as on those found to be noncompliant. Rather than placing the burden on the IAEA Board of Governors or the U.N. Security Council to reach a consensus on what sanctions or new burdens to put in place with respect to the offending states, a predetermined list of sanctions should be put in place to be applied automatically until there is a consensus among the members of these bodies that the violating or suspect state has taken adequate remedial actions.

Finally, there is a pressing need to slow the spread of nuclear programs that, on their face, make no sense economically. France, the United States, and the IAEA have all quietly noted that nuclear power programs only make sense for nations with a large electrical grid, a major nuclear regulatory and science infrastructure, and proper financing. American officials rightly noted the absurd economic assumptions behind Iran's building of the Bushehr reactor, as well as its nuclear fuel-making plant at Natanz, when compared with the possibility of developing Iran's natural gas resources. Even in the United States, banks are still divided over whether to invest heavily in new nuclear power construction here, believing they need to secure more government guarantees and subsidies for projects to be viable economically. Similar discussions and analysis have taken place in Europe.

Economic judgments and criteria, in short, are already being used by governments, private firms, and institutions in judging the merits of proposed nuclear projects. In order to project the costs of these projects more honestly--and to compare them with nonnuclear alternatives--a good place to start would be to back the principles contained in the Energy Charter Treaty and the Charter for Sustainable Energy Development. In concert, these international agreements encourage countries--including the United States, Russia, China, France, and Great Britain--to open their energy sectors to fair competition and to state the full real price of any energy option.

Would a market-fortified nonproliferation regime of this sort eliminate the problems already posed by a nuclear-ready Iran or a nuclear-armed North Korea? Unfortunately, the answer is no. Those problems can now only be dealt with by military, economic, and diplomatic pressure. But a market-fortified system as suggested above would help prevent Iran's and North Korea's patently uneconomic ploys from becoming the accepted international playbook for countries with nuclear ambitions. It should not be acceptable for countries with ready access to cheaper sources of energy such as natural gas to do an end run around the NPT by professing an earnest desire to engage in peaceful nuclear power development.

The ghost of Reagan

Sam Nunn, William Perry, George Shultz, and Henry Kissinger are hardly woolly-headed pacifists. They are men of extensive experience and well-founded reputations. Nevertheless, they are also aware that many of their recommendations are likely to be seen as resurrecting some of the disarmament community's most controversial proposals. To head off that charge, they remind readers that it was Ronald Reagan, the hawk's hawk, who "called for the abolishment of 'all nuclear weapons,' " which he considered to be "totally irrational, totally inhumane, good for nothing but killing, possibly destructive of life on earth and civilization." And then they ask what it will "take to rekindle" Reagan's vision, implying that what they have put forward is in fact an answer to that question.

But to claim fulfillment of Reagan's vision on behalf of their proposals would be a serious stretch. Although Reagan did favor the eventual abolition of nuclear weapons, he made the very real-world judgment at the Reykjavik Summit not to make that his administration's policy, because he recognized a distinction between what he could accomplish and what was beyond his reach. He never let his hopes outpace his judgment.

In particular, Reagan was a stickler for verification. Yet, several of the proposals put forward by Nunn and company--the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and the fissile material cutoff treaty, for two examples--are difficult if not impossible to verify. In addition, Reagan trusted the market and would not have supported government subsidies unless they clearly enhanced a country's security. When it came to proliferation specifically, Reagan was more than willing to call on other nations to show restraint in the sharing of technologies that could threaten the United States, its friends, and the world--hence his leadership in promoting the Missile Technology Control Regime. Finally, Ronald Reagan was a "strict constructionist" when it came to legal obligations. If there were two ways to interpret an international law and one provided for greater protection of U.S. interests and international security than the other, he would certainly favor the former.

In short, if Ronald Reagan were alive today, it is far from clear that he would sign on to the agenda being put forward by his former secretary of state and his distinguished associates. He might praise their vision, but he would likely question the effectiveness of their proposals in actually tackling the problem of nuclear proliferation. The approach sketched here is more in keeping with the spirit of Reagan the actual policymaker and, while perhaps less visionary, more likely, we think, to slow the spread of nuclear weapons.

Henry Sokolski is executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center. Gary Schmitt is director of the program on advanced strategic studies at the American Enterprise Institute.