Nuclear Transformations

Earlier this week another of the Bush administration hawks fairly quietly left the State Department, apparently upset at the deal the administration struck with North Korea. Robert Joseph occupied a "special perch" in the administration, according to David Sanger in the New York Times. And now – like Paul Wolfowitz (the architect pushed upstairs to the World Bank – shades of Vietnam), Stephen Cambone, Douglas Feith, Scooter Libby, John Bolton, and Donald Rumsfeld – he is gone.

Joseph is credited with being the architect of the administration’s strategy for nuclear counter-proliferation, devising the plan to take the U.S. out of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, working feverishly behind the scenes to get Libya to give up its nuclear weapons program, and creating (as Sanger put it) "a loose consortium of nations, now numbering more than 80, committed to intercepting illicit weapons at sea, in the air or on land."

Joseph reportedly told colleagues he simply couldn’t abide the agreement with North Korea that, in his view, does not require the Hermit Kingdom to give up the weapons it has already produced. "The approach I would have endorsed was to continue to put pressure on the regime," he told Sanger. Like other hawks and neocons he perceives the administration as having lost its moorings, partly because it is so focused on Iraq that it doesn’t seem to have the concentration needed to remake key parts of the rest of the world, as it proclaimed was its mission in Dubya’s first term.

He may be right, or at least partially right. But that might not be such a bad thing.

If you view things from a reasonably long perspective, the administration’s, and the West’s, approach to nuclear proliferation does seem to have changed a bit. Whether or not North Korea got what it may have wanted from its testing of an apparent nuclear weapon last year – more recognition and attention, and particularly one-on-one meetings with people from the United States – and will feel little need to produce more, it does appear that the aggressive, pressure-oriented approach to regimes like North Korea has been shelved in favor of something resembling diplomacy.

This is quite a switch. When the United States dropped nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, it launched a potentially new era in warfare, one in which a single bomb could destroy an entire city. Other countries raced to catch up. The Soviet Union tested its first nuclear weapon in 1949 and soon built a formidable arsenal. Great Britain had nukes by about 1952, France had its "force de frappe" by around 1960, and China had them by 1964. Israel almost certainly had them a few years later, although its bombs are still unacknowledged except by slips of the tongue.

During the Cold War, and especially after the Cuban missile crisis the focus was on negotiating frameworks that would minimize the chances of an accidental discharge. It took a considerable investment of resources and technology to produce a nuclear weapon in the 1950s, but over time the requirements became modestly more modest. So in addition to worrying about preventing an accidental use, the nuclear club focused on making sure no other countries joined the exclusive club.

There was always an element of cartelization about various nonproliferation regimes – a sense that those who had nukes wanted to make sure they continued to monopolize them, using the language of peace and safety to make sure no nasty little upstarts would be allowed to join the club. To be sure, some of the fear about second-tier nations who might not have the resources to provide absolute security around nuclear installations might have been justified, but there was also an attitude that these weapons should be reserved only for certified great powers, assuring that the second-tier powers remained second-tier.

Nonetheless, during the 1970s a number of second-tier powers, including South Korea, South Africa, Iraq, Iran under the Shah, India and Pakistan began nuclear development programs almost certainly aimed at weapons during the 1970s. The U.S. stopped South Korea’s program by threatening to leave the peninsula and leave South Korea theoretically vulnerable to an attack from North Korea. Israel ended Iraq’s program with an air strike in 1981. South Africa developed a few nukes but gave them up after the apartheid regime was ousted.

India and Pakistan, however, continued their nuclear programs and it likely that India had at least the ability to build a bomb in the late 1970s and Pakistan did as well by sometime in the 1980s.

The collapse of the Soviet Union marked an end to the era in which two generally antagonistic powers had the bulk of the world’s nuclear weapons but were deterred from using them by the de facto concept of Mutual Assured Destruction. The era of a dominant superpower alongside any number of regimes that either had or could acquire nuclear weapons – especially off the shelf from corrupt scientists or officials in the deteriorating former Soviet Union – was a new experience. The instinct among the great and near-great powers was to be even more concerned about nuclear proliferation, and the U.S. subsidized the destruction of much of the former Soviet Union’s stockpile.

Everybody still claimed to believe in nuclear nonproliferation, but in an international system that was no longer bipolar it was less than clear just how to accomplish it. The UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) could conduct inspections in Iraq after the first Gulf War, and in Iran. But the situation was more fluid than it had been during the Cold War.

In the midst of this uncertainty North Korea stepped up its nuclear program in the 1980s and probably had a rudimentary device by the early 1990s. This led to a "crisis" that led the United States, which was extremely fearful of nuclear proliferation of any kind, to negotiate until the Clinton administration got 1994’s Agreed Framework. The U.S. led Pyongyang to believe that it was so opposed to North Korea getting a usable weapon that testing a weapon was a Rubicon that would likely lead to a military attack on North Korea.

Neither side lived up to the agreements in the Agreed Framework, just one of the times when North Korea noticed that the only way it seemed to be able to get the attention of the United States was by posing a threat – but not so big a threat as to cross the line by testing a weapon. So North Korea resumed a clandestine nuclear development program.

They couldn’t help but notice that in 1998, when India and Pakistan elbowed their way into the nuclear club by testing weapons, after a flurry of concern and international tut-tutting, pretty much nothing was done beyond imposing a few sanctions. Neither Pakistan nor India was seriously isolated by the vaunted "international community."

After 9/11, in fact, the United States decided it had to have close relations with Pakistan. And with the Cold War over, the U.S. viewed India differently, not as a formally non-aligned nation with potentially dangerous leftist or even quasi-communist leanings that bore careful watching, but as a large democracy undergoing economic renewal that could serve as a counterbalance to an emerging and economically developing China. So the United States tolerated both the Pakistani and Indian nuclear weapons, and on March 2 of this year President Bush signed the U.S.-India Peaceful Atomic Energy Cooperation Act, which gives India access to nuclear technology from the Nuclear Suppliers Group, despite the fact the India is not part of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

Hmmm, people in Pyongyang must have thought. If India and Pakistan can join the nuclear club and be accepted rather than attacked or expelled, how serious is U.S. and European commitment to nonproliferation? They tested that seriousness in July by firing a few missiles into the sea. When the response was strongly worded condemnation but no substantive action, they went ahead and did an underground test of a probably rudimentary and perhaps not fully functioning nuclear weapon in October. The response to that was again strongly worded condemnation. It’s almost impossible to know whether it was a big impetus to eventual direct talks between the U.S. and North Korea (which Pyongyang has wanted for decades) that were ratified in six-party agreements that so upset Robert Joseph, but the bomb test probably played a role.

Thus the U.S., while still officially proclaiming its allegiance to nonproliferation regimes drawn up during the Cold War has essentially acquiesced in India, Pakistan and North Korea joining the nuclear club. The U.S. is not alone in this revised view of things. Germany has effectively let it be known that it expects to have to live in a world where Iran has nuclear arms.

Why this new attitude? It’s partly because of a second development, the shredding of the concept of a nuclear umbrella. During the Cold War many doubted whether the United States would actually use nuclear weapons to prevent a Soviet attack on Western Europe. But that threat was out there, in part because in a world of two antagonistic superpowers a regional conflict could easily become a global conflict, and the U.S. just might use nukes to prevent that happening.

In a less bipolar world, however, the threat implied by a nuclear umbrella is much less credible. Would the U.S. really risk a nuclear exchange over South Korea, for example, if a North-South conflict could be viewed as regional rather than potentially global? Would the U.S. do a preventive attack on North Korea when the North could obliterate much of Seoul with conventional artillery arrayed along the 38th parallel?

For that matter, would the U.S. use nukes to protect Japan or Taiwan from a possible mainland Chinese attack or threat? You may be sure that they are discussing this in Tokyo and Taipei and quietly weighing the costs and benefits of going nuclear themselves.

In a multipolar world with a distracted (by Iraq) and distractable superpower, then, the new reality is that the only way to prevent other countries who are genuinely determined from acquiring nuclear weapons is to risk the possibility of a nuclear exchange. And however much it might pain Robert Joseph and other hawks, the United States, even under George W. Bush, is not willing to risk this.

For reasons I’ve elucidated previously, such a situation frightens me much less than having U.S. policy dominated by people who seem to relish taking such risks.

Author: Alan Bock

Get Alan Bock's Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press, 2000). Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).