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Security First Forum: America’s Core Interest in Non-Proliferation

Author: Charles D. Ferguson, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Science and Technology
October 11, 2007
National Interest


Ted Galen Carpenter, Amitai Etzioni and John Mueller have jump started a long-needed debate about our national interest in preventing nuclear terrorism and proliferation. While all have raised some important points in their essays, I am concerned that the nation has lost sight of core interests in addressing nuclear threats. The debate has also obfuscated some basic concepts, especially what terrorist groups can possibly do versus what they cannot do in the realm of nuclear terrorism.

First, a core national interest should be to prevent nuclear attack against the United States and its friends and allies. Should this be the central organizing principle of the United States? While placing this priority on the highest pedestal is debatable, what should be a nonpartisan issue is that preventing such an attack should be a top priority.

Will there be competing interests? Yes, at times there will be. But U.S. policymakers should always ask themselves if differing priorities could lead to the unintended consequence of America or its friends and allies becoming less secure against nuclear attack. For example, the recent U.S.-India nuclear deal offers a partnership between the world’s oldest democracy and the world’s largest democracy. It also provides, according to its supporters, greater opportunities for commerce—especially between the world’s richest nation and the world’s second most populous country, which has an expanding middle class eager for goods and the good life.

But has the greater good been shortchanged for a greater risk of nuclear conflict in South Asia? In the deal, New Delhi has not accepted any real checks on the growth of its nuclear arsenal. In fact, the deal would allow India to free up scarce indigenous uranium resources for its weapons program. In response, Pakistan, of course, has acted to protect its national interests by stepping up its plutonium production capabilities. Immediately after the U.S. House of Representatives nodded its approval in July 2006 for the deal, the press reported on Pakistan’s newest weapons-grade plutonium production plant, which the Bush administration had known about prior to the press reports. Based on these events, an unintended consequence of the deal is to stoke a nuclear arms race in South Asia. Thus, two of America’s allies, India and Pakistan, could become less secure. Perhaps the presence of more nuclear arms in that region would lead to improved nuclear deterrence. But when would India and Pakistan cross the line from mutually assured destruction to mutually assured overkill? Also, is it wise to increase nuclear arms and nuclear explosive materials in a region prone to terrorism?

Returning to U.S.policy, we need to confront the dilemma of an administration that says preventing nuclear proliferation is a supreme national interest while it abets the nuclear arming of two friends. The benefits of mutual interest between the United States and India were likely to continue to prosper even without the nuclear deal. According to the Congressional Research Service, trade between these two countries has been increasing exponentially for the past thirty years—the period of time that India has been subject to sanctions on its nuclear weapons program. When faced with pressure from New Delhi to make non-nuclear parts of the bilateral package contingent on freeing India from the nuclear dungeon, the administration readily agreed to unlock the door.

This policy smacks of a nuclear NRA doctrine in which the United States can and should encourage good guys to arm themselves while aiming our anti-proliferation efforts solely on the bad guys. Regrettably, Carpenter has adopted this double standard. Trying to sustain this discriminatory policy will likely spur lawlessness through mushrooming nuclear black markets, similar to the A. Q. Khan network. In assessing Washington’s non-proliferation policy over many decades, Carpenter concludes, “As a result, we have the international equivalent of domestic gun control laws, which do an effective job of disarming honest citizens and leaving them at the mercy of society’s aggressive elements.” He cites the dubious (in his view) non-proliferation successes of the U.S. applying pressure on Germany, South Korea, Taiwan, Brazil, and Japan to roll back their nuclear weapons ambitions. He lumps these states into the category of “peaceful, status quo-minded.” While such a characterization fits most, if not all, of these states today, in the not too distant past many of them were hardly feeling secure and peaceful. South Korea experienced periods of authoritarian rule and did not fully embrace democracy until 1987. When it feared alliance abandonment from the United States in the 1970s, it seriously considered the nuclear weapons option. Similar events unfolded for Taiwan. In the late 1980s, Brazil only said farewell to contemplation of nuclear arms once its government shifted from military to civilian rule. Mindful that today’s friend could become tomorrow’s foe and vice versa, the United States should craft country-neutral non-proliferation rules.

Imagine the nightmare scenario in the world today if the United States had not achieved these non-proliferation successes. Not only would more friends be nuclear-armed but more enemies would likely be, as well. While Carpenter does not mention at all the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and while the NPT has lately suffered some body blows especially from the nuclear programs of Iran and North Korea, it has established an international norm against the further spread of nuclear weapons and thus has served U.S. interests for more than thirty five years by having the vast majority of states agree to not acquire nuclear explosives. An essential part of the NPT’s grand bargain is that the United States and the other nuclear weapons states have pledged to pursue nuclear disarmament. While Carpenter asserts that “a nuclear-free world” is a “fantasy land,” I would call it a vision that has advanced the realistic objective of preventing nuclear weapons use.

Concerning terrorist capabilities, Mueller appears confused about the difficulties states face in building militarily reliable nuclear weapons versus the barriers terrorists face in making crude, but devastating, improvised nuclear devices. He states that “we see how difficult it is for states to acquire these capabilities,” and he cites the case of Pakistan. However, the most challenging barrier that Pakistan struggled to overcome was uranium enrichment, the critical ingredient of its nuclear weapons program. Once it surmounted that hurdle, the construction of the weapons was relatively easy. If a terrorist group that included some competent engineers and physicists had access to sufficient highly enriched uranium (HEU)—about 40 to 50 kilograms of weapons-grade material, which could fit inside two Coke cans—it has a reasonable chance of making an improvised nuclear explosive with equivalent yield to the Hiroshima bomb. Terrorists are not currently capable of enriching their own uranium. Thus, they would have to seize existing HEU in states’ stockpiles. Consequently, programs such as the Global Threat Reduction Initiative that focus on securing and reducing vulnerable stockpiles of HEU deserve stronger support. Also applying pressure on nuclear-armed states, including Pakistan, Russia and the United States, to reduce their military and civilian stockpiles of HEU deserves greater efforts. Such efforts would not only support nuclear terrorism prevention but would also strengthen the commitment of these states to non-proliferation.

Is there proliferation hysteria, as Mueller claims? Not among those professionals who are advocating practical measures to secure and reduce nuclear explosive materials. The hysteria and the hype have come from certain administration officials who have played to nuclear fears to gin up support for other agendas, especially forcible regime change. Citizens should become better educated about nuclear issues and develop a healthy skepticism about government policies that aim to force regime change while supporting government programs that truly reduce the risk of nuclear attack against the United States and its friends and allies.

This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.

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