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David CortrightDecember 11, 2006

North Korea’s Recent nuclear test delivered a stark wake-up call. The bomb is back, and nuclear dangers are on the rise again, not only in North Korea but around the world. Iran is steadily building its nuclear capabilities and has refused to yield to international pressure over its uranium enrichment program. Israel has developed a substantial nuclear arsenal, estimated to number about 200 weapons, with highly sophisticated delivery capabilities. India and Pakistan tested nuclear weapons in 1998 and since then have steadily expanded their nuclear arsenals and missile and aircraft delivery systems. Russia has resumed the production of nuclear missiles and is replacing cold-war weapons systems. The United States plans to build new nuclear production facilities and manufacture reliable replacement warheads.

The problem of loose nukes remains acute. In Russia and other former Soviet republics, the deadly detritus of the cold war provides an inviting target for would-be nuclear smugglers. In Pakistan, the former nuclear chief A. Q. Khan managed a worldwide nuclear supply network that provided technology and weapons designs to Libya and perhaps others. Casting a deeper shadow over all these developments is the possibility that Osama bin Laden and the Al Qaeda terrorist network will acquire nuclear weapons. Documents found in Afghanistan after the U.S. invasion revealed bin Laden’s desire to obtain weapons of mass destruction. The International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei told Norwegian television in 2005 that Al Qaeda was actively seeking to acquire a nuclear weapon.

The Second Nuclear Age

The world has entered what Jonathan Schell has termed the second nuclear age, an era in which the nuclear danger has become more diffuse and unpredictable. The new nuclear danger differs substantially from that of the cold-war era. The risk of an all-out nuclear holocaust destroying all life on the planet has diminished, but the danger of actual nuclear weapons use has increased. Former Defense Secretary William Perry said two years ago: I have never been as worried as I am now that a nuclear bomb will be detonated in an American city. I fear that we are racing toward an unprecedented catastrophe. The risk of a bomb actually exploding in a city somewhere is arguably greater now than during the cold war and is likely to grow in the years ahead.

The North Korean bomb significantly adds to that danger. Nuclear weapons are now in the hands of a fanatical and heavily militarized regime. Pyongyang reportedly has generated sufficient weapons-grade plutonium to produce 10 bombs. It is also developing missile systems capable of striking neighboring countries. If the North Korean nuclear danger continues to grow, pressures will mount in Japan and perhaps also in South Korea and Taiwan to develop corresponding nuclear capabilities. The countries in the region are already engaged in a conventional arms buildup.

The North Korean bomb is a disaster that did not have to happen. It represents a failure of U.S. foreign policy. When the Bush administration came into office, North Korea had enough material for only one or two bombs. It had agreed in 1994 to freeze its existing nuclear program and accept on-site international monitoring. That agreement was partially successful, contrary to what President Bush has claimed. During most of the 1990’s the North Korean nuclear program remained under inspected lockdown. When that agreement began to unravel after 1998, the Clinton administration negotiated a new arrangement in its final months of office to halt North Korea’s missile tests and nuclear weapons development in exchange for a U.S. commitment to normalize economic and diplomatic relations. The Bush administration refused to carry on the negotiations, however. The White House rejected direct talks with Pyongyang and resorted instead to name-calling, labeling the regime part of the axis of evil.

Waging War to Prevent War?

The Bush administration’s response to proliferation dangers has been to increase coercive pressures on selected countries. The White House identified the deadly nexus of terrorism and proliferation as the greatest international threat and developed a new national security doctrine of preventive war, which it announced in 2002. This led directly to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, which Jonathan Schell ironically termed a war for disarmament. The attack on Iraq, however, only hardened the nuclear ambitions of Iran and North Korea. It sent a clear message: Don’t wait to get the bomb if you want to avoid Saddam Hussein’s fate. The war also contributed to regional and global insecurities, exacerbating the very conditions that often impel countries to seek greater military and nuclear capability. Far from constraining the spread of nuclear weapons, the administration’s militarized policies have worsened the nuclear danger.

Nonproliferation is said to be a top security priority for the United States, but the administration and Congress have not backed up this commitment with effective action. Funding for the Cooperative Threat Reduction program to secure loose nukes in the former Soviet Union remains inadequate. An independent commission recommended tripling the funds for dismantling former Soviet warheads and securing nuclear sites in Russia, but the White House and Congress have not acted. There is no guarantee that the A. Q. Khan smuggling ring has been shut down completely, and there is no accounting of how far that nuclear supply network extended. No pressures are being applied on India or Pakistan to halt their nuclear buildups. In the case of India, the United States is going in the opposite direction and is offering to supply New Delhi with nuclear fuel, contrary to all previous U.S. nonproliferation laws, which would need to be revised to allow this exception to the rule. This nuclear deal with the United States will make it easier for India to continue building nuclear weapons and has prompted Pakistan to seek a similar arrangement.

Successful Strategies

The current U.S. strategy of selective coercion is fundamentally flawed. Reducing the nuclear danger will require a universal, consistent opposition to all forms of weapons development and a willingness to engage in direct bargaining with North Korea and Iran to end their nuclear programs. Nonproliferation successes in the past have relied not on military pressure but on diplomacy and carrot-and-stick bargaining. Libya recently agreed to abandon its weapons of mass destruction programs after a decade of U.N. sanctions and multilateral engagement that convinced the regime to cooperate in preventing terrorism and weapons proliferation. The United States agreed to lift sanctions and normalize diplomatic relations in exchange for the Qaddafi regime’s agreement to abandon its support for international terrorism and to forgo the development of weapons of mass destruction.

Bush administration officials attributed Qaddafi’s turnaround to what Representative Tom Lantos (Democrat of California) termed the pedagogic value of the war in Iraq, but Flynt Leverett and other senior U.S. officials involved in the bargaining with Libya confirmed that the agreement resulted from years of patient diplomacy, not the invasion of Iraq. The elimination of Saddam Hussein’s weapons program during the 1990’s resulted not from U.S. bombing but from a decade of U.N. disarmament inspections, backed up by vigorous diplomacy and an effective international ban on weapons-related imports. South Africa, Ukraine, Brazil, Argentina and other nuclear aspirants were persuaded to give up the bomb through diplomacy, security assurances and economic engagement.

Direct Diplomacy Essential

A similar formula is needed now to address the nuclear threat from North Korea. Pyongyang has said repeatedly in the past, and reiterated again two days after its nuclear test, that it is willing to give up the development of nuclear weapons in exchange for a U.S. commitment to engage in direct talks and normalize diplomatic and economic relations. U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, former president Jimmy Carter and many others have called for direct talks between Washington and Pyongyang. The Bush administration rejects this advice and claims naïvely that China can be relied upon in the six-party talks to apply pressure on the North. Pressure alone will not work, however, and only Washington can provide the inducements that will persuade Pyongyang to change course. The United States should offer to lift economic sanctions, normalize diplomatic relations and provide formal assurances against military attack, in exchange for binding commitments from North Korea to shut down its nuclear weapons and missile programs and permit the resumption of rigorous international monitoring.

In the case of Iran as well, direct U.S. engagement is necessary. The prospect of an Iranian bomb is frightening, but international intelligence officials estimate that it will take at least four or five years, perhaps as long as a decade, for Tehran to develop nuclear weapons capabilities. Ample time is available for an effective diplomatic strategy to prevent the nuclearization of Iran. As in the case of North Korea, the solution is direct negotiations between Washington and Tehran. The multilateral talks between the European powers and Iran have been useful, but far more important would be direct dialogue between Washington and Tehran. The United States is the elephant in the room in this dispute.

Washington has a great deal at stake, including the fate of its military missions in neighboring Iraq and Afghanistan. It also has most of the diplomatic cards in the form of economic and diplomatic inducements that could be offered to encourage cooperation. Washington should offer Tehran a lifting of economic sanctions, the normalization of diplomatic relations and an end to military threats, in exchange for binding agreements to refrain from nuclear weapons development.

Regional and Global Security

The security concerns of countries like Iran and North Korea cannot be treated in isolation. They are linked to regional and global security dynamics. Iran will be more likely to accept firm nonproliferation standards if it sees progress toward denuclearization across the region. The goal of a Middle East zone free of weapons of mass destruction has been affirmed many times in international declarations and Security Council resolutions.

The disarmament of North Korea is also tied to broader regional and international security concerns. Ultimately the challenge of halting proliferation in particular countries depends on a global commitment to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons everywhere. The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty was conceived as a grand bargain in which nations of the world (189 are now signatories) agreed not to develop nuclear weapons in exchange for a pledge from the existing nuclear weapons states to work toward disarmament. That agreement is now under challenge because of the actions of North Korea and Iran and the refusal of the nuclear states to take their disarmament pledges seriously. The United States and Russia have reduced strategic nuclear weapons by two-thirds since the end of the cold war, but neither country has made any effort to begin planning for the eventual elimination of these weapons.

Ultimately the success of any nonproliferation strategy requires a universal standard. Washington’s Do as I say, not as I do approach lacks moral authority and is seen as hypocritical. It is like preaching temperance from a bar stool.

Restoring U.S. Moral Authority

If the United States wants to prevent other countries from acquiring the bomb, it must be prepared to reduce and eventually end its own reliance on nuclear weapons. The United States has vowed several times in major international conferences that it will proceed toward disarmament. In 1995, as a condition for the indefinite extension of the N.P.T., the United States and other nuclear states promised the determined pursuit by the nuclear weapons states of systematic and progressive efforts to reduce nuclear weapons globally, with the ultimate goal of eliminating those weapons. At the N.P.T. conference in 2000 they reiterated these pledges to an unequivocal undertaking by the nuclear weapons states to accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals. It is time to start planning to fulfill these pledges.

The recent report, Weapons of Terror, of the Commission on Weapons of Mass Destruction, chaired by former chief Iraq weapons inspector Hans Blix, outlined a step-by-step process, accompanied by rigorous monitoring and strengthened cooperative security arrangements, for proceeding toward zero nuclear weapons. The ultimate goal, as recommended by a 1997 National Academy of Sciences report, is a treaty prohibiting all development, testing or use of nuclear weapons.

Achieving these objectives obviously will take time and major changes in political thinking. Moving in that direction will require increased public awareness and involvement in addressing nuclear weapons dangers. During the 1980’s, a great wave of social and moral concern emerged to demand a halt to the nuclear arms race. The U.S. Catholic bishops contributed significantly to that debate with their pastoral letter The Challenge of Peace, which declared any use of nuclear weapons immoral and urged political leaders to proceed toward progressive disarmament. It is time to revisit that call again now, to awaken America to the growing nuclear peril and the need for concerted action to end it.

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