Saturday, October 8, 2011

Nuclear Proliferation - Can it be countered?

One of the goals of US foreign policy since the end of the Cold War has been to prevent the further proliferation of nuclear weapons. It is easy to see how this could be done if one can prevent potential proliferators from having access to the requisite technology, or if one can use military force to destroy the sites where nuclear weapons are being developed. If neither of these options is available, however, is the prevention of nuclear proliferation a feasible goal? If so, how can it be accomplished?

Nuclear counter-proliferation is possible. Additionally, in light of non-state actors who may be non-deterrable, counter-proliferation must be pursued to ensure safety and security. We have recent examples which provide useful insight into how it can be done and how it might be handled in the future. While arguments have been made that use of nuclear weapons by states can be deterred, the same cannot be said if a nuclear weapon were in the hands of a non-deterrable entity. If we include organizations as Al Qaeda as just such a non-deterrable entity, further proliferation can lead to permitting the ultimate preventable catastrophe – nuclear terrorism.

Is counter-proliferation possible? (Libya and North Korea)

The avenues of counter-proliferation are these: (1) eliminate the ability of potential proliferators to obtain nuclear technology, (2) destroy (involuntarily) nuclear technology when found, (3) eliminate nuclear weapons technology voluntarily, and (4) and convince those with nuclear weapons (or those who might want them) to stop their search. As implied by the question, the first is problematic at best and may be impossible. The second requires that the attacking state know exactly how many weapons are in existence and exactly where they are, both of which assumptions are not easy to accomplish. The third and fourth avenues offer room for hope, however.

Five states have voluntarily dismantled nuclear weapons programs. Three of the five (Belarus, Kazakhstan, Ukraine) inherited nuclear weapons from the U.S.S.R., but voluntarily transferred them to Russia. South Africa maintained a nuclear weapons development program and reportedly had some small number of weapons, but voluntarily dismantled the program in the late 1980s and submitted to IAEA inspection. More recently, on 19 December 2003, the Libyan government announced that it would eliminate its nuclear development program and would allow international inspections of its weapon sites. The announcement was the result of secret negations with the United States and the United Kingdom that had begun in March 2003. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director Mohamed El Baradei took a team of inspectors to Libya by the end of the year and had unrestricted access to the nuclear development sites.

A sixth country, North Korea may be showing signs of a willingness to dismantle its nuclear weapons program. Early reports are hopeful that they will begin dismantling their reactor and research facility in the near future.

Why have nuclear weapons? (Deterrence and defense)

The secret to counter-proliferation is to understand why a state or entity would want to have a nuclear weapon in the first place. If the underlying motivations for obtaining a nuclear weapon can be addressed by other means, then desires to develop or maintain such weapons will likely also decrease.
Nuclear weapons are maintained by states for two principal reasons: (1) to deter other states’ use of nuclear weapons and (2) to defend against overwhelming attack. A third argument can be made that possession of a nuclear weapon is a status symbol or evidence that the particular state must be taken seriously in international politics.

From a realist point of view, possession of nuclear weapons offers security and power relative to its neighbors. It also seems to offers a certain kind of legitimacy in the world as possessing nuclear weapons makes one part of the “nuclear club” and thereby an entity that cannot be ignored. If the reason behind the desire for nuclear weapons is not a desire for domination or expansion, but actually a desire to just be considered a legitimate part of the international community, there may be room for cooperation.

While offensive realists such as Mearsheimer see little room for increasing cooperation, defensive realists are more optimistic. They agree with neo-liberals that if large transactions can be divided into smaller ones, then transparency can be increased, thereby keeping the gains from cheating and the costs of being cheated low. Under these circumstances mutual cooperation can be made more likely to continue over time (Jervis 1978; Keohane 1984; Axelrod 1984; Oye 1986; Jervis 1999). If the real desire of Kaddafi was just to be a respected player in the international arena, isolating that issue from any others made it possible to negotiate a successful result of eliminating nuclear weapons in at least one country. Dividing transactions into smaller, more easily devoured bites permitted progress. This may be what has been happening with North Korea and the six power talks. If what North Korea really wants is reassurance that it will not be attacked and will be considered a full player in international politics, then addressing those issues directly will permit the removal of nuclear weapons from the calculus.

Control of nuclear weapons and non-deterrable entities.

Until now the only units considered in analyses of nuclear weapons have been state. With the advent of non-state actors having aggressive and violent global ambitions, bringing such entities into consideration is necessary. Reports tell us that Al Qaeda has made attempts and is likely continuing efforts to gain access to nuclear weapons. Once they obtain the ability to use a nuclear weapon it is doubtful that they can be reasonably deterred from using it short of finding, destroying, or capturing it. Al Qaeda with a nuclear weapon may be a non-deterrable entity.

States can be deterred because they have territory, population, and resources that are vulnerable. That no nuclear weapons have been detonated in anger since their first use in 1945 despite large numbers of them in existence, is strong testament to the success of deterrence. Indeed, several writers have offered a view that proliferation of nuclear weapons might actually create a safer world (Waltz, 1981; Weltman, 1980; Mearsheimer, 1990). These scholars, principally neo-realists, argue that “nuclear weapons, amplify and thereby render inviolable the constraints upon untoward behaviour that the condition of anarchy alone engenders (Woods, 2002).” As a result of this strengthening of the system, the international system will stabilize and, within this structure, a “nuclear peace” will ensue.

The “proliferation optimist” argument holds well as long as two principal criteria are maintained: (1) a healthy civil-military relationship within the nuclear weapon holding state and (2) no non-state actor obtains access to such weapons. A nuclear weapon in the hands of a weak state poses a security problem. If the civil-military relationship is unhealthy and demonstrated strong pathologies, the likelihood of loss of control over the weapon increases. Feaver (1993) sees civil-military pathologies existent in various states that undermine command and control of nuclear weapons, thereby keeping them dangerous and unpredictable even with policies that limit their use. A small state that might see itself as a potential victim of a preventive war, may well drive it to, first, obtain nuclear weapons to provide a certain amount of safety, and, second, permit it to adopt (or at least allow) unsafe control and operational practices (Karl 1996-1997; Seng 997) . Such unsafe practices will likely yield a more unpredictable and therefore dangerous world.

Such a possibility cannot be ignored. In the summer of 2007, the U. S. Air Force unknowingly transported six nuclear weapons on a B-52 bomber from Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota to Barksdale AFB in Louisiana. This means, necessarily, that for some period of time those six weapons were not under control, at least not the sort of two person control that nuclear weapons and nuclear related items are normally under. While there was little actual danger in this incident, if loss of control of nuclear weapons can occur in a state with generally recognized strong control procedures, it would appear to even more likely in a state with poor controls or a poor relationship between the civil and military authorities.

Should an aggressively violent non-state entity obtain access to a nuclear weapon, most of the traditional deterrence methods would be less than useful. Since there is no specific geographic area connected to the non-state entity, their “country” could not be attacked, at least not effectively. Similarly, no effective economic sanctions could be taken as would be possible against a state. Thus, the non-state entity finding itself with a nuclear weapon could use the weapon with little fear of effective reprisal. Thus one principal reason for states holding nuclear weapons, to deter other states’ use, has been nullified. A non-state actor with aggressively violent global ambitions that obtains a nuclear weapon becomes a non-deterrable entity that poses a significant security problem for states.

The only solutions to this problem are to (1) find the weapon and take it back or (2) prevent the loss in the first place. Since finding the weapon would be difficult at best and the chance that it may be detonated prior to location despite the best efforts at location, it makes more sense to establish a program whereby it becomes decreasingly likely that such a loss could occur.


A primary solution is to reduce the total number of nuclear weapons available. As the number of nuclear weapons increases, the complexity of providing security for them increases. The more difficult the security problem, the more likely a security breach can occur. The more likely a security breach can occur the more likely a nuclear weapon winds up in the hands of a non-deterrable entity. Such an occurrence is too dangerous to permit.

The solutions appear to be along the following lines and probably need to be enabled in this order:

1. Stronger and more transparent nuclear security regimens
2. An international norm in opposition to more nuclear weapons
3. Fewer nuclear weapons

Since one of the reasons states maintain nuclear weapons is to deter others from using them, it become necessary to ensure that the weapons are securely maintained, thus preventing inadvertent use or loss. By assuring that inadvertent release or loss of control are unlikely by providing reliable and easily verifiable information, states will be less likely to make security decisions based on fear of an unwarned or pre-emptive attack. Easily verifiable and transparent nuclear security measures will reassure states that those weapons that do exist are, in fact, well secured, and their use is securely limited. With transparent nuclear security measures the stage is set for an international norm that will prevent the further proliferation of such weapons to those who do not already have them and ultimately to a regime in which the total number are reduced.

The problem seems to be reducing the issues facing the United States and other states to figure out how to divide the issues faced by proliferators and potential proliferators and engage in talks to solve them in detail. Solving the problem detail by detail rather than attempting to take on the entire mountain will ultimately, albeit slowly, result in a better and likely longer lasting solution. It appears to have been the case with Libya and may well be what has been going on with North Korea. Kim Jong Il likely was not interested in the absolute power that results from nuclear weapons but was desirous of security from invasion and to be taken seriously at the international table. If North Korea can be reassured that the United States will permit them to sit at the table and if they can be convinced that it is not in the interests of the United States to attack North Korea, they may well be induced to give up the nuclear program in exchange for security. Kaddafi apparently wanted to ensure that his successor, presumably his son, would be in a situation whereby Libya would not be isolated from the international community.

A nuclear weapon in the hands of an extremist group is frightening. Possession of nuclear weapons by Pakistan and the potential possession by Iran raise fears of transferring the weapons to such groups’ hands, either deliberately or inadvertently. This makes it all the more important to find ways to engage those states that already have nuclear weapons to ensure the safety and security of the weapons in the first place, and to increase the likelihood that the command and control of such weapons are secure and not open to failure or sloppy procedure.