Who’s in, who’s out?

Campbell Craig and Jan Ruzicka on the nonproliferation complex

Nuclear weapons have given rise to a multibillion-pound industry to which nobody pays any attention, an industry we may as well call the nonproliferation complex. It comprises a loose conglomeration of academic programmes, think tanks, NGOs, charitable foundations and government departments, all formally dedicated to the reduction of nuclear danger. Its twin goals are to stop the spread of nuclear technologies to small, anti-Western regimes and, eventually, to abolish nuclear weapons altogether.

The complex has been able to create a comfortable place for itself in the international community, particularly since the end of the Cold War. Some argue that it has achieved little despite vast resources, others that it has been modestly successful in limiting the number of states possessing nuclear weapons. But it can also be criticised not on grounds of its effectiveness but because, like the international aid industry, it is a classic liberal institution that pretends to universalism while being in hock to the world’s most powerful states. Moreover, its pursuit of modest, ‘realistic’ goals has helped to undermine the very possibility of substantial action on nuclear weapons.

When the New Start treaty between Russia and the US was ratified in 2010, William Perry, a defense secretary under President Clinton and one of the chief advocates of nuclear nonproliferation and eventual abolition – ‘global zero’, as it has come to be known – remarked that even though the treaty was ‘small, it was vital, because everything we need to do in the future, starting with halting the Iranian programme, requires working with Russia and showing that we are serious about bringing our own nuclear stockpiles down.’ Well before he made this comment the Obama administration announced that it was committing $85 billion to the modernisation of the US nuclear arsenal over the next ten years – the price it had to pay to secure approval of the deal from the Senate. Was Perry unaware of this? What clearer demonstration could there be that the US government is not serious about reducing its stockpiles? Central to the idea of nonproliferation is the presumption that if smaller states are to be discouraged from acquiring a bomb, nuclear states will need to take real steps towards disarmament. Otherwise, non-nuclear states will regard their demands as self-serving and hypocritical – reason enough to think about creating an arsenal of their own. It isn’t hard to guess how the Russians, the Chinese and other nuclear powers reacted to the US’s announcement.

The Obama administration, which in public supports the ideal of a world without nuclear weapons, failed to acknowledge the contradiction, but that is to be expected. More surprising, on the face of it, is the fact that the Senate compromise didn’t attract any criticism from Perry, his abolitionist allies (Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, Sam Nunn), or, indeed, from any prominent figure in the nonproliferation complex. One might have assumed that one of them would have publicly condemned the move, yet there was barely a peep.

This could be because the complex has no problem with it. Over the past few decades, it has, in effect, abandoned its mission to rid the world of nuclear danger, shifting its attention to the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) and the round of conferences associated with it. Chief among these is the NPT Review Conference, at which delegates from member states meet every five years to discuss progress. These conferences are a bizarre spectacle, involving much fractious debate over minor rewordings in order to produce – if any agreement at all is reached – ‘final documents’ which are ignored by everyone concerned. Then the review process, which bears more than a passing resemblance to Soviet five-year plans, starts all over again.

The organisations that make up the complex are spread across the US and Europe. Among government agencies there is the US National Nuclear Security Administration; at the international level, the International Atomic Energy Agency. In the academy, the Monterey Institute of International Studies in the US and the Mountbatten Centre for International Studies in Southampton have long set the tone: they have also doubled as think tanks on matters of non-proliferation, alongside such organisations as the UN Institute for Disarmament Research based in Geneva, the Nuclear Policy Programme at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Harvard’s project on Managing the Atom, and the Stimson Center in Washington. There is no shortage of NGOs involved, among them the US Arms Control Association and the Pugwash conference. Funding comes from governments and from large bodies such as the Ford and MacArthur Foundations, the Ploughshares Fund, the Carnegie Corporation and the Nuclear Threat Initiative.

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[*] Oxford, 336 pp., £16.99, November 2009, 978 0 19 538136 8.

[†] Stanford, two volumes, 296 pp. and 456 pp., £57.95 each, August 2010, 978 0 8047 6972 3 and 978 0 8047 6970 9.