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.
Nonproliferation became a formal objective of the international community in 1968, when most of the world’s sovereign states signed the NPT. Essentially, the ‘have not’ signatories agreed to forgo pursuit of the bomb in exchange for international assistance, if they wanted it, in developing peaceful atomic energy. Article VI of the treaty committed the ‘haves’ to pursue negotiations in good faith with a view to disarmament – why, otherwise, would non-nuclear states sign up to a deal that would lock in a division between haves and have-nots? Article VI was included also because many of the treaty’s architects believed that the world could not survive a series of nuclear showdowns, and that the NPT was a useful mechanism to get leaders to address themselves formally to the dangers of the nuclear arms race.
During the Cold War there was no prospect of the nuclear superpowers disarming, and you could hardly blame the new nonproliferation groups in the West for not pushing them to do so when they had no means of persuading the Soviets (and then the Chinese) to give up their own arsenals. Leaders of small states knew perfectly well that the nonproliferation regime was rigged to keep them permanently subordinate – a complaint they voiced frequently. At first, many nations didn’t bother even to send representatives to the review conferences; when they did show up, they denounced the duplicity of the haves. They were met with the response that the rivalry between the US and the USSR made disarmament impossible.
So the complex turned towards more proximate aims: ensuring nonproliferation among the smaller states that appeared interested in acquiring the bomb, and stabilising and even reducing superpower arsenals by means of treaties. This was its original sin. The task of discouraging states like South Africa, Brazil and Argentina from going nuclear, and helping to pave the way for superpower agreements like Salt II and the Start treaty of the 1980s felt worthwhile, but none of it posed any threat to the dominant powers and in fact served to cement the status quo.
At the 1995 NPT review conference delegates from smaller states tried to argue that the nuclear haves should begin to disarm, as Article VI committed them to doing. The Cold War was over: Russia had retreated to its own borders, abandoned confrontation with the West, and joined the capitalist system. The demand wasn’t that nuclear arsenals should all be dismantled immediately, but rather that the focus of the NPT should be redirected away from nonproliferation and arms control and towards the more fundamental issue of disarmament of the great powers. The conference faced a clear choice. Anti-nuclear delegates could have threatened collectively to abandon efforts at nonproliferation until the powerful states met their obligations under Article VI. Or they could have insisted that if those states refused to commit to disarmament, the NPT should be abandoned – the original treaty had been intended to last for 25 years and was due to be renewed in any case.
It was at this point that the nonproliferation complex reverted to the institutional habits it had acquired during the Cold War. Its members chose not to make any substantive demands on the nuclear powers. Since the NPT would not be renewed unless those powers were happy, they agreed to abandon their insistence on disarmament. It’s all too easy to see why they did this: without the NPT they would have lost their raison d’être and the primary claim on the funds of their supporters. Many of these were governments that possessed the bomb and were jealous of the power they believed it gave them. Further support came from foundations closely associated with the political establishment, which were averse to backing anything controversial. If the complex had sided with the delegates who demanded disarmament, the big institutes and academic centres would have faced marginalisation and the disappearance of funding. Institutions don’t bring that sort of thing on themselves.
In fact, the end of the Soviet Union provided the nonproliferation complex with a perfect opportunity to maintain its approach of taking small and supposedly realistic steps: it could warn about the abundance of unsecured nuclear material and offer its expertise in safeguarding it. And by making ‘rogue’ states its primary interest while resigning itself to the possession of nuclear weapons by Israel, and, soon after the 1995 conference, by India and Pakistan, the complex could ensure continued lavish funding while still claiming that it was continuing its mission to prevent nuclear danger. The principal threats would now be newsworthy outcasts from the international community: cartoonish anti-Western leaders like Saddam Hussein or Kim Jong Il. Global zero would remain the mantra, but always beyond reach, like the hare at a dog track.
Supporters of the complex can always claim that nonproliferation is an element in what theorists call ‘hegemonic stability’, according to which an international order dominated by one hegemon – the US – provides real benefits, including security guarantees (and corresponding low defence budgets) for its allies, and the absence of the great-power rivalries that led to two world wars. Stability of this kind provides the complex with a foolproof means of perpetuating itself. Since signatories to the NPT are allowed to acquire peaceful atomic technology that cannot clearly be distinguished from the technology required for the development of weapons, the treaty allows, as Albert Wohlstetter pointed out in the mid-1970s, for the ‘spreading of the bomb without quite breaking the rules’. The complex can thus warn that we are on the verge of nuclear anarchy, indeed that we’d be there already but for the thin blue line of the nonproliferation regime. Compromises have to be accepted as the cost of doing business – what’s so wrong with that?
One could put that question to the people of Iraq, who endured a sanctions campaign, then a war and occupation, all in the name of nonproliferation, and resulting in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians. In Atomic Obsession: Nuclear Alarmism from Hiroshima to al-Qaida, John Mueller argues that the nonproliferation regime was responsible for these deaths, and for the staggering material costs of the war, and asks whether they were a price worth paying to prevent Saddam from getting a bomb – a bomb he would never have been able to use without risking the end of his rule, not to mention the vaporising of his nation.
Mueller’s point is that the complex’s single-minded focus on keeping the bomb out of the hands of anti-Western dictators provided the neoconservative architects of the sanctions and the war with a useful liberal justification for their campaigns. If you keep calling for something, eventually someone might take you seriously: the complex kept its head down during the run-up to war in 2002-3 because stressing the dangers of nuclear proliferation can’t easily be reconciled with opposition to military action intended to do something real about them. We might see the same thing happen again over Iran.
The tacit deal the complex made with the nuclear states during the Cold War and affirmed at the 1995 review conference still holds. As the money flows in from Washington, London and elsewhere, leading nonproliferation organisations have put together unthreatening programmes of startling cost and scope. A recent example is the Global Zero project, consisting of ‘three hundred political, military, business, faith and civic leaders, and 400,000 citizens worldwide working for the phased, verified elimination of all nuclear weapons’, which now has a presence on university campuses across the world and appears to have a lot of money to spend. Its objective may be disarmament, but that didn’t prevent its leaders from issuing a press release that ‘heralded’ the US Senate’s approval of the New Start deal, said nothing about the $85 billion the Obama administration had committed to the modernisation of the arsenal and moved quickly to the more palatable topic of Iran. Similarly, the Carnegie Foundation recently announced a $425,000 grant for an annual ‘Nuclear Boot Camp for MA and PhD candidates’, part of a new Nuclear Proliferation International History Project. Prospective recruits were encouraged to attend 2011’s Global Zero convention: the campaign’s website assured them, perhaps with more candour than was wise, that ‘invited attendees will be provided with lots of support and resources to get you to Washington, DC and be well cared for.’
Cost seems no obstacle either to the International Commission on Nuclear Nonproliferation and Disarmament (ICNND), a joint initiative of the Australian and Japanese governments which called in a 2009 report for the establishment of a ‘Global Centre on Nuclear Nonproliferation and Disarmament’. It appears that in the minds of the commissioners, what the world lacks is yet another institution to serve as a self-appointed ‘focal point and clearing house’, ‘sustain political will’ for nonproliferation and disarmament, and issue another ‘report card’ assessing the ‘action agendas’. Its authors admit that this project will require ‘substantial government or foundation support’ because ‘the costs will not be trivial.’ The report did not mention the cost involved in its own production: the sum spent bringing together 13 commissioners, 27 advisory board members, research consultants and others for a series of meetings over a period of two years.
Such initiatives intensify the suspicion among officials and diplomats from non-nuclear states that anti-nuclear politics are just a cover to allow the nuclear powers to perpetuate their advantage. When the have-nots perceive a correlation between the prosperity of nonproliferation organisations and their refusal to antagonise the nuclear haves, they find it difficult to take the notion of nuclear danger seriously. The NPT constitutes ‘an expression of the imbalances of the international system’, thundered Ceslo Amorim, the Brazilian foreign minister, at the 2010 review conference. ‘The fundamental goal of a world free of nuclear weapons remains little more than a mirage.’ Amorim represents a nation that bought into the ideal of nonproliferation and dismantled its own project at the behest of the nuclear powers: he had reason to be indignant. Among representatives of states that have had little interest in nuclear weapons the mood was more one of bemusement: ‘The same fucking shit round and round,’ one weary delegate was overheard saying to another.
Such cynicism is likely to manifest itself in the near future in two ways. First, states that are considering developing a nuclear capability will be able to claim justifiably that nuclear haves don’t practise what they preach. Why should Iran or North Korea respect the principle of nonproliferation when the most powerful states lecturing them possess such enormous arsenals? Second, the states, much greater in number, that either gave up seeking a bomb under pressure, or were never interested, will be put off supporting a genuine anti-nuclear initiative – such as the one Obama called for in his speech in Prague in 2009, by the hypocrisy of nonproliferation politics.
Perhaps the worst thing the complex has done, however, is to institutionalise a solution to a problem not because it is effective but because it allows leaders to avoid dealing with that problem. As E.H. Carr argued in the 1930s, it is in situations like this that a supposedly ameliorative liberalism can often prove worse than nothing. By conveying to the public in the West the message that the blame for continuing nuclear danger lies elsewhere, the complex has cultivated the false belief that nuclear peace can be accomplished over the course of time without the need for unpleasant forms of political action, and without any sacrifice. In so doing, it has pushed to the fringes debate about what will actually have to be done if we don’t wish to live perpetually with the spectre of nuclear war.
One way of dealing with a compromised liberal institution – the ‘realist’ alternative – is to shelve it entirely and let international power politics take its course. As Kenneth Waltz and other realist theorists have argued, the apocalyptic potential of nuclear weapons is so manifest, and the survival instinct of political regimes so ingrained, that nations in possession of the bomb are likely to become very conservative and cautious. Nuclear deterrence worked during the Cold War, when two superpowers armed with massive arsenals faced off against one another: why wouldn’t the same apply to a small and embattled nation like Iran? Indeed, Waltz and Mueller (who would agree on almost nothing else) believe that the nonproliferation regime should be abandoned and that we should get used to the idea that smaller states will from time to time acquire the bomb. Waltz envisions an international system composed of ‘porcupine’ states: hyper-defensive nuclear states that all reason suggests are better left alone. As Lewis Dunn puts it in Forecasting Nuclear Proliferation in the 21st Century, in the world imagined by Waltz, nuclear weapons would become ‘the equivalent of possession of a national airline, conventional military forces, or any of the other indicators of state sovereignty’.War in such a world would be rare, which is why Waltz has suggested that ‘more may be better.’
But, for realists, international politics will always end in a major war sooner or later. In this regard the case for doing nothing shares one key point with the complex’s position: the presumption that when we think of nuclear danger we should think of the spread of weapons to small states. That makes little sense, historically or theoretically. The more substantial risk posed by nuclear weapons is that things may go wrong: that a showdown between large nuclear haves might escalate, as it almost did in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. A war waged with hundreds of thermonuclear warheads, not a few atomic bombs, is what should really scare us. And over the long term, it is likely to happen.
To eliminate the danger of eventual nuclear war, we will have to embark on a far more revolutionary political project than the nonproliferation complex acknowledges, or perhaps is even aware of. A study from 1946, when only one nation had the bomb, captured the problem:
Effective international control to guarantee that atomic weapons could not be used by an aggressor nation is virtually impossible under the present concept of a world divided into nations maintaining their full sovereignty. No system of inspection can be expected to be 100 per cent effective in such a world, and 99 per cent is no guarantee.
The authors of this statement, not dreamy idealists but the US joint chiefs of staff, recognised what the complex has avoided. Nuclear abolition is not going to happen unless a regime is devised capable of preventing a nation from building a bomb on the sly. Such a regime would have to be more powerful than any existing state, so cannot be conceived as part of a world divided into sovereign nations. If you want to get to nuclear zero, this is the kind of political agenda you have to address. As long as the tacit twin goals of the complex – selective nonproliferation and ineffectual abolition – continue to shape the international agenda, one outcome is certain: a world filled with nuclear weapons.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.