Instead of treating nuclear weapons and materials as problems wherever they exist, the Bush administration has pursued a “democratic bomb” strategy, bending nonproliferation rules for friendly democracies and refusing to negotiate directly with “evil” nondemocratic regimes such as North Korea and Iran. Yet regime change and democratization cannot solve major proliferation challenges in the necessary timeframe and actually can make them worse. Nonproliferation should take precedence over democratization. Universal rules remain essential and must be invigorated, which requires cooperation with major powers that differ on democracy.

North Korea’s nuclear test and Iran’s defiant uranium enrichment program are more than specific failures of U.S. nonproliferation policy. They are symptoms of a dysfunctional strategy that not only fails to solve tough cases but actually makes proliferation more likely. Understanding the inherent liabilities of this strategy can help American and international policy makers design a more effective replacement.

Regimes, rather than weapons, are at the heart of the Bush administration’s broader national security strategy. President George W. Bush’s famous “axis of evil” speech in January 2002 established that the United States would seek security by removing exceptionally dangerous regimes, namely, Iraq, Iran, and North Korea. Proliferation is what defined them as targets. In subsequent years, rhetorical hard edges have been filed off the strategy and the positive goal of transforming tyrannies into democracies was added.

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George Perkovich is vice president for studies–global security and economic development at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.