The following is taken from George Perkovich's article, "Bush's Nuclear Revolution," which appears in the March/April 2003 issue of Foreign Affairs.
The Bush administration's new "National Strategy to Combat Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)," announced in December, is wise in some places, in need of small fixes in other places, and dangerously radical in still others. Most important, the strategy's approach to nuclear issues seems destined to reduce international cooperation in enforcing non-proliferation commitments rather than enhance it. America's willingness to use force against emergent WMD threats, as in Iraq, can stir the limbs of the international body politic to action. But a truly effective strategy to reduce nuclear dangers over the long term must bring along hearts and minds as well.
The WMD proliferation problem involves biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons, but the third raises the most telling issues. Chemical and biological weapons are legally prohibited by treaty, and so the challenge they pose is basically one of enforcement. Nuclear weapons, on the other hand, are temporarily legal in five countries, not illegal in three others, and forbidden essentially everywhere else -- a complex and inconsistent arrangement that presents a unique set of dilemmas.
Conservative defense intellectuals and officials deserve credit for highlighting the fact that effective nonproliferation requires changes in the policies or governments of states unwilling to abide by international laws and norms. Yet they then proceed to make the reverse mistake, looking only at the outlaws and ignoring the challenges posed by nuclear weapons in general. So long as some states are allowed to possess nuclear weapons legitimately and derive the benefits that flow from them, then other states in the system will want them too -- including, perhaps, the successors to the governments the Bush administration currently opposes. The proliferation threat thus stems from the existence and possession of nuclear weapons and theft-prone materials, not merely from the intentions of today's "axis of evil." Redressing this larger threat requires cooperation from Russia, China, Japan, South Korea, and others, as the administration has discovered now in dealing with North Korea.
The nonproliferation radicals recognize that the good guys of today can become the bad guys of tomorrow. So they say the United States must retain and "upgrade" an enormous strategic arsenal forever to deter or defeat any adversary. At the same time, they argue that the new bad guys (rogue states and terrorists), unlike the old bad guys (the Soviet Union), cannot be deterred and contained and so must be eliminated quickly. The Bush administration thus essentially favors a strategy of repeated regime change plus a large, steadily modernizing nuclear arsenal.
This bleak vision makes sense only if the determination to retain deployed nuclear arsenals forever does not exacerbate proliferation risks, and if the weapons being retained provide a necessary, usable, and effective deterrent against threats that are greater than proliferation. Since neither of these assumptions is valid, the strategy is flawed.
On the "supply" side, the longer worldwide stockpiles of weapons, fissile materials, precursor technologies, and expertise remain and grow, the greater the risk of their being diverted to proliferation. (Think of Russia today and Pakistan over the next 30 years.) It is true that even without operable nuclear weapons, fissile materials would pose a proliferation threat and would have to be zealously accounted for and secured. But securing sensitive assets would be much easier in a zero-arsenal world than in one where multiple states maintain operational nuclear forces and large related infrastructures with little or no transparency and international monitoring.
On the "demand" side, the fact that several powerful countries continue to assign great value to their nuclear arsenals reinforces just how important these weapons can be as sources of power and prestige and raises their attractiveness for others. This role-model effect does not by itself cause other states or terrorists to seek nuclear weapons. But it does impede efforts to persuade India, Pakistan, Iran, North Korea, and Iraq to curtail their acquisitions. It could also cause Japan, Brazil, and others to rethink their abstinence. Moreover, the administration's "emphasis on tactical uses" of nuclear weapons "increases the motivation of" targeted states "to improve and extend their own nuclear force, or to get one if they don't have it," as notes Michael May, the former director of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. The behavior of North Korea and Iran seems to confirm May's warning.
Nonproliferation radicals counter by changing the subject. They say the massive U.S. nuclear arsenal and the doctrine of first use together avert proliferation on the part of American allies such as Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, and Germany. Each of these states could readily acquire nuclear weapons, but, according to this view, chooses not to because the American arsenal gives it a deterrent shield. Yet, South Korea, Germany, and Japan today seem more alarmed than reassured by U.S. strategy. Rather than the nuclear-heavy status quo, they would prefer at least a serious attempt to remove, in a verifiable and step-by-step manner, nuclear weapons from national arsenals, as called for by the NPT.
George Perkovich is the Vice President for Studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.