The unprecedented pace of proliferation developments the past 18 months makes it difficult for even dedicated experts to keep up. The historic events in Libya, Pakistan, Iraq, Iran and North Korea have raised several key questions that help frame the proliferation debate over the future direction of U.S. non-proliferation policy: Is proliferation inevitable? Is U.S. intelligence good enough to help prevent proliferation? How should the United States address the main proliferation challenges of today?
Is Proliferation Inevitable?
With all of the attention given to proliferation of late, the general public could reasonably conclude that every small, developing country has a nuclear weapons program. Yet few people appreciate that more countries have abandoned nuclear weapons programs over the past 15 years than have acquired nuclear weapons. Four countries have actually given up considerable nuclear arsenals voluntarily (South Africa, Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan) while only two (Pakistan and North Korea) are thought to have crossed the nuclear finish line. While today's proliferation challenges are real and acute, the track record in uncovering, confronting and reversing proliferation with established tools is actually quite strong.
At any given point over the past 50 years, the outlook for non-proliferation was grim. Officials have predicted widespread nuclear acquisition for decades. Yet in these times, the United States has historically led the international community in preventing this future from coming to pass. The 1950s saw the creation of the international nuclear inspections or safeguard process; the '60s, the birth of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty; the '70s and 80s, the growth and impact of nuclear arms reductions; the '90s, United States engagement of a new Russia and the securing of its vulnerable nuclear assets. How the United States reacts to current challenges will go a long way in deciding what kind of world develops over the coming years.
Is Our Intelligence Good Enough?
Iraq, the approach to and conduct of the war, and the failure to find weapons of mass destruction will cloud the issue of proliferation and intelligence for years. Investigations and intelligence reviews will provide plenty of grist for experts and politicians alike. But in the meantime, the work of intelligence collection and analysis must and does go on and recent history is full of examples where U.S. intelligence successfully alerted policy makers to cases and trends in proliferation. For years, the United States raised concerns (dismissed by many states in Europe and Russia) over Iran's nuclear ambitions that have proven to be true. U.S. intelligence concluded in 2002 that North Korea had a secret uranium program, which Pakistan has now admitted to assisting.
Recent speeches by President Bush and CIA Director George Tenet have made the case that U.S. intelligence cracked Pakistan's connections to Libya, Iran and North Korea and forced A.Q. Kahn's activities into the daylight. In reality, our intelligence has been even better than either the president or Director Tenet have let on. The United States has known about Pakistan's nuclear activities for years, even decades. In most cases, it is not intelligence that let America down, it was America's leaders. In case after case, U.S. intelligence has uncovered proliferation, but other priorities took precedence. The clearest case was in the 1980s, when the United States ignored Pakistan's acquisition of nuclear capabilities because it needed Islamabad's help to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan. History is repeating itself, now that Pakistan is America's "ally" in the war on terror.
What Do We Do With The Main Proliferation Challenges of Today?
This question is critical and the answer to it will affect the security of the United States for decades. The good news is that we know how to prevent nuclear materials from falling into the wrong hands. Terrorists, unless and until they can produce their own nuclear materials, must look to steal (or buy stolen) weapons-grade uranium or plutonium that exists in national stockpiles. Over the past decade, the United States has invested billions of dollars to help Russia - which possesses the largest and most vulnerable stocks of these materials - keep its weapons and nuclear materials secure. These efforts to improve security are far from complete and are now beginning to expand to other states, but need more political and financial resources to keep ahead of the threats we face.
In addition, the United States has previously stopped or rolled back proliferation by working to remove the demand for nuclear weapons. Regional engagement, conflict prevention, military alliances and the like are as much a part of the non-proliferation history as nuclear seals and Geiger counters.
Lastly, the United States needs to do more hard work in addressing proliferation threats. Washington must reconfigure our policies to demonstrate it understands the nature of this threat and ensure that it takes priority over almost all other security considerations. This includes how the U.S. handles its own nuclear facilities and weapons, the support it provides to organizations like the International Atomic Energy Agency, how it invests its defense and security budgets, and how the United States prioritizes its relations with other countries.
Despite the challenges we face, proliferation is not inevitable and our knowledge of how and where proliferation takes place is better than most people think. The problem is that officials may not always make non-proliferation the priority it deserves to be.
This piece is based on an editorial that first appeared in the The Hill on March 4, 2004. Jon Wolfsthal is deputy director of the Non-Proliferation Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He is co-author of Deadly Arsenals: Tracking Weapons of Mass Destruction and a former advisor to the U.S. Department of Energy.