Thursday, November 18, 2004


The problem with non-proliferation

Paul Musgrave, whose personal blog has recently gotten a very nice makeover, has joined some friends to start a new group blog called In the Agora. Keep an eye on it. If Paul's post on non-proliferation is an indication of what we can expect, then ITA is destined for great things.

Paul is much more qualified to speak on policy subjects than I. But when his post lamented the lack of a "natural peacenik constituency" in his party, I heard him calling my name. I hope he'll pardon my lack of knowledge on these subjects while I stuff my pipe with some peacenik dreams. A few thoughts on his post:

First, non-proliferation cannot be seen outside the context of other diplomatic policies, which means we should judge the Bush administration not solely on its efforts to secure nuclear material, but also on its competence in supporting international institutions that distribute power among nation-states. By publicly scorning other treaties and institutions with broad-based international support -- Kyoto, the ICC, the UN, for example -- the President has already squandered much-needed diplomatic capital.

The good news is that you need less diplomatic capital on the issue of non-proliferation than you do on other foreign policy matters, because the threat of nuclear weapons equally endangers those who have them, those against whom they might be used, and even those who neither have them nor are likely to be their direct targets. In other words, all of us. Yet I fear the President and those advising him do not appreciate this fact. And to be fair, it is not clear there are Democrats who fully appreciate it either. Discussions on nuclear non-proliferation always need to begin by dispensing with pleasant euphemisms like "weapons of mass destruction," a phrase that has been emptied of its rhetorical power by too frequent use. Now familiar acronyms like WMD do not do justice to the capacity these weapons have to annihilate entire civilian populations. We are dealing here with a technological power that is absolutely asymmetrical -- it holds out the possibility not just of "mass" destruction, but of "total" destruction. The idea of perpetual "defense" against weapons of total destruction is chimerical: that's where we have to begin.

If we do begin there, then the terms of these debates will take on a very different shape, even different from the one that Paul gives them in his post. "Non-proliferation" itself shapes the issue as one of preventing nuclear material from falling into "the wrong hands," which implies of course that there are "right hands" (namely, ours and those of the "free world"). Most non-proliferation plans on both sides of the aisle are founded not on the guiding presumption that nuclear weapons are a common threat to all, but only that they are a threat in the hands of a few. Tolkein would be disappointed, I think, if he knew how popular the Lord of the Rings had become without actually making the impression he intended -- that there are certain evils which cannot be contained. They must be destroyed. To be blunt, they must be abolished.

This is probably the point in the post where many eyes will roll. Be realistic, you might say. Unflinching realism, however, means acknowledging what kind of a weapon we are dealing with here. And it also means recognizing that rational actors will not tolerate monopolies on asymmetrical power. It is fundamentally unrealistic to think that the end goal of non-proliferation is to return to an immediate postwar status quo, in which nuclear weapons have been limited to "mature democracies." To think non-nuclear states will ever be content with such a state of affairs -- that's what deserves a roll of the eyes.

Still, I am not as naive as you think. I would sleep better tonight if I knew the U.S. military had secured those 3700 loose tons of plutonium and uranium, and I would sleep much less well if I knew that they had been secured by Pakistan, Iran, or North Korea. Moreover, reasonable people (with whom I like to think I belong) are aware that in the short term, our nuclear policy will have to proceed mainly with stockpile reduction, securing loose material, and non-proliferation treaties and test bans on the nation-state level. But a policy that is both morally sound and expedient will state the goal of total abolition as frequently as possible. We must not confuse baby steps with the actual destination.

One sign of such confusion, as Paul rightly points out, is to believe that counterproliferation is a military strategy, rather than a diplomatic one. Yet Paul goes on to say that even diplomatic policies on nuclear weapons "work best when backed up by the world's military superpower." I question whether the recent past has shown that to be so. Paul outlines the dire situation in which we find ourselves -- non-proliferation efforts being rolled back around the globe, Iran and North Korea both demonstrably closer to nuclear weapons, and both Russia and the United States developing new kinds of nuclear weapons -- but he does not sufficiently connect these straits to the hyper-militarism of the Bush administration's foreign policy. If Iran and North Korea have learned anything from Iraq, it is that the faster they can get nuclear weapons, the better they can deter a preemptive strike.

(Incidentally, although Paul doesn't mention it, the idea that Libya saw Iraq as a warning strikes me as delusional: if anything, the lesson of Libya to states like Iran and North Korea is also that having nuclear weapons is good. It means having the most powerful bargaining chip in the world. It gives you an automatic "Pass Go" card with the United States if you ever need to get out of jail. Our national security strategy itself, quite apart from its stated position on non-proliferation, is a standing incentive for proliferation.)

Thus, when Paul calls at the end of his post for a return of the presidency to its Cold War status as "the Leader of the Free World," I do not feel at ease. To see a return to the Cold War as the goal of our non-proliferation efforts is to go backwards to the conditions that have ultimately brought us to the present. At the time, just containing nuclear weapons in the Soviet Union, where "mutually assured destruction" would prevent their being used, seemed like a good idea, since who could have conceived that it would fall apart so dramatically and become so destabilized that its nuclear program would be dispersed? But who is to say that our nuclear materials, now seen as safe because they are in the "right hands," will not also be similarly insecure at some point in our children's future?

If the answer to that question is a simple "it will never be so," that only reveals the problem: at the root of our current non-proliferation policies is an unfounded and often unstated hubris, an unwavering confidence in the immortality of the United States and its consequent right to hold all the cards in the nuclear game. But with weapons as absolutely mortal as nuclear ones, we can't afford to believe that any detente will be permanent. That's why the only realistic and honest goal is ultimately to get rid of the weapons altogether. I don't hear enough people saying that.

Collective Improvisation:
This isn't totally germane to your critique of nonproliferationists, but I do want to remark on a third way. The entities which are morally and practically entitled to have nukes are those which can be trusted to only use them in defense of their own homeland. (Yes, I have to ask you to ignore Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but I think it's fair to say that we didn't understand then quite what we had.) The problem with Saddam Hussein having nukes is that, at least arguably, he would have tried to sell them to terrorists under the table. Pakistan, ditto. North Korea, ditto. If we could get a real commitment from any of those places that they would keep their nukes only for their own defense, then I think it would be unjust not to let them have them. Saddam couldn't have them because he'd already invaded other countries and already shown a willingness to use chemical weapons. I think there's a real distinction there. The government of North Korea is evil, but they aren't going to attack anyone. As a matter of realpolitik I think it's correct to take the position that even though we think they're evil we're willing to guarantee their sovereignty by letting them have defensive nukes, as long as they don't enable others to have offensive nukes.

To call for an absolute ban on nuclear weapons is, I think, hopelessly naive: on their use, sure, but not on their existence. "Then only outlaws will have guns" is the plain truth, it seems to me, and that would be bad. To say that we should have global inspections strong enough to ensure compliance is (1) naive--in practice inspections can't be strong enough, and (2) playing chicken with history--one mistake and the game is over. I am very confident that we're actually much safer if every rational actor has nukes.

Ken MacLeod did some excellent SF on this, in _The Stone Canal_ and _The Sky Road_ (which are 2/4 of one of the best SF series of all time, if you're at all interested in SF).

Final random remark: Tolkien, I think, understood that there is an important difference between Earth and Middle Earth. The One Ring is evil magic. Nukes are just another weapon. Bigger, worse, too horrible to ever use--but they said that about dynamite, too. And nukes, unlike the One Ring, don't compel their owner to use them. They do not magically occlude rationality. I know people who believe otherwise, and perhaps you are one. But that's a losing position in the market of ideas, because it's really not true.

Andy B

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 11/19/2004 05:27:00 PM : Permalink  

Thanks for your comment, Andy.

I'd rather be hopelessly naive than hopeless. That was the main point of this post: not to make carefully thought out policy proposals, but to hold out the hope of a world without nuclear weapons. Our hopes these days are too anemic, in my view. We see as "realistic" the policies that are really the most fantastic (like the idea that peace can be spread by war), while the things that are most worth hoping for (like a world without war) are dismissed out of hand.

As an historian, I also take seriously that realism is a changeable thing: there was a time, not so long ago, when abolishing slavery seemed hopelessly naive and impossible to enforce. Had there not been people willing to hope against hope, perhaps abolition would seem naive and unrealistic still.

I have no illusions that the abolition of nuclear weapons can easily be accomplished, that the knowledge of these weapons can be stuffed back into the Pandora's box from whence they came. But while I'll leave it to smarter people to figure out how best to configure our policy regarding non-proliferation, I think it is crucial to reiterate the goal of total abolition.

I disagree with you that these weapons are justified if used defensively: first, because how to define "defensive" will always be relative and opportunistic (I'm sorry, but here I do have to bring up the bombs dropped Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which are still rationalized by many as acts of self-defense), and second, because one can only make a case for the justice of using violence in self-defense if it can be made absolutely certain that the defensive violence is directed at an aggressor. Nuclear weapons, by their very nature, will victimize the innocent. They cannot and do not discriminate between the aggressor and the victim, and that is what makes them especially abominable.

I also fundamentally disagree that simply promising not to use nuclear weapons can successfully defuse the threat that they pose. An accidental use of one of these weapons is as horrible to imagine as an intentional use. That's why the goal ought not to be just limiting them to the "right hands," or limiting them to certain uses, but eventual abolition.

Your suggestion that the world would be safer if every sovereign nation had nukes is an interesting one, and in my view it's closer to the truth than the quixotic idea that nukes can be contained in the hands of a few. But this policy presumes that all states are rational actors, which history seems to belie.

Moreover, to think that these conditions will ever obtain is just as hopelessly naive as my idea of total abolition. So as long as we're talking about things hoped for, it seems to me more hopeful to try to diminish these weapons to a vanishing point, rather than to distribute them further.

Posted by Blogger Caleb McDaniel on 11/20/2004 10:20:00 PM : Permalink  

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