There are three ways in which I believe recent decisions by the Obama administration are, unintentionally, actually fostering the proliferation of nuclear weapons rather than constraining them.
When judging the various policies President Obama has put forth in recent weeks to move toward zero nuclear weapons, we should bear in mind the old dictum of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.: In order to understand the law you have to look at it from the perspective of a bad man.
First, the president and others have proposed to enhance nonproliferation by sequestering nuclear material into one international depository. The idea is that those who need enriched uranium for peaceful means can obtain it from this facility as needed if they promise not to continue down the path of making weapons-grade material. More advanced reactor design may someday lower the proliferation risk. But that is also a ways off.
We should not look at how the current nonproliferation regime would work through the eyes of, say, the Irish. Instead, we should look at it through the eyes of the governing powers in Iran and North Korea or like regimes who are inclined to secretly pursue weapons-grade material and thus be able to make a bomb. In the world we live in, they are entirely capable of working hard to exploit the current regime or a future one in pursuit of nuclear weapons.
The Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) as it currently exists grew out of President Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace” program in the 1950s. It actually encourages countries that obtain nuclear reactors to produce electricity to also enrich uranium. The problem is that, if a country enriches uranium up to 3 percent, which is what is suitable for a reactor to generate electricity, it has done nearly three-quarters of the work needed to move along the road to 90 percent enrichment, which is what is required to make a bomb.
Once a country reaches that higher level of enrichment, the weapons are the relatively easy part. A simple “shotgun” device like the bomb the US dropped on Hiroshima is the way every state starts out in the nuclear business. Unfortunately, it is quite easy to design and construct. (That is why the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate that said Iran had halted its effort to build a nuclear weapon was the single most deceptive NIE in history. It is also one of the most consequential because it gave the impression that the Iranians had halted what was most important to get to the nuclear bomb threshold – enriching uranium. But they were doing that in spades. They had possibly merely halted weapons design work.)
Either by withdrawal from the NPT – and thus avoiding monitoring – or by secretly placing their facility in a mountain, Iran or like-minded regimes can process enough low-enriched uranium it needs for a weapon.
The first Iranian bomb doesn’t have to be that sophisticated. Something that goes “boom” and sends a mushroom cloud up in the northern Iranian desert – even if it doesn’t have a decent yield-to-weight ratio, even if it would not fit into the nose cone of a Scud – would still make Iran a nuclear power.
That would change the world.
Like Iran, other countries – including Venezuela and Saudi Arabia – say they want “peaceful” nuclear power for electricity. Given their vast oil resources, that is patent nonsense. They only want a reactor in order to get into the fuel cycle – the road to highly enriched uranium and bomb material.
If we persist in sponsoring nuclear energy exports from the US as well as other countries so that nations can have the technology for today’s light-water reactors – which gets them into the fuel cycle – we will become the Johnny Appleseed of nuclear weapons.
If the US is helping spread light-water reactors and thus enriched uranium around the world in the name of peaceful atomic energy, it is creating a huge and dangerous problem.
Second, Obama’s Nuclear Posture Review, which seeks to limit the circumstances in which the US might use nuclear weapons, embodies hesitancy with respect to deterrence. Some of the allies who once could rely on the US to protect them from attack through “extended deterrence” may now doubt whether the US nuclear umbrella still covers them. If, under Obama’s new policy, an ally is attacked by biological weapons, the US is going to have to do a study to first see if whoever attacked is observing the NPT or not, since we will not now hit back with nukes if the attackers belong to the NPT and are not in violation of it.
The idea is that if the US just continually takes steps in good faith to clarify and reduce the circumstances in which we would use nuclear weapons to protect our allies, then the world may progress toward being nuclear-free. However, it seems logical that the incentives would work just the opposite way. US allies could well come to the conclusion that “these Americans are not protecting us the way they did in the cold war, so we better go ahead and get our own nukes.”
Right after the North Korean nuclear test, an anonymous Japanese official was asked if that test meant Japan would move to nuclear weapons. They do, after all, have tons of plutonium available from their nuclear energy program. “No,” he said, “we have the mutual security treaty with the United States and we trust the Americans ... but, if we decided to have a nuclear weapon it would take less than 200 days to produce it.”
As a result of the Obama administration’s new nuclear posture, some friends and allies who once felt protected under America’s nuclear umbrella are now going to start planning alternative options “just in case.”
Third, as a result of Obama’s new policies, it won’t be just our worried allies who might move toward obtaining their own nuclear weapons, but our enemies as well. The US has gone from something like 8,000 deployed weapons a decade ago to around 2,000 now. We are at present engaged in reducing another few hundred beyond this approximately fourfold cut.
I haven’t heard anybody applauding in Syria or Burma, saying, “Hey, that means we will never need nuclear weapons.” I don’t think so. There is one thing that Osama bin Laden has said that is right: When people look at a strong horse and a weak horse, they like the strong horse better.
From the standpoint of a Syria, Iran, or North Korea, the fact that the US is holding out the dream of zero nuclear weapons and forswearing modernization even as those states progress toward their own weapons makes the US look more like the weak horse. That encourages, rather than discourages these types of countries.
I don’t see how the advertised incentives work. These countries won’t stand down their nuclear program and say, “The Americans are renouncing weapons, so we will, too.” That is not looking at the situation as Holmes’s bad man would.
For these reasons, states that are enemies of the US, some of whom have relations with terrorist groups, will be more, not less, inclined to move toward obtaining nuclear weapons.
In my judgment, we are not being smart about proliferation by moving in the direction Obama has taken. Proliferation is going to be more, not less, of a problem.