Nuclear proliferation threatens everyone
Recent events have awakened Americans to new dangers involving nuclear weapons. International inspectors have seized documentation from Iraqi nuclear facilities showing that Saddam Hussein is only months away from possessing an atomic bomb. The breakup of the Soviet Union also has American policy makers concerned, since the ex-USSR's extensive nuclear arsenal could fall into the hands of restless republics.
Nuclear proliferation is clearly a threat to all nations. When the nuclear poker game gains additional players, especially those with unstable or totalitarian governments, the chance that someone will actually use the deadly weapons increases. Civil wars or regional conflicts could escalate to include weapons of mass destruction. With nuclear bombs in their arsenals, dictators like Saddam Hussein can more easily bully their neighbors. In addition, the spread of nuclear technology makes it easier for terrorists to acquire a crude atomic bomb.
Recognizing the threat posed by nuclear proliferation, the international community has attempted to prevent new countries from developing nuclear weapons. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, written in 1968 and subsequently signed by about 150 countries, is the most substantive of these efforts. Nations already possessing nuclear weapons (the United States, Great Britain, the Soviet Union and France) agreed to work towards arms reduction. Equally important, they pledged to ensure that their exports of equipment and materials do not assist a non-nuclear power to produce nuclear weapons. Countries without the bomb in turn agreed to use any nuclear facilities only for civilian purposes such as energy generation.
The International Atomic Energy Agency was founded to monitor compliance
with the treaty. Facilities in non-nuclear powers are subject to inspections to verify that they are not secretly developing nuclear weapons. Likewise, inspections in the United States, Great Britain, Soviet Union and France ensure compliance with the export restrictions.
By the late 1980s, most observers believed that the treaty was performing reasonably well. Nuclear weapons had not been produced by any of the signatories. The primary flaw appeared to be proliferation in countries that had never signed it. Argentina, India, Israel, Pakistan and South Africa had each joined the nuclear club, but at least the treaty was working among its signatories.
Information discovered in the last year has rendered this notion extremely naive, however. Substantial evidence indicates that at least two countries are fervently working at producing the bomb in violation of the treaty. US intelligence estimates that North Korea, one of the few remaining hard-line communist regimes, will possess a nuclear weapon within a couple years. Iraq is mere months away, and probably would already have a crude atomic bomb if not for the gulf war. Both countries have repeatedly refused full inspections by the IAEA. Confirming our suspicions that such behavior indicates guilt, international inspectors recently uncovered extensive documentation of Iraq's nuclear program.
The Bush administration's responses to the new proliferation have been extremely weak. For the most part, administration officials have looked the other way as North Korea continues its nuclear quest. Until recently, the same principle was applied to Iraq. Before the Gulf war, multiple Bush administration officials buried the evidence of Iraq's nuclear program. During the 1980s, Iraq attempted (and
sometimes succeeded) to import equipment with nuclear weapons applications from American firms. Cabinet-level officials in the Departments of State, Energy, and Commerce ignored this and other evidence until Saddam invaded Kuwait. Iraq forbade inspections even after the gulf war, violating both the Non-Proliferation Treaty and the cease-fire agreement.
After months of criticism, George Bush finally took action this fall by threatening military force if Iraq continued to refuse international inspections. Ironically, even though we now have extensive documentation of Iraq's nuclear program, it may be too late to thwart Saddam's ambitions without a land invasion and mass destruction of Iraq's nuclear facilities and equipment. The United States should have taken a strong response in the 1980s when it was still possible to prevent Saddam from acquiring the materials and equipment through international channels. North Korea's program is not as advanced, though, and there is still enough time to undermine it.
As the only superpower, the United States must take the lead in preventing further nuclear proliferation. We must focus international attention on the offending countries. They may choose to abandon nuclear weapons development rather than feel the wrath of the international community. We could push for punitive UN sanctions and persuade our allies to join us in using diplomatic and economic pressure. Secretary of State James Baker has finally started discussions about North Korea's nuclear program with officials in Japan, China, South Korea, and the ex-USSR. Those nations are in a better position than the US to influence North Korea, due to geography and prior diplomacy.
We should also focus attention on countries like Argentina and China that indiscriminantly export technology used to build nuclear weapons. Together with our allies, the United States should show them that such behavior threatens regional peace and damages their relations with the international community. Our aim should be to convince them to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which would allow inspections and information sharing to ensure against the export of materials and equipment with nuclear weapons applications.
The tactics mentioned above may sometimes require considerable arm-twisting, but the stakes are too high to justify inaction. When committed to a just cause, the United States can wield significant influence in the international community, as was shown by the multilateral response to American leadership in opposing Iraqi aggression.
Given the number of countries already possessing nuclear weapons, though, any attempt to reduce the chance of their use must also include diplomatic peace efforts not only between the United States and the ex-Soviet Union, but also in regional conflicts like the longstanding India-Pakistan dispute. Mediation by the United States or the United Nations could help foster peace between countries with lingering hostilities. Despite Bush's overall dismal performance in nuclear proliferation, he has made efforts in this area. To the extent that the US-sponsored Middle East peace talks reduce the chances of another Arab-Israeli war, they mitigate the need for those countries to develop or use nuclear weapons.
Mark A. Smith is a senior in the Department of Economics.