Wrong Priority: Rethinking the Non-Proliferation Treaty

If fifty million Frenchmen can be dead wrong, as the saying goes, so can four very senior statesmen. Over the last two years, George P. Shultz, William J. Perry, Henry A. Kissinger and Sam Nunn–all veterans of the Cold War–have … Read More

By / December 9, 2008

If fifty million Frenchmen can be dead wrong, as the saying goes, so can four very senior statesmen. Over the last two years, George P. Shultz, William J. Perry, Henry A. Kissinger and Sam Nunn–all veterans of the Cold War–have popularized the idea that the best way to protect the world from nuclear weapons is for the United States and Russia to move towards reducing their nuclear stockpiles to zero. The group–variously referred to as "the Quad," the "gang of four," and "the four horsemen of the non-apocalypse"–has gained support for this position from many of the brightest and best minds in the foreign policy business, including Ivo Daalder and Jan Lodal in the most recent issue of Foreign Affairs, and some from the Obama foreign policy shop ("Strategic Leadership: Framework for a 21st Century National Security Strategy"). And now, the highly regarded Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has called on the next president to negotiate with Russia, along the lines the Quad calls for.

If one is not blown away by all this eminence, and refuses to shut down one’s critical mind, one soon notes that this approach sets the wrong priorities both in dealing with deproliferation and in dealing with Russia. The most serious threat to our security, that of our allies, and to world peace, is very widely agreed to be that of terrorists getting their hands on a ready-made nuclear weapon. (Making new ones is much more of a challenge for them, although making radiological bombs is not nearly as taxing.) The most likely place terrorists could steal, bribe their way to, or otherwise commandeer nuclear weapons, is a country not even mentioned in either of the Quad’s main statements (January 4, 2007; January 15, 2008), nor in many of the admiring accolades that followed: Pakistan. 

The notion that if the United States and Russia will live up to their commitments under the Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which requires them to eliminate their nuclear arms, other nations will follow, has no foot to stand on. Take, for instance, Pakistan, which keeps some arms in part as a deterrent to the much larger Indian conventional forces, which it cannot match. Hence, even if India gave up its nuclear bombs (a very unlikely event) Pakistan feels it could not follow. The same holds for Israel’s stockpile and Iran’s plans to build some such bombs. All these nations have strong reasons of their own to hold such arms. They serve as a valuable deterrent, keeping their perceived enemies at bay. This and other reasons will not be modified by whatever the United States and Russia do or do not do regarding their own stockpiles.

When I mentioned this observation to a supporter of the Quad’s agenda, an expert on nuclear deproliferation, she responded that at least such superpower disarmament will stop the critics of the West from "whining." Indeed, representatives of several nations, especially India, often argue that because the big powers have not abided by their NPT commitments, they should not be expected to do better. However, the argument that if the United States and Russia behaved better, the rest would follow suit, is akin to suggesting that to deal with a student who routinely fails to bring his homework to class, "because my dog ate it," all that is needed is to take away the dog. Doing so will not make the student fulfill his duty, but merely force him to come up with another excuse.

In dealing with Russia, the greatest priority for the United States is to encourage Russia to further improve its controls over the fissile material from which nukes can be made and of the thousands of tactical nuclear arms Russia possesses. Reducing the Cold War instruments, the long range missiles and strategic nuclear weapons–on which the Quad focuses–are much less of an issue. They are already relatively well-controlled and, moreover, are not well suited for terrorists equipped with speed boats, shipping containers, and trunks, thus dismantling them is much less urgent. Even if these strategic Cold War arms are granted top priority, years will pass before new treaties are negotiated, and even then they will require the approval of the U.S. Senate, which in the past has not been very receptive to new treaties. Next, the United States is keen to gain Russia’s cooperation in stopping Iran’s nuclear militarization. Neither mission is affected by the extent to which the two powers deal with the Cold War weapons.

In short, one hopes that the new president will not be swayed by that which is popular for now, but will do first that which must be done first: Prevent terrorists from getting their hands on nukes and rogue states from developing or stock-piling these most dangerous of all weapons of mass destruction.

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