Missed Opportunities: Washington Politics and Nuclear Proliferation

By Wilson, Heather | The National Interest, Winter 1993 | Go to article overview
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Missed Opportunities: Washington Politics and Nuclear Proliferation


Wilson, Heather, The National Interest


IN HIS FIRST press conference after winning the election, Bill Clinton listed his top five foreign policy priorities. Third on his list, after cutting the defense budget and reducing nuclear arsenals, was "working hard to stop the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction." That President Clinton gave this task such salience reflected the increasing seriousness of the proliferation threat.

In recent months, the proliferation problem has become specific and acute. In early November, as North Korea made menacing noises about the possibility of UN sanctions, and increased its troops along the DMZ, President Clinton acknowledged that North Korea's likely development of nuclear weapons is a "grave issue" for the United States. At the same time, he admitted that there is "a lot of disagreement about what we should do" to stop them.

The determination of one of the world's least rational regimes to build nuclear weapons highlights the importance of developing an effective policy to control proliferation and to respond to proliferants when our efforts at control fail.

This same lesson should have been learned from the Gulf War. Through the mechanism of UN inspections, we discovered after the war that our intelligence about the Iraqi nuclear weapons program had woefully underestimated the progress the Iraqis had made. While the intelligence community spent months on lessons learned, the most important lesson didn't require much analysis: countries like Iraq can build nuclear weapons and we can't be confident we know about it. The cold reality of fighting a war against a regional power which was on the verge of having weapons of mass destruction revealed our vulnerabilities, even if we were fortunate enough to have escaped paying a huge price.

In the months following the Gulf War, the collapse of the Soviet Union reduced the danger of a global thermonuclear war almost to zero. But in an ironic twist of fate, its collapse also ushered in an era of disorder in which the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and the expertise to build them has accelerated.

In response to this growing threat, the United States should by now have adopted a comprehensive non-proliferation program. Such a program would have focused, to begin with, on developing new defensive technologies and enhancing and integrating intelligence capabilities. This should have been coupled with an effective emergency assistance program to accelerate safe and secure dismantlement of the former Soviet arsenal and to ensure that former Soviet bomb builders do not ply their trade in hostile countries. An active regional strategy should have been combined with a strengthening of export controls to deter potential proliferants. Finally, single Washington agencies should have been empowered to coordinate and implement the different elements of the non-proliferation program, with specific policy guidance from the White House. None of this has happened.

The Gravity of the Threat

FOR A LONG time, the nuclear club was one of the world's most exclusive: the United States, the Soviet Union, China, France, and Britain were the only acknowledged members. Even before proliferation became a significant concern in the late 1980s, there was a handful of states which probably qualified for membership in this exclusive group, most notably India, Israel, South Africa, and Pakistan. But the neighborhood around the club is changing and more states are aspiring to membership. The spread of computers and advanced technology and the growth of scientifically trained elites is making it possible for less wealthy states to begin to develop and maintain a nuclear capability.(1)

While states engaged in nuclear weapons research may choose to terminate their programs before they actually develop weapons, Taiwan, Iran, Algeria, and Libya are conducting such research. Argentina and Brazil went beyond research and began to develop nuclear material production facilities before their widely praised decisions to refrain from further development.

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