Unilateralism and Multilateralism: Analyzing American Nuclear Nonproliferation Policy

Article excerpt

Nonproliferation of nuclear weapons is a major objective of U.S. foreign policy. Since the end of the cold war, Washington has dealt with proliferation cases around the world in South Asia, North Korea, Iran, Iraq, and countries of the former Soviet Union, among others. As of now, both India and Pakistan are de facto nuclear powers, Israel is an ambiguous one, and North Korea is suspected to be in possession of a few nuclear devices. Additionally, Iran reportedly is in pursuit of its own nuclear arsenal through its domestic nuclear energy program. Furthermore, the events of September 11, 2001, highlighted the possibility of nuclear weapons falling into the hands of a terrorist group, which greatly increases the dangers from proliferation. The recent revelations of a proliferation network centered in Pakistan and providing nuclear technology to North Korea show new dimensions and tactics in this phenomenon. Thus, the concern is twofold: first, the perceived dangers of the arsenals of small states, and second, the danger of nuclear devices falling into the hands of terror groups.

In this article, I examine American nonproliferation policy in terms of its unilateral and multilateral approaches. I argue that in light of changes in the kinds of threats after the cold war, the United States is moving more toward a unilateral approach to nonproliferation. Perceptions that the old nonproliferation regime is no longer enough to challenge the threat of nuclear nonproliferation have driven this policy approach. This is not to say that the multilateral way has been abandoned; in fact, it is slowly but steadily being refashioned to accommodate U.S. nonproliferation goals.

The rest of the article is divided into three sections. The first section briefly examines the theoretical aspects of nuclear proliferation to see how it fits into current threats and realities. These realities include the emergence of nonstate actors and the presence of nuclear states outside the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). The second section deals with the unilateral element of American nonproliferation policy to examine the rationale and effect of specific actions on the proliferation agenda. The third section looks at the multilateral side of nonproliferation policy, which includes measures that traditional multilateral regimes have been unable to handle.


In this section, I briefly summarize the debate at the heart of the issue: How dangerous is the threat from nuclear proliferation? Its importance stems from the implications it has for nonproliferation policy. If nuclear proliferation achieves a more "benign" status, this potentially could mean a change in policy in Washington. Instead of looking for ways to roll back proliferation, policymakers would be concerned with ensuring stable command and control systems to bring in stable deterrence. On the other hand, a blanket condemnation of nuclear proliferation theoretically implies that all extra-NPT weapons proliferation should be reversed. The objectives behind the unilateral-multilateral approaches to U.S. nonproliferation policy have to be understood in terms of how threats are being perceived in Washington and how serious these threats actually are.

In recent years, the debate has been divided between the proliferation pessimists and the optimists. (1) Pessimists state that the proliferation of nuclear weapons causes instability, and such weapons in the hands of more countries run the risk of their being used because of the differences in the arsenals of the new nuclear nations and the established ones. The proliferation optimist states that when nuclear weapons are introduced into a security dyad, this forces opposing sides to adopt caution in their dealings. The prospect of nuclear annihilation moves states away from the narrow, nationalistic attitude that would force them toward conflict.

The offensive use of force can persuade states to opt for preventive war options when they perceive that an adversary is gaining on them militarily. …