No Nukes

By Coll, Steve | The New Yorker, April 20, 2009 | Go to article overview

No Nukes


Coll, Steve, The New Yorker


There is no madness like nuclear madness. That was the conceit of the Cold War's greatest comedy, "Dr. Strangelove," and it was the conceit of North Korea's recent rocket-launch extravaganza. By testing a missile that might one day be able to reach Alaska, Kim Jong Il tried again to win the United States' attention by appearing to be barmy--a gambit aided by the fact that he almost certainly is. That his rocket fizzled over the Pacific seemed to offer only modest consolation, at a time when the nuclear smuggler A. Q. Khan is running his own Web site from Pakistan, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in Iran, is ramping up a reelection campaign steeped in nuclear nationalism.

Along with two unfinished wars and economic freefall, President Barack Obama has inherited a less visible crisis, which may, in time, trump the others: the deterioration of the global nuclear-nonproliferation regime, which has lately reached its most fragile state of disrepair since the nineteen-eighties. At that time, South Africa became an undeclared nuclear-weapons power, and other newly industrialized nations (Taiwan, South Korea, Brazil, and Argentina, among them) quietly pursued hedging strategies that would allow them to build their own atomic weapons quickly, if they saw the need. Today, a similar but more dangerous competition--not yet an open nuclear-arms race, but a race for nuclear options--is gaining momentum in the Middle East.

Like many Israeli leaders, Iran's Arab neighbors fear that Tehran's drive to acquire nuclear weapons may now be irreversible. Some of these countries, such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, possess weak militaries, big oil reserves, and congenital fears of Iranian aggression. They have recently announced plans to buy their own notionally peaceful nuclear capabilities--plans that might later provide a hedge to keep weapons options open, or to encourage the United States to shield them. A few years ago, Syria reportedly received a plutonium-production reactor from North Korea. (Israel, which already has a nuclear arsenal, destroyed the suspect facility in a bombing raid, in 2007.) Egypt, too, is discussing bids from nuclear-power companies. In all this lies the outline of a nightmare scenario, perhaps just ten or twenty years away--a crisscrossing regime of hair-trigger nuclear deterrence among unstable governments, some of which have collaborated with religiously motivated militias and terrorists.

President Obama appears to recognize the seriousness of these trends. On his inaugural trip abroad, he dedicated an important foreign-policy address--delivered in Prague's Hradcany Square--to the challenge of nuclear proliferation. Obama reaffirmed the obligation of the United States, as a party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, to seek, as he put it, "the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons." He added:

Some argue that the spread of these weapons cannot be stopped. . . . Such fatalism is a deadly adversary. For if we believe that the spread of nuclear weapons is inevitable, then in some way we are admitting to ourselves that the use of nuclear weapons is inevitable.

Ronald Reagan, Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, and Sam Nunn are among the Cold War-era defense hawks who have preceded Obama to an embrace of nuclear abolition. Even so, it is commonplace to criticize this vision as naive, since the goal is unlikely to be achievable anytime soon. This criticism distorts the abolitionist movement's work; its supporters do not generally waste time on speculative debates about when and how a world containing precisely zero nuclear weapons might eventually be created. …

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