"I find hope in the work of long-established groups such as the Arms Control Association...[and] I find hope in younger anti-nuclear activists and the movement around the world to formally ban the bomb."

– Vincent Intondi
Professor of History, Montgomery College
July 1, 2020
How Will the Iraq War Change Global Nonproliferation Strategies?

Joseph Cirincione

Trying to determine what the Iraq war will mean for global nonproliferation regimes is difficult. The war is less than a month old, and the many uncertainties that remain make it hard to render an assessment with sufficient confidence. Even within the time that it takes to write these words and print them, dramatic events might occur that change this article’s tentative conclusions. As Yogi Berra said, “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” Nonetheless, even at this point, it is useful to examine how leading policy-makers in the administration would like the nonproliferation regimes to change and to outline the key questions we must answer to forge a new strategy.

From Eliminating Weapons to Regimes

If President George W. Bush’s vision of a quick military victory, a benign and untroubled occupation, and the quick construction of a democratic Iraq is correct, the rules and structures of the international system might be further rewritten in favor of a U.S.-centric system. But even if the war goes badly and the occupation is difficult, many in the Bush administration can be expected to push on boldly, lest they lose momentum. In Washington, the executive branch almost always sets the agenda, and the Bush administration is particularly good at this.

Still, it is a bit erroneous to talk about “the administration” as a single unit. Until the White House makes final decisions, there is fierce contention among various groups within the government on national security issues. Most observers see three main factions: the moderate internationalists, led by Secretary of State Colin Powell; the national conservatives, sometimes epitomized by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld; and the aggressive neoconservatives, led by Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz. Mark Danner of The New Yorker characterizes what I call the moderates as the pragmatists in line with the policies of the administration of President George H. W. Bush. “These are so-called realists. They believe that foreign policy is the patient management of alliances, competitions and, to some extent, conflict.”1

The neoconservatives, on the other hand, “take a somewhat ideological and almost evangelical view of the world,” says Danner. They believe that American power “should be used to change the world, not simply to manage it.” Finally, the traditional conservatives have little use for international organizations and would not favor overseas deployments unless vital U.S. interests were threatened.

Unless the war turns into a quagmire, the neoconservatives can be expected to continue their dominance of the policy apparatus and to press their carefully constructed agenda. That consists primarily of a “permanent regime change” policy focused on the Middle East. “There is tremendous potential to transform the region,” says Richard Perle, a prominent neoconservative who recently resigned as chairman of the Defense Policy Board. “If a tyrant like Saddam [Hussein] can be brought down, others are going to begin to think…and act to bring down the tyrants that are afflicting them.”2

There might be less unity among neoconservatives after the war, however, as some might want to turn their sights on Iran, others on Syria, and still others might argue for action against North Korea. Traditional conservatives who support the Iraq war might split from the neoconservatives’ radical and expensive agenda, preferring to consolidate gains and start bringing troops home. They might find that they have a lot more in common with moderate Republicans concerned about deficits and homeland defense than with neoconservative ambitions for global transformation.

Still, the neoconservatives are firmly established in the administration, and their ideas have captured the minds of the president and his key advisers. Most now see this as a pivotal moment in world history, comparing it to the years 1945-1947 when a small group in the White House led the construction of the institutions that shaped the Western world throughout the Cold War, including the United Nations, NATO, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the development of the doctrine of containment. National security adviser Condoleezza Rice told Nicholas Lemann of The New Yorker that September 11 “has started shifting the tectonic plates in international politics. And it’s important to try to seize on that and position American interests and institutions and all of that before they harden again.”

These institutions are now outdated, according to some, as is the central principle that has guided U.S. nonproliferation policy since World War II. For more than 40 years, there has been a bipartisan consensus that focused on eliminating nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons. The weapons themselves were the problem: as long as they existed, they would be used. “The weapons of war must be abolished before they abolish us, ” President John F. Kennedy said in September 1961. “The mere existence of modern weapons…is a source of horror and discord and distrust.” Thus, Kennedy started, Lyndon Johnson completed, and Richard Nixon signed the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) that promised the elimination of nuclear weapons. Nixon unilaterally ended the U.S. biological weapons program in 1969 and negotiated the Biological Weapons Convention that bans these deadly arsenals. George H. W. Bush in 1993 signed the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) that similarly bans chemical weapons, and President Bill Clinton won its ratification in 1997.

Since the end of the Cold War, there has been general agreement that the most serious threat to the national security of the United States “is posed by the proliferation of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons and their means of delivery,” as Clinton put it in November 1998. But George W. Bush has changed that formula. Now, as he said in his 2003 State of the Union address, “The gravest danger facing America and the world is outlaw regimes that seek and possess nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.” (Emphasis added.)

The new clause makes all the difference. The focus has shifted from eliminating weapons to eliminating certain regimes that have those weapons. It is a strategy of picking and choosing good guys and bad guys. Possession of these weapons by allied or friendly regimes is tolerated, even encouraged, while governments designated as threats must not only disarm, but be deposed. In this strategy, universal norms and treaties are a hindrance to U.S. freedom of action, not strategic levers in the battle against nonproliferation.

Burning the Bridges We’re On

To neoconservatives, the construction of new institutions begins with the destruction of the old. They say the failure of George W. Bush to win UN Security Council support for the war shows that the United Nations itself must go. Columnist George Will writes, “The United Nations is not a good idea badly implemented, it is a bad idea.”3 The March 17 cover of the Weekly Standard is devoted to “Present at the Destruction: The United Nations Implodes.” Inside, contributing editor David Gelernter says the United Nations “today is an impediment to world safety. It should be replaced.…The core of the new organization—call it the Big Three—would be a Britain-Russia-America triumvirate.” In another example of neoconservative thinking, Charles Krauthammer, America’s most passionate unilateralist, tells the president in the Washington Post simply to “walk away.”4

Such extreme views are now commonplace in neoconservative circles. Yet, many noted foreign policy experts find it difficult to take this challenge seriously. “What is most striking is just how relevant the United Nations has become,” argues Anne-Marie Slaughter, dean of Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. “And contrary to all the bluster on both sides of the Atlantic, that will continue to be true.”5

Unfortunately, Slaughter appears to be wrong. Her mistake, however, is understandable. In its public statements, the Bush administration has sought to minimize opposition and please both the neoconservatives and the mainstream foreign policy establishment. The best example of this schizophrenic approach is the Bush administration’s September 2002 National Security Strategy. At one point, the document appeals to more traditional thinkers:

We are also guided by the conviction that no nation can build a safer, better world alone. Alliances and multilateral institutions can multiply the strength of freedom-loving nations. The United States is committed to lasting institutions like the United Nations, the World Trade Organization, the Organization of American States and NATO as well as other long-standing alliances.

The National Security Strategy, however, cut and pasted verbal concessions to outsiders and administration moderates alongside more hard-line views. Indeed, we can now see that the document drafters were willing to put in multilateral boilerplate as long as they could get official blessing for the radical new concepts of pre-emption and unilateral action. They had learned from bitter experience: These ideas were put forward by Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz a decade ago in the first Bush administration but were harshly rejected. Given another chance, the neoconservatives have sought to advance their agenda with stealth tactics.

The drive to war in Iraq quickly sacrificed multilateral principles in favor of the more deeply felt new doctrine, also in the strategy: “We will not hesitate to act alone” and, “if necessary, act preemptively.” In this view, there is no need for permanent alliances or permanent multilateral organizations. Indeed, these are seen as impediments to U.S. action, unnecessary fetters on American power. Why should the greatest nation on Earth be forced to seek the approval of Cameroon for its vital national security policies?

Similarly, NATO is now treated as a tool kit for the administration. When they see something they need, they take it; otherwise, it is ignored. As Wolfowitz noted in his draft 1992 defense policy guidance, the United States “should expect future coalitions to be ad hoc assemblies” that might not outlive a particular crisis. “The United States,” he argued, “should be postured to act independently when collective action cannot be orchestrated.”

The End of UN Inspections?

The idea that the United States would cast aside key international institutions that we ourselves created and that are so integral to the idea of collective security might seem incomprehensible. Surely, the United Nation’s work on hunger, women, children, and other causes is too valuable to lose? But even if the more extreme views in the administration are moderated and the United States continues to cooperate with the United Nations, the attacks on the inspections process in Iraq might have fatally weakened all international inspection operations.

In order to press the case that war was the only way to save the world from Saddam Hussein, the administration had to diminish, defile, and dismiss inspection efforts. Most of the fire was focused on the UN Monitoring, Verification, and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC) and its leader Hans Blix, but if anything, the International Atomic Energy Agency is hated more, particularly for its repeated rebuttal of administration charges that Iraq had an active nuclear weapons program.

If the administration did not trust UN inspectors in Iraq, why should it trust them in Iran, North Korea, or any other state? But what could take their place? After all, the United States depends on UN inspections to monitor compliance with key nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons treaties.

Post-war Iraq might provide an alternative model of inspections more amenable to the neoconservatives’ new doctrines. Senior national security aides have been working on the concept of U.S.-based disarmament teams for months. Former UN Special Commission (UNSCOM) weapons inspectors have been drawn into this new disarmament apparatus by the Pentagon, alongside intelligence analysts and veterans from the Cooperative Threat Reduction program, which helps secure and dismantle weapons of mass destruction in the former Soviet Union. “Mobile Exploitation Teams” of inspectors are in Iraq equipped with the latest detection technologies, including:6

  • Chemical Agent Monitors, hand-held devices for rapid detection of chemical molecules.
  • Portable Isotopic Neutron Spectroscopy, which uses a neutron beam to identify the contents of sealed containers.
  • Handheld Advanced Nucleic Acid Analyzers, which can identify specific sequences of DNA in biological samples (such as those for anthrax) within 15 minutes.
  • Laser-Induced Breakdown Spectroscopy, which can precisely identify materials from a distance.

All the plans to find and eliminate Iraqi arms were drawn up independently of UN weapons inspections. They might prove an attractive alternative to chronically underfunded and geographically balanced international inspection teams. These would be under complete U.S. control and could be used in a bilateral process between the United States and the offending country, much as the U.S.-Soviet inspections were conducted during the Cold War, although these would be strictly one-way.

Rebuilding the Regime

Three excellent articles in this and the March 2003 issues of Arms Control Today address the key issues involved with the administration’s policies toward the use of nuclear weapons, the salami tactics being used to bring us closer to resuming testing of new nuclear weapons, and the anemic support provided for nuclear nonproliferation efforts. Representative John Spratt (D-SC) warns in one of these pieces of “a dangerous drift” in U.S. policy. “My greatest concern is that some in the administration and in Congress seem to think that the United States can move the world in one direction while Washington moves in another—that we can continue to prevail on other countries not to develop nuclear weapons while we develop new tactical applications for such weapons and possibly resume nuclear testing,” he writes.

The war is likely to exacerbate this drift. Spratt last month laid out a clear agenda for what he believes is a better course. Similarly, Sidney Drell, James Goodby, Raymond Jeanloz, and Robert Peurifoy in their March article detailed steps to strengthen the NPT. In the current issue, Michael Beck and Seema Gahlaut call for restructuring the current export control regimes. All of these suggestions make sense. They must be placed, however, in the context of a new, overarching strategy that recognizes both the flaws of the existing nonproliferation regime and the value of some of the correctives proposed by regime critics.

This strategy does not yet exist. It needs to be created—and soon. Then and only then can we progress beyond just repairing a regime badly damaged by neglect, disagreement, noncompliance, and outright rejection to rebuilding it entirely into a new, stronger, more universally accepted barrier to the spread of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons.

“Conservative defense intellectuals and officials deserve credit for highlighting the fact that effective nonproliferation requires changes in the policies of governments of states unwilling to abide by international laws and norms,” notes George Perkovich. “Yet they then proceed to make the reverse mistake, looking only at the outlaws and ignoring the challenges posed by nuclear weapons in general.”7

Still, it will not do to try to go back to the antebellum regime. Clearly, changes are needed, and new approaches must be tried. It should be possible to join the best of both the traditional and the new approaches. This new synthesized strategy could be developed around key questions that I and my colleagues at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace are proposing as a starting point for our efforts.8

Key Questions for a New Strategy

1. What are the most pressing proliferation dangers that a nonproliferation strategy must address?

2. What are the strengths and liabilities of the traditional, treaty-based approach? How can a regime designed for a world of state actors be adapted to deal effectively with nonstate threats as well? How can recent experiences help strengthen enforcement of the nonproliferation regime?

3. Under what conditions are regime change and/or military pre-emption a viable policy for preventing proliferation or blocking its consequences? Does focusing nonproliferation policy only on certain regimes—Iran, Iraq, and North Korea—while implicitly accepting others’ possession of nuclear weapons—India, Israel, and Pakistan—undermine long-term prospects of preventing proliferation?

4. Can the strengths of both approaches be captured in a coherent synthesis? Where do they clash counter-productively?

5. Neither coercive counterproliferation nor the current nonproliferation regime fulfills the requirement for detailed and reliable accounting and monitoring of global fissile material stocks. What steps must be taken to establish such an accounting and monitoring system?

6. How can we strengthen cooperative threat reduction policies and techniques? Conversely, what is the potential of coercive inspections and disarmament techniques?

7. Drawing from the new and the traditional approaches, what are likely to be the most effective strategies for dealing with the toughest remaining cases—North Korea and Iran?

8. Is it desirable or necessary to find a “legal” place for India, Israel, and Pakistan within the nonproliferation regime? If so, how can this be done without weakening the regime? If not, what are the implications of their not being accommodated formally? In either case, how can the threat of nuclear war in South Asia or the Middle East be reduced?

9. Are new approaches needed to replace the two central “bargains” of the NPT?

  • The Article IV commitment by the nuclear “haves” to assist the “have-nots” in gaining the benefits of peaceful applications of nuclear technology and know-how. In the case of Iran, and perhaps elsewhere, the United States argues that peaceful cooperation cannot be prevented from providing military applications.
  • The Article VI commitment by the nuclear “haves,” updated in 1995, to pursue a cessation of the nuclear arms race and other steps toward nuclear disarmament. U.S. refusal to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty is only the most dramatic example of disregard for these commitments.

10. If these elements of the old bargain are tacitly being discarded by the nuclear “haves,” will the “have-nots” at some point make this a global crisis? How can the existing commitment of the member states to the NPT be sustained if the terms of the bargain are being changed? What would be the real effects of a weakened or shattered international nonproliferation regime?

A comprehensive, international nonproliferation strategy should be based on solid, validated answers to these questions. Developing those answers will not be easy. Achieving political consensus around them will be even more difficult. However, if there is one assumption that will certainly still be true after the Iraq war, it is that the existence and spread of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons will remain an urgent public concern and policy problem. The nonproliferation community must forge a new national and international strategy that can win broad consensus, or it risks abandonment by a frightened public or displacement by illusionists promoting quick military cures.


1. “The War Behind Closed Doors,” Frontline, PBS, January 25, 2003.
2. Ibid.
3. George F. Will, “U.N. Absurdity,” The Washington Post, March 13, 2003, p. A23.
4. Charles Krauthammer, “Don’t Go Back to the U.N.,” The Washington Post, March 21, 2003, p. A37.
5. Anne-Marie Slaughter, “The Will to Make It Work,” The Washington Post, March 2, 2003, p. B1.
6. Debora MacKenzie, “Experts to Hunt for Banned Iraqi Weapons," New Scientist, March 21, 2003, available at http://www.newscientist.com/news/news.jsp?id=ns99993534.
7. George Perkovich, “Bush’s Nuclear Revolution: A Regime Change in Nonproliferation,” Foreign Affairs, March-April 2003.
8. These questions were developed as part of a collaborative project involving George Perkovich, Rose Gottemoeller, Jessica Mathews, Michael Swaine, Jon Wolfsthal, and others at the Carnegie Endowment. The author alone takes responsibility for the particular wording in this article.


Joseph Cirincione is the lead author of Deadly Arsenals: Tracking Weapons of Mass Destruction (Carnegie Endowment, 2002) and the director of the Nonproliferation Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.