Editors Note: The Atomic Dilemma

Miles Pomper

On December 8, 1953, U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower gave a landmark address to the UN General Assembly in which he pledged the United States’ “determination to help solve the fearful atomic dilemma—to devote its entire heart and mind to find the way by which the miraculous inventiveness of man shall not be dedicated to his death, but consecrated to his life.”

In the half-century since Eisenhower’s historic “Atoms for Peace” speech, U.S. efforts to construct a viable nonproliferation regime have at times been inconsistent, haphazard, and incomplete, as well as occasionally hypocritical. Nonetheless, through cooperation with other nations, U.S. presidents from both parties have built an edifice of arms control treaties and supporting export control regimes that have helped limit the spread of nuclear weapons. Rather than facing a world with dozens of nuclear powers, we can still count the number of nuclear weapons states on the fingers of both hands.

The cornerstone of this structure has been the 1968 nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), which exemplifies Eisenhower’s twin and potentially conflicting goals of limiting the spread of nuclear power for military purposes while allowing its free use for civilian needs. The treaty has been signed and ratified by every nation in the world except for India, Israel, and Pakistan. North Korea announced its withdrawal from the accord earlier this year, but a final determination of its status has not been made.

Still, that treaty and the nuclear nonproliferation regime more generally are challenged today as never before. Knowledge on how to make nuclear weapons has become increasingly available. The end of the Cold War brought a mixed blessing. It eliminated the superpower competition that had brought the United States and the Soviet Union to the brink of a nuclear holocaust. But its demise also lessened the commitment of the major nuclear powers—particularly the United States— to arms control and loosened the Kremlin’s control over its nuclear infrastructure, encouraging the dissemination of Russian nuclear expertise abroad. Moreover, the end of a bipolar security structure has eroded long-term relationships that encouraged third parties to rely on the United States and the Soviet Union, rather than their own arsenals, for their security. At the same time, the September 11 terrorist attacks raised the specter of suicidal substate actors using nuclear weapons.

This special issue of Arms Control Today seeks to take stock of these developments on the 50th anniversary of Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace” speech. George Bunn examines the historic basis of the nuclear nonproliferation regime and its effects on current crises. Joseph Cirincione and Jon B. Wolfsthal look at the crises involving Iran and North Korea, two NPT members who have sought to advance nuclear weapons programs secretly despite the treaty’s strictures. Lawrence Scheinman and Marvin Miller suggest strategies for coaxing Israel, India, and Pakistan to comply further with NPT goals in order to increase the universality of its norms. Leonard Weiss delves into the failure of the United States and other nuclear-weapon states to meet their commitments under the NPT. Finally, Peter Lavoy shows the difficulties in separating the civilian benefits of nuclear power from the dangers of nuclear proliferation. As Lavoy demonstrates, the legacy of Eisenhower’s initiative is a mixed one: through the creation of the International Atomic Energy Agency and the drafting of the NPT, some of Eisenhower’s lofty ambitions were fulfilled. Yet, determined states such as India also took advantage of this initiative to dedicate “the miraculous inventiveness of man” to death as well as life. We are still struggling to solve the “fearful atomic dilemma.”