For over five decades, the United States has sought to make the acquisition and development of nuclear weapons more technically challenging and less acceptable. Republican and Democratic leaders alike have worked to restrain unbridled nuclear weapons competition and to stop the spread of these deadly weapons through the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) of 1968 and associated diplomatic strategies.
Even as the nonproliferation system has become more sophisticated, the challenges it confronts have become more complex. Over the last decade, the NPT has endured successive crises involving Iraqi and North Korean nuclear weapons programs. Iran now appears to be on the verge of a nuclear weapons capability. Non-NPT member states India, Pakistan, and Israel have advanced their nuclear weapons programs with relative impunity. The possibility of terrorist acquisition of nuclear weapons has added a new layer of risk.
In the face of these problems, it has become fashionable for many U.S. policymakers to dismiss arms control and nonproliferation as ineffective. Instead, they emphasize the role of pre-emptive military action and the pursuit of new nuclear-weapon capabilities to dissuade and destroy adversaries seeking weapons of mass destruction. Such an approach would forfeit essential nonproliferation tools and provide a false sense of security.
In practical terms, military pre-emption is no substitute for a comprehensive and consistent preventive approach. As the recent U.S. experience in Iraq shows, wars cost lives and money and lead to unintended consequences; nonmilitary solutions should not be undervalued. Iraq’s nuclear program was actually dismantled through special international weapons inspections, which likely could have contained the Iraqi weapons threat if they had been allowed to continue.
Proliferation problems in North Korea and Iran defy easy military solutions. In both cases, multilateral diplomacy aimed at the verifiable halt of dangerous nuclear activities is the preferred course. Nuclear proliferation must be met with firm resolve but not in a way that creates an even more uncertain and dangerous future. Rather, the United States must strengthen and adapt—not abandon—preventive diplomacy and arms control. Nonproliferation efforts have succeeded when U.S. leadership has been consistent and steadfast.
The NPT security framework has led several states to abandon their nuclear weapons programs. The NPT is so broadly supported that, in addition to the original five nuclear-weapon states, only three clearly have nuclear arsenals and they are outside the NPT. Cooperation with international inspections and safeguards against proliferation are now a standard expectation of all states. U.S.-Soviet agreements corralled their nuclear arms competition and increased transparency, thereby reducing instability and the risk of nuclear war.
Nevertheless, the evolving nature of the nuclear threat requires a more comprehensive and robust global nonproliferation strategy. First, the United States should fully support strengthened international monitoring and inspection capabilities, which aid U.S. intelligence and provide the basis for collective action against noncompliance. Evidence of North Korea’s illicit nuclear weapons work was discovered in 1992 as a result of that country joining the NPT and agreeing to inspections. The dangerous extent of Iran’s nuclear program has been revealed only through new international inspections.
Second, all cases of nuclear proliferation must be addressed. The United States and other global powers can no longer ignore the possession of nuclear weapons by their allies and friends. Although India and Pakistan are not a direct threat to the United States, they do threaten one another, and so long as Israel possesses nuclear weapons, others in the region will likely seek them too. China has aided Pakistan’s nuclear program, and in turn, Pakistan has aided North Korea and Iran.
It is also time for the international community to consider new ways to restrict access to dangerous nuclear technologies. The NPT guarantee of access to “peaceful” nuclear technology and the broad diffusion of that technology has allowed states such as Iran to acquire uranium-enrichment or plutonium-production facilities useful for weapons. The availability of the most weapons-relevant technologies can be limited without denying access to basic and legitimate nuclear power technology.
Finally, the United States and other nuclear-weapon states must reduce the role of nuclear weapons. To comply with their own NPT disarmament commitments, they must actually dismantle—not test and improve—their deadly stockpiles. In the long run, the continued possession and threat of use of nuclear weapons by a few undermines the security of all. Without more effective U.S. leadership in each of these areas, the struggle against proliferation will fall short and leave a more dangerous world for generations to come.