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December 16, 2016
Avoiding the Tipping Point

The Nuclear Tipping Point: Why States Reconsider Their Nuclear Choices. Edited by Kurt M. Campbell, Robert J. Einhorn, and Mitchell B. Reiss, Brookings Institution Press, July 2004, 285 pp.

Thomas Graham Jr.

In 1958, British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan made clear the reason the United Kingdom acquired nuclear weapons. Referring to the British nuclear-weapon program, Macmillan said in a television interview that “the independent contribution [i.e., British nuclear weapons]...puts us where we ought to be, in the position of a great power.”

Likewise, in a November 1961 speech, French President Charles de Gaulle said that “a great state” that does not have nuclear weapons when others do “does not command its own destiny.” After the May 1998 Indian nuclear test, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee announced with pride, “We have a big bomb now, India is a nuclear-weapon state.” Although it is a historical accident, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) are the five nuclear-weapon states sanctioned by the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). The belief held by many of the 182 NPT non-nuclear-weapon states that some nuclear-weapon states cling to nuclear weapons as their political claim to great-power status is not without foundation.

Indeed, in the early 1960s, there were predictions that there could be as many as 25-30 nuclear-weapon states within a couple of decades. President John F. Kennedy feared that nuclear weapons would sweep all over the world. If this had happened, there would be a large number of nuclear-weapon states in the world today: International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei said in September that “40 countries or more now have the know-how to produce nuclear weapons.” If they had all chosen to exploit this capability, it would be impossible to keep nuclear weapons out of the hands of terrorist organizations and rogue states.

Yet, there has been very little actual nuclear weapons proliferation since the entry into force of the NPT in 1970, far from what Kennedy feared. Beyond the five NPT nuclear-weapon states, Israel and India were already far along in their programs in 1970. The only additional states truly to acquire and maintain nuclear weapons since that time are Pakistan and probably North Korea.

Reversing years of nuclear abstention would be long and difficult. Nevertheless, if a perception that the NPT regime has collapsed beyond repair takes hold, other countries could decide that they must join the nuclear bandwagon.

Many books have been written on the nuclear policies of the states that never subscribed to the NPT—India, Pakistan, and Israel—as well as those countries that have threatened the NPT from within—Iraq, Iran, and North Korea. Yet, there has not been the same attention to the nuclear policies of states that have been stalwart in their observance of the provisions and principles of the NPT and who are central to the continued viability of the regime. This makes The Nuclear Tipping Point a most timely and valuable publication. This important volume edited by Kurt Campbell, Robert Einhorn, and Mitchell Reiss—all highly prominent and respected nonproliferation experts who also contribute to the book—examines in detail the cases of Egypt, Syria, Germany, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan.

These countries together have provided a cornerstone of the NPT regime: an assurance to the pact’s many non-nuclear-weapon states that their regional neighbors will not acquire nuclear weapons. When the NPT was negotiated in the late 1960s, some of the negotiating parties were worried that this implicit pledge would not hold and so supported limiting the NPT initially to 25 years rather than granting it permanent status. By 1995 the NPT’s success had been demonstrated to the point that states-parties agreed to extend the treaty indefinitely.

A crucial underpinning for these actions has been provided by the United States: the nuclear “umbrella” it used to shelter its allies in Europe (most importantly, Germany) and Asia (Japan and South Korea). During the Cold War, U.S. allies could enjoy the protection of nuclear deterrence without building nuclear arsenals and without creating a nuclear weapons infrastructure that would be politically difficult to dismantle. Giving up nuclear weapons, or any other means of strength and security, is not a natural action for states, but it is far easier to forswear them than to eliminate them once an arsenal is in place.

Even more important has been the international norm against nuclear-weapon proliferation established by the NPT. In 1960, after the first French nuclear-weapon test, there were banner newspaper headlines, “Vive La France.” Yet, by the time of the first Indian nuclear explosion in 1974, the test was done surreptitiously, India received worldwide condemnation and New Delhi hastened to explain that this had been a “peaceful” test. What had intervened was the NPT. It converted the acquisition of nuclear weapons by a state from an act of national pride in 1960 to an act contrary to international law in 1974.

The NPT is based on a central bargain: the NPT non-nuclear-weapon states agree never to acquire nuclear weapons and the NPT nuclear-weapon states in exchange agree to share the benefits of peaceful nuclear technology and to pursue nuclear disarmament aimed at the ultimate elimination of their nuclear arsenals. To use the words of a former Indian foreign minster, the NPT was not designed to establish “nuclear apartheid,” permanently authorizing great-power status and nuclear weapons to a small group of states and assigning the rest of the world to permanent second-class status. Maintaining both ends of this central bargain is vitally important to the long-term viability of the NPT.

In the view of many of the NPT non-nuclear-weapon states, however, the NPT nuclear-weapon states have not lived up to their disarmament commitments. Most importantly, the nuclear “have-nots” point to the failure by the nuclear “haves,” principally the United States, to put a permanent ban on nuclear-weapon testing in place—the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) was finally opened for signature in 1996, but it is unlikely to come into force in the foreseeable future—and the political value of nuclear weapons remains as high as it was during the Cold War. The U.S. Nuclear Posture Review of 2001 explicitly contemplated the use of nuclear weapons not only against Russia and China, but also against Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Syria, and Libya—at the time, all NPT non-nuclear-weapon states. If the possession of a nuclear arsenal retains its high political value to NPT nuclear-weapon states, particularly the United States, the ability to persuade states not to acquire these weapons may diminish.

Add to that the withdrawal of North Korea from the NPT in 2003 and its likely acquisition of at least several nuclear weapons; the increasingly suspect Iranian nuclear program; and the disclosure of an illegal secret network of nuclear technology supply headed by Abdul Qadeer Khan, the “father” of the Pakistani program; and many are saying that the NPT is broken and must be fixed or, worse, is irrelevant. Heightening these concerns about the NPT is the threat of international terrorism and the possibility that terrorists may somehow come into possession of a nuclear weapon and actually use it against a large city somewhere. The NPT regime appears fragile, and many fear for its long-term viability.

The news from the states whose nuclear policies are analyzed in The Nuclear Tipping Point is essentially good as long as the NPT regime remains reasonably healthy. The book’s editors conclude that the NPT regime remains much stronger than some believe it is and that reversing years of nuclear abstention would be long and difficult. Germany, for example, is deeply committed to remaining a non-nuclear-weapon state, according to Jenifer Mackby and Walter Slocombe.

Nevertheless, if a perception that the NPT regime has collapsed beyond repair takes hold, other countries, such as Japan, could decide that they must join the nuclear bandwagon.

As Kurt Campbell and Tsuyoshi Sunohara point out in their essay, many experts already consider Japan a “virtual” nuclear-weapon state because of its technological capability and the large amount of plutonium it possesses. Some of Tokyo’s senior diplomats complain that they have been treated like a second-class nation in the international arena because Japan does not have nuclear weapons. Further, Japanese officials have grown increasingly concerned by what they view as a deterioration in the NPT regime, including the recent U.S. moves and, most disturbingly, the way North Korea has been able to pursue nuclear weapons from within the NPT and the nuclear threat Pyongyang poses.

In some ways, the most timely and foreboding essay is written about South Korea by Jonathan Pollack and Mitchell Reiss, now the Department of State’s policy planning director. A few weeks ago, news reports claimed that South Korea had conducted uranium-enrichment experiments as recently as a year ago, thereby indicating that its nuclear infrastructure is alive and well. (See ACT, October 2004.)

Polack and Reiss point out that China is increasingly the principal economic and political partner for South Korea and under no conceivable circumstance would South Korea ever countenance force by the United States against North Korea to eliminate its nuclear-weapon program. They posit the question in conclusion whether, after the ultimate disappearance of the regime in the North and an eventual successful reunification of the Korean peninsula, Korea would wish to remain a non-nuclear-weapon state or rather might the Korean people decide to retain the nuclear weapons they inherit from the North and emboldened by the end of a century of humiliation and division conclude that nuclear weapons are essential to security in a still dangerous world.

To prevent slippage in the nonproliferation regime, the editors offer a number of policy recommendations: stop Iran and North Korea (if this remains possible) from becoming nuclear-weapon states; alleviate security concerns by strengthening alliances; raise barriers to nuclear acquisition by discouraging independent fuel-cycle capabilities and securing fissile material in the former Soviet Union and elsewhere; strengthen verification and intelligence, in part by wider adherence to the IAEA Additional Protocol for verification; and follow a long-term strategy to devalue the role of nuclear weapons in the international system. As it is with many things, the NPT regime is affected by politics as much as security. The possession of a nuclear arsenal still significantly affects the status of a state. For the NPT regime to succeed long-term, this high political value of nuclear weapons must recede into the past. For this to happen, the United States must lead by example. No example would be stronger than U.S. ratification of the CTBT.

Strong U.S. leadership, the editors say, is needed to harness partners and institutions and to keep countries away from the nuclear tipping point where proliferation becomes inevitable and uncontrollable. They assert we are not near the tipping point now, nor are we necessarily destined to reach it, but they note that, once the tipping process becomes identifiable in the NPT regime, it may be very difficult to stop.

Thomas Graham Jr. is a former Special Representative of the President for Arms Control, Nonproliferation, Disarmament. In this and other senior capacities he participated in every major arms control/nonproliferation negotiation in which the United States took part from 1970 to 1997. Ambassador Graham is the author of Disarmament Sketches (University of Washington Press, 2002), Cornerstones of Security with Damien LaVera (University of Washington Press, 2003), and Common Sense on Weapons of Mass Destruction (University of British Columbia Press, 2004).


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