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June 2, 2022
Moving Nonproliferation Forward
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U.S. Nuclear Weapons Policy: Confronting Today’s Threats. Edited by George Bunn and Christopher F. Chyba

Barclay Ward

Notwithstanding occasional hand-wringing about the nuclear nonproliferation regime and assertions that it has now failed, this regime has done exactly what was expected of it when it was forged nearly 40 years ago. It has prevented widespread nuclear proliferation.

To be sure, the September 11 terrorist attacks, North Korea’s recent nuclear test, Iran’s nuclear program, and the proliferation network of Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan highlight some fundamental challenges to the nonproliferation regime that require urgent attention. Yet, over the years, the regime has proven largely successful because it has adapted to new challenges. Since amending the bedrock nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) is a near impossibility, a number of additional, tailored structures have been grafted onto the original regime. Formation of the Zangger Committee and then the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) to control the export of sensitive nuclear technology, security assurances by the nuclear-weapon states, and the gradual spread of nuclear-weapon-free zones were some of the early additions.

The last decade has offered up an especially rich assortment of initiatives necessary to extend the regime’s capabilities to meet new­ and sometimes old challenges. These initiatives have included the 1997 Model Additional Protocol, whose adherents pledge to permit increased International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections; the U.S. Nunn-Lugar program, to help former Soviet states and possibly other states dismantle and secure nuclear weapons and material; the Proliferation Security Initiative, to work with like-minded states to interdict shipments related to weapons of mass destruction (WMD); and UN Security Council Resolution 1540, which requires all states to exercise control over nuclear and other materials related to weapons of mass destruction.

These initiatives have been a response in part to concerns about the misuse of peaceful nuclear fuel-cycle technology and the increasing threat of substate actors, such as terrorists, and individual proliferators, such as Khan. At the same time, the perennial issue of nuclear disarmament continues to rumble in the halls of NPT conferences.

How far these initiatives can advance depends in part on the actions by the United States and other nuclear-weapon states in handling their own nuclear weapons. They need to demonstrate their commitment to the treaty by carrying out measures in accord with the treaty’s Article VI, which calls for steps toward nuclear disarmament. To the extent that such states can persuade non-nuclear-weapon states that they have reduced the role that nuclear weapons play in deterrence, the easier it will be to persuade them that they are fulfilling this commitment. Moreover, de-emphasizing nuclear weapons would help support the argument that the security interests of non-nuclear-weapon states are better served without nuclear weapons than with them.

The authors of U.S. Nuclear Weapons Policy examine these and other related issues in a nonpolemical, balanced way. This valuable book delivers more than what the title might suggest, as the scope of the book extends well beyond a narrow assessment of U.S. nuclear policy to a broader assessment of how that approach affects the nuclear nonproliferation regime and the overall state of the regime itself.

One focus of editors George Bunn and Christopher F. Chyba is the danger of non-nuclear-weapon states developing and mastering critical elements of the full nuclear fuel cycle, including enriching uranium to produce fuel or separating plutonium from spent fuel (reprocessing). Unfortunately, such technology, even if ostensibly acquired for peaceful purposes, can also have a direct military application and provide the fissile material for nuclear weapons. North Korea is a classic example. Iran is another candidate.

A sensible solution to this not-new problem is to find an effective way of restricting the spread of these sensitive technologies. In 2004, President George W. Bush proposed limiting exports of uranium and reprocessing technologies to those countries that already had fully functioning facilities. A year later, an IAEA experts group identified a number of other possibilities for consideration, and IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei has proposed a moratorium on building new enrichment facilities. The Group of Eight has supported a moratorium on exports of sensitive technologies to new programs.

The idea that enrichment and reprocessing should be restricted is neither new nor particularly radical. A great deal of attention was given to this problem in the 1970s. In his chapter on the history of the nuclear nonproliferation regime, Bunn who was one of the U.S. negotiators of the NPT, recalls that, in the first draft of the treaty, neither the United States nor the Soviet Union favored the spread of these technologies. The final wording of Article IV, recognizing the “inalienable right” to develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, reflected an effort to attract support from the developing world.

Even so, the NPT, while recognizing the right to develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, restricts the exercise of that right by tying it to the fulfillment of the treaty’s two nonproliferation provisions, in particular the commitment under Article II not to seek to acquire nuclear weapons. The hitch is being able to come to a common understanding in the international community on precisely when a state has crossed the line. Given that conundrum, the international community needs to reach agreement on effective means to restrict the spread of these sensitive technologies. There are many ideas on the table right now—the chapters by Chyba, Chaim Braun, and Bunn explain them well—and they should all be considered. The time has come to reach an agreed conclusion.

Substate actors such as terrorists or proliferators were simply not taken into account in the treaty’s establishment. The NPT applies only to states, as does the NSG and many other initial elements of the regime. Moreover, many states are not members of the NSG, and states such as Pakistan are neither parties to the NPT nor members of the NSG and are not, therefore, legally bound to observe norms accepted by others. To be sure, the danger of terrorists acquiring nuclear materials was recognized well before the September 11 attacks, and in part the Nunn-Lugar program was initiated to reduce the risk that nuclear materials in the former Soviet Union could fall into the wrong hands.

Nevertheless, it is not enough. We now know that. Khan, operating his vast international network from his home base in Pakistan, did quite well for himself, selling enrichment technology and equipment to eager customers such as Iran. We need a systematic global effort to prevent other Khan-type networks from emerging. This is one objective of Resolution 1540, which calls on states to maintain controls over their nuclear and other WMD materials and, above all, to keep such materials out of the hands of terrorists. The resolution also established a committee of the UN Security Council to monitor the resolution, principally through reports on implementation that states are required to submit. Compliance has been mixed so far, which, as Chyba, Braun, and Bunn point out, raises the yet unanswered question of enforcement.

The Model Additional Protocol has been one of the most important initiatives in the last decade, permitting IAEA inspectors to go beyond declared facilities and to take advantage of environmental sampling and other new technologies. There has been much debate in the nonproliferation community over the question of whether a country’s individual adoption of an additional protocol to their safeguards agreement should be required of non-nuclear-weapon states-parties to the NPT or whether it should be voluntary. So far, it has been voluntary, and to date, many NPT parties have not yet brought an additional protocol into force. So, the Model Additional Protocol represents a huge potential advancement of the regime, but the present reality still falls short.

Even if all states were to adopt an additional protocol, the authors of U.S. Nuclear Weapons Policy advocate looking for other safeguards to complement those of the IAEA. An example would be the Quadripartite Agreement, involving Brazil, Argentina, a binational agency, and the IAEA. Similarly, during negotiations for the NPT, members of the European Community argued that they already had Euratom safeguards on their facilities and the final treaty language on safeguards permits Euratom safeguards to be applied within the framework of IAEA safeguards. Above all, frequency and continuity of safeguarding is important, but if we expect the IAEA to do the safeguarding job we are demanding, the agency needs far greater financial support in this area.

The most severe criticisms in U.S. Nuclear Weapons Policy are of just that: U.S. nuclear weapons policy. The authors take a dim view of what they see as efforts to think up new missions for nuclear weapons and of the corollary idea that such new missions will require new weapons. The chapters by W. K. H. Panofsky and Dean Wilkening and by Roger Speed and Michael May present a balanced, factual consideration of policy and weapons development. Much attention is given to such documents as the Nuclear Posture Review of 2002 and the U.S. National Security Strategy released the same year. Do we really need a Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator to hit deeply buried targets? The authors doubt it. Do we need new low-yield weapons? Again, doubt. Will a national missile defense adequately protect the U.S. homeland? Not likely, the authors conclude. Better container security at ports would probably be more immediately effective.

One of the tough tasks is persuading the rest of the world that the United States is truly committed to eliminating or at least greatly reducing the numbers of nuclear weapons. U.S. officials point to the 2002 Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty and the substantial reduction of deployed strategic weapons anticipated on December 31, 2012. They urge a continuation of the nuclear test moratorium. They plug for a fissile material cutoff treaty. Almost all states agree to these measures, although in the case of fissile material cutoff, some find the absence of verification provisions puzzling.

But, states receive a mixed signal when they also read the heavy emphasis on military capabilities in the U.S. National Security Strategy, the announcement of U.S. readiness for preemptive action (really preventive war, the authors observe), statements in the nuclear posture review that new weapons might be needed, and Senate rejection of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in 1999. A quick scan of plenary statements at NPT conferences reveals that not all are convinced of the U.S. commitment to nuclear disarmament as called for in Article VI of the NPT.

As the authors note, it is not likely that non-nuclear-weapon states will decide to seek nuclear weapons simply because the United States and the other nuclear-weapon states still have them, but it is possible that they could use the continued possession of them as an excuse to duck out of their nonproliferation commitments. More worrisome to the authors is that the muscular tone of our policy pronouncements coupled with our unmatched conventional military capabilities might not necessarily dissuade states from pursuing nuclear weapons. In the opening chapter, Christopher Chyba and Karthika Sasikumar quote the Indian army chief of staff drawing a lesson from the 1991 Persian Gulf War: “Don’t fight the Americans without nuclear weapons.”

In truth, it is difficult with accuracy to predict the impact that specific policies of the nuclear-weapon states will have on the nonproliferation regime. For example, the demise of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty did not appear to stir up the hornets’ nest, as had been predicted. What the non-nuclear-weapon states seem to want most is a sense of genuine commitment to disarmament by the nuclear-weapon states and discernible movement in that direction. Moreover, it is difficult to assess the future viability of some of the pronouncements of the U.S. National Security Strategy and the nuclear posture review. To date, for example, the use of preemptive war to prevent nuclear proliferation has not been convincing.

Two final points: First, given the necessary initiatives of the past decade as well as the issues currently being discussed, we are looking at a nonproliferation regime that has the potential to be even more effective than it has been in its past. Whether reality matches potential, however, depends principally on governmental will in the international community, and right now a great deal more needs to be demonstrated. U.S. leadership is critical. As the authors of U.S. Nuclear Weapons Policy point out, the United States has always been at the forefront of the nonproliferation regime, and it is imperative that we remain fully committed. Second, as we grapple with new and old issues and launch initiatives, we need to avoid losing our focus and keep in mind that, by themselves, these initiatives are not a substitute for all that has gone before but form an integral part of the ever-evolving nonproliferation regime.

Barclay Ward is emeritus professor of political science at The University of the South.

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