NO NUKES IS GOOD NUKES: Nuclear Proliferation

Tuesday, February 15, 2000

For decades the United States, the former Soviet Union, China, Britain and France were the world's only nuclear powers. But that is changing. When India and Pakistan conducted nuclear weapons tests in 1998, they demonstrated that they had both the ability and the will to build nuclear weapons. Is the United States doing enough to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons? Are we prepared for the very real possibility that nations such as North Korea and Iran may soon be able to build nuclear weapons?

Recorded on Tuesday, February 15, 2000

Peter Robinson: Welcome to "Uncommon Knowledge". I'm Peter Robinson. Our show today, nuclear proliferation. The first nation to develop nuclear weapons? The United States. Followed, soon after the end of the Second World War by the Soviet Union. For some years, that was that. These were the only nations to possess nuclear weapons.

Then they were followed by Great Britain, France, and China. And for some decades, that was that. These five nations were the only members of the nuclear club. As clubs go, it was an especially exclusive one because the membership fees were so high. Very few nations possessed the money, the technical ability, and the political will to build nuclear weapons.

But now, that has changed. For some time now Israel has been an undeclared member of the nuclear club. And in Scott Sagan:998 India and Pakistan conducted open tests of nuclear weapons.

As nuclear weapons proliferate to more and more nations, what should the United States do? What can the United States do? American intelligence now estimates that in just a few years rogue nations such as North Korea and Iran will develop nuclear missiles capable of striking the United States itself. Are we prepared?

With us today: three guests. Scott Sagan is codirector of Stanford University Center for International Security and Cooperation. William Potter is at the Monterrey Institute of International Studies. And Sumit Ganguly is at Hunter College in Manhattan. All three agree on one point. The more nations that possess nuclear weapons, the greater the danger.

No Nukes is Good Nukes

The former arms negotiator, Thomas Gramm, Jr., said recently, I quote him: "The likelihood of a nuclear weapon being used now is greater than at any time since the Cuban Missile Crisis."

Is Mr. Graham correct. Scott?

Scott Sagan: He is correct, especially with respect to South Asia.

Peter Robinson: Sumit?

Sumit Ganguly: I disagree. I don't think that there is any greater likelihood of nuclear usage today.

Peter Robinson: Scott, relax. Bill?

William Potter: I would agree with Scott. I think that there is a greater probability today than there has been in the recent past.

Peter Robinson: You're outvoted, Sumit. These are more dangerous times than you think. The fundamental framework for the current nuclear nonproliferation regime was established, you will correct me, in 1968, when the United States, the Soviet Union, and Great Britain, three declared nuclear powers, signed a treaty.

Since then, dozens of other countries have signed on. The basic deal was that nations with nuclear stockpiles would build them down. And that was the deal whereby nations that didn't have nuclear stockpiles agreed not to develop them.

Scott Sagan: It was not just that they would build them down; it's that the nuclear states agreed that they would make all good faith efforts towards complete nuclear disarmament

Peter Robinson: Complete nuclear disarmament?

Scott Sagan: That's right. Now we in the United States did not take that commitment very seriously. And most people understood that given the Cold War--

Peter Robinson: While the Cold War was going on we couldn't--

Scott Sagan: It was going to be very difficult for either states, the Soviet Union or the United States, to really go that far toward zero.

Peter Robinson: And this spring, more than 30 years after the treaty was initially signed, and about a decade after the end of the Cold War, there will be a big review of the current nuclear nonproliferation regime.

Some of the issues that those including you will be forced--those reviewing the nuclear nonproliferation regime--will be forced to confront, we will now confront.

We begin with the Indian subcontinent. Last year both Pakistan and India tested nuclear weapons in defiance of the will of the international community. Is that a fair statement?

Scott Sagan: That was two years.

Peter Robinson: Two years ago, excuse me.

Scott Sagan: Right, May, 1998.

Peter Robinson: Now, my question to Sumit is, were India and Pakistan wrong to test those nuclear weapons, or were they merely behaving as sovereign nations can be expected to behave?

Sumit Ganguly: Well, you use the term "the will of the international community". Neither India nor Pakistan violated a single element of international law. Yes, they may have gone against a norm against testing, but that norm I think is fairly disingenuous. Because the French and the Chinese carried out a battery of tests before signing on the NPT, and then proceeding towards the CTBT.

Peter Robinson: You just used CP--

Sumit Ganguly: The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

Peter Robinson: Which we'll come to in due course, but go ahead.

Sumit Ganguly: So why, yes, they did go against the grain, I think as sovereign states, they have to make decisions about what affects, say, national security.

Peter Robinson: Let me just clear up your position a little bit. So they didn't violate any law. They ticked a lot of people off. They were justified--was it the correct thing to do, for India and Pakistan to do?

Sumit Ganguly: Yes, under the circumstances, absolutely?

Peter Robinson: Scott?

Scott Sagan: I think it's actually a tragedy. My view is that the Indians did this in part for domestic political reasons. And the international repercussions for the India-Pakistani relationship have been really quite tragic.

It's not a problem that either state wants to use nuclear weapons. Both know how horrible that would be. In the India and Pakistani context, the risk of an accident, of an unauthorized use, some kind of false warning producing an accidental or inadvertent nuclear war I think is unacceptably high.

Peter Robinson: Bill?

William Potter: Yeah. I think it's important first of all to recognize that when we talk about an international norm, we're really talking about 187 countries who have chosen to forego nuclear weapons--or 182 of 187 parties to the Nonproliferation Treaty who have chosen to forego nuclear weapons.

Peter Robinson: Do you believe that all 182 have foregone nuclear weapons?

William Potter: I would say the overwhelming majority of them have.

Peter Robinson: Just touching back on Sumit's point, there is some disingenuousness as far as--

William Potter: But they've done so because of a careful calculation that it is in their national security interest to forego nuclear weapons. And I would take exception to Sumit's characterization of whether or not the nuclear testing has really served either the interests of India or Pakistan.

I think if you were to ask the question, are the states of India and Pakistan relatively more secure or less secure after the tests, I think the answer is, they're less secure.

Peter Robinson: Sumit?

Sumit Ganguly: We all knew at this table that India and Pakistan possessed nuclear weapons before May 11th, 13th and 28th of 1998.

Peter Robinson: So the first thing in this conversation is to get real: they had them, and everybody knew they had them.

Sumit Ganguly: Exactly. Everybody knew. We dissembled about it.

Peter Robinson: Why are India and Pakistan in a nuclear arms race in the first place?

Shiva Me Timbers

Sumit, I want to get back to this question of motivation. Tell us briefly why India and Pakistan feel they need these things?

Sumit Ganguly: Well, let's start with the Pakistani case, because it's much more clearcut.

India has overwhelming conventional military superiority over Pakistan. And after the Indians tested, the pressures on Pakistan were extraordinarily great to demonstrate that they too had the capacity to build and to forge nuclear weapons.

Peter Robinson: India has 800 million people. Huge army. Lots of tanks, airplanes so forth. Pakistan is what population?

Sumit Ganguly: About 140-130 millions.

Peter Robinson: So India is eight times as big as Pakistan, and has nothing to fear from Pakistan presumably?

Sumit Ganguly: I wouldn't say, nothing to fear. Fear perhaps is too strong a term, but Pakistan has been a constant irritant to India in a number of different ways.

Peter Robinson: That is to say that the Pakistanis wanted to go nuclear to keep the Indians off balance. Now the Indians do have something to fear?

Sumit Ganguly: Not just off balance. But essentially to compensate for the extraordinary asymmetry in terms of conventional weaponry between India and Pakistan. This is seen as sort of the great equalizer for the Pakistanis.

Peter Robinson: I see. And what could anybody do about it? These two nations are sovereign states?

William Potter: I think one of the most destabilizing developments associated with the nuclear tests in South Asia in 1998 was not just the tests but really the very muted international reaction to those tests. That reaction, that restraint, in fact has led several states at least to reopen a debate about the utility of nuclear weapons and also the role of the nonproliferation treaty in their security.

Peter Robinson: Are you satisfied that the Clinton administration expressed adequate outrage or anger or disapproval or dismay?

Scott Sagan: I would say that they put on sanctions and took them off too quickly.

Peter Robinson: Too quickly. The sanctions were of what kind, economic?

Scott Sagan: Economic sanctions on both India and Pakistan. And I think right now they're stuck between a rock and a hard place--

Peter Robinson: The Clinton administration is?

Scott Sagan: The Clinton administration is, is that they would like to try to encourage India and Pakistan not to weaponize; not to put weapons out to the field the way the United States and Russia did during the Cold War. Yet they don't even want to signal that they're accepting that India and Pakistan are nuclear armed countries now.

It is my hope that India and Pakistan will not follow the model that the United States and the Russians did, of adopting hair-trigger arsenals; of putting warheads on top of missiles and aiming them at each other.

Peter Robinson: And why, since the United States and Russian managed to get through 40-50 years of Cold War without a nuclear accident--

Scott Sagan: There were nuclear accidents--

Peter Robinson: The Russians made mistakes with Chernobyl and so forth, but without anybody popping a missile at anybody else, Indians and Pakistanis are less competent to achieve the same result?

Scott Sagan: I'd say two things. First, you have a difference in the time involved in a false warning incident. India and Pakistan are right on each other's borders. So a missile aimed would get there within five minutes.

In the United States and the Russian case, we did have many false warnings in which we thought the United States was under attack, and they had some where they thought the Russians were under attack.

Fortunately, it takes about half an hour for a missile to go from one country to the other, so there is time to double-check the systems.

Peter Robinson: Even at that we had plenty of edgy moments?

Scott Sagan: Even at that we had some close calls.

Peter Robinson: Would it be a good idea for the United States to ratify the comprehensive test ban treaty?

A Bad Case of CTBT's.

The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. The Clinton administration initialed it, submitted it to the United States Senate for ratification last year. What would it have done? In about one sentence, what would it have done?

Scott Sagan: It would have stopped the United States from testing nuclear weapons underground in Nevada in exchange for many other states agreeing that they would not test as well.

Peter Robinson: And how many other states? Hundreds…

Scott Sagan: Virtually the whole world with the exception of India, Pakistan, and I believe Cuba has not signed; but we're not worried about Cuba's involvement.

Peter Robinson: All right, that sounds like a fairly reasonable deal.

Scott Sagan: Very reasonable deal. We actually championed that treaty.

Peter Robinson: Who's "we"?

Scott Sagan: The United States government.

Peter Robinson: The Clinton administration?

Scott Sagan: Not just the Clinton administration. The U.S. governments going way back. This has been a long-standing--

Peter Robinson: Bipartisan?

Scott Sagan: A bipartisan effort. The U.S. government, presidents from Nixon forward have worked very hard to try to get some of the other states that did not want to sign it because they had not yet tested to sign it.

Peter Robinson: So we lined up at the edge of the pool, took years to get everybody there holding hands, said one-two-three jump, and then the Senate rejected the treaty. How come?

William Potter: I think basically because of domestic political considerations. A great dislike and distrust of the president. I think that both sides bear a lot of blame. The administration did a very, very poor job of orchestrating support.

Peter Robinson: It was a mistake in other words?

Do you think it was a mistake to reject it?

Sumit Ganguly: Oh, most definitely.

Scott Sagan: Absolutely.

Peter Robinson: I'm feeling some Jesse Helms like frustration. Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina, Republican Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who led the successful effort to kill the treaty. I say to myself, Iraq can test these things, even if they do it in such a way that we know about it, we end up going to the United Nations, lord knows what a mess that is.

There is disingenuousness in this system from top to bottom. Let's just get real. Our ultimate defense is to remain strong. To remain strong, we need to test our weapons, our own weapons every so often. Let's get rid--at least Jesse Helms is arguing for straight talk and honest dealing.

Scott Sagan: This gives straight talk. If Saddam Hussein tested nuclear weapons, and we found out about it, we'd consider going to war, and we should. Now the CTBT, and the international regime, makes it easier that we'd have a coalition of partners for that effort. I would recommend going to war anyway even if we didn't have coalition members, but it'd be a lot harder fight.

If we ended up feeling that he was a threat to international peace, and our intelligence said that that was his last weapon, or he has one more and we're going to try to find out where it is, we'd have to try to bring our coalition partners along.

If there is an international regime that he has violated, it makes it a lot easier to get coalition.

Peter Robinson: All three of you, if you were advising the next president, whoever the next president might be, all three of you would advise him to resubmit the treaty to the Senate?

Sumit Ganguly: With proper preparation.

Peter Robinson: You mean political preparation. You don't toss it in there just to see it killed again?

Sumit Ganguly: I just didn't--my feeling is that the president had not carefully worked members of Congress before introducing this treaty. It was done almost as an afterthought, and a similar effort is likely to once again crash.

Peter Robinson: Okay, let me continue to be Jesse Helms for a moment.

If we can't stop nations from building nuclear weapons, shouldn't we build a system to protect ourselves?

Better Fail- Safe than Sorry.

Should we build a national missile defense? George Tenet, a Clinton--we're bipartisan here--a Clinton-appointed director of the CIA testified before Congress earlier this year and said that North Korea may soon be capable of delivering a nuclear payload, and that in a few years, Iran will probably ... "probably" is his word. Have ballistic missiles capable of reaching the United States.

As matters stand at this moment, if we detect an inbound missile, there is nothing we can do about it except wait for it to land. So shouldn't we try to do something about it? Bill.

William Potter: I think the four criteria the president has set forth make a lot of sense. I mean basically one has to look at the technology that is available; the nature of the threat; the cost involved; and also, the impact of national missile defense on existing international agreement.

Peter Robinson: You mentioned the criteria the president has mentioned. Let me just briefly say that by this summer, he will make a decision whether to continue research on a ballistic missile defense, or indeed, to begin building one. That's the immediate political trigger. It will be on or off, research, to defer it or build it.

William Potter: And that decision is supposed to be guided by these four criteria, which I think make a lot of sense. I don't think the technology has demonstrated at the moment. I think the costs are going to be enormous. But most importantly, I'm not persuaded that the threat merits an early decision, or that the damage, likely to be done by deploying on an early date is sufficient to--

Peter Robinson: What damage? Political damage? You think the American people are getting sick of these things, how expensive they are?

William Potter: I think it's likely to provoke an accelerated arms race, both with Russia, although Russia may be manageable, but particularly with China. I don't think the benefits at this moment outweigh the costs.

So I think we have to continue research as we are doing. But I don't think that the technology is there. I think the cost is going to be enormous, and I suspect that the damage will be tremendous.

Peter Robinson: Sumit, Bill has just argued we're leaving ourselves completely exposed to a nuclear missile for some indeterminate amount of time longer. Are you agreeing?

Sumit Ganguly: I disagree with you that we are vulnerable to missiles coming from Iran or North Korea any time--

Peter Robinson: George Tenet, not me, director of the CIA.

Sumit Ganguly: Fair enough, but he has his own reasons for making that argument, which we can get into later, or not. But first of all, even if the North Koreans prove to be so utterly irrational, the extraordinary military prowess that we could bring to bear, we could make North Korea toast if they had the temerity to attack one of our allies or us with nuclear weapons.

Peter Robinson: So the present regime whereby our defense is a threat of a counterattack, which was the defense during the Cold War after all, that is sufficient for now at least, you're satisfied?

Scott Sagan: It's a tragedy to spend billions of dollars on a system that doesn't work. If we just rush ahead, we might build something that doesn't work, and the Russians are going to be incredibly ticked off, because we'll have abandoned the treaty that we signed with them back in--

Peter Robinson: We'll get to the treaty in a moment, but first let me ask you if there is an intermediate position. Does it make sense to say, all right, the technology is unproved, so we're not going to deploy. However this is an extremely serious problem. I will now ask Congress to triple the research budget. You'd go for that?

Scott Sagan: I would support increases in funding, yes.

Peter Robinson: You would. You would?

Sumit Ganguly: Increases in funding, but not tripling it by any means.

Peter Robinson: No?

Sumit Ganguly: No.

William Potter: No, I think it makes sense to increase research.

Peter Robinson: If we do want to build a missile defense system, what do we do about the ABM Treaty?

Battle of Silos.

The Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, signed by the United States and the Soviet Union in 1972--1972, I've got it. And it bound both the United States and the Soviet Union not to deploy an anti-ballistic-missile system. So with this one adversary we agreed that we and they would leave ourselves exposed to nuclear attack, so that this doctrine of mutual assured destruction could prevail; right?

Scott Sagan: Very simple reason for doing that. The Russians knew that we would overcome any defenses that they had just by putting more warheads on top of our missiles, and putting all sorts of countermeasures on top of those warheads, we knew that the Russians would do the same thing.

So the only effect of building defenses would be to spend money, waste it, because the other side would then have an arms race that would overcome it.

Peter Robinson: Now I'm back to being Jesse Helms. We know the Russians violated the treaty. They at least attempted to build an anti-ballistic missile system in places that I cannot pronounce…Kras--

All: Krasnoyarsk.

Peter Robinson: Thank you very much, that's the benefit of having experts on the show. They tried to do it--the Soviet Union--excuse me not the Russians--

Scott Sagan: The Soviets backed off when we pushed them. We said this is not legal under the treaty. They were building a radar, and we said that violates the treaty, and once we did that over a long period of time, they agreed and backed off.

Peter Robinson: Nevertheless, so my first point remains, they acted in bad faith. The second point is, the Soviet Union no longer even exists. The signatory to that treaty, poof, it's gone. why should we be bound to a treaty that prevents us from doing what is in our best national interest that was signed by a signatory that no longer exists?

Just wipe it away?

Scott Sagan: We codified a treaty that still serves our national security interests. That's why we should not--

William Potter: The Russians assumed the obligations that were undertaken by the Soviet Union after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Peter Robinson: So leave the ABM in force?

William Potter: I think it certainly serves our interest at the present time, yes.

Peter Robinson: Sumit, a few years ago, relatively few years ago, our nuclear arsenal was to defend us against the possibility of a nuclear attack. We now know that we face a risk, an increasing risk, if the director of the CIA is to be believed, of a biological or chemical attack. We have signed treaties--the three of you have demonstrated great respect for treaty obligations--we have signed treaties whereby we are bound not to use biological or chemical weapons.

The question then arises, if somebody launches a biological or chemical attack on us, do we go nuclear in response? Sumit?

Sumit Ganguly: I would argue, no. Because that would sort of break--two things, one it would break a very important non-nuclear taboo that has existed that we will not use nuclear weapons since the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, and that taboo has prevailed.

And I think it would significantly corrode that taboo. That's number one.

Secondly, I think people who really wish to commit malfeasance against the United States of that order--

Peter Robinson: Biological or chemical? That's a felony.

Sumit Ganguly: Yes, definitely. I think they would be encouraged then, once we made an operational doctrine that said, we will nuke you, then they'd say, well, fine, we'll acquire a small clandestine nuclear weapons program, and then we'll give you cause about nuking us.

Peter Robinson: So a nut like Saddam Hussein in a peculiar way is actually encouraged. What he wants is chaos, international chaos.

Sumit Ganguly: Sure.

Peter Robinson: So what do we do about this problem?

Scott Sagan: Well, let me say the major reason by the United States should not use nuclear threats to chemical and biological weapons use is that we're setting ourselves up if we do that to what I call the commitment trap. If we say that we will, or might, use nuclear weapons if you use chemicals or biological weapons against us, and it's done anyway, then what do we do? Our reputation is at stake.

There are many cases in international history where someone makes a threat that he or she would not want to follow out, would not want to implement, let's say. So in that particular case, if Saddam Hussein uses biological weapons anyway, we might feel compelled because of our reputation to actually use nuclear weapons.

And the worst thing that we could do understand that circumstance, for the nonproliferation regime, is to be seen as the one state that used nuclear weapons in 1945, and look, the Americans are doing it again.

Peter Robinson: Let's end the show with predictions.

The Nuclear Family and Baby Boomers.

The year is 2010. An even decade from now. Will we have seen a nuclear weapon used in anger by 2010? Scott?

Scott Sagan: I think the likelihood is high.

Peter Robinson: Is high?

Scott Sagan: Yes.

Peter Robinson: Could you reassure me, Sumit?

Sumit Ganguly: I think the likelihood is fairly small.

Peter Robinson: Bill?

William Potter: I think the likelihood is much greater than I would like, and I think not only because it may be used in anger, but it also could be used through a variety of accidents.

Peter Robinson: Okay, same period of time- a decade, will we have seen a chemical or biological attack--and I don't mean a release of Sarin gas on the Tokyo subway like the one the--I mean a concerted large scale attack biological or chemical in nature, Bill?

William Potter: Well, we've already seen chemical weapons as weapons of mass destruction. So I think it's quite--

Peter Robinson: In the war between Iran and Iraq?

William Potter: There, and elsewhere. I think it's likely that we will unfortunately see a repeat.

Peter Robinson: So that's going to happen? Sumit?

Sumit Ganguly: I think the possibility of the use of biological weapons is one that we might have to countenance.

Peter Robinson: Scott.

Scott Sagan: I think the likelihood of nuclear use is high; probably of biological weapons use is even higher.

Peter Robinson: The three of you have me so rattled, I want to go around for one more quick question. You're telling me that the world is going to get very much more dangerous quite quickly within the decade. And I want to know, if you had to name one thing to do about it, what would it be?

We live in a democracy. Sooner or later, the American people are going to want something to happen. Name one thing?

Sumit Ganguly: De-emphasize the utility of nuclear weapons. I simply don't buy this argument that other countries are not animated by the fact that we possess nuclear weapons. We continue to rely on our nuclear arsenal. We continue to privilege nuclear weapons.

And as long as we give nuclear weapons this privileged status, and do not engage in good faith efforts to substantially reduce our numbers, and I mean substantially, I doubt that we will be able to keep this firewall up much longer.

Peter Robinson: My reaction is that is mighty counterintuitive. The world is getting more dangerous, therefore we should build down our own nuclear arsenal. Scott? What's your number one?

Scott Sagan: The single most important thing the United States has to do is to maintain our massive conventional weapons superiority over other states. And if another state uses biological or chemical weapons against us--

Peter Robinson: Then we send in the Marines.

Scott Sagan: Our retaliation, we should send in the strategic command, we should send in our B-1, our B-2 bombers, send in our Stealth fighters. We should have a conventional retaliation that would be swift and would be sure. And that would be by far a better policy than a calculated gamble that we might use nuclear weapons over such--

Peter Robinson: I have to tell you, psychologically I find that answer very satisfying. At least there is something we could do. Bill?

William Potter: I think we have to look at this from a long term perspective. I think that the threats of ignorance and complacency are paramount, and that we have to utilize education as a nonproliferation tool. It's not going to solve the problem overnight.

Peter Robinson: Educating whom? The American public? Other nations?

William Potter: I think both. I think the American public, I think their representatives, and the populace internationally. I think we have to work to build a global nonproliferation culture. We have a long way to go.

Peter Robinson: Bill, Sumit, and Scott, thank you very much.

["thank yous" heard]

Peter Robinson: You heard them say it. A couple of our guests believe nuclear weapons will actually be used sometime over the next decade. That's the trouble with the nuclear club these days. Unclubby behavior. I'm Peter Robinson. Thanks for joining us.

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