STOP THE MADNESS: Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons

Friday, May 16, 2003

In 1998, India and Pakistan detonated nuclear weapons, becoming the first new nations in three decades to join the club of nuclear powers. Today other nations, such as North Korea and Iran, are on verge of doing so as well. Why is the nonproliferation regime, which seemed to work well for so many years, failing now? Has the Bush administration's response to the new dangers of proliferation been appropriate, or will it make the danger worse?

Recorded on Friday, May 16, 2003

Peter Robinson: Today on Uncommon Knowledge, the bomb that wouldn't go away.

Announcer: Funding for this program is provided by the John M. Olin Foundation.

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Peter Robinson: Welcome to Uncommon Knowledge. I'm Peter Robinson. Our show today, the proliferation of nuclear weapons, an old problem but new challenges. When the Cold War ended more than a decade ago, the world breathed a sigh of relief. The danger of nuclear war that had seemed so real for so long now seemed destined to fade into history. That didn't happen. During the 1990s, two nations, India and Pakistan, acquired nuclear weapons and more recently it seems all but certain that a third, North Korea, has done so and that a fourth, Iran, is well on the way to doing so. Why are nuclear weapons continuing to proliferate and what is the Bush Administration doing about it? Behaving in a way that comes to grips with the problem or as some argue, that makes the problem worse?

Joining us, two guests. Peter Lavoy is a professor of national security affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School. Jonathan Schell is author of the classic anti-nuclear text, the 1982 best seller, The Fate of the Earth. Schell's most recent book: The Unconquerable World.

Title: Stop the MADness

Peter Robinson: George Perkovich of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the Bush Administration's "approach to nuclear issues seems destined to reduce international cooperation in enforcing non-proliferation commitments rather than enhance it." Is he right or is he wrong? Peter?

Peter Lavoy: He's wrong.

Peter Robinson: He's wrong. Flatly, simple as that. Jonathan?

Jonathan Schell: He's absolutely right.

Peter Robinson: Ahhh, the makings of a good television show. So political scientist--I'll give you another quotation now--Kenneth Waltz, "Nuclear weapons reduced the chances of war between the United States and the Soviet Union and between the Soviet Union and China. One must expect them to have similar effects elsewhere. The gradual spread of nuclear weapons is more to be welcomed than feared." There's at least a certain plausibility to that. Jonathan, what are you worried about?

Jonathan Schell: Not in my book. Really he's talking about the deterrence doctrine...

Peter Robinson: Right.

Jonathan Schell: ...which did plausibly reduce the chance of war between the great powers. But deterrence is peculiarly well-suited to a two-power world because there's at least a hope of some kind of balance developing. In a world of proliferation with 10, 15, 20 nuclear powers, the hope of balance is really out the window. All you have to...

Peter Robinson: It's almost a mathematical proposition. When you start adding additional factors, it becomes harder and harder to solve?

Jonathan Schell: Absolutely. It was almost impossible for the U.S. and the Soviet Union to achieve a balance even in a bipolar world with an ocean between them. But if you have many nuclear powers, just imagine that you create a balance between two and two others and then suddenly someone switches sides. Suddenly the balance is completely out the window. So deterrence is a doctrine that had a certain plausibility, much as I argued with it during the Cold War frankly, which it entirely lacks in what I call the Second Nuclear Age, which we are heading into now.

Peter Robinson: You concur in that?

Peter Lavoy: I don't think so. I think I would agree that deterrence is hard. It's a very challenging policy between the United States and the Soviet Union. During the Cold War, we each conducted deterrence policies and it worked but there was a lot of learning that went on. We had a lot of close calls, Cuban Missile Crisis, Berlin, other problems. And I think we gradually improved our deterrence policies as a result. But I think there's no reason to expect that India and Pakistan, for example, can't also learn to...

Peter Robinson: Figure it out.

Peter Lavoy: Exactly. Exactly.

Peter Robinson: Next topic. Why is nuclear proliferation becoming a more serious problem today?

Title: Springtime for Nukes

Peter Robinson: I quote CIA Director, George Tenet, "In my view, we have entered a new world of proliferation." So 1969, Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty is signed, five powers have nuclear weapons: United States, Soviet Union, China, France, Great Britain. Now we have Israel, India, Pakistan, probably North Korea. Is it assumed now that North Korea has nuclear weapons?

Peter Lavoy: I think it's assumed--it's well known that they have the capability to make nuclear weapons.

Peter Robinson: Okay.

Peter Lavoy: Whether they've actually assembled the device or not is not known.

Peter Robinson: And Iran has announced to the world that it's set up facilities that could be used for--so the question is, the Cold War's been over for a decade. Why do these weapons continue to proliferate?

Jonathan Schell: You know, they proliferate because the rule of thumb, and it's one that's been taught by the United States, the Soviet Union, Russia and all the nuclear powers, is if you want to be safe in a world that is nuclear armed, get nuclear weapons yourself. Look what's happened in North Korea. The United States has practiced regime change so-called in Iraq. The idea was to teach North Korea a lesson. You better not get weapons of mass destruction or you'll get regime change too. They learned exactly the opposite lesson. They said, regime change, no thank you. But we have a way to prevent it and that's by getting nuclear weapons. And so I think it's the possession of nuclear weapons by the aid of the nine nuclear powers that is the root cause of proliferation. You cannot deal with proliferation without dealing with possession.

Peter Robinson: Because so long as even one power has them, every other power will--I use the term power but even some dinky little states, North Korea is not by any means a rich, big, powerful state.

Jonathan Schell: Well, exactly. People around the world are more like Americans than Americans think. Imagine if another country had nuclear weapons and we did not, we'd get them fast. Other countries are like this. They're the same. That's why possession drives proliferation and that's why you have to deal with both at the same time.

Peter Lavoy: Jonathan, I would take a different view on that. I think insecurity drives proliferation. And some countries actually pursue nuclear weapons not to offset a nuclear threat but to offset a conventional military threat. I think if you look at Pakistan, that's the case. It was India's superior conventional forces that really drove Pakistan to the bomb, even though India also was pursuing nuclear weapons. And in the case of Korea, of course, there is I guess theoretically, a nuclear threat if they think the United States might target them with nuclear weapons. But there's a conventional threat and there's a threat to their existence I think that DPRK leadership feels. So as a result, nuclear weapons are appealing. We can't dis-invent the bomb. And so I don't necessarily agree with you that it's the experience of the original nuclear powers that drives other countries to get nuclear weapons.

Peter Robinson: Let me ask our guests to evaluate the Bush Administration's strategy for dealing with nuclear proliferation.

Title: Turning Silos Into...Silos

Peter Robinson: I'll tend to turn to you because you are at the Department of Defense but I must say in capital letters that you're at this table representing yourself and no one but yourself. Right?

Peter Lavoy: Correct.

Peter Robinson: Okay. Two of the central tenets in the Bush Administration's National Strategy to Combat Weapons of Mass Destruction are non-proliferation and counter-proliferation. And I'd like to look at each. Now Peter, I'll quote you to yourself: "The Bush Administration's non-proliferation diplomacy has been the most widely challenged element of the new WMD, weapons of mass destruction strategy." But the administration has concluded a treaty with Russia under which both sides will reduce their deployed, strategic forces from about six thousand to in the neighborhood of two thousand, which is a big achievement. Right?

Peter Lavoy: Absolutely.

Peter Robinson: So what are people like Jonathan Schell beating the Bush Administration up for?

Peter Lavoy: Well, you'll have to ask Jonathan about that. I think the big challenge is when dealing with the prospect of nuclear proliferation or the proliferation of chemical and biological weapons as well, which of course is another big problem, you really have two kinds of approaches you can pursue. You can focus on the problem states, the countries where you're concerned, that you're concerned might actually use these against you or your friends or you can focus on the global measures, the non-proliferation regime, the non-proliferation order. I think this administration has moved toward a focus on the problem states, Iraq, North Korea, Iran, whereas the Clinton Administration I think had a more balanced approach trying to establish--or perpetuate the global nuclear order and the non-proliferation regime as well as dealing with these problem states.

Peter Robinson: And that's a mistake?

Jonathan Schell: Yes, I think it is a mistake and I think there's another element to it, which is that the means that the Bush Administration has chosen for dealing with these problem states is force. My personal belief is that you cannot deal with the problem of nuclear proliferation with force. It's something that in its very nature must be dealt with by diplomatic and political means.

Peter Robinson: There's a certain sense in which you can't quite mean that. So let me ask you--help me to understand what you're saying. So Saddam Hussein starts building a nuclear facility or a facility that could be used to produce nuclear material in Osirak and the Israelis fly in and bomb it and take it out. So there was a very explicit case in which the problem of proliferation was dealt with by force.

Jonathan Schell: Well, that's a wonderful example actually because it illustrates my point, I believe.

Peter Robinson: All right. Show me how. I don't see it yet.

Jonathan Schell: Well because yes, the Israeli strike retarded the Iraqi program a little bit. It got rid of the possibility of a plutonium-based program for a while. But it was at that moment that Saddam Hussein turned to the whole uranium enrichment program, which is a much more promising route. And so by the time of the Gulf War, the first Gulf War I'm talking about, they were back in the ballgame again and within maybe a year, there are different estimates, of having nuclear weapons. So you can slow things down a little bit with force but you cannot solve the problem. The only way to solve the problem is by a comprehensive political and diplomatic program of which the Non-Proliferation Treaty is a wonderful beginning.

Peter Robinson: The Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1969?

Jonathan Schell: The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty of '69.

Peter Robinson: Well, what about this treaty with the Russians that the Bush Administration has worked out?

Jonathan Schell: Even if that treaty goes fully into effect and the country's doing it...

Peter Robinson: Oh, you think it's a sham agreement or...

Jonathan Schell: Well, nobody is obliged to do anything until one day before the treaty expires and then the treaty will expire. In other words, there's no timetable in it for disarming. Now maybe the countries will choose and I suppose they will choose to reduce--I think realistically, that will happen, but look at the situation. We are more than a decade after the end of the Cold War, the Russians are our friends. Why on earth are we in this relationship of mutual assured destruction with them? Why do we want to have a capacity to blow them off the face of the earth? And why should we endure having their rotting old nuclear arsenal pointed back at us and that situation will persist even if this treaty is followed to the letter and pursued thereafter. We still with the 2,000, 1,700, whatever the figures will be, will be in that relationship...

Peter Robinson: Don't you feel that we...

Jonathan Schell: ...with a friend. With a friend.

Peter Robinson: But don't you feel at least a little urge to give the Bush Administration just to kind of release one little dove of praise to them because two thousand is better than six thousand isn't it?

Jonathan Schell: I do not feel such an urge. And the reason is that the opportunity that was given and this is rare in history, was so tremendous to get a real solution to this problem that I can't see why we aren't really going for the jugular of these weapons.

Peter Robinson: Peter?

Peter Lavoy: You know, actually on that latter point, I've never seen an opportunity to get rid of these weapons. I think the best chance the world had was right after the introduction of nuclear weapons and, in fact, the United States came up with a plan, the Acheson-Lilienthal Plan that later was presented by Ambassador Bernard Baruch as the Baruch plan to eliminate nuclear weapons. But the sheer difficulty of doing that, the way the world is configured as it is and probably will always be, I think confounded that plan at the very beginning and we're still confronted with those same challenges.

Peter Robinson: Onto the other central tenet of the Bush Administration's nuclear strategy, counter-proliferation.

Title: Forcing the Issue

Peter Robinson: I'm going to quote you to yourself again Peter. You write, "The key elements of the Bush Administration's counter-proliferation strategy were top Department of Defense priorities in the last Administration," Clinton is what you mean there, right, "but they have a much different standing today." I want you to explain what you mean and I want you to explain what counter-proliferation is in the first place?

Peter Lavoy: Okay. As opposed to non-proliferation, which really consists of diplomatic, economic, political measures, designed to slow the spread of nuclear weapons internationally, counter-proliferation has a different focus. These are military measures that are designed to nullify the utility of these weapons. So it's enhancing our deterrence against the use, particularly of chemical and biological weapons and military measures to negate their consequences. To defeat these measures on the battlefield or mitigate the consequences if they actually are used.

Peter Robinson: Okay. That sounds like a good idea. I recognized right away that that doesn't go to the heart of what you want to have done but you don't object to it.

Jonathan Schell: Well, I don't object to measures to reduce the consequences or to make the troops safe and so forth, but I think there is a danger that lurks there, which is this very idea of preemption that the Bush Administration has advanced because now we have the idea that somebody gets the wrong gleam in their eye, if it looks to us as if somewhere down the road, the President said one to five years, they're going to develop weapons of mass destruction which they might use for us, then we're going to go in there preemptively to remove that threat. And as we discussed before, I don't think that these military measures can work short of what we're doing in Iraq, which is regime change but that is not a practicable policy in five or six or ten countries around the world, which may be what we face with proliferation.

Peter Robinson: Can I just ask...

Jonathan Schell: It's unworkable.

Peter Robinson: All right so a limited question here. Was the war in Iraq, the regime change in Iraq, an example of a successful effort at counter-proliferation?

Peter Lavoy: Absolutely, yes.

Peter Robinson: And you grant that much but say it can't be practiced in five, six, seven other countries at once?

Jonathan Schell: Well, you know, as we speak, they have not found any weapons of mass destruction and, in fact, the Washington Post has reported that they pulled those teams out. Now perhaps they will. I don't know if they will but I can't see how it was counter-proliferation if there were none of the weapons to take away.

Peter Lavoy: The issue wasn't really Saddam's nuclear weapons. No one really suspected him of possessing nuclear weapons.

Peter Robinson: I see.

Peter Lavoy: He had a program earlier but it was taken care of, dismantled earlier. The real concern are chemical and biological weapons. And I should say biological weapons, particularly when we talk about contagious diseases such as smallpox or plague, have the potential unlike chemical weapons, they have the potential to wreak as much damage as nuclear weapons. And so it was Saddam's pursuit, very active pursuit of biological weapons and chemical weapons that was one of the reasons why this war took place.

Peter Robinson: We've discussed the Bush strategy on nuclear weapons. Now let's turn to what Jonathan Schell thinks the United States should be doing instead.

Title: Just Say No

Peter Robinson: You were co-author of a statement entitled End the Nuclear Danger an Urgent Call...

Jonathan Schell: Yeah.

Peter Robinson: ...which was published in The Nation...

Jonathan Schell: Yes.

Peter Robinson: ...and appeared on the Internet. It got passed around in a number of forms for people to sign and so forth.

Jonathan Schell: That's right, yeah.

Peter Robinson: Now if I may, I'd like to quote a few of the statements and have you explain your rationale and have Peter comment.

Jonathan Schell: Okay.

Peter Robinson: "We call on the United States to renounce the first use of nuclear weapons." Rationale?

Jonathan Schell: I think it's not only wrong but impracticable and unworkable for the United States to go before the world sitting on top of a mountain of weapons of mass destruction and telling them that they can't have any and then to add by the way, not only do we have them for retaliation, for deterrence, but we are prepared to use them first even without their use against us. I think this is--to use one of the key words of the Cold War, that's unstable. That lacks stability. Richard Butler, the UN Ambassador said that.

Peter Robinson: Peter?

Peter Lavoy: Well I think there are threats that are feasible. Perhaps the threat of North Korean attack against South Korea where you could conceive of the use of nuclear weapons. It might make sense even though North Korea might not be using nuclear weapons. Let me give you a scenario.

Peter Robinson: But at a minimum, you want the North Koreans to be unsure whether you'd use them?

Peter Lavoy: Absolutely. That enhances the deterrence effect. And the one scenario I--for discussion here if there were to be a war on the Korean Peninsula, certainly it would be a very bloody war. It'd be devastating to both sides. But if we have intelligence that North Korea was actually preparing a nuclear weapon for use, that would be unacceptable. And it might be that the only way to destroy, to defeat that weapon because they probably are doing this deeply underground in a very hardened structure, is by using a nuclear weapon to destroy it. And if you're the president...

Peter Robinson: A nuclear bunker buster, that kind...

Peter Lavoy: Exactly. And if you're the President and you're responsible for the lives of the troops overseas and the Koreans that you're--you've got a security commitment to, it really would be a responsibility to consider the use of nuclear weapons in that circumstance.

Jonathan Schell: Can I comment on that?

Peter Robinson: Oh sure, please.

Jonathan Schell: Because, I mean, one can conceive of a scenario which just conceivably the use of a nuclear weapon might give the United States a slight advantage although I doubt that we'd be able to find even the cave where that thing was going on. But the point is that that only makes sense if you imagine that the United States is the only nuclear power in the world. Such a policy undercuts completely in my opinion, the international effort to reduce and as I would hope, get rid of nuclear weapons. So the price is tremendous for such a tiny little advantage in some imaginable scenario.

Peter Robinson: I see you nodding. You look as though you're--we repeat you're speaking for yourself here, not for the Department of Defense.

Peter Lavoy: Absolutely.

Peter Robinson: But it looks--if I'm reading your body language, you're granting him a little something there.

Peter Lavoy: The price is high. I think Jonathan makes a very, very good point. The fact that we maintain nuclear weapons I think undermines our ability to convince others not to pursue nuclear weapons themselves, absolutely.

Peter Robinson: But you're not ready to give them up?

Peter Lavoy: I'm not ready to give them up and I think that even if we got rid of them, it would be idealistic to believe that other countries wouldn't pursue them anyways.

Peter Robinson: Okay. Another statement from your Urgent Call. "We call on the United States to permanently end the development, testing and production of nuclear weapons," which leaves us with an aging stockpile. Right? Okay. Rationale?

Jonathan Schell: Well an aging stockpile would be just fine with me. After all, I want no stockpile.

Peter Robinson: You want no stockpile.

Jonathan Schell: By the way, in conjunction with the other nuclear powers, I'm not talking about unilateralism. In fact, much of what we call for, there actually exists except that the Bush Administration is now talking about reversing it because they've just gone into production again, just recently with plutonium pits. They're designing new nuclear weapons, these so-called bunker busters. They're designing new strategies for first use, finding new targets. They have a new targeting agency out there at STRATCOM. So curiously we're the conservatives here. We're trying to hold onto the status quo on that one.

Peter Robinson: Peter?

Peter Lavoy: Well if we're going to maintain nuclear weapons, they might as well be useable. They might as well be safe and secure. And I think it's simplistic to believe that if we have nuclear weapons, we shouldn't continue to do things to improve their capability and maintain them over time.

Peter Robinson: Let me press Jonathan on a flaw I think I see in his reasoning.

Title: Naked to the World

Peter Robinson: What we do is we lay down our nuclear arms but there is still going to be a lot of smaller but ambitious countries that say wait a minute. Nuclear arms, phooey, the conventional forces alone of the United States are overwhelming. You have to reserve to us the right to possess nuclear weapons as a deterrent to your conventional arms. And by the logic of your argument, the only way that we can refrain from intimidating anyone in the world is to leave ourselves naked before the world.

Jonathan Schell: Well there's a logic to what you say. I fully agree that the nuclear weapon is rapidly becoming an equalizer in the hands of the small power, not the big powerful club in the hands of the superpower, which means that it's all the more in the interest of the United States to move with other nations to the abolition of nuclear weapons. Now if you have a situation in which not only the United States but all the nuclear powers are on the same page and have set this goal to do it mutually with all the safeguards that could be imagined, inspections such as you can't even dream of now, enforcement and so on and so forth, if you have that, you will immediately have a kind of unity, a kind of will in the world that will actually enable you to deal with the violator. And in those circumstances, I could imagine supporting the use of force.

Peter Lavoy: Were that to be the case, I think we would be well off. However, that's not the case because there is this thing called politics. As we saw in the United Nations dealing with Iraq recently, each country, each permanent Security Council member, for example, had a different political agenda vis-à-vis Iraq. We couldn't get agreement and there's no reason to suspect that if there's a problem in the future, North Korea, for example, that the world could unify and deal with that problem because politics always will interfere. If I could make one other point...

Peter Robinson: Sure.

Peter Lavoy: I think it's not the U.S. possession of nuclear weapons or even U.S. military force as awesome as it is today, that drives most countries to pursue WMD, nuclear weapons, chemical, biological weapons. It's their own regional adversaries, their neighbors in many cases that drives that. In fact, it's U.S. force...

Peter Robinson: Had we lain down our own nuclear weapons a decade ago, India and Pakistan would still have had an incentive to get them...

Peter Lavoy: Absolutely.

Peter Robinson: ...to ward off each other. That's your argument?

Jonathan Schell: Can I comment?

Peter Robinson: Sure.

Jonathan Schell: We're not talking about the U.S. laying them down unilaterally. We're talking about an agreement among all nuclear powers to slowly get out of that business. And I would argue that we would not have a nuclearized South Asia if shortly after the--I mean, you famously wrote the words, you know, tear down that wall, that Ronald Reagan spoke. That afforded an opportunity for the nuclear powers to announce their will and to tear down the nuclear wall, not just the wall in Berlin, to tear down the nuclear wall. And if that had happened, I don't think that other countries would have gotten into the proliferation business. And if they had, the world would have had the will and the means to deal with it.

Peter Lavoy: Well Jonathan, we actually do have that agreement. The non-proliferation treaty, which took effect in 1970, does commit all the nuclear powers to ultimately seek the disarmament of nuclear weapons. And that's still U.S. policy.

Peter Robinson: On no timetable.

Jonathan Schell: Yeah, but they don't mean it.

Jonathan Schell: Well...

Jonathan Schell: They're kicking dust in our eyes on that one I think.

Peter Robinson: Who's they?

Jonathan Schell: The nuclear powers including the U.S.

Peter Lavoy: I would disagree. I think we are trying to create a world in which that disarmament is possible. But the fact is right now U.S. military force does support non-proliferation and I would disagree with the point you raised earlier. It's U.S. security commitments backed up by credible U.S. force that persuaded Taiwan and South Korea, for example, to abandon their nuclear arms proclivities in the 1970's. We're able to provide security commitments to them and so they said they didn't need nuclear weapons anymore.

Peter Robinson: Last question, which is not what you would do but what you think will happen. So we said at the moment there are nine countries with nuclear weapons, the United States, Russia, China, France, Great Britain, Israel, Pakistan, India and we think North Korea. A decade from now, how many will possess nuclear weapons? Jonathan?

Jonathan Schell: You know, I hate to predict because I think it's a matter for action, not prediction. But if we stay on the same path, I think probably we would probably add four or five new nuclear powers, if we continue on our current path.

Peter Robinson: Peter?

Peter Lavoy: Eight.

Peter Robinson: Eight. Who drops off the list?

Peter Lavoy: I think North Korea, we'll deal with that problem.

Peter Robinson: Counter-proliferation, you see.

Jonathan Schell: He's the optimist.

Peter Robinson: Jonathan Schell and Peter Lavoy, thank you very much.

Peter Robinson: For Uncommon Knowledge, I'm Peter Robinson, thanks for joining us.