Proliferation Pessimism

One of the most subtly insidious notions to gain purchase on the American psyche is the view you might call "proliferation pessimism" -- that it would be unfortunate if places like Iran and North Korea got nuclear weapons, but there's ultimately nothing we can do but resign ourselves to a world of massive proliferation, where those countries go nuclear and so do a great many others. Proliferation pessimist William Langewiesche makes that argument in the LA Times:

In Islamabad, an official close to the nuclear-armed Musharraf regime said to me: "The best way to fight proliferation is to pursue global disarmament. Fine, great, sure — if you expect that to happen. But you cannot have a world order in which you have five or eight nuclear weapons states on the one hand, and the rest of the international community on the other. There are many places like Pakistan, poor countries which have legitimate security concerns — every bit as legitimate as yours. And yet you ask them to address those concerns without nuclear weapons, while you have nuclear weapons, and you have everything else? It is not a question of what is fair, or right or wrong. It is simply not going to work."

Now the thing of it is that this is correct. The only way to combat proliferation is in the context of universal disarmament. Not immediate universal disarmament, which is unrealistic, but universal disarmament as a long-term goal. The the other thing of it is that this is exactly the context the Non-Proliferation Treaty and other diplomatic accords established. And, as Joe Cirincione explains, that non-proliferation regime was actually working fairly well until conservative politicians made the United States start pulling away from the rules. It wouldn't be easy to get the global disarmament regime back on track, but it's a bit frightening that such a large segment of the policy elite in The World's Only Superpower seems to have decided that "not easy" equals "impossible." We're talking, remember, about big, long-term structural goals so you don't need to get everything done at once. But here's what some steps might look like.

With Iran and North Korea, we need to try and cut deals that involve serious carrots. Getting those deals would be much easier if we had sticks on the table. But the sticks available to the United States (airstrikes) would be very destructive to deploy, and threatening to use them is a bad idea. Russia and China, as it happily happens, can wield some much more credible sticks. So one key to action is to make getting Russia and China on board a priority -- meaning doing things they want on other fronts.

Well, happily, both Russia and China don't like the "Stars Wars" national missile defense concept. Scrapping it, and returning to the ABM Treaty would, in and of itself, help rebuild the global arms control regime. It would also help get Russia and China to help us on other fronts. What's more, by most indications Russia would welcome a large bilaterial reduction in American and Russian nuclear arsenals. Both countries have arsenals that are bigger than we need. For the cash-strapped Russians, this is a major burden. For the USA it's mainly the reverse -- there are financial interests with a large stake in us maintaining a nuclear arsenal that's an order of magnitude too big.

But cutting a deal like that would save us some money, make the Russians and Chinese happy, and constitute a serious downpayment on our promise to the non-nuclear world of eventual universal disarmament.

At the end of the day, nuclear proliferation is a very normal collective action problem. Insofar as nukes are around, individual countries will have some good reasons to want to build them. But a world of widespread proliferation doesn't really serve anybody's interests, while a world of universal disarmament would be very beneficial to overhwhelming majorities of people and states. It's a question of doing the hard work of actually conducting negotiations and creating institutions that will allow states to cooperate on this goal.