Twenty years ago this month in ReykjavÃk, Iceland, President Ronald Reagan surprised Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev with a proposal that both nations abolish their ballistic missiles. There was even talk of eliminating their nuclear arsenals. A second surprise was in store when Gorbachev readily agreed, though with one hitch — the US had to shelve its Strategic Defense Initiative. In spite of his dream of nuclear abolition, Reagan refused to give up SDI, and the deal fell through.
The Reykjavik Summit was probably the world’s last best chance at being substantially nuke-free. Today we seem to be running on the opposite course. Even as Reagan and Gorbachev dickered in Iceland, the London Sunday Times ran a front page story in which an Israeli nuclear technician revealed that Israel had produced more than 100 nuclear warheads. (The techie, Mordechai Vanunu, was later kidnapped by Mossad, tried and sentenced to 18 years — 11 in solitary — for opening his big mouth.)
Israel was the sixth nation to join the nuclear club. Just two decades after the U.S. dropped the bomb on Hiroshima, five nations possessed atomic weapons. The Soviets, were next, collecting the necessary expertise from at least three spies at Los Alamos, most notably the scientist and devoted German Communist Party member (alarm bells, anyone?) Emil Fuchs. Britain, which had been involved with the Manhattan Project, had its own bomb by 1952. Eight years later the French joined the nuke club, and by 1964 Red China was on board.
With the end of the Cold War, many believed that nuclear weapons would go the way of the USSR, yet today the world seems to be on the verge of another tsunami of nuclear proliferation. Now as before there seems to be little the international community can do to halt it.
Certainly this round of proliferation didn’t come out of nowhere. North Korea and Iran have been signaling their nuclear intentions for decades. Pyongyang is, according to the Washington Post, a double threat, because it has shown itself to be a “virtual bazaar for spreading missiles, conventional weapons and nuclear technology around the globe.”
Pakistan, our supposed ally, hasn’t been a slouch either. Islamabad reportedly has sent nuclear material and technology to North Korea, Libya, and Saudi Arabia. The Post also talks of a “vast nuclear smuggling ring emanating from Pakistan,” led chiefly by A.Q. Khan, the German-educated father of the Pakistan bomb.
NATIONS DEVELOP NUCLEAR weapons for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it is simply a matter of prestige or national pride, as in the case of China and India. Sometimes nukes are seen as necessary for a state’s very survival (Israel). Most often nuclear armaments are acquired to counter an enemy’s arsenal (Pakistan, USSR). Regardless of the reason, when one state adopts nukes its neighbors are likely to feel pressured to follow suit, no matter how much they oppose nukes in principle.
Case in point: India tested its first “peaceful nuclear” device, Smiling Buddha — you didn’t think Indians had a sense of irony, did you? — in 1974. George Perkovich, author of India’s Nuclear Bomb, notes that Delhi’s reasons had little to do with security, but stemmed from an overwhelming desire for global recognition and national pride. Following India’s test, Pakistan immediately began work on its own nuclear weapons program. Reacting to this perceived threat from its neighbor, Pakistan Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto said, “We will defend our country using any means necessary and build a nuclear capability second to none. We will eat grass for 1,000 years, if we have to, but we will get there.” Thanks to technical assistance from China and the expertise Khan stole from German and Dutch nuclear facilities, it didn’t take anything like 1,000 years. Pakistan successfully tested its first bomb in 1998.
It should come as no surprise that more and more countries — following North Korea’s lead, and sensing a weakening of the U.S.-EU alliance — are expressing an interest in nuclear weapons. Even a nonentity like Burma has announced its intention to start a nuclear weapons program, effectively daring the UN Security Council to stop it. Iran, of course, has been playing the Security Council for a fool for years knowing full well that the Security Council’s threats are about as effective as a chocolate sauce pan.
Now with this month’s nuclear test in North Korea, Japan will feel pressured to go forward with its on-again, off-again enrichment program, rather than rely for its security on a weakened U.S. Three years ago Japan’s chief cabinet secretary Yasuo Fukuda reiterated that “depending on the world situation, circumstances and public opinion could require Japan to possess nuclear weapons.” This week IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei said there is a real danger that the 30 so-called threshold countries could have the capacity to develop nuclear weapons in a very short time. “The lack of international security and the failure of non-proliferation agreements make it difficult to convince these ‘virtual new weapons states’ ‘not to develop their own nuclear programs,” ElBaradei told reporters.
ALL OF THIS MAKES one long for the old days when the U.S. and the USSR both pointed their nukes at the other. Yet because of the reassuring doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction there was little chance of either side actually deploying them, and thanks to Soviet hyper-security and paranoia there was likewise little chance of any nuclear material going missing. Sure it was disturbing knowing that a genocidal maniac like Stalin had his finger on the button, but at least Uncle Joe jealously guarded his nuclear technology…err, I mean our nuclear technology.
In the 1940s, a number of scientists at Los Alamos recommended the U.S. share its nuclear weapons information with all of the superpowers, including the Soviet Union. At the very first meeting of the UN Atomic Energy Commission in 1946, the U.S. agreed to “turn over all of its weapons on the condition that all other countries pledge not to produce them and agree to an adequate system of inspection.” The Soviets rejected this plan on the grounds that the UN was dominated by the Americans and its allies, and therefore could not be trusted. That’s where the matter stood until that fall day two decades ago in ReykjavÃk, when a strong U.S. and a failing Soviet Union again were unable to come to terms.
The present strategy seems to be that we will try to talk some sense into North Korea, Iran, and anyone else with nuclear ambitions, perhaps even apply a little delicate pressure on our dear ally Pakistan to stop giving nuclear materials to rogue nations run by psychotic dictators. When that fails — as it inevitably will — we will apply toothless sanctions. Then one by one Asia and the Middle East will go nuclear until the nuclear club is as crowded as a Bosch painting, and the world begins more and more to resemble one as well.