Needed: a “Great Convention”?
Dealing with the present nuclear threat.


The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) framework is crumbling. It doesn’t matter whether Iran, for example, agrees to new inspections or pledges to suspend enrichment programs, because once a country can say, “We have the technology,” it can easily conceal components or begin work at sites that are not known to the inspectors. Nor is North Korea likely to open all of its facilities, even if it receives the security guarantees it has demanded as preconditions for any further talks on nuclear disarmament. Rather than discussing ways to patch an increasingly leaky roof, it is time to begin envisioning a new structure altogether.

Like the ABM Treaty, the NPT was a product of the Cold War. It took shape in a world where two nuclear superpowers with global reach had extended actual or tacit guarantees of protection for their allies and clients. There was a sense that regional conflicts–such as in East Asia or the Middle East–would be contained by the United States and the Soviet Union. It was also signed at a time when obtaining the technology needed to fabricate nuclear weapons was both prohibitively expensive and geo-strategically difficult–and the various nuclear powers had important incentives to try and prevent such weapons technology from spreading.

But most importantly, the NPT worked because most countries found it in their interests to abide by its provisions. A developing country like Brazil, facing no real external threat and subsiding under the hemispheric nuclear umbrella of its northern neighbor, saw no real benefit to expending scarce funds to develop such weapons–and such assessments hold true to this present day.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, however, a number of the assumptions that undergirt the treaty have fallen by the wayside. Nuclear-weapons technology is not so inaccessible as it was 30 years ago. And a number of regimes now have different perceptions of their security interests. A sign of the changing times was the decision by both India and Pakistan to move ahead with becoming full-fledged members of the nuclear club.

Ironically, it was America’s two greatest military triumphs of the 1990s that did much to cause a number of regimes to reassess the value of the NPT. The overwhelming conventional superiority of U.S. armed forces in the first Gulf War of 1991 dashed any hopes that regional powers could employ the “stalemate” strategies utilized by Egypt and Syria in the 1973 Yom Kippur war against Israel–being able to “hold out” until cease-fires could be implemented, giving the weaker parties the ability to gain some wiggle room in subsequent negotiations. In other words, after 1991, it was clear that no state or combination of states possessed sufficient conventional military might that could withstand a U.S. assault.

There are a number of indications that the 1999 Kosovo war was decisive in convincing officials in places like Iran and North Korea to move ahead with their nuclear weapons programs. They concluded that the willingness of the United States to engage in a “humanitarian intervention” against Yugoslavia (for methods that appeared to be no more brutal than those employed by NATO ally Turkey in dealing with the Kurdish counterinsurgency) signaled that Washington would move against countries or regimes it did not approve and that lacked any credible deterrent. After all, a consistent refrain during the bombing campaign was that the Serbs did not possess anything capable of restraining Western militaries–a view reinforced by the outcome of the Second Gulf War.

If Iran and North Korea cross the nuclear threshold, there is likely to be a significant domino effect. A nuclear-armed Iran torpedoes any chance that Israel might be induced to give up its nuclear deterrent, and increases the possibility that neighboring states such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia, or Egypt may reconsider their own commitment to the NPT. Similarly, a North Korean nuclear arsenal calls into question whether South Korea, Taiwan, or Japan will also not seek the option of being able to produce nuclear weapons.

Unless the United States commits itself to full-scale invasions and occupations of both Iran and North Korea, there are no guarantees that “selected” military strikes can destroy all of the nuclear infrastructure of both countries. Indeed, the real danger is that targeted strikes may miss crucial institutions or facilities, especially since selected strikes would not be followed up by full-scale invasions.

Nor is it clear that either of the threshold regimes are likely to give up their entire nuclear program in exchange for security guarantees from the United States. Pyongyang and Teheran are all too aware that the U.S. preference is for regime change. One can already see the basis for hedging in statements by Dr. Hassan Rowhani, secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, that portions of the agreement with the foreign ministers of Britain, France and Germany would need to be approved by Iran’s parliament at an undisclosed time.

Other major actors–the European Union, China and Russia among them–have an almost fatalistic approach to the problem; while decrying the possibility that Iran and North Korea may become nuclear powers within the decade, they seem almost fatalistically reconciled to its inevitability. Nor are these powers prepared, it seems, to plunge Iran or North Korea into the total isolation needed to send the strongest possible nonmilitary signal of disapproval. As long as Russia and the EU maintain strong trading relations with Iran and Beijing continues to prop up North Korea with shipments of food and fuel, U.S. sanctions efforts will fail.

Stephen Blank, writing in the Asia Times, pessimistically observes: “the experience of the 20th century and of current world politics tells us that if we really want to prevent someone from going nuclear, it is necessary either to physically destroy the weapons by preemptive strike, as Israel did to Iraq in 1981, or to occupy the country, as the post-1945 history of Japan and Germany tell us.” Yet this is the consensus the United States will need to begin to build among the major actors.

Frank Herbert is best known as a science fiction author. But one concept drawn from his novels may be the foundation of a new approach to replace the failing NPT. In his universe, the “Great Convention” mandated that any use of nuclear weapons against human targets would result in the complete and total annihilation of the offending regime. If the NPT cannot prevent countries from deciding to “go nuclear,” if the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) cannot stop all technologies and materials from reaching regimes intent on nuclearization, then a clear and definitive statement must be made from the United States, with allies if possible, alone if necessary. Rogue regimes must be placed on notice: any use of a nuclear weapon or nuclear-based device (such as a dirty bomb) will result in complete regime annihilation–no matter whether we have definitive proof of complicity or not. North Korea and Iran must be placed on notice that if they choose to cross the nuclear threshold, they cannot pass weapons to terrorists or third-party agents and disavow “any knowledge” of their actions. After all, it was a similar understanding that kept both the USSR and China from providing any nuclear materials to the scores of “liberation” movements that they sponsored.

Fear of actual annihilation, not weak international sanctions, might be the only thing to hold these regimes back from actually producing weapons. Writing in this fall’s issue of The National Interest, Ian Bremmer, in an article tellingly entitled “The Art of the Bluff,” maintains that the sine qua non of the regime in Pyongyang (and by extension, in Iran) is survival–and this guides their nuclear strategy.

The world thought it put the doctrine of MAD (mutually assured destruction) behind itself when the Cold War ended. Sadly, we may now be entering an era where regimes and countries are held hostage to the “good behavior” of their leaders. In an ideal world, we could fix the NPT framework and get it back on track. Practically, however, we need to start preparing for worse-case scenarios. Pretending that the nuclear club is not on the point of expansion is not healthy for our national security.

Nikolas K. Gvosdev is a senior fellow for strategic studies at the Nixon Center and editor of In the National Interest.


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