The Corner

It Is Not the Bomb, but Who Has It

It is fine and good for President Obama to assemble leaders to join forces to track down fissionable material that might get into the hands of terrorists and to encourage non-proliferation. Few presidents could have rounded them all up in one place. But the problems with his nuclear non-proliferation strategy is a certain failure to see that nuclear bombs are a means, albeit a horrific one, to an end.

The problem is not necessarily bombs per se (e.g., We don’t lose sleep over a nuclear France or Britain), but who has them. Those nations who possess nuclear weapons — even if some are undemocratic, such as a prosperous exporter like China — and go to these sort of conferences are not those who are most likely to use them preemptively, in contrast to an Iran or North Korea or radical Islamic group. By directing efforts against the means, rather than those who employ them, we may well direct attention from the real problem — sort of like the distraught state regulator who goes after the head-nodding, law-abiding citizen for his misdemeanor because he knows well he can do nothing much about the felonies of the dangerous criminal.

We are currently engaged in a great but somewhat dangerous experiment in American foreign policy that has unfortunate antecedents from the 1930s and 1970s — a debate that reveals radically different views of human nature, pitting the tragic against the therapeutic. Obama believes that repeated emphasis on good intentions, outreach, concessions, and dialogue can convince a misunderstood or misguided Iran, North Korea, Syria, or Russia to more or less join the world of nations, follow the rules, and not take risks with world stability in pursuit of regional ambitions. Most past presidents, in contrast, acknowledge the value of such diplomatic niceties and respect, but differ radically in their view of autocratic, bellicose states and why they do what they do — believing instead that a calculating and quite savvy Syria or Iran stays within international norms depending only on the costs it knows that it will have to pay if it does not.

The problem with this most current difference of well-meaning opinion over human nature is that it is not a mere bull session in the Harvard faculty lounge, but involves the safety of hundreds of millions.

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