Are Nonproliferation and Disarmament, Once Joined at the Hip, Headed for Divorce?

In the words of the old Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen song, as made famous by Frank Sinatra, nonproliferation and disarmament, like love and marriage, “go together like a horse and carriage.” Nonproliferation — preventing states that don’t currently possess nuclear weapons — works in tandem with disarmament — states with nuclear weapons divesting themselves of same. “You can’t have one without the other.” Right?

After all — continuing with the musical metaphor — that’s how the refrain goes in that old strain of a treaty, the NPT (nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty). Let’s all sing the sixth stanza (aka, article) together: “Each of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.” (Actually, it would probably require a good rapper to do it justice.)

Yet many maintain that Article VI does not, in fact, commit nuclear-weapons states to a long-term divestment of those weapons. Christopher Ford of the Hudson Institute outlined this position as well as anybody in a Nonproliferation Review article that he wrote shortly after he left the Bush administration as its lead negotiator on the NPT. Negotiations toward that end in themselves, he wrote, are sufficient for a state to be in compliance with Article VI. In the years since, such as in a recent piece for his website, New Paradigms Forum, titled Disarmament Versus Nonproliferation?, he’s written about how nonproliferation doesn’t necessarily follow in the wake of disarmament.

For those who are believers in what I call the “credibility thesis” — that is, the idea that a lack of progress in demonstrating disarmament “credibility” is the main “missing ingredient” that has helped ensure that the post-Cold War world has seen so little progress in preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons — this must have been a disheartening year. . . . as I have outlined elsewhere, our disarmament push seems to have won us no real progress.

Before we address if and why it was a “disheartening year,” we’ll note that the “elsewhere” Ford outlined our lack of nonproliferation progress is yet another piece he wrote titled Nuclear Disarmament, Nonproliferation, and the “Credibility Thesis”. It reads, in part:

First, [the credibility thesis] explicitly assumes that the commitment of the NWS [nuclear weapons states] to the ideal of disarmament lacks credibility, and implicitly assumes that the United States is both the most important locus of the problem and the key to its resolution. Second, it assumes that if this disarmament “credibility gap” is closed, it will be possible to meet today’s proliferation threats much more effectively and with a much wider base of diplomatic support. [But the] postulated “catalytic effect” of disarmament progress in support of nonproliferation policy is usually described as being an indirect effect, and rightly so. With good reason, few people seriously argue that countries such as Iran and North Korea seek nuclear weapons simply because the United States or other NWS possess such devices themselves, and that proliferators’ interest in such devices would accordingly diminish if only the United States reduced its arsenal further. It is sometimes alleged in disarmament circles that NWS possession of nuclear weapons, merely by making them “legitimate,” encourages proliferation. . . .

In the recent New Paradigms Forum piece, he wonders . . .

Where, one might ask, is the credibility-derived “payoff” in nonproliferation cooperation for U.S. progress and leadership in this field to date? And what reason do we have to believe, in its absence, that such a payoff will materialize in the future?

This usage of the term “credibility” is almost unique to Ford. The only other instance we found was by Joseph Gerson of the American Friends Service Committee, who, last spring, referred to a credibility gap between President Obama’s disarmament vows and his actions. To put it another way, Gerson doesn’t seem to believe that the United States is showing sufficient disarmament leadership, or setting a strong enough example, in following the letter of the law of Article VI, to convince states desirous of nuclear weapons that their covetousness is misplaced. He represents the view of not only much of the disarmament community, but the Non-Aligned Movement (an organization of states not aligned with major power blocs).

Ford acknowledges those agents in the recent article.

There will surely be those who will argue that the credibility thesis has yet truly to be tested — that is, who will chalk up the world’s failure to unite in solving all these problems to our failure to do more, and more quickly, in moving toward “zero.” A global united front in support of vigorous nonproliferation would really have materialized, it will be said, if we had only done more to disarm.

It must be acknowledged that not only does Ford understand disarmament advocates like few other conservatives, but, odds are, his judgment is sound when he asserts that whether or not we disarm has no bearing whatsoever on the plans of states that hope to acquire or develop nuclear weapons. Still, it behooves us to look at the issue from the vantage point of a small nation, to which 50 nuclear weapons is the stuff of daydreams. The 1,500 to which new START binds Russia and the United States (if ratified by the Senate, which looks less and less likely since the elections) still constitutes an arsenal unimaginable in its immensity.

Furthermore, to the “street” in those nations, the idea that not only can’t you have nuclear weapons when others do, but that the nation with the most nukes is leading the call to deprive you of any, not only violates your sense of fair play at its most fundamental level, but is capable of inducing outright cognitive dissonance. In addition, while, deep down, the nation’s statesmen likely share those sentiments, they may also feel that the reading of Article IV alluded to above is, at worst, counterintuitive; at best, legalistic.

That kind of hairsplitting scarcely becomes a superpower-slash-world leader in disarmament. Besides, as Jonathan Schell says, the most dangerous illusion is that “we can hold on to nuclear weapons while at the same time stopping their proliferation to other countries. That is an absolutely unworkable proposition. It just cannot happen in the real world.”

What’s more, attempting to enforce nonproliferation while you still retain 1,500 weapons plus for your personal deterrence is yet another reminder to a small nation of its second-class citizenship as a state. After all, prestige might even be the better part of nuclear aspiration. (Note to nuclear-weapons states: when it comes to throwing small states off the nuclear scent, sharing research in such cutting-edge areas as nanotechnology might, when combined with disarmament, work synergistic wonders.)

On top of everything else we’ve come up with an ingenious force multiplier for our hypocrisy — the $80 billion Obama has committed to nuclear modernization over the next decade to win Republican Senate votes to raitfy START. We vastly underestimate Tehran if we think this is lost on the mullahs. In fact, they can be forgiven for perceiving new START as a smoke screen (however thin) for what really is more of a strategic retrenchment in our commitment to nuclear weapons than a rejection of them. Nothing says we’re into nuclear weapons for the long haul better than watered-down treaties and the compromises we make to secure them.

Still, there’s no denying the legitimacy of the conservative argument that the urgency of nonproliferation precludes waiting around for substantive disarmament which, if it’s actually happening, seems to be unfolding over a timetable spanning generations. But proliferation, with nuclear Big Brother — the International Atomic Energy Association — looking over the shoulder of states like Iran, while the nuclear black market is a shadow of what it once was, is proceeding at a glacial pace as well. One reason that the American public is skeptical that Iran isn’t close to developing nuclear weapons is that it can’t understand what’s taking a large state so long to get up to speed on a 60-year old technology.

Of course, nonproliferation can be enforced much more quickly than disarmament can be generated — by attacking the offending state. But the military road to absolute nonproliferation is closed, in the case of Iran, for instance, because social norms on the part of the United States prevent it from mounting a massive enough attack (read: high civilian casualties) to keep Iran’s nuclear program from rising from the ashes — and, this time, unfettered by international constraints it would now disdain. Thus disarmament moves not much more slowly than nonproliferation.

Whether or not disarmament discourages proliferation is immaterial — it’s our only recourse. Besides, does anybody think the time will come when small states will actually pass the United States on the up nuclear escalator while it’s on the down escalator to disarmament? The United States would push the emergency shut-off button to disarmament in a heartbeat.

In the end, what the chorus of the Cahn-Van Heusen song reminds us about love and marriage can also be applied to nonproliferation and disarmament: “Try, try, try to separate them, it’s an illusion.”