Disarm to Prevent Proliferation? Or Halt Proliferation to Enable Disarmament?

Regular readers may be familiar with my concern that nonproliferation and disarmament, once two sides of the same coin, are being inexorably peeled apart. (See this, for instance: Are Nonproliferation and Disarmament, Once Joined at the Hip, Headed for Divorce?) In other words, the former is, as economists say of currency, no longer “pegged” to the latter.

Nuclear weapons advocates, as well as many who fall in the realist camp, seem to be gaining ground in the process of de-linking the two. To them, preventing a state from proliferating shouldn’t require the United States or other large nuclear states to show leadership or set an example with disarmament initiatives. To the contrary, nuclear-aspirational states must agree not to proliferate before the United States takes substantive steps to disarmament.

But to disarmament advocates, expecting states that possess nuclear weapons illegally, or that aspire to develop them, to surrender their weapons or dreams when the large nuclear powers, or at least the United States, retain them in large numbers is counterintuitive. Needless to say, the states in question would also like the United States to put its money where its mouth is before proceeding.

Often, understanding where conservatives are coming from requires pushing the envelope of progressives’ famous (or, to conservatives, infamous) “empathy” to extremes. In this case, though, the reasoning, once pointed out, is not difficult to understand. As usual, Hudson Institute fellow Christopher Ford is the most articulate representative of the point of view that nonproliferation should be the horse pulling the disarmament cart, instead of vice-versa, as it has traditionally been viewed, especially by disarmament advocates.

In recent speech titled A Survey of the Nuclear Weapons Landscape, Ford shows how those conservatives who accept disarmament as an ultimate goal simply view leadership differently.

The international community’s record in enforcing compliance with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and other nonproliferation obligations remains pretty dismal, and this factor alone could prove a disarmament “showstopper.” After all, if we cannot prevent the emergence of new nuclear “players,” how can we expect existing possessors to give their weapons up — or how could we ensure that abolition, even if it occurs, doesn’t turn out to be just a pause along the road to new arms races?

In other words, leadership is not disarming first; leadership is convincing nuclear states, whether they’ve developed their programs legally or illegally (within or outside the nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty), that they’re safe in rolling back the number of their nuclear weapons because the United States will ensure that no new states develop nuclear weapons.

While it’s not what jumps to the minds of disarmament advocates, it makes a certain amount of sense. The unknown, of course, is how much force is needed to prevent states from acquiring nuclear weapons and its potential to spiral out of control.