The proliferation debate: Learn to love the bomb -- and die


Some say the world will end in fire.

Some say in ice. . . .

- Robert Frost, Fire and Ice

Simple logic dictates that the more nations have nuclear arms, the greater the chance these terrible weapons will be used. Yet a number of respected analysts today believe that nuclear proliferation actually makes the world safer. The effects of their arguments may be more than academic.

At issue is U.S. policy, which soon will be put to a strong test. This month at United Nations Headquarters in New York, 162 nations will decide whether or not to renew their adherence to the 1969 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

The treaty binds non-nuclear states to refrain from acquiring nuclear weapons, and nuclear states to refuse to assist them should they try. The United States originally proposed the treaty, and still stands behind it. If pro-proliferation analysts had their way, the United States would pull back its support.

A recent, brilliant book, "The Spread of Nuclear Weapons: A Debate"

(W.W. Norton & Company. 164 pages. $16.95), crystallizes the arguments for and against nuclear proliferation. Like a gripping court case, the book presents the arguments and the evidence on both sides, and lets the reader decide whether nuclear proliferation does or does not make the world a safer place.

Championing the proliferators is Kenneth N. Waltz, a political scientist at the University of California at Berkeley, who maintains that nuclear weapons create a peaceful world because nuclear deterrence works. His principal evidence is that for 50 years, following Nagasaki, nuclear weapons have not been used. Indeed, he argues, the world has generally been safer for nuclear states than it was before the Nuclear Age.

Deterrence works, Waltz claims, because the risks of massive nuclear destruction are simply too great. The leaders of nuclear states know this and act rationally. The fear that the heads of the Third World nations that might acquire nuclear weapons would be less rational than the heads of megastates like the United States or the former Soviet Union is mere ethnocentrism. In fact, Waltz maintains, the "cognitive skills" of Libya's Muammar Qaddafi, Iraq's Saddam Hussein are and North Korea's Kim II Sung were more impressive than those of, say, Jimmy Carter or George Bush.

Waltz dismisses the potential hazards of nuclear proliferation. Preventative war against a state developing nuclear weapons is unlikely because it doesn't work and is therefore irrational: "If the blow struck is less than devastating, one must be prepared either to repeat it or to occupy and control the country." Smaller nuclear powers will avoid nuclear accidents because they have less complicated nuclear establishments to manage. Military, as opposed to civilian, control of nuclear weapons, a real possibility in new nuclear states, poses no real risks because military planners act sensibly to avoid casualties.

Nor need we fear nuclear terrorists in areas like Eastern Europe or the Middle East. Waltz assures us, "Terrorists have some hope of reaching their long-term goals through patient pressure and constant harassment. They cannot hope to do so by issuing unsustainable threats to wreck (sic) great destruction, threats they would not want to execute anyway."

Similar arguments have been advanced by pro-proliferation politicians and by scholars such as Hebrew University's Martin van Creveld, whose "Nuclear Proliferation and the Future of Conflict" (The Free Press. 180 pages. $22.95) includes a useful 300-year history of war and military strategy. Like Waltz, Creveld ends up championing nuclear weapons as agents of peace.

Their arguments seem to make sense. The catch is that they make sense not in the world we live in, but in the ideological world of the 17th century British political scientist Thomas Hobbes.

That world began in what Hobbes called a "state of nature," a world of man against man, in which men's lives were "nasty, brutish and short." Hobbes maintains that to avoid violent death in the state of nature, human beings had no alternative but rationally to contract with each other to create a state that would have absolute, undivided authority.

According to Waltz and his neorealist associates, the anarchy of Hobbes' "states of nature" describes the modern world of competing states. Like Hobbes, they assume that states act as individual units below the state, there is no organization worth considering and that states, like human beings, can be depended upon to act rationally in their own self-interest.

These Hobbesian assumptions are precisely what Waltz's co-author and debating opponent, Scott D. Sagan, attacks. Sagan, a political scientist at Stanford, argues convincingly that state policy is not necessarily rational, nor is it typically the product of one person, even in a dictatorship, but of organizations, including governments, which act according to their own routines and interests.

What we see here is a curious inversion. The neorealists like Waltz turn out to be the ideologues; the idealists, like Sagan, become the realists. Where Waltz argues, for example, that a small nuclear force is an adequate deterrent, and that nuclear proliferation should not therefore result in arms races, Sagan counters by pointing out that neither the United States nor the Soviet Union acted "rationally." Their arms races, fueled by self-interested military and industrial establishments working with governments, exhausted the Soviet Union and indebted the U.S. for generations to come. Sagan also cites the fact that U.S. military planners repeatedly advocated preventative war both before the Soviets developed nuclear weapons and even afterward.

Sagan admits that it is ethnocentric to assume that people like Qaddafi and Hussein are less rational than U.S. or Soviet statesmen, but it is plain silly to assume they are more rational, or that national policies are the sole result of their decisions.

If the Pentagon advocated preventative war against the Soviets, it is logical, Sagan says, to assume that new nuclear states, often guided by military elites, will undertake preventative wars against potential or real nuclear rivals, or will use nuclear weapons to blackmail or intimidate non-nuclear states.

Like Charles Perrow in "Normal Accidents" (Basic Books. 400 pages. Paperback $18.50), Sagan argues that we simply cannot depend on any government, much less an inexperienced one with meager financial resources, to avoid nuclear accidents. With far greater sophistication and funds, the United States had its Three Mile Island and the Soviet Union its Chernobyl, the latter a planetary disaster. Sagan cites numerous incidents of potentially disastrous safety violations by other nuclear powers, such as China, Pakistan and South Africa.

Nor does Sagan find Waltz's write-off of terrorism convincing. It is not rational for a terrorist to blow himself up to demolish a building, but if he is to sacrifice himself for the greater glory of his cause, why not blow up or threaten to blow up a city?

If analysts like Sagan are right, as I believe they are, now is the time to renew our effort to denuclearize the planet. Today, we have less than a dozen nuclear states. As far as observers can determine, Argentina and Brazil have given up nuclear development, and South Africa has dismantled its nuclear weapons. Three of the former Soviet republics - Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine - have agreed to return their nuclear weapons to Russia over the coming years, although they should be closely monitored for backtracking and nuclear theft. Iraq's revived nuclear facilities are being dismantled and North Korea is permitting full nuclear inspection in exchange for U.S. assistance in constructing advanced energy production reactors that cannot yield weapons-making materials.

That leaves the United States, Russia, Britain, France, Israel, Pakistan, India and China, and perhaps a few other nations that have quietly gone ahead with their programs. Not only should the United States attempt to keep the number down by support the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, but it should work to reduce the level of nuclear and conventional armaments. This country should push its efforts to conclude a comprehensive nuclear test ban; reduce our bloated nuclear arsenal to a small credible deterrent; and assist other nuclear states in adopting safety measures and alternative security procedures that do not rely on large nuclear forces. Steps like these, which look to a world without nuclear weapons, offer our planet the best possibility of survival.

Craig Eisendrath, a former U.S. Foreign Service Officer, won the State Department's Meritorious Honor Award in 1965 for helping to develop approaches to non-nuclear countries leading to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. He was executive director of the Pennsylvania Humanities Council and is the author of "The Unifying Moment," a work of process philosophy, and "Crisis Game," a play about nuclear war. He has a Ph.D. from Harvard University in the History of American Civilization.

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