Monday, December 10, 2007

How to stop nuclear proliferation

Thomas Coll, in the New Yorker:
By now, more than sixty years into the atomic age, there is little mystery about why or how countries sometimes agree to give up work on nuclear weapons. Moral vision is not a decisive factor, the evidence suggests; the leaders who have repudiated bomb programs span the considerable range between Muammar Qaddafi and Nelson Mandela. Nor does the nature of a country’s political system seem to matter much. According to Richard Rhodes’s recent history “Arsenals of Folly,” the countries that, since the bombing of Nagasaki, have forsworn, under diplomatic pressure, either bomb arsenals or advanced-weapons experiments include, in addition to Libya and South Africa, Yugoslavia, Sweden, Australia, Norway, Taiwan, South Korea, Indonesia, Turkey, Greece, Romania, Canada, Brazil, Argentina, Switzerland, Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan.

Nuclear bombs are expensive, dangerous, and not very useful in war, but they do bring prestige and scare off unruly neighbors. While each diplomatic case is as individual as a fingerprint, the formula for achieving voluntary nuclear disarmament is well established: a country’s anxieties about security are negotiated into quietude; its aspirations to political legitimacy and economic integration are rewarded; and, if the government in question is nonetheless recalcitrant, political and economic pressure are brought to bear. This method is not infallible, but the global scorecard since 1945 is not entirely discouraging: about two dozen successes; three failures (India, Pakistan, Israel); five problem arsenals born in the Cold War and complicated by Great Power competition (the United States, Russia, China, France, and Britain); and two cases-in-progress, North Korea and Iran. In only one instance, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, has preĆ«mptive military action, rather than diplomacy, figured significantly in an attempt to stop nuclear proliferation; as a test case of this approach, beginning with Israel’s raid on an Iraqi reactor in 1981 and culminating with the present war, it has proved less than persuasive. In an earlier era, the Cuban missile crisis was similarly uninspiring.

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