Critical Mess

Back in January, Brazil's newly appointed minister of science and technology, Roberto Amaral, suggested in a radio interview that his country had nuclear ambitions. "Brazil is a country at peace, that has always preserved peace and is a defender of peace, but we need to be prepared, including technologically," he said. "We can't renounce any form of scientific knowledge, whether the genome, DNA or nuclear fission." It was hardly a Kim Jong-Il-caliber nuclear tantrum, but it did cause a stir. The comments were roundly condemned and a flurry of clarifications followed.

But Amaral's boss, President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, had made similar noises. In a campaign speech last year to retired military officers, Lula criticized the fact that the 1968 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) allowed nuclear powers to keep their weapons but denied them to everyone else. "If," he complained, "someone asks me to disarm and keep a slingshot while he comes at me with a cannon, what good does that do?" Here in the United States, Lula's invocation of the forbidden nuclear fruit caught the attention of several members of Congress, who in an alarmed letter to President Bush pointed out the Brazilian leader's past ties to Fidel Castro.

Brazil would have little difficulty joining the ranks of nuclear powers. For decades the country had a secret military nuclear program before renouncing it in the early 1990s. Brazil has two nuclear power plants, the capacity to enrich uranium and is developing a rocket that, if converted for military purposes, could have a range of 2,200 miles. In 1997 the Brazilian army raised suspicions by trying (unsuccessfully) to restart a military nuclear-research project.

Odds are Brazil is not going nuclear anytime soon. As a country that voluntarily gave up a well-developed nuclear-weapons program, it has been one of the nonproliferation regime's success stories. But the comments of Amaral and Lula show that the nuclear temptation is still strong, not only for rogue states that find themselves in America's crosshairs but for countries around the world that aspire to great-power status.

Today nuclear weapons are on Americans' minds in a way they haven't been since the height of the Cold War. Compared with the prospect of a nuclear-armed terrorist, the threat posed by a nuclear Brazil is hardly chilling. But the re-emergence of nuclear ambition in Brazil's government is alarming because it questions the ultimate endurance of nonproliferation. The Bush administration is ready to reinvent arms control, to ask questions that go to the heart of what our broader nuclear-weapons policy should be. As the alignments of the Cold War evolve into something more fluid, that's to be commended. Unfortunately, Bush's answers are only making things worse.

The preemptive attack on Iraq, billed in part as a battle in a larger war against nuclear proliferation, may well have convinced other nervous nations that nukes are their only hedge against a similar fate. Then there's the administration's push for low-yield and tactical nuclear weapons, and for a nuclear policy that goes beyond mere deterrence. Throw in a pathological aversion in the Bush White House to international obligations and you have all the ingredients for destabilization, a new arms race and an increasingly unsafe world.

Today's nuclear nonproliferation regime is largely the legacy of John F. Kennedy. After darkly invoking the specter of a U.S.-Soviet "missile gap" throughout his 1960 presidential campaign, Kennedy got into office and realized that within 10 years, the nuclear quartet of the United States, Great Britain, the Soviet Union and France could grow into an unwieldy gang of 20 or 30 countries. In 1961, Kennedy created the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, negotiated the Limited Test Ban Treaty and began negotiations on what was to become the NPT.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, neoconservatives forwarded the argument that the NPT had outlived its usefulness. The treaty provides no real enforcement mechanism. And nations such as India, Pakistan and Israel that were particularly interested in nuclear weapons simply refused to sign it. The Bush administration makes much of these limitations. Assistant Secretary of State for Nonproliferation John S. Wolf told the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations in March that while the NPT "remains the cornerstone" of U.S. nonproliferation policy, international agreements alone "are simply not enough" to stop the spread of weapons of mass destruction. Richard L. Garwin, a physicist and arms-control expert whose experience with nuclear weapons extends back to his work on the Manhattan Project itself, says the current U.S. commitment to the NPT is strictly conditional. "The Bush administration does not favor treaties," he says, "but they like the benefits of the NPT."

Today's nuclear-weapons debate divides along the fault line between the "nonproliferationist" and "counterproliferationist" schools. Nonproliferationists argue that nuclear weapons are a special and an increasingly less necessary evil. Counterproliferationists are more difficult to define. Paul Bracken, a Yale University political-science professor and author of Fire in the East, a study of weapons of mass destruction in Asia, dismisses the term as too vague. "To some people it means forceful diplomatic action," he says. "To others it means blowing things up." But in general, counterproliferationists want to fight fire with fire. They believe that there are no evil weapons, just evil men and women who want them. Bill Keller -- writing in a recent New York Times Magazine cover story -- compares the counterproliferationists' suspicion of nuclear disarmament to the sentiments expressed on a National Rifle Association bumper sticker, which reads, "If nukes are outlawed, only outlaws will have nukes." Another NRA staple springs to mind, as well: "Nukes don't kill people, people do."

The "National Strategy to Combat Weapons of Mass Destruction," released by the White House last December, lays out the administration's position. In the document, counterproliferation is the first of the strategy's "three pillars," with nonproliferation taking a subsidiary role. The administration insists, however, that the two still form "seamless elements of a comprehensive approach." In theory they could be just that. And in practice they have been. The sort of muscular language on Iran and North Korea that Bush championed at the recent G8 meeting was nothing new. Counterproliferation is neither a creation of the Bush administration nor of the neoconservatives spread through its foreign-policy ranks. Rather, it was born under Les Aspin, Bill Clinton's ill-starred first defense secretary. Joseph Cirincione, director of the Nonproliferation Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, points out that counterproliferation was simply "the role that the Department of Defense could play in nonproliferation efforts. It was going to develop technology and programs to counter [nuclear] programs in instances when diplomacy failed, or in support of diplomacy." In other words, it was a piece of a larger nonproliferation strategy. Aspin, a fervent believer in nuclear disarmament, frankly admits that coercive military means might be required to enforce nonproliferation.

But from a means, counterproliferation has grown into an end, and the original goal has dropped out of sight. The point is no longer the reduction in the number of arms but the concentration of those arms in the right hands. Counterproliferation's most radical disciples even suggest we give some of our allies nuclear weapons if they have neighbors we want to deter. Back in January, Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer proposed giving Japan nuclear weapons in order to pressure China, which would in turn pressure North Korea. "If our nightmare is a nuclear North Korea," he wrote, "China's is a nuclear Japan. It's time to share the nightmares."

Making a practice of this surely wouldn't be in the interests of U.S. security. We have a patchy history of choosing lasting allies. Arming the shah of Iran might have deterred some of his neighbors, but having the Ayatollah Khomeini inherit those weapons would certainly have made us rethink that decision. And if we really want to give China nightmares we should give Taiwan nuclear weapons. But the escalation of tensions from that provocation would be its own nightmare. To follow Krauthammer's advice would be to repeat the greatest errors of the Cold War -- with exponentially higher stakes.

The administration has not suggested that it wants to kick off a Far East arms race. Its counterproliferationist mind-set starts at home, with strenuous opposition to binding cuts in U.S. nuclear programs. Instead, it holds that we may need to make our nuclear posture more aggressive. A review of U.S. defense policy published in 2000 by the neoconservative hothouse The Project for a New American Century (PNAC) argues that reducing our nuclear force is likely to be dangerous; it favors not only updating it but expanding its role beyond strategic deterrence. That the Bush administration has taken this advice to heart is no surprise. Several PNAC contributors are now running U.S. foreign policy, including Paul Wolfowitz and Stephen Cambone at the Pentagon and I. Lewis Libby in the White House. Douglas Feith (the undersecretary of defense), John Bolton (the undersecretary of state) and Robert Joseph (the National Security Council's senior counterproliferation official) have espoused similar views.

To see this approach in action, look no further than the Moscow Treaty, which Bush signed with Russian President Vladimir Putin last year. It requires that each country must have no more than 1,700 to 2,200 "operationally deployed" nuclear warheads by Dec. 31, 2012 (down from today's 6,000). There is, however, no timetable for the reductions, and no enforcement mechanism. The retired weapons do not have to be destroyed or dismantled but can simply be stored (an especially disturbing prospect considering the ramshackle condition of Russian nuclear security and the Bush administration's failure to adequately fund programs aimed at the problem). Most egregiously, the treaty expires the instant the limits go into effect. As Ivo H. Daalder and James M. Lindsay wrote in these pages last year [see "One-Day Wonder," Aug. 2, 2002], "[T]he United States and Russia are free -- except for a single day a decade from now -- to deploy as many (or as few) warheads on operationally deployed systems as they like. Yes, it is as absurd as it sounds." Just in case these terms prove too onerous, either side can pull out with 90 days' notice.

The treaty also makes no mention of tactical nuclear devices, the smaller "battlefield" weapons that sit in storage in both the United States and Russia. With the rest of its military atrophying from lack of money, Russia is in the unenviable position of actually relying on tactical nukes, and therefore not eager to get rid of them. Tactical nukes are hardly an important component of U.S. deterrence policy; nonetheless, the Bush administration in May pressured Congress to relax the 10-year ban on research into low-yield nukes in part to explore the possibility of "bunker-buster" bombs. (In a display of distressingly loopy logic, some advocates suggest using these weapons to destroy biological and chemical weapons stockpiles.)

This cavalierly aggressive attitude has not gone unnoticed in Russia. Putin, who desperately wanted deeper reductions and a commitment to destroying deactivated weapons, was deeply disappointed and embarrassed by the agreement. In a recent speech, he proposed that Russia begin work on "new types of Russian weapons, weapons of the new generation, including those regarded by specialists as strategic weapons." He did not say "nuclear," but the implication was clear, and the comments were widely seen as a response to the Bush push for new nuclear-weapons research.

Setbacks such as these might be worth the price if the Bush policy were paying off in Iran and North Korea. But it's not. Invading Iraq was supposed to show Iran and North Korea that getting nukes doesn't pay. So far, neither has shown a change of heart. That doesn't mean that they're not scared of us. Kim Jong-Il went into hiding just before the Iraq War, according to American intelligence, because he thought he, too, might be a target of "decapitation strikes." A security guarantee from the United States is the one constant in North Korea's continually shifting demands. However shrill and reckless North Korea's rhetoric, the country's nuclear program is driven largely by fear of U.S. attack. And Iran has seen a hostile neighbor (Iraq) replaced by a slightly less hostile but exponentially more powerful neighbor (the United States). The problem is not, then, that the Bush policy has been insufficiently tough. Precisely the opposite. As Cirincione says, "The lesson that Iran and North Korea seem to have drawn from the war is that they should speed up their nuclear programs, not abandon them."

In light of the shortcomings of the administration's approach, it's worth taking a look at what Bush is turning his back on. The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty was meant not only to stop but also to reverse the proliferation of nuclear weapons. The treaty was a deal struck between the nuclear and non-nuclear powers. The latter would forswear the pursuit of nuclear arms and, in return, the former would agree to help them develop peaceful nuclear programs, to not threaten them with nuclear weapons in the event of conflict and 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."

No treaty by itself can take away the power and temptation of nuclear weapons. That nukes would cease to be the badge of great-power significance has always been somewhat utopian. For countries such as Brazil, the drive for nuclear weapons was fed as much by an unabashed desire for status as by security considerations. And Lula's bellicose campaign pronouncements show that the two-tiered NPT system of nuclear haves and have-nots still rankles.

But for 30 years the NPT worked surprisingly well. China, having tested its first device in 1964, signed on as a nuclear power. Egypt, Sweden, Italy and Switzerland gave up serious nuclear-weapons programs upon signing. Along with Brazil, Argentina and South Africa eventually followed suit. With the breakup of the Soviet Union, the former republics of Belarus, Kazakhstan and the Ukraine forfeited their inherited nukes. All in all, according to a 2002 Carnegie Endowment study, at least 40 countries with the capability and knowledge of how to develop nuclear weapons have chosen not to do so.

Moreover, contrary to popular conception, we're not seeing a new burst of proliferation. Since the United States founded it in 1945, the nuclear club has been growing at the rate of a new country every few years. The Soviet Union joined in 1949, Britain in 1952, France in 1960, China in 1964 and Israel (though ambiguously -- to this day, its official position is the sphinx-like statement, "Israel will not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle East") by 1966. India tested a nuclear device in 1974, and for nearly a quarter of a century it seemed happy to have tested once without deploying any nuclear weapons. Pakistan, too, apparently had nuclear capability as of 1986, 12 years before its first test. Iraq almost joined in the early '80s and then again in the mid-90s. (As of this writing, we have yet to see any conclusive evidence that Iraq had restarted that program in recent years.)

Nuclear know-how and materials have certainly grown more available. Especially in the years just after the Cold War's conclusion, it was much easier for a nuclear aspirant to find cash-strapped scientists and loose fissile materials by sifting through the fragmented remains of the Soviet empire. In the 40 years since the Manhattan Project, the technology has trickled out into the public domain. As Walter Russell Mead, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, puts it, "When the first bomb was built, it took a lot of money and you had people like Einstein working on it. Now a lot of not very impressive physics Ph.Ds are working on them, and a lot of the parts can be bought off the shelf."

The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty ultimately did not live up to its ambitious aims. If a country really feels it needs nuclear weapons, it is very hard to change its mind, either by carrot or stick. But an increasingly isolated United States is even less able to stop the spread of nuclear weapons. An imperfect treaty at least imposes a structure and a set of norms. The "indispensable nation," as Bill Clinton called the United States, can't alone solve the nuclear problem. We can, however, aggravate it. We cannot always make countries feel safer but we can certainly make them feel less secure -- not only vulnerable rogue nations but powerful and already nuclear ones, too.

In response to the triumphalism of the neocons, Fareed Zakaria wrote in The New Yorker that the United States was "the dominant power at the end of the Second World War, when it founded the United Nations, created the Bretton Woods system of international economic cooperation, and launched most of the world's key international organizations. For much of the twentieth century, America embraced international cooperation not out of fear and vulnerability but from a position of confidence and strength." Machiavelli said it is better to be feared than loved. But, Zakaria counters, "He was wrong." In today's world, preserving stability and equality between nations requires norms -- whether codified into treaties and international bodies or not -- and nukes. As we devalue the former by withdrawing from treaties and scoffing at multilateral institutions, we increase the value of the latter.

The great irony is that the Bush administration, despite its "talk loudly and brandish a chainsaw" rhetoric, will probably continue to shrink the nuclear arsenal. Leonard Spector of the Monterey Institute's Center on Nonproliferation Studies points out that, "As a practical matter, the actual deployments are decreasing substantially, the number of warheads being dismantled continues to grow, at every stage that you look the arsenal is coming down." Behind the bluster, the administration's stance is less about nuclear weapons than about what Daalder and Lindsay call the "fetish for flexibility." But this fetish makes for a less stable world, and all the more so when nuclear weapons are involved. Out of a fear of being taken advantage of, the administration makes itself unable to be relied upon.

The United States ultimately does not benefit from a world with fewer rules. The Bush administration is right to push for greater enforcement capabilities for the International Atomic Energy Agency but wrong to insist on exempting its own arsenal. If the United States suddenly got rid of its nuclear weapons, the world would not be a safer place. But it would be safer if we made a good-faith effort to create what Bracken calls an "agreed nuclear world." Such an effort should take into consideration the security considerations of countries besides our own -- it should, for example, acknowledge that dealing with proliferation in the Middle East involves addressing Israel's nuclear arsenal -- and it should work not to undermine the nuclear taboo but to ensure it. A small, transparent American nuclear arsenal might in fact be credibly seen as a defensive force, as opposed to a jealously guarded guarantor of omnipotence. In nuclear policy, as in medicine, our motto should surely be, "First, do no harm."