Closing the Nuclear Umbrella

Courtesy Reuters

The recent crisis over North Korea's nuclear program is merely the latest evidence that the global nonproliferation regime, symbolized by the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), is inexorably breaking down. Although U.S. concessions may ultimately induce Pyongyang once again to allow international inspections, that will be a meager accomplishment. It will hardly offer reliable guarantees that a regime as secretive and politically opaque as North Korea's cannot evade International Atomic Energy Agency scrutiny while pursuing a clandestine nuclear weapons program. Iraq, for one, was certainly able to do so while complying with all IAEA inspection requirements.

North Korea is only one of several states with nuclear ambitions. India and Pakistan have also emerged as threshold aspirants to, if not already full-fledged members of, the once-exclusive global nuclear club. Persistent reports surface of Iranian and Libyan efforts to exploit the political chaos in the former Soviet Union to purchase their own small arsenals. Even Ukraine's agreement with the United States and Russia to turn over its nuclear warheads is far from certain, given the foot-dragging and obstructionist tilt of the Ukrainian parliament as well as the widespread public sentiment for retaining the weapons. These worrisome trends more than offset any positive developments, such as France's and China's decisions to adhere to NPT provisions or South Africa's announcement that it has given up the arsenal it had developed surreptitiously in the 1980s.

It is time for U.S. leaders to reassess Cold War policies on nonproliferation, security commitments and extended deterrence and to adapt them to changed international circumstances. These commitments may once have made sense, given the need to thwart the Soviet Union's expansionist agenda. But they are highly dubious in the absence of the superpower rivalry. They now threaten to embroil the United States in regional conflicts where nuclear weapons have already proliferated or will inevitably proliferate soon. Washington should give up its fruitless obsession with preserving the NPT and the unraveling nonproliferation system that it represents.



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