Courtesy Reuters

Bush's Nuclear Revolution: A Regime Change in Nonproliferation

The Bush administration's new "National Strategy to Combat Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)," announced in December, is wise in some places, in need of small fixes in other places, and dangerously radical in still others. Most important, the strategy's approach to nuclear issues seems destined to reduce international cooperation in enforcing nonproliferation commitments rather than enhance it. America's willingness to use force against emergent WMD threats, as in Iraq, can stir the limbs of the international body politic to action. But a truly effective strategy to reduce nuclear dangers over the long term must bring along hearts and minds as well.

The WMD proliferation problem involves biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons, but the third raises the most telling issues. Chemical and biological weapons are legally prohibited by treaty, and so the challenge they pose is basically one of enforcement. Nuclear weapons, on the other hand, are temporarily legal in five countries, not illegal in three others, and forbidden essentially everywhere else -- a complex and inconsistent arrangement that presents a unique set of dilemmas.

This regime was established by the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, signed in 1968 and extended indefinitely in 1995. Shaped largely by the two superpowers, the NPT posited that the world would be more secure if proliferation did not extend beyond the five states (the United States, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, France, and China) that at the time possessed nuclear weapons. It reflected the widely held judgment that the more nuclear weapons holders there were, the greater the risks would be that some weapons would go off, either accidentally or on purpose.

The vast majority of countries, however, felt that "total elimination of nuclear weapons is the only absolute guarantee against [their] use," and enshrined this conviction in Article VI of the NPT. That is, nuclear weapons per se are a problem, even if they could serve as effective deterrents against certain threats. The United States and the other four nuclear powers accepted this proposition and in May 2000 reaffirmed

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