Proliferation: Then and Now

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A rogue state has recently tested its first nuclear weapon and the administration is deeply divided about how to react. No – the state in question isn’t North Korea. The year is 1965 and the outlier is “Red” China. President Lyndon Baines Johnson enlists the help of a high-powered, non-partisan commission to produce a secret report. The commission produces a road map for preventing proliferation that works remarkably well for the duration of the cold war.

The high-powered commission convened by LBJ was led by former Deputy Secretary of Defense Roswell Gilpatric. Gilpatric and his colleagues – heavyweights like ex-CIA Director Allen Dulles, General Alfred Gruenther, and Presidential envoys John J. McCloy and Arthur Dean – were asked to consider what the proliferation of nuclear weapons would mean for the United States. The choice at hand was to arm India, Japan, and America’s NATO allies with nuclear weapons, or to champion a diplomatic strategy against proliferation. The Gilpatric Committee unanimously chose the second course, concluding that Washington needed to “greatly intensify” an engagement strategy that even included talking with the Soviet Union and China “if we are to have any hope of success in halting the spread of nuclear weapons.”

With proliferation concerns multiplying, it’s worth recalling past successes. Gilpatric and his fellow Committee members were hard-boiled veterans of the cold war who excelled at exercising US power. But they understood clearly that nuclear weapons could nullify American might in tense regions and “eventually constitute direct military threats to the United States.” To prevent a proliferated world, the Gilpatric Committee recommended that LBJ strenuously support multilateral treaties, work hard to end nuclear testing, promote nuclear weapon-free zones, and stop fissile material production for weapons. These cold warriors guessed correctly that if the United States chose not to share nuclear weapons with West Germany, then the Soviet Union could become a strong partner in preventing proliferation.

LBJ took this advice to heart, strongly backing what soon became known as the Nonproliferation Treaty, overriding the State Department’s qualms about constraining US military options to help key friends and allies. The NPT became the linchpin of US nonproliferation efforts. No treaty has gained more adherents, with over 180 faithfully participating states, and no treaty has more wide-ranging safeguards and inspections, covering over 150 nations.

The NPT is now in deep trouble. Washington’s interest in treaties has declined with the demise of the Soviet Union. The treaty ending nuclear tests that the Gilpatric Committee envisioned was finally negotiated in 1996, but it remains in limbo after Senate Republicans rejected it. India and Pakistan tested nuclear weapons in 1998, and within three months, tough international sanctions began to erode. Then North Korea broke an eight year moratorium on testing. Proliferation concerns grew more intense with revelations of underground networks of nuclear commerce and the specter of nuclear terrorism. An ill-conceived and poorly executed war to prevent Saddam Hussein from acquiring weapons of mass destruction weakened Washington’s ability to respond to the accelerated nuclear programs of Iran and North Korea. Proliferation became a lot easier in a unipolar world than during the cold war, when the two superpowers acted in concert to keep potential proliferators in line.

There are many other reasons why the foundations of the global nonproliferation system are now wobbly. The nonproliferation agreements and institutions proposed by the Gilpatric Committee were built upon rules and norms that applied to all. Success was grounded in promises of continued nuclear abstinence in return for promises of disarmament and assistance for the atom’s peaceful uses. Nonproliferation was linked to nuclear disarmament because a permanent system of nuclear apartheid could never be sustainable. Now the goal of nuclear disarmament receives scant attention and even less public support by nuclear weapon states. And the Bush administration has shifted from a norms-based approach to a good guy/bad guy approach to proliferation.

The Bush administration has tried to build a second story on the Gilpatric Committee’s foundation using very different floor plans. Lasting construction work requires balance, but this administration’s approach has tilted heavily toward “counter-proliferation” and away from treaties. The administration’s shift from norms-based policies to a “good guys/bad guys” approach to proliferation reflects the belief that it’s okay to bend the rules for good guys, because bad guys don’t follow rules.

The global nonproliferation system built from the Gilpatric Committee’s recommendations never could have gotten off the ground by setting up one set of rules for good guys and another set of rules for bad guys. To begin with, both the United States and the Soviet Union had to become charter members for the system to succeed. The NPT’s founding fathers weren’t naïve: They understood that there were responsible and irresponsible states. But they also understood that one set of norms was needed to distinguish between the two.

The Gilpatric Committee advised against helping India with nuclear technology to counterbalance China, because “we do not believe the spread of nuclear weapons would or could be stopped there.” In contrast, the Bush administration’s good guys/bad guys approach has been used to sell its nuclear cooperation agreement with India, which the Congress has overwhelmingly endorsed. But this approach inevitably weakens essential norms by encouraging other states to make their own determinations of good and bad, and thus to make their own rules. And why stop at nuclear commerce? Profit taking can also be placed above proliferation concerns by identifying “good guys” that deserve relief from the missile technology control regime and other export control systems that have been assiduously erected over the past decades.

Today’s proliferation problems are a lot harder than those faced by the Gilpatric Committee. New remedies are needed, but not ones that undermine previous successes. The wisdom of an earlier era seems to be forgotten today. Effective nonproliferation strategies are built upon norms, not on a “do as I say, not as I do” approach. Rules that apply to all help responsible states to isolate and influence rule breakers. The Bush administration’s good guy/bad guy approach makes it harder to stop and reverse proliferation.

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