Picture the global structure of treaties, norms, export controls, and sanctions that helps prevent proliferation as a big tent. The tent is only as sturdy as the common resolve of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. As the world’s strongest power, the United States has to hold up the long center pole of the tent; if Washington walks away from this job, there’s no way the tent can remain standing. But even if the United States does its job properly, Russia, China, France and Great Britain have to hold up the tent’s four corners. When the five permanent members of the UN Security Council work in concert against the perils of proliferation, the tent provides reliable shelter. When they place other national security and commercial interests ahead of proliferation concerns, the tent becomes unsteady and unreliable.
The nonproliferation tent is now very wobbly and in danger of losing its load-bearing capacity. It was built in an earlier era, before the advent of a single dominant military power, underground networks of nuclear commerce like the one built by Pakistan’s A.Q. Khan, and terrorist cells seeking nuclear weapons and fissile material. North Korea has left the tent and says it is building nuclear weapons. Iran may be headed for the same exit. The United States has lost interest in key parts of the nonproliferation agenda, while Russia and China sometimes act as if proliferation isn’t all that great a concern. On top of this, the Bush administration is now proposing to loosen the rules of nuclear commerce to help India, risking the further unraveling of constraints against proliferation.
The structural weaknesses of the nonproliferation system go back to its creation. This tent was unavoidably built over a fault line created by nuclear weapons. The Nonproliferation Treaty bridged this chasm by requiring that states possessing nuclear weapons at the time of its creation pledge to get rid of them and not help other states to acquire the bomb. In return, states without nuclear weapons pledged continued abstinence, provided they could reap the benefits of peaceful nuclear commerce.
This fault line was manageable when there were two nuclear superpowers with a common interest in preventing proliferation. Washington and Moscow reinforced the tent by actively pursuing and eventually accepting highly intrusive monitoring which, in turn, permitted deep cuts in their nuclear arsenals. Both superpowers supported the two most cherished goals of abstainers – verifiable treaties to end nuclear weapon tests and to end the production of fissile material for bombs.
This ground shifted with the demise of the Soviet Union. In a world of US military dominance and unchallenged nuclear superiority, Washington’s priorities changed. The Senate rejected the treaty banning nuclear weapon tests for all time. Treaties and verification became old hat. After 9/11, muscular “counter-proliferation” took center stage. The Bush administration adopted a “good guys/bad guys” approach to nonproliferation. It now seeks one set of rules for responsible or friendly states, and another for evildoers.
Hence the administration’s initiatives to loosen the rules of nuclear commerce for India while tightening controls on Iran and North Korea. Because proliferation consequences always have ripple effects, the timing of this deal is unfortunate. But its specifics could be far worse if other states succeed in negotiating looser standards of nuclear commerce in return for hard currency.
Previous US administrations have worked tirelessly to require strict safeguards on commercial nuclear transactions, and to make sales subject to the consensus approval of the 45-member Nuclear Suppliers Group. This unusual cartel is designed to stop profit-making ventures that would make proliferation worse. If the NSG acts like other cartels, proliferation would be unstoppable.
The Bush administration acknowledges this concern by proposing for India a one-country-only exception to the rules of nuclear commerce. Much is riding on this key assumption, since the P-5 stand to make the most profit if the rules of nuclear commerce are loosened. Not surprisingly, Russia, France and Great Britain endorse the Bush administration’s proposed rule changes for India. China doesn’t favor the US deal, but is unlikely to oppose it frontally. Instead, Beijing is hinting that, if Washington can do deals with its friends, China can play by the same rules, helping Pakistan. NPT outliers are not the only countries likely to benefit from relaxed rules of nuclear commerce. Abstainers that have previously signed up to strict safeguards could also seek more freedom of maneuver as a hedge against proliferation by others.
Two of the strongest barriers against proliferation in the past have been Washington’s insistence on tighter standards against dangerous nuclear commerce and the NSG’s consensus rule. Finding a place for India under the tent makes sense – but not if this means that the tent falls down or provides far less shelter. The proliferation risks resulting from this proposed deal are very great. They can be reduced by insisting on maintaining the consensus rule for commercial transactions among nuclear suppliers.