Learning to Live with Asian Nuclear Proliferation – Israel, India, Pakistan, North Korea, Iran…

Dr. Strangelove I worry about nuclear proliferation as much as anyone else, but the level of our hysteria over the creeping nuclearization of Asia is only met by our inability to do anything serious about it. I think it would be far more intelligent for us to start thinking seriously about strategy in a nuclearizing world. But we don’t; instead, we insist on a vision of nuclearization that ended decades ago when Israel became the first unofficial member of the nuclear club. Frequently we evoke nightmare images (‘a smoking gun in the shape of a mushroom cloud’) that scare the hell out of the West, but we have no palatable options to stop these programs. Slow but steady nuclearization increasingly seems likely beyond the ‘approved’ nuclear powers of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). So let’s get used to it and think about it differently.

I say this because it looks like the nuclear hysteria machine is gearing up again around Iran. You remember the last two iterations of this show – Iraq in 2002, and India and Pakistan in 1998. But short of Iraq-style invasions, which no one wants to repeat, it does not seem like there is much outsiders can do to stop a sovereign state’s determined nuclear drive. The technology is out there – the genie can’t go back in the bottle – and there are too many profiteers like North Korea or A. Q. Khan willing to sell nuclear technology. Further, we undermine the NPT regime when we look the other way on some states’ nukes (Israel, India) but flip out over others – Iran, Pakistan, NK.

We seem to have a cycle whereby we claim that ‘absolutely cannot tolerate’ Country X – especially with its dangerous record – with nuclear weapons. We write hyperventilating editorials like this and this. We create bloviating right-wing think-groups with scary names like the Committee on the Present Danger who tell us that WWIII or another 9/11, only with nukes this time, is around the corner! Then, we go to the UN Security Council to get some sanctions and what not, and then we go back again, and again, and then again. We hypocritically invoke the sacred NPT, even though the nuclear-haves have made no serious effort to meet their NPT obligations to the nuclear have-nots. Country X presses on anyway, because nuclear weapons, as de Gaulle famously said, are a prerequisite for great power status. Finally at some point, the CIA says Country X is 1-2 years away from weaponization, and we start talking about air strikes. If you think this sounds familiar, it should. We did this on NK in 1994 and then again after 9/11, Iraq in 2002-03, and today on Iran. At some point, I am sure Huge Chavez will say he needs nukes to defend the revolution against imperialism, and the US Senate will absolutely bananas. All we need to complete the show is an appearance by Dick Cheney to say that if there is even a 1% chance that Myanmar has weapons of mass destruction, we should bomb them. However the show ends with Country X getting the nukes after all, and no does anything because it is too scary, expensive, and unpopular at home.

If I sound cynical, it’s only because the reality is that we are in fact adjusting ourselves to an increasingly nuclear world. I don’t want these shady regimes to have nukes any more than anyone else, but, 1. what are we going to seriously do to stop them? and 2, it increasingly looks like we can slow their drives for awhile and contain their worst proliferation instincts.

1. Short of invading them or setting up an extremely strict UN cordon, it is nearly impossible to stop states committed to nuclearization. NK has proved this. It endured the worst (man-made) famine since the Great Leap Forward in the 1990s, but it still clawed its way into the nuclear club. We could attack incipient nuclearizers, but we tried that in Iraq, and it was a hugely unpopular disaster. No one is willing to invade NK or Iran or Pakistan simply over the nukes. The other alternative would be extremely tight UN sanctions to prevent the inflow of the parts and technology necessary. But the only serious UN cordon effort – of Iraq in the 1990s – failed badly, because the neighbors cheated so much, and because the cordon’s PR was atrocious. Saddam made the world think that Iraqi children were starving because of US/UN cruelty. So the sanctions were eased with the ‘Oil-for-Food’ program. But Saddam of course immediately pilfered that program, and, in UN HQ, ‘Oil-for-Food’ degenerated into corruption. In short, it is practically impossible to seal the nuclearizer off enough, and no one wants to go to war just over a nuclear program.

2. For as much as we worry about spiraling proliferation, we have managed to retard its spread, and more generally, we are learning to live with it. The new US Proliferation Security Initiative has helped contain NK nuclear technology. We bullied Kaddafi in 2004 into giving up any hopes of nukes or other weapons of mass destruction. Remember how the Indo-Pakistan nuclear competition was supposed to lead to rolling proliferation in Asia and the Middle East? That has not happened too much. We can get UN sanctions that will slow nuclear drives, even if total isolation is impossible.

In short, there are steps we can take to slow nuclearization and dampen proliferation. So the process need not occur too fast. We can buy time. But it increasingly it looks like we need to adjust to third world, particularly Asian, nuclearization. We need to start thinking about how to adjust beyond apocalyptic, all-or-nothing declarations about how we can never tolerate the spread of nukes and that military options need to ‘be on the table.’ That sort of  moralizing, black-white rhetoric encourages nuclearizers to buck up and stick it to the ‘empire’ for telling them what to do. Besides, we never follow up on these threats – it’s just too dangerous and democratically unpopular. So we just look foolish in the end.

14 thoughts on “Learning to Live with Asian Nuclear Proliferation – Israel, India, Pakistan, North Korea, Iran…

  1. Don’t you think it is hilarious to say that it is potentially dangerous for Iran to possess one nuclear warhead for the whole world, but that the fact that the United States possesses 10,000 of them poses no threat whatsoever?

    –Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad


  2. Dr. Bob:

    You can’t be serious:

    “We create bloviating right-wing think-groups with scary names like the Committee on the Present Danger who tell us that WWIII or another 9/11, only with nukes this time, is around the corner!”

    “All we need to complete the show is an appearance by Dick Cheney to say that if there is even a 1% chance that Myanmar has weapons of mass destruction, we should bomb them.”

    Read Thomas Friedman’s new op-ed in the NYT. He is not Dick Cheney, nor as you know, is Friedman a “right-winger” http://www.nytimes.com/2008/05/14/opinion/14friedman.html?hp

    Republicans are not in charge. The democrats control the US. This vibe that you are talking about is coming out of a democratically controlled US. Did you happen to see/hear Secretary of State Clinton last weekend on face the nation? She is the top diplomat and she is not a Republican. I would hardly call her a “right-winger”.

    Aren’t you being highly intellectually dishonest? The only Republican that I can remember here recently talking about Iran’s nuclear ambitions is Senator McCain, and that is nothing new. He has been saying this for over a year now.

    I still don’t know what to make of your new essay.


  3. Nuclear proliferation is the mustard gas of the new century, it can’t be un-invented so we can only hope that the horror of its use will never occur again and prepare to defend ourselves (and our allies ie. Poland, Czch) if somebody is unbalanced enough to ever try.

    I guess that MAD still applies, but would a Head of State really be willing to launch a missile at Iran in retaliation to an attack on Tel-Aviv, Free Bagdhad or Chicago?


  4. I think you misunderstand. My arguement is not that Iran is more dangerous with nucler weapons. It is, and we should try to do something about it. But the US public would not support an invasion, and bombing will only slow the process while generating huge global PR costs, especially in the ME, and almost guarantees greater anti-American Iranian efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq. If we didn’t attack NK in 1994, do you really think we are going to bomb Iran? The public just does not support that. So we make hollow threats and look like a paper tiger. And scaring the hell out of the publc with these editorials is bad fatih. Too often the Right writes as if the only choice if the US use of force. After 8 years of Bush, haven’t we see the failure of that narrow approach? Also, Iran is a lot closer to Israel, Europe and Russia. So why are we worrying about it so much? Can’t we buck-pass this mess? Isn’t Iraq and AfPak enough for the moment?

    Nuclear proliferation increasingly looks unstoppable. We need to think about middling strategies to live with it, not just black-or-white doomsday scenarios.


    • I kinda miss the old days when countries fought countries and soldiers fought other soldiers. There was a front area, there was a rear and the men that knew the launch codes were unwilling to have their entire population martyred in a retaliatory missile strike. Now people fight other people because of religion, race, tribe or ethnicity. For some reason, I felt a little more secure looking down 1000 Soviet missile silos then I do now with the threat of a single nuclear device entering New York harbor in a shipping container! I don’t see proliferation as being the problem as much as who and where these weapons are proliferating to!

      That being said… I agree with you tactically – I guess that you really did learn something from me at OSU:). If I were to make a list of countries that I would LEAST like to invade Afghanistan and Iran would top the list. We, the U.S., are about to withdraw from Afghanistan, for the second time in 20 years, leaving the job undone and the country in a worse state then we found it. Who in their wildest wet dreams would ever imagine that our people and politicians would be willing to invade Iran – something that would make Iraq seem like one big keg party! To do so would require a REAL coalition including the entire EU, maybe Russia and a few trillion more dollars from China. And here’s the real problem… Israel would have to sit this one out to keep the whole mess from turning into yet another holy war! And when I say the EU, I mean more then Great Briton, Poland and the 20 or so typists that Germany has contributed to the war in Afghanistan.

      We could always bomb them into submission with our high tech, whiz bang JDAM’s and bunker busters. After all; that worked so well in Viet Nam, Bosnia and other places. I mean, who doesn’t love a little Shock-n-Awe once in a while! But the fact remains; sooner or later you gotta put those 19 & 20 year old kids in desert camo on the ground and the death toll in Iran would make any President’s popularity rating drop into the single digits overnight! It just ain’t gonna happen!

      Strategically… well I respectfully disagree with you UNLESS you consider an effective ABM system and radiation detectors at all of our ports of entry in your “middling strategies to live with it”. An effective ABM system would make missile development in Iran a waste of precious petro-dollars. And if we can keep any “suitcase nuke” type of devices out of our country, then I guess that I can live with your solution of learning to live with it.


    • I am still confused. Was your argument in the context of the recent G20 conference in Pittsburgh? Was in the context of only the Bush W. years. Might I remind you that even during the Clinton years this sort of thing was happening. Even then, Governor Howard Dean advocated this sort of approach vis a vis Iraq. In fact back then Howard advocated unilateral US actions against Iraq. The only difference is that Bush W. acted on it. Actually, no, Clinton bombed Iraq continuously. He also bombed Sudan trying to get WMDs.

      If your argument took a comparative approach, then you would have to acknowledge then that policy hasn’t really changed under a new administration. In fact you might say that it is ratcheting up. We now have an ultimatum. Neither Bush W. or Cheney issued this most recent ultimatum. Are you implying that it is the American Right that has influenced this administration’s current approach? Wouldn’t JFK have taken this sort of approach?


  5. Americans being more hawkish on Iran does not mean support for bombing it. Americans don’t want to do that, and the SecDef most of all. And the bombing would have to be long and sustained – like the Kosovo 1999 campaign – to work. Do you really think the world is ready to sit by while the US bombs another Muslim country for 2 or 3 months? The support isn’t there. The facilities are too hard to destroy permanently. The knowledge can never be unmade.

    Any technologically advancing state will eventually consider nuclearization. This is a threat we are going to have to adjust too, just as we learned to live with stocks of biological and chemical weapons in the 20th century. What I want is creative thinking on this question, not the black-white moralism we now deploy.

    I don’t know what the alternative is. ABM is decades away from maturity, and that only blocks missiles. But there are other platforms like the suitcase bombs Tony mentioned.

    So what to do? Invasions are off the table, bombing a PR disaster and not very effective. What else?


  6. The entire nuclearization argument has been so over-hyped that it borders on insanity. Does anyone truly believe that Iran would be crazy enough to actually use a nuclear weapon? Does anyone actually believe that Iran would use its nuclear arsenal against Israel? What would happen? You would be able to see the warm, nuclear glow of Iran from the moon.

    The holy grail of all scenarios: a suitcase bomb in New York City. More horrifying still, a nuclear suitcase bomb in Washington D.C. Hell, nuclear bombs in New York City, LA, DC, and Chicago. What do you see happening? The world continuing on peacefully? You’d be able to see the nuclear explosion from Pluto.

    The problem with all the discussion about nuclear weapons is that it assumes a level of insanity that no rational politician would actually employ. Rational? Say what you want about even about the worst dictators, but the love power. They revel in it. Look at Kim Jong Il, Quadafi, Mugabe, the Saudis, and the Iranis. They want power. And money. And respect. If they use a nuclear weapon, they’ll no longer exist. And no matter what you think, the Iranians will never hand over a nuclear bomb to terrorists. You just never know where that bomb will go off. Maybe in New york, or maybe in your backyard.

    So what to do? Accept that we live in the nuclear age and realize what it means. The great powers will never go to war given the ridiculously high cost. Nuclear weapons in New York and Shanghai has a way of stopping a war very quickly. War between non-nuclear powers will remain asymmetric, but given the high cost of the Iraq/Afghan wars, I doubt that the neocon strategy can be followed. The end result? State-State conflict is rapidly becoming obsolete.

    What will the future look like? Economic warfare and quasi-paramilitary operations. What does this mean for America? We can win! We don’t need to be afraid because this new era of economic competition is the culmination of 60 years of American cold-war/Washington Consensus thinking. We have essentially eliminated state-state military competition (by ending wars above) and now the only measure that counts is your per-capita GDP. America must continue to invest in infrastructure, R/D, and education to stay ahead of the curve. Period.

    The second aspect of the strategy is low-level quasi-paramilitary operations that fly beneath the nuclear umbrella. I.E. Iran’s support of Hezbollah to bleed the Israelis. These actions place a buffer between direct state-state interaction and will require new defensive arrangements for states that face them. However, this interaction is nowhere as violent as true war.

    The end result is that the nuclear age is a wonderful era. It will usher in the end of the military war and force states to compete on economics alone. While this may seem terrifying it is the culmination of 60 years of American strategy and should be celebrated. Nuclear proliferation is not a threat. It is a blessing in disguise.


  7. I enthusiastically associate myself with The Indian’s comments. We once were certain that the Soviets were so fanatical in their certainty of victory over capitalism that they could not be deterred. We once were certain the Chinese were too fanatical and irrational to control the nukes they were then developing, and could not be deterred. Now we’re certain that Iran is so fanatically certain of the Muslim victory over infidels of all stripes that they cannot be deterred. Hogwash, all of it. Of course they can be deterred.

    Somebody name me ONE invasion launched by Iran against a neighbor. They’ve been deterred since day one.

    We let their crazy talk about holocaust denial, their wishes for Israel to be wiped off the map (as distinct from actual threats to do so, which have not been made), whip us into a war frenzy. Those advocating the bombing and invasion of Iran are the ones who have been whipped into such a froth of war fever they are unable to think rationally. Here we have the country nearly divided in two against itself, with strong, deep, and wide support among ordinary Iranians for profound reform of their system and for normal relations with the west, and we’re seriously arguing about whether to begin a weeks-long bombing campaign against them? Are you kidding me? What will that do for the march of liberalization in Iran? What will that do to the regime’s rapidly shrinking base of support?

    Iran supports and funds terrorists, denies the holocaust, games its elections, executes homosexuals, stones adulterers, and so on – no question. A really vile regime. But there are lots of vile regimes. If the question is, are they deterrable, the answer is blindingly obvious. They have already been deterred and show every indication of being rational and of seeking to preserve power.


  8. Pingback: Global Security in 7 Minutes! (2. The Bad) « Asian Security Blog

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