Notes for comments at Sandia Conference, April 5, 2005 - Lessons of history

Gerald Steinberg

The NPT and broader arms control regime experience is unique – it is the only broad international framework in which states have relinquished significant national sovereignty. With some important exceptions, the framework generally has succeeded in slowing or stopping proliferation in the decades that followed the NPT in 1970. 180+ signatories are an important accomplishment; and so we must be careful not to weaken this accomplishment by attempting to stretch the fabric beyond what it was designed for. The insistence on universality and on a general approach applicable to all situations provides a case in point.

Of course, the history of the past does not diminish the serious challenges, which cannot be ignored, but also must be understand – each in its own context. The 3 non-signatories Israel, India, and Pakistan (less) are pre-1970; they are not due to the failure of NPT, and are largely not related to fuel cycle. History indicates that there is little in the regime that could have been used to stop Israel and India, short of ending the threats and conflicts.

In the case of Israel, security and threat perceptions are central. In India, security, broadly defined, served as a vehicle for domestic political and prestige factors. And Pakistan cannot be considered in isolation, but rather as a response to India, particularly after the 1975 PNE. These cases, as well as others that I will discuss later, demonstrate that universality is a slogan or headline, but not a reality. There is no universality in other international treaties; instead, each country decides its sovereign interests and requirements. In reality, the world characterized by a high level of asymmetry – in size, economics, demography, natural resources, technology, goals (revisionist vs. status quo) etc. Different political systems, particularly the distinction between open democracies (in which accountability and public discussion of formal commitments makes direct violations difficult to hide) and closed systems, provide an additional core asymmetry. Thus, the "one-size fits all" vision of the NPT is unrealistic in some cases, and repeating "universality" will not change this situation.

In casting a wider net over the history of proliferation, one reaches the conclusion that the various cases are largely singular as well and hard to generalize. South Africa during Apartheid, and the post-Soviet republics that signed the NPT and closed out their nuclear weapons capabilities, were clearly a separate category. There are no other states like that.

Looking at Argentina and Brazil, they were not NPT states when the nuclear efforts were being pursued. And the end of the military regimes led to the dramatic changes in nuclear policies, and the end of weapons programs. These provide further evidence for emphasis on democracy, and even regime change, in non-proliferation. In some ways, this is also the model for Iraq, but has not yet affected policies in Iran, Libya, and North Korea.

In examining the history from the perspective of the "new nuclear states", the motivation of states to seek nuclear weapons, and the ability to impact these processes, has clearly varied. In its initial phase, the NPT dealt with most of the security dilemma situations, like Sweden and Germany and the rest of Europe; and this is also relevant to Japan and South Korea, if the North Korean case were resolved. But this will be difficult, and one "bad apple" is enough to spoil the region.

For most countries and region, the NPT's "Faustian bargain" was acceptable. Access to a civil nuclear program in exchange for avoiding military program, and minimal limits on sovereignty, was sufficient for these countries.

But this approach has shown to be lacking for third (or fourth) generation of proliferators – for Iraq, Iran, Libya, etc. The NPT system is not powerful enough and did not incorporate enough "political will" to overcome national sovereignty. The additional protocol is a step in the right direction, decreased sovereignty a bit, but not enough.

Post NPT proliferation is generally motivated by all three factors – security (including revisionist designs, in contrast to status quo goals); domestic political benefits (Iran now); and prestige/international political power. As in the case of Brazil during the 1970s, a common sense analysis shows that these countries are not motivated by energy requirements, fuel cycle assurances, etc. This is the rhetorical and normative framework that affects the debate, but is not the substance in the calculus of would be proliferators.

So what does this historical analysis provide us in dealing with Iran, N. Korea and others?

All agree that N. Korea is unique on the fringes of the international system; failure of the regime (not IAEA).

Iraq was stopped by intervention – 1981, 1991, UNSCR 687 UNSCOM, and again in 2004. Political will of individual actors, not international community.

Libya was stopped due to fear of regime change; meeting with Saif al- Islam Ghaddafi, showed did not want to follow Udi and Chusi. But Iranian leaders apparently do not see this threat as credible; history may show us that the threat needs to be made more visible. None of this has to do with nuclear fuel cycle, per se. The elements that drive these programs, and could lead to a chain of proliferation in the region and beyond (ala Lew Dunn and Hudson institute of the 1970s – my first job in nuclear arms control) and unravel the NPT, are multifaceted. The regime in Iran is seeking to advance its ideological and political goals, to gain prestige, and domestic support, etc. within the NPT system, in sharp contrast to India, Pakistan and Israel.

Lessons of history do not help us here. But we know that without a readiness to use sticks, as well as carrots, near proliferators inside the NPT will continue.

As civil nuclear power grows, with more materials and potential for access, MNA and other fuel cycle innovations can reduce the increased risk. But the risk will remain and history teaches us that there are no complete political fixes. We will have minimize and manage the proliferation threat, and use worst case analysis in order to be prepared to act when this fails – this is the best we can do.




  • Notes for comments at Sandia Conference, April 5, 2005 - Lessons of history

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