The Nuclear Tipping Point Why States Reconsider Their Nuclear Choices
Brookings Institution Press Copyright © 2004 Brookings Institution Press
All right reserved. ISBN: 0-8157-1330-4
Chapter One The Nuclear Tipping Point: Prospects for a World of Many Nuclear Weapons States
MITCHELL B. REISS
In 1946 the English poet W. H. Auden penned The Age of Anxiety, in which he lamented the hopelessness and universal disorder in the world. Auden was responding to the wholesale carnage and bleak aftermath of the Second World War, as well as to the recent introduction of an entirely new weapon of mass destruction. For Auden and others living in the shadow of the atomic bomb, the future was uncertain, fearful, and dangerous.
Today, more than five decades after the dawn of the nuclear age, we once again find ourselves living in an age of anxiety. And again, a major reason is the potential unbridled spread of nuclear weapons. But now the risk is not that one or two countries might test a nuclear device every decade or so, thereby giving the international community time to accommodate and integrate new nuclear powers into the existing order. Rather, the danger is that many countries might view nuclear weapons as useful, even essential, instruments to maintain security in a Hobbesian world where life is "poor, nasty, brutish, and short."
In this environment, any number of events could spark countries into a headlong dash to acquire independent nuclear arsenals. For example, a single new entrant to the nuclear club could catalyze similar responses by others in the region, with the Middle East and Northeast Asia the most likely candidates. Actual use of chemical and biological weapons could also prompt countries to seek nuclear weapons as a deterrent. Perhaps most disturbingly, even a vague, generalized sense that proliferation was inevitable and self-restraint futile-that "everyone is doing it"-could persuade countries that non-nuclear virtue was a "mug's game" that they cling to at their peril. Under these and other easily imaginable circumstances, previous pledges of nuclear abstention would be quietly or openly abandoned, as countries engaged in the nuclear equivalent of sauve qui peut.
Or it may be that countries would not sprint to cross the nuclear finish line but rather hedge their bets by working quietly and methodically to acquire the technology and materials necessary to build nuclear bombs on short notice once a political decision was made. Today, many of the building blocks for a nuclear arsenal-the scientific and engineering expertise, precision machine tools, computer software, and nuclear design information-are more readily available than ever before. And what is unavailable on the open market can be purchased on the black market due to the flourishing illicit trade in nuclear technology and materials between and among rogue (or what used to be termed pariah) states. A hedging strategy would allow a state to gradually increase its nuclear competence and shrink the period of its greatest strategic vulnerability: the time between a decision to acquire nuclear weapons and the actual possession of a usable nuclear arsenal. States that adopt this approach could remain poised on this non-nuclear precipice for months or even years, awaiting a political decision to tip them over the edge.
In other words, in ways both fast and slow, we may very soon be approaching a nuclear "tipping point," where many countries may decide to acquire nuclear arsenals on short notice, thereby triggering a proliferation epidemic. Should current proliferation trends continue, within the next decade there may be more declared nuclear weapons states, more undeclared nuclear weapons states, and more states developing nuclear weapons than ever before. President John F. Kennedy's nightmare vision of a world with fifteen, twenty, or even twenty-five nuclear powers may yet occur. As Director of the CIA George Tenet testified before the Senate Select Intelligence Committee on February 11, 2003, "The desire for nuclear weapons is on the upsurge. Additional countries may decide to seek nuclear weapons as it becomes clear their neighbors and regional rivals are already doing so. The 'domino theory' of the twenty-first century may well be nuclear." Should this occur, few would take comfort in the assurances of some academic theorists that "more may be better."
How did we arrive at this point? The spread of nuclear weapons has moved to its own rhythm, with long periods of nonproliferation success punctuated from time to time by resounding failure. The history of nuclear proliferation offers some guidance, with its failed policies, cautionary tales, good intentions gone awry, and, to be sure, useful lessons and periodic success stories.
The early years of the nuclear age quickly set the tone for much of what was to follow. The bone-chilling prospect of a hundred Hiroshimas prompted policymakers to give serious thought to dispersing America's population to the countryside and even building cities underground. The world-renowned British philosopher and pacifist Bertrand Russell was so alarmed by the nuclear peril that he recommended in 1946 that the United States launch an atomic attack against the Soviet Union if Moscow refused to help form a world government.
Initially, hopes ran high that atomic energy could be placed under international control. "Let us not deceive ourselves," Bernard Baruch, the U.S. representative to the United Nations Atomic Energy Commission, declared in June 1946. "We must elect either world peace or world destruction." But the possibility of success at the United Nations retreated before growing Soviet-American tensions. Stalemate soon gave way to failure and stilled talk in the U.S. scientific community about "one world or none."
The future spread of civilian nuclear power and the dissemination of scientific and technical skills raised concern over the potentially apocalyptic consequences of many states armed with nuclear weapons. As German physicist Werner Heisenberg warned in February 1947, the development of atomic bombs was "no longer a problem of science in any country, but a problem of engineering."
The Soviet Union tested a nuclear device in 1949. The following year, tens of millions of people signed the Stockholm Appeal, a petition demanding that atomic bombs be outlawed as "weapons of terror and the mass destruction of whole populations." Great Britain became the third member of the nuclear club in October 1952. By this time, the United States had mastered a new level of destructiveness, testing a ten-megaton "superbomb" that gouged out a crater three miles wide and half a mile deep. Less than a year later, the Soviet Union exploded its own crude H-bomb. Complementing these hydrogen weapons at the other end of the spectrum was the development of atomic artillery shells, demolition mines, and short-range missiles for tactical use on the battlefield. As the arms race heated up in earnest, the hands on the "doomsday clock" from the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists were moved to a mere two minutes to midnight.
Radioactive fallout from atmospheric nuclear testing in the mid-1950s multiplied fears around the world. American H-bomb tests in the Pacific accidentally doused the crew of a Japanese fishing trawler, the Lucky Dragon, that chanced to be in the area; one of its crewmembers subsequently died of radiation sickness. Forty million Japanese signed petitions calling for the abolition of nuclear weapons. Popular culture reflected and reinforced global fears, with novels like On the Beach, which described the extinction of the human race by radioactive contamination, and films like The Day the Earth Stood Still, about the dangers of a spiraling arms race, and The Seventh Seal, Ingmar Bergman's nuclear allegory about mass death.
France became the fourth member of the nuclear club in February 1960 with its test in the Sahara. Later that year, the British scientist C. P. Snow, extrapolating from the rate of nuclear proliferation, predicted that "within, at the most, ten years, some of these bombs are going off.... That is the certainty." As if confirming these fears, China tested its first nuclear device the following year. By this time, every country that was technically competent to build nuclear arms, save Canada, had done so, validating policy studies that predicted that all countries with appreciable military strength would develop tactical or strategic nuclear arsenals, or both.
With French help, Israel developed a nuclear capability by the end of the 1960s. Indian leaders concluded in 1964 that China's nuclear blast had left them no option but to permit research on "peaceful" nuclear explosives. On May 18, 1974, the Indians got their bomb, with Prime Minister Indira Gandhi receiving news of the successful test with the code words "the Buddha smiles." From China and India, the chain reaction led to Pakistan. Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had already vowed that his country would acquire nuclear weapons if India did, even if his people had "to eat grass or leaves, even go hungry" to free up the necessary resources. New Delhi's nuclear test energized Islamabad's quest for an "Islamic bomb." South Africa around this time decided that it, too, needed nuclear arms to prevent the overthrow of its apartheid regime by the "total onslaught" of black Africa. The mid-decade oil crisis and the resulting insecurity over oil supplies prompted a renewed interest in nuclear power, leading some observers to worry that research reactors and civilian power programs could be used for building nuclear bombs. The dimensions of this threat were considerable; by the end of the 1970s, civilian nuclear programs existed in over forty-five non-nuclear weapons states. Making matters worse, in 1979 an American journal published the blueprints for the H-bomb, rationalizing that only through greater understanding of this technology could the arms race be brought to a halt.
By the start of the 1980s, the world appeared well on its way to fulfilling Kennedy's nightmare vision. Nuclear terrorism captured the public's imagination with the best-selling international spy thriller The Fifth Horseman, in which Libya's Muammar Gadhafi tries to force the United States to support a Palestinian state by threatening to blow up New York City. "The world is moving inexorably toward the use of nuclear weapons," wrote a commentator during the early 1980s, expressing a widely held view. Visions of "nuclear winter," a new nightmare scenario of how the world would slowly die in the aftermath of a nuclear war, terrified the public.
And then, suddenly, it was over. The cold war ended not with the expected bang but a whimper-or at least a long, exhausted exhalation. The ideological competition between fascism, communism, and democracy was over. History had ended with an undisputed champion. President George H. W. Bush triumphantly declared a "new world order." U.S. officials talked about a "peace dividend," where funds from defense would be redirected to social and educational programs. The United States and Russia negotiated sweeping arms control agreements that would significantly reduce their nuclear stockpiles. Global nuclear anxieties abated.
But the good news in superpower relations did not translate into enhanced regional stability. During the first part of the 1990s, efforts to control the spread of nuclear weapons received a series of body blows. In spring 1990, India and Pakistan once again squared off over the neuralgic issue of Kashmir. Amid strikes, bombings, and assassinations by Muslim separatists and religious fundamentalists in Kashmir, the Indian prime minister accused his Pakistani counterpart of fomenting tensions in the region. Words quickly led to military maneuvers along the Indian-Pakistani border. In May, U.S. intelligence concluded that Pakistan had assembled nuclear bombs. Only urgent American intervention defused the crisis.
Other countries also tried to develop nuclear weapons during this time; some may have succeeded. From the allied victory in the 1991 Persian Gulf War came the sobering discovery that Saddam Hussein's Iraq was well advanced on a secret project to build an atomic bomb. That the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and U.S. intelligence services had either missed entirely or vastly underestimated the sophistication of Baghdad's covert nuclear ambitions reassured no one that they would be able to detect other nuclear aspirants in the future.
And even if nuclear aspirants could be detected, could they be stopped? An answer, of sorts, was provided in late 1992 when the IAEA uncovered, with the help of U.S. satellite imagery, another case of nuclear deceit. North Korea had misrepresented its nuclear activities, secretly separating plutonium from spent fuel, and then prevented international inspections that might have disclosed the scope of its nuclear weapons program. As the crisis on the Korean peninsula heated up, the United States defused the threat by striking a nuclear deal with North Korea in October 1994. The nonproliferation price was high: a multilateral consortium would deliver $5 billion of energy to the North, and Pyongyang would be allowed to delay comprehensive IAEA inspections for as long as a decade, perhaps longer. Critics contended this unhappy precedent rewarded nuclear cheaters; it would encourage other countries to build nuclear weapons as bargaining chips to evade sanctions and resist outside pressures.
Other nuclear anxieties contributed to this new and less certain international environment. In 1993 the director of the CIA, R. James Woolsey, warned that although the Soviet bear was slain, "now we must live in a jungle filled with a bewildering variety of poisonous snakes." It was feared that the sprawling nuclear archipelago of the former Soviet Union, involving laboratories, facilities, and bomb-grade material, would become a fertile breeding ground for new nuclear snakes. Poverty and unemployment among the 1 million former Soviet physicists, chemists, metallurgists, engineers, and technicians raised concern over a brain drain of nuclear expertise. Worse, lax internal security in the former Soviet Union prompted fears that "loose nukes" could find their way to the black market for sale to aspiring nuclear powers and terrorist groups.
It appeared the post-cold war world had ushered in less order and more chaos than previously imagined. The phrase "ethnic cleansing" entered the lexicon with the wholesale slaughter in central Africa and the former Yugoslavia. The AIDS pandemic claimed millions of lives. Environmental degradation, transborder crime, refugee problems, and narcotics trafficking all seemed to grow. Samuel P. Huntington's The Clash of Civilizations and Robert D. Kaplan's The Coming Anarchy painted dark visions of a future world mired in endless conflict and widespread misery.
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