Proliferation of nuclear weapons among nations is the gravest threat facing the US and the world. For twenty years two irresponsible and belligerent rogue states have been working intensely to develop nuclear weapons production capabilities. The world has protested and wrung its hands. North Korea has now tested primitive weapons, and Iran is close to producing them. When North Korea succeeds in weaponizing its designs, it will sell them to anyone desiring to buy – including terrorists. Neighboring states such as South Korea and Japan will be forced to go nuclear in self-protection. Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons – and its likely willingness to give them to proxies such as Hezbollah, Hamas, and Al Qaeda for use – will stimulate another regional surge of proliferation as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey, and others follow suit.
In no time the cascade will be global, as states like Venezuela, Germany, Brazil, and Argentina, rush to protect themselves. With nuclear weapons widespread, and nuclear material even more readily available, terrorist acquisition of nuclear weapons will not be difficult. We’re moving toward a world of nuclear horror and chaos, a return from which appears impossible.
President Obama’s response to this threat, however, has been disastrous. He has evoked the “world without nuclear weapons” vision and started dismantling the US nuclear weapons capability as a model for others to follow. His vision is totally at odds with reality. No nation with nuclear weapons has any intention of getting rid of them. All other such nations are improving or increasing their arsenals, and non-nuclear weapons states are racing to acquire them. No one can describe how a world without nuclear weapons can be reached, or – if reached – could be continued. Verification would be impossible. There’s even great doubt that such a world is desirable. And we don’t have the decades Obama says would be required to reach his goal. A proliferation cascade is upon us!
Is there an alternative that would avert disaster? Absolutely! The way to prevent proliferation is simply to stop the proliferators. Nonproliferation requires enforcement! If deterrence is used, early-on and powerfully, most potential proliferators will be stopped without violence. If a proliferator continues, military force should be used. This undoubtedly will result in casualties and disruptions, but nothing to compare with those suffered if the proliferator gains nuclear weapons. Importantly, the first time deterrence or military force stops a proliferator, the world will be renewed. Proliferation will cease. Nonproliferation will become the norm. Fear will be replaced by confidence in a safer world.
But who is to enforce nonproliferation? There’s a near-term and a far-term answer. Far-term first. This answer is in the Nonproliferation Treaty itself, which created two tiers of states. The NPT approved five nuclear-weapons states, the permanent members of the UN Security Council (U.S., UK, France, Russia, and China). All other states are to remain non-nuclear-weapons-states. Currently, 185 nations have voluntarily signed the NPT in non-nuclear status, recognizing that, so long as the NPT regime holds, this frees them from worries over attack by a nuclear-armed neighbor or aggressor. The enforcers of the regime must be the five nuclear-weapons states, acting collegially. This is not possible today because of past animosities and conflicts; but we would surely evolve to this within decades as lack of alternatives becomes clear to both tiers of states.
In the near-term, the US, the world’s true leader, must have the courage and sense of responsibility to accept this burden and save the world from destruction. Target the most immediate threat – Iran – and try deterrence first (although we’re years late). Inform Iran that if it does not dismantle its nuclear weapons facilities, we will be forced to do so. Then, if necessary, use conventional military force to accomplish it.
In 1938, Britain and France had a chance to stop Nazi Germany before WWII began. They shrank from it, because of the casualties and destruction. The result was seven years of world war and 60 million dead. It’s 1938 again, and if we fail this time the results will be far worse. Nonproliferation requires enforcement!
Monroe is a retired vice admiral (U.S. Navy) and a former director of the Defense Nuclear Agency.