War Stories

Do As I Say

Bush’s empty nuke-proliferation rhetoric.

Why follow this man's lead?
Why follow this man’s lead?

President Bush’s proposal to strengthen the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty is a good first step, but it’s only a first step. It’s a small step at that, unless he accompanies it with certain actions (which he doesn’t seem inclined to take), more money (which he’s expressed no interest in requesting), and a radical shift in the way he approaches international politics generally (the hardest, least likely, step of all).

The premise of Bush’s plan—which he outlined on Wednesday in a speech at the National Defense University—is that there’s a fatal flaw in the 34-year-old NPT. He’s right about this. Under Article 6, nations that refrain from producing nuclear weapons will receive assistance in obtaining the fuel for nuclear power plants. The loophole—which Iran, North Korea, and possibly others have exploited—is that, with the right knowledge and hardware, a nation can enrich or reprocess this fuel into weapons-grade uranium. It takes a lot of effort, money, and time, but it can be done.

So, Bush proposed to amend the treaty so that signatories renounce not only nuclear weapons but also the enriching and processing technology that could take them there. He also proposed that the 40 nations of the “Nuclear Suppliers Group” refuse to sell such technology or equipment to “any state that does not already possess full-functioning enriching and reprocessing plants,” that the U.N. Security Council should “criminalize” nuclear proliferation, and that the International Atomic Energy Agency should be allowed near-unlimited rights of inspection inside countries suspected of violating the NPT.

As additional—and equally salutary—measures, Bush said he would move to step up the activities of the 10-nation Proliferation Security Initiative, which monitors and intercepts illegal weapons-trafficking. He also offered to extend the Nunn-Lugar Act—which was passed in 1991 to finance the dismantlement of nuclear weapons in the former Soviet Union and to provide jobs for the disbanded empire’s nuclear scientists—to budding nuclear powers (such as, recently, Libya) that decide to do the right thing.

Again, all this is to the good. If the rest of the powers follow suit, the world will be a safer place. The question is: Why should they? What is Bush offering in the way of incentives to keep nuclear wannabes from pursuing their desires or to dissuade nuclear dealers from hawking their wares? Judging from his speech, nothing.

Any leader who’s thinking about going nuclear and wondering what rewards he’d get for restraining his appetites wouldn’t see many signs of encouragement for good behavior. Bush mentioned expanding the largess of Nunn-Lugar to any and all countries that give up the bomb, but he’s been less than lavish with those that already have. In the budget that Bush just sent up to Congress, he cut the level of Nunn-Lugar assistance from $451 million to $409 million. Sam Nunn, who co-sponsored the measure when he was in the Senate, has complained of the administration’s meagerness on this score.

In the half-century after World War II, only a handful of countries built nuclear weapons, because most of the others felt no compulsion to do so. The Cold War, for all its nightmares and rigidities, was a global security system. Most of the world’s nations fell into one of the two camps and, in exchange for their loyalty (voluntary or forced), received guarantees of protection. If any of America’s allies were attacked, the president pledged to retaliate as if the United States had been the target, with nuclear weapons if necessary. Some doubted the credibility of this guarantee. Would he really risk New York to avenge Paris? (England and France, and later Israel, built their own “deterrent forces” as a result.) Generally, though, the system worked; very few rubbed the lamp to summon the nuclear genie.

Once the Soviet Union unraveled, so did the Cold War system—not just the bonds of domination, but the obligations and incentives for restraint.

The great failure of this past decade, not just of Bush but of all presidents—indeed, all leaders of great powers and world bodies—is the failure to create a new security system. This is the challenge: not just to devise tighter laws, vaster policing, and more intrusive inspections (though all those things are vital), but to devise a proliferation policy, a system of incentives and security guarantees that will pre-empt the compulsion to build nuclear weapons in the first place.

Short of reviving George Marshall, there are things that even our present stock of leaders can do in the meantime.

For instance, a nuclear wannabe might look around to see what the leaders who already have nukes are doing with their own arsenals. On this point, Bush is no object of emulation. In his new budget, he is asking for $3 billion for nuclear weapons projects, including funds for a new generation of precision-guided, low-yield nuclear weapons—i.e., for nuclear weapons that would be more militarily useful (say, for blowing up deep bunkers) than the multi-kiloton monsters we built in Cold War days to blast Soviet missile silos and vast industrial complexes. If part of Bush’s plan is to persuade the world’s leaders that nuclear weapons offer no benefits in the 21st century, he’s sending a hell of a signal to the contrary.

It would have been breathtaking had Bush told his audience of military officers that, as a token of our commitment and a recognition of the sacrifices involved, he was terminating all programs to develop new U.S. nuclear weapons. It wouldn’t have cost him much to do so; these mini-nukes won’t give us a real edge anyway. But he would have reaped extraordinary political and diplomatic gains; his nonproliferation proposal would have taken on a sheen of legitimacy.

This leads to the radical shift in mind-set that Bush must undergo if his new policy is to have real meaning. Much of the world views Bush as indifferent, even hostile to the obligations of international treaties, laws, and fixed alliances. A stepped-up effort in nonproliferation will require continuous cooperation between the United States and the leaders of at least 40 other nations, many of whom view Bush as an opportunist who does not take them or their interests seriously. If Bush wants to lead in this realm, he has to show—by deeds, not just words—that he’s worthy of being followed, that he can give as well as take.