The Problem with Nuclear Non-Proliferation

In ‘Who’s In, Who’s Out‘, (London Review of Books, 23 February 2012, Vol 34, No.4, pp 37-38), Campbell Craig and Jan Ruzicka provide us an important indictment of the so-called ‘non-proliferation complex’, which is,

[A] loose conglomeration of academic programmes, think tanks, NGOs, charitable foundations and government departments, all formally dedicated to the reduction of nuclear danger. Its twin goals are to stop the spread of nuclear technologies to small, anti-Western regimes and, eventually, to abolish nuclear weapons altogether.

This ‘complex’ does not work, if the extent of nuclear proliferation and the size of nuclear weapons arsenals worldwide is any indication. But more problematically, the ‘complex’ is,

[A] classic liberal institution that pretends to universalism while being in hock to the world’s most powerful states. Moreover, its pursuit of modest, ‘realistic’ goals has helped to undermine the very possibility of substantial action on nuclear weapons.

Perhaps the biggest stumbling-block to nonproliferation has been the failure of the ‘non-proliferation complex’ to internalize a simple truth:

[I]f smaller states are to be discouraged from acquiring a bomb, nuclear states will need to take real steps towards disarmament. Otherwise, non-nuclear states will regard their demands as self-serving and hypocritical – reason enough to think about creating an arsenal of their own.

The self-serving hypocrisy of nuclear weapon states, and its implicit acceptance by the ‘complex’ is a long-running farce, depressingly well-known to most.  This hypocrisy is the single most important factor in ensuring that non-proliferation is a non-starter; it ensures the non-proliferation manifesto is foundationally malformed.

For instance, Craig and Ruzicka note the announcement, by the  Obama administration, of its commitment–as part of a deal to secure approval of the ratification of the New Start treaty between Russia and the US in 2010–of $85 billion to the modernization of the US nuclear arsenal over the next ten years. This news attracted little critique from the ‘complex’, which seems to prefer a) taking a deferential attitude towards the major powers, a holdover from an early stance adopted during the Cold War and b) concentrating on the Nuclear NonProliferation Treaty and its attendant conferences.  (The NPT allows its signatories to acquire technologies for power production that cannot be distinguished easily from those used for weapons production; it thus allows the ‘spreading of the bomb without quite breaking the rules.’ )

The relationship between the major powers and the ‘complex’ has been hammered out at the NPT conferences; nonproliferation efforts now find their primary focus directed outward at control worldwide, instead of inwards at weapons reduction programs. This has damaging consequences:

[T]he complex’s single-minded focus on keeping the bomb out of the hands of anti-Western dictators provided the neoconservative architects of the sanctions and the [Iraq] war with a useful liberal justification for their campaigns. If you keep calling for something, eventually someone might take you seriously: the complex kept its head down during the run-up to war in 2002-3 because stressing the dangers of nuclear proliferation can’t easily be reconciled with opposition to military action intended to do something real about them. We might see the same thing happen again over Iran.

Without major disarmament by nuclear powers, and the concomitant reduction in the hypocrisy that currently underwrites nuclear non-proliferation efforts, prospects for such a ghastly revisitation appear bright.

The Campaign Trail: Where You Go To Say Dumb Things

Could there be a stupider foreign ‘policy’ decision than the one to strike Iran, ostensibly to disrupt its nuclear weapons program? (If the strike ‘succeeds’ it will: encourage Iran to build a nuclear weapon for, as its rulers are likely to notice, only nations with actual nuclear weapons don’t get attacked by the US; consolidate ‘mullah power’; unite the Iranians, current radicals and mullahs alike, against the US; destabilize the region even more as new, possibly more radical alliances than the current Hamas-Hizbollah ones are formed.)

That such a move is even being considered, is being lightly tossed around, by supposedly responsible statesmen, should be cause for some consternation. But viewed from another perspective, the casual trafficking in this threat is also unsurprising when we notice the venue of its proclamation: the election and campaign trail. Where else would something this stupid be said? The invocation of armed power as a solution, indeed, the only viable one, for dealing with a foreign policy problem that requires instead finesse, patience, and a great deal of nuanced, region-specific, historically and culturally sensitive knowledge is a reminder, once again, of how utterly divorced from reality the campaign season can make politicians. And it raises again the question, always worth keeping handy, of the pernicious effect on politics and democracy that the business of elections, electioneering and campaigning can have.

It is now April, the fourth month of the year, and Election Day is almost exactly twenty-eight weeks away. Till then, election-related material will blanket the air waves, newsprint, and the various physical media that bring us the Internet. There will be many more campaign gaffes and ‘gotcha’ moments (Etch-a-Sketch will be reincarnated in many forms; Obama will, in all probability, be asked to backpedal on ‘race issues’; and so on); and more often than not, candidates desperate to rouse the faithful will reach deep into the bag of Dumb Things and pull out one grand exhibit after another. (As it would only be honest to note my political biases, I should point out that I expect more Dumb Things to be said by the Republican candidate than by Obama; the latter seems less relatively inclined to shoot from the hip in these matters.) But none of these differences between candidates will obscure the central issue that the extended election season and the length of the campaign trail are increasingly conducive of the production of a coarsened discourse combined with the  technological efficiency, scope and reach of the modern election’s media apparatus. Sure, there is ‘airing of the issues’, but there is also time and space enough to air half-baked thoughts and pander relentlessly.

A persistent confusion about democracy arises in assigning elections disproportionate importance over and above the creation, maintenance and sustenance of the rest of its crucial economic and political infrastructure; the extended election season with the ample opportunities it provides for Quality Not Quantity, for the production of Things Better Left Unsaid, is the worst, most dispiriting instance of this misplaced priority. Here, the election, supposed centerpiece of democracy, seems more like a malign interruption, a gigantic roadblock to quality political discourse, which, I have been assured, is a rather crucial part of a dynamic polity.