Nuclear Apartheid: Why Nonproliferation has Failed
August 25, 2010
by Shane J. Maddock
UCONN Magazine, Summer 2010
Little good has come from U.S. nonproliferation efforts, and few lessons have been learned. The misguided faith in American supremacy in nuclear physics resulted in the wrongheaded policy of selective proliferation in the military and civilian fields. Such an approach served only to speed the acquisition of nuclear weapons by India, South Africa and Pakistan. When Moscow responded with nuclear aid of its own, China accelerated its nuclear program.
Nonproliferation also failed because both Moscow and Washington subordinated control of nuclear spread to other security considerations. At times, both countries dabbled with nuclear sharing to offset perceived strategic advantages by the other power, exemplified by the United States' basing of Jupiter missiles in Turkey and Moscow's nuclear gambit in Cuba. At other times, the superpowers hesitated to conclude a nonproliferation accord because they feared alienating important allies, such as West Germany and China. U.S. policy proved the most susceptible to alliance pressure. Overall, the subordination of nonproliferation to other security considerations produced vacillation in U.S. policy, which in turn provoked resentment and cries of hypocrisy among non-nuclear nations.
Both superpowers also regarded possession of nuclear weapons as giving them a special status. This attitude sent a clear message to the rest of the world: Only nuclear powers matter. The superpowers denied that possession of nuclear weapons enhanced a nation's international political status, but their actions contradicted their rhetoric. Nations that sought respect or believed they had a global role to fulfill inevitably sought nuclear leverage. The Cold War arms race, moreover, drained the treasuries of both Washington and Moscow, while the former Axis powers, Germany and Japan, refrained from nuclear militarism and thrived economically.
The spread of nuclear weapons to alliance partners France and China and the emergence of newly decolonized states that refused to embrace either bloc weakened superpower hegemony. Moscow and Washington persisted in prioritizing their own geostrategic interests over those of allied states. In the end, the Nuclear nonproliferation Treaty emerged as an empty pledge not to sin, enforced by sinners.
The challenges of the new millennium make prospects for a multinational solution to nuclear proliferation an even more difficult task. Any new nonproliferation effort must accordingly take into account a world in which information regarding weapons of mass destruction can be easily obtained on the World Wide Web. Nonproliferation analysts argue that any effective nonproliferation regime in the future must inspire the cooperation of more than nation-states. Substate groups, such as nationalist movements, nongovernmental organizations and multinational corporations, must become participants in the nonproliferation dialogue.
The importance of executive action serves as a final lesson from the history of the superpowers' conflicted approach to nuclear containment. If post-Cold War world leaders wish to curb the existing proliferation threat, they must be willing to exchange unilateral and bilateral efforts for a concerted multilateral approach. Nuclear apartheid must be brought to an end if its destabilizing spiral of political and economic strife is also to be eradicated. Like Pretoria in the 1990s, the privileged powers must exchange their tiered system of inequality for one based on the principles of openness and democratic ideals that have characterized nonproliferation endeavors at their best. Such an approach necessitates that U.S. and Russian policymakers, along with other international forces, dedicate themselves to a truly transnational effort based on mutual and balanced sacrifice both in disarmament and in the economic realm. The nuclear powers must return to the global commons; only by shifting from competition to cooperation can proliferation be curtailed.
Washington and Moscow should also attempt to persuade the world that cheap and safe nuclear power is a phantasm. Nuclear reactors will always serve as halfway houses toward nuclear bombs, and the nuclear waste that reactors produce constitutes an environmental time bomb. An international effort to produce renewable energy sources that do minimal damage to the environment would complement the arms control element of the new nonproliferation regime. The status quo risks a future in which nuclear weapons become "conventional" armaments and could possibly fall into terrorist hands.
Throughout the nuclear age, the United States has squandered opportunities to forge cooperative ventures to halt proliferation. Americans have remained infatuated with unilateral and technological solutions to the atomic threat. And they have repeatedly attempted to preserve U.S. nuclear hegemony by undercutting their own professed commitment to nuclear nondissemination. A paradoxical equation derived from this practice. American hegemony, combined with arrogance and a Hobbesian worldview, catalyzed nuclear nationalism in other states and helped break the bonds of Washington's influence. Taught by the superpowers that nuclear weapons equal political power and that warheads prevent wars, other states built the bomb when they could afford to. Other nations also chose military strength over cooperation and in the process diminished Washington's and Moscow's relative power in the international system.
The persistence of a hegemonic version of American ideology and culture, rooted in beliefs about American exceptionalism, race, gender and technological utopianism, has continued to spawn nonproliferation failures. At the dawn of the nuclear age, Albert Einstein hoped that the menace of nuclear weapons would "intimidate the human race into bringing order into its international affairs." Einstein's wish remains unfulfilled because entrenched nationalist ideas protected and promulgated by the nuclear guardians blocked any of the new thinking needed to transcend the atomic age.
Shane Maddock is a professor of history at Stonehill and an alumnus of the University of Connecticut.
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