A Shot in the Arm

The spread of nuclear weapons poses the greatest threat to U.S. and world security?and we'd better step up our efforts to address it.

Article created by The Century Foundation.

On Friday, after winning the Nobel Peace Prize, Mohammad ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said the award is a much needed "shot in the arm" for him and the agency. The boost couldn't come at a better time—the past year has been a disastrous one for the non-proliferation regime. The spread of nuclear weapons poses the greatest threat to U.S. and world security—and we'd better step up our efforts to address it.

One year, one week, and what seems an era ago, John Kerry and George W. Bush stood before the nation on a televised debate and agreed that "the single most serious threat to the national security of the United States" was nuclear proliferation. The answer makes sense. If you accept George Kennan's definition of national security (a nation's ability "to pursue its internal life without serious interference") there are remarkably few threats that could seriously disrupt our way of life. Among them, we may list nuclear and biological terrorism, pandemic disease (such as avian flu), and nuclear war. And while the possibility of devastating biological scenarios is real, the most potentially destructive threat to our society and our lives still lies in nuclear attacks.

If you were to start from scratch in designing a plan for our nation's security, non-proliferation mechanisms would no doubt be at the center of that strategy. The primacy of the nuclear threat is generally well-understood by academics (at least if the Princeton Project on National Security, which I attended last week, is any indication). This primacy is also understood by the American public: when asked to prioritize the "most important foreign policy goals" from a list of thirty, respondents placed "keeping nuclear weapons away from countries and groups that are hostile to the U.S. and our allies" first. Two other nuclear concerns made the top five; meanwhile protecting oil supplies, establishing a stable and secure government in Iraq, and spreading democracy failed to crack the top fifteen. It's no accident that, at least before the rationales began to multiply, the administration built its case for war against Iraq based on Saddam's WMD program—and the oft-cited image of the mushroom cloud.

So, given the relative consensus around the primacy of the nuclear threat among the American public, academics, and policy makers from both parties, why do we devote so few resources and so little attention to preventing proliferation?

The State Department received $0.4 billion to coordinate programs in non-proliferation and terrorism last year; administration requested $1.6 billion for Department of Energy threat reduction efforts (and another $0.4 billion for Pentagon-based programs.) But this is loose change when compared with the $16.6 billion requested this year to maintain our nuclear arsenals or the $8.8 billion to construct a ballistic missile defense system. These non-proliferation programs have seen at most modest increases while the overall defense budget has climbed from $301 billion in 2001 toward $419 billion requested in 2006 (this increase does not include spending on Iraq or Afghanistan, which are together projected to cost $70 billion in a 2006 supplemental.) Investing the $6 billion we spend in one month in Iraq into non-proliferation initiatives could transform our security for years to come.

A Rising Threat

There couldn't be a more critical time for such an investment. Consider that in the past few years:

  • North Korea has acquired nuclear weapons.

  • Iran has continued to patiently exploit gaps in the non-proliferation regime and is developing an arsenal.

  • Russia has, in accordance with the Bush-Putin agreement, placed thousands of weapons in storage, where many of them remain assembled and under imperfect surveillance.

  • China has pursued expensive program to modernize its arsenal.

  • India has gained U.S. recognition (and tacit support) of its nuclear activities.

  • The United States is poised to embark on the construction of a new generation of nuclear bunker busters, which could lead others to open new weapon development.

  • A.Q. Khan, a Pakistani citizen, has been implicated in a global black market for nuclear technology.

  • The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference, which occurs only twice a decade, collapsed in May, leaving the international community ill-prepared to face current and future threats.

  • "Preventive war" has proven an ineffective, and prohibitively expensive, non-proliferation strategy in Iraq, and is not feasible in Iran.

Investing in Non-Proliferation

What could the United States do with its additional funds to address non-proliferation? Without getting into the nuts and bolts, there are several areas where a capital infusion might transform our capacities:

  • Initiate a Manhattan Project to roll back the Manhattan Project. The United States should establish several non-proliferation research centers" focused on technical innovations, and especially on more effective inspection technologies. The weapons labs currently perform some non-proliferation research, but their role should be further transformed. Technological fixes are no solution to diplomatic problems, but can facilitate them: in Reagan's formulation of "trust but verify," agreements become easier and more secure as verification becomes more effective.

  • Increase funding for threat reduction. Our threat reduction programs with Russia and other allies have been, at a cost of $2 billion per year, among the best investments in our security, but have received inconsistent support from the administration. Progress on this front has slowed, prompting groups such as the Center for American Progress to recommend doubling the threat reduction budget and expanding the program to other at-risk countries. Equally important is high-level diplomatic attention: the President's top goal vis a vis Russia should be to convince Vladimir Putin to cut through red tape in his ministries.

  • Bolster the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The IAEA is our first line of defense against proliferation, but still operates on a shoestring budget ($385 million this year, even including $120 million in additional 'voluntary' contributions). As the responsibilities of the IAEA expand (including the additional protocol) it must be fully supported; the Center for American Progress recommends increasing the Safeguards and Security Budget by 50 percent, and the United States should play a leading role.

  • Control the nuclear fuel cycle. On Wednesday, ElBaradei argued that the best way to prevent proliferation (with Iran as the exemplary case) is to guarantee nuclear fuel to countries that commit to not producing it themselves. There are legitimate concerns about whether such a plan would be verifiable, but investing in stronger inspection mechanisms, and establishing a fuel bank under the IAEA, would facilitate this policy shift. According to ElBaradei, this program would solve "at least 80 percent of the problem."

Critics of arms control express skepticism about our ability to verify nuclear agreements. But while no inspection capacity is ever foolproof, it can be effective: in Iraq, the much maligned inspection regime had worked to deter and eliminate Saddam's WMD programs. The administration should take this rare moment of consensus to transform technical capacities—and political opportunities—to address our top security threat.