President Obama’s Prague speech has inspired a flurry of opposition from nuclear weapon proponents. Among their arguments, that old chestnut deterrence still holds pride of place. But another seeks to shoulder it aside. In The Trouble With Zero, the lead article of the May 10 New York Times Week in Review, Philip Taubman writes:
If arsenals are drastically reduced, the next steps toward abolition could be even trickier. Since scientific and engineering knowledge cannot be expunged from mankind’s memory, the potential to build weapons will always exist.
Does this rationale, aka You Can’t Put the Nuclear Genie Back in the Bottle, succeed in its intended purpose of making a mockery of disarmament?
Whirled View‘s Cheryl Rofer, a former chemist at Los Alamos National Laboratory, wrote to us in an email:
Most of us know how to waterboard now, and we don’t have an epidemic of neighborly waterboarding, or even by local law-enforcement authorities. … We can’t eliminate the knowledge of how to waterboard, either, but we can outlaw it. And, since building a nuclear weapon takes a bit more than a piece of cloth and a pitcher of water, there are effective choke points to limit building nuclear weapons. … It’s not the knowledge, it’s what we do with it.And so far the opponents of setting zero as a goal haven’t done much with their knowledge. If future proliferators follow their lead, we have nothing to worry about.
Along with the choke points to which Ms. Rofer refers, improved tools for monitoring and verifying compliance with treaties stand ready and waiting to be used to prevent proliferation, as are ever-more intrusive inspections. Still, short of burning the papers of nuclear scientists, confiscating their hard drives, and injecting them with memory-erasing drugs, their research won’t disappear into the recesses of time anytime soon.
Normally, it’s to mankind’s credit when knowledge is archived and endures. But, while nuclear knowledge in its resting state is a form of potential energy, it yearns to be made kinetic. Is there a way for us to keep it down on the archive after its seen the testing grounds?
Convincing Nuclear Aspirants to Step Away from the Nukes
Blissfully unhaunted by the Cold War, states that long for nuclear weapons view them as essential to security. Little do they know that, once armed, the honeymoon period is all too brief before a state — India and Pakistan come to mind — discovers that it’s in no less peril than before it developed them.
To prevent non-nuclear states from realizing its aspiration, nuclear states need to think outside the monitoring and compliance box, or at least supplement it with more tools. Nuclear-aspiring states might respond to the same encouraging, proactive steps that Lewis Dunn proposes in the recent Arms Control Today for dealing with nuclear states like Russia and China. These include:
Information, data exchanges, and transparency measures;
Joint studies, experiments, and planning;
Personnel exchanges, liaison arrangements, and joint military staff bodies;
Joint activities, programs, systems, and centers; and
Unilateral initiatives and coordinated national undertakings.
As for the individuals who become nuclear scientists and are hired by the nuclear-aspiring state, is there any hope of inducing qualms in them about working on nuclear weapons? Unfortunately, they’re often indisposed to not only politics but ethics. In addition, they’re likely to be susceptible to the nationalistic exhilaration that accompanies their state’s own version of the Manhattan Project.
The work-around, though, is obvious. Offer nuclear-aspiring states assistance with projects that will quicken scientists’ pulses even more than developing nuclear weapons — after all, enriching uranium with its endless rows of centrifuges quickly becomes tedious. Alternative energy, for example. Still, that will likely be insufficient to divert a state from developing nuclear weapons.
In regard to inducing states in possession of nuclear weapons to intensify their disarmament measures, Taubman writes:
One solution suggested by abolition advocates would be a form of latent or virtual deterrence, based not on weapons all but ready to launch, but on the ability to reassemble or rebuild them.
Needless to say, latent deterrence doesn’t apply to non-nuclear states, because they have no weapons to disassemble. But that positions them to enact another, more sophisticated form of deterrence than latent. Let’s call it pregnant deterrence. We’ll define it as possessing the knowledge and ability to develop nuclear weapons, without bringing their development to fruition.
But everyone knows how long it takes to develop the fuel cycle. What state inimical to the one in question, especially if it’s both equipped with nuclear weapons and a non-signatory to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, will be shaking in its boots about the other’s ability to develop nukes five years down the line?
Pregnant deterrence can only work if a state’s neighbors think the state is able to accelerate completion of the fuel cycle. That can only come to pass if a nuclear state not only provides the nuclear aspirant with all the knowledge needed to develop nuclear weapons, but, nuclear umbrellas aside, promises to help facilitate said development in the event of a imminent nuclear threat to the aspirant. Wait — what NPT nuclear state (or states) in its right mind would consider making such a commitment?
Nuclear weapons proponents claim that disarmament does nothing to stop other states from arming. But, it’s disingenuous and an abdication of the position of leadership implicit in a state’s position as an NPT nuclear state to contend that disarmament should start with anyone but the haves. Thus, the only way to make pregnant deterrence work is for nuclear weapon states to couple the promise of assistance with a sure-fire way of preventing the need for that from ever arising.
Maybe pregnant deterrence is best filed under the category of: “We can dream, can’t we?” But setting a deadline for significant disarmament and sticking to it just might buy the time needed to keep a nuclear state from threatening a state that’s in a state of pregnant deterrence. There will then be no need for the latter to induce labor and give birth to a bouncing, baby nuclear weapons program.