November 22, 2010

As a road to peace, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty is worse than useless. It was broken even at the very moment it came into existence.

The (1970) NPT is based on three pillars: non-proliferation, disarmament, and the peaceful use of nuclear energy. Since it came into existence, the number of nuclear states has doubled (not even counting the breakup of the Soviet Union), we probably already have the first case of a non-state power owning nuclear weapons, and the net destructiveness of all existing nuclear weapons has increased. Secret and semi-secret weapons-sharing agreements have been dodging and outright violating the spirit of the NPT even as it was being negotiated.

Nor have the nuclear nations showed any real interest in complete disarmament: which in turn is seen by non-nuclear states as acting in poor faith. Only one nation, Canada, has ever had nuclear capacity without developing nuclear weapons: although for military purposes, Canada could well be seen as a satellite of the United States.

If anything, research into actual practical use of nuclear weapons in tactical warfare has skyrocketed. Back in 2003, I gave it a 50:50 chance that someone would set off another nuclear weapon in war (or terror, if you prefer) within the next decade. Nothing I see today gives me any reason to change those odds.

The only thing the NPT has ever done successfully is to define the basis upon which future military power is to be measured, and to draw an arbitrary line in the sand to permanently separate nations which have such power from the nations which do not. It should come as no surprise that the permanent, veto members of the Security Council are all nations which possessed nuclear power prior to 1970. Consequently, an outsider nation which finds itself in sudden need of negotiating power beyond what a conventional land/sea/air military can provide -- as was the case when North Korea unexpectedly found itself lumped in with the "Axis of Evil" in 2001 -- has every incentive to ignore the NPT or withdraw from it completely.

Despite the best intentions of the NPT, there will be no putting this genie back into the bottle. If non-proliferation and reductions are truly desired -- something of which I am not altogether certain -- a different approach is needed.

May I suggest simple economics? To divert resources to nuclear weapons research is not cheap. If more countries are competing for the same limited resources, be they raw materials, technical equipment, or the human minds to develop nuclear weapons technology: the price for each will rise accordingly.

Perhaps most importantly, an economic approach would allow each nation to decide its priorities for itself. Given all the other priorities of a typical country, many, perhaps most, nations simply won't find it cost-effective to pursue this line of research -- but they will have chosen this path for themselves, not had it forced upon them. That could make all the difference.

Replacing the NPT with an economic route would open the door to some interesting power shifts -- which really have already been there for quite some time, economically: but which were "invisible" solely because they do not catch at public perception the way a nuclear weapon does. Maybe these power shifts bother me less than most because I have never pretended that one nation is inherently more ethical than another.

(It would be interesting to see to what extent Israel would be able to maintain its own current level of nuclear weaponry without the heavy economic aid it receives from the United States. Israel has proven in multiple wars that it does not need nuclear weaponry to maintain military superiority in the region.)

South Africa developed nuclear weapons after the NPT came into effect, but chose to dismantle them in 1991. Officially, the reason was international pressure, combined with a change in government which would lead to the final eradication of apartheid. Yet South Africa's military strategic position has not significantly changed. At the same time, any internal uprising still cannot be quelled effectively with nuclear weapons. Whatever might be said in public: for South Africa, getting rid of nuclear weapons was simply cost effective.

I don't say this often, but a fully free market system might be at least as effective in controlling or even reducing the numbers of nuclear weapons as the NPT. It could do no worse!

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