Nuclear Proliferation: An Optimistic View

Matthew Bunn, an expert on nuclear proliferation at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, says it's possible that many nations that could pursue nuclear arms will choose not to do so.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And now let's get an alternative view of a subject that's been on our minds this week. The subject is the spread of nuclear weapons.

Mr. WILLIAM LANGEWIESCHE (Author, "The Atomic Bazaar"): The future is quite clear. The poor of the world will acquire increasingly the nuclear weapons capabilities.

INSKEEP: The journalist William Langewiesche says that in spite of all our efforts, the secret is out. In a book called "The Atomic Bazaar" and on a MORNING EDITION, he says that if a country can get the right nuclear fuel, it's relatively easy to make a bomb. And he says plenty of nations will see that it's in their interest to make many bombs as time goes on.

That argument is challenged by Matthew Bunn, who thinks the future is not so clear. He works on non-proliferation issues at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. Welcome to the program.

Mr. MATTHEW BUNN (Senior Research Associate, Harvard Kennedy School of Government): Good to be here.

INSKEEP: What's wrong with William Langewiesche's assumptions?

Mr. BUNN: Well, I think what he doesn't understand, as the vast majority of states do understand, is that for most states nuclear weapons aren't in their interest. The reality is that today there are more states that started nuclear weapons programs and then decided to abandon them than there are states that have nuclear weapons.

INSKEEP: States like what? Which ones?

Mr. BUNN: Oh, Argentina, Brazil, Taiwan, South Korea, Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, Italy. Do you want me to go on?

INSKEEP: Well, Langewiesche mentioned some of those countries too, and suggests that de-proliferation, if you will, is temporary. Maybe there's going to be a time when Brazil will rethink whether it needs nuclear weapons, for example.

Mr. BUNN: Well, our efforts to convince states not to continue with nuclear weapons programs that they have started succeed more often than they fail. Today, there are nine states that have nuclear weapons. Twenty years ago, there were nine states that had nuclear weapons. North Korea added itself to the list, but South Africa subtracted itself from the list, becoming, in a very hopeful way, the first case of real nuclear disarmament.

Now there is this logic of self-defense that has seemed to apply to some countries in history. The U.S. got the bomb, so Russia had to have it. Russia had it, so China had to have it. China had it, so India had to get it, it's neighbor to the south. India had it, so Pakistan had to get it. Isn't there a continuing effect as one more country gets a bomb that more countries will need it?

Mr. BUNN: It is certainly true, but there are contravening pressures as well. And the story you just told of it all being driven by threats is far more simplistic than the reality. In many cases, nuclear weapons programs are driven by internal bureaucratic actors getting nuclear weapons by domestic politics, by national pride and status.

INSKEEP: Has the war in Iraq changed the calculation for any country? For example, Iran and North Korea might say to themselves, look, we need nuclear weapons, look what happened to Iraq, which didn't have the bomb.

Mr. BUNN: I think, unfortunately, there is some of that. For the United States, to very publicly take the position that it has the right to invade sovereign countries, I think, increased the incentive for states that felt they might end up on the wrong end of the United States, like Iran and North Korea, to want to have nuclear weapons.

INSKEEP: Now if you did accept that it's inevitable that nuclear weapons would spread, it might affect your policy decisions, and that's something else that William Langewiesche got into this week. Let's listen as he urges a different attitude toward nuclear proliferation.

Mr. LANGEWIESCHE: Really, the problem for us in the United States is to look at this realistically without fear, and that we accept a reality which cannot be changed. Of course, that doesn't mean to stand down from attempts to limit the spread of nuclear weapons by any means. But an acknowledgement that the spread is inevitable would tend to mitigate against some of the more extreme reactions. For instance, possible wars against the country like Iran.

INSKEEP: In other words, accept the inevitability that Iran is going to get a bomb one of these days and don't go to war against them, for example, just to prevent it.

Mr. LANGEWIESCHE: Well, war is almost never going to be the right answer to a proliferation problem. But the problem is that if policymakers believe that nuclear proliferation is inevitable, which it's not, they will fail to take the important actions that we can take now to stem the spread of nuclear weapons. We're not going to succeed in doing that if we are fatalistic and believe that it's inevitable that the bomb is going to spread all over the place anyway.

INSKEEP: Now we've been talking about countries getting nuclear weapons, there's also, of course, the issue of terrorists getting nuclear weapons. And in the interviews this week, William Langewiesche on this program said that he's not really that worried that terrorists can get nuclear fuel, even though the defenses are not perfect. Would you agree with any of that?

Mr. BUNN: I think that it is harder for terrorists to get the materials to make a nuclear bomb than is sometimes claimed. But I am more nervous about it. He's quite correct that once the material for nuclear bomb has been stolen, it could be anywhere and trying to stop it is an enormously difficult job.

INSKEEP: He also said that after thinking about this and studying it, if he had real estate in Washington, D.C., which presumably would be vulnerable to a nuclear attack, if he had that real estate, he'd probably keep it. Would you?

Mr. BUNN: I have to say that if I were offered a job in downtown Washington, D.C., I would seriously about it and I would probably try to make sure that my family was in the suburbs.

INSKEEP: An alternative view from Matthew Bunn, who works on non-proliferation issues at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.

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