Despite Challenges In 2009, Progress On Proliferation

North Korean KRT video footage shows the launch of a long-range missile in Musudan-ri, North Korea i i

This image made from North Korean KRT video footage shows the launch of a long-range missile April 5 in Musudan-ri, North Korea. A few weeks later, North Korea detonated its second underground nuclear explosion. AP/KRT TV hide caption

itoggle caption AP/KRT TV
North Korean KRT video footage shows the launch of a long-range missile in Musudan-ri, North Korea

This image made from North Korean KRT video footage shows the launch of a long-range missile April 5 in Musudan-ri, North Korea. A few weeks later, North Korea detonated its second underground nuclear explosion.

AP/KRT TV

The most recent issue of the journal Foreign Affairs raises the question of whether the nuclear order is on the verge of collapse.

The pessimists cite North Korea and Iran, and conclude that events of the past year have seriously undermined international efforts to stem the spread of nuclear weapons.

But seen through the prism of history, the state of nuclear proliferation may not be all that dire.

President Obama made it clear early in his presidency that containing the spread of nuclear weapons was one of his most important goals.

In April in Prague, he outlined a vision of a world without nuclear weapons, and committed his administration to pursuing that goal.

But at that very moment, North Korea tested a long-range missile and was threatening another underground nuclear test, prompting the president to strike a tough tone about nations that violate the nonproliferation norm.

"Rules must be binding. Violations must be punished. Words must mean something," Obama said.

Only a few weeks later, North Korea did conduct its second underground nuclear explosion.

A challenge has also come from Iran. In September, Obama revealed that Iran was building a secret uranium-enrichment facility, sharpening suspicions that Tehran is indeed seeking a covert nuclear weapons capability.

Progress Despite North Korea, Iran

So, the year 2009 has been a dismal one for the international regime of nuclear arms control. Or has it? asks Joshua Pollack, who writes for the Web site ArmsControlWonk.com.

"One way to look at it a little differently is not that the regime is cracking or that the regime is failing, but that the regime has succeeded in retarding the pace of proliferation and continues to do so, but isn't going to catch everything," he says.

Since the first atomic bomb was detonated in 1945, the past decade has seen the fewest nuclear tests of any comparable period, notes Michael Krepon, president emeritus of the Stimson Center in Washington.

"Never before have there been so few nuclear tests as in this past decade. This is a norm. It can still be broken. But the country that breaks the norm does not gain points. It loses standing," he says.

Negotiations With Russia

The concerns of the Obama administration are wider than Iran and North Korea. The president also wants to see a dramatic reduction in the number of nuclear warheads deployed by the U.S. and Russia. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made that clear in a speech she gave in Washington in October.

"Clinging to nuclear weapons in excess of our security needs does not make the United States safer. And the nuclear status quo is neither desirable nor sustainable. It gives other countries the motivation — or the excuse — to pursue their own nuclear options," she said.

The administration concluded that the way to pursue those goals is through new arms control negotiations with Moscow, a mechanism largely ignored by the administration of George W. Bush.

But there is a big problem: The START treaty expired on Dec. 5, 2009. The treaty, signed in 1991 by then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and President George H.W. Bush, was the first and most important treaty that began the process of nuclear reductions at the end of the Cold War.

Before the deadline, the U.S. and Russia tried but failed to negotiate a new treaty.

Nonetheless, there is much to be optimistic about, says Joe Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund, a grant-making foundation that funds initiatives to prevent the spread and use of nuclear weapons.

"The overall climate is so much improved, and the overall effort to just dramatically reduce nuclear weapons and increase the transparency gives us lots of assurances," he says.

The U.S. and Russia are still negotiating, but there are some significant problems. For the Russians, the big issue is American missile defenses. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin made it clear this week that he sees U.S. missile defenses as a threat to Russia's nuclear deterrent.

"Our American partners are building missile defense systems, as is known, and we are not. If we do not develop [anti-ballistic missile] systems, then a threat appears. Because having created such an umbrella, our partners may feel completely protected and will do what they want. Aggressiveness will surge," Putin said.

To preserve balance, Putin added, Russia will need to develop additional offensive weapons. That could jeopardize the efforts to reduce deployed nuclear warheads. Right now, both the U.S. and Russia have set a target of about 1,600 if there is a new treaty.

Focus On Proliferation In 2010

For some arms control advocates and for other nations, that number is still too high and the process far too slow. Krepon says reductions in nuclear warheads must come carefully and incrementally.

"You don't get to deep cuts in nuclear forces, and you don't get to zero, without having a strong, credible nuclear deterrent. If the deterrent is not safe and secure and credible along this long journey, there will be great disruption," he says.

Next year will be a crucial one. The Obama administration plans to focus even more attention on nuclear proliferation in 2010, with a global conference on the subject scheduled for April.

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