Nuclear Weapons Gain Importance for Regional Powers

Many factors cause nations to seek nuclear weapons. Security concerns about neighbors and other nuclear powers drive most decisions to pursue the weapons. The current non-proliferation treaty, under review this month at the U.N., does not appear to be deterring countries from trying to join the nuclear club.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS:

And I'm Michele Norris.

All this month, the fate of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty has been under discussion at the UN. More than 180 signatories of the treaty wrestled with the issue unsuccessfully. The conference ended today without progress. NPR's Mike Shuster reports it's unclear if the measures to discourage nations to steer clear of nuclear weapons can work. Here's the final part of his series on proliferation.

MIKE SHUSTER reporting:

The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty was ratified in 1970 and reaffirmed by its signatories 10 years ago. It recognizes five nuclear states: the US, Russia, Great Britain, France, and China. The basic bargain of the treaty is that those states commit to getting rid of their nuclear weapons eventually while the rest commit to staying non-nuclear. It's a bargain that has remained largely intact for 35 years, says Siegfried Hecker, former director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, where much of the US' nuclear weapons research has taken place.

Mr. SIEGFRIED HECKER (Former Director, Los Alamos National Laboratory): The bottom line of the Non-Proliferation Treaty--in fact, of the proliferation world--I think, could be simply stated by the more fingers on the nuclear trigger, the more dangerous a world it is for everyone.

SHUSTER: But in recent years, the principle of non-proliferation has faced serious challenges. India and Pakistan declared themselves nuclear weapon states when they tested atomic bombs in 1998. They have refused to sign the treaty, as has Israel, which also has nuclear weapons. North Korea pulled out of the treaty in 2002 and is believed to be building a small arsenal of nuclear weapons. Iran, which is a member of the treaty, developed a nuclear program in secret and may well be on a path to nuclear weapons.

Why do nations decide to go nuclear, especially given the almost universal nature of the non-proliferation principle? There are many reasons. Their scientists view it as a challenge. Their political leaders see these weapons as bestowing power and prestige. Sometimes there are strong domestic political pressures to go nuclear. But more important, says Siegfried Hecker, are possible local conflicts that nations face.

Mr. HECKER: In almost all cases, the decision to go nuclear has been one of a regional security concern. To minimize the attractiveness of nuclear weapons, one must decrease regional tensions. That's the principal driver that we've seen from a historical perspective.

SHUSTER: This is certainly true now in the case of North Korea and Iran, notes retired General Larry Welch, former chief of staff of the Air Force, now president of the Institute for Defense Analyses.

General LARRY WELCH (President, Institute for Defense Analyses): They exist in neighborhoods that are not particularly friendly. They have neighbors who are not reliable, trusted friends, who either have nuclear weapons or are clearly seeking to acquire nuclear weapons. That doesn't, in my view, justify what they're doing, but it certainly explains part of their motivation.

SHUSTER: Many experts argue that what the United States does, how it uses its power internationally and what it does about its own nuclear weapons, may be one of the most important factors affecting the decision of other nations to go nuclear.

Mr. SCOTT SAGAN (Director, Stanford University's Center for International Security and Arms Control): Sometimes they're interested in nuclear weapons because the United States is everybody's neighbor today.

SHUSTER: Scott Sagan is director of Stanford University's Center for International Security and Arms Control.

Mr. SAGAN: Other countries look at what we're doing and sometimes adopt their strategies and their doctrines and even their operations based on what they see the United States doing.

SHUSTER: Many experts believe both North Korea and Iran are on a nuclear path in order to deter the possibility of American attack. That's an example of going nuclear to counter the use of conventional US military force. But America's nuclear strategy can also affect the decisions of non-nuclear states in a positive and a negative sense. On the positive side, many of the allies of the United States, including Japan and possibly Germany, have not become nuclear powers because the US has pledged to protect them, says Michael Nacht, dean of the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley.

Mr. MICHAEL NACHT (Dean, Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California at Berkeley): We maintain a nuclear arsenal to reassure our friends that they are secure and therefore reduce the arguments in their governments that they should themselves have nuclear weapons.

SHUSTER: But there's a negative side as well. Not long ago, the Bush administration quietly asserted that it might use nuclear weapons in a conflict first if the US suffers a biological or chemical weapons attack. This is a new policy position, and it is at variance with the US pledge not to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states contained in the Non-Proliferation Treaty. As a result, India, too, has adopted a similar policy, even though it has pledged for many years not to the be the first to use nuclear weapons in a conflict. Sir Michael Quinlan, a longtime senior British Defense Ministry official, finds these developments regrettable.

Sir MICHAEL QUINLAN (British Defense Ministry): I see the theoretical case for brandishing the option of first use if anybody else uses biological or chemical weapons, but I think the realism of having to do that is very low, and it seems to me unfortunate at a time when everyone is expecting the five nuclear powers to downplay nuclear weapons, to reduce their salience.

SHUSTER: Russia, too, has adopted the threat of nuclear first use to deter a possible conventional attack. In effect, more nuclear weapons states today threaten to use nuclear weapons in non-nuclear conflicts than was the case during the Cold War. In order to convince other nations not to go nuclear, this trend has to be reversed, argues Sidney Drell, a nuclear physicist who has been at the center of US nuclear policy for many years, now at Stanford University.

Mr. SIDNEY DRELL (Stanford University): We have to convince many nations that we are serious about our commitment to the non-proliferation regime which calls on us to reduce our reliance on the weapons, reduce our arsenals, not to resume testing.

SHUSTER: In the current international atmosphere, it has become increasingly difficult to say just what will preserve the principle of non-proliferation. Nuclear weapons advocates like retired General Larry Welch believe in it, but remain realists.

Gen. WELCH: Non-proliferation is a very difficult course and will not be a hundred percent successful. The fact is, it has been more successful than most of us expected that it would be.

SHUSTER: That's why the signers of the Non-Proliferation Treaty gathered this month to try to maintain the international regime of non-proliferation, but they got bogged down in political recrimination, with many nations criticizing the US and the US focusing almost all of its attention on the cases of North Korea and Iran. Sidney Drell says there are many areas of policy where all nations committed to non-proliferation should be able to agree.

Mr. DRELL: We're going to have to toughen up some of the restrictions in the Non-Proliferation Treaty so that we can verify compliance. Doing that requires a consensus among the nations to cooperate with trade restrictions or to interdict illegal shipments, or to be able to carry out challenge inspections of what's going on.

SHUSTER: But new ideas are scarce. Scott Sagan has a few. He suggests a recommitment by the nuclear powers not to test their weapons--there have been no nuclear tests since 1996--in exchange for a commitment by all nations to stop enriching uranium. Iran might go along if all nations do. Sagan would also like to make it harder for nations to opt out of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, as North Korea has done, such as automatically referring the issue to the UN Security Council and requiring the return of nuclear materials if a withdrawing nation got help from outside.

Mr. SAGAN: So the Security Council has to make a judgment about whether those withdrawal reasons are legitimate. And to have a commitment to return the materials and the technology would help reduce the break-out potential that is inherent in the NPT today.

SHUSTER: Unfortunately, ideas like these are not under serious consideration, leaving the very real prospect that more nations may opt for nuclear weapons in the years ahead. Mike Shuster, NPR News.

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