Who gets to have nu­clear weapons — and why?

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary - By Vic­tor Davis Han­son

Given North Korea’s nu­clear lu­nacy, what ex­actly are the rules, for­mal or im­plicit, about which na­tions can have nu­clear weapons and which can­not? It is com­pli­cated. In the free-for-all en­vi­ron­ment of the 1940s and 1950s, the orig­i­nal nu­clear club in­cluded only those coun­tries with the tech­no­log­i­cal know-how, size and money to build nukes. Those re­al­i­ties meant that up un­til the early 1960s, only Bri­tain, France, the Soviet Union and the United States had nu­clear ca­pa­bil­i­ties.

Mem­bers of this small club did not worry that many other na­tions would make such weapons, be­cause it seemed far too ex­pen­sive and dif­fi­cult for most.

Dur­ing the Cold War, the Soviet Union and the United States ad­hered to an un­spo­ken rule that their los­ing Axis en­e­mies of World War II — Ger­many, Italy and Ja­pan — should not have nu­clear weapons. De­spite their fi­nan­cial and sci­en­tific abil­ity to ob­tain them, all three former Axis pow­ers had too much re­cent his­tor­i­cal bag­gage to be al­lowed weapons of mass de­struc­tion. That tacit agree­ment ap­par­ently still re­mains.

The Soviet Union and the United States also in­for­mally agreed dur­ing the Cold War that their own de­pen­dent al­lies who had the abil­ity to go nu­clear — in­clud­ing Eastern Bloc na­tions, most Western Euro­pean coun­tries, Aus­tralia and Canada — would not. In­stead, they would de­pend on their su­per­power pa­trons for nu­clear deter­rence.

By the 1970s, re­al­i­ties had changed again. Large and/or sci­en­tif­i­cally so­phis­ti­cated na­tions such as China (1964), Is­rael (1967) and India (1974) went nu­clear. Of­ten, such coun­tries did so with the help of pro-Western or pro-Soviet pa­trons and spon­sors. The rest of the world ap­par­ently shrugged, be­liev­ing it was in­evitable that such na­tions would ob­tain nu­clear weapons.

The next round of ex­pan­sion of the nu­clear club, how­ever, was far slop­pier and more dan­ger­ous. Pro­lif­er­a­tion hinged on whether poorer and more un­sta­ble na­tions could get away en­rich­ing ura­nium or ac­quir­ing plu­to­nium in se­cret.

Some na­tions let on that they were de­vel­op­ing nu­clear weapons and were stopped by pre-emp­tive mil­i­tary strikes, such as Iraq and Syria. Oth­ers, in­clud­ing South Africa, Ukraine and Libya, were per­suaded to halt their nu­clear pro­jects.

Pak­istan was the rare rogue that man­aged to hide its nu­clear en­rich­ment, shock­ing the world by test­ing a bomb in 1998. Pak­istan rightly as­sumed that once a na­tion proves its nu­clear ca­pa­bil­ity, it is deemed too dan­ger­ous to walk it back through dis­ar­ma­ment.

None­the­less, un­til the of­fi­cial nu­cle­ariza­tion of North Korea in 2006, the nu­clear club re­mained small (eight na­tions) and was thought to be man­age­able. Why?

First, those nu­clear coun­tries that were rel­a­tively trans­par­ent and demo­cratic (Bri­tain, France, India, Is­rael and the United States) were deemed un­likely to start a nu­clear war.

Sec­ond, the ad­vanced but au­to­cratic nu­clear na­tions (China and Rus­sia) were thought to have too much at stake in glob­al­ized trade and na­tional pros­per­ity ever to start a lose/lose nu­clear war.

Third, any un­sta­ble rogue nu­clear na­tion (Pak­istan) was as­sumed to be de­terred and held in check by a nearby nu­clear ri­val (India).

The nu­clear ca­pa­bil­ity of dic­ta­to­rial North Korea (and likely soon, theo­cratic Iran) poses novel dan­gers far be­yond the sim­ple arith­metic of “the more nu­clear na­tions, the more likely a nu­clear war.”

Nei­ther North Korea nor Iran is demo­cratic. Nei­ther is a sta­ble coun­try.

Nei­ther has an im­me­di­ate nu­clear ri­val that can de­ter and per­suade it not to dare use a nu­clear weapon. Both started nu­clear pro­grams in se­cret. Both hate the United States and its al­lies.

More im­por­tantly, their fla­grant vi­o­la­tions of non­pro­lif­er­a­tion ac­cords and their per­ceived ag­gres­sive­ness will prompt rel­a­tively pow­er­ful re­gional neigh­bors — such as Egypt, Ja­pan, Saudi Ara­bia, South Korea and Tai­wan — to con­sider de­vel­op­ing nu­clear ca­pa­bil­ity. The club then could get big quickly. Not all of th­ese would-be nu­clear pow­ers are demo­cratic. But they do share a sin­gle pro-Amer­i­can out­look.

A frus­trated Amer­ica may feel that China and Rus­sia have en­cour­aged rogue coun­tries such as Iran and North Korea to de­velop nu­clear weapons pro­grams, self­ishly as­sum­ing that mis­siles in those coun­tries would be pointed at the West and not east­ward. So now the United States is in a para­dox­i­cal po­si­tion. It wants to stop all nu­clear pro­lif­er­a­tion. But Amer­ica also as­sumes that the next nu­clear pow­ers (for a change) would be pro-Amer­i­can — a pay­back of sorts to China and Rus­sia for al­low­ing their rogue friends to de­velop nu­clear ca­pa­bil­i­ties.

The United Na­tions and in­ter­na­tional non­pro­lif­er­a­tion or­ga­ni­za­tions, while wellmean­ing in in­tent, have thus far proven im­po­tent in deed.

Yet amid the chaos, un­til 2006 there were im­plied rules for the eight-mem­ber nu­clear club. Now, af­ter North Korea’s un­hinged threats, those shared as­sump­tions about nu­clear poker are null and void. And no one quite knows what to ex­pect next. Vic­tor Davis Han­son is a clas­si­cist and his­to­rian with the Hoover In­sti­tu­tion at Stan­ford Univer­sity.

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