This article was originally published in the Spring 1992 issue of the Harvard International Review

At a Crossroads: An Examination of US Nuclear Non-Proliferation Policy

For better, not worse, the United States has sought for over 45 years to prevent the acquisition of nuclear weapons by other nations. Although pundits, politicians, and policy makers have debated the means needed to achieve this objective, the fundamental goal of prevention has proven to be remarkably resistant to change. But the wisdom of this goal has not gone unchallenged, and some have called once again for a greater emphasis on the management rather than the prevention of nuclear proliferation.

I believe that the highest goal for the United States and its allies who are committed to non-proliferation must still be to prevent additional nations from acquiring nuclear explosive devices. If, despite our best collective efforts, this policy of prevention should fail, the international community will have to develop multilateral options for the management and reversal of such proliferation. However, I do not believe that these options should include either the abandonment of the basic goal of prevention or the provision of technical assistance to help nations acquire better bombs. To elaborate, I would first like to examine some of the roots of our current policy.

The Gilpatrick Report

One of the most serious assaults on the goal of prevention occurred in the early years of the Johnson Administration. It is useful to recall some of the history of this debate as we confront our new policy crossroads.

After China detonated a nuclear device in October 1964, many sage observers of world affairs were convinced that India, Japan, and other Asian nations would be forced to follow suit. Indeed, some of President Johnson’s advisers were not fully convinced that a little proliferation among our friends in Asia would be contrary to our interests; after all, the enemy of our enemy, Red China, was our friend.

As other advisers counseled against proliferation, President Johnson announced in November 1964 the appointment of a special advisory group under Roswell Gilpatrick (a Deputy Secretary of Defense in the Kennedy Administration) to “explore the widest range of measures that the United States might undertake in conjunction with other governments or by itself” to respond to the risk of nuclear weapons proliferation. The inside story of these deliberations is recounted in Stemming the Tide, the memoir of Glenn T. Seaborg, former chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission.

The report, which was finally issued in January 1965 (still heavily censored), explicitly rejected the arguments of those within the group (including Secretary of State Dean Rusk and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara) that an Indian or Japanese bomb might serve US interests. Instead, the group reached the following unanimous conclusion: “The spread of nuclear weapons poses an increasingly grave threat to the security of the United States. New nuclear capabilities, however primitive and regardless of whether they are held by nations currently friendly to the United States, will add complexity and instability to the deterrent balance between the United States and the Soviet Union, aggravate suspicions and hostility among states neighboring new nuclear powers, place a wasteful economic burden on the aspirations of developing nations, impede the vital task of controlling and reducing weapons around the world, and eventually constitute direct military threats to the United States.”

Addressing the classic problem of weighing other US foreign policy objectives against the goal of non-proliferation, the report concluded:
 “We have been impressed in the course of our study by the fact that actions affecting the spread of nuclear weapons also relate to a very broad range of United States interests: relations with our allies and with other nations, weapons deployment at home and abroad, programs in peaceful atomic energy, and commerce with foreign nations. In order that our efforts to stop nuclear proliferation may succeed, each of these areas of interest, as well as the agencies of Government which deal with them, must be truly responsive to our non-proliferation policies, and must give such non-proliferation policies far greater weight and support than they have received in the past.”

Unfortunately, the Reagan Administration followed virtually the opposite advice. Instead of tailoring our foreign policies to advance our non-proliferation objectives, our non-proliferation policy was often sacrificed to other economic, diplomatic, or military objectives that policymakers deemed to be of overriding importance.

I recall the fervor with which the Reagan Administration belittled and undercut non-proliferation objectives in Pakistan in the name of winning the Cold War in South Asia; in this instance, the United States tried to manage Pakistan’s nuclear ambitions through the provision of billions of dollars of military and economic aid intended to restrain Pakistan’s motivation to acquire the Bomb. When aid was increased even in the face of overwhelming evidence that this policy was an abject failure, it became apparent how far US policy had strayed from the sound counsel offered by the Gilpatrick panel.

But the panel had more to say that is relevant to other issues on the non-proliferation agenda. Regarding the Soviet Union, the panel advised: “We believe that the change of leadership in the Soviet Union and the possible resulting review of Soviet nuclear policies may now provide an immediate opportunity for joint or parallel action in the near future to stop the nuclear spread... [accordingly] we should renew our efforts to negotiate a verified comprehensive test ban with the Soviet Union...We should undertake early initiative...[including] a verified fissile materials production cutoff for weapons purposes, to be established by treaty.” Although some of these recommendations have been pursued since 1965, it is regrettable that the current administration continues its stubborn opposition to the negotiation of a verifiable comprehensive nuclear test ban and an international ban on the production of fissile nuclear materials for explosive uses.

Though written 27 years ago, the report was also remarkably prescient in its call for strengthened international measures to verify nuclear commitments; the following words, for example, could well have been written today by an informed commentator on the implications for international safeguards for Iraq’s substantial progress toward acquiring nuclear weapons: “We should increase our efforts to build up the [International Atomic Energy Agency], including broader responsibilities, increased operational activities, larger budgets and improved technical capabilities.”

Three years after the Gilpatrick report, the United States and 60 other nations signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Today over 140 nations are parties to that treaty, which further underscores that non-proliferation remains a legal obligation, a fundamental norm, good politics and sound military sense.

Friendly Proliferation

Some commentators today are not familiar with the ground covered by the Gilpatrick commission. Before examining some of the recent arguments for what might be called benign, or “friendly” proliferation, it would be useful to recall the sheet breadth of the unambiguous obligation of the United States under Article I of the NPT: “[N]ot to transfer to any recipient whatsoever nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices or control over such weapons or explosive devices directly, or indirectly; and not in any way to assist, encourage, or induce any non-nuclear weapon state to manufacture or otherwise acquire nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices, or control over such weapons or explosive devices.”

Proponents of friendly proliferation—an extreme form of “managed proliferation”—go so far as to urge active US assistance to other nations to help them acquire nuclear weapons. For example, Richard Haas, a current National Security Council staff member responsible for Middle East and South Asian affairs, urged in late 1988 (before joining the National Security Council staff) that since it was “too late” to stop nuclear armament in South Asia, the United States should work with both Pakistan and India to “enhance their command and control systems... [and could] even selectively enhance nuclear capabilities to strengthen retaliatory potential, and, thus, reinforce mutual deterrence.”

Yet, as recently as January 15, Robert Gates, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), testified before the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs that although both nations are clearly engaging in nuclear weapons-related activities, “We have no reason to believe that either India or Pakistan maintains assembled or deployed nuclear bombs.”

To assume that the goal of “prevention” has been lost in South Asia is not only premature, but also a risky venture in self-fulfilling prophecy. Furthermore, given the massive investments made by the United States to develop current command-and-control systems—and in the face of continuing doubts about how well even our own state-of-the-art systems would perform in a nuclear war—I believe it would be a dubious policy bordering on an indirect nuclear weapons subsidy if the United States were to provide such assistance to would-be nuclear powers. Both nuclear and non-nuclear states would be better advised to keep their eyes on prevention and to keep the costs of acquiring a nuclear capability as high as possible. In a similar vein, John Mearsheimer, chairman of the political science department of the University of Chicago, stated in a July 1990 interview:
“The nice thing about the Germans getting nuclear weapons is that they have the economic wherewithal to buy a secure retaliatory force. The United States and the superpowers both want to make sure that if nuclear proliferation takes place, that each state that gets nuclear weapons has a secure retaliatory force...[thus you should] see to it that the Germans get nuclear weapons and create a situation of Mutual Assured Destruction [MAD] between Germany and all its possible adversaries in Europe.”

Although nobody could have fully anticipated the scope of the geopolitical changes that have occurred in the greater European region since 1990, it is by no means clear that security in that region rests on the notion of peace through MAD. The norm of prevention, fortunately, appears for now to be alive and well in Central Europe—where the real proliferation threat appears to emanate from economic pressures to export sensitive nuclear technology for foreign exchange, rather than from the indigenous development of nuclear weapons.

If the United States helps other nations to gain a nuclear weapons capability, what guarantee will we have that our nuclear client states will forever remain our friends? After all, Libya, Iraq, Iran, and Cuba have at various times had quite friendly relations with the United States. Can anybody predict who will be governing in Pakistan next year or what their foreign or domestic policies will be? Until the day comes when such predictions are possible, the Unites States would be better advised to drive home to such countries an understanding of the enormous burdens associated with possession of nuclear weapons, rather than helping to alleviate those burdens. Such a policy would, of course, offer no guarantee of success, but at least the physician would not be spreading the disease.

Unfriendly Non-proliferation

The extreme view that proliferation can be managed by assisting attempts to stabilize regional balances of nuclear terror is paralleled by another extreme view that one occasionally encounters in academic literature and in some circles of government. This view holds that if export controls, sanctions and diplomacy fail to halt the development of nuclear weapons-related capabilities by nations, military force can do the job.
I am skeptical of the value of military approaches to non-proliferation. The recent need for UN coalition forces to attack Iraqi nuclear facilities arose because the world community had failed for a decade to take the hard steps short of war—trade embargoes, tougher export controls and other multilaterally-coordinated sanctions—which were needed to halt Iraq’s well-publicized pursuit of nuclear weapons. In the long term, there should be limits on our expectations of the military as a tool for the management of nuclear non-proliferation policy.

During the Iran-Iraq war, for example, each nation launched largely ineffectual military attacks on the other’s primitive nuclear facilities. Israel’s 1981 attack on the Osirak reactor in Iraq may have set back Iraq’s nuclear program, but surely it did not eliminate Iraq’s long-term nuclear threat. Moreover, the international community paid little attention to the shortcomings in international safeguards that inspired the Israeli attack.

Even the recent attacks by UN coalition forces on Iraqi nuclear facilities may prove to have only transitory value as instruments of non-proliferation if they are not backed by controls and sanctions. On January 23, 1991, shortly after these attacks, President Bush said, “Our pinpoint attacks have put Saddam [Hussein] out of the nuclear bomb-building business for a long time to come.” However, in January 1992, CIA Director Robert Gates testified that it would take Iraq “a few, rather than many, years” to rebuild its nuclear weapons capability.

No nation with a secret bomb-building effort underway should harbor any illusions of immunity from military attacks by either a coalition of international forces or a neighboring country. But as an instrument for preventing the global spread of nuclear weapons, military force should best be seen as a method of last resort, to be considered only when national and international diplomatic efforts have failed. Even if such force is ultimately used, the world community itself should harbor no illusions about the utility of such force as a long-term solution to the problem of proliferation.

Discrimination Management

Highly enriched uranium (HEU) and plutonium were the fissile materials used in the bombs that were dropped over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, respectively. The world community has been fortunate that until recently, these two materials were quite rare and difficult to obtain. However, plans are now underway in Europe, Japan, and even Russia to proceed with the large-scale commercial production, storage, transportation, and use of plutonium. Meanwhile, many foreign research reactors continue to use HEU fuel. Not that long ago, we measured the world’s stocks of plutonium in kilograms; today we measure it in tons. About 17 pounds will suffice for a bomb.
Current US policy seeks to restrict commercial uses of US-controlled plutonium and HEU to a small number of countries that are deemed by federal officials to be “responsible.” In July 1981, after a brief and unsuccessful effort by President Carter to discourage commercial uses of plutonium in Europe and Japan, President Reagan announced a new policy, which remains in effect today, that the United States would not seek to “inhibit or set back civil reprocessing or breeder [a reactor designed to produce plutonium for later use as fuel] development abroad in nations with advanced nuclear power programs where it does not constitute a proliferation risk.”

In practical terms, Japan and certain countries in the European Atomic Energy Community would be granted long-term, blanket US consent rights to use, store, and transport tons of separated plutonium that was or will be separated from US-origin fuels or from fuels used in US-origin nuclear facilities. No longer would these nations have to come to the United States for case-by-case approvals to engage in such activities. In March 1988, the US Senate rejected my efforts to oppose an Administration proposal that would incorporate the new US policy into a new agreement with Japan on nuclear cooperation.

With respect to HEU, the two-tiered policy is observable in continued US shipments of HEU fuel to Europe and Japan for use in research reactors and in progress toward a large HEU research reactor to be built in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Also telling is the halt to all research and development by the Argonne National Laboratory’s “Reduced Enrichment for Research and Test Reactors” (RERTR) program, which sought low-enriched fuel substitutes for the HEU that we continue to export to Europe and Japan.

The basic norm that underlies all international and national laws constraining nuclear arms proliferation holds that the elimination of all nuclear weapons is in the interest of world peace.

As stated in President Bush’s most recent annual report to Congress on nuclear proliferation, the United States will continue to export HEU “only to those countries with advanced nuclear programs and excellent non-proliferation credentials” which have “cooperated closely” with the RERTR programs.

I continue to doubt that it serves our national interests or the interests of the global nuclear non-proliferation regime to encourage, directly or indirectly, large-scale commercial uses of plutonium and HEU. I do not believe that it will ever be possible to safeguard adequately such activities against illicit diversions or thefts of bomb-sized quantities of such materials. I also do not believe that such a manifestly discriminatory approach to the nuclear market can ever be successful in the long run in restricting the access by other nations to bomb-usable materials. India, Pakistan, Brazil, Argentina, South Africa, Taiwan, and South Korea are just a few of the countries that have (or have had) national programs to enrich uranium or to separate plutonium for “civil” uses.

As a tool for the management of international access to bomb-usable materials, the two-tiered market approach is misguided and doomed to failure. The “demonstration effect” of using such materials for commercial purposes in some nations will only encourage their use elsewhere. I do not believe that the international community should have to wait for an actual diversion or detonation of such material by a terrorist group before serious efforts are made toward a nondiscriminatory, global moratorium on all commercial uses of plutonium and HEU. With a little leadership and political will, such a moratorium would surely be more successful in restricting access to bomb materials than would a policy condoning large-scale commercial uses while attempting to monitor military use.

Two Tough Cases

Earlier, I addressed the question of whether the United States should provide technical assistance to would-be nuclear powers. I strongly object to such assistance and believe it would violate our treaty commitments, our domestic laws and regulations and common sense. However, two recent developments require some further discussion. First, the recent demise of the Soviet Union has raised an interesting dilemma for the United States and other nuclear-armed powers. Is it in the collective or national interests of these powers to assist the new Commonwealth republics in protecting and defending their existing stockpiles of tactical and strategic weapons?

Second, as secret nuclear weapons-related research and development activities continue in certain nations, there is a growing danger that additional nations will acquire status as de facto nuclear-armed powers. Proliferation need not be heralded by the roar of a nuclear explosion; some countries can (and do) openly profess their commitment to non-proliferation while covertly exercising their nuclear options. Is it in the collective or national interests of the current nuclear powers to assist such nations in managing such capabilities?

When issues become complex, it is often wise to see the counsel of fundamental, commonly agreed upon principles and practices. The basic norm that underlies all international and national laws constraining nuclear arms proliferation holds that the elimination of all nuclear weapons is in the interest of world peace. For example, all parties to the NPT are obligated under Article VI to pursue good-faith negotiations aimed at the goal of “nuclear disarmament.” Though support for this norm varies among states, this basic goal continues to enjoy considerable support in the world community.

Consistent with this norm, I believe that the United States and other nuclear-armed powers should indeed do all they can to help dismantle the nuclear weapons of the former Soviet Union and in the security, transportation, storage and destruction of the special nuclear materials used in such weapons. Because this assistance would be provided with the objective of eliminating nuclear weapons and the materials used to make them, I see no inconsistency between such assistance to a nuclear-armed power and global norm. I would strongly oppose, however, the provision of assistance designed to give Russia or any other Commonwealth republic “safer” warhead designs. Our goal must not be to salvage a world peace based on a balance of nuclear terror; instead, we should redouble our efforts to find a more cooperative alternative basis for world order. The eventual elimination of nuclear arms and other weapons of mass destruction surely will not eliminate conflict in the world, but it will help to ensure that such conflict will not destroy the world itself.

Our goal should not be limited to keeping the bombs of covert proliferators in the basement, but should include efforts designed to prevent the acquisition of such weapons in the first place. Failing that, all the tools of international diplomacy should be used to encourage their eventual destruction. Prevention and destruction must remain the ultimate goals—not just against covert proliferators, but also against the Commonwealth republics, and indeed, against all countries that currently possess nuclear weapons. Our goal should not be to encourage and assist every would-be regional superpower to acquire a “secure second-strike capability,” but rather to explore diplomatic alternatives for regional peace and world order.

As George Santayana once wrote, “[f]anaticism consists in redoubling your effort when you have forgotten your aim.” Advocates of friendly proliferation and regional balances of nuclear terror have lost sight of the fundamental aims of the postwar global nuclear regime. For almost a half-century, the goals of that regime have been the prevention of the global spread—and the eventual elimination—of nuclear weapons, not their enshrinement forevermore as the basis of world order. I believe those are worthy goals indeed. 

Note from the Editor

A member of the team of seven original astronauts of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), John Glenn is perhaps best remembered as the first American to orbit the Earth in 1962; however his greatest contributions to his country occurred while representing Ohio in the US Senate from 1974 to 1999. During his 25 years in office, Glenn very actively pursued nuclear non- proliferation and disarmament efforts, a hot topic throughout his senatorial career; in particular, he acted as chief author of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act of 1978, and strongly supported the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1968. He additionally served on the senate committees on foreign relations and armed services and chaired the Committee on Governmental Affairs, a group dedicated to homeland security. In the early 1990s, nuclear policy in the United States shifted focus away from non-proliferation efforts to management of nuclear states. The Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), signed in 1991, represented the largest arms control treaty to date in its calls for drastic bilateral reductions in strategic nuclear weapons. It is at this point in history that Senator Glenn provides this commentary on the mismanagement of US nuclear security policy throughout the latter half of the 20th century, from the Spring 1992 edition of the Harvard International Review.