History demonstrates that the United States always perceived the proliferation of nuclear weapons as a danger to not only world stability but also to its own national interests. It stood to reason that if one nation possessed the means to unleash the devastation wreaked on Hiroshima, then several such nations would represent a concerted threat, particularly if those nations were not friendly to the US.
Attempts to control the spread of nuclear weapons, however, were presented with two problems:
(1) there was little physical barrier between civilian applications and military uses of atomic energy; and
(2) nuclear bombs were perceived as political as well as military weapons.
Until such time as the Soviet Union was nuclear capable, it was unwilling to accept the controls the US suggested. Moscow was unlikely to permit Washington to sign away its right to protect itself against the implicit threat of America’s nuclear arsenal. Likewise, the Americans refused Soviet attempts at non-proliferation all the time Washington perceived it as a threat to its own capability.
Calls for the international control of nuclear weapons or disarmament therefore became the victims of the early Cold War when attempts to control the spread of nuclear weapons stagnated until such time as both sides felt themselves capable of matching the other’s perceived threat.
It was only after the Berlin and Cuban crises demonstrated the risks of the nuclear era that both superpowers realised it was in both their immediate interests to conclude a treaty aimed at preventing the spread of nuclear weapons. The result was the historic Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty in 1968.
While America was undoubtedly committed to the notion of non-proliferation, the extent to which it was able to practice non-proliferation was limited by the fact that non-proliferation was an issue rarely isolated from Washington’s other concerns. It was a conclusion that the Gilpatric committee expressed in 1965:
“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 deployments 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 support than they have received in the past.”
It was sound but ultimately difficult advice to follow. Successive Cold War administrations constantly had to contend with the perceived threat of the Soviet Union and the overwhelming need to secure national and strategic interests.
When it came down to having to decide between preserving today or guarding tomorrow, the logical and only decision Washington could make was to preserve today. After all, if today’s interests were not protected, tomorrow would have little chance of being realised.
Consequently, the long-term objective of non-proliferation was often compromised in order to ensure the short-term nature of American strategic interests. The result was the emergence of a host of nations whose strategic significance was deemed important enough to warrant exemption from measures designed to prevent the attainment of nuclear weapons’ capability. Thus emerged nations whose nuclear capability was the result of long compromised nuclear non-proliferation policy.
The ramifications of this policy, however, were minimised by the unique nature of the Cold War. In a bipolar world in which the two superpowers reigned over their spheres of influence, the expression of nuclear capability was dulled by two factors:
(1) the superpower nuclear umbrella negated the need for nuclear weapons; and
(2) superpower disapproval restrained most nuclear ambitious nations from following the nuclear path to its eventual destination: overt nuclear status.
As a result, Washington had yet to suffer the consequences of a policy that deemed strategic concerns more important than non-proliferation. This was to change with the cessation of the Cold War.
In May 1998, 24 years after it detonated its first nuclear device, India tested a nuclear weapon. Pakistan followed suit, and South Asia became nuclear. It was testimony to the long espoused argument that America’s non-proliferation strategy in the region was shortsighted.
No amount of American inducements, collaboration or assistance had deterred either India or Pakistan from developing nuclear capability.
Both detonations underscored the fact that by putting strategic concerns before non-proliferation objectives, the US had practised a short-term and limited policy of securing America’s current interests at the cost of tomorrow’s security.
In short, America had been borrowing from the future to pay for the present. While the Cold War environment minimised the cost of such a policy, changes in the geopolitical environment threatened to reveal the consequences of putting strategic interests before non-proliferation.
Changes in the post-Cold War era had two contradictory effects. On the one hand it strengthened non-proliferation in that most nations viewed nuclear weapons with distaste, hence the indefinite extension of the NPT.
On the other hand, the new geopolitical environment gave impetus to the nuclear ambitious nations that perceived nuclear weapons as the means by which to defend themselves and gained international prestige and influence.
It was this risk to the non-proliferation regime that resulted in calls for a revision of American non-proliferation policies both to facilitate greater trading opportunities in high technology while, at the same time, to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons to rogue nations.
Yet as attempts during the Cold War proved, the extent to which both goals could be achieved is limited, particularly when national interest had to be taken into account. Thus it would seem that non-proliferation can rarely, if at all, be isolated from other, and what many would arguably consider, more pertinent interests.
In this respect the Gilpatric report’s observation of 35 years ago remained valid in early 2003: nuclear non-proliferation should receive more support than it had in the past.
- Dr Shuja lectures at the University of Melbourne