Nuclear Weapons for All? The Risks of a New Scramble for the Bomb

As Obama takes office, he will face challenges from Iran, North Korea to the nonproliferation system.

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The global financial order has been shaken. Could the global system to prevent nuclear proliferation be next?

Amid the pressures of the Cold War, the United States led the construction of an international system meant to encourage the secure use of the atom for energy and other peaceful purposes and discourage the spread of nuclear weapons to more countries. Then, as now, a breakdown of that system would heighten the risk that events of epic lethality—and untold victims—would, at some point, ensue.

As Barack Obama becomes president, worry about just such a breakdown is mounting among nonproliferation specialists and foreign policy strategists across the political spectrum. Warns Joseph Cirincione, author of Bomb Scare: The History and Future of Nuclear Weapons and president of the Ploughshares Fund, "We're on the verge of a system collapse."

That view is not extreme. It has, instead, become alarmingly mainstream. In December, an interim report of the Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States put it this way: "It appears that we are at a 'tipping point' in proliferation. If Iran and North Korea proceed unchecked to build nuclear arsenals, there is a serious possibility of a cascade of proliferation following. And as each new nuclear power is added the probability of a terror group getting a nuclear bomb increases."

The growing fears of nuclear terrorism and the nuclear ambitions of Iran, North Korea, and perhaps other upstarts are likely to drive major changes in U.S. national security policy during the Obama presidency—and some unusually active nuclear diplomacy. "On the nuclear front," says former Defense Secretary William Perry, "President Obama will face a daunting set of problems, none of which can be solved unilaterally."

In aiming for big changes in America's nuclear posture and its approach to nonproliferation, Obama will almost certainly encounter resistance from parts of the national security establishment. One flash-point issue will be whether to replace many of America's nuclear warheads with more modern variants—even as the overall number of such weapons comes down.

But Obama will also find surprising bipartisan support for making a historic policy shift that until recently would have been seen as little more than a liberal pipe dream: coming out in favor of the eventual abolition of all nuclear weapons. This proposal, long dismissed as utopian and impossible, would be pursued painstakingly over decades, and the United States would maintain its nuclear deterrent as long as other countries kept their nukes. But the idea has won critical support from former senior Republican and Democratic statesmen not known as naive peaceniks.

In the Wall Street Journal last year, "the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons" was urged by Republicans George Shultz and Henry Kissinger and Democrats Sam Nunn and Perry. The four argued that proclaiming that vision as policy "is the only way to build the kind of international trust and broad cooperation that will be required to effectively address today's threats."

They and other specialists see the goal as central to protecting the nonproliferation system, as well as to promoting efforts to reduce and better control fissile materials. The vision of eventual nuclear abolition is a key part of the nonproliferation system and its cornerstone—the 1968 Treaty on the Non-proliferation of Nuclear Weapons—and was critical in attracting the support of the nuclear "have-nots."

This new push is gathering support overseas and late last year spawned a "Global Zero" advocacy campaign. The most important backer for the goal is probably Obama himself, who during the campaign vowed, "Here's what I'll say as president: America seeks a world in which there are no nuclear weapons."

In some respects, the interlocking nonproliferation system of treaties, agreements, export controls, and security alliances has fared better than might have been expected. In 1963, President John Kennedy warned that if trends persisted, there could be 25 nuclear-armed nations by the close of the 1970s. Today, there are nine, including the five originals: the United States, Russia (previously the U.S.S.R.), Britain, France, and China. Four other countries now have nuclear weapons but operate outside of the NPT: India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea.