Why Bush Is Making Nuclear Proliferation More Likely

News Abroad

Mr. Wittner teaches history at the State University of New York/Albany. His latest book is Toward Nuclear Abolition: A History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement, 1971 to the Present (Stanford University Press). He is a writer for the History News Service.

Despite George W. Bush's repeated warnings about nuclear proliferation, he and his fellow Republicans deserve much of the blame for their increase. Ever since the advent of the Bush administration, it has charged that other nations are acquiring nuclear weapons. Justifying war with Iraq, the administration hammered away at that nation's alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction. It has also assailed North Korea and Iran for their nuclear programs.  On Feb. 11, in a major policy address, President Bush called for new steps to halt the spread of nuclear weapons. The world must act, he said, to" confront these dangers and to end them."

At the same time, the administration has virtually scrapped the longstanding U.S. policy of nuclear disarmament -- exactly the policy that, over the decades, has provided the key to halting nuclear proliferation.

In 1965, when the U.S. and Soviet governments worried about the prospect of nuclear weapons spreading to dozens of nations, they teamed up to submit nonproliferation treaties to the UN General Assembly. Non-nuclear nations immediately objected to these proposals, arguing that they would merely restrict the nuclear club to its current members (then the United States, the Soviet Union, Britain, France and China). Alva Myrdal, Sweden's disarmament minister, insisted that"disarmament measures should be a matter of mutual renunciation."  Willy Brandt, West Germany's foreign minister, argued that a nonproliferation treaty was justified"only if the nuclear states regard it as a step toward restrictions of their own armaments and toward disarmament."

Unlike the Bush administration, U.S. and Soviet leaders of the time recognized that nuclear nonproliferation and nuclear disarmament were two sides of the same coin. As a result, the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) that emerged from the United Nations was substantially broadened. Non-nuclear states pledged"not to make or acquire nuclear weapons." And nuclear nations agreed to take"effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament." Further, when it signed and ratified this treaty, the U.S. government pledged not to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states that had endorsed the NPT and that were not allied with a nation possessing nuclear weapons.

With this bargain struck between the nuclear haves and have-nots,  nearly all nations signed the NPT. Over the next 30 years, only one additional nation (Israel) developed nuclear weapons. To some degree, the success of this nonproliferation policy reflected citizens' campaigns for nuclear disarmament that stigmatized nuclear weapons and encouraged the signing of nuclear arms control and disarmament treaties. But it also resulted from the mutual renunciation features of the NPT, which paired abstention from building nuclear weapons by most nations with nuclear disarmament and non-threatening behavior by the others.

Unfortunately, the NPT began unraveling in the late 1990s. The Republican-dominated U.S. Senate refused to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, a landmark measure negotiated and signed by President Clinton. Given their control of Congress, the Republicans also managed to advance plans for a national missile defense system, a venture that contravened a key arms control measure, the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty. Meanwhile, India, pointing to the failure of the nuclear powers to divest themselves of their nuclear weapons, became a nuclear nation in 1998. This act provoked Pakistan to do the same.

After the presidential election of 2000, U.S. policy tilted sharply against nuclear disarmament and other pledges made in the NPT. Ignoring the commitments made by his Democratic and Republican predecessors, Bush pulled the United States out of the ABM treaty, ordered the deployment of a missile defense system and rejected the test ban treaty. The administration's Nuclear Posture Review called for sustaining and modernizing nuclear weapons for at least the next half-century. The review also included contingency plans for U.S. nuclear attacks upon non-nuclear nations, among them North Korea. In the fall of 2003, the Bush administration pushed legislation through Congress to authorize the development of new,"usable" nuclear weapons.

Given this repudiation of NPT commitments, it's not surprising that North Korea has pulled out of the NPT and, perhaps, has begun building nuclear weapons. Nor is it surprising that a number of other nations might be working to develop a nuclear weapons capability. If the nuclear powers cling to their nuclear weapons and threaten their use, then other nations will inevitably try to join the nuclear club.

As Joseph Cirincione, director of the Non-Proliferation Project of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, has observed:"We all have to be moving away from nuclear weapons. It can't be just a mandate from the United States that everybody goes in one direction while we go in another." But this is exactly what the Bush administration -- in yet another example of its go-it-alone foreign policy -- is pressing for.

Nuclear proliferation cannot be halted without nuclear disarmament. As the old song goes:"You can't have one without the other!"

This piece was distributed for non-exclusive use by the History News Service, an informal syndicate of professional historians who seek to improve the public's understanding of current events by setting these events in their historical contexts. The article may be republished as long as both the author and the History News Service are clearly credited.

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Josh S Narins - 4/5/2004

North Korea's "cheating" was not an acceleration. It forced their programs to be far more secretive and uneasy.

Iran's "program," as you call it, exists, so far, only in the minds of America's warhawks. The total evidence for it exists in the detection of enriched uranium on equipment that the Russians sold to Iran, and had used for enriched urnanium.

There are no pictures, no evidence, or anything else, that Iran actually has some WMD program.

Mr. Brody thinks trumping up national security issues is good policy. Wasn't JFK, post-mortem, excoriated for trumping up the Missile Gap? Isn't Reagan ridiculed for making a lot of the "Evil Empire" that was actually gray, delapidated, and entirely exhausted?

Josh S Narins - 4/5/2004

On Iran, I believe yes, since I know of no evidence that Iran had such a program before, or now. No program = No acceleration.

On North Korea, I believe their scientists are more eager to work after they hear Bush speak.

In fact, when Bush talks about North Korea, he confirms every suspicion that the JI Kim adminstration attempts to put in the minds of its citizens.

He is a North Korean uniter, in that sense.

Josh S Narins - 4/5/2004

I never said Iran had a nuke program at all, and there is no evidence, on this planet, that you can produce, that would convince any independent expert of this.

I repeat, nothing on Earth.

Steve Brody - 4/4/2004

So,should Bush have averted his eyes to North Korea's obvious cheating on the Agreed Framework?

Steve Brody - 3/31/2004

So, Josh, just answer me this:

Was Hoeveler wrong when he stated: “North Korea and Iran have both accelerated their nuclear development since the "Axis of Evil" speech…?”

Steve Brody - 3/28/2004

Well, Josh, since you believe that there is no evidence either Iran or North Korea have accelerated their respective nuclear programs (something upon which we agree), then you must agree with my central point that neither Wittner or Hoeveler presented any evidence for their central point, which is that Bush’s actions have caused North Korea and Iran to accelerate their nuclear programs.

Thanks, Josh.

Steve Brody - 3/27/2004

Ahh, another article blaming the Bush Administration for things for which it cannot possibly be responsible.

Wittner claims, “Bush and his fellow Republicans deserve much of the blame” for the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Wittner then cites the case of India and Pakistan, claiming, in effect, that it was Bush and the Senate Republicans, who voted down the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, who were to blame for India developing nuclear weapons.

This is silliness. First off, India began its nuclear weapons program in the 60’s. They actually detonated a small nuclear weapon in 1974. The Indians then proceeded to spend the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s developing more powerful weapons. These events obviously had nothing to do with the Bush Administration.

In May 1998, the Indians detonated multiple nuclear devices. Pakistan quickly followed suit by detonating an equal number of nuclear weapons. I can’t imagine how Bush can be blamed for this. Clinton had been in office for 5 years at the time of the Indian and Pakistani nuclear tests. Obviously both countries had been developing these weapons for decades.

Oh, and the Republican rejection of the CTBT; India and Pakistan’s 1998 tests of nuclear weapons could not possibly have had anything to do with the rejection of the CTBT. The Senate didn’t reject the CTBT until October, 1999—a year and a half later.

Then Wittner brings in The December, 2001 pull out of the ABM treaty. What he doesn’t do is present any evidence that this caused any nation to start a new or accelerate an existing nuclear program. Frankly, since every country that has a nuclear weapons program, started or nurtured it while the ABM treaty was in place, I would argue that the ABM treaty was irrelevant to the issue of nuclear weapons proliferation.

Wittner then implies that Bush was somehow to blame for North Korea pulling out of the NPT. This is sophistry. North Korea agreed to remain a party to and abide by the NPT when it signed the Agreed Framework. It then developed a secret uranium enrichment program that clearly violated the NPT. This occurred under the Clinton Administration.

If North Korea begins flagrantly violating the NPT under the Clinton Administration, what difference does it make if it later “pulls out” of the agreement? The fact is that North Korea constructively “pulled out” of the NPT during the Clinton Administration when they began surreptitiously enriching uranium. it only officially "pulled out of the NPT after Bush called them on their cheating.

Wittner also suggests that “other nations might” be working on nuclear weapons as a result of Bush’s actions. What nation is now working on a nuclear weapons program that was not working on one before Bush took office? And if Wittner can provided the name of even one such country (I don’t believe he can), then what evidence can he provide that it started its program as a result of anything Bush did?

On the other hand, Libya has now renounced its nuclear weapons program, undoubtedly as a result of Bush policies. It also appears that India and Pakistan have begun talks to reduce tensions.

Wittner also seems a little muddled on the facts. In one paragraph he blames Bush for North Korea pulling out of the NPT and possibly building nuclear weapons. In another, he accuses Bush of developing contingency plans for using nuclear weapons on non-nuclear countries—like North Korea. The fact is that the Bush Administration’s Nuclear Posture review identifies “rogue states” that are known to be developing nuclear or chem./bio weapons. This obviously includes North Korea.

Furthermore, inclusion of North Korea in a list of “rogue states” which the US should have contingency plans to defend against, including nuclear strike options, is hardly novel. Clinton’s 1994 Nuclear Posture Review included the same provisions.

The reality of nuclear proliferation is that most of the nuclear or nuclear wannabe states possess nuclear weapons not because the US continues to possess them, but as a counter to nearby neighbors who threaten them.

Did India develop nuclear weapons because the US continues to possess them or because China and Pakistan developed them?

Did Pakistan develop nuclear weapons because the US continues to possess them or because India developed them?

Did Israel develop them because the US continues to possess them or because they are surrounded by hostile neighbors?

Did Iraq and Iran attempt to develop nuclear weapons because the US has them or because Israel has them?

I submit that in these cases, nuclear weapons were or are being developed because threatening neighbors, not the US, possess them.

Steve Brody - 3/26/2004

It's the easiest thing in the world to claim that one thing or another is a "sad fact". The "sad truth" is that you've made alot of bare assertions of your personal opinions without any evidence and in the face of facts that contradict your claims.

Lawrence S. Wittner - 3/26/2004

The sad fact is that both the Bush administration's double standard about nuclear weapons (i.e. we can have them and you can't) and its belligerent approach to world affairs are leading to the destruction of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. In this framework, non-nuclear nations are increasingly tempted to go nuclear, while nuclear nations are increasingly tempted to follow the U.S. government's lead by building new nuclear weapons. Only a return to the path that has worked reasonably well in the past -- internationally agreed-upon and enforced nuclear arms control and disarmament -- seems likely to save us from a new nuclear arms race and nuclear war. For an understanding of past successes along these lines, I suggest that people take a look at my book, TOWARD NUCLEAR ABOLITION (Stanford University Press).

Steve Brody - 3/26/2004

Actually, North Korea began cheating on the Agreed Framework almost immediately after signing it. The North Koreans accelerated their nuclear program not after the “axis of evil” speech, but after the Bush Administration called them on their cheating 10 months later. Would you argue that Bush should have averted his eyes to the cheating?

As for Iran, It’s nuclear program long predates the Bush Administration. Can you document that Iran “accelerated” it’s program after the “axis of evil” speech? I would argue that Iran’s recent agreement to "snap inspections” by the IAEI was a result of Operation Iraqi Freedom” and signals a softening of the Iranian position on nuclear weapons.

You also conveniently left out Libya’s recent renunciation of its nuclear weapons program. This was in all likelihood helped along by operations in Iraq.

Can you provide any support for your bare assertion that “its ultimate effect will be the opposite - that rogue nations will try to go nuclear at an accelerated pace.”?

John D. Hoeveler - 3/25/2004

The Bush Administration's actions concerning nuclear proliferation demonstrate a move away from Cold War policies. While these policies were effective, the current policies are parallel with the unilateral shape of international politics today. The ultimate effect of unilateralism is not merely a move away from multi-lateral treaties, but rather unilateral war. The Iraq War objective may have been to prevent WMD proliferation (although we all know what a load of sheep dip that has turned out to be), but its ultimate effect will be the opposite - that rogue nations will try to go nuclear at an accelerated pace. Dr. Wittner should have pointed this out because this is what will ultimately lead to nuclear proliferation. North Korea and Iran have both accelerated their nuclear developement since the "Axis of Evil" speach, and other states will follow. Thankfully the WMD accuasations turned out to be false, and can no longer be used as an excuse to attack whoever the Bush Administration wants. But there will be other consequences - that states will feel that the international community cannot protect them against US aggression. The only means of protection is to go nuclear.

Oscar Chamberlain - 3/24/2004

Practically speaking, our anti-missile technology is not ready for deployment. There has been no demonstration yet that we can hit anything unless we have precise knowledge of the missile's course and some advanced warning of the time of launch.

Concerning the rogue state argument for SDI, I actually think that missile defense may be less useful at taking out an isolated, unexpected attack than it would be in reducing the damage from multiple launches. I can imagine developing technology that can hit five of ten. It's harder to imagine being able to hit one, given the amount of territory we would be defending.

However, a country that can launch ten is not likely to want to endure our counter-attack. Deterrence is likely to work better.

For those reasons, I think deployment of the current system is a waste of money.

The argument that an anti-missile defense can never be a good idea is more problematic. Technological changes may make such a defense far more practical, particularly if it can take down warheads in lower trajectory courses. Would it make presidents feel freer to use nukes? Possibly, and that is a concern not to be brushed aside. But it would be hard to argue against a development that limited the nuclear options of an enemy.

John E. Moser - 3/24/2004

The problem with the Maginot Line wasn't that it was built, but that it was too short. In other words, there wasn't enough Maginot. To claim that fortifications are "useless" begs the question of why they have been built and used so often throughout history. If your point is to say that fortifications are useless in the absense of some sort of offensive power, however, then I would tend to agree. But the point of the original article is to fault the administration for developing both the country's defensive and offensive power.

As for the development of new weapons systems tending to cause other countries to find some way around them, isn't this merely stating the obvious? The use of plate armor on mounted knights led to the development of the longbow, which could penetrate that armor. Does that mean that armor never should have been used in the first place?

Finally, regarding this non sequitir: "Bush is a coward who wouldn't dare attack someone capable of fighting back." Are you then supporting an attack on China? That would certainly prove our masculinity, wouldn't it? The deaths of several million from Chinese missiles must be viewed as trivial on balance....

Richard K. Hertz - 3/23/2004


George Patton said that fortifications were monuments to the stupidity of man. SDI would work about as well as the Maginot Line, Hadrian's Wall, the Great Wall or German fortifications in and around Berlin in 1945: Useless.

When confronted with a barrier, the first thing that will pop into the mind of any would be attacker is to come up with ways to get around it. The way to beat "missile defense" is the same way to beat a minefield: Send so many attackers through at one time that even if most are wiped out, many will still get through. The use of decoys and drones would increase the chances of live missiles getting through. It would only take ONE atomic bomb getting through to kill millions of people.

If I were some sort of foreign despot, Bush's foreign policy would cause me to see to it that I made, bought, borrowed or stole a terror weapon and the means to deliver it against Uncle Sam.

Like all blustering bullies, Bush is a coward who wouldn't dare attack someone capable of fighting back. Nothing deters a bully like the fear of getting a fat lip of his own.

John E. Moser - 3/23/2004

Might not the development of a missile defense system be seen as a step away from nuclear weapons? After all, would it not be a disincentive for regimes to develop nuclear missiles if they knew that such weapons were likely to be shot down before they struck their targets? Certainly this seems a more likely scenario than the notion that everyone will adhere to the UN's Non-Proliferation Treaty, which has proven no more binding than the Declaration on Human Rights, or the many resolutions against Iraq.