Perspectives on Proliferation

By William Mitchell CMC ’14

Although the days of the Cold War have long since passed, the specter of the mushroom cloud still hovers over our heads. GOP candidates loudly stress the “unacceptability” of a nuclear Iran and headlines trumpet the latest IAEA report or North Korean missile launch. But at least one man remains cautiously optimistic about the prospects of the nuclear future.

Speaking on October 27th before Claremont students and local high school debaters, Dr. Jim Walsh, an international security expert at MIT, offered a refreshing and realistic perspective of the future of nuclear proliferation and proliferators like Iran and North Korea.

According to Walsh, forecasts of nuclear weapons proliferation relied on the concept of “proliferation chains.” In essence, the development of nuclear weapons would lead to a domino-like series of inevitable events, with each new nuclear-capable state causing its concerned neighbors and/or adversaries to pursue weapons programs of their own, a prime example of an unresolved security dilemma. Initially, history supported these theories as the United States’ nuclear development was followed by the nuclearization of the Soviet Union, the PRC, and France in much the same way that Pakistan’s program followed India’s model of nuclear development.

As Walsh observed, however, modern proliferation chains have been less resilient than expected. Instead of rampant proliferation, only a handful of nations have initiated nuclear programs. Since 1990, 75% of all states which have inherited nuclear technology or seriously considered pursuing it, did not ultimately become nuclear states. Today, proliferation is not the inevitability it once seemed to be. So, what explains these successes?

Dr. Walsh argued that two factors have been instrumental in slowing nuclear proliferation. Firstly, international agreements like the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) have increased the costs for prospective proliferators since by refusing to sign the NPT they face increased international scrutiny.

Secondly, the inherent complexities of developing nuclear capabilities (weapons and/or energy) require the efforts of diverse domestic actors. In order to build the Bomb, military officers, scientists and civilian bureaucracies must all cooperate.

Walsh argues that these two elements transform the domestic dialogue of prospective proliferators. Increased international pressure gives diplomats incentives to counter the nuclear ambitions of military leaders. Furthermore, inertia and internal rivalries of bureaucracies hamper the considerable efforts required to develop and deploy nuclear technology.

At the same time, however, the good news must be taken in perspective. As Walsh pointed out, nuclear energy and nuclear weapons programs are not synonymous. While the development of a nuclear plant does not automatically mean that a nation has plans to also pursue nuclear weapons, the two nuclear programs can be complimentary, with the scientific know-how and resources from one aiding future developments in the other.

So is it right to be optimistic? Perhaps. But optimism cannot change the realities of the world. If recent IAEA reports are accurate, Iran may be actively pursuing a nuclear weapon. Regardless of sanctions, deterrence, or declamation, a nation with the willpower and the resources can still build a nuclear weapon.

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