Getting WMD Under Wraps

The Bush administration has recently grown serious about trying to end North Korea's nuclear-weapons program and curtailing Iran's nuclear ambitions. We hope it succeeds. But the intractable nature of both adversaries makes it likely that whoever follows Bush will still have to deal with Pyongyang and Tehran. It's therefore important that the next president understand that both of these crises are symptoms of a deeper, underlying problem: the fraying of the global nonproliferation regime.

In recent years the United States has focused most of its attention on military action in Iraq and Afghanistan and on thwarting terrorists around the globe. These are important projects. But the world remains awash with poorly controlled nuclear, chemical and biological weapons and materials. To be sure, there has been important progress with regard to securing weapons and related material in the former Soviet Union: under the 15-year-old Nunn-Lugar program, for instance, 7,000 nuclear warheads have been deactivated and hundreds of ballistic missiles dismantled.

Yet North Korea and Iran show that the nuclear genie won't be easy to put back into the bottle. Doing so will require sustained U.S. leadership. Washington's top priority must be to demonstrate to the world that it's prepared to work anywhere, any time, to defuse the proliferation threat. The United States showed how this can work when it recently helped Albania dispose of a deadly cache of cold-war chemical agents. Conversely, Libya demonstrates the dangers of inconsistency: the Bush administration dawdled over a plan for destroying Tripoli's vast stockpile of chemical agents and their precursors; the deal collapsed and the chemicals remain.

The next president must work actively with Pakistan and India, which are both nuclear armed and share perhaps the most dangerous border in the world. He or she should offer the two countries high-profile support for the difficult and time-consuming job of promoting confidence-building measures between them, to reduce the risk of war and end their arms race. As a friend of India and Pakistan, the United States is uniquely well positioned for the job, and the Nunn-Lugar program offers a ready-made vehicle for promoting exchanges of security experts, assistance on export controls and the protection, control and accounting of nuclear arsenals and bomb-making materials.

The next president should also help establish an international nuclear-fuel bank in order to discourage the proliferation of uranium-enrichment plants (facilities that can be used to make reactor fuel or bombs). A fuel bank would help close the loophole in the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty—which allows civilian enrichment—that Iran is trying to exploit. The United States should convince other countries that they need not build their own enrichment capabilities; they can get fuel instead at reasonable prices from the uranium fuel bank, all under the control of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Finally, important work remains to be done in Russia. The United States and Russia have worked well together under the Nunn-Lugar program. But vast stocks of weapons and materials remain unsecured and undisclosed. For instance, Russia has so far refused even to discuss its tactical nuclear weapons, which are particularly terrorist-friendly because they are portable and usually stored close to potential flash points. Moscow also won't open to inspection four of its former military bioweapons labs, and bureaucratic roadblocks continue to thwart plans to dispose of 34 metric tons of dangerous, long-lived plutonium.

These problems can't be unilaterally solved by the United States. Presidents Bush and Putin should lay the foundations for a solution together. But achieving one will require commitment from their successors. Proliferation has already moved onto the U.S. public's agenda. A president who acts boldly on these initiatives will have the people's support— and will make the world a safer place.