Hirsh: Debunking Nuclear Myths

These are not happy times on the nuclear proliferation front. Iran this week defied yet another 60-day U.N. deadline ordering it to stop enriching uranium, the International Atomic Energy Agency reported Wednesday. That could put Tehran within sight of a bomb in the next couple of years. Turkey, which fears being left out of the European Union, has recommitted itself to developing nuclear power. Several Arab countries, anxious over being left behind in the arms escalation between a nuclearized Iran and Israel, are beginning to do more than merely talk about developing nukes on their own. According to Western intelligence and the IAEA, nations such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt are developing infrastructure, and hiring scientists, possibly from Pakistan.

Pakistan itself, meanwhile, is engulfed in civil unrest aimed at toppling Western-friendly autocrat Pervez Musharraf, which may be an even more frightening prospect than what is happening in Iran. Since Musharraf summarily ousted his nation's chief justice in mid-May, prompting violent street demonstrations, rumors of a possible coup have begun to circulate in Islamabad. That prospect poses a fearful question: what would happen to Pakistan's nuclear arsenal of "Islamic bombs" if the country were to fall apart? On April 30, the Pakistan Nuclear Regulatory Authority placed an unsettling ad in Urdu-language newspapers, asking the public for help in locating radioactive materials that may have been "lost or stolen."

Now along comes Vanity Fair's William Langewiesche, one of the nation's most noted magazine journalists, with a frightening new book that seems to ride this wave of nuclear news. Langewiesche argues that underdeveloped countries will increasingly manage to build their own nuclear arsenals. "The nuclearization of the world has become the human condition, and it cannot be changed,'' he concludes in "The Atomic Bazaar: The Rise of the Nuclear Poor." The book was promoted on the cover of last Sunday's New York Times Book Review in a piece by author Jonathan Raban, who praised Langewiesche's "formidable talent" and concluded: "On our comprehensively terrorized globe, almost everybody, from covert, stateless bands of jihadists to accredited members of the United Nations, believes himself in need of either ready-made atomic bombs or the technology and expertise with which to manufacture them."

Scary stuff, huh? The problem is, it's mostly untrue. The known facts simply don't bear Langewiesche—or Raban—out. (Raban, it should be noted, is primarily a travel writer with apparently little expertise in nuclear proliferation.) Nor is the nuclear landscape of the future as bleak as it now seems to be. The developments in Iran, Pakistan and elsewhere are all very worrisome, to be sure, and the world's nuclear regulators and counterterrorism forces need to remain constantly vigilant to prevent terrorists from purchasing nuclear materials and equipment. But make no mistake: for the moment the center is holding.

Here's a reality check. Twenty years ago, as the cold war was coming to a close, there were nine nuclear states. Today there are still just nine nuclear states. (And they are pretty much the same ones: the major nuclear powers of the United States, Russia, China, France and Britain, along with India and Pakistan and Israel. The only change is that instead of South Africa, which gave up its program in the '90s under U.S. pressure, North Korea today fills the ninth spot). It is the lack of proliferation in the world today that is most startling—and newsworthy—rather than the nightmare scenario of many backward nations almost inevitably acquiring the bomb that Langewiesche is sketching. When the Soviet bloc collapsed in 1991, with its nuclear arsenals littered through republics like Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan, fears ran rampant that loose nukes would surface everywhere. Then Libya's Muammar Kaddafi began a secret program, feeding off the global black market in nuclear know-how begun by Pakistan's rogue scientist, AQ Khan. Robert Gallucci, dean of the Georgetown School of Foreign Service, notes that when he was a top arms-control negotiator in the Clinton administration during the early '90s, U.S. officials routinely spoke of fears that 50 to 60 countries might go nuclear.

Why hasn't that happened? First, there was a responsible, largely successful joint U.S.-Russian effort to roll up and contain the old Soviet program. At the same time, a powerful international consensus, built through arms-control agreements—the crown jewel of which is the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty—emerged. This made it very difficult technically, expensive and damaging to one's national reputation to build a nuclear weapon, much less a whole arsenal. The poorer the country, the harder it became to risk being cut off economically. The AQ Khan network, meanwhile, was interdicted after a "repentant" Kaddafi turned eager stool pigeon. It's not completely out of business, but it's being closely watched.

The upshot? Today, only two nations on earth are still actively defying this consensus: Iran and North Korea. That's frightening, yes, but in retribution both nations are being systematically barred from the international financial system and turned into economic pariahs. The 46-year-old Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, or NPT, still has 187 signatories. In other words almost all of the countries on earth adhere to it. (Israel, Pakistan and India refused to sign.) Langewiesche blithely ignores these stubborn facts. "His conclusions are just wildly wrong," says Matthew Bunn, a nuclear expert at Harvard. "Not only are there no more states today than were 20 years ago with nuclear weapons, but there are many more that started nuclear weapons programs that decided to give them up. The vast majority have concluded that nuclear weapons are not in their interest. They have observed that when states try to get weapons they get portrayed as rogue states. And nuclear weapons won't solve the problems they really have." Among the nations that have given up active programs: South Africa, Taiwan, South Korea, Brazil, Argentina, Germany, Sweden, Italy, Yugoslavia, Switzerland and Australia.

To be sure, there are signs that this consensus is beginning to unravel. In many capitals after the cold war, America was seen as the global stabilizer—and, crucially, a more or less benign one. In the calculations of many world leaders, that made a strategic nuclear arsenal less important. George W. Bush has badly damaged, if not destroyed, that reassuring image of America. The news this week that Bush has authorized the CIA to destabilize or harass the regime likely has only redoubled Iran's determination to build a weapons-capable nuclear program.

But the president has nonetheless held the line against proliferation on other fronts, forcing Kaddafi to dismantle his program and continuing to fund efforts to unwind Russia's obsolete materials depot. Even the moves by the Arab states toward a nuclear capability are tentative at best, most experts believe; it's more talk than action, and probably very deterrable with the right array of carrots and sticks. After North Korea tested its small device last October—the rather pathetic culmination of a totalitarian 50-year program—the Bush administration quickly sought to reassure the Asian nations that the U.S. defense umbrella was still something they could depend on. The danger of Langewiesche's book is that it is so fatalistic about the spread of nukes that it could make regulators freeze up with fear and a feeling of helplessness—at precisely the moment when we need to be working harder to shore up efforts to keep close watch on Iran and North Korea.

Langewiesche's book is not without merit. One of his better suggestions is that Washington and other governments launch an all-out effort to co-opt semifeudal chieftains at ungoverned border areas, turning them into allies in cracking down on the illicit transport of nuclear material and equipment. And oddly, Langewiesche is a good enough reporter—he has won multiple National Magazine Awards—to see that the evidence for many of his own conclusions really isn't there. Most of the facts he adduces in his book tend to undercut, rather than shore up, his thesis of out-of-control proliferation. For example, he notes that nuclear material was only loosely guarded after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. "The question now, some fifteen years later, is why terrorists or criminals apparently did not take advantage then," he says. What he doesn't conclude is the obvious: because it's still, thankfully, very, very hard to get a bomb.