Non-Proliferation versus National Security

U.S. Nuclear Policy: Non-Proliferation vs. National Security

Nuclear Proliferation Policy

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The advent of the Cold War meant a new threat to the existence of humans. As two superpowers sat poised to unleash the unthinkable, humanity knew that things would never be the same. Living under the threat of nuclear war became a way of life. The number of nuclear weapons grew; under the philosophy that who ever had the most posed the greatest threat, which would act as a deterrent against use by the other side. It became a game of, “he who has the most wins.” However, it soon became apparent that unchecked proliferation of nuclear weapons was a no win situation and the world began to take measures to ensure the safety of all humanity.

The Treaty on Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons limits the spread of nuclear weaponry. Signed in 1968 by 189 countries, this treaty places limits on the amounts and types of nuclear weapons that a country can own (Levy 2007). At the time of the signing of the treaty, only five countries had nuclear capabilities: the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia, and the People’s Republic of China (Levy 2007). However, valid concerns arose over four countries that have nuclear weapons, but that are not signers of the treaty. Today, India, Israel, Pakistan, and North Korea all have nuclear capabilities. North Korea is of great concern in the non-proliferation philosophy as they have agreed to the treaty, broke it, and then withdrew (Preez and Potter 2003).

North Korea’s withdrawal from the treaty poses a tricky political problem for the United States. It is difficult to advocate non-proliferation when a known threat refuses to play by the same rules. Yet, to break the treaty could mean losing the trust of the other four major signers of the treaty. Under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, the members not only agree to limit their own destructive nuclear capabilities, they also agree not to aid non-treaty countries in acquiring the technology (UN 2005). However, they cannot stop a non-treaty country, such as Pakistan, from aiding in the development of this technology for another country.

Opacity is the key to success with the Non-Proliferation Treaty. However, many countries, such as India, refuse to allow NPT countries access to inspect their nuclear facilities. Another key point of contention is when, or if, countries in possession of nuclear weapons should be allowed to use their weapons. For instance, the five key parties agree not to use their nuclear weapons against a non-treaty party in response to an attack. However, despite this agreement, France has explicitly implied that it may use nuclear weapons in response to a non-conventional attack by “rogue states” (Litchfield 2003). French leaders offered assurance that any such attack would be strategic in nature, aimed at the state’s power structure and ability to function, rather than the citizenry

The goal of the Non-proliferation Treaty is the complete disarmament of nuclear weapons so that they no longer pose a threat to the safety of humanity. However, as long as there are non-treaty states that continue to build their nuclear arsenal, such complete disarmament is unlikely. States are not willing to risk the lives of their citizens and leave them with no retaliatory options for their defense. This creates a politically tricky catch twenty-two, particularly for the five primary countries that are part of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. They cannot achieve complete disarmament until they feel safe to do so. Yet, the world is still in danger as long as any country has possession or the capability to possess nuclear weapons, or other weapons of mass destruction, for that matter.

Can Total Disarmament Be a Reality?

The ultimate goal of the Non-Proliferation Treaty is to end the threat to humanity by eliminating the possibility of nuclear war. However, these weapons were developed under the distrust of war. The disappearance of them will take restoration of complete trust by all parties. For the major nuclear superpowers, this is not an unrealistic goal, as they have all considered the possibilities, should they become victim of an attack. However, the key difficulty lies with countries that are non-treaty, or even hostile nations. Nuclear attack from these players would be just as devastating as if the attack came from one of the major nuclear powers. This factor thwarts the possibility of disarmament, even if the major superpowers are able to achieve the level of trust needed for disarmament. Good faith negotiations are essential if countries are to eliminate the threat of nuclear warfare.

No one argues against the use of nuclear capabilities used for beneficial purpose; it is the potential for weapons development that is of concern in this debate. As we have seen recently, this too requires complete trust from all parties. It is easy to hide weapons development under the ruse of nuclear energy development. Maintaining transparency and cooperation through peer inspection is the key to ensuring that all players are playing fairly. However, the use of nuclear power requires that countries possess many of the components and processes necessary in the proliferation of weapons. (Levy 2007). Therefore, countries that are rapidly developing their nuclear infrastructure may find themselves under suspicion of making weapons. However, possession of the capabilities to produce a nuclear weapon do not necessarily make a party guilty (Levy 2007).

Shifting the Balance of Power

When the term “superpower” is mentioned one typically thinks of countries such as the United States, the UK, the former Soviet Union, or China. It is generally accepted that in most situations, such as negotiations, that all parties do not come to the table as equals. The power is unequally weighted and certain parties will have a natural advantage of others. However, the introduction of a nuclear weapon into the mix can drastically shift the balance of power. Unchecked nuclear proliferation significantly raises the danger of dictators and otherwise minor players using weapons of mass destruction. The power to destroy is not isolated to weapons development. With the power to destroy comes the ability to control other situations as well. The threat of nuclear destruction may make others less bold, or willing to risk angering the other party. The possession of nuclear weapons is the great equalizer in the advent of globalization. Parties are willing to acknowledge threats from countries that they would not have considered in the past. It could be said that the existence of nuclear weapons made everyone come to the table as equals.

One of the key fears is that the possession of nuclear weapons could mean the ability to use them for dominion or conquest rather than self-defense. This is one of the key concerns regarding countries that have nuclear capabilities, but that refuse to sign the treaty. Those that have nuclear capabilities have considerably more force than those that do not have a nuclear program. In order to help prevent nuclear weapons from being used for conquest, the major superpowers cannot give up their nuclear weapons entirely, for fear that at rogue nation or dictator will be able to use them to bully another. The superpowers cannot lay down their weapons entirely, as long as there is a nuclear threat anywhere in the world, but they can take measures to reduce the overall threat.

India, Israel, and Pakistan have declined to sign a treaty promising to curtail nuclear weapons production. India and Pakistan are confirmed to have nuclear weapons to be used in case of war. However, Israel has taken a stance of ambiguity regarding its nuclear arsenal (Lavie 2006). One of the key articles in the non-proliferation treaty is that no new weapons will be built. This provision restricts possession of nuclear arms to those that had them prior to 1968.

One of the most disturbing aspects of the competition between India and Pakistan is that they have detonated nuclear warheads in response to nuclear tests by the other side (Curtis 2007). This makes it appear as if the two adversaries are flexing their muscles and trying to psych the other one out. This real danger is if the competitive flexing of muscles escalates into a full-scale attack. Both sides inflate the number of actual and potential nuclear warheads in their possession in an attempt to make certain that the other side knows what they face. This is a similar situation to what existed during the Cold War between the former Soviet Union and the United States.

India is one of the only countries to have a “no first use” policy in which they will not launch a nuclear attack unless they are attacked first with a nuclear type device (Curtis 2007). The border dispute between China and India is cited as a key reason for refusing to sign the non-proliferation treaty (Curtis 2007). One of the most controversial moves by the United States was to provide India with civilian nuclear technology (Milbank and Linzer 2005). This was called a direct violation of the non-proliferation treaty, as it appeared that the U.S. had provided the technology needed to promote the development of nuclear weapons. However, the U.S. argued that it had provided civilian instead of military technology, therefore had not violated the treaty.

The Politics of Proliferation

The politics of non-proliferation are complex. In the case of the U.S., the agreement and terms must satisfy every party involved. On one hand, the U.S. is under an obligation built on trust, that it will reduce the number of nuclear weapons in its arsenal. However, it must still maintain an arsenal that is capable of acting as a deterrent against first attach by non-treaty countries with nuclear weapons. These two goals compete with one another. The U.S. is not the only nuclear weapon owner with this conflict. Every member of the non-proliferation treaty faces this same dilemma.

Nuclear arms negotiations have taken place amidst an atmosphere of deception and mistrust. Full disclosure is often entangled with the need to protect a country’s most valuable secret. Self-interest and the interests of the global community are in conflict. Accusations of treaty violations and technicalities regarding the wording of treaties and agreements abound. This atmosphere is not likely to lead to the most rational resolution to the nuclear proliferation dilemma.

Further complicating the political atmosphere regarding nuclear proliferation is the recognition that nuclear power is an asset to countries hoping to develop their infrastructure to make them competitors on the global market. It is not the goal of the Non-Proliferation Treaty to end the capabilities of using nuclear energy for positive gain. However, it is also feared that a dictator may use legitimate energy development as an excuse to continue to proliferate their weapons arsenal. This is what happened when the U.S. accused Iran of diverting enriched uranium from their energy development program to their weapons program (Linzer 2005).

The U.S. is the only country in the world to have used its nuclear weapon as an act of war against another country. The U.S. dropped two nuclear weapons on Nagasaki and Hiroshima in an attempt to end the Japanese advance in World War II. Only then could we learn the truly devastating affects that the atomic bomb could unleash. After this act, the damage and destruction no longer existed only as theory and conjecture. The world knew the destructive force of nuclear weapons. This harsh reality helped to promulgate fears of nuclear attack during the Cold War era. Several times in the past, the U.S. And Russia came dangerously close to a nuclear conflict. The world feared the fallout and devastation that would result if the one of the two superpowers decided to unleash its ferocity towards the other. Everyone wanted to avoid conflict, but the U.S. already had a reputation for using its weapons, making it a dangerous partner in negotiations.

For many years, the U.S. drew criticism for using its nuclear arsenal against other human beings. The topic of whether it was a strategically necessary move, or whether there was another way has plagued nuclear political argument and continues to be a topic of debate today. The key point of contention is when or if the use of nuclear weapons can ever be justified by the end. Despite its reputation as a leader in the development of nuclear weapons, in recent years the U.S. has become the first to accuse others of nuclear treaties violations.

The U.S. has been accused of police action in regards to the development of nuclear programs by others. Once one of the biggest developers of nuclear weapons, the U.S. is now one of the biggest supporters of non-proliferation policies. The U.S. was instrumental in intercepting the illegal transport of Pakistani centrifuge parts from Malaysia on route to Libya. It was later found that Libya was in direct violation of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Libya was forced to dismantle all existing weapons and submit to unconditional inspections of its facilities (Kerr 2004). Critics accuse the U.S. Of one-sided policies regarding nuclear proliferation, only policing those that it perceives to be a threat to its own borders.

Article X and General War Withdrawal

Article X of the Non-Proliferation Treaty allows a state to withdraw from the treaty with only ninety days notice and an explanation stating the reasons for their withdrawal (UN 2005). NATO allows a state of withdraw if a state of general war exists within the country. The wording of the treaty calls upon the country to make every reasonable effort to avoid such war. If the interests of a country are jeopardized, then a state can leave the treaty. Although it is not explicitly stated, withdrawal from the treaty implies that the country will build its nuclear arsenal with the understanding that they may use them in defense of the interests of its country.

Article X is one of the most controversial articles in the treaty. It essentially negates the entire purpose of the treaty. If the purpose of the treaty is to prevent to potential use of nuclear weapons against humanity, the ability to withdraw from the treaty is contradictory, at best. The logic of this article is questionable from any standpoint. Let us examine this logic further and apply it to the situation in the United States.

Article X provides for the ability for a country to withdraw from the treaty under extreme circumstances, particularly in situations where the country perceives itself to be in danger from another entity. The flaw in this logic is that a country is not likely to resort to use of its nuclear arsenal unless it feels that there is no other way to prevent harm to their own citizens. Article X weakens the entire document by providing a way out that allows the ultimate goal of the treaty to be avoided. Perhaps it still has some affect in making the withdrawing party think about the decision before complete withdrawal is allowed. This failsafe supposedly will allow the parties time to work things out without the use of nuclear weapons.

What is next for U.S. non-proliferation policy?

The conflict surrounding Article X summarizes the problems associated with U.S. policies on nuclear weapons. The U.S. has an obligation to protect the lives and interests of its citizens, even if it means the use of nuclear weapons. It has the responsibility to use this power wisely and to seek alternative solutions to conflicts, other than the use of its nuclear arsenal. There are many humanitarian issues involved in the use of nuclear weapons. Even when the targets are purely military, there will be destruction of civilian lives and property. This is unavoidable with the use of nuclear weapons. The use of nuclear weapons places the lives of innocent citizens at risk, much more so than any other type of modern weapon. This is largely because the damage produced is so widespread. The danger to non-combatants is considered inhumane by modern standards.

The purpose of a nuclear weapons program is to deter an attack on the U.S. And its citizens (Woolf 2008, 5). However, if the threat were not real, and represented rhetoric only, then the logic behind U.S. nuclear policies would make sense. However, this is like owning any other type of weapon, there is always the chance that one will have to use it if they own it. The only difference between a nuclear weapon and a missile is the area and amount of destruction that it causes. A nuclear weapon causes damage to other countries and their citizens by way of climate changes and fallout from use of the device. A nuclear weapon does not only harm those for which it is intended. We now know that fallout has global consequences, making it an illogical weapon of choice. However, it is also the biggest gun in the arsenal of threats that a country can possess.

It is agreed that a reduction in nuclear arms on a global basis is a goal that is commonly shared among many nations. With advances in conventional weapons, one must ask if nuclear weapons are necessary as a deterrent at all. Suggestions have been made that proper future U.S. policy should not include the development and use of nuclear weapons, but that the U.S. should pursue development of conventional weapons that are better at striking a precise target and avoiding massive civilian casualties (Robinson 2008).

In light of new players in the nuclear landscape and the chance of “rogue” states obtaining nuclear capabilities, it is unlikely that the will destroy its entire nuclear arsenal. However, the adoption of “no first use” policies would help to build trust among nations already in nuclear arms club. The disuse of rapid-launch options and a change in the procedures before launch would also be an excellent addition to U.S. policy. This assures that the decision to use nuclear weapons will be given due consideration and will reduce the chance of misunderstandings. The U.S. also needs to adopt an open-door policy concerning the numbers and types of nuclear capabilities that it possesses. This would give other countries confidence that even though the U.S. still poses a nuclear threat, they are not likely to launch an attack without clear provocation. It also invokes a degree of trust among players in the nuclear game.

The U.S. needs to provide the same transparency that it demands from others with nuclear capabilities. Cold War rhetoric and tactics are no longer valid stances in terms of nuclear proliferation. These additions to U.S. nuclear policy reflect recognition that the atmosphere has changed in relation to nuclear arms and their use. New players in the game have caused a need to shift from a generalized nuclear policy to one that takes into account every individual circumstance. The U.S. needs to adopt a new philosophy that reflects cultural sensitivity and that reflects the situation that exists between the U.S. And each individual entity in the nuclear playing field.


Curtis, L. 2007. “U.S. Policy and Pakistan’s Nuclear Weapons: Containing Threats and Encouraging Regional Security.” The Heritage Foundation. July 6, 2007. (Accessed August 21, 2008)

Kerr, P. 2004. “Libya Vows to Dismantle WMD Program. Arms Control Today.” January/February 2004. (Accessed August 21, 2008)

Lavie, M. “Israel Stands by Vague Nuclear Policy.” December 7, 2006. Washington Post.

Levy, D. 2007. “U.S. nuclear policy goes from MAD to NUTS, Panofsky says.” Stanford Report. April 18, 2007. (Accessed August 21, 2008)

John Lichfield in Paris ”

France may allow ‘first strikes’ on rogue states in policy shift.” Independent, the (London). Oct 28, 2003. 23 Aug. 2008. (Accessed August 21, 2008)

Linzer, D. 2005. “U.S. Urges Punishment for Iran Nuclear Work.” May 3, 2005. Washington Post.

Milbank, D. And Linzer, D. 2005. “U.S.., India May Share Nuclear Technology.” July 19, 2005. Washington Post.

Preez, J. And Potter, W. 2003. “North Korea’s Withdrawal from the NPT: A Reality

James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. April 10, 2003. (Accessed August 21, 2008)

United Nations. (UN). 2005. “The Treaty on the non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). Article X.” 2005. Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty. May 2-27, 2005, New York. (Accessed August 21, 2008)

Robinson, C. 2008. “A White Paper: Pursuing a New Nuclear Weapons Policy for the 21st Century.” Sandia National Laboratories.

Woolf, a. 2008. “Nuclear Weapons in the U.S. National Security Policy: Past, Present, and Prospects.” CRS Report for Congress. Order Code RL34226. (Accessed August 21, 2008)

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