Monday, January 19, 2004

The Slow Collapse

Despite the brave talk about the effectiveness of nonproliferation treaties, sanctions and quiet diplomacy, the saga of the development of the Pakistani nuclear bomb and its associated delivery systems demonstrates their ultimate futility. In 1965 Pakistan began its first tentative steps toward acquiring nuclear technology. It refused to sign the nonproliferation treaty. By 1980, intelligence reports indicated that it was beginning to acquire weapons designs and uranium enrichment technology from China. Despite US export controls, Pakistan acquired key materials and parts from world industry. By the mid-1980s, it had a uranium enrichment program, which the US attempted to halt by restricting aid. By the late 1980s, Pakistan had a stock of weapons-grade material and was testing weapon components. At the beginning of the 1990s, it began to acquire further nuclear-related material from Europe. Shortly afterward, Pakistan began to suggest that it already possessed nuclear warheads and was actively shopping for missiles and other delivery systems. The Clinton administration, apparently despairing of stopping the Pakistani program, attempted to negotiate a "cap" on the number of weapons available to Pakistan and India. It eased aid restrictions in an effort to influence Pakistani behavior with a carrot instead of a stick. To no avail. By 1996, Pakistan doubled its uranium enrichment capacity and began to manufacture weapons grade plutonium. In 1997, Pakistan demonstrated a new intermediate range ballistic missile and fired five nuclear test devices, each twice the power of the Hiroshima bomb.

Somewhere over these thirty years, Pakistan -- or at least individual Pakistanis -- began negotiating "cooperative" agreements with Iran and possibly a number of Islamic Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia. The Washington Post reports that the Father of the Pakistani A-bomb, Abdul Qadeer Khan and at least two of his top aides, both brigadier generals, "may have helped Iran develop its nuclear program". Pakistan now claims they were acting without authorization, a regrettable development which just now it seems, has come to light. One thing they also may have done is offer to sell nuclear secrets or the weapons themselves to countries like Saudi Arabia. The Guardian reports that Saudi Arabia is considering purchasing nuclear weapons -- from whom do you suppose? -- in response to "the absence of any international pressure on Israel, which has an estimated 200 nuclear devices".

It is hard to escape the conclusion that neither pre-emptive warfare, nonproliferation treaties, sanctions, aid programs nor diplomacy can do more than slow down the spread of weapons of mass destruction. By 2025, a period equal to the time elapsed between the first Pakistani nuclear research effort and their tests, WMD technology should be available to every country that can afford a national airline. Long before then, the model of bipolar nuclear deterrence will have collapsed in tatters. The industrial nations, which in the years following World War 2, declined to acquire their own nukes, will no longer be able to rely on an American nuclear umbrella when confronted, not by a single unitary aggressor, but by a host of smaller, resentful regional rivals.

Seen in that light, the Global War on Terror and Operation Iraqi Freedom may not be departures from the norm of international relations, so much as an bid to salvage it. They are the first attempts to find alternatives to the great edifice of treaties which, designed in an era where distance was an effective barrier between nations and effective military force a rare commodity, is no longer sufficient to deal with the challenges that confront it. Whatever the defects of American policy, it at least has been the first to realize that it is no longer possible to return to business as usual.