By Stan Crock Why do countries decide to launch military nuclear programs -- or abandon the idea when they have the capability to develop nukes? The answers will be critical as the Europeans try to dissuade Iran from developing nuclear arms, the Six-Party talks try to persuade North Korea to give up the arsenal it's believed to have, and other countries, not wanting to be left behind, mull their own options.
The renewed focus on nuclear weapons in the wake of 9/11 and the Iraq war stems from a remarkable shift in the proliferation pendulum. Until India and Pakistan tested bombs in 1998, the world had seen a significant move toward disarmament. A wide range of countries -- from former Soviet Bloc members such as Ukraine and Kazakhstan, to Argentina, Brazil, Taiwan, and South Africa -- had given up their nuclear programs.
NOT NECESSARILY DISASTROUS. However, if efforts to stop Iran and North Korea from joining the nuclear club fail, will the three dozen or so countries with strong commercial nuclear programs decide they need to jump on the bandwagon and convert their knowhow to military uses? The answer might be no -- even though some experts fear a much higher level of risk if volatile, confrontational countries develop more bombs.
The world would clearly be better off if Tehran and Pyongyang jettisoned their nuclear ambitions and the other potential wannabes decide they don't wannabe. Iran is believed to be close to having a weapons capability. Experts think North Korea has had enough fissile material for two bombs for a decade and could have reprocessed more plutonium since it kicked out weapons inspectors. It may have as many as six bombs now, though such suspicions haven't been confirmed.
Still, if the number of nuclear-club members rises, it won't necessarily lead to disaster. Ted Galen Carpenter, a foreign-policy expert at the libertarian Cato Institute in Washington, argues that the world has seen an unpredictable, weird regime armed with nukes before -- the Chinese government during the Cultural Revolution under Mao Zedong.
STATURE HUNGRY. "Mao said it would be possible to fight and win a nuclear war by outlasting us" because the Chinese population was so much larger, Carpenter recalls. Yet Beijing and the U.S. didn't go to war -- no doubt because the prospect of massive nuclear retaliation served as a deterrent.
Why do countries develop the bomb in the first place? The most obvious reason is for defensive purposes -- to deter a potential enemy from even thinking about attacking. But in a collection of essays entitled The Coming Crisis: Nuclear Proliferation, U.S. Interests, and World Order, some of the authors argue that countries have reasons beyond a possible external threat for pouring resources into weapons programs.
Scott D. Sagan, a political-science professor at Stanford University and co-director of the school's Center for International Security & Cooperation, suggests the desire to enhance France's global stature helps explain Paris' development of a weapon, while internal bureaucratic imperatives and domestic political demands prodded India into moving ahead with a bomb.
FORSWEARING NUKES. Caroline F. Ziemke of the Institute for Defense Analysis emphasizes the importance of a country's "strategic personality," which reflects how a nation perceives and pursues its interests. She cites as an example Iran and its sense of Persian cultural and moral superiority, which prompts Tehran to try acquiring nuclear capability.
Equally important are the reasons countries that could make bombs relatively easily decide not to do so. Libya made that choice so it could become integrated into the international community. Some analysts believe that Seif al-Islam al-Qaddafi, Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi's son, pushed his father in that direction to help improve the economy he eventually might govern.
Egypt abandoned its program because it jeopardized stability in the region, economic growth, and the country's close ties with Washington, according to an essay by former diplomat Robert J. Einhorn included in The Nuclear Tipping Point: Why States Reconsider Their Nuclear Choices.
Taiwan dropped its program under pressure from the U.S. and the International Atomic Energy Agency, according to a paper by Derek J. Mitchell of the Center for Strategic & International Studies in the same volume. And Saudi Arabia forswore its nuclear plans to mollify an outraged Washington after the Reagan Administration discovered the Saudis had bought some intermediate-range missiles from China behind Reagan's back, according to a chapter written by Thomas W. Lippman of the Middle East Institute.
UNDERSTANDING COUNTRIES. What does all this mean for policy in the future? Giving countries assurances that they can feel secure under a U.S. nuclear umbrella -- that Washington will respond if they are attacked -- will take away an important incentive for countries thinking about obtaining their own nukes. That would require America to maintain a stockpile, though the Bush Administration has pledged to slash its warhead count by 50%.
Such assurances may not be enough, however. Countering the desire to enhance stature may require a strengthening of international norms barring nuclear-arms development, Sagan says. Thus, a country that develops a bomb would see its status diminished, rather than enhanced, as it becomes a pariah.
Furthermore, Ziemke recommends avoiding tactics that feed strategic-personality issues. With Iran, she says, the U.S. should stay away from talk of an Islamic threat and argue that nuclear weapons are immoral because they waste limited resources. To play to Tehran's desire for superiority in the Muslim world, the U.S. could try to persuade Iran to take a leadership role in the region in renouncing these weapons.
While it's hard to say which scheme will work, the point is strategies to try to preserve stability exist -- even if Iran joins the nuclear club and North Korea beefs up its presumed nuclear stockpile. What Washington needs to do is understand why countries act as they do. Scholars are trying to lay a foundation for that. It's up to policymakers to put that knowledge to good use. Crock covers national security and foreign affairs for BusinessWeek from Washington. Follow his views in Affairs of State twice a month, only on BusinessWeek Online