In Greek legend, Prometheus stole fire and suffered immensely for his hubris. Much like this tragic figure, from the day we successfully developed nuclear weapons, we too stole fire. Thus far, except for Hiroshima and Nagasaki, mankind has avoided a similar fate despite our transgression against the proverbial Gods. Can such fate be tempted indefinitely?
As we watch with alarm the unfolding challenges to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in the current guise of Iran and North Korea, it is becoming increasingly evident that we are entering a new, uncharted time; a dawning of what I would term the "Golden Age of Proliferation." A new paradigm for dealing with this tumult is desperately needed, but, sadly, most experts and activists are choosing to follow a path of futility. The tipping point is already upon us and despite the calls for a non-nuclear world by President Obama, this vision is simply not realistic.
First, one must consider how important nuclear power is likely to be as the world grapples with Global Warming and seeks to ameliorate the amount of carbon belched into the atmosphere. Indeed, while nuclear power may well be only one option, it is an option that will probably see many nations embracing it. This clearly raises the concerns of "breakout" as a nation may, under the guise of a purely civilian nuclear program, step to the threshold of possible weaponization.
Second, one must consider the status that nuclear arms convey on the world stage. While most experts would no doubt argue that the key to non-proliferation is the need to delegitimize the acquisition of nuclear weapons, this is evidently not happening and certainly not happening within a timeframe that would offer any confidence for those who think the road to disarmament is a good path. Again, we return to the two most prominent examples: North Korea and Iran. Additionally, we must at least consider the troubling case of Myanmar. Recent news that this nation might be sniffing around the edge of the nuclear club entrance only reinforces the idea that proliferation is happening at an alarming speed. Of course, we also can't forget the mysterious Syrian plant that Israel recently bombed.
While Syria and Myanmar are probably years away from any dangerous capacity, Pakistan is not. While, most experts point out the military control over the nuclear weapons, how possible is it that some element within its domestic intelligence service is able to smuggle something out and into the hands of neo-Taliban elements or an al-Qaeda affiliated group?
The fact that all of these troubling trends are converging simultaneously surely indicates that a new era is at hand. This is likely one of the reasons why there is such a pronounced reinvigoration of a drive to achieve "Global Zero" both by President Obama and by such eminent practitioners of statecraft as Henry Kissinger, George Schultz, Sam Nunn, and William Perry. However, despite the fact that these are clearly not utopian, pie in the sky dreamers, one wonders whether they may be trying to prevent a flood that they know too well is breaking through the dam.
Nuclear weapons are here to stay. The genie is out and will not go back into the bottle. Knowledge cannot be unlearned and despite the best efforts of stigmatization, the truth is, nuclear weapons are a symbol of power as well as a useful negotiating chip for some nations. To pretend that the "Golden Age of Proliferation" is either not here or that we can stall it by paens to a "nuclear free" world doesn't seem wise.
It appears we need to examine how to deal with, and control, nuclear technology flowing to civilian programs while at the same time examining our deterrence posture. It is time to change from a Cold War, Superpower based model that is rigid, to a flexible model that allows numerous options to be examined before being summarily dismissed.
These are the steps that will allow the world to navigate this newly treacherous path. While far from perfect, they are realistic and, most importantly, necessary here and now and not in a mythical future.
Mr. Lawson is the Director of Communications for a US based political advocacy organization and is a life long observer of political and foreign affairs.
Related material from the Atlantic Community:
- Global Zero: Nuclear Abolition: Now or Never?
- Robert G. Gard: Zero Nuclear Weapons: A Feasible Goal?
- Leon V. Sigal: Slow Steps! Not All at Once
- L. Korb & M. Wilkins: A Slow Countdown Towards Zero