The Duck of Minerva

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Nuclear Proliferation: Understanding Motivations and Assigning Blame

May 29, 2005

Dan’s post on the recent collapse of the NPT conference raises some interesting points. The recent negotiations, as well as the continuing stand-off between Iran, North Korea, and the US, leads to some very interesting questions regarding motivations, blame, and policy. I have been blogging about this issue as it pertains to Iran and North Korea over the past week, so some of this post will be based on my discussion there. Additionally, I will limit my discussion to these two states and the notion that US policy is to blame for a shift away from the NPT by non-nuclear powers. (While Iran was a party to the talks I do not believe North Korea was–still, the issue of proliferation and the incentive for non-nuclear states to committ to such a treaty is directly related to the actions of these two states IMO.)

Asssigning blame for the recent collapse of negitations requires an examination of state motivations. Iran and North Korea seek nuclear weapons for the same reasons that any other state would–to provide what is viewed by many as a full-proof device which prevents military threats to one’s territory and regime. Nuclear weapons are viewed as incredibly valuable for states as a failsafe against foreign intervention (with many taking Iraq as an example of what not to do–he who hesitates ends up in a hole–and on the cover of a tabloid in his tidy whities). Iran certainly does not feel overly secure given their perception of the US, Israel and their desire to be a regional power. So there are great incentives for Iran to acquire even a minimal nuclear deterrent (MAD is not necessary to achieve deterrence–for anyone interested see Avery Goldstein’s Deterrence and Security in the 21st Century: China, Britain, France, and the Enduring Legacy of the Nuclear Revolution). Iran’s desire to go nuclear predates recent US/Russian alterations to their declarative nuclear policy. The first target of Iran’s concern was Iraq. As Iraq became hemmed in by US no-flys and economic sanctions the target of their (not yet existent) nuclear deterrent became Israel. Iran’s nuclear ambitions seem to have been motivated more for reasons of regional security than reactions to current US policy (although being essentially surrounded by states–Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iraq–that both cooperate and house US forces has certainly increased their desire to go nuclear).

North Korea has been working towards the development of a workable nuclear device for a few decades now. Their acquisition program did not start after shifts in US/Russion policy, but rather predates both. Additionally, the idea that they have accelarated only in reaction to these shifts is also suspect since they never really suspended their program in 1994 in the deal with the Clinton Adminstration, but rather shifted from the production of plutonium to uranium. This tells me that North Korea’s motivation for acquiring nukes predates any shifts in US policy and has more to do with their rapidly deteriorating position in their region as well as the world after the Cold War.

In essence I do not see any realistic way to prevent nuclear proliferation in either of these countries (delays, yes–but I believe they will both be nuclear powers in the future)–regardless of whether the NPT is reasserted and revamped or if US policy shifts. If the incentives for acquiring nukes predated shifts in US policy as well as the perception of the Bush administration as potentially aggressive and capable of launching a preventive war against either regime than simply returning to the status quo will not work.

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Petti is Associate Director of Insights and Analytics at Alexion . Previously, he served as Lead Data Scientist in the Decision Sciences group at Maritz Motivation and a Global Data Strategist and Subject Matter Expert for Gallup.