A danger shared by all: Nuclear proliferation is a runaway train

North Korea. India and Pakistan. Israel. And now Iran. There is no doubt the Bush administration is facing a nuclear proliferation crisis. Yet, to quote one of President George W. Bush’s predecessors, Dwight Eisenhower: “If a danger exists in the world, it is a danger shared by all.” A multilateral approach is needed to win the struggle against nuclear proliferation.

North Korea might already have one or two nuclear bombs, and Iran is suspected of developing its own clandestine program. India and Pakistan are border rivals armed with nuclear weapons and Israel is believed to possess its own nuclear stockpile. Nuclear proliferation is a runaway train.

Yet, while the prospect of more nations with nuclear weapons is unnerving, it’s nothing new. In the early 1960s, we feared that China possessed nuclear weapons. In 1964, China tested its first atomic bomb. Other nations were almost certain to follow China’s lead and build their own atomic weapons.

In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson ordered a task force, the Gilpatric Committee, to find a way to stop nuclear proliferation. Proliferation would, in the committee’s words, “aggravate suspicions and hostility among states neighboring nuclear powers.” It emphasized the potential domino effect of China’s atomic bomb, and pointed out that India could be next to go nuclear, with Pakistan following. Sure enough, now South Asia lives in constant danger of nuclear confrontation.

Today, Bush administration officials fear a similar domino effect. South Korea, Japan or Taiwan could be forced to develop nuclear weapons in response to North Korea’s nuclear threat. Saudi Arabia could do the same in response to an Iranian nuclear weapons program. And who knows what other countries might also field nuclear ambitions if their security feels threatened by new nuclear nations?

Chief among the Gilpatric Committee’s recommended multilateral agreements for the United States to deal with nuclear proliferation in the 1960s was a nonproliferation treaty. It came into being in 1968 and sought to halt the spread of nuclear weapons, and eventually lead to nuclear disarmament. It is still considered the key tool in controlling nuclear weapons in today’s world. The committee also recommended a comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty and the establishment of nuclear weapons-free zones.

Today, the Bush administration has taken a multilateral approach to resolving the North Korean nuclear issue, but more is needed. North Korea officially withdrew from the nonproliferation treaty earlier this year, and the agreement’s strength and validity is now in doubt. A comprehensive test ban treaty has not taken effect because 12 nations, including the United States, have not ratified it. Nuclear weapons-free zones do not exist in the Middle East or in South Asia, the two most dangerous nuclear regions.

The Gilpatric Committee also touched on the “seizure or unauthorized use” of nuclear materials – terrorism. Today, this threat adds even more urgency to controlling nuclear proliferation.

The advancing capability of nations to deliver nuclear weapons via missile technology is also worrisome. While a missile-defense program could offer some protection against this threat, it would not be a substitute for taking effective steps to prevent proliferation worldwide.

Like Johnson in 1964, Bush is feeling the heat of a nuclear proliferation crisis. The question is how Bush will respond. He has succeeded in reaching bilateral agreements such as the Moscow Treaty of 2002. But will he be able to help forge an international consensus to stifle nuclear proliferation and push all the nuclear powers down the path toward disarmament, however long that road might be? U.S. security and the entire world depend on an effective worldwide nuclear nonproliferation regime. And if it’s successful, future generations might not have to tackle this old problem.

William Lambers is the author of “Nuclear Weapons” and a writer for History News Service. He welcomes comments at [email protected]