The Delicate Art of Nuclear Jujutsu

In this first post of the new year, new decade, as concerns over the nuclear programs of countries such as Iran and North Korea continue to make headlines, we welcome the following commentary from Shane J. Maddock, author of Nuclear Apartheid: The Quest for American Atomic Supremacy from World War II to the Present (forthcoming March 2010).  In his book, Maddock offers an illuminating look at how an American nuclear policy based on misguided ideological beliefs has unintentionally paved the way for an international “wild west” of nuclear development, dramatically undercutting the goal of nuclear containment and diminishing U.S. influence in the world. In this post he discusses North Korea’s nuclearization, what lessons Iran may take from North Korea’s experience, and what the United States can do if we are serious about eliminating nuclear threats.–ellen

The second decade of the twenty-first century looms as the age of nuclear jujutsu. Second- and third-tier powers are increasingly poised to use small nuclear arsenals or the threat of nuclear weapons development to force larger powers to submit to their demands. Circumstances shifted in favor of smaller powers after the Cold War’s conclusion. Beginning in the 1990s, India, North Korea, Iran, and Pakistan adroitly exploited great powers’ economic and security interests to fend off pressures to abandon their nuclear ambitions. In some instances, these states won substantial concessions from the larger powers.

North Korea offers a fascinating example of this phenomenon. Poor, weak, and isolated with only one major ally (China), Pyongyang, of all the new nuclear powers, could most easily forgo nuclear weapons because its great power protector would likely extend its nuclear umbrella over its communist neighbor. And yet, since 1994, Pyongyang has practiced nuclear posturing in order to manipulate more powerful states to its own ends. North Korea has repeatedly played China, Russia, Japan, South Korea, and the United States off one another to win food and energy aid commitments from the other powers and to secure removal from the U.S. State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism.

Throughout this period, North Korea has alternated between negotiation and confrontation, keeping the other states off balance. At times, North Korea participated in six-power talks and expressed a willingness to end its nuclear program and relax tensions with South Korea and Japan. But it also recurrently changed course, claiming that others had reneged on promises and announcing that it was not bound to previous agreements. Provocative military acts, including Pyongyang’s first nuclear test in 2006 and another in 2009, kept the established nuclear powers on the defensive. Each test prompted U.N. sanctions and another round of multilateral negotiations. The pattern seemed endless, and despite sixteen years of international pressure, Pyongyang maintains its status as a nuclear power.

Iran, India, and Pakistan have likewise exploited changed international dynamics in the wake of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States in order to leverage new power. India and Pakistan had only received mild U.S. sanctions for their nuclear tests and respective ascension to nuclear power status in 1998. But that limited punishment vanished when George W. Bush took office in 2001. Even before the al Qaeda attacks, the Bush administration had decided to stop nagging India about its nuclear arsenal and exploit its growing economic and military clout to provide a regional counterbalance to China.

After September 2001, the burgeoning relationship between New Delhi and Washington assumed greater importance. Now the two powers had a new shared enemy in the form of Islamic radicalism. Yet Pakistan did not suffer when its longtime rival developed better ties with Washington. When the United States went to war against the Afghan Taliban regime that harbored al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, neighboring Pakistan’s importance grew because its northwest frontier provinces bordered the areas where bin Laden hid and because its intelligence agencies had influence with various Afghan factions. Not even revelation of Pakistan’s black market in nuclear materials and technology brought punishment from the United States. As Washington stepped up efforts against resurgent al Qaeda and Taliban forces in Afghanistan in 2009, Pakistan netted more U.S. aid, including direct help in securing its nuclear deterrent against unauthorized use.

U.S.-Iranian relations initially seemed to improve when the Afghan war began. Tehran viewed both the Taliban and al Qaeda as threats and quietly cooperated with Washington during the 2001 Afghan invasion. But cooperation turned to confrontation when President Bush labeled Iran a member of the “axis of evil” in 2002. The invasion of Iraq in 2003 left Iran pinned between U.S. military expeditions on both its eastern and western borders. The American threat escalated when the Bush administration accused Iran of seeking nuclear weapons. The moderate president Mohammed Khatami offered to negotiate, and he allowed International Atomic Energy Agency inspections. But Washington actively undercut a European-brokered agreement for increased inspections and suspension of the Iranian uranium enrichment program.

As the political pendulum swung away from the moderates toward the new hardline president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005, Iran began emulating North Korea, blustering about its nuclear prowess. The unsettled political atmosphere in Iran since Ahmadinejad and his allies rigged his reelection in 2009 has hampered Barack Obama’s efforts to reopen negotiations with Tehran. But even if dissidents succeed in ousting Ahmadinejad, the new government might still conclude that nuclear jujutsu tactics serve Iran’s national interests.

The success of nuclear jujutsu leads to several important conclusions. First, nuclear weapons have ceased to be an asset for the great powers. They are fundamentally unusable against the threats facing the major states in the twenty-first century, and their large nuclear arsenals only legitimate the efforts of smaller powers to acquire nuclear weapons to deter great power attacks.

Second, arguments for expanding nuclear power production merely complicate the international security environment. Nuclear power production is a key first step toward nuclear weapons. Every practitioner of nuclear jujutsu began by claiming it only had peaceful nuclear ambitions, and each nation then exploited its nuclear reactors to produce materials for military purposes. A necessary step to ending the nuclear threat is to eliminate nuclear power production.

Last, President Obama needs to move forward with contemplated changes in U.S. nuclear strategy that include a no-first-use pledge and deep cuts in the U.S. nuclear arsenal. A global effort to diminish the importance of nuclear technology will thwart the effectiveness of nuclear jujutsu now and in the future.

Shane J. Maddock
Stonehill College