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A Danger Shared by All

by William Lambers on May 18, 2003

William Lambers

India and Pakistan. North Korea. Possibly Israel. And now Iran. There is no doubt the Bush administration is facing a nuclear proliferation crisis. Yet, to quote one of Bush’s predecessors, Dwight D. 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 may 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, it was feared that China possessed nuclear weapons. In 1964, that country tested its first atomic bomb. Other nations were almost certain to follow China’s lead and build their own atomic weapon.

In 1964 President Lyndon Johnson ordered a task force, the Gilpatric Committee (named after its chairman, former deputy defense secretary Roswell Gilpatric), to find a way to stop nuclear proliferation. According to the Gilpatric Committee, “Energetic and comprehensive steps must be taken in the near future to discourage further acquisition of nuclear weapons capabilities or an accelerating increase in the number of nations engaged in nuclear weapons program will occur.”

Nuclear proliferation would, in the committee’s words, “aggravate suspicions and hostility among states neighboring nuclear powers . . . ” The Gilpatric Committee’s approach centered on the “(a) negotiation of formal multilateral agreements; (b) the application of influence on individual nations considering nuclear weapons acquisition, by ourselves and in conjunction with others; and (c) example by our own policies and actions.”

The committee emphasized the potential domino effect of China’s atomic bomb, and pointed out that India could be next to go nuclear, with Pakistan soon following. Sure enough, these predictions were realized, and now South Asia lives in constant danger of nuclear confrontation.

Today, Bush administration officials are fearing 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 may also field nuclear ambitions if their security feels threatened by new nuclear nations?

The Gilpatric Committee recommended a number of multilateral agreements the United States should pursue to deal with nuclear proliferation in the 1960s. Chief among these was a non-proliferation treaty, which came into being in 1968. This treaty sought to halt the spread of nuclear weapons and eventually lead to nuclear disarmament, and is still considered the key tool in controlling nuclear weapons in today’s world. In addition, the Gilpatric Committee recommended a comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty as well as the establishment of nuclear weapons-free zones.

Today, the Bush administration has taken a multilateral approach to resolving the North Korean nuclear issue. But it’s clear that more multilateral action is necessary to combat nuclear proliferation worldwide. North Korea officially withdrew from the non-proliferation 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 thirteen nations, including the United States, have failed to ratify it. Nuclear weapons-free zones do not exist in the Middle East or in South Asia, the two most dangerous nuclear regions.

One other area the Gilpatric Committee touched upon in its report was the “seizure or unauthorized use” of nuclear materials — in other words, terrorism. Today, this threat adds even more urgency to controlling nuclear proliferation.

Another area of major concern is the advancing capability of nations to deliver nuclear weapons via missile technology. 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 President Johnson in 1964, President Bush is feeling the heat of a nuclear proliferation crisis. Johnson’s response to the nuclear crisis of the 1960s was to support a nuclear non-proliferation treaty still in force today, even though it is always being challenged by nations such as North Korea.

The question is how President Bush will respond to the nuclear proliferation problem facing his administration today. 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 may be? The security of the United States and the entire world depends on an effective worldwide nuclear non-proliferation regime. And if it’s successful, future generations may not have to tackle this old problem.

William Lambers is an author and historian who partnered with the World Food Programme on the book “Ending World Hunger: School Lunches for Kids Around the World” (2009).