Sunday, October 7, 2012

Notes on "Nuclear Terrorism" by Graham Allison

In 2004, the renowned Graham Allison released his book "Nuclear Terrorism."  Allison offers a simple thesis: a nuclear attack on America is inevitable unless the US government provides a strong, coordinated, serious, all-out attempt to lock-down vulnerable nuclear material around the world and track down all the lose nukes.  Allison rightly brings our attention to an important issue.  He is right that we cannot take on this issue sitting down, but there are two areas where we disagree.

First, the situation is not as grave as he makes it out to be.  There are two types of nuclear threats.  There are dirty bombs where nuclear material (i.e. plutonium, uranium, cesium) is blown up by conventional explosives like TNT, c-4, petn.  There are also bombs with a nuclear chain reaction (nuclear bombs) where the nuclear material itself expands at trillions of miles per hour incinerating anything in its path.  Dirty bombs are destructive; nuclear bombs are catastrophic and life-obliterating.  Dirty bombs don't threaten the continuation of the human race, nuclear bombs do.  Fortunately for us, Allison overestimates the ease of setting off a nuclear bomb.  Based on my reading of the highly-regarded Richard Muller's "Physics and Technology for Future Presidents," you need a lot of highly enriched uranium or plutonium with highly advanced (nation-state level) explosives.  Terrorist need to go through many steps to set off a nuclear weapon in the US or an allied country: getting a large quantity of nuclear material, transporting the nuclear material, getting high level explosives, transporting the high level explosives, assembling the weapon, transporting the weapon, setting off the weapon.  It is a long process in which there is much time and opportunity for the good guys to stop them.  All and all, we shouldn't deny the real danger, but we can also sleep at night and live in populated areas.

Second (mistake), when discussing how to prevent states from proliferating nuclear technology (e.g. Iran, North Korea, and Iraq), Allison takes the simplistic perspective that unfortunately too often predominates the public discourse.  Basically, Allison offers a limited method for resolving international conflicts over nuclear programs.  He says that the US and other great powers should offer nuclear fuel at below market price to aspiring nuclear powers with the condition that the receivers do not enrich their own uranium.  Allison says that states that reject this economic bargain are obviously up to no good and have nefarious intentions.  He concludes that these bad actors should be stopped with military force if needed.  I'm certainly not arguing that bribes, sanctions and military strikes have no place in the range of nonproliferation methods; I'm arguing that they are not the only methods.  Peaceful and militarized nuclear programs are extremely expensive.  States are often not thinking economically when they develop nuclear programs and therefore a simple economic argument is unlikely to persuade them to stop.  Allison mentions nothing of national pride, strategic defense, fear of regime, change from the outside or inside, or military-industrial interest groups.  Offering security guarantees, starting collaborative science projects, and offering deals that address a state's non-economic interests are all methods that should be included with economic and military methods.

Not to be too hard on Allison.  His book is required reading for anyone interested in counter-proliferation.  His book is very accessible for non-experts and a (yes) "enjoyable" read.  It does an excellent job of representing a popular argument.  It is a large and important piece in the puzzle of nonproliferation and conflict resolution, but it is just one piece.

Stay safe!

Post-Note: Obviously, I've necessarily simplified the technology and Allison's book in this blog post.  However, I hope I have done so while preserving the key concepts.

To Draw or Not To Draw?

Over the last few weeks, the most popular question related to nonproliferation and conflict resolution has been "Should the United States draw a red line regarding Iran's nuclear program?" Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister of Israel, was on Meet the Press requesting that Obama draw a red line, which is basically asking the President to declare what stage of Iranian nuclear development would trigger a US military attack. President Obama partially drew a red line when he said that Iran cannot acquire a nuclear weapon; however, he does not want to focus on the red-line issue at this time.  Mitt Romney has said that he agrees with President Obama that Iran cannot acquire a weapon. Days later Mitt Romney said that Iran cannot be allowed to have the capability of having a nuclear weapon. However, this current discussion misses the fact that drawing a red line is often not such a simple binary decisions. There are some important questions to ask and several pros and cons to consider before making this decision.

  • How specific should the red line be? Mitt Romney said that the red line should be drawn at Iran having the capability of acquiring a nuclear weapon, but he also said later that he didn't think it was helpful to talk specifically about what technically qualifies as this red line (i.e. 20% enrichment, number of centrifuges, or 90% enrichment?).
  • Should this red line be communicated publicly? The more the United States presses a red line in public then the more humiliating and more difficult it will be for Iran to back down.

Pros (to drawing the red line)
  • Iran is more likely to take the US seriously if it draws a red line.  Human beings have a tendency to take people more seriously if they say "I swear..." or "I promise..."
  • If complemented with technical specificity, a red line can focus the negotiation on technical facts. Any peaceful agreement between Iran and the other nations likely will have to be very technical.

Cons (to drawing a red line)
  • Drawing a red line is only effective if Iran treats this threat credibly.
  • Drawing a red line is effectively giving away the US's bottom line and telling Iran it can proceed up to right before this point.
  • Drawing a red line should not replace real negotiation. Drawing a red line is about the positions of the parties to a conflict and does not even scratch beneath the surface to address the parties' interests. Interest-based negotiation is what the book Getting to Yes by Fisher and Ury is all about. Drawing a red line does not address why Iran is interested in nuclear weapons to begin with.
  • It could be difficult to tell if Iran crosses the red line because the red line may lack technical specificity or the intelligence may be wrong.
  • Drawing a red line puts the conflict on a narrative path toward war. In this narrative, peace is as only possible through the use of force or the threat of force. It puts war at the front of people's minds and people starting dwelling on the red line and when to go to war and less on how to solve the problem peacefully. And it's hard to stop a nation once it's put on the path to war.

Essentially, drawing a red line can be a good negotiation technique but it is dangerous. President Obama should only draw this red line if he thinks he can hold back the engines of war long enough to actually negotiate. If he can't, then he should hold off on firmly drawing the red line. He can always use this tactic later because current intelligence estimates as reported in the news tend to say we still have some time before Iran could build nuclear weapons.

Introduction to the Blog

Welcome.  You have just entered the dynamic intersection of Nonproliferation & Conflict Resolution.  Here, we discuss the most pressing Nonproliferation problems of our day and how to solve them.  Nonproliferation (in this blog) refers to the reckless spread of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.  Conflict Resolution is an emerging field of study somewhat related to international relations, psychology and business.  Models of conflict resolution come in many shapes and sizes, including interest-based negotiations (Fisher and Ury), structural and cultural violence (Galtung), and various psychological theories.  This blog is for the the politicians, diplomats, scientists, professors and students.  More fundamentally, this blog is not about espousing a certain theoretical mindset but rather about offering the best approach to these problems.

Furthermore, nonproliferation like conflict resolution is often best done collaboratively, so we appreciate any comments, suggestions, questions or counter-points!