Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Are International Norms Important?

I recently completed reading Bridled Ambition: Why Countries Constrain Their Nuclear Ambitions, which includes case studies of South Africa, Argentina, Brazil, Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan, India, Pakistan, and North Korea. These case studies help us answer the question, are international norms important in nuclear nonproliferation? International norms include not developing weapons, not conducting weapons tests, and allowing inspections. The answer is that international norms against nuclear proliferation are never the decisive factor in nonproliferation and only sometimes important. Let's look at some cases:
  • South Africa: The apartheid government of South Africa shut down its nuclear weapons program for a couple reasons. Government officials were afraid of a post-apartheid government armed with nuclear weapons and South Africa had no nuclear armed enemies.
  • Argentina and Brazil: Basically, both countries realized they did not need strategic weapons and could develop mutual trust through bilateral inspections. They however rejected the nuclear nonproliferation treaty and interference from other countries (i.e. the international community).
  • Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan: Basically, these countries realized that they needed to focus on their economies and that having nuclear weapons made them targets in a NATO-Russia war. They signed onto the NPT in exchange for economic concessions from the United States.
  • India and Pakistan: Basically, both India and Pakistan flatly rejected international norms and developed nuclear weapons. They however limited their development of nuclear weapons after they proved they could get them to work, enough to deter each other.
  • North Korea: North Korea has developed several nuclear weapons while negotiating its own nonproliferation with the international community, its regional neighbors and the United States.
Looking at these several case studies, it is impossible to conclude that international norms against proliferation have had a decisive effect in preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons. It appears that countries do not suspend nuclear weapons programs because they have come around to thinking that their program is bad form or inappropriate.

That said, international norms have made a contribution in some ways. The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and IAEA inspections provide examples of international cooperation that other countries can follow from. Although Argentina and Brazil expressly rejected “international” norms, their decision to set up bilateral inspections is very reminiscent of IAEA inspections. Although Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan used the signing of the NPT as a bargaining chip. This bargaining chip provided a tangible goal for these countries and demonstrated what nonproliferation could look like.

All in all, international norms and the international agreements that represent them make modest contributions to nuclear nonproliferation. None of the countries discussed limited their nuclear weapons programs explicitly because of international norms. However international norms are generally positive elements even when countries use them for their own self-interest. Furthermore, it seems that nonproliferation is usually the result of several factors and not just one.

As the world's lone super-power and a leader in the field of nonproliferation it is the responsibility of the United States to lead the development of international norms against proliferation. Unfortunately, the United States has often taken steps that undermine the development of these international norms. The United States is currently develop bunker-busting bombs, which some politicians think should have low-yield nuclear warheads. The United States continues to conduct sub-critical nuclear tests, which is most likely for nuclear weapons research. The United States has changed its seismic activity data to cover up nuclear tests. Some American politicians are against more missile reduction treaties with Russia. Although the United States is quick to tell other countries to fulfill their international obligations it has no inherent desire to do the same. The United States has not internalized norms of nonproliferation. Whether this is hypocritical or not is not the point. The United States uses international norms as a tool in negotiations. The United States is self-interested, just like any other nation, and this should come as no surprise. However, it is in the US self-interest to follow most international norms on nonproliferation. The United States reporting its seismic data truthfully, refraining from certain sub-critical nuclear tests, and reducing its plethora of nuclear-armed missiles gives it narrative justification for demanding that other nations do the same, especially Iran.

The previous case studies have shown that international norms are unlikely to be decisive when it comes to nonproliferation. However, they generally provide positive effects and should therefore be encouraged by the United States.

* Admittedly, I based my argument on the evidence I have seen. If there is evidence that leads to another conclusion, I would very much like to see that.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Lessons from Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan

I am currently making my way through Mitchell Reiss fascinating book Bridled Ambition: Why Countries Contstrain their Nuclear Capabilities (1995). In his book, he describes how various countries decided to give up their nuclear weapons and shut down their nuclear weapons programs. Included in this book are the stories of Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan. These stories offer several lessons that people should keep in mind when looking at denuclearization options for other countries today. Not all of these lessons apply to every situation, but practitioners should at least determine whether they apply or not.

  1. Keeping Nuclear Weapons is Expensive. Maintaining nuclear weapons costs a lot of money and these three countries realized that they did not have the financial resources to maintain them if they were to focus on growing their economies.
  2. Removing Nuclear Weapons is Expensive. Because of economic considerations these countries wanted to get rid of their nukes, but also because of economic considerations these countries slow-walked their removal. To varying degrees, these countries tried to get economic compensation for the removal of these weapons.
  3. Nuclear Weapons are Bargaining Chips. Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan all realized the risks of keeping nuclear weapons in their country. They did not have the financial resources or the local expertise to maintain them. Ukraine, especially, realized that having nuclear weapons made them a target in a Nato-Russia war. All that being said, these countries used nuclear weapons as a bargaining chip. Both Ukraine and Kazakhstan (Belarus not as much) bargained with Russia and the United States in order to get financial assistance and more international recognition.
  4. Denuclearization Takes Time. In all cases, denuclearization took at least a few years. Denuclearization included removing tactical and strategic nuclear weapons by train and also signing onto START and the Nuclear Nonprolifearation Treaty (NPT). Denuclearization takes times even if all parties want to see it.

All in all, a reading of these three cases offers the lesson that denuclearization is a complex matter with many different considerations (including economic). Negotiating an agreement with a country is really just the tip of the iceberg.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Structural Problems in Biosecurity

Biosecurity presents several structural problems to states.

First, the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) does not guarantee states will not develop biological weapons. The BWC guarantees that states say they will not develop biological weapons. Although the BWC offers many benefits, such as reinforcing an international norm against bio-weapons, we should be cautious not to overstate its effect. In explaining the causes of war, Michael Fearon posited the “commitment problem,” which basically states that even if states sincerely promise to follow through on something, they may change their policy later. The Federation of American Scientists argues that the US has even re-interpreted its obligations under the BWC and now accepts development of bio-weapons as long as they are not lethal. For example, North Korea was a signatory to the Nuclear Nonpoliferation Treaty (NPT), but then changed course and build some nuclear weapons. It is always possible other states will do the same with regards to the BWC.

Second and related to the first, bio-weapons programs are often very hidden from the public and other states. Unlike commitments to not move troops near borders, bio-weapons programs cannot be viewed from satellites and leave a smaller footprint than troop movements. Bio-weapons programs present a difficulty similar to nuclear weapons programs however nuclear weapons programs receive much more attention in the international arena.

Third, bio-defense requires more international coordination than other security problems. The interconnectedness of our modern world means that biological attacks somewhere in the world could spread across international lines.

Fourth, biological attacks are very likely to be asymmetrical and unconventional. A small and weak group or state can threaten the strongest states with biological attack.

These are several problems that biological weapons present unlike other security threats. International cooperation is a difficult challenge, but must be pursued vigorously. Agreements are great, but what they actually mean in practice is key.

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!