Could the global nuclear order be as fragile today as the global financial system was two years ago, when the conventional wisdom declared it to be sound and resilient?
The answer is clear: As a growing chorus of experts who have examined the facts agree, the nonproliferation regime that has held back the tide of proliferation for decades is at risk of catastrophic collapse.
What can be done? There are numerous recommendations for strengthening the nonproliferation regime. Unfortunately, most of these require negotiating agreements between the 189 signatories to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Although the Obama administration has put the threat of nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism at the top of its national security agenda, recent history suggests that a significant international agreement is not likely to happen soon.
The great powers will have to shoulder responsibility and exercise visionary leadership if global nuclear trend lines are to be bent. Their focus should be on what world leaders increasingly agree is the preeminent danger today: nuclear terrorism. President Obama has called nuclear terrorism the “single most important national security threat we face” and moreover, a “threat that rises above all others in urgency.” In his farewell address to the United Nations (UN) General Assembly in November, former director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Mohamed ElBaradei said, “The gravest threat the world faces today, in my opinion, is that extremists could get hold of nuclear materials.” One month earlier, 14 heads of state adopted UN Security Council Resolution 1887, which affirmed that the Council was “gravely concerned about the threat of nuclear terrorism, and recognized the need for all States to take effective measures to prevent nuclear material or technical assistance becoming available to terrorists.”
It is imperative not only to strengthen current international institutions’ capacity to deal with this threat, but also to supplement it. President Obama spearheaded the initiative by inviting 46 heads of state to join him this past April for the first Nuclear Security Summit. The topic: securing all nuclear weapons and materials from which weapons could be made beyond the reach of terrorists.
This summit presented an opportunity to lay the foundation for a 21st-century analog of NATO: a Global Alliance Against Nuclear Terrorism. As owners of 95 percent of all nuclear weapons and material, the US and Russia should take the lead in establishing this new organization.
Core principles of this proposal include:
1. Applying demonstrated know-how for securing nuclear weapons and materials to a “gold standard.” As a result of US and Russian cooperation, by the end of 2008, security upgrades had been completed for nearly 75 percent of the buildings in the former Soviet Union that contain weapons-usable nuclear material. Technologies and best practices learned by the US and Russia can be the basis for operationalizing UNSC 1540’s obligation that every state take “appropriate, effective” steps to assume that weapons-usable material are secure.
2. Advancing nuclear forensics. By classifying unique attributes of the fissile material used in a nuclear explosion, including its impurities and contaminants, “fingerprints” allow identification of the producer of fissile material.
3. Accepting a principle of accountability. States must recognize that they are responsible and will be held accountable for securing their weapons and materials. This general principal applies to all states.
This nascent alliance should aim to minimize the risk of nuclear terrorism anywhere by taking every action physically, technically, and diplomatically possible to prevent nuclear weapons or materials from falling into the hands of terrorists.
Alliance membership would require an unambiguous commitment to the principle of assured nuclear security. States would have to secure all nuclear weapons and materials in their territories to a “gold standard”—beyond the reach of terrorists or thieves. Moreover, states’ means of securing those materials would have to be sufficiently transparent that leaders of other member states could reassure their own citizens that terrorists would never get a nuclear bomb from another alliance member. In addition, member states would be required to deposit samples of their nuclear materials in an international library that forensic technicians could use to identify the source of any weapon or material that found its way into the hands of terrorists. Pursuant to UN Security Council Resolution 1540, alliance members would commit to operationalizing “appropriate, effective” security standards for securing weapons, materials, and technology, and set forth criteria for accounting, security, and transparency to ensure that those standards are being met.
In the case of stolen nuclear weapons or materials, those states that had satisfied the basic requirements of the alliance—by assuring nuclear security, meeting the new standards for securing their materials, and making their safeguards sufficiently transparent to other alliance members—would be judged less culpable. A state that was unwilling to participate fully in the alliance would find itself atop the list of possible sources of a terrorist nuclear bomb. If a state were found to have allowed nuclear materials to fall into terrorist hands, it would face consequences ranging from financial reparations to military retaliation.
The proposed Global Alliance would go beyond the declarations and open membership of the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism announced by Presidents Bush and Putin at the St. Petersburg G8 summit in July 2006. In contrast, it would operate on the basis of a membership hierarchy that required specific actions in exchange for specific benefits. Benefits for members would include leaders’ participation in the Global Alliance annual summit; assistance with technology for securing weapons and materials; intelligence sharing; enhanced Proliferation Security Initiative support to stop the shipment of weapons of mass destruction, delivery systems, and related technologies worldwide; and assistance with post-detonation medical needs and cleanup.
The alliance should take collective responsibility for the global nuclear order, making annual assessments of its vulnerabilities. In that context, it would take the lead in containing the risks from the global expansion of nuclear power by articulating greatly enhanced safety, security, and transparency requirements; supporting the internationalization of the nuclear fuel cycle; and strengthening the IAEA’s resources and authority.
In his September 2009 address to the UN General Assembly, President Obama noted, “The next 12 months could be pivotal in determining whether the nonproliferation regime will be strengthened or will slowly dissolve.” The international community has crucial choices to make. The stakes could not be higher. Having failed to heed the repeated warning signs of rot in the global financial system, the world dare not wait for the catastrophic collapse of the nonproliferation regime. From the consequences of such an event, there is no feasible bailout.
Graham Allison is director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.
Originally published November 22, 2010