The struggle to avoid a war with no winners

Political Notes
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The Independent Culture
THE WORLD was recently jolted out of the facile assumption that the end of the Cold War meant the end of nuclear peril. Multiple test detonations by India, then by Pakistan, confirmed those countries' membership of the "nuclear club", along with the United States, Russia, China, Great Britain, and France. Israel is the de facto eighth member, although it has never acknowledged a nuclear weapons capability.

The possibility of further nuclear proliferation is generally agreed to be one of the most dangerous challenges facing the post-Cold War world. The challenge took on new urgency with the dissolution of the former Soviet Union and the subsequent relaxation in accountability and control of the former superpower's nuclear weapons, fissile materials, and nuclear scientists and technicians. This development has been accompanied by the rise of new aspirant nuclear powers including Iraq, North Korea, and Iran.

Extensive efforts have long been sustained to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. Dire predictions of three and four decades ago that there would be by now scores of nuclear weapons states have proven to be ill-founded. Through bilateral and multilateral nuclear arms control and reduction agreements and a global nuclear non-proliferation "regime" including nuclear- free zones, the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT), the comprehensive test ban treaty (CTBT), technology and fissile material transfer restrictions, etc, the list of nuclear arms powers has thus far remained short.

Furthermore, a number of states have actually eliminated their nuclear weapons arsenals including South Africa, Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan, Argentina and Brazil have mutually decided to end their nuclear weapons research programme.

Non-proliferation successes notwithstanding, there remain certain rogue regimes and state leaderships that appear determined to acquire nuclear arms by whatever means possible at the very time that the requisite materials, technology, and expertise have become more available. Determined aspirant regimes, if they are willing to spend enough money and stay the course for a number of years, will most likely eventually be able to obtain nuclear weapons.

Recent events in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam have served to spotlight another ominous and portentous post-Cold War challenge: the escalation of transitional terrorism. Non-state and state-sponsored terrorist activities have raised the spectre that terrorists may eventually gain access to weapons of mass destruction. While chemical and biological agents are likely to be easier to obtain and to employ, attempts at nuclear terrorism cannot be ruled out.

The world survived the nuclear arms race of the Cold War because of capable strategies, effective command and control, good luck, consensus on the part of nuclear powers that nuclear war would be catastrophic, with no winners, and the shared conviction that "horizontal" proliferation - the spread of weapons to additional states - was a bad thing.

The failure of non-proliferation policies in the cases of India and Pakistan has introduced new complexities and dangers into the international system. Even more worrisome are the apparent nuclear ambitions of Iraq, North Korea, and Iran, not least because those states have been implicated in the sponsorship of terrorism. It is the nexus between rogue states and sponsored-but-not-controlled terrorist groups that arguably presents the most ominous security threat of the future.

William L. Dowdy is co-editor (with Barry Schneider) of `Pulling Back from the Nuclear Brink: reducing and countering nuclear threats' (Frank Cass, pounds 37.50/ pounds 17.50)