05/28/2005 12:27 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Proliferating Plowshares Into Nuclear Swords

Less talk, more nukes. That’s the bottom line from the just-ended conference on the status of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT), which ended in failure on Friday.

That failure was no surprise. What we are seeing now is yet another revolt of the Have-Nots against the Haves. And we know how those sorts of revolts usually turn out when the have-nots vastly outnumber the haves. For 35 years, the Have countries, since the enactment of the treaty in 1970, have been pledged to reduce their nuclear weapons, in return for the Have-Not countries agreeing to forgo developing their own nukes.

But the Have countries did just the opposite. Indeed, the number of Have countries keeps growing; there are now nine in the nuclear “club”--the US, Russia, Britain, France, China, Israel, India, Pakistan, and almost certainly North Korea—and they have no intention of giving up their nuclear weapons. In this transparent, flat, globalized world, this obvious and visible Have/Have-Not dichotomy is simply unsustainable.

After all, to possess nuclear weapons is to possess prestige and also immunity from regime-changing superpowers. Today, tyrants who never pulled off the “nuclear option,” such as Slobodan Milosevic and Saddam Hussein, sit in jail cells; meanwhile, Pervez Musharraf and Kim Jong Il are either honored or feared—and both are firmly ensconced in their respective palaces. What conclusion do you think that the Iranians are drawing from these disparate national fates? And what conclusion should other nations, rogue or not, draw from that fate-differential?

Indeed, the chairman of the NPT conference, Sergio Duarte of Brazil, said on Friday that the month-long conclave actually made the problem worse, by highlighting the double standard between nuclear Have and Have-Not nuke countries. So when the next-scheduled NPT conference is held, in 2010, there will be, as a practical matter, much less to debate, because it’s likely that many more countries will have shifted their nuke-status, from Have-Not to Have.

Already, in the words of David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington DC, “going nuclear” is oftentimes just a matter of turning a screwdriver. That is, countries such as Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, and Brazil could turn atomic components into atomic weapons on a moment’s notice. Indeed, it’s easy to imagine 20 or 30 countries becoming Haves within the next decade or two.

Some will blame the United States for the failure of NPT to make any progress toward de-nuclearization. They will say that George W. Bush has made the US seem so scary and so lawless that other countries are in no mood to negotiate anything with us. Those critics will further say that John Bolton, the incumbent undersecretary of state for arms control, was always the wrong man to persuade the nations of the world not to hold nukes. And even fans of Bolton will have to concede that for the past four months, their man has been so preoccupied with his own confirmation fight—ironically, to be ambassador to the UN—that he hasn’t been focused on spreading his good works to the NPT conclave.

But the deeper reality transcends personality, or party, or president. That deeper reality is that nuclear proliferation is inevitable, because the basic imperatives of power and politics are the same for all countries.

Is that a terrible thing? A tragic thing? Yes. So we can all take a moment to ponder the terror and tragedy of it all, and to wish, by some miracle, that nukes will just go away. But then, back in the real world--the world we hope to inhabit for a long time to come--we simply have to deal with the reality of a nuked-up planet.

More on that in future posts.