Rich Nukes, Poor Nukes

, Bethany Stotts, Leave a comment

Last month, in a Cato Institute lecture, Georgetown professor Matthew Kroenig outlined what he sees as the strategic reasons why nuclear nations help spread these weapons to other countries.

The author of Exporting the Bomb: Technology Transfer and the Spread of Nuclear Weapons, Professor Kroenig argued that nuclear transfers are “driven by a strategic logic.”

“My argument, in short, is that the spread of nuclear weapons threatens powerful states more than it threatens weak states and that this leads to three strategic conditions under which countries are most likely to export sensitive nuclear materials and technology,” he said.

In the book he focused on “state-sponsored transfers” because, Kroenig argues, “…all the most important cases have been state sponsored, including the [Abdul Qadeer Khan] transfers to Iran, Libya and North Korea…” He also looked at “transfers to nonnuclear states.”

Less powerful states aren’t as threatened by nuclear proliferation as powerful states are because the former, less influential group has less to lose militarily or diplomatically than a superpower does, he argued.  Prof. Kroenig said he performed a systematic statistical analysis of states which either provided nuclear assistance or should have but chose not to. (The latter is undoubtedly a subjective measure.) This included case studies on

  • “[T]he Soviet Union’s assistance to China from 1958 to 1960,”
  • “China’s assistance to Pakistan in the 1980s,” and
  • “[A] number of cases where assistance could have occurred but didn’t” such as Israel and India.

Micah Zenko, a Fellow for Conflict Prevention at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), argued that the book inappropriately downplays nonstate supply. “…[S]o there are four countries that Matt does not code for having received sensitive nuclear assistance that in fact obtain nuclear weapons ability and one is North Korea’s plutonium program,” said Zenko. “The others are France, [the] United Kingdom, and South Africa, but they all had nuclear weapons and now they all receive some degree of sensitive nuclear assistance but not high enough to meet the threshold, so that suggests that perhaps on the nonstate market there is greater concern than the book lays out.”

“My big worry is that if the takeaway of people for this book is that it’s mostly state-sponsored sensitive nuclear assistance that determines proliferation, there might be some shift in sort of prioritization of where you’ll collect intelligence and where you focus,” Zenko argued.

Professor Kroenig defined nuclear technology transfers as

  • “[C]ountries that help other countries design nuclear weapons or providing sensitive nuclear assistance,”
  • “[S]ignificant transfers of weapons-grade fissile material,” and
  • “[T]ransfers of sensitive fuel-cycle facilities—the uranium enrichment, plutonium processing facilities that could be used to produce weapons-grade fissile material.”

“So countries that help other countries build research reactors, mine for uranium, allow foreign students to study physics in their universities, aren’t providing sensitive nuclear assistance as I define it,” Prof. Kroenig said.

He also argued that the U.S. had the most to lose from nuclear proliferation.

“That’s probably not right,” argued George Washington University Professor Charles Glaser, who directs the Institute for Security and Conflict Studies at GW. “It follows from his argument and it captures the sense of his argument, but lost in that is that proliferation in some regions could be more threatening to regional powers than that proliferation is to the United States,” he said.

Prof. Glaser argued that from India’s perspective, Pakistan acquiring nuclear weapons is far more threatening to its neighbor, India, than to the United States. “The United States would probably rather not have any of those countries have nuclear weapons for various reasons but from a regional perspective or from a specific country’s perspective, proliferation could be more dangerous for that country than for the United States,” Prof. Glaser said.

Bethany Stotts is a staff writer at Accuracy in Academia.