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Nuclear Proliferation And the World Order

BEFORE sending troops to Somalia, President Bush was careful to get the approval of the United Nations Security Council, just as he did before dislodging Iraq from Kuwait. The UN has become, increasingly, a source of legitimacy for military intervention. It is now time to work with the international community to prevent crises that require intervention.

Strengthening international capabilities to prevent conflict is cheaper and more humane than tackling problems after they appear. This requires international rules, regulations, and practices, supported by international agencies. Parts of that system are in place, although existing measures need to be updated.

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The issue of nuclear weapons and materials is a case in point. Several bilateral arms-control agreements regulate the superpowers' strategic arsenals, and there are some international nuclear agreements, but important areas remain poorly or not at all regulated. One such area is the production and use of fissile material. This material, either plutonium or highly enriched uranium or both, is an essential ingredient of nuclear weapons.

For 50 years we have known that preventing access to fissile material must be the centerpiece of any effort to halt the spread of nuclear weapons. Israel bombed an Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981 to prevent it from making plutonium, whereupon Saddam Hussein began secret production of enriched uranium. Those facilities were destroyed by international inspectors after the Gulf war. Current concern about North Korea's nuclear program focuses on its ability to make plutonium. That fissile materials from the fo rmer USSR may get into terrorists' hands is a real concern.

DESPITE this knowledge, the existing international control framework has huge gaps. There are no controls over the production of fissile material by the nuclear-weapon states. Reductions in the United States and former Soviet nuclear arsenals are creating a growing surplus of material. Countries can accumulate plutonium under the guise of nuclear power programs. Although there is no economic basis for doing so, Japan is acquiring a quantity of plutonium that will eventually approach the military stocks h eld by the superpowers. This makes it difficult to forbid North or South Korea from acquiring plutonium.

The world needs a comprehensive international treaty to control all production and use of fissile material. Such controls were central to the Baruch Plan, which the US government offered to the UN in 1946. Now it is time to reintroduce the idea.

The new treaty would ban production of plutonium or highly enriched uranium for any military purpose. It would ensure that existing stockpiles and material from dismantled warheads are fully accounted for and stored or disposed of under international inspection. It would prohibit acquisition and use of plutonium for energy production until such use was shown to be necessary.

Verifying and overseeing the treaty will require a strong, effective, and focused international agency. There is a candidate for this role, the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Unfortunately, the IAEA is now underfunded, has inadequate powers, and conflicting purposes. It was founded in 1957 to promote the peaceful use of nuclear technology and to prevent such use from leading to nuclear proliferation.

To be effective, the IAEA needs to divest itself of its promotional functions. Some of these can be taken over by another agency; others can be eliminated. The recently completed Chemical Weapons Convention shows what can be done. It places a universal ban on the production, transfer, and use of chemical weapons and sets up an international agency with a safeguarding budget three times that of the IAEA. Control of nuclear weapons is as important as that of chemical weapons.

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While the US is right to use the UN in legitimate international military action, it must also focus on prevention. The Clinton administration can take initiative in two areas: a treaty to control fissile material, and measures to reform and strengthen the IAEA.