Periodically, in discussing issues surrounding nuclear non-proliferation, someone — typically but not always someone from some Islamic country — will assert that we have no right to deny the likes of Saddam Hussein or the Iranian Ayatollahs access to nuclear weapons; that such a demand amounts to imperialism, that it interferes with the self-determination of their peoples and usurps their legitimate sovereignty. Inevitably, the need for nuclear weapons in the hands of such countries is rationalized by the need to “counter the threat” from Israeli nuclear weapons or from our own. And, inevitably, attempts to limit the number of nuclear nations in the world are classified as arrogance, as a presumption that only members of the nuclear club are sophisticated and moral enough to be trusted with such power.
There is some validity to the issue of the usurpation of sovereignty — although, if we wish to be so solicitous of sovereignty, we really should have a debate over what constitutes legitimate sovereignty in the modern era that honors human rights and celebrates ascendant democracy. But, where nuclear weapons are concerned, basic survival, not sovereignty, is really the most fundamental consideration. And, if our desire that Saddam Hussein and Kim Jong Il not have nuclear weapons represents a presumption that they are not sophisticated and moral enough to be trusted with such capabilities, that presumption is not arrogant but prudent.
One such assertion occurred during a broadcast of The Diane Rehm Show in late December of 2003. The assertion itself, because it is so common, was merely exasperating. But the response — or, rather, the non-response on the part of Ms. Rehm and her guests — was alarming. I sent this to the show to articulate the refutation that should have been offered but was not.
22 December 2003
As I heard your show on nuclear non-proliferation in parts and in the car, I did not have an opportunity to send this during the broadcast. I would request you forward it to your guests for their and your consideration when talking on this subject in the future.
I was dismayed that neither the guests nor the host blinked an eye at the contention that, since Israel (and the U.S. and Britain and France) have nuclear weapons, then countries like Iran have legitimate reasons to pursue them — that, in fact, to allow some countries to have them and not others is an unfair double-standard. In their “balance” they were mute on the possibility that there was any difference, politically or morally, between the nations with nuclear weapons and those trying to obtain them.
Leaving aside history (that is, most members of the nuclear club had the weapons before non-proliferation was even a topic of debate, never mind an international agreement), do they really think there is no difference between an Israel or a United States on the one hand, and an Iran or a Libya on the other?
Israel has existed for over 50 years and, during all that time, it has never been their policy to obliterate any of their neighbors despite the fact that they have spent that entire period in a legal and practical (and involuntary) state of war with most of them. They certainly want to control the areas immediately surrounding their border and are doing so with an increasingly futile occupation, but they’ve never tried to deny their neighbors a right to exist and have never threatened use of nuclear weapons against them.
Similarly with the United States: we may have had some egregious foreign policies during the cold war, and we have a history of countering threats by removing them, but, at least since the start of the twentieth century, it has never been our intent or practice to conquer and destroy other nations; and, in the sixty years since the weapons were first invented and used in the extreme of a global war, we have not used them again and have not threatened use of them for any but deterrent purposes.
That cannot be said of most of the middle-eastern Islamic countries. Since the founding of Israel, it has been the stated and actual policy of most of them that Israel should be annihilated, its people incinerated or driven into the sea. North Korea has consistently treated the South as an illegitimate and rebellious province that should be destroyed and dominated. And now Al Quaeda — not a country but an international movement that claims to speak for Islam and claims support from throughout the Islamic world, including from its governments — seeks the total destruction of the United States and the rest of the West.
It is not frightening to me, nor should it be to any rational Arab, for Israel to have nuclear weapons because they have never shown any inclination to use them unless they are on the brink of obliteration. The same is true of Britain and the United States and France, and even of Russia and China. They are rational political actors with defensive nuclear postures. They are not going to nuke their neighbors for conquest or out of spite or to indulge religious zealotry.
That is the difference between the nuclear club and the non-nuclear club, and the reason why non-proliferation regimes are written as they are. We may prefer, as I do, a world in which no one has nukes, but to ignore the fundamental differences between the Americas/Israels/Britains of the world and the Irans/Libyas/North Koreas of the world — and to presume that treating them differently must be somehow unfair and irrational — is not even-handedness but insanity.
Update, 27 October 2005: Yesterday, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the newly-elected President of Iran, declared that Israel “must be wiped off the map”, and that “Anybody who recognizes Israel will burn in the fire of the Islamic nation’s fury.” Where, exactly, lies the imperialism in asserting that such a person should not have control over weapons that could effortlessly fulfill that desire.
© Copyright 2003, 2005, Augustus P. Lowell