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, 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.