THE THREE NUCLEAR ARMS RACES IN THE WORLD TODAY
Roger Molander, 1987
Roger Molander is President of the Roosevelt Center for American Policy Studies and a former member of the staff of the National Security Council under Presidents Nixon, Ford and Carter. His many publications include Who Will Stop the Bomb? A Primer on Nuclear Proliferation and Nuclear War: What’s in it for You? Today, Dr. Molander shares his principal views on nuclear proliferation and the quest for peace.
Whiteley: Dr. Molander, you’ve identified three arms races that are currently being waged in the world today. The first is the arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union. What are the other two?
Molander: Well, the other two are those things that you see if you just think about the sort of nuclear weapons business for a while and it’s the other countries who are really coming up to the choice about whether to have nuclear weapons as instruments of national security, and what we see is in many cases making the choice to do so, to go forward. Now, some (at least five other nations besides the United States that have nuclear arsenals) people now accept the Israeli arsenal as the sixth - and other nations looking at it real hard: India, Pakistan, South Africa.
And the third nuclear arms race is just the inevitability. We know it, we can predict it, you can see it. It’s not five generations, it’s a generation or two, when even very small subnational groups, and that’s the descriptive thing, potentially terrorist groups will have the capability, the wherewithal; their choice, not yours or mine or any head of state or any United Nations, the choice to build nuclear weapons, and that’s the world we’re entering. And that’s what a maturing nuclear age is all about.
Whiteley: You’ve written that there’s no way back to the world that we have lost. What are you trying to share?
Molander: People are talking seriously in a way that one would not have believed possible a few years ago about a path back to no nuclear arsenals on the planet. So that even though, you know, increasing numbers, scores, in time virtually every halfway industrialized nation in the world could sprint and produce a bomb, and that everybody is in effect in a holding pattern in perpetuity, forever. Truly forever on this planet. That’s - there’s talk about that kind of walk back, but not really in the sense of sort of taking out of people’s hands this wherewithal.
Whiteley: You’ve stated that the nuclear materials to construct first generation nuclear weapons are now far too easy to obtain.
Molander: Well, the basic components of the bomb are what you might call some fairly low technology explosive materials that people use to sort of create this critical mass that explodes. Some fancy electronics that make sure that, you know, everything all around, say a sphere that implodes and becomes a little bomb and everybody sort of knows this kind of stuff now. And then the critical nuclear material - I think people are finding out it’s not hard to get the basic good explosives and electronics, but you’ve got to sort of maybe scheme and swipe and steal and black-market to get that stuff, but the nuclear material is the critical ingredient. And uranium is everywhere. When this planet coalesced out of the primeval gases there was no promised land that got all of the heaviest elements, you know, in any sense or anything like that. And so we now know that the technology for taking just plain raw uranium, and whether you build a reactor and take the fuel rods and produce plutonium, or you just take plain uranium and just take it through, what is it, a couple of chemical processes and a couple of mechanical processes, very well understood engineering wise, and get out the critical material. That’s where we are today and it’s just, for any reasonably industrialized nation, it’s not far off.
Whiteley: You’ve made the assessment that a country that has nuclear materials and know how needs only one other component to build the bomb, and that is the will.
Molander: There you’re starting to ask questions of a character that human beings have asked for time immemorial. Do I want to have in my arsenal, in the instruments that I use to insure the security of my tribe, my group, my clan, my country, this particular weapon? And well, you know, there is, "Am I better off with it or without it?" And what we see is a mixed bag. Countries are walking up to that decision, countries that feel like they’re within the U.S. nuclear umbrella, or maybe even the Soviet nuclear umbrella are saying, "Well, maybe for now we won’t have to do that" - the Netherlands, Italy, and countries like that that could easily do it, the Scandinavian countries. Others who have security problems - Israel, South Africa, Pakistan, just like before them China, France, even Great Britain in a way, and the Soviet Union itself, made that decision. So some are saying "Yes" and some are saying "No," but even if somebody says "Yes" now, or says "No" now, it doesn’t mean the next government will say "no." We saw that in Argentina. The government said "Yes," now the government is saying "No." Who knows what the next government will say, and each time you go forward a little step and, you know, you get closer and closer to sprinting distance for the bomb. And for some countries like Sweden that clearly went, as I once said to a Swedish diplomat, "I’m going around the country saying you went eight or nine of the ten steps to the bomb." He thought for a little while and he said, "You could probably say nine and a half." That’s right. The Swedes are in a holding pattern, and you know Nigeria is going to be in a holding pattern before too long and so will be Iran and Libya. That’s the world we’re entering.
Whiteley: What motivates a country to obtain nuclear weapons?
Molander: They gain their security in the future. They look at the future as conceptualized future threats to their security. Pakistan conceptualizes an Indian threat, a Soviet threat, maybe in principle, maybe even eventually a new Persian Empire threat if Iran conquers Iraq, that kind of stuff. And they look and see how far - what kind of notice they might have before that threat might actually appear as opposed to being a threat that might happen, a threat that actually does happen. And for a country like Israel which faces potentially a large conventional threat, they decided that the sprinting distance was negligible, that they should be ready to go just like the U.S. takes 15-20 minutes kind of thing. A country like Sweden - "Well, we can probably get by with being a couple of months from the bomb." But I think it’s that kind of analysis that people do, just looking at the threats that they face in their particular circumstances. South Africa is another good example. They don’t really probably need the bomb assembled right now because they don’t face a large conventional threat from a Black African force maybe aided by an expeditionary force from other nations. But if that’s going to happen they can assemble bombs plenty fast enough to deter such an attack.
Whiteley: You’ve identified five forums within which it is possible to work toward stopping the spread of nuclear weapons. I’d like to remind you of each of those in turn and ask you to share what can be done. First, within the United States.
Molander: It’s clear that it’s time to set an example for the world about what constitutes reasonable or mature behavior in the nuclear age, and in particular on this issue. If we can’t sort of say, with respect to our actions, that this is the principle, this action demonstrates the principle that we think other nations should adhere to, sort of rules of the nuclear road. Without that, if we play, as we clearly have been, sort of things on a case by case basis, as in "We’ll lean on one country but we won’t lean on another." That makes it possible for every other country of the world to say, ah, "We’re going to play it by a case by case basis too. We got friends we need to look after, other friends we’ll lean on, you know that kind of thing."
For us that means probably being much stricter about nuclear exports, and also stricter about how we handle sanctions for nations that sort of, if you will, against what we think is security interest of the world, sort of go for the bomb. That kind of use our leverage, instead of which is pretty much the case now in many instances, trading off long-term nuclear proliferation control goals against sort of other short-term goals like the way we’re handling Pakistan right now. The U.S. though, the biggest thing the U.S. can do really is really be a leader right now in this stuff, you know. If the U.S. isn’t a leader on this nobody is going to lead, and if nobody leads on this then we are just done for.
Whiteley: A second forum for you is the U.S./Soviet relationship.
Molander: There’s no question that without the U.S. and the Soviet Union settling up on their own nuclear numbers competition, turning that around - it’s pretty flat right now if you look at sort of where things have been over the last five to ten years. We’ve got about 20 odd thousand, 20,000 - 25,000 overall nuclear weapons apiece and it has been that way for a little while, and you’ve got about 10,000 strategic warheads apiece, or whatever they call those, and that has to start coming down. Without that we got no standing when we go to other countries unless we’re doing something to move away from reliance on these huge nuclear arsenals.
It’s clear also that many of the areas of the world where there are security problems, are areas in which the U.S. and the Soviet Union, if they’re not fanning the fires, they’re doing the next thing to it by supplying people with the wherewithal to fight. Those who supply the wherewithal to fight have as much responsibility for the fight as those who are doing it. There’s just no question about it. And, you know, we do not want to see Iran and Iraq fighting in 25 years. So that’s another place where the U.S. and the Soviet Union have to sort of really use their leverage. I think also just in terms of you know, going to countries like China and France, and India, that have not been part of the global effort; the U.S. and the Soviet Union have to be much harder about that sort of thing.
Whiteley: A third forum are the members of the nuclear club.
Molander: There is a place where, you know, there’s a club that’s been slowly expanding, you know, almost each time. From the time we started it was, you know, enough already. Let’s just have one, and then it was okay, just two, and you know, we’ve sort of gotten to where we are now. The nuclear club has never met as the nuclear club in the nuclear age and said together, "We who have nuclear weapons looking to the future have a special responsibility to kind of conceive of a common strategy about where we’re going to go." An effort was made to do that through the Non-proliferation Treaty, but you know there’s only three of the clear six nuclear club members in it, and the three that are maybe on the doorstep (South Africa, Pakistan and India) are not in it as well. So three of the nine are not even part of the Proliferation Treaty. But the club has got to get together and sort of decide what them that have are going to do in order that them that haven’t sort of stay where they are.
Whiteley: A fourth group forum is the uranium suppliers.
Molander: There seems little question that in the long term - it’s a question, how much responsibility or how far in the future can we take responsibility these days. I would say on these kinds of issues, you know, we’ve got to look forward a couple or three generations. I don’t know how we’re going to be able to sort of operate on this planet if the uranium in the long-term is flowing freely around. And I think in some sense maybe sort of starting to think about that period of time when we move away, when we just have to move away from a sort of a wide commerce in uranium, and by extrapolation, plutonium. So that the - the biggest technical barrier to building bombs, which is that bomb stuff, that fissionable material, either uranium or plutonium, that that is a big barrier to getting that so that the distance between where any one human being or small group of human beings on the planet is, and that material is a long a distance as possible, as many days or weeks or whatever it is. And the only way to do that, I think, is to really - one way you might say it is plow the - close the mines and plow the uranium back into the ground, and letting that be part of a some kind of taboo that we just let the uranium stay there, because it’s just too dangerous to sort of to pull it out.
Whiteley: Finally, a fifth forum, are the members of the international community.
Molander: It’s quite clear that there is only going to - we’re only going to beat the problem of the spread of nuclear weapons in the second nuclear arms race, spilling over to the third nuclear arms race if we can get some rules of the road that everybody, all 160 odd nations are willing to sort of adhere to. We’ve been trying to do that with an instrument, the Non-proliferation Treaty, which has been in existence for 18 years, and you know it’s not drawing that final group that’s needed to go to closure. As I said earlier six of the nine countries that either have or on the doorstep of the bomb aren’t part of it. Some - whether it’s the United Nations starting that process, whether it’s the U.S. and the Soviet Union together starting and to reason it through or whatever, we have got to get to the point where we are starting to build a text of rules of the nuclear road that everybody, not just the U.S., the Soviet Union and Britain, but that China and France and Pakistan and Israel can say yeah, "Let’s sign up for that" even if it’s goals. But without those kinds of "Where are we trying to go in the long-term here?" all us Homo sapiens, what’s the workable world going to look like in a truly mature nuclear age. If we don’t know where we’re going I don’t see how we can set the sails of policy today to get there right. We may have to do some tacking, but we’ve got to do much better thinking about where we’re trying to get to, what’s that stable future going to look like.
Whiteley: What’s your answer to that question?
Molander: I really think that the magnitude of the nuclear challenge is coming to people. It’s coming to their consciousness, it’s playing back and forth between their reason and their emotion. I think the answer to that for Americans right now, and you almost got to do it almost country by country, and sort of each individuals and people have to ask what they can do. I think for us in this country, and partly because we have the opportunity, the election campaign that we are entering here as you and I speak right now, offers an extraordinary opportunity for stepping back. It’s an open field on both sides, it’s a relatively open policy landscape, and I think it’s time for us to take the kind of longer term view and just ask these fundamental questions of ourselves so that the next American President can truly be a leader on this, because I think that is needed so badly on this. Someone who can set up and say these are principles, these are rules of the nuclear road that we will adhere to, and we’re going to try and market this around the world, and you know, in particular as I say, market it first to the Soviet Union. That kind of commitment that can only come I think through a kind of sort of a some transcendent emotional experience hopefully will take place in this country in the election campaign. But we’re going to have to just get a much greater commitment of time than we’ve been so far willing to make individually and collectively. It’s that big a problem, as I said once in print, really the Everest of earthly problems. We haven’t seen anything this big ever before.
Whiteley: In identifying the rules of the road to help the species survive the second half of the nuclear age, what would you single out?
Molander: Well I think Reagan and Gorbachev were both right as they felt around and danced around the question of whether we should take a hard look at a goal of eliminating nuclear arsenals, within what might be called the foreseeable or plannable future. I don’t think either one of them was, you know being totally honest with themselves or anybody to think that that could be done in ten or fifteen years. But we can talk about doing that kind of thing or trying to set our sails for a particular stable level of nuclear arsenals within a generation, and I think probably legitimized by what the President and the General Secretary said. We’re going to see people seeing whether we can’t find our way to a situation where there are no nuclear weapons, recognizing (because I think that’s the sort of sobering thing), but recognizing what that means. It means a level of cooperation between nations the likes of which has never been seen. The payoff for it is far more than just there won’t be any nuclear weapons around. It would be a level of international cooperation, and not to some supernational body; this is not a problem at the International Atomic Energy Agency or anything like that. It can’t in any way be thought of as an instrument. I mean it’s more extraordinary intrusiveness so that we can all have confidence that that’s not happening anymore. And I think people are going to start talking about that more and more.
Whiteley: What kinds of verification of non-proliferation is possible?
Molander: The big question. That’s probably one of the reasons that the U.S. and the Soviet Union and that relationship stand astride the path to what might be considered a safe future. It’s going to require a level of openness on the part of the Soviet Union that hasn’t been seen but has been started to be talked about, which is going around with Geiger counters, virtually in the sense of having the right of sort of setting up sort of inspections for the, not just the Soviet Union, but everybody else. There’s a lot of other countries that don’t like people nosing around their either current or old nuclear facilities. But without that level of intrusiveness, and it’s like, "Holy Cow, are we really ready for that?"
We’re going to get one level of intrusiveness whether we like it or not, which is soon the Open Skies phenomenon of Dwight Eisenhower’s dream, I guess you could say, is going to be reality in the sense it’s going to be technologically fairly straightforward for a highly industrialized country to put a camera into the television camera into the sky and take pictures of every place on the planet everyday, or something like that. So we’re going to all be sort of conducting our business to within one foot resolution, I guess you could say, with the rest of the world watching us. So nobody’s going to do anything that you know gets beyond that sort of thing.
But I think just recognizing that this threat demands that level of cooperation is something that I think we’re seeing happening right now, and whether the momentum that seems to be in the Soviet society to take a hard look at where it has been and where it’s going to have to go to be a competitive 21st Century society, that same kind of hard look, carried over in the Soviet Union to security interests, is going to make them see the terrorist threat just as suredly as you and I will see it here sitting in Washington, D.C.
Whiteley: In a world where no nation is willing to trust its national security to trust, and where verification is the basis of agreements trying to control certain kinds of problems, and given you’ve identified this problem as the Everest of problems, I’d like to ask you first what’s just possible with national technical means on nuclear suppliers, on international communities, on the nuclear club, and the U.S./Soviet relationship. What can we just do ourselves to check out compliance?
Molander: Well, we have set up in this country what is the best of the monitoring operations that one can have for what might be called nuclear commerce. We are able - increasingly able to keep track of kind of the movement and that’s the kind of thing you want to do to buy time, really. It’s not like you can ever, you’re sort of straining a team of horses that is inevitably moving, you know, down the road. There is an Export Act that was pioneered by John Glenn and passed by the Congress, and probably it’s, you know, close to time to take another look at how to turn the screws harder, make all that much tighter and stringent so we can point to this to other nations and sort of brag about, I guess you would say.
There is also in the bringing together all of the nations that supply nuclear technology which has been - is done, and we’re now looking at second generation nuclear suppliers, you know. Now that we have situations where countries like Australia and Argentina, Brazil can export nuclear related equipment, and trying to get everybody to get on board for a hey, "Let’s handle this very carefully." "Watch who you sell this to." "You wouldn’t want this rogue nation or rogue group to get, you know, a cryton or some widget or something like that." But I think enforcing those kinds of practices, and with no exceptions, is I think the thing that we got to look at hardest, and sort of as I say, and set an example that we can brag about instead of one that we have to apologize for.
Whiteley: If you were designing the Soviet Union’s compliance of our behavior under the Proliferation Act, what would you insist on knowing about us as the most open industrialized society?
Molander: I’d want to really follow all large shipments of nuclear material and really, I think - and here’s the place where I think advanced technology can probably help a lot - when people talk about, as we did just before we talked about getting people to realize there’s not going to be a technical solution to the nuclear problem, I think that’s right. But it would be just that erroneous to think that you can find a solution that doesn’t put a lot of demand on technology, it doesn’t have a big technical component to it in the verification and monitoring business. You know we can, in principle, carpet the sort of Pangea, the sort of the surface of the planet with monitoring devices that would make it pretty clear whether there was significant amounts of fissionable material moving around, basically do that kind of monitoring. Big expense, but nothing compared to the money we’re spending now for security. That kind of willingness and openness to have - it’s like, you know, when the Soviet Union first got use to the fact that we’re taking pictures of it from space. Now they’ve made their peace with it and soon they are - and they even say they make their peace with us having black boxes, and maybe even in time some closed circuit television cameras for monitoring arms control agreements. That same kind of intrusiveness in our lives for the sake of security, and it’s probably a lot of these, some of these, you know, how much, you know whether it’s blood tests for marriage or whatever, there’s a level of intrusiveness in our lives for the sake of security that we’re going to have to accept. And I think in this case we can probably do a lot of that without in any way compromising our ability to sprint for the bomb or deter a nuclear attack or any of that sort of stuff. In some sense there is more security in the revealing of the secrets than in having them.
Whiteley: How can your fellow citizens make a difference?
Molander: Not only can make a difference, but almost have to in the sense that Washington is a short-term oriented town and it takes its agenda from outside the country, and people still don’t realize that enough. The first thing is sort of an agenda setting. There is no more powerful way to do agenda setting in this country for citizens than in the context of elections where they get a chance - where their representatives are, what we have now coming up, is sort of wouldbe Oval Office holders appearing before us all to sort of say, "I’m the person you want to handle these problems on a day-to-day or week-to-week basis." And I think in that situation there - as I said a little earlier, here we’re finding in the 1988 election campaign, just quite remarkably on the anniversary of the Bicentennial of the Constitution, an opportunity for a fairly freewheeling sort of unconstrained by incumbencies, or some major policy initiatives that are being acted upon at the time quite the contrary. For citizens to really get involved, and I’m really hoping that the idea that citizens have the responsibility to challenge candidates and let candidates know what they think are the most important agenda items that they want them to work on; to engage its candidates in a kind of dialogue where you can get some idea about (from the candidate’s perspective) what the citizen would like to see in terms of things they would try, approaches, attacks on particular problems; and to do that with the kind of commitment that you can get out of human beings in an election campaign, where I think people (because Americans like politics) they’re willing to spend some time, they can find an avenue by which to do it.
Whiteley: Dr. Molander, thank you for sharing with us today your insights into the ways to a more peaceful world in the nuclear age.