In international politics, the choice is sometimes between bad and worse alternatives.
The proliferation of nuclear weapons is not an appealing prospect. But managed nuclear proliferation is preferable to wishful thinking, because it offers the best hope of minimizing the instabilities that otherwise will accompany the spread of nuclear weapons in the coming decades.
Despite the international community's best efforts, nuclear proliferation is inevitable. The challenge is to manage it in a way that minimizes the danger of strategic instability.
Under proper conditions, the further spread of nuclear weapons can be reconciled with geopolitical equilibrium. The nuclear paradox is that although these weapons frighten, their awesome destructive capabilities make them a formidable deterrent to war. During the Cold War, nuclear weapons played a crucial role in preventing direct U.S.-Soviet military conflict.
Rather than worrying about stable, responsible nuclear candidates such as Germany and Japan, the focus must be on discouraging less responsible states from acquiring nuclear weapons. But when proliferation does occur, the United States should encourage arms control policies that will help stabilize emerging regional nuclear power balances.
New nuclear powers should be assisted in building secure second-strike retaliatory forces (by diversifying and hardening their arsenals and/or by employing mobile ground-based and sea-based systems) because vulnerable nuclear forces invite a rival's pre-emptive strike, thereby heightening the danger of war.
The United States should disseminate command-and-control technology, to ensure that nuclear weapons are not used inadvertently or accidentally, and tutor the new nuclear powers in security safeguards to protect against theft or unauthorized use.
Besides encouraging confidence-building measures among new nuclear states (crisis management hot lines, for example), the established nuclear powers can set up formal programs to bring together their own civilian and military strategists with counterparts from the new nuclear powers. Policy-makers in the new nuclear states must be taught that nuclear weapons are only useful for deterrence and have no war-fighting utility.
Such a program would also reduce the chance of a nuclear war resulting from miscalculation or misunderstanding by engaging potential nuclear adversaries in a strategic dialogue like that of the superpowers during the Cold War. Such a dialogue communicates to an opponent the circumstances in which nuclear weapons might be used and the doctrines that would govern their employment.
Reluctance to transfer nuclear technology and to undercut the Non-Proliferation Treaty inhibit the adoption of a managed proliferation policy. So does the fear of "crazy" states. This fear is probably overblown, because nuclear weapons incline their possessors to risk-averse behavior rather than risk-seeking actions. A case in point is China, which talked like a crazy state before it had nuclear weapons, but acted circumspectly once it became a nuclear power. In any event, the best hedge against crazy states is to continue vigorously with the deployment of strategic defenses, even as other areas of the defense budget are scaled back.
Managed proliferation makes sense for the United States for good reasons.
With the emergence of responsible nuclear powers like Germany and Japan, the United States can get out of the risky business of shielding allies from attack by putting American cities at risk.
Given the uncertainties of the post-Cold War world, this change prudently shifts security responsibilities to those with the most at stake. Switching from a policy of extended deterrence to one of finite deterrence would also enable the United States to reduce its nuclear arsenal drastically, thereby setting a worthwhile example of restraint for those members of the global community who are now contemplating acquiring nuclear weapons.
Managed proliferation is also a more constructive policy than threatening to go to war every time a repugnant regime attempts to develop nuclear weapons.
Finally, because the diffusion of nuclear weapons is inevitable, and the states most likely to seek them invariably exist in high-threat environments, it is far better to have an orderly, controlled spread of nuclear weapons than to have them proliferate in a crisis situation.
Christopher Layne teaches international politics at University of California, Los Angeles. He wrote this commentary for the Los Angeles Times.