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Nuclear Disorder or Cooperative Security?

A Book Review by Natalie J. Goldring

At this writing, the United States is six years into the “war on terror“,with an overstretched military mired in conflict in Afghanistan and Iraq, and no end in sight. Progress on preventing nuclear weapons use and keeping additional countries from developing or deploying nuclear weapons has slowed or reversed during the Bush Administration. To the extent that there is a budget debate within the US government right now, it is primarily about how much the US military budget should be increased. This is not an easy time to advocate disarmament, cooperative security, negotiation, and support for international institutions.

Even so, it is still important to make it clear that there are alternatives to the status quo. Serious consideration of alternative approaches to security and disarmament issues may indicate ways to increase both the feasibility and perceived desirability of disarmament. Should the political environment change, it will be useful to have performed this investigation. Conversely, if people are not presenting alternative policy approaches, the prospects for change diminish significantly.

In this context, a new non-governmental study holds promise of helping to inform the next Presidential administration; unfortunately, it is not likely to have much effect on the current administration. Nuclear Disorder or Cooperative Security: U.S. Weapons of Terror, the Global Proliferation Crisis, and Paths to Peace was sponsored by three expert analytic groups participating in security and disarmament policy: the Lawyers’ Committee on Nuclear Policy, the Western States Legal Foundation, and the Women’s International League of Peace and Freedom’s project, Reaching Critical Will. The book was written by seven top analysts in the non-governmental community. In effect, it is a non-governmental blue-ribbon panel. The authors are widely respected, thoughtful, and intelligent veterans of many international security battles.

The book is presented as a response to the “Blix Commission” report on weapons of mass destruction.1 But in fact it goes farther than the Blix Commission report, providing an integrated analysis of the opportunities represented by cooperative security and the risks of continuing along the present course. At the same time, it provides a thorough grounding in the international legal context for this work, with useful extensions of the analysis to issues such as nuclear power and climate change.

The Book’s Strengths and Weaknesses

Nuclear Disorder or Cooperative Security is a thoughtful, measured approach to a series of complex issues. Its structure and substance reflect the authors’ interest in multilateral approaches and negotiations.

Consistent with an inclusive definition of global security that includes human security, the authors concisely cover a wide variety of issues, ranging from nuclear power, the nuclear fuel cycle, and climate change to international legal structures and the US record of observance of international treaties. In just twenty pages, for example, the Executive Summary provides a thorough overview of the current state of non-proliferation and disarmament efforts. The six-page summary of recommendations at the end of the book is a handy quick reference.

Nuclear Disorder or Cooperative Securityincludes extensive quotes from the Blix Commission report to set the context for the discussion and recommendations. This makes it easy for the reader to grasp the core of the Blix report’s substance and recommendations. Importantly, the book’s authors do not merely accept the commission at face value. They point out weaknesses in the commission report in several places in the book, including highlighting the commission’s failure to propose rigorous standards for controlling missiles and other weapon delivery systems.

The authors are arguably most critical of the commission’s use of the term “WMD” or weapons of mass destruction. Their compelling argument is that the term WMD conflates three extremely different types of weapons. The most important, nuclear weapons, are then blurred together with chemical and biological weapons. As the authors point out, one of the risks of such an approach is that people will believe that an attack with any of the three types can be responded to by any of the three types. In other words, a chemical weapons attack could provoke a response with nuclear weapons; an extremely dangerous scenario.

An unusual strength of the book is that it considers conventional weapons as well as nuclear. While conventional weapons often do not receive a great deal of attention, many books of this type would not even mention them. Some of the authors also devote attention to the challenges facing non-governmental organizations (NGOs) working on this constellation of issues, another topic that is often ignored. NGOs have played a critical role in developing policy proposals and keeping disarmament issues on the global security agenda, yet their representatives are often excluded from international meetings and negotiations.

Edited volumes frequently suffer from uneven writing, issue coverage, and level of technical detail. Editors also sometimes find it challenging to link together diverse chapters. In this case, the editors have largely overcome these challenges. Although the chapters vary greatly in the depth in which they treat the issues they cover,2 the editors have produced a consistent style across the essays, with effective topic coverage. They have also taken care to avoid repetition.

That said, framing the book as a response to the Blix Commission report does limit the book’s range somewhat, and the editors have chosen to further narrow the substantive range by focusing primarily on the United States.3 Given their understandable pessimism about US government leadership in the current political environment, it would have been helpful to pay more attention to what other countries might do.

My primary concern is that although the report is rich with recommendations, it does not distinguish among them with respect to importance, cost, or complexity. It is difficult for the reader to determine which recommendations are for the short-term and which for the long-term, which recommendations can be implemented with existing resources and which would require additional resources. And although the authors ask why similar calls for change have not been successful, they don’t fully answer that question.

The book’s format also has some limitations. For example, the book contains a substantial number of lengthy sidebars. In several cases, the sidebars are long enough that they interfere significantly with the flow of the text. The book also lacks an index, making it markedly more difficult to find coverage of a particular topic or case. And the title creates a false dichotomy between nuclear disorder and cooperative security. These are presumably not the only two policy choices available.

Barriers to Progress

Lack of political will is perhaps the largest barrier to implementing the book’s recommendations. In recent years it has been extremely difficult to gather the political capital necessary to implement the sorts of proposals included in this book. Even with the change in party control of the US Congress, progress has been virtually nonexistent. Republican Senators have successfully used parliamentary procedures to in effect require every important proposal to garner at least 60 votes, rather than the simple majority normally required for passage.

As pointed out in the chapter on the UN Security Council,4 that institution has the legal authority to deal with nuclear weapons and proliferation issues. Unfortunately, the failure of the United States, Russia, China, France, and the United Kingdom to live up to their commitments under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) severely undermines their credibility with respect to would-be nuclear powers.

Some of the authors also tend to understate the level of political change required in order to implement their recommendations. For example, one author writes that, “The most important means of revitalizing the NPT is good-faith implementation of the disarmament obligation. At some point, this will require an agreement or agreements that complete that obligation, integrate states outside the NPT, and institutionalize the elimination of nuclear weapons globally…”5 This implies a straightforward process, when in reality efforts at nuclear disarmament have been anything but straightforward. The author does not explain what changes in circumstances are likely to produce the agreements he advocates.

In addition, events outside the United States are not moving in the preferred directions outlined in the book. North Korea has declared that it has nuclear weapons, and although Iran claims it is not pursuing a nuclear weapons program, many outside observers are unconvinced. There are increasing questions about Syria’s intentions and the extent to which it may have received aid from North Korea. The Blix report warns of a potential “fourth wave” of proliferators.

With the continued proliferation of nuclear weapons and the failure of the first nuclear weapons states to meet their commitments under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, the entire regime is in danger. If North Korea deploys nuclear weapons, there may be pressure on South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan to follow suit. An Iranian nuclear weapons program might inspire Saudi Arabia and other countries in the Middle East to do the same. Convincing these countries to step back will require extensive global diplomacy, with economic and political carrots and sticks.

For those advocating disarmament, lack of “wallet” is also a significant factor. The authors highlighted the insufficient levels of foundation support currently available for groups and individuals working on these issues. Unfortunately, since the end of the Cold War, several major funders have left the field entirely. Others seem to have turned away from viewing philanthropy as a long-term investment in organizations and individuals. Instead, they are increasingly using short-term political tests as the determinants of progress. In this political environment, non-governmental organizations are virtually destined to fail such tests.

The Bottom Line

As the authors of Nuclear Disorder or Cooperative Security thoroughly document, the Bush administration has been implementing policies based on unilateralism and threats of preemption, undermining the non-proliferation regime and endangering US security. In so doing, the administration is helping to create the very threats to which it claims its policies are responding.

The development of new nuclear weapons by the United States is likely to be a self-fulfilling prophecy, as others rush to respond. In turn, pursuing new weapons also risks undermining the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. If the United States develops new nuclear weapons designs, there will then be a great deal of pressure to test them. At a Congressional hearing in April 2007, former Senator Sam Nunn argued against the Reliable Replacement Warhead, saying, “If Congress gives a green light to this program in our current world environment … I believe that this will be misunderstood by our allies, exploited by our adversaries, [and] complicate our work to prevent the spread and use of nuclear weapons.”6

Continuing on the current course is likely to increase the risk of nuclear use, the potential collapse of the non-proliferation regime, and renewed nuclear arms races. Political change, especially in the United States, is critical if we are to make significant progress on the ambitious and useful agenda that these authors have constructed.


Lawyers’ Committee on Nuclear Policy, Western States Legal Foundation, Reaching Critical Will of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, “Nuclear Disorder or Cooperative Security? U.S. Weapons of Terror, the Global Proliferation Crisis, and Paths to Peace.” Contributing authors: John Burroughs, Jacqueline Cabasso, Felicity Hill, Andrew Lichterman, Jennifer Nordstrom, Michael Spies, and Peter Weiss. Edited by Michael Spies and John Burroughs. Foreword by Zia Mian. Published in May 2007, 275 pages, US$ 12 plus shipping. Executive Summary and Recommendations online at www.wmdreport.org.

Dr. Natalie J. Goldring is a Senior Fellow with the Center for Peace and Security Studies and an Adjunct Full Professor in the Security Studies Program, Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University; njg7 [at] georgetown [dot] edu.

  1. 1. The Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission was established by the Government of Sweden in 2003. It is generally referred to as the Blix Commission, after its chair, Dr. Hans Blix. The full report of the commission, Weapons of Terror: Freeing the World of Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Arms, is available at www.wmdcommission.org. See also: Henrik Salander, Weapons of Terror, INESAP Information Bulletin #27, December 2006.
  2. 2. Unfortunately, the two chapters on gender (A Gender Perspective by Jennifer Nordstrom and Felicity Hill, p. 165) and on uses of language (The Word as Arrow by Peter Weiss, p. 161) are each less than five pages long, which is not enough space to do justice to these important topics.
  3. 3. Of the dozens of recommendations in the book, all but four focus primarily on the United States.
  4. 4. The Role of the UN Security Council written by John Burroughs, pp. 35-43.
  5. 5. John Burroughs, op.cit., p. 33.
  6. 6. Walter Pincus, Congress Skeptical of Warhead Plan: Lawmakers and Experts Question Necessity, Implications of a New Nuclear Weapon, Washington Post, April 22, 2007, p. A05; www.washingtonpost.com/wp dyn/content/article/2007/04/21/AR2007042101000.html.