This Hudson Institute Briefing Paper is available on the Hudson Institute website. For reasons of brevity, NPF here reproduces only its opening paragraphs.
It has become something of an article of faith in the arms control community that one of the reasons the world has not been able to rein in the proliferation of nuclear weaponry more effectively is that the five states authorized by the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) to possess nuclear weapons—the NPT “nuclear weapons states,” or NWS—have not shown sufficient “credibility” on the issue of nuclear disarmament. The treaty, this argument goes, is founded upon three pillars: nonproliferation, disarmament, and a commitment to the peaceful uses of nuclear energy. Because the NWS have not taken their disarmament obligations under the NPT seriously enough, it is said, other countries find our entreaties to implement nonproliferation policies shallow and unpersuasive, and, not surprisingly, have not been fully cooperative in addressing proliferation challenges such as those presented by Iran and North Korea. We are told that if only Washington—and here the other four NWS are mentioned remarkably infrequently—would finally show real nuclear disarmament credibility, the international community would be much more willing to work together to enforce the NPT’s nonproliferation rules.
This assumption is repeated frequently enough that it has become an axiom of contemporary arms control debates—one of those unexamined suppositions from which numerous other lines of policy argumentation begin, and upon which their intellectual credibility rests. President Barack Obama, in remarks delivered on his behalf by Assistant Secretary of State Rose Gottemoeller to the 2009 NPT Preparatory Committee meeting at the United Nations last spring, clearly predicated his approach to the NPT upon this “credibility thesis.” Demonstrating his apparent belief that the United States has not hitherto taken disarmament seriously enough, he described himself as now having finally committed the United States to “initial” steps towards “a world free of nuclear weapons.” With these steps, the president declared, “we will strengthen the pillars of the NPT and restore confidence in its credibility and effectiveness.” To be sure, Obama did not neglect to mention the grave nonproliferation challenges facing the treaty regime today, but the centerpiece of his administration’s approach to nonproliferation—which he stressed in his message to the NPT delegations assembled at the UN—is to emphasize his seriousness about disarmament.
As Obama’s remarks indicate, this disarmament-focused approach is justified, in part, instrumentally: through the argument that only by focusing more upon restoring disarmament credibility will we be able to elicit serious cooperation from other countries in achieving nonproliferation goals. This credibility thesis is worth examining carefully, however, because it might not actually be true.
The thesis rests upon two central assumptions. First, it explicitly assumes that the commitment of the NWS to the ideal of disarmament lacks credibility, and implicitly assumes that the United States is both the most important locus of the problem and the key to its resolution. Second, it assumes that if this disarmament “credibility gap” is closed, it will be possible to meet today’s proliferation threats much more effectively and with a much wider base of diplomatic support. Both prongs of the argument are questionable, and each will be discussed in the following pages.....