Ten Principles for Combating Nuclear Proliferation

Report Defense

Ten Principles for Combating Nuclear Proliferation

April 10, 2003 11 min read
Baker Spring
Baker Spring
Former Kirby Research Fellow in National Security Policy
Baker is a former Kirby Research Fellow in National Security Policy

At our last meeting, I was honored to address this group1 on the question of responding to North Korea's admission that it was pursuing a clandestine uranium enrichment program. In that presentation, I proposed a series of coordinated diplomatic and military steps for responding to North Korea's actions. On the diplomatic side, the United States and its allies should press North Korea regarding the full array of its threatening actions and not focus solely on the nuclear question; on the military side, the U.S. and its allies should take steps to lessen the effectiveness of North Korea's policy of blackmail.

Since that time, however, we have seen North Korea take further provocative steps, including expelling International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors, withdrawing from the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and conducting missile tests, to mention only three.

On the U.S. side, we have also seen an important step since the meeting in Tokyo last fall. The Bush Administration, in December, released its National Strategy to Combat Weapons of Mass Destruction. The release of this document, as may be imagined, led me to review my earlier recommendations for responding to North Korea's admission that it is pursuing nuclear weapons to see whether they were consistent with Bush Administration thinking.

Generally, I found that my specific recommendations on how to respond to North Korean proliferation efforts were consistent with the Bush Administration's broader recommendations for combating weapons of mass destruction worldwide. My review, however, led me to believe that my earlier remarks on how to respond to North Korea would benefit from an explanation of the broader principles from which they were derived. I came to this conclusion for two reasons.

First, North Korea is not unique. Other states, notably India, Israel, Pakistan, and South Africa, have been considered or are now considered de facto nuclear powers. U.S. and Japanese non-proliferation policy needs to account for the broader trends and not treat each nuclear proliferation challenge,
including that posed by North Korea, as a unique problem amenable only to ad hoc solutions.

Second, the broader approach serves to provide policy options to both the U.S. and Japanese governments for responding to actions by specific states that choose not to observe global nuclear proliferation norms, whether by non-participation in the proliferation regime or by violation of their commitments. North Korea may well become a declared nuclear power, but that should not cause either the U.S. or Japan to accept the fact of North Korean proliferation as a permanent situation. Both should seek to roll back proliferation.

In short, combating proliferation will still be worth the fight, and there is a conceptual basis for continuing that fight. It is found in 10 broad principles.


The U.S. has a leadership responsibility with respect to lessening the threats that nuclear arms can pose to international security and stability. Fulfilling this responsibility depends, first and foremost, on having a considered policy for addressing the threats posed by these weapons in the post-September 11 world. The following are the principles that should stand behind such a considered policy.

U.S. military and arms control responses to proliferation should be based on a damage limitation strategy.

The Cold War policy of offense-dominant deterrence--and particularly the variant known as mutually assured destruction (MAD)--no longer applies in a world where larger numbers of states with unpredictable leaders and non-state actors possess nuclear weapons. During the Cold War, the U.S. came to accept a relationship with the Soviet Union that was predicated on the Soviet ability to destroy the U.S. In the post-Cold War world, the U.S. should reject the idea that the U.S.-Soviet relationship should be multilateralized with some undetermined number of states, much less non-state actors.

What the U.S. should seek is a combination of military and arms control steps that reduce the likelihood of attack, that place restrictions on the scope of any attack, and that enhance defensive measures in order to limit both the risk of significant damage and the scope of any damage that could otherwise be inflicted on the U.S. and its allies by hostile forces. While the Bush Administration's National Strategy to Combat Weapons of Mass Destruction uses the term defense and mitigation to describe these capabilities, damage limitation is more apt because it describes the goal more precisely.

It is necessary to point out that this damage limitation strategy represents an abandonment not of the broad concept of deterrence, but only of the narrower variant applied to U.S.-Soviet relations during the Cold War. Deterrence will continue to be a necessary element of the damage limitation strategy by serving to reduce the risk of attack. Indeed, defensive forces should serve to enhance and strengthen deterrence by creating doubt in the mind of any would-be aggressor that an attack against the U.S. would be effective.

The U.S. should seek a balance of offensive and defensive military forces in accordance with the requirement for damage limitation.

The offensive forces should be designed to hold at risk, and if need be destroy, the targets necessary to launch a nuclear attack. This is why the Bush Administration's policies of military transformation, preemptive actions, preventive war, and even regime change are important contributions to post-Cold War security policy.

Given the destructive power of nuclear weapons, defensive forces should be designed to intercept the means for delivering nuclear weapons. This does not mean, however, that there is no role for civil defense. Civil defense measures are necessary, but we must recognize that any attack with a nuclear weapon will result in catastrophic damage to the U.S. or any allies that are subject to that kind of attack. It is worth noting that the Nuclear Posture Review already moves U.S. defense policy in this direction.

The adoption of a damage limitation strategy also implies both different and more stringent standards for U.S. military capabilities. During the Cold War, U.S. military capabilities were organized around maintaining a survivable military force sufficient to impose unacceptable damage on things of value to the Soviet leadership. Today, the U.S. should seek to maintain the military capabilities necessary to destroy the means of attack on the U.S. and its allies and mitigate any losses that would otherwise be imposed on either.

This is a more stringent standard both because it requires bringing military force to bear at earlier junctures in crises, on shorter timelines, and with more accuracy than in the past and because it seeks to ensure that things of value to the U.S. and its allies will survive an attack. The people of the United States are no longer willing to accept the notion that the destruction of a significant portion of their society should merely serve as a justification for retaliation, and the same is true for America's allies.

It is this shift in demands on the military that may be the single most important source of friction in U.S.-South Korean relations. South Koreans likely want a national security policy that gives them reasonable assurance that they will not lose much of what they have gained over the past four decades.

Perhaps the most profound impact of a damage limitation strategy is on the concept of military transformation. This is because such a strategy may provide guidance for military transformation. Specifically, the need to meet the requirements for damage limitation can lead to a list of tangible goals for transformation. Limiting damage from certain kinds of attacks is all but certain to require incorporating new technologies into the military and better organizing the military to exploit those technologies.

A modern, capable U.S. nuclear force discourages proliferation; it does not provide a role model for it.

Some, and most particularly those in favor of abolishing nuclear weapons, argue that the proper answer to the proliferation problem is for the U.S. to set a good example by putting itself irreversibly on the road to complete nuclear disarmament. Some proponents of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) saw it as the vehicle for setting this example.

Entry into force of the CTBT, however, certainly would not bring additional pressure against proliferating states because it would only bar them from testing weapons they are already prohibited from possessing under the NPT. In reality, an atrophying U.S. nuclear force is likely both to encourage proliferation by states like North Korea because they will view it as a source of U.S. weakness and to result in more serious consideration of the nuclear option by countries like Japan because they will be less certain of U.S. security commitments.

The current vulnerability of the U.S. and its allies to nuclear attack by means of ballistic missile must end.

Delivery by ballistic missile is the only means by which an enemy could attack the U.S. today without encountering a significant defensive barrier. Consistent with a damage limitation strategy and a military posture that balances offensive and defensive forces, both the U.S. and its allies need to erect a significant defense against ballistic missile attack. Further, both should work to improve their defenses against the other means for delivering nuclear weapons, including terrorists, artillery, aircraft, cruise missiles, and ships.

On the arms control side, the U.S. should seek diplomatic outcomes that, along with military steps, support the broader damage limitation strategy.

These steps should be designed to limit the scope of proliferation in order to reduce both the likelihood of attack and the possible scope of an attack.

Principle #6: Use a two-track approach to diplomacy.

Traditional diplomacy regarding nuclear proliferation has been conducted in a track established by the NPT for over 30 years. Recent actions by India, Iran, Iraq, North Korea, and Pakistan in particular have made this NPT track a less favorable venue for achieving non-proliferation goals.

As a result, it is necessary to open a second diplomatic track to address these issues. This second track should attempt to create broad regional security discussions and negotiations that address the underlying problems that are driving proliferation. The opening of the second track does not imply the abandonment of the first. Rather, the second track should be seen as a means for improving the chances of returning to progress in the first track.

There should be no new de jure nuclear powers.

Not abandoning the first (NPT) track means that the U.S. should resist any attempt to add to the current list of five states that the treaty acknowledges as nuclear powers. While some may argue that amending the NPT in this way would return realism to international non-proliferation policy, in fact it would signal its abandonment. The best policy for addressing the emergence of new nuclear powers is to continue to hold out the prospect of rolling back these states' nuclear weapons programs, even though it entails traveling a long, arduous road and holds no guarantees of success.

Multilateral stability should be the immediate goal for diplomacy conducted in the second track.

Even in the context of a unipolar strategic setting, regional diplomacy in the second track will be a multilateral undertaking. As a result, the political goal for these regional diplomatic initiatives should be to enhance multilateral stability. During the Cold War, stability was the goal in a bilateral setting. The bilateral stability calculations applicable to U.S.-Soviet military forces and arms control negotiations are not applicable here.

This was the conclusion of a November 2001 study conducted by Science Applications International Corporation for the Office of the Net Assessment in the Department of Defense.2 This study looked at the broader Asian region. A new stability formula should be developed for these multilateral settings that is based on an assumption of a multipolar regional setting and n-player games. In particular, this formula should account for the possibility of rapid transitions in either de facto or formal alliance structures among the three or more states (players).

Diplomatic initiatives should be seen as a tool for confrontation as well as cooperation.

The U.S. is engaged in a war in Iraq over what, in large measure, is a disarmament and non-proliferation issue. Given Iraqi defiance, using arms control as a means to confront the threat that Iraq poses to the U.S. and the region was an appropriate approach. It may be used in the future.

Regime change can be the ultimate answer to realizing non-proliferation goals, particularly when rollback is necessary for the realization of those long-term goals. It should be noted, however, that war is but one means for changing a regime. South Africa is proof of this fact.

Military and diplomatic steps must be balanced and complement each other.

Diplomatic initiatives that serve to undermine the U.S. damage limitation posture should be avoided. Likewise, military initiatives, at least in part, should be designed to produce non-proliferation incentives for those opposite the U.S. at the negotiating table.

The diplomatic initiative can serve to bolster support for taking necessary military steps, as when the Reagan Administration's "zero option" proposal for intermediate-range nuclear forces provided an argument for deploying Pershing II and Ground-Launch Cruise Missiles in Europe. With the zero option, the reverse argument was then made that deployments served to bolster diplomacy.


The prospect of nuclear weapons in the hands of unpredictable rogue states and terrorist groups makes a damage limitation strategy one of the few viable options for the U.S. and its allies in terms of providing for their security. Cold War-style deterrence and mutually assured destruction can no longer be the answer. At the same time, progress on non-proliferation in the traditional track of the Non-Proliferation Treaty seems to be bogging down.

Thus, this is the time to fashion new policy tools while not abandoning the existing Non-Proliferation Treaty regime. The Bush Administration is doing that in accordance with its National Strategy to Combat Weapons of Mass Destruction. It starts by establishing an overarching damage limitation strategy. It will proceed by building a military that balances offensive and defensive forces for meeting new threats and by pursuing a two-track diplomatic approach.

The policy will have succeeded when the traditional non-proliferation goals set down in the Non-Proliferation Treaty are realized.

Baker Spring is F. M. Kirby Research Fellow in National Security Policy in the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation. These remarks were delivered at the Japan-U.S. Track II Meeting on Arms Control, Disarmament, Non-Proliferation, and Verification held in Washington, D.C., on March 27, 2003.

1. The Japan-U.S. Track II Meeting on Arms Control, Disarmament, Non-Proliferation, and Verification.

2. Chris D. Lay and Tate M. Nurkin, Nuclear Weapons in Asia--Implications for U.S. Military Planning, Strategic Assessment Center, Science Applications International Corporation, November 2001.


Baker Spring
Baker Spring

Former Kirby Research Fellow in National Security Policy