IN THEIR THIRD PRESIDENTIAL DEBATE, in October 1960, John F. Kennedy went after Vice President Richard Nixon, blasting him as weak on national security for not stopping the spread of nuclear weapons. France had just tested its first nuclear device, joining the United States, the Soviet Union and Britain as the world's first nuclear powers. Kennedy warned "that 10, 15 or 20 nations will have a nuclear capacity -- including Red China -- by the end of the presidential office in 1964."
As president, Kennedy sought to fight that dark vision, telling the United Nations: "The weapons of war must be abolished, before they abolish us." He restarted talks on a comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty, began pursuit of a global nonproliferation pact and signed a treaty with the Soviet Union to ban atmospheric nuclear tests. Although Kennedy did not live to finish the job, in 1968, Lyndon Johnson signed what became the diplomatic crown jewel of his presidency: the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, or NPT. President Nixon secured its ratification.
The NPT is now considered one of the most successful security pacts in history. Every nation in the world is a member except Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea. Most of the 183 member states that do not have nuclear weapons believe what the treaty says: We should eliminate nuclear weapons.
The treaty became the hub around which liberals and conservatives built an interlocking network of agreements that deterred, though didn't altogether stop, the spread of nuclear weapons. As a result, by 2000, only three other countries -- Israel, India and Pakistan -- had joined the original five nuclear nations. With the success of these agreements, and the end of the Soviet-American nuclear standoff at the close of the Cold War, it seemed that the nuclear threat that had haunted the world for so many years might finally be receding.
But now, suddenly, the threat is back. In the last six years, we seem awash in nuclear threats: First it was Saddam Hussein, then North Korea and Iran. How did it happen? Is nuclear restraint dead?
At the heart of the problem is the strategy George W. Bush chose, which rejects international treaties as the solution to proliferation. He and his advisors saw these agreements as limiting U.S. flexibility and viewed the United Nations and other global gatherings as arenas where the world's Lilliputians could tie down the American Gulliver.
Bush scuttled the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, walked away from the nuclear test ban treaty secured by President Clinton, opposed efforts to enforce the treaty banning biological weapons, mocked the U.N. inspectors before the Iraq war and sent low-level officials to critical negotiations, including last year's NPT conference. The world now believes that the chief architect of the global nonproliferation system has abandoned its creation.
Instead, the administration preferred to rely on U.S. military might and technology, such as anti-missile systems, to protect the United States. Rather than negotiate treaties to eliminate weapons, it forged a strategy to eliminate the regimes that might use them against us. The Bush team felt they knew who the bad guys were, and they aimed to get them -- one by one.
But the strategy has backfired. Both Iran and North Korea accelerated their programs, making more progress in the last five years than they had made in the previous 10. Now North Korea's test threatens to trigger an Asian nuclear-reaction chain that could prompt South Korea, Taiwan and even Japan to reconsider their nuclear options.
And it is not just the threats from small nations such as North Korea that could fuel a new atomic arms race. It is the continued existence of huge nuclear arsenals in the United States, Russia and other states. The importance of nuclear weapons as a cornerstone of U.S. defense had been declining since the Cold War ended. Though the U.S. never ruled out their use, Clinton and George H.W. Bush made it clear that they believed they were unusable, except perhaps in retaliation.
But the current president's policies have elevated the role of these weapons. The 2002 Nuclear Posture Review detailed plans to build new, more usable "low-yield" nuclear weapons and created missions for them. Bush decided to retain about 6,000 weapons and to research a new generation of nuclear missiles, bombers and submarines.
What's the relevance of this to proliferation? Simple. U.S. intelligence officials concluded as early as 1958 that other nations' nuclear appetites could not be curbed without limiting the superpowers' stockpiles. That judgment was confirmed by subsequent administrations.