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U.N. shifts strategy for nuclear arms control

The emphasis used to be on containing the information needed to build a bomb. Now the focus will be on restricting the materials necessary to make a weapon.

October 13, 2009|Michael D. Gordin | Michael D. Gordin is an associate professor of history at Princeton University and the author of the just-released "Red Cloud at Dawn: Truman, Stalin and the End of the Atomic Monopoly."

Attempts to control or reverse nuclear proliferation come in two flavors: Either one tries to control nuclear material (uranium, centrifuges, superfast switches) or one tries to control nuclear information (blueprints, schematics, scientific expertise). For most of the last half a century, the world has shunned the material approach in favor of controlling information. But information is extremely difficult to contain, as is made clear by the growing number of countries that have acquired nuclear weapons in the decades since the United States made the first atomic bomb, from the Soviet Union in 1949 to North Korea in 2006.

The United Nations started out with a materials-centric approach. Almost exactly a year after the San Francisco Charter established the United Nations in June 1945, President Truman sent a special envoy there with a proposal to stop the spread of nuclear weapons. At the time -- because the only nation with such devices was the United States -- the move was patently directed at the Soviet Union in an effort to curb it from taking the steps toward nuclear proliferation.

Instead of relying on the standing representative to the fledgling body, Warren Austin, Truman sent Bernard Baruch, a financier and longtime advisor to Democratic presidents since Woodrow Wilson. On June 14, 1946, Baruch unveiled his plan to control nuclear energy, the centerpiece of which was the control of uranium ore. The goal of the proposal, modeled on the ideas of physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, as expressed in the Acheson-Lilienthal Report released earlier that year, was to stop proliferation at the source. Global uranium reserves would be internationalized, and scientists worldwide would be required to report clandestine nuclear activities to an international atomic energy authority. No uranium, no bombs. Period.

Global politics, in the end, prevented the Baruch plan from being implemented. But now, after decades of trying instead to control information, the United Nations has once again embraced the idea of controlling materials. Resolution 1887, passed unanimously by the Security Council last month, aims to secure nuclear materials around the world.

The Baruch plan has not fared well with historians and proliferation experts, mostly because it did not fare well with the Soviets. Baruch preserved the key insight of the Acheson-Lilienthal Report about the need to contain uranium ore, but he modified the original proposal in two very significant ways. First, violators would automatically be subject to sanctions -- "an international law with teeth in it," as he put it. Second, veto power in the Security Council -- a privilege of the victors in World War II (the United States, the Soviet Union, France, Britain and Republican China) that had been essential to persuade the Soviets to join the world body in the first place -- would be suspended only for matters pertaining to atomic energy. This last provision made sense to Baruch and Truman: The Soviets were the most likely to violate the agreement, so allowing them to veto sanctions against themselves would surely be a case of moral hazard.

That change doomed the plan. The Soviet ambassador to the United Nations, Andrei Gromyko, earned the nickname "Mr. Nyet" for his forceful denunciation of the Baruch plan. Correctly sensing that the purpose of the plan was to stymie Soviet proliferation, Gromyko issued a counterproposal a few days later that inverted the order of the American plan: First, nuclear weapons would be abolished and any nuclear nation (that is, the United States) would have to destroy its stockpile, and then all uranium reserves could be internationalized.

As a nonproliferation strategy, the Gromyko plan made no sense. There was no political or military logic for the United States to voluntarily disarm without guarantees that other powers would be prevented from covertly arming. There was no way the Americans would agree to his proposal, but Gromyko argued skillfully that the suspension of the veto would violate the U.N. Charter and tied the Baruch plan down in procedural debates until November 1949. By that point, the Soviets had the bomb, the issue was moot, and arms control went back to the drawing board.

An unintended casualty of the failure of the Baruch plan was to marginalize the idea of controlling proliferation through controlling nuclear materials. Uranium ore was no longer at center stage. Both superpowers had nuclear weapons, and arms control shifted to controlling the number of weapons and keeping a lid on the "know-how" of making bombs. But information tends to slip through cracks, and the rest, sadly, is now history.

The new U.N. resolution, and the approach it embodies, is tremendously encouraging. The most crucial issue now is not to replay the procedural quagmire of 1946-49, and bring the attention squarely and permanently back on materials.

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