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« Memorial Day Weekend at Bernie's | Main | Comparative Advantage »

Atoms for Peace Redux

In private conversations over the last few months, I've been expressing the notion that McCain sees himself as a potential president in the Eisenhower mold. His military record is a fundamental but largely unspoken part of his campaign. He's more centrist than the party as a whole, although essentially conservative. He's more focused on foreign than domestic policy.

Today's revival of the Atoms for Peace speech was another step in that direction. What follows is my reaction to the speech, for which I literally had a front-row speech.

After touring the main foreign policy problems he'd be confronting as President, McCain focused on today's theme of nuclear proliferation. I have to say, that while McCain's delivery was statesmanlike and deliberate, the content of the speech was something of a disappointment.

The main theses of his nuclear policy are that 1) as the Soviet Union no longer exists, we and Russa are "no longer mortal enemies," and therefore the large nuclear arsenals we had in the past are unnecessary 2) to possess nuclear weapons was to threaten the world with extinction, and 3) international organizations - either the existing IAEA or new ones - can be made sufficiently robust to handle the problem.

All three legs are at least open to serious question, and suggest an Eisenhower-type approach to the problem, unfortunately with the benefit of 50 years of seeing what works and what doesn't.

Leg 1) assumes that Russia, as the only other large-scale nuclear power, is the only reason for retaining a large nuclear arsenal. But this sort of bilateralism ignores the rise of other nuclear threats. Reducing our own nuclear arsenal makes the remaining nukes more vulnerable to attack, and the Chinese have shown themselves to be a very resourceful adversary thus far. Their interest in space warfare puts our command and control - especially of our submarines and satellite intelligence assets - at risk. Advances in anti-submarine warfare could make us with for the day that we had a reserve force of land-based nukes. And such scenarios hardly exhaust the need for a large, survivable deterrent.

Leg 2), while unspoken, is wrong on the face of it. As has been pointed out before, we don't care about the British, or even the French, having a sizeable arsenal. We don't worry about Pakistan having nukes, although india does, and perhaps we should, as well. Even if Canada were to acquire nuclear weapons, it could hardly influct more damage than its influx of comedians has. (Quebec, though, might be another story.)

Leg 3) is in many ways the most problematic. If you read down to the end of Eisenhower's speech, you'll see many of the same proposals McCain tried to revive today, principles that were supposed to be the basis of civilian international control of nuclear power.

The governments principally involved, to the extent permitted by elementary prudence, should begin now and continue to make joint contributions from their stockpiles of normal uranium and fissionable materials to an international atomic energy agency. We would expect that such an agency would be set up under the aegis of the United Nations. The ratios of contributions, the procedures and other details would properly be within the scope of the "private conversations" I referred to earlier.

The United States is prepared to undertake these explorations in good faith.Any partner of the United States acting in the same good faith will find the United States a not unreasonable or ungenerous associate.

Undoubtedly, initial and early contributions to this plan would be small in quantity. However, the proposal has the great virtue that it can be undertaken without the irritations and mutual suspicions incident to any attempt to set up a completely acceptable system of world-wide inspection and control.

The atomic energy agency could be made responsible for the impounding,storage and protection of the contributed fissionable and other materials. The ingenuity of our scientists will provide special safe conditions under which such a bank of fissionable material can be made essentially immune to surprise seizure.

The more important responsibility of this atomic energy agency would be to devise methods whereby this fissionable material would be allocated to serve the peaceful pursuits of mankind. Experts would be mobilized to apply atomic energy to the needs of agriculture, medicine and other peaceful activities. A special purpose would be to provide abundant electrical energy in the power-starved areas of the world.

But these proposals only work if the countries involved cooperate - i.e., if they see the threat of nukes to be worse than the nuclear arming of their allies. It should be quite clear by now that Russia (Iran), and China (North Korea and Syria), hold fundamentally the opposite position on this question from ours. The countries hell-bent-for-leather (in Iran's case, quite literally) on developing a Bomb have made it quite clear that they are willing to impoverish their countries in the effort, and thus far, in both Iran's case and North Korea's, the local population has failed to rebel. And the IAEA, under Mohammed El Baradei, has been worse than useless in deterring Iran's ambitions.

Instead of dealing with the Iranian problem on its own, McCain seeks to enlarge the problem to one of nuclear proliferation generally. In doing so, though, he threatens to blunt our own ability to deal with Iran in yet another international bureaucratic nightmare.


"Today we deploy thousands of nuclear warheads. It is my hope to move as rapidly as possible to a significantly smaller force," the presumptive Republican presidential nominee said at the University of Denver."

Per Mike Tuggle, "he plans to do so by detonating a few dozen over Tehran."

And yeh, I bet he jus' handles ol' Putee.

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