327. Intelligence Report1

RP 77–10055

Political Perspectives on Key Global Issues

[Omitted here are a table of contents and Parts I–V of the report.]


Despite the efforts of the US and other nuclear supplier countries, a small number of states will probably fabricate nuclear explosives within the next decade or so. It is therefore necessary to plan for an era in which proliferation is occurring, as well as to continue efforts to prevent or retard its occurrence. The principal objectives of the discussion that follows are to identify and measure the strength of those trends that contribute to the proliferation process, to assess the implications of further proliferation for US interests, and to indicate some of the complexities of dealing with the dual problem of slowing the rate of proliferation and managing the consequences when it cannot be prevented.

A. Motives, Capabilities, and Opportunities

The decision to build nuclear weapons flows from a convergence of pressing national motivations and adequate capabilities.2 While an appropriate technical base is a necessary precondition for the development of atomic arms, it is clearly not sufficient in itself to cause a country to cross the nuclear threshold. Several West European states, for example, have for some time been capable of building nuclear weapons. But because US security guarantees, the existence of NATO, and the general relaxation of East-West tensions have dampened anxieties about external threats, they have lacked the political incentives to do so.

For most states, considerations of national security have been and will continue to be the principal determinants governing their attitudes toward the acquisition of nuclear weapons. However, as the threshold costs of acquiring a nuclear capability are lowered, less demanding se[Page 813]curity interests, and even prestige and domestic political motives may be enough to cause some states to reconsider the nuclear option.

While it should be emphasized that years of restraint have not necessarily immunized the nonweapon industrial democracies from pressures for proliferation, it is among the LDCs that the interaction of motivations and capabilities is of most concern today. In these countries feelings of political and military insecurity are widespread, aspirations to greater global or regional status abound, and the demands on domestic stability are difficult to satisfy. All of these political pressures are occurring at a time when the economic and technical costs of building nuclear weapons are declining.

Political Motivations

Security: Intense and longstanding regional conflicts account for much of the anxiety motivating the LDCs to acquire nuclear weapons. The likelihood that these basic feelings of insecurity will launch concrete actions designed to bring the nuclear option within reach has been significantly enhanced by several international developments, for example:

—Real or perceived inabilities to compete effectively in local conventional arms races because of deficiencies in access to foreign supply, in financial means, or in other resources (e.g., Pakistan and South Africa).

—The acquisition of a nuclear capability by a declared or potential rival (e.g., Pakistan and Iran).

—Loss of faith in the credibility or utility of great power security commitments (e.g., Pakistan, Taiwan, South Korea).

Other developments that have increased the security concerns of some nuclear threshold states (Taiwan and South Korea in particular) include the US defeat in Indochina, the continuing debate over withdrawal of American troops from abroad, and mounting evidence of wide popular support for reducing the level of US commitments generally. In short, the impression that national security will increasingly become the exclusive responsibility of individual states has buttressed arguments in favor of developing nuclear weapons for deterrence and defense.

Prestige: The demands of LDCs for more control over international arrangements affecting their fortunes and futures and their dissatisfaction with the existing international political and economic system have led many states to give priority attention to enhancement of their global or regional stature. And for some countries, most notably India and Brazil, but probably Argentina and Iran as well, the prestige associated with actual or potential nuclear status has furnished a particularly strong incentive for developing a nuclear weapons capability.

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Domestic Political Concerns: Internal factors have also contributed to proliferation pressures in a growing number of countries. Substantial domestic benefits can accrue to regimes that can demonstrate the competence necessary to build a nuclear device, especially among the LDCs. The prestige of the Indian Government, for example, experienced such a boost when it set off its nuclear explosion, although its effects were largely temporary. Conversely, failure to undertake or complete a nuclear weapons program in the face of clear regional challenges or great power pressure could severely undermine a regime’s existing base of support. This consideration may currently loom large in Pakistani Prime Minister Bhutto’s calculations.

Facilitating Factors

A number of economic and technological trends have combined to facilitate the acquisition of the capability to fashion nuclear explosives. The enormous expense and vulnerabilities related to dependence on foreign sources of petroleum have, for example, heightened the appeal of nuclear power as a potential source of cheap, independent, and reliable energy. Also, the prestige that accompanies the acquisition and operation of highly sophisticated facilities, especially if it creates a potential base for increasing future military power, has made nuclear energy a particularly attractive investment for many states.3

Competition between suppliers of nuclear technology, arising in part from balance-of-payments problems created or aggravated by the enormous increase in the cost of imported oil, has also served to increase the capabilities of threshold states. Of the leading suppliers, the French and the Germans have offered to sell equipment that would greatly facilitate the fabrication of nuclear explosives. They have used a uranium enrichment plant and spent fuel reprocessing facilities as sweeteners to clinch sales of power reactors to Brazil and Pakistan.

Partly in this manner, nuclear technology originally acquired at great effort and expense by the leading nuclear states is now becoming widely disseminated. Not only have many of its initial mysteries become matters of public knowledge, but there has been an international effort, led to a great degree by the US, to assist LDCs to gain access to the benefits of the atom by providing research facilities and aiding in the construction of an international nuclear power industry.

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B. Antiproliferation Efforts

With a few exceptions, the policies adopted by the great powers to slow the spread of nuclear weapons have focused primarily on limiting the opportunities and capabilities of threshold states. Hence, apart from a few international declarations of intent to resist nuclear aggression, such as Security Council Resolution 255,4 most nonproliferation efforts have concentrated on creating institutional and legal arrangements to embargo, monitor, or control international nuclear commerce.

The reluctance of the major nuclear powers to address the problem of motivations directly is understandable. The costs in terms of the necessary massive readjustment of foreign policy priorities, the risks and the demands on limited resources that would flow from more active engagement in local and regional affairs in various parts of the world, and the loss of freedom of maneuver in areas ranging from superpower competition and alliance politics to North-South disagreements over the distribution of international wealth and power would be enormous. Furthermore, the high degree of concern and cooperation among the nuclear powers required for success in such an endeavor would be difficult to sustain.

The Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) of 1968 constitutes the central legal instrument of the anti-proliferation effort. Some 100 nations have adhered to the treaty since it was opened for signature. But a number of nuclear weapon and key threshold states, including France, India, Israel, Egypt, Pakistan, Brazil, and Argentina, have so far proved unwilling to endorse the Treaty.

While it does require nonweapons adherents to forgo the acquisition of atomic arms, the NPT makes only a passing reference to the major concerns which fuel the proliferation process. Addressing relatively minor motivating factors, it obligates the five nuclear weapons states to end their nuclear arms race and to supply peaceful nuclear explosives to nonweapons states at reasonable cost and on a nondiscriminatory basis. So far, however, neither of these pledges has been fulfilled.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), under UN aegis, has become the central organizational instrument of the nonproliferation regime. It administers the international “safeguards” agreements governing proper use of peaceful nuclear materials and facilities. [Page 816] Lacking enforcement powers, it acts chiefly as a certifying accountant. In performance of this function, it is obligated to notify all members of the IAEA, the Security Council, and the UN General Assembly of any “violations” that it uncovers. So far, the IAEA has reported no irregularities that it deemed warranted such action.

Within the IAEA an exporters’ committee of NPT signatories, known as the Zangger Committee, has been established. It maintains a “trigger list” of nuclear items that must be placed under IAEA safeguards before they can be transferred abroad. However, because some nuclear exporters are not NPT adherents or are uncomfortable with the public scrutiny arising from IAEA procedures, another organization has been formed to regulate nuclear commerce—the Nuclear Suppliers Group, also known as the London Suppliers Conference—and it has maintained the confidentiality of its discussions. It, too, has a “trigger list.”

Individual supplier states have also attempted to control the nuclear potential of nonweapons states by means of unilateral embargoes on nuclear technology and materials as well as through bilateral efforts to restrain other exporters and importers. The US, for example, has consistently refused to export nuclear fuel separation technology and has actively sought to block the proposed sale of such technology to Brazil, Pakistan, and South Korea by other suppliers. Similarly, Canada has threatened to suspend exports of nuclear materials to potential weapons states, while the Soviet Union has generally demonstrated great caution in managing the nature and extent of its nuclear exports.

There are a number of weaknesses in the NPTIAEA system, including a provision that allows a nation to renounce its treaty obligations on 3 months’ notice. Another lies in the fact that, although the IAEA has so far escaped the politicization that has hampered other UN agencies, it is limited in effectiveness by shortages of funds and manpower. In addition, the nuclear safeguard regime is beset with the technical obstacles and uncertainties associated with almost any system of international inspection and verification. Indeed, the “normal” margin of error in the accounting practices at some nuclear facilities is large enough, theoretically, to permit the undetected diversion of enough nuclear material to build several weapons a year. Finally, with a few exceptions, only items of international nuclear commerce are covered by safeguards at all. Indigenous nuclear facilities can be developed that fall outside the inspection system, as in the Indian, Israeli, and South African cases.

Efforts to curb the spread of nuclear technology through unilateral embargoes and direct intervention have incurred substantial costs. In addition to the loss of export opportunities, the US, for example, has found that its tough antiproliferation posture has strained its political [Page 817] relations with a number of LDCs, for example, Brazil and Pakistan. Moreover, US efforts to block sales of uranium enrichment plants or spent fuel reprocessing facilities by other suppliers have led to tensions with West European countries, particularly France and Germany, as well as with Japan.

Only one country, India, has publicly crossed the nuclear threshold since the NPT came into existence. Measured in these terms, the antiproliferation effort has been relatively successful. But the number and determination of the countries that are currently seeking to place themselves in a position to develop nuclear weapons underscore the inadequacy of a basically unidimensional approach and raise troublesome questions about the decade that lies ahead.

C. The Outlook

In part because of the persistence and interplay of the global problems discussed in earlier chapters, none of the principal political motives for acquiring nuclear weapons shows signs of losing its force in the decade ahead. On the contrary, the odds are that some factors, such as aspirations to regional dominance arising from new-found economic power, will loom larger than before. It is also safe to assume that the international environment will continue to be characterized by considerable tension and conflict, the international political and economic systems will remain under challenge, and a substantial number of governments will have to cope with domestic strife and instability.

At the same time, technological advance and the continued spread of nuclear expertise are almost certain to continue to erode the economic and technical obstacles to developing nuclear weapons. Thus, pressures for proliferation will mount while the difficulty of crossing the nuclear threshold will decline.

Recognition of this state of affairs is likely to sustain the trend toward greater consensus and cooperation among nuclear suppliers that has emerged during the past few months. Although the currently contested sales of sensitive technology to Pakistan and Brazil may yet go through, tighter export controls recently adopted by France, Canada, and perhaps Germany, indicate that nonproliferation is gaining in salience as an international issue.

Nevertheless, although some of the major weapons powers may desire to undertake more energetic efforts than in the past to dampen the basic motives that underlie the proliferation process, they will find it exceedingly difficult to do so within the framework of a comprehensive and coordinated campaign because of other, conflicting national and international policy objectives. And since the record suggests that measures aimed primarily at curbing the ability of LDCs to develop a nuclear device can do no more than slow the proliferation process, the [Page 818] prospects are strong that over the next years or so additional states will either fabricate nuclear devices or develop the capacity to do so on very short notice.

D. Implications

While certain to add new risks and complexities to international politics, the emergence of a few new nuclear powers need not necessarily provoke regional holocausts, dangerous superpower confrontations, or an all-out nuclear arms race. On the contrary, there is some prospect that the introduction of nuclear weapons into some current areas of tension and conflict (e.g., the Middle East and the Korean Peninsula) could, over time, contribute to regional stability and reduce interstate violence by creating local “balances of terror.”5 Elsewhere, the acquisition of atomic arms by states not feared for their irredentist or hegemonial ambitions might diminish the chances—or at least constrain the scope—of wars among regional rivals through what one observer has described as a “porcupine effect.” And in any case, if the superpowers can muster the necessary determination, they will have it within their powers to reduce significantly the risks of direct nuclear confrontation arising from third-party disputes.

Nonetheless, the proliferation process will require careful and constant management during the critical period of adjustment that will characterize the decade ahead, if some of the more disastrous consequences are to be avoided. The actual impact of proliferation will depend in large part on the pace at which the process proceeds, the motives and behavior of the states that acquire nuclear weapons, and the actions taken by the major nuclear powers to anticipate and contain the tensions and problems that arise.

One of the most important determinants of the consequences of proliferation is the nature of the states that eventually do develop nuclear weapons. The character of the regime and the motivation for achieving nuclear status are the two most critical factors. Unfortunately, a great number of the potential LDC nuclear powers have political systems prone to chronic or latent instability, which makes their nuclear conduct difficult to predict. Although a valid argument can be made that any additional proliferation heightens regional and global tensions generally, some states clearly represent more risk than others. For example, the Brazilian-Argentinian rivalry, which centers more on a competition for prestige than deep-seated antagonisms, would likely [Page 819] provoke a much less dangerous nuclear arms race than the Pakistani-Indian case.

Until now, the relatively long time lag between each new entry into the nuclear club has eased the task of containing the resulting reverberations. The expanding list of states with large and growing stockpiles of plutonium-bearing spent reactor fuel creates the potential for a more destabilizing spread of nuclear explosive capabilities. While it is true that the decision to traverse the nuclear threshold will be made by autonomous political units, a chain reaction may be established as each successive proliferating state anticipates the security implications of the nuclear program of other states. Not only are “proliferation chains” possible in specific regions (the Middle East, Latin America, Far East), but nonsecurity motivations may also set them off across regions—e.g., Brazil following Pakistan, Iran following Brazil—as aspiring regional powers compete for international prestige and status.

The attitudes and policies of the major nuclear powers will perhaps be the single most important determinants of the ultimate consequences of the proliferation process. They have an obvious common interest in preventing the nuclearization of regional conflicts that could involve the superpowers in a serious confrontation. However, crosscutting interests impair their ability to employ cooperatively the military, political, and economic measures necessary to lessen the regional insecurities driving the resort to nuclear diplomacy. Paradoxically, Taiwan, West Germany, Japan, and South Korea—to cite a few—are cases where great power competition has led to a nuclear umbrella for weaker allies that now serves to restrain further nuclear proliferation.

The challenge to US policy arising from the proliferation process will therefore be twofold: to continue to slow the spread of nuclear weapons and to cope with such additional proliferation as occurs. Judgments advanced earlier in this discussion suggest that the first of these tasks is likely to become increasingly difficult. And both tasks are certain to conflict to some degree with other important objectives, such as controlling the pace of conventional arms transfers, disengagement from regional conflicts, and advancement of human rights. Hence difficult policy choices will be required.

The transfer of increasing quantities of sophisticated conventional weaponry to LDCs may be necessary to deflect them from developing nuclear weapons or, if that fails, from brandishing or using them once they have been fabricated. US military capabilities may need to be increased or reoriented to deal with new and more powerful potential adversaries. Some longstanding tacit or explicit alliances may need to be reevaluated in terms of the costs of association with or intervention on the behalf of new nuclear states or their rivals. The adoption of any or all of these courses of action may well interfere with other policy ob[Page 820]jectives—and it is unlikely that any single approach will be able to address comprehensively the proliferation consequences presented by every nation in every region.

Whatever the specific trade-offs made, the costs of managing the proliferation process over the next decade—and particularly of those steps that will be needed to dissuade new nuclear states from brandishing or using their weapons—will be high. In a sense, they will likely be comparable to those that would have been involved in addressing the general admixture of motives driving the proliferation process at an earlier stage. One possible advantage may be that they can be paid piecemeal and with better appreciation for the risks and trade-offs involved, and for their likely damage-limiting effects.

In any event, greater cooperation among the major nuclear powers will be essential. Specifically, such concert will have to be directed toward decoupling possible regional conflicts from their own global competition, assuaging regional tensions, and controlling the behavior of new nuclear states through a combination of pressures and incentives. Since the interests of the USSR and the PRC will be even more directly threatened than those of the US should most of the present threshold states attain nuclear status, the Communist powers might prove quite willing to explore ways of sharing those burdens.6

In sum, proliferation presents a twofold problem of delay and management. Slowing proliferation when it cannot ultimately be stopped could prove of substantial value in reducing the long-term costs of the process. The dangers for regional and global peace can probably best be muted if the process is spread out as much as possible in both time and space. Thus, special attention should be paid to the requirements and costs of dampening the effect that the entry of each new member into the nuclear club is likely to have on pressures for proliferation elsewhere—including those felt in the industrialized states that have so far eschewed the acquisition of nuclear weapons.

Finally, since the degree and quality of great power cooperation will greatly affect the level of risk to the US and to the world generally of the proliferation process, special attention will have to be paid to the prospects for and the reverberations of acquisition of nuclear arms by those states (e.g., Taiwan, Japan, and West Germany) most likely to have the sharpest adverse impact on relations among the powers. Here, as in most aspects of the proliferation issue, the Communist powers [Page 821] will probably have strong incentives to cooperate with the US. But even then, the resources and attention necessary to minimize the dangers presented by the spread of nuclear weapons are likely to be substantial and continuing.

  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Council, Institutional Files, Box 64, PRC 028, 7/27/77, North/South Issues [2]. Confidential.
  2. A nuclear weapon here refers to any explosive generated by fissionable materials. The distinction between an explosive and a weapon, although analytically valid, does not possess immediate policy relevance. In the contemporary political context, the possession of even a “crude” weapon has a psychological and political impact transcending its actual military utility. In the future, however, if and when more states attain greater levels of sophistication in weaponry and delivery systems, the size and quality of nuclear arsenals will take on important military and political significance. [Footnote is in the original.]
  3. Virtually any state with a nuclear power program can build a nuclear explosive within a decade or less of the decision to do so. It needs to separate out the plutonium produced as a byproduct of running power reactors (and design and develop a device). These are not trivial tasks, but not of insurmountable technical difficulty for many states. The political obstacles—ranging from consequence of the violation of treaty obligations to great power retribution—are more formidable. [Footnote is in the original.]
  4. UN Resolution 255, “Question Relating to Measures to Safeguard Non-Nuclear Weapons States Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons,” June 19, 1968, proclaimed that Non-Nuclear Weapons States threatened by “aggression with nuclear weapons or the threat of such aggression” would receive aid from UN members, in particular “nuclear-weapon State permanent members.” (http:://www.un.org/en/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=S/RES/255(1968))
  5. The conviction—publicly professed by a number of Arab spokesmen—that Israel has a nuclear arsenal may have been one of the factors contributing to the recent moderation of Arab positions on the settlement of the Middle East conflict. [Footnote is in the original.]
  6. The emphasis placed on nonproliferation by the great powers may create opportunities for linkage by threshold and nonthreshold states alike. Other issues—conventional arms transfer policies, North-South economic relations, law of the sea negotiations, energy cooperation, or behavior in international organizations—might become entangled with great power antiproliferation efforts. [Footnote is in the original.]