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Does Nuclear Threat Reduction Require Threat Inflation?

December 03, 2008 // 11:00am12:30pm
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with Michael Krepon, co-founder, Henry L. Stimson Center; author of Better Safe than Sorry: The Ironies of Living with the Bomb (Stanford University Press, 2009)

This meeting, jointly sponsored by the Center's International Security Studies Program and the Los Alamos National Laboratory, was another in the ongoing Nonproliferation Forum series.

The old paradigm of arms control, which relied on nuclear overkill and defenselessness, has now been replaced "as a general philosophical construct" by cooperative threat reduction (CTR). That shift, Krepon argued, reflects a change in the nature of the nuclear threat. The just-released report of the bipartisan Commission on the Prevention of WMD Proliferation and Terrorism, warning that "our margin of safety is shrinking," predicts a terrorist attack using nuclear or biological weapons by 2013.

We live in an "era of anxiety" about WMD terrorism, Krepon stated. The iconic clock of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists is now set at 5 minutes to midnight – 2 minutes closer to doomsday than in 1962, the year of the Cuban missile crisis. Given that assessment of the threat, "We're either very lucky or we're doing preventive measures increasingly well; or, the nuclear event we most fear is either harder to do or less likely to [occur] than we thought; or, all of the above," Krepon stated. "I vote for all of the above."

While emphasizing the need for effective programs to reduce nuclear threats and cautioning against complacency, Krepon pointed to the "profound disconnect between our worst fears and what has not happened." "A fear-based strategy of reducing nuclear dangers is not politically sustainable … [and] can lead to significant errors in judgment and policy," he stated. An inflated assessment of the WMD threat posed by Saddam Hussein's Iraq had led to a misguided "trillion dollar use of force."

Krepon called for a shift from a "fear-based strategy" to an "opportunity-based strategy." He cited a number of reasons for optimism. First, nuclear weapons have never had less value for major powers – a consequence of the less contentious state of international relations with the end of Cold War. Second, contrary to widespread expectations in 1945, the nuclear taboo has still not been broken. Third, the policy toolbox to reduce nuclear dangers (including, most notably, the CTR programs) has never been better. And fourth, all the nuclear weapons states recognize the common threat to their societies posed by nuclear terrorism.
Although 187 states are party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the failure of the nonproliferation regime to address the two current hard cases – Iran and North Korea – could prompt other states to reassess their non-nuclear status.

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