Jacques E.C. Hymans
Foreign Affairs, May/
The chronic problem of nuclear proliferation is once again dominating the news. A fierce debate has developed over how to respond to the threat posed by
Yet there is another possibility. The Iranians had to work for 25 years just to start accumulating uranium enriched to 20 percent, which is not even weapons grade. The slow pace of Iranian nuclear progress to date strongly suggests that
The great proliferation slowdown can be attributed in part to U.S. and international nonproliferation efforts. But it is mostly the result of the dysfunctional management tendencies of the states that have sought the bomb in recent decades. Weak institutions in those states have permitted political leaders to unintentionally undermine the performance of their nuclear scientists, engineers, and technicians. The harder politicians have pushed to achieve their nuclear ambitions, the less productive their nuclear programs have become. Meanwhile, military attacks by foreign powers have tended to unite politicians and scientists in a common cause to build the bomb. Therefore, taking radical steps to rein in
Nuclear Dogs That Have Not Barked
"Today, almost any industrialized country can produce a nuclear weapon in four to five years," a former chief of Israeli military intelligence recently wrote in The
Seven countries launched dedicated nuclear weapons projects before 1970, and all seven succeeded in relatively short order. By contrast, of the ten countries that have launched dedicated nuclear weapons projects since 1970, only three have achieved a bomb. And only one of the six states that failed --
International security experts have been unable to convincingly explain this remarkable trend. The first and most credible conventional explanation is that the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) has prevented a cascade of new nuclear weapons states by creating a system of export controls, technology safeguards, and on-site inspections of nuclear facilities. The NPT regime has certainly closed off the most straightforward pathways to the bomb. However, the NPT became a formidable obstacle to would-be nuclear states only in the 1990s, when its export-control lists were expanded and Western states finally became serious about enforcing them and when international inspectors started acting less like tourists and more like detectives. Yet the proliferation slowdown started at least 20 years before the system was solidified. So the NPT, useful though it may be, cannot alone account for this phenomenon.
A second conventional explanation is that although the NPT regime may not have been very effective, American and Israeli bombs have been.
Finally, some analysts have asserted that nuclear weapons projects become inefficient due to political leaders' flagging levels of commitment. But these analysts are reversing cause and effect: leaders lose interest when their nuclear programs are not running well. And some nuclear weapons projects, such as
A more convincing explanation of the proliferation slowdown begins with the observation that during the early days of the nuclear age, most states with nuclear ambitions were in the developed world, whereas since the mid-1960s, most would-be nuclear states have been in the developing world. As proliferation has become a mainly developing-world phenomenon, timelines to the bomb have slowed down dramatically. But the relevant difference here is not primarily economic. Some nuclear programs in very poor states have fared rather well, such the one undertaken by famine-stricken
National income is only one dimension of development, however, and in this case it is not the most important one. As the political scientist
Nuclear research and development organizations depend heavily on intense commitment, creative thinking, and a shared spirit of cooperation among large numbers of highly educated scientific and technical workers. To elicit this positive behavior, management needs to respect their professional autonomy and facilitate their efforts, and not simply order them around. Respect for professional autonomy was instrumental to the brilliant successes of the earliest nuclear weapons projects. Even in Stalin's
By contrast, most rulers of recent would-be nuclear states have tended to rely on a coercive, authoritarian management approach to advance their quest for the bomb, using appeals to scientists' greed and fear as the primary motivators. That coercive approach is a major mistake, because it produces a sense of alienation in the workers by removing their sense of professionalism. As a result, nuclear programs lose their way. Moreover, underneath these bad management choices lie bad management cultures. In developing states with inadequate civil service protections, every decision tends to become politicized, and state bureaucrats quickly learn to keep their heads down. Not even the highly technical matters faced by nuclear scientific and technical workers are safe from meddling politicians. The result is precisely the reverse of what the politicians intend: not heightened efficiency but rather a mixture of bureaucratic sloth, corruption, and endless blame shifting.
Although it is difficult to measure the quality of state institutions precisely, the historical record strongly indicates that the more a state has conformed to the professional management culture generally found in developed states, the less time it has needed to get its first bomb and the lower its chances of failure. Conversely, the more a state has conformed to the authoritarian management culture typically found in developing states, the more time it has needed to get its first bomb and the higher its chances of failure.
Of course, not all developing states share the same model. For instance, as the political scientist
The Iraqi Nuclear Mirage
The case of
In the years leading up to
But in the mid-1980s, the program fell victim to a power grab by
Kamel relentlessly bullied his scientists, with predictable results. For instance, in 1987, he asked Mahdi Obeidi, the leader of the team tasked with building gas centrifuges, how long it would take to get the first one up and running. Obeidi imagined two years but, fearful of displeasing Kamel, said one year. In response, Kamel told Obeidi that he had 45 days. The result was a mad dash that caused the finely crafted, costly centrifuge rotor to crack on its first test run. Thanks to this rampant mismanagement,
After the Gulf War, international inspectors were shocked to find many large, well-equipped secret nuclear facilities in
Outside analysts have also overstated the threat posed by
As for some analysts' terrifying predictions of ex-Soviet nuclear scientists and technicians leaving home en masse to further the nuclear ambitions of rogue regimes, this is more the stuff of
Tardy In Tehran
In the intensifying crisis over
It is surely more difficult to assess the quality of
The first lesson is to be wary of narrow, technocentric analyses of a state's nuclear weapons potential. Recent alarming estimates of
The second lesson of the proliferation slowdown is that policymakers should reject analyses based on assumptions about a state's capacity to build nuclear programs in secret. Ever since the mid-1990s, official proliferation assessments have freely extrapolated from minimal data, a practice that led U.S. intelligence analysts to wrongly conclude that
The third lesson is that states that poorly manage their nuclear programs can bungle even the supposedly easy steps of the process. For instance, based on estimates of the size of
The fourth lesson is to avoid doing anything that might motivate scientific and technical workers to commit themselves more firmly to the nuclear weapons project. Nationalist fervor can partially compensate for poor organization. Therefore, violent actions, such as aerial bombardments or assassinations of scientists, are a loser's bet. As shown by the consequences of the Israeli attack on Osiraq, such strikes are liable to unite the state's scientific and technical workers behind their otherwise illegitimate political leadership. Acts of sabotage, such as the Stuxnet computer worm, which damaged Iranian nuclear equipment in 2010, stand at the extreme boundary between sanctions and violent attacks, and therefore they should be undertaken only after very thorough consideration.
Traditionally, nonproliferation strategy has revolved around persuading leaders to stop desiring nuclear weapons and depriving nuclear scientists of the tools necessary to build them. But scientists have motivations, too, and policymakers must keep in mind this critical third dimension of nuclear programs' efficiency. The world is lucky that during the past few decades, the leaders of would-be nuclear weapons states have been so good at frustrating and alienating their scientists.
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