Continuing Nuclear Proliferation

Commentary No. 375, April 15, 2014

The United States and Iran are in the midst of difficult negotiations about the possible acquisition by Iran of nuclear weapons. The likelihood that these negotiations will result in an agreed-upon formula seems relatively low, since there are powerful forces in both countries that are strongly opposed to an accord, and are working very hard to sabotage any agreement.

The standard view in the United States and western Europe is that the issue is how to keep a presumably untrustworthy country, Iran, from acquiring weapons with which Iran might impose itself on Israel and on the Arab world generally. However, in reality this is not the issue at all. Iran is no more likely to use a nuclear weapon, if she acquired one, than any of the ten other states that already have such weapons. And Iran’s capacity to safeguard weapons against theft or sabotage is probably higher than most countries.

The real issue is quite different. The attempt to keep Iran from becoming a nuclear power is like keeping a finger in the dyke. If one removes the finger, there will be a flood. The fear is that if we remove the finger, the world might soon thereafter have not ten such powers but twenty or thirty. To see this clearly, one has to review the history of nuclear weapons.

The story starts in the Second World War, during which the United States and Germany were in acute competition to develop an atomic bomb to use against the other. At the moment Germany surrendered, neither had succeeded, but the United States was much further advanced. At that point, two things happened. The United States and the Soviet Union agreed at the Potsdam meeting that the Soviet Union would enter the war against Japan three months after the surrender of Germany, that is, on August 8. And the United States tested its first nuclear explosion on July 16, after the end of the war with Germany.

On August 6 (two days before the Soviet Union had promised to enter the war against Japan), the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. The Soviet Union carried out its promise on August 8. To demonstrate that this bombing was not a one-time possibility, the United States dropped a second bomb on Nagasaki on August 9.

Why were the bombs dropped? The official argument was that these bombings shortened the war considerably. And it may have done so. There is no way of knowing. But it is also reasonable to assume that the bombings were a message to the Soviet Union about U.S. power. The curious timing lends credence to this assumption.

What happened next? Because of wartime commitments, the United States shared some technical knowledge with Great Britain immediately. There then followed an attempt to secure an international treaty that would ban atomic weapons worldwide. This attempt failed. In 1949, the Soviet Union launched its own explosion, and became the second nuclear power. In 1952, Great Britain also exploded a weapon, and became the third.

This old trio of “Big Three” powers sought to have the list end there. But France was determined to maintain its claim to being a major power and exploded a weapon in 1960. France was joined in 1964 by China. After the People’s Republic of China obtained China’s seat in 1971, the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council all had nuclear weapons.

Once again, those who had the weapons sought to limit the list to themselves. There were clearly another ten to twenty countries that had programs underway and would in time be able to join the nuclear club. The five nuclear powers promoted an accord that received the name of the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons (usually abbreviated as NPT). The treaty offered an exchange. The signatories would renounce all intent to develop nuclear weapons in return for which the five nuclear powers promised two things: an effort on their part to reduce the quantity of such weapons in their possession and material assistance to non-nuclear powers to obtain what is necessary for the so-called peaceful use of nuclear power.

At one level, the treaty was quite successful. Almost all countries signed the treaty and almost all of those that had launched programs dismantled them. On the other hand, there turned out to be two things that limited the usefulness of the NPT. First of all, there was not much that could be done about countries that refused to sign the treaty, or having once signed it then renounced it. There were several countries that refused to sign and then later exploded bombs: India in 1974, Israel probably in 1979, Pakistan in 1998, and North Korea in 2008. In addition, Israel shared its knowledge with its partner, South Africa. And Pakistan began to sell knowledge and weapons to some other countries.

The second negative outcome was that it was technically extremely difficult to make sure that the knowledge for so-called peaceful uses could not be transferred (and rather rapidly) into making nuclear weapons. The key technical issues were the utility of enriched uranium and plutonium for building weapons and what was called “dual use technology.” The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was created in 1957 initially to spread the capability of countries to develop peaceful uses. But then it began to be involved in a somewhat contradictory role, establishing administrative safeguards against misuse of the knowledge. To enhance its ability, in 1993 an “additional protocol” giving the IAEA much increased power to oversee misuse was adopted, but at least fifty countries refused to sign it. The additional protocol only applies to countries that have signed it.

The decline of U.S. power has reopened all the issues. It seems clear that the United States is against proliferation but is also no longer able credibly to threaten the use of military power to stop proliferation. This has made a number of countries that had renounced nuclear weapons either because they relied on U.S. military back-up in conflicts or because they feared U.S. intervention in their internal politics ready to reconsider their renunciation of nuclear weapons. The recent statements by Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe point clearly in this direction. And of course there is likely to be local contagion. If Japan moves in that direction, so will South Korea, Australia, and possibly even Taiwan. Both Egypt and Saudi Arabia are reflecting on this possibility, as are Iraq and Turkey. And Brazil and Argentina may not be too far behind. Even in Europe, Sweden, Norway, and Spain may well launch programs, and possibly the Netherlands. And the Soviet Union’s former nuclear zones — Belarus, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan — have the knowledge to restart.

So, if there is no accord between the United States and Iran, the finger will be pulled out of the dyke. This is what is at stake in the difficult negotiations.

Libertarian Politics in the United States

Commentary No. 374, April 1, 2014

The general elections of most countries with parliamentary systems have largely functioned in the same way. They have had some regular alternation between two parties, one ostensibly left-of-center and one ostensibly right-of-center. In these systems, there has been little difference between the two main parties in terms of foreign policy and only a limited set of differences on internal politics, centering on issues of taxation and social welfare.

However, the actual mechanics of the elections in different countries vary. The system used in the United States has been possibly the most constraining in maintaining this two-party pattern. This is the result of two features in the U.S. Constitution. One is the exceptionally important role of the president, leading parties to put winning the presidential election as their first priority. The second is the curious system by which the president is chosen – an electoral college, in which, for 48 out of 50 states, the method of choice is a one-round election in which the winner of a plurality in a given state takes all of its electoral votes.

The combination of these two features has made it virtually impossible for “third party” candidates to win presidential elections or to be more than “spoilers.” Up to now, Libertarians have largely run as “third party” candidates. Libertarianism has never been, therefore, an important force in affecting policy choices or electoral preferences. The seriousness of the attempts by Sen. Rand Paul to obtain the Republican nomination has changed all that.

Libertarianism is most simply defined as a basic hostility to the government and its institutions. A full-fledged libertarian wants few (if any) state-owned enterprises, no constraints on private enterprises by government regulations, extremely low taxes, total individual freedom in the social realm, primacy of privacy rights over governmental intrusion, and the reduction of armed forces and police to a minimum. Libertarians rule out any kind of government-backed social protection such as pensions or unemployment insurance. Much of this appeals to deep cultural roots in the United States. But the full program is so extensive that very few people have been ready to embrace it completely.

There have been movements promoting these ideas. The most famous one is that founded by Ayn Rand, a novelist and propagator of what she called “objectivism.” Her novels stressed the importance of individualism and the Enlightenment. She was critical of religion as a belief system rendered irrational by philosophy, which superseded it.

Politically there have been Libertarian candidates for president, notably former Congressman Ron Paul (father of Rand Paul). The votes Ron Paul received were always very marginal, both within the Republican Party’s primaries and in the general elections when he ran as an independent candidate.

So what is new? What is new is that Rand Paul won a seat in the U.S. Congress as a Republican senator from Kentucky in 2010. He won first the Republican primary and then the election largely as the result of fervent support from Tea Party Republicans who objected to his primary opponent as too “Establishment” and too “centrist” in his orientation.

As soon as he became a senator, Rand Paul began to play an important public role in asserting Libertarian values, and building an organizational base for his candidacy in 2016 (and thereafter). He has presented himself as less rigid in his interpretation of Libertarianism than his father, seeking thereby to create a more substantial voter base. Nonetheless, his candidacy is shaking up the way U.S. politics has been working.

There are three sets of issues on which Rand Paul does not conform to the traditional Republican-Democratic discourse: the economy, social questions, and foreign policy. On the economy, he has sought to go further in his anti-government position than the erstwhile mainstream Republicans. On taxes, on state expenditures, and on the so-called deficit, he stands out as a Tea Party hawk. This meets considerable opposition from big business supporters of the Republican Party who generally feel his policies will make things worse, not better, for their interests. Still, on economic issues, he comes closest to being a traditional Republican.

On social issues, however, he is drawing very different lines of cleavage. He is generally supportive of the argument that the state does not belong in the bedroom, and that the choices on how to govern one’s life should remain with the individual. In addition, and not least, he is fiercely opposed to the role of the National Security Agency and other state structures in violating the privacy of U.S. residents. Recently, he took these causes to a major locus of left sentiment, the student body at the University of California, Berkeley. There he made a speech along these lines that was wildly applauded. One of his Republican critics said of this speech that there was hardly a Republican sentiment in it.

And then there is foreign policy. He has expressed serious reservations about the belief that the United States has a role (even a political role, a fortiori a military role) in promoting “democracy” in other countries. He goes perhaps less far than his father who recently said the Russia’s annexation of Crimea was not something on which the United States should be having a position. Here too, the lines he draws politically are not conventional. His views bring together some far-right Republicans and the liberal wing of the Democratic Party.

The bottom line of all this is that the previous two-party swing of compromise between two parties that are not all that different may not be able to survive the intrusion of Libertarianism into the heart of U.S. politics. Libertarians are now a somewhat unpredictable joker. They constitute a third force. And the result may be that “third parties” – not necessarily only the Libertarians – may be able to turn a two-party system into a three-party system, even within the constraints of the U.S. constitution.

We shall see after 2016.

U.S.-Iran Negotiations: Parallel Dilemmas

Commentary No. 373, Mar. 15, 2014

For the last month or so there have been formal negotiations between the United States and Iran on nuclear questions. Actually, the negotiations had been going on unofficially and secretly for over six months. Technically the group negotiating with Iran is the so-called P5+1 (the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany). But the P5+1 is largely a cover for the key negotiator, the United States.

The public stance of each side is identical. They each have a primary objective, but their objectives are different ones. They each say they have issues of principle upon which they cannot compromise. Nonetheless, they each seem to be guided by what Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has called “heroic leniency.”

There are further parallels. U.S. President Barack Obama and Iran President Hassan Rouhani both seem to want an arrangement that will avoid armed conflict. This is because each believes that armed conflict would have very negative consequences for both their countries and them personally.

In the case of Obama, he won his election originally on a platform calling for the end of the war in Iraq. He does not want his legacy defined as the president who involved the United States in a third major war in the Middle East in the twenty-first century. Quite apart from historical legacy, he believes a war would ruin any chances for passing the domestic legislation he is urgently seeking. He also fears that a war would increase the likelihood of the Democrats losing the presidential election in 2016.

In the case of Rouhani, he was elected with the tacit consent of Ayatollah Khamenei and the active support of large parts of the ever-increasing middle classes, both of whom saw him as the only major Iranian leader who might be able to negotiate successfully with the United States. Should he fail, he might be deposed as president, and in any case his internal political agenda would probably lose all possibility of achievement. A war would of course have more immediate destructive consequences for Iran than for the United States, but in the longer run the damage would be enormous for the United States as well.

The basic problem is that the primary objective of the two countries is defined in almost contradictory manners. The United States says it wants assurances that Iran will not and cannot develop nuclear weapons. Iran says it has no intention of developing nuclear weapons but insists it has the right that every other country in the world has – to develop increased capacity for the peaceful uses of nuclear energy.

The negotiators are presumably seeking a magic formula that would bridge the gap between these two definitions of the situation. Each needs to be able to present the final text as a victory for its objectives. This seems an extremely difficult task even if both sides are negotiating in good faith. And furthermore, what is good faith? There are persons and groups in both countries who do not consider that the other side is negotiating in good faith or has any intention of a compromise. There are even persons or groups who do not think any compromise is desirable.

So both Obama and Rouhani are under constant pressure not to make “concessions” of any significance. And both Obama and Rouhani seem to have to prove from time to time that they will not yield on matters of principle. The internal critics keep asserting that the other country is “playing for time” while secretly pursuing its true unavowed objectives.

Negotiations cannot go on for too long without very negative political consequences for both leaders. One can only guess how long is too long, but I think one year from now is the most we have to reach an agreement. It seems to me not too likely that there will be such an agreement in that time span. The question therefore is – what happens then?

There are really only two alternative scenarios. The unhappy one is that in both countries political control falls into the hands of persons who will pursue their objectives as militantly as possible, menacing the other country with some kind of armed action. Once we start down that path, it would be not too difficult for someone or some group, deliberately or not, to launch the conflict. The third major Middle East war of the twenty-first century would start, and it would probably be the most damaging in its results for both countries. Furthermore, it would undoubtedly spread throughout the region.

There is another less disastrous scenario. It is that nothing much would happen. Negotiations may stop for a while and the current proponents of negotiations may fall out of grace to be replaced by more militant leaders. However, public opinion in both countries may still push their leaders to be cautious. And the military on both sides may warn the civilian leadership that armed action is too risky.

The second scenario is of course better than the first. But it doesn’t resolve anything. The situation festers. Neither country can move forward seriously to improve conditions in its own country. And the second scenario is always chancy, possibly turning into the first scenario after a while.

Ergo, what? The current negotiations are our best hope, indeed our only hope, for a somewhat positive outcome.


Saudi Arabia: Besieged and Fearful

Commentary No. 372, Mar. 1, 2014

The Saudi regime has long been considered a pillar of political stability in the Middle East, a country that commanded respect and prudence from all its neighbors. This is no longer true, and the first ones to recognize this are those who are important internal players in the regime. Today, they feel besieged on all sides and quite fearful of the consequences of turmoil in the Middle East for the survival of the regime.

This turn-around derives from the history of Saudi Arabia. The kingdom itself is not very old. It was created in 1932 through the unification of two smaller kingdoms on the Arabian peninsula, Hejaz and Nejd. It was a poor, isolated part of the world that had liberated itself from Ottoman rule during the First World War, and came then under the paracolonial aegis of Great Britain.

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The Geopolitics of Ukraine’s Schism

Commentary No. 371, Feb. 15, 2014

Ukraine has been suffering a profound internal schism for some time now, one that is threatening to become one of those ugly civil wars that are occurring in more and more countries. The boundaries of present-day Ukraine include an east-west cleavage that is linguistic, religious, economic, and cultural, each side being close to 50% of the total.

The present government (said to be dominated by the eastern half) is accused in public demonstrations by the other side of corruption and authoritarian rule. No doubt this is true, at least in part. It is not however clear that a government dominated by the western half would be less corrupt and less authoritarian. In any case, the issue is posed internally in geopolitical terms: Should Ukraine be part of the European Union, or should it knit strong ties with Russia?

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Panic About World Deflation

Commentary No. 370, Feb. 1, 2014

Not so long ago, the pundits and the investors saw the “emerging markets” – a euphemism for China, India, Brazil, and some others – as the rescuers of the world-economy. They were the ones that would sustain growth, and therefore capital accumulation, when the United States, the European Union, and Japan were all faltering in their previous and traditional role as the mainstays of the world capitalist system.

So it is quite striking when, in the last two weeks of January, the Wall Street Journal (WSJ), Main St, the Financial Times (FT), Bloomberg, the New York Times (NYT) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) all sound the alarm about the “collapse” of these same emerging markets, worrying in particular about deflation, which might be “contagious.” It sounds like barely contained panic to me.

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Syria: Intractable Dilemmas for Everyone

Commentary No. 369, Jan. 15, 2014

There was a time when all, or almost all, actors in the Middle East had clear positions. Other actors were able to anticipate, with a high degree of success, how this or that actor would react to any new important development. That time is gone. If we look at the civil war in Syria today, we will rapidly see that not only are there a wide range of objectives that different actors set themselves, but also that each of the actors is beset by ferocious internal debates about what position it should be taking.

Inside Syria itself, the present situation is one of a triad of basic options. There are those who, for varying reasons, essentially support keeping the present regime in power. There are those who support a so-called Salafist outcome, in which some form of Sunni shar’ia law prevails. And there are those who want neither of these outcomes, working for an outcome in which the Baath regime is ousted but a Salafist regime is not installed in its place.

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South Africa after Mandela

Commentary No. 368, Jan. 1, 2014

The icon is dead. Long live what? The world was treated in December 2013 to a celebration of Nelson Mandela’s funeral that was incredible. The elegies were never-ending. More heads of state and government, past and present, came to pay homage than any other funeral in history. There were to be sure some dissenting voices among commentators, but really very few. There was no doubt quite a bit of hypocrisy in the celebration, but there were also expressions of genuine grief and real appreciation for an extraordinary person. It was the last hurrah for someone that South Africans called Tata Madiba.

But now what? The reality for South Africa is that, whatever role Mandela played in the struggle against apartheid, then in the (re)construction of a nation, then in the passing of political power to others, he can play these roles no more. South Africa is now on its own, for better or worse – without the special grace afforded by a living icon. What are its present internal conflicts and its present geopolitical position? And what can we expect it to be in the coming decade or two?

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