Book Review: Unconventional weapons


Book Review

Unconventional weapons

Ultimate Security: Combating Weapons of Mass Destruction, Janne E. Nolan, Bernard L. Finel, and Brian D. Finlay, eds. New York: Century Foundation Press, 2003, 312 pp.

Jonathan B. Tucker

Since the end of the Cold War, the focus of U.S. national security concerns has shifted from the former Soviet superpower to a diverse array of “rogue states” and terrorist organizations that are hostile to the United States and possess or actively seek nuclear, biological, or chemical (NBC) arms. This new emphasis has been accompanied by the growing ascendance of coercive approaches to combating the spread of unconventional weapons, including the interdiction of shipments on the high seas, ballistic missile defense, and military strikes.

Although the Clinton administration launched the Defense Counter-Proliferation Initiative to complement traditional nonproliferation tools such as treaties and diplomacy, coercive approaches to combating the spread of NBC weapons have reached an apotheosis under President George W. Bush. Shortly after taking office in January 2001, the Bush administration repudiated several arms control accords, including the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and a draft inspection protocol for the Biological Weapons Convention. Then, in response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the administration issued a new National Security Strategy in September 2002 stating that the United States “will, if necessary, act preemptively . . . to eliminate a specific threat,” such as a hostile regime that seeks unconventional arms and sponsors terrorism. This doctrine saw its first application six months later with the U.S. invasion of Iraq on March 19, 2003.

Ultimate Security, a collection of essays by several leading nonproliferation scholars and practitioners, alleges that the administration’s narrow focus on coercive strategies to combat the spread of NBC weapons is counterproductive and argues for the return to a more cooperative, regime-based, and internationalist approach. While reserving collective military action as a last resort, the authors call for drawing on the entire “tool box” of nonproliferation instruments, from economic sanctions and export controls to multilateral treaties and diplomacy.

The editors of Ultimate Security clearly did not aim to provide a comprehensive and politically balanced overview of the nonproliferation field. With the exception of a chapter by British scholar Joanna Spear on divergent U.S. and European approaches, the contributors are all American, and all but one embrace a center-left political philosophy. In addition, the focus is primarily on nuclear weapons. Rather than providing a tour d’horizon, the book offers a critique of current Republican policies and a roadmap for alternative strategies.

As with any edited volume, the individual essays vary in quality and originality. Although the standard here is generally high, two contributions fall short: A chapter by William Keller on economic globalization and the spread of conventional weapons technologies seems out of place in a book devoted to NBC threats, and a chapter by Jessica Stern on bioterrorism is too narrowly focused and fails to address the broader issues of chemical and biological disarmament.

Another flaw of the book is that it employs throughout the popular but misleading term “weapons of mass destruction” (WMD), which conflates into a single category three types of arms–nuclear, biological, and chemical–that have very different technical characteristics, physical effects, and degrees of lethality. For example, WMD can refer to a thermonuclear warhead capable of destroying an entire city or to a chemical artillery shell that could kill a few dozen people. Accordingly, a growing number of policy analysts and scholars in the nonproliferation field prefer the terms “unconventional weapons” or “NBC weapons.”

The first part of Ultimate Security includes a chapter by Amy Zegart of the University of California at Los Angeles on the organization of the various executive branch agencies involved in arms control and nonproliferation decisionmaking. According to her analysis, the interagency process is plagued by chronic turf battles and a lack of senior leadership, accounting for Washington’s persistent failure to craft coherent and effective policies. In the absence of a single coordinating body or “nonproliferation czar” with real power and budget authority, she argues, policymaking has inevitably been dominated by the most powerful agency–the Pentagon, reinforcing the ascendancy of military over diplomatic approaches.

Most of the subsequent chapters in the book examine the various measures in the nonproliferation tool kit. Joseph Cirincione of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace assesses the current health of the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), under which the five declared nuclear powers–Britain, France, China, Russia, and the United States–pledged to reduce and ultimately eliminate their arsenals in exchange for a commitment by other states not to acquire them. Despite a relatively small number of “cheaters and abstainers,” such as North Korea, India, Pakistan, Iran, and Israel, he argues that the NPT has been successful at preventing the wider spread of nuclear weapons. Cirincione warns, however, that the forbearance of the non-nuclear states is directly linked to the willingness of the five declared nuclear powers to take concrete steps toward disarmament, as required under Article VI of the NPT. In his view, a discriminatory arrangement that “entitles” five states to possess nuclear arms while denying them to others is not sustainable as long as these weapons bestow real power and prestige, such as permanent membership on the United Nations (UN) Security Council. Indeed, one of India’s motivations for joining the nuclear club was to be recognized as a major player on the world stage.

Unfortunately, the five declared nuclear powers have shown little willingness to abandon their reliance on such weapons. Indeed, the Bush administration recently moved in the opposite direction by designating funds in the 2004 Pentagon budget to study a low-yield nuclear warhead capable of destroying deep underground bunkers. Cirincione contends that unless the currency of nuclear weapons in international affairs is devalued, additional countries will decide that their security is best served by building their own arsenals. Exacerbating these concerns is the failure of the administration to offer “a convincing strategic framework to replace the treaties it shuns.”

In a follow-on essay on military approaches to nonproliferation, Robert S. Litwak of the Woodrow Wilson International Center critiques the concept of rogue states whose leaders are irrational and undeterrable. Simply branding hostile proliferators as pariahs, he argues, has made it impossible to tailor effective policies toward the diverse countries subsumed under the rogue state category, such as North Korea, Iran, and Syria. Although the Clinton administration recognized this problem and decided to drop the term rogue state from the official lexicon, President Bush revived it. Litwak also examines a series of historical case studies to assess the value of military responses to proliferation and concludes that, “force is no less problematic and uncertain in terms of yielding desired outcomes than its nonmilitary alternatives.”

As an example of a noncoercive nonproliferation strategy, Rose Gottemoeller of the Carnegie Endowment describes the Pentagon’s Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) program, which provides financial and technical assistance to Russia and other Soviet successor states to dismantle their cold war stockpiles of nuclear or chemical weapons. CTR has been augmented by other U.S. government efforts to secure fissile materials and dangerous biological pathogens and to prevent the brain drain of expertise from the Soviet weapons complexes. Gottemoeller argues that although these programs have been remarkably successful and should be extended to other countries, conservative opponents in Congress and the executive branch have undermined them.

Problematic account

The book’s most problematic contribution is by David Kay, who recently resigned as head of the Iraq Survey Group searching for evidence of that country’s pre-war NBC weapons programs. Kay’s chapter assesses the activities by UN inspectors in Iraq, which took place in two phases. The UN Special Commission (UNSCOM) operated for seven years after the Persian Gulf War, from June 9, 1991, until its withdrawal on December 16, 1998, in response to growing Iraqi noncooperation; its successor, the UN Monitoring, Inspection and Verification Commission (UNMOVIC), was on the ground in Iraq for only three and a half months, from November 27, 2002 until March 18, 2003, the day before the U.S. military invasion. Unfortunately, Kay’s chapter was written in mid-2001 and not updated, so that it focuses exclusively on the UNSCOM experience without the benefit of more recent information.

Although Kay admits that UNSCOM scored a number of successes in the face of Iraqi duplicity and deception, he contends that it ultimately failed to eliminate Saddam Hussein’s prohibited weapons programs. He attributes this failure to several factors: UNSCOM gave too low a priority to operational security and was penetrated by Iraqi intelligence; it was too eager to declare Iraq free of prohibited weapons and allow a transition to a less intrusive and politically more comfortable monitoring program; and it depended on the political unity of the five permanent (P-5) members of the UN Security Council. When divergent interests and rivalries caused P-5 support for the inspections to erode, these countries also became less willing to share vital intelligence information with UNSCOM. In view of this record, Kay is pessimistic about the ability of the United Nations to pursue weapons inspections in the future. “Coercive disarmament, by its very nature,” he concludes, “is an unnatural act for an international organization.”

Because Kay’s account lacks historical perspective, he shortchanges the accomplishments of the UN weapons inspections. Given the failure of the Iraq Survey Group to find any trace of the prohibited weapons that supposedly had eluded UNMOVIC before the war, the work of the UN teams–which the Bush administration had scorned as incompetent–has belatedly garnered respect. Kay’s lack of familiarity with the history of the UNSCOM biological investigation also causes him to underestimate its effectiveness. He claims that UNSCOM failed to uncover the Iraqi biowarfare program and that it was exposed by a senior Iraqi official, Gen. Hussein Kamel, who defected to Jordan in August 1995. In fact, by carefully piecing together a mosaic of evidence from multiple sources, UN inspectors obtained compelling proof of the mass production of anthrax bacteria and botulinum toxin despite Baghdad’s determined concealment efforts. The Iraqis were therefore forced to admit the production program on July 1, 1995, more than a month before Kamel’s defection.

Ultimate Security concludes with a chapter by the editors critiquing the Bush administration’s policy of selectively lambasting rogue states for pursuing nuclear arms while tolerating the acquisition or retention of these weapons by friendly countries such as India, Pakistan, and Israel. In the administration’s view, the editors write, “some states legitimately possess nuclear weapons . . . because they are law-abiding and would contemplate their use only in self-defense (or as part of a collective security alliance). States seen as criminal, by contrast, forfeit the right to acquire or possess weapons of mass destruction, not so much because of international strictures but because of their belligerence toward the West.” The editors argue that this double standard arouses bitter resentment in many parts of the world and is ultimately detrimental to U.S. interests. Instead, they argue, proliferation should be viewed as an intrinsically international problem that is best addressed by multilateral treaties and institutions and a collectively shared set of norms.

Since Ultimate Security was published in late 2003, three dramatic developments have occurred: the failure to find NBC weapons in Iraq, calling into question the administration’s rationale for preemptive war; Libya’s decision to abandon its nuclear and chemical weapons programs, raising hopes that proliferation in the Middle East region might be reversed; and the revelation that Pakistani nuclear scientist A. Q. Khan directed a vast smuggling network in uranium-enrichment technology, heightening fears that nuclear weapons could fall into the hands of terrorists ruthless enough to use them. Exposure of the Khan network has increased the importance and urgency of international cooperation to halt nuclear trafficking and to strengthen the physical security, control, and accounting of fissile materials worldwide. These recent developments have made the basic arguments in Ultimate Security even more timely. If, as seems likely, the 2004 presidential campaign includes a serious debate on the future direction of U.S. nonproliferation efforts, the book will provide some useful grist for the Democratic policy mill.


Jonathan B. Tucker (jtucker@miis.edu) is a senior researcher with the Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies’ branch office in Washington, D.C., and a visiting lecturer at the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University. He is the author of Scourge: The Once and Future Threat of Smallpox (Grove Press, 2002).