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For more than four decades the twin goals of nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament have been an almost unchallenged objective of the “international community.” Like drought prevention, or bans on the use of child soldiers, nonproliferation remains a mostly uncontroversial, largely universalistic initiative to which few object. The proponents of nonproliferation are fond of stressing that the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) has more signatories than any other arms control treaty. Who would not want to prevent more states from obtaining nuclear weapons? And who, for that matter, would oppose the ideal of a world free of such weapons?
When an international initiative is widely accepted as an obvious universal good, and when, moreover, it commands the support of the world’s most powerful states and funders, the opportunity arises for the establishment of a powerful institutional regime. The “nonproliferation complex,” as we call it, comprises dozens of governmental agencies, international nongovernmental organizations, think tanks, and academic programs and institutes. The complex is extremely well-financed, has dominated discourse about nuclear weapons around the world for years, and helps to shape the foreign policies of leading powers to an extent that other international initiatives can only envy. Its influence and wealth is not a reason in itself to attack it, and for most of its existence the complex went largely uncriticized in mainstream Western discourse. This began to change after the second Iraq war—seen around the world as a disaster of the first order—which was waged in the name of nonproliferation, and was supported (or not opposed) by leading members of the complex.
In this essay, we trace the history of the rise of the complex during and immediately after the cold war. We show how nonproliferation and disarmament organizations and advocates turned toward ameliorative approaches in the face of great-power refusal to accept more substantial change, or indeed defended an international order favoring the status quo. We then identify three contemporary consequences of this position: the creation of a permanent justification for intervention and war; the fomenting of widespread cynicism about nuclear peace; and the establishment of a dominant discourse about nonproliferation and disarmament that excludes serious ideas about dealing with nuclear danger.
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