Nuclear Terrorism: real but remote

Obama deserves praise for his efforts in Prague (for the new arms control treaty (START) with Russia) and in Washington, where the US hosted the Nuclear Security Summit.

Both events fall short of paradigm-shifting change. But they achieve some non-trivial gains.

The Prague treaty establishes real reductions, notwithstanding the notorious difficulties of measurement. Perhaps more significantly, while it leaves the US and Russia with impressive nuclear stockpiles, it is a good step in rebuilding their dialogue. This is long overdue, with NATO enlargement and the Bush Administration’s pursuit of a ballistic missile defence shield, as well a Russia’s increasingly aggressive bid for regional dominance, having done so much to poison their relations.

And the Summit seems to have drawn some real worldwide commitments to tracking and securing dangerous nuclear materials, notably the Ukraine’s undertaking to eliminate its enriched uranium.

However, we should pause over the core idea advanced by President Obama at the Summit, that Nuclear Terrorism – that is, subnational radical groups obtaining and using nuclear weapons – is the ‘greatest threat’ to American and international security.

Firstly, there is a general conceptual problem with the way US governments characterise ‘threat.’ Threats are produced by an interaction not only of the intentions and capabilities of others, but of our own actions and responses. Al Qaeda isn’t just a threat because it means us harm and has (or had) the capability, but because it provoked the US into doing imprudent things that caused it harm (the invasion of Iraq, the erosion of constitutional liberties through extraordinary rendition and torture, the trillions of dollars spent, the re-radicalisation of Iran, the damage to its own good name). Threats are interactive, rather than mere external actors or forces to be ranked in order. This is certainly the case for a powerful offshore state like the USA that has proven it has the means to disrupt and curtail terrorism, is not vulnerable to a snap invasion by other powers, and enjoys hemispheric security. For its capacity to harm itself, whether by inflating or overreacting to threats, say, or continuing the unsustainable economics of debt and deficit, or remaining dependent on imported oil with all the costs that brings, the greatest threat to America remains America.

Second,  just how dangerous is nuclear terrorism anyway? While ‘intent’ is clearly a concern that at least one terrorist network (AQ) has ambitions to inflict spectacular violence on America to serve its political objectives, ‘capability’ is remote, and the overall international environment is not particularly hospitable to it.

I would recommend John Mueller’s work on this.

According to the expertise that Mueller marshals for his arguments, it is really, really difficult for a terrorist group to succeed in the various steps on the path to nuclear war. Each single step is hard, and cumulative success is harder: from acquisition of weapons, to their maintenance and control, to transport and deployment.

How do they get them? From other states? This is an important issue, because it is one of the anxieties that drives our fear of Iran. But there are powerful reasons for a state not to provide a nuclear weapon to a terrorist group. First, states go to a lot of trouble and expense to develop these things. Handing them over to a group not directly under its control entails significant risks. It could be very dangerous to a donor regime, if the non-state group uses it in a manner or on a target that the donor doesn’t like. What’s more, they are usually traceable. This would place a regime at risk of retaliation and obliteration. And one thing we have discovered about Tehran is that those in power care a lot about staying in power and political survival. As Posen argued back in 2006, ‘No country is likely to turn the means to its own annihilation over to an uncontrolled entity.’ Most terrorist groups have shown no interest in acquiring these weapons, and Al Qaeda has established itself as the enemy of most states, including ones that are nuclear and have a history of sponsoring terrorism.

How about a terrorist groups chances of making their own? It is very difficult to manufacture and develop, given the need to produce fissile material with high level of resources and expertise, and to be secret or tolerated by other states, and then successfully ‘fire’ a nuclear weapon. Even ‘loose nukes’, which are probably a rarity, require careful maintenance, infrastructure and competent teams of people, etc. And there are other difficulties, such as the financial costs involved, the need to find enough discrete and loyal collaborators, the incentives for participants to abandon or even expose the project, the difficulties of transporting weapons and keeping secrecy. Thanks to the Washington Summit, it will get harder still.

None of this means that we should dismiss the danger. As I’ve argued before, the improbability of a danger (like interstate war) is not a reason to be unprepared, as the penalties for getting it wrong could be severe. Obama’s efforts to encourage an international policing of nuclear materials is admirable in this respect. And it means that we should go on simply and quietly making life very hard for terrorist networks with disruption, penetration, harassment, assassination, etc, as well as enterprising organisations like AQ Khan.

But it is a reason to moderate our behaviour. If nuclear terrorism is seriously unlikely to the point of being ‘vanishingly small’, it should not be the organising principle of America’s grand strategy when more real and non-trivial problems are emerging (economic decline, energy dependency and resource depletion, or the increasing rivalry and military buildup in Asia).

It also means that America should not be impressed by one of the arguments for pre-emptively attacking Iran – that a nuclear Iran will abandon self-preservation (the very impulse that drives its pursuit of the weapon in the first place) and hand over a weapon to Hezbollah.

While we can all applaud the non-controversial steps towards securing nuclear materials, the stress on nuclear terrorism as a pressing danger also has a dark side, as it prepares the ground intellectually for another war in the Gulf. The Washington Summit may be attractive internationalism – but it also signals an argument for pre-emptive war later down the track.

America would be better served not to assume the ‘next big threat’, the prime threat, is a set of people with wicked intentions in pursuit of specific weapons. These have existed and will reappear again, but they are not always the gravest danger. Right now, America’s way of life is endangered by more profound and impersonal problems. It would be wise in current conditions to resist the temptation to organise national security around a set of human enemies. While we hear endlessly about the dangers of proliferation, counter-proliferation and wars to forestall the spread of weapons can be just as dangerous. Moreover, counter-proliferation efforts themselves can accelerate the drive to go nuclear.

But it is a sad reality of American domestic politics, that governments are better off politically if they stress or even inflate threats, err towards alarmism, and portray security threats as specific human enemies. Breaking away from this pattern would be a change to welcome.

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