When it comes to the nuclear-weapons issue, President Obama wants to be a global community organizer. However, what we really need are some tough beat cops with a mandate to clean up the neighborhood.
On Thursday, the United Nations Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution drafted by the United States that calls upon, urges, encourages, but does not require U.N. member states to take various actions to curb the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Mr. Obama chaired the meeting and pressed the vision of a nuclear-weapons-free world that he had introduced in April. In the practical world of counterproliferation, the president is making little progress in dissuading Iran from building nuclear weapons, has rewarded serial proliferator North Korea with bilateral negotiations and is silent on Venezuela’s announced intention to start a nuclear program.
The president’s “no nukes” stance makes a nice bumper sticker, but achieving it will take more than feel-good rhetoric. French President Nicolas Sarkozy objected to the fact that the Security Council resolution did not mention Iran and North Korea, currently the two greatest problem states. “We live in a real world,” Mr. Sarkozy said, “not a virtual world.” But Mr. Obama said he did not want to single out any particular country. After all, we might offend them. It says something when France demonstrates a stronger international leadership role than the United States and well illustrates the style-over-substance approach of the Obama administration. Mr. Sarkozy wants results; Mr. Obama seeks applause.
The premise that a nuclear-weapons-free world would be safer is highly questionable. In the right hands, nuclear weapons play an important deterrence role. The problem is that they increasingly are being obtained by countries ruled by left-wing dictators and other unsavory types who either cannot be deterred or do not want to be. These bad actors understand that they can harness deterrence to their benefit. The United States is unlikely to risk concerted action against a country with a demonstrated nuclear-weapons capability and nothing to lose. Countries such as Iran and Venezuela see North Korea as a positive inspiration - an extremely poor country with about the same per capita gross domestic product as Chad but treated as a major player in world affairs primarily because of its atomic program. We shudder to imagine how much more powerful Tehran or Caracas would be with the same capabilities.
Self-interest points toward proliferation, not away from it, and formal arms control of the type the president advocates has a dubious record when stacked against strategic interests. The Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT) agreements between the United States and Soviet Union codified massive increases in what already were the largest nuclear arsenals in human history. But since the end of the Cold War, the total number of warheads between the two countries has declined 90 percent - not because of arms-control treaties but as the natural consequence of reduced tensions after the collapse of communism. Meanwhile, since the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty took effect four decades ago, India, Pakistan and North Korea have tested nuclear weapons; Israel is widely believed to possess them; and the Iranian bomb is right around the corner.
The United States is showing itself unwilling to take the hard steps necessary to stop nuclear proliferation. Countries that are willing to defy the international community know they can have the bomb if they make the investment and are patient. They might have to ride out some international sanctions, but once they have conducted a nuclear test and joined the club, they will have all the leverage they need.
Last week, Mr. Obama lectured the world that “international law is not an empty promise” - but laws that are not enforced become exactly that. If nuclear arms are outlawed, only outlaws will have nuclear arms.