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Loose nukes, uranium, and unstable states

Michael Keating at World Politics Review points to a tense political situation that the world doesn't seem to be paying much attention to -- and explains why we should be:

[A]nti-proliferationists can only be chilled by the prospect of one of the world's major producers, Niger, plunging into a constitutional crisis, one that may completely destabilize a government that has already demonstrated an inability to keep the peace in its most strategic uranium districts.

Niger's president, Mamadou Tandja, has dissolved the country's parliament rather than face the prospect of relinquishing power after his maximum two five-year terms end this year. The situation is clearly worrisome, as is (still) the country's long-running, on-and-off conflict with Tuareg rebels in the particularly uranium-rich north of the country. And as the kidnapping of a UN official some months ago under somewhat murky circumstances suggests, the connections between business, politics, insurgency, and government in Niger frequently seem to overlap.

What is most interesting to me, though, is the persistent notion that a local strongman with nuclear capability (Pakistan), or even the material to produce nuclear capability (Niger), is preferable to -- well, the unknown, but, more probably, the military, which plays a strong role in both countries. This is not surprising, or necessarily off the mark, but the fretting can sometimes surpass existing global realities that are already frightening enough to warrant vigorous non-proliferation efforts. The disturbing Iranian and North Korean paths toward nuclear weapons are obvious examples, but, perhaps even more significant is the fact that if either India or Pakistan were, disastrously, to use a nuclear weapon, it would likely be over the often forgotten Kashmir dispute.

And why folks don't panic more over the loose nukes still floating around from the breakup of the old Soviet Union, I don't know...

(image from flickr user thomasina under a Creative Commons license)

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China? Nah, not so important

Even with the stakes undeniably ratcheted up by this weekend's nuclear and missile tests by North Korea, President Obama would be very ill-advised to heed Dan Blumenthal and Robert Kagan's warmongering op-ed in today's Washington Post. Billed "What to Do About North Korea," their strategy amounts to precisely the opposite, evincing a bomb-first-and-ask-questions-later mentality that will reap none of the rewards that they bizarrely claim will follow from their advised go-it-alone approach.

Blumenthal and Kagan's chief objection is that Chinese participation in diplomacy -- as well as, more broadly, diplomacy and the six-party talks in general -- is an obstacle to detering North Korea's nuclear program. While China's reluctance to tighten sanction on North Korean leaders is indeed frustrating, it is mystifying to me how Blumenthal and Kagan can seriously contend that China "fears a unified, democratic, prosperous Korea allied with the United States" more than a nuclear-armed, impoverished state at its border, full of refugees waiting to tumble into China. A unified Korea is a laudable goal, but the notion that this prospect is achievable in the immediate future is laughable; and how an escalation of military tensions with North Korea could democratize the country is feasible only if one wants to ponder an Iraq-except-with-nukes scenario.

In two quick breaths, Blumenthal and Kagan advise the Obama Administration to "strengthen multilateral efforts to stem North Korean proliferation" and withdraw from the six-party talks. Even discounting the fact that isolating the United States in bilateral negotiations has long been exactly what the regime in Pyongyang has wanted, this is a bafflingly incoherent policy proposal. Strengthening multilateral diplomacy is generally tough to achieve when you are withdrawing from multilateral diplomacy.

Blumenthal and Kagan's ponderous accusation that including China in North Korea negotiations is more about fostering Washington-Beijing relations is belied by the tenor of their own piece, which frets overwhelmingly about "ced[ing] influence" over Korea issues to China. Their strategy is thus not only to provoke North Korea, but to provoke China into tougher action on Pyongyang. With everyone -- especially in the most affected countries, South Korea and Japan -- talking tough right now, it is not the time for making adversaries out of allies. Even -- or perhaps especially -- with few attractive policy options for the United States, China's leverage is something that needs to be used constructively, not haughtily dismissed.

(image of Chinese president Hu Jintao)
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Susan Rice on the DPRK Nuke Test

Fresh from the US-UN Mission:

Ambassador Rice: Good evening. We had a very productive and efficient meeting of the Security Council and consultations. As Ambassador Churkin said, the Council was unanimous in its strong condemnation in opposition to the nuclear test by North Korea. We will now get down to work on a Security Council resolution, which we believe is the appropriate strong response to what was clearly and unequivocally a violation of Security Council Resolution 1718 and international law. We look forward to continuing to work with colleagues in the Council in the spirit of efficiency and partnership and unanimity which was demonstrated today, which I think bodes well for a constructive outcome by the Security Council.

Reporter: ... (inaudible) Security Council put together a strong resolution with strong sanctions stipulated in there?

Ambassador Rice: I think as Ambassador Churkin said, what we heard today was swift, clear, unequivocal condemnation and opposition to what occurred. The meeting was brief and everybody spoke and everybody essentially took same view. We are now resolved to work on a resolution, we believe it ought to be a strong resolution, with appropriately strong contents, but obviously unless - until - we have completed the process of negotiating that resolution it would be premature to suggest what those contents would be.

Reporter: What does the U.S. want for sanctions?

Ambassador Rice: The U.S. thinks that this is a grave violation of international law and a threat to regional and international peace and security. Therefore the United States will seek a strong resolution and strong measures.

Reporter: (inaudible)

Ambassador Rice: I would refer you to the President of the Council for that, but I think we all agreed that work on this product will begin tomorrow.

Reporter: In terms of the measures, are you talking about further economic sanctions targeting or general asset freeze...(inaudible) that sort of stepping up?

Ambassador Rice: I think it would be premature to go into any detail about what we are contemplating, what other members of the Council are contemplating. I think the appropriate place for that would be in the process of our consultations.

Thank you.

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Ban Ki Moon on North Korea

From the UN News Center:

"The Secretary-General is deeply concerned that this act will negatively affect regional peace and stability as well as the global nuclear non-proliferation regime," his spokesperson said in a statement.

Mr. Ban "trusts that the Security Council will take up this matter to send out a strong and unified message, conducive to achieving the goal of de-nuclearization of the Korean peninsula and peace and security in the region," the statement added.

Ban, remember, is the former foreign minister of South Korea.  He's seen this movie before.

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Nuclear arms reduction actually takes, you know, reducing nuclear arms

Former G.W. Bush speechwriter Marc Thiessen somehow finds a way to argue that U.S. unilateral reductions of nuclear weapons are better than talks with Russia to reduce both of our arsenals. He seems to think that a policy of simply requesting Russia to eliminate nuclear warheads is more effective than what he sees as overly complicated negotiations toward the decidedly uncomplicated goal (yes, that's sarcasm) of achieving nuclear disarmament. Apparently, all it took to reduce nuclear weapons was a little soul-staring.

What nonproliferation steps would Thiessen have us take, then? Why, build more nukes, of course!

Instead of pressing the Senate to act on the [Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty], the administration should be calling on Congress to restore the funding it eliminated last year for the Reliable Replacement Warhead program, which would allow us to develop new warheads without the need for nuclear testing and thus ensure the reliability of America's nuclear deterrent.

To argue that developing nuclear weapons is a necessary component of American defense is one thing; to employ this paragraph as part of an arms control strategy is completely nonsensical. Achieving reductions in nuclear weapons will require negotiations; sometimes these will be complicated, and they will also require treaties. Ratifying the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and fully implementing the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty -- let alone actually meeting with other nuclear states, which I thought was a no-brainer even for Russophobes -- are two of the simplest steps the Obama Administration can take toward a sane and effective non-proliferation policy. Even dinosaurs should be able to understand that.

UPDATE: Perhaps unsurprisingly, S-G Ban agrees: multilateralism is the only way to go.

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IAEA elections, take seven

Over a month ago, the 35 countries that make up the International Atomic Energy Agency tried to elect a new Director to succede Mohamed ElBaradei, who is retiring in November. They tried, and then they tried again -- and again and again, six times in all. Each time, neither of the leading candidates, Yukiya Amano of Japan or Abdul Samad Minty of South Africa, received the necessary 2/3 vote to win.

So, the field was opened to new candidates, and it looks like a Spaniard, one Luis Echavarri, currently the Director-General of the OECD's Nuclear Energy Agency, who might break the stalemate. The question is whether Echavarri will be able to bridge the gap that doomed both Amano, who received the bulk of his support from Western nations, and Minty, the candidate favored by the developing world. Amano and Minty are also both candidates this time around, as are two other experienced European nuclear diplomats, but it's Echavarri who looks like he could be the consensus pick (interestingly, ElBaradei also had not been on the original ballot, and was chosen after a similar stalemate). Echavarri certainly seems confident:

"I can offer a solution to the standoff," Mr. Echávarri said during an interview in Madrid. "We believe a consensus candidacy is taking shape, although we need more time. My goal is to get unanimous support, and I see no reason why it shouldn't be that way."

Another diplomat, though, complained that Echavarri was not "inspiring" enough. With North Korea threatening more nuclear tests and Iran's centrifuges still spinning, though, the IAEA might not have time to find the most "inspiring" candidate.

Stay tuned for updates.

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Hans Blix: UN is Not Outdated

Russia Today has an interview with Hans Blix, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency who is perhaps most remembered for not having enough time to look for weapons of mass destruction leading the weapons inspections team in Iraq prior to the invasion. Here he talks non-proliferation and urges moving beyond a Cold War mentality (calling the "League of Democracies" a "useless idea"). Candid about the flaws and benefits of the UN, he calls the body a "village council for the world" and argues that it is not an outdated institution.

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Kissinger’s Preconditions

Remember back during one of the presidential debates last fall, when the two candidates spent a rather excrutiating amount of time quibbling over whose foreign policy platform Henry Kissinger would more agree with? The issue was mainly one of Republican pride, as it would seemingly amount to apostasy for a veteran GOP foreign policy stalwart like Kissinger to "side" with a relative neophyte like Barack Obama. But it was also seen as a test of the legitimacy of Obama's then contentious talk-to-foreign-leaders approach. With a grizzled realist's stamp of approval, Obama was on solid ground, or so the logic went.

Kissinger is in The Washington Post today, and he (basically) makes sense, arguing that "the issue of proliferation is intrinsically multilateral" and that "bilateral U.S.-Iranian talks are indispensable." But on North Korea, he seems to have taken a step back.

North Korea has recently voided all concessions it made in six years of talks. It cannot be permitted to sell the same concessions over and over again. The six-power talks should be resumed only if Pyongyang restores the circumstances to which it has already agreed, mothballing its plutonium reactor and returning international inspectors to the site.

Those sound awfully like preconditions, even if allowing inspectors to return should be a first-order move. I can't speak to the nuances of Kissinger's previous North Korea position, but he seems to be responding to Pyongyang's brazen fire-a-missile-then-kick-out-nuclear-inspectors tactic. But holding out from the six-party talks would be playing right into North Korea's hands here. If they're the ones threatening to leave the talks, there's no sense to reciprocate with further threat-mongering.

I, for one, am not willing to wait for "mothballs" to accrue in North Korea's nuclear facilities before engaging in the talks to close down those facilities.


(image of Yongbyon nuclear plant, from flickr user earthhopper under a Creative Commons license)