Exporting the Bomb: Technology Transfer and the Spread of Nuclear Weapons

  • Published

Exporting the Bomb: Technology Transfer and the Spread of Nuclear Weapons by Matthew Kroenig. Cornell University Press, 2010, 233 pp.

In recent years, the nuclear aspirations of North Korea and Iran have stoked fears that a new wave of proliferation is underway. Such fears have raised the salience of arms control, as the US government has sought to strengthen treaties and multilateral agreements to stem the spread of nuclear technology and materials. Matt Kroenig, an assistant professor of government at Georgetown University, examines the conditions which give rise to sensitive nuclear assistance between nations. Despite the common perception that the current wave of proliferation is fueled by a profit motive, he argues that assistance is motivated almost exclusively by strategic considerations.

Kroenig propounds a “strategic theory of nuclear proliferation” which posits that countries provide nuclear assistance to other countries that serve their foreign policy objectives. To be sure, some states may reap some economic benefits by transferring nuclear assistance; however, Kroenig argues that such transfers are not very profitable and are thus driven mainly by perceived national interests. Sensitive nuclear assistance, as he defines it, can take three forms: support to nonnuclear weapon states in the design and construction of nuclear weapons, the transfer of weapons-grade fissile material to nonnuclear weapon states, and assistance in the construction of facilities that can produce weapons-grade fissile material.

According to his theory, power-projecting states have more to lose from proliferation and are thus loath to transfer sensitive nuclear technology and expertise. By contrast, non-power-projecting states lack the ability to project power and thus incur fewer strategic costs when an aspirant state acquires nuclear weapons. Put another way, nuclear proliferation constrains the conventional military capabilities of power-projecting states, but is largely inconsequential to non-power-projecting states insofar as proliferation does little to alter their strategic positions.

Superpower states, because they possess power-projecting capabilities, Kroenig argues, are opposed to nuclear proliferation for a variety of reasons. First, proliferation deters military intervention by power-projecting states that must calculate the risks of escalation to include the exchange of nuclear attacks. Related to that, proliferation reduces the effectiveness of coercive diplomacy in that it undermines the credibility of the threat to use force. Proliferation can also trigger regional instability by emboldening the new nuclear states to pursue policies that threaten the regional interests of power-projecting states. Moreover, proliferation has the potential of ensnaring the power-projecting states in regional disputes. Further, alliance structures can be undermined by proliferation, insofar as it reduces the value of security guarantees, causing allies to question if their powerful patron will come to their defense if they are threatened by a nuclear power. In that vein, as the late French president Charles de Gaulle once mused, “would Washington be willing to trade New York for Paris in the event of a Soviet attack?” Proliferation also tends to dissipate the strategic attention of power-projecting states insofar as they are compelled to reapportion their strategic attention to new and potential nuclear weapon states. Finally, proliferation can spur further proliferation resulting in a nuclear domino effect.

Conceivably, proliferation could be useful to the power-projecting states insofar as it would allow them to wash their hands of the burden of providing international security to a host of nations; however, Kroenig counters that the ability to project military power is a valuable commodity in the anarchic environment of international politics, thus power-projecting states are reluctant to convey nuclear weapons technology and knowledge. Although proliferation could unburden powerful states of providing security to allies and clients, Kroenig avers that it would also deprive them of much of their power and influence as well.

Inasmuch as proliferation is still a rare occurrence, Kroenig concedes that sweeping generalizations on its patterns can be somewhat facile. Nevertheless, he advances three conditions under which states are more likely to provide nuclear assistance. First, power-projecting states are less likely than non-power-projecting states to provide sensitive nuclear assistance to other countries. Second, states are more likely to provide sensitive nuclear assistance to those states with which they share common enemy; by doing so, a nuclear state can impose strategic costs on a rival state. Finally, states that are vulnerable to superpower pressure are less likely to provide sensitive nuclear assistance.

To buttress his theory, Kroenig focuses on several case studies; first, French assistance to Israel. Notwithstanding resistance from the US government, France provided crucial assistance to Israel which enabled it to develop a nuclear weapons program. Both France and Israel shared a common adversary in Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt. In the early postwar era, France was conducting a counterinsurgency campaign in Algeria against the FLN (Front de Libération Nationale), which Egypt assisted. At that time, Egypt was the leader of a coalition of Arab states arrayed against Israel. Although the Kennedy administration sought to dissuade Israel from acquiring the bomb, a nuclear-armed France was not vulnerable to superpower pressure and felt no compunctions about assisting Israel. Inasmuch as France sought to curtail the geopolitical influence of Egypt, the French government saw strategic benefits to a nuclear-armed Israel.

For a while, the Soviet Union assisted China in its nuclear ambitions by constructing a plutonium facility and a nuclear enrichment plant in addition to providing the prototype of a nuclear weapon. In the early part of the Cold War, the United States was the Soviet Union’s overriding concern. Although the Soviet Union certainly had the capability to project military power into China in the early postwar era, it nevertheless identified the United States as its principle adversary and determined that assisting China was worth the strategic costs. However, this assistance was evanescent, as the Soviet Union under Khrushchev eventually determined that a nuclear-armed China would be counter to Soviet regional interests in Asia. By the late 1960s, the Soviet Union had reversed its position and even contemplated using military force to attack China’s fledging nuclear arsenal.

From the mid 1980s to the early 1990s, China collaborated with Pakistan on nuclear development. Specifically, China provided Pakistan with blueprints for building a nuclear weapon along with 50 kg of weapon-grade uranium. In return, A. Q. Khan provided China with knowledge on advanced centrifuge technology that he had purloined in Europe. Both countries shared common adversaries, including India and the Soviet Union. A nuclear-armed regional power, China was not influenced by either US or Soviet/Russian pressure.

Some countries have been dissuaded from providing or acquiring sensitive nuclear assistance due to superpower pressure. Argentina, for example, developed plutonium reprocessing capability and had the potential to export sensitive nuclear materials and technology, but never exercised this option. A signatory to the US–led Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance, in 1985 Argentina contemplated providing Libya with plutonium reprocessing facilities but reversed this agreement after the US government exerted pressure. Similarly, Taiwan anchored in a defense alliance with the United States, ultimately decided to forgo the development of a nuclear weapons program amid strong resistance from the US government.

Explicitly rejecting economic theories of proliferation, Kroenig argues that states convey sensitive nuclear assistance based on strategic considerations. Notwithstanding denials from Pakistani officials, Kroenig points out that A. Q. Khan’s proliferation activities were at the least implicitly endorsed by the Pakistani government. Khan’s network was implicated in providing assistance to several countries, including Iran, Libya, China, and North Korea. Consistent with Kroenig’s thesis, Pakistan is not a power-projecting country and was not under substantial superpower pressure during the period of proliferation. After the Soviet-Afghan War, Pakistani leaders felt abandoned by the United States. Moreover, as a result of the Pakistani government’s decision to detonate nuclear weapons in 1998, the US government and international governmental organizations, such as the World Bank and the IMF, imposed sanctions on Pakistan. Thus Pakistan no longer felt beholden to the United States. In the years immediately prior to 9/11, Pakistan viewed the United States as a rival and thus saw its proliferation activities as strengthening America’s rivals in Iran, Libya, and North Korea. By assisting these pariah states, Pakistan imposed strategic costs on the United States. Not until December 2003, with the seizure of the BBC China—a vessel that was caught red-handed surreptitiously carrying centrifuge parts supplied by the Khan network en route to Libya—did the Pakistani government finally halt its proliferation. By that time, Pakistan was an integral part of America’s coalition in the global war on terror.

Kroenig seeks to reconcile the so-called pessimist and optimist schools of nuclear proliferation. The former maintains that proliferation is dangerous because it increases the likelihood of nuclear conflict, while the latter counters that proliferation actually has a stabilizing effect because its deterrence effect inhibits the escalation of international conflict. For his part, Kroenig submits that it is a matter of strategic perspective—proliferation is bad for power-projecting states and may actually be good for non-power-projecting states.

Looking ahead, Kroenig observes that China, which once advocated nuclear proliferation to the third world, has since become a strong supporter of nonproliferation, as it rises to regional preeminence in Asia. Conversely, Russia, which during the Cold War was usually adamantly opposed to proliferation, has suffered a diminution of its power-projecting capabilities and is now more willing to provide nuclear assistance to other countries, such as Iran. Optimistically, Kroenig found no evidence that nonsensitive civilian nuclear cooperation contributes to the spread of nuclear weapons, thus suggesting that the grand bargain of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty was successful. He found that NPT–member states were less likely to acquire nuclear weapons than those states that are not members of the NPT. Signatories to the treaty agree to eschew nuclear weapons in exchange for technology and expertise that enable them to develop nuclear programs for civil purposes. One loophole to this regime, though, is the ease with which nuclear materials can be diverted from civil programs to military purposes.

A formidable methodologist, Kroenig marshals an impressive database and conducts a systematic analysis to support his hypotheses, though he seems to gloss over some important trends in proliferation. For instance, he gives short shrift to the economic incentives fueling proliferation. For example, North Korea’s assistance to Syria, which transpired not long after the Israeli Air Force’s raid on a nuclear complex in Syria in September 2007, would appear to be driven primarily by money. Likewise, financial considerations appear to loom large in Russia’s assistance to Iran’s nuclear program. Although the Pakistani government may have perceived strategic gains as part of A. Q. Khan’s proliferation activities, money was still the glue that held his network together which extended over the Middle East, Western Europe, China, Malaysia, North Korea, and South Africa. Skillfully assembling the required parts from a variety of sources, Khan produced a nuclear program for Pakistan. He was not dependent on a sole source for the development of the Pakistani bomb. Such piecemeal acquisition of nuclear capability dilutes the responsibility of countries involved in proliferation, and thus may not figure prominently in their strategic calculations. Moreover, in a global economy, dual-use technologies circulate around the world along with the scientific personnel who design and use them. The current wave of proliferation depends greatly on smuggling and subterfuge involving private firms which might not always receive the closest scrutiny from governments.

Also, with the growing concern over nuclear terrorism, the strategic calculations of both power-projecting and non-power-projecting states could change in the future. To prevent such an eventuality, in 2005, the UN established the International Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism, which seeks to prevent the export of sensitive nuclear technology, most notably, uranium enrichment and plutonium processing technology. Nuclear terrorism could target a variety of countries, not just power-projecting states. In fact, as Frederick Iklé observed in his book, Annihilation from Within: The Ultimate Threat of Nations, many states in the developing world have weak civil societies and could effectively implode in the event of a nuclear strike against one or two of their major cities.

These quibbles aside, Kroenig’s study is well-researched and cogently presented. It will be of interest to students of international relations, arms control, and counterproliferation.

George Michael

USAF Counterproliferation Center

Maxwell AFB, Alabama

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."