To assess this question, this essay will explore the mainstream of nuclear non-proliferation action and theory, including policy under the Obama administration, as well as a particular focus on the nuclear weapons program of the DPRK (North Korea).
The position of eastern and global south countries in the system of global politics has long been marginalised by mainstream academia and thought. The current nuclear non-proliferation regime upholds Eurocentric ideas as well as the legacy of colonial violence. This mainstream non-proliferation politik has been dominated by the non-proliferation treaty (NPT), which recognises five nuclear weapons states – U.S, Russia, China, France, and Britain. The NPT holds that no other states should acquire nuclear weapons, and that all current nuclear states eventually disarm. These five countries also happen to be the UNSC-P5. According to Barkawi and Laffey, this non-proliferation mainstream is “dominated by Western great powers”. Reductions in the nuclear weapons stock by these countries have been little more than symbolic, and the NPT continues to extend its deadlines indefinitely, justifying and perpetuating the narrow selection of countries which can acceptably own nuclear weapons (i.e. the most powerful nations). Some theorists, such as Singh and Biswas, have alleged the NPT has created a state of “nuclear apartheid”; centering the material inequalities in the distribution of global nuclear resources and power. Any states which resists the state of domination in international relations by the western/northern powers is liable to the label of ‘rogue state’. The west claim a monopoly on rational decision-making, with both the neorealist and liberal approached to nuclear non-proliferation defending the legacy of colonial violence and the neoimperialist nature of international relations today.
Realists position their arguments on the basis of “rationality”, a notion constructed by Western narratives. Rationality and objectivity are only attributed to the ‘great powers’. Neorealists suggest a process of planned proliferation of nuclear weapons to states deemed ‘rational’ and ‘objective’, naturally excluding the nations of global south, victims of colonial violence and imperialism. The questions of security and horizontal proliferation are framed in a racialised and Eurocentric manner, relying on unscientific, non-contextual, and – again – Eurocentric understandings of rationality and stability. Western nations strip away agency from the global south, to act as the arbiters of justice and the movers of history.
Liberals define the west in moral terms. They equally identify states which can be trusted with nuclear weapons, and the ‘rogue states’ which cannot. According to liberals, Western democracies have the moral imperative and ethical values to impose their narratives and desires on the rest of the world. All the civilised, rational, moral characteristics held by the West become mirror opposites in the East. This is a defining characteristic of Orientalism, as defined by Said. The rationalisation of liberal superiority exists to create liberal imperialism, and undermine the sovereignty and agency of the global south. According to Gusterson, liberal western discourse on nuclear proliferation “legitimises the nuclear monopoly of the recognised nuclear powers”.
The history of the Eurocentric, colonially-minded NPT – crafted in a period of anti-colonial uprisings, and a series of national liberation movements; the former empires recognised the importance of creating the nuclear club, to deny the countries with newfound sovereignty the right to find equal military footing with their former rulers. The implication of the nuclear non-proliferation upheld by the NPT is that these nations are morally responsible in retaining and incrementally reducing their stockpiles (or, not really) and preventing the horizontal spread of nuclear weapons. Is this not Eurocentrism and Orientalism in its purest form?
The Imperialist Mindset
This section will attempt to expose the hypocrisy and contradictions of the non-proliferation regime in the West:
The obvious fact that the U.S is the only nation to have ever used nuclear weapons against another, twice, against Japan. This begs the question of why so much fearmongering takes place against so-called ‘rogue’ states, such as DPRK and Iran, who have no history of such a scale of violence, are the focus of non-proliferation actions. Similarly, why are these nations the focal concerns, when the DPRK possesses <10 nuclear warheads, and Iran holds a terrifying zero. Meanwhile, the U.S and Russia each hold several thousand, and the European nuclear states hold hundreds each. A patronising attitude prevails, wherein certain states can’t have nuclear weapons under the rules of the NPT, but the UK maintains the right to renew trident, and the U.S allocates 1 trillion dollars to nuclear modernisation. This is a clear indication of in whose interests the NPT is upheld.
Despite the NPT’s primary pillar involving a stop to horizontal proliferation, there is little condemnation from the West against the nuclear weapons of their allies, Israel and Pakistan. These countries serve as a colonial and financial asset, and are therefore able to evade criticism. There are no nuclear-related sanctions of Israel or Pakistan, but devastating sanctions and action has been taken against the DPRK and Iran; and in the case of Iraq, even war. So, who is a ‘rogue state’? Easy, it is a state which stands up to empire, it is a socialist state, it is an anti-imperialist state.
A moral imperialism? The designation of Iraq, Iran, and the DPRK as the axis of evil, the states in alleged possession of nuclear weapons at the time of declaration has been used to justify jingoistic intervention in Iraq, and further convenient foreign policy initiatives against Iran and DPRK. This sanctimonious posturing is most obvious in the Obama era, discussed later.
Under the hypocritical, loosely enforced conditions of the NPT, the nuclear umbrella, particularly, in the post-soviet era creates new tactical opportunities for colonial expansionism and neoimperialism, by preventing the acceptable creation of a nuclear deterrent. Indeed, the nuclear blackmail against Cuba and Vietnam show these avenues in action. Manuel Garcia Jr recognises that U.S policy “is to encourage other nations to abide by the terms of the NPT – and renounce nuclear weapons – whilst exempting itself”, thereby, he argues, rendering it easier for Washington to establish control over them.
Obama and Nuclear Non-Proliferation
In his Cairo speech, Obama said “no single nation should pick and choose which nation holds nuclear weapons”. The hypocrisy here is astounding, as this has been the unequivocal nuclear policy of the U.S since the creation of the first atomic bomb. In contradiction of this comment, Clinton declared in 2009 that the US may undertake first strike action against Iran to halt its nuclear weapons development. Such cognitive dissonance can only be deliberate, to justify Western nuclear monopoly and reject the agency of other nations to develop nuclear programs.
Why, I might ask, ere the nations of the DPRK, Iran, and Syria not invited to the first Nuclear Security Summit? The very same summit which spearheaded the liberal program for disarmament, also lacked the presence of the nations accused of being the most unsuitable for WMDs. Once again drawing on a colonialist notion of the moral superiority of the west, the US has designated itself, the single biggest perpetrator of violence in the 20th and 21st century, to be the moral crusader for peace and nuclear disarmament. Likely, this is little more than a cynical ploy for soft power gains, to masquerade hard power violence against the ‘uncivilised nations’, the ‘rogue states’, the ‘volatile and unstable’ states, the ‘axis of evil’, or whatever you want to call them.
Surely, in order to gain some semblance of a rightful moral position to make such arguments, total disarmament must be enacted, to set an example (e.g. as South Africa did following the ANC taking power). And to helpfully reduce the horizontal proliferation, end threats, invasions, bombings, and sanctions against countries that are opposed to the hegemony of U.S power and the influence of transnational domineering financiers.
North Korea, or, are the Koreans “mad”?
The Agreed Framework – did the U.S hold up their end of the bargain?
The framework for Korean nuclear non-proliferation included guarantees that fuel oil would be provided, as compensation for the DPRK stopping gas-cooled reactors capable of stockpiling weapons grade plutonium. This largely did not happen, and the U.S subsequently boycotted dialogue and diplomacy, and has done up until, well, the last few days, it seems. According to Knelman, “cutting off fuel oil is a form of mass extermination”.
North Korea’s nuclear weapons program is a response in recognition of U.S imperialism and aggression, both against the DPRK itself, and against similarly positioned (in terms of international relations and economic organisation) nations. The nuclear weapons program is therefore a deterrent against regime change, and DPRK have consistently indicated their willingness to end the program following a halt to threats from the US. For instance, it is rational for DPRK to maintain a nuclear weapons program after witnessing the US-backed regime change in Libya, following Gaddafi’s disarmament of Libya. Trump’s own Director of National Intelligence, Dan Coats, stated that the lessons of Libya indicated that “if you have nukes, never give them up. If you don’t have them, get them”.
The characterization of Kim Jong-Un as “irrational and insane” is a prime indicator of the pervasive Eurocentric and orientalist attitudes prevalent in the nuclear non-proliferation/disarmament mainstream. The proclaimed dangers of ‘rogue states’ acquiring nuclear weapons is a misdirection from the impact of U.S imperialism, it is a way to view events as isolated and separate, rather than a correct historical materialist analysis, recognising the interconnectedness and contradictions of history, creating action and change. The suggested threat of ‘rogue states’, such as the DPRK, is wilful ignorance on the part of anti-nuclear advocates, for they focus their efforts on a country which has no first strike policies, and no history of intra-state warfare, meanwhile ignoring the fact that the U.S does have a first-strike nuclear policy, and has, in fact, used nuclear weapons! Such a false rationale of a “volatile and unpredictable regime”, of “human rights abuses”, and “no freedom” washes the hands of the American state of its own unrivaled crimes and abuses. U.S hypocrisy is furthered in this instance by considering the impact of the Korean war. Over a million killed, land and resources destroyed, hearts and souls broken, all because the North decided to pursue a different economic path, and, to this day the U.S refuses to negotiate an official peace treaty to end the war. Instead, US-South Korea military training and exercises take place in the DMZ, 38 military bases in South Korea surround the North, and the threats and sanctions continue.
A failure to understand these material conditions, history, and a wider understanding of imperialism and postcolonialism leads anti-nuclear campaigners open to penetration by the narratives of the US national security state and its allies. Western-based campaigners must focus their efforts on domestic disarmament, and fiercely demand an end to all war and aggression on behalf of the Western/Northern great powers.
So, I leave you with these words from noted peace campaigner Ronald Reagan, indicating the necessity of the west to forfeit its nuclear weapons programs, prior to acting as moral arbiters of the world. “[Nuclear weapons are] totally irrational, totally inhumane, good for nothing but killing, possibly destructive of life on earth and civilisation”.