Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Nukes and National Prestige

Roy Clouser


December 22, 2006
Why is it that the ongoing concerns about, and negotiations with, North Korea and Iran over nuclear weapons manage to miss the main motivation of those countries? Does anyone believe that North Korea thinks it could attack America, or Israel, or Japan without being obliterated? If not, what does it hope to gain from such an expensive and dangerous undertaking? Consider this question particularly in the light of the bill President Bush signed into law on Monday, authorizing the U.S. to share civilian nuclear technology with India even though India has never signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

During the period from roughly 1500 to 1900 there arose a tacit gentlemen's agreement among the European powers not to invade one another but instead to duke out their competition on non-European soil. The contests among Britain, France, and Spain are well known in this regard, but those countries were not alone. Remember that New York was once New Amsterdam, that Pennsylvania was once New Belgium, and that Portugal, like others, had colonies around the globe. Thus, the hallmark of national prestige among European nations shifted from the ability to invade one another to the ownership of colonies. Russia was the big exception to this agreement and it continually tried to expand its borders.

After 1900 the story got nastier.

Germany was a latecomer to the acquisition of colonies. But as it tried to obtain them, it was muscled out by Britain and France. This happened with such precision and regularity that Kaiser Wilhelm accused the British and French of having a secret agreement against Germany. The resulting feeling of being shut out and disrespected was a major contributing factor to the Kaiser's decision to break the old gentlemen's agreement and go to war within Europe. After the Armistice, the Big Four imposed further humiliation on Germany in the Treaty of Versailles and that aided and abetted Hitler's rise to power, leading to World War II.

Today, the hallmark of international prestige is to own atomic weapons rather than colonies. This explains the exultation of India and Pakistan—and now North Korea—at acquiring them, as well as Iran's quest for them. Owning nukes is the 21st-century sign of having arrived, of being a nation that other nations will have to take seriously. My guess is that we have seen only the tip of the iceberg as far as nuclear proliferation is concerned.

If this is right, then it exposes a serious misdirection in past and present U.S. policy. The fall of the Soviet Union was a great opportunity to negotiate with Russia the mutual destruction of nuclear weapons. It was a time when the U.S. could have downplayed its power and behaved as a protector and steward in international affairs. Instead, it has flaunted its superpower status and thereby encouraged other nations to try to acquire nukes even while U.S. leaders continued to decry proliferation.

Today, we are inclined to dismiss as lunatic ravings North Korea's claim that it needs nuclear weapons to protect itself from the U.S. But we should remember that the Korean War ended because Eisenhower threatened to use atomic weapons unless North Korea agreed to negotiate a peace. In the years since, North Korea has been increasingly disrespected by, and isolated from, the rest of the world. While there are good reasons to distrust and dislike that regime, isolation plus overt disrespect add up to a mistaken policy stance by the U.S.

If we can learn anything from what happened in Germany, it should be the lesson that respect, even in the midst of deep disagreement, is as important on the international level as it is in personal relationships.

—Roy A. Clouser, Professor Emeritus
   The College of New Jersey


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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”