Copeland: Which state nuclear program poses the greatest threat to global security today?

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19 February, 2013
By: Daryl Copeland

Former diplomat; research fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute

In the post-Cold War world, it is development – long term, equitable, human-centred and sustainable – rather than defense which represents the foundation of durable security.

Armed force is both too sharp and too dull an instrument to address the fundamental problems associated with globalization. Pandemic disease can’t be garrisoned against, hunger bombed away, or alternatives to the carbon economy occupied by expeditionary armies.

In a world afflicted by a dizzying array of challenges for which there are no military solutions, weapons programs in general, and nuclear weapons programs in particular represent a significant misallocation of scarce international policy resources.

Of course, the world we’ve got is a far cry from the world we need, and many governments remain convinced that security is essentially a martial art. Although there have been some significant examples of countries turning away from the nuclear option – South Africa, Argentina, Brazil, Libya (no small irony there…), and several of the former Soviet republics – it is hard to ignore the fact that all permanent members of the UN Security Council are nuclear armed.

In a system dominated by rule-makers, it is hardly surprising that the rule-takers bridle under the weight of multiple contradictions. The “say-do” gap is widening as credibility and legitimacy erode.

Unless and until the status quo states set a better example – for instance, by addressing inequality, poverty, public health and other drivers of insecurity – aspiring powers, and especially those who feel existentially threatened, will be tempted to follow their lead.

Equally troubling, some non-state actors will seek recourse in religious extremism and political violence, raising the spectre of suitcase bombs and nuclear terrorism.

All of which is to say, getting to the question at hand requires a substantial preamble.

So, who to worry about most? Bearing in mind all of the considerations set out above, I would propose Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea.

Without understating the risks, and even in the absence of providing selection criteria or rationale, I maintain that each of these examples is symptomatic of larger global asymmetries which remain unresolved.

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