In other words, disarmament wars are not the invention of Obama or even Bush; they have been "on the table" of US policy for almost two decades. The fact is that after the cold war ended the United States, by an almost unnoticed cumulative process, turned for the first time in the nuclear age to a policy of using force to stop proliferation.
This change, though little noticed, sharply reversed a longstanding policy of a precisely opposite character. All previous nonproliferation efforts by the United States, or any country for that matter (the exception that proved the rule was Israel's Osirak attack), had been conducted by political means alone, mostly diplomacy. No president had resorted to force to stop any country from going nuclear. The global triumph of this universal policy had been the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), opened for signature in 1968, under which five nations (the United States, the Soviet Union, Britain, France and China) were permitted to go on possessing nuclear weapons while all others, today numbering 184, voluntarily renounced them. The double standard was tolerated because the five nuclear weapons states promised in Article VI of the treaty to eventually get rid of their arsenals.
This grand consolidation of nonproliferation by diplomatic means was largely prompted by a proliferation crisis that in many respects resembles those of Iran and North Korea today: the first Chinese nuclear test, in October 1964. At that time, China's head of state, Mao Zedong, was the Saddam Hussein or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of his day. In Western eyes, he was an irresponsible, extremist head of state who could not be trusted with nuclear weapons. (Soviet leaders were by then considered comparatively sober and sensible.) Mao, indeed a leader of radical bent, had made shockingly casual references to nuclear slaughter. For instance, he said, "As for China, if the imperialists unleash war on us, we may lose more than 300 million people. So what?" (However, as soon as he got the bomb, Mao adopted extremely cautious nuclear policies, which have been continued by China to this day.)
As the scholar Francis Gavin has shown, the Chinese test led the United States to launch a full-scale, government-wide examination of nonproliferation policies. Disarmament war — today's choice — was considered and rejected. Instead the United States adopted the diplomatic policies that eventually led to the NPT. These were continued unbroken until the end of the cold war.
Why was this policy, which led to the renunciation of nuclear weapons by 184 countries, abandoned? Why was an era universally recognized as a time of unrelenting tension (the cold war) accompanied by peaceful nonproliferation policies, while a period of comparative relaxation (the post–cold war period) was accompanied by warlike ones?
Certainly one reason was the widely accepted idea following the Soviet collapse that the United States, as the world's "sole superpower," possessing unchallengeable military superiority, was in a position to dictate to the world. The lesson that a postcolonial world was resistant to American military power, indeed to any bullying by great powers, was forgotten. But another, more important reason had to do with the evolution of nuclear danger itself. From the very earliest days of the nuclear age, knowledgeable people, particularly the atomic scientists of the Manhattan Project, had understood that proliferation was not an incidental feature of the nuclear predicament; it was its essence. They had only to look at their own numbers, which included refugees from some half-dozen countries, to know that what they could do with the first nuclear explosion in New Mexico others would eventually be able to do elsewhere. The first Soviet test, in 1949, confirmed their belief. They knew that nuclear danger stems from scientific findings, and that it is in the nature of such findings to spread. And there was no limit to this spread. Over time, it must extend to all nations. This was true of the vacuum tube, radar and antibiotics, and it is true of the nuclear bomb. That was its destiny. Like the rain in the Sermon on the Mount, nuclear know-how descends on the just and the unjust alike.
This does not mean that every country will build nuclear weapons, but it does mean that every country (and some groups that are not countries) will be able to build nuclear weapons if it so chooses. Today the number that can is estimated to be upwards of fifty, and climbing. A conclusion follows: if there is to be safety in the nuclear age, it would be guaranteed not because countries cannot make the bomb but because they have chosen not to — as so many have under the NPT, including South Africa, Argentina, Brazil and Libya. Moreover, that choice must not be merely a passing affair; it must be a sustained choice, a choice for the long run.
In the first decades of the nuclear age, however, these elemental truths faded from sight. One reason was that although proliferation of the relevant know-how was unstoppable, it was also slow. For some decades, nuclear technology was within the reach only of the greatest powers, who cultivated the illusion that what came to be called "the nuclear club" could be confined to them. The NPT's double standard, dividing the world into two classes of nations — the nuclear weapons states and the nonnuclear weapons states — also reflected this illusion. More important was the cold war, which set in motion the rise of the colossal American and Soviet world-smashing arsenals, which came to define what nuclear danger mainly was. The nuclear dilemma thus came to wear what can be called a bipolar disguise. Its multipolar essence was concealed. In the presence of the unlimited danger posed by the two superpowers, proliferation — a word that was restricted to mean smaller powers that might aspire to the club — seemed like a secondary concern. Nuclear danger indeed became so thoroughly associated with the cold war that when that conflict ended, many made the mistake of imagining that nuclear danger had ended, too. They could not perceive that the danger was only then beginning to approach its mature form, destined from its inception, of arising at all points of the compass, and that this emerging peril required a rethinking of nuclear policy as deep as any undertaken in the nuclear age.
Therefore, it was with a certain surprise that the policy-makers discovered that nuclear danger was by no means a thing of the past after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 — something brought sharply to their attention by decisions taken in such places as Pyongyang, Delhi, Islamabad and Tehran. The bomb, formerly a superpower monopoly reserved for the globe's elite, was now spreading to the back alleys of the world, as had been predicted long ago. Any ruffian might get his hands on it.
It was in this atmosphere that the long, fruitful tradition of disarmament by diplomacy was shelved and the policy of disarmament by force so thoughtlessly adopted. The nuclear age had reached a crossroads. The end of the cold war had pulled the rug out from under the double standard. The nuclear powers, then numbering six (counting Israel's covert arsenal) faced a choice: join the large club of the non–nuclear weapons states, making it universal, or cling to the double standard and start patrolling its borders with force. The nuclear powers, led by the United States, chose force.
It was the wrong choice — as wrong as the choice for the NPT had been right in the 1960s. The new policy was singularly ill adapted to the developing realities. The requirement of the new era was for countries to make enduring commitments to renunciation of nuclear weapons. But force, in its very nature, can be only a quick fix, and often not even that. The outlook for force in Iran illustrates the problems very well. Everyone agrees that at most, airstrikes can retard Iran's nuclear program by only a year or two. There seems every likelihood that the day after the first bombs fell, Iran would withdraw from the NPT, expel the IAEA inspectors and inaugurate a nuclear weapons program, which it would disperse and move underground to elude further destruction from the air.