Editor's Note: The following is reprinted with the permission of World Politics Review. For more from WPR, sign up for a free trial of their subscription service, get their weekly e-mail, or follow them on Twitter. Alexander K. Bollfrass is a visiting scholar at the Stimson Center. He has written widely on nuclear weapons.
By Alexander K. Bollfrass, World Politics Review
Eight years after Moammar Gadhafi gave up his mail-order nuclear weapons program and chemical munitions in exchange for détente with the West, he has been chased from power by a ragtag rebel army backed by Western airpower. Chances are that Gadhafi regrets his decision to forgo his WMD programs. If he had been armed with nuclear or chemical weapons, NATO might not have intervened when he threatened to massacre his own people.
While Gadhafi's fall is good news, the end of the eccentric colonel's dictatorship now heightens the challenge of getting the Irans and North Koreas of the world to give up their nuclear ambitions in exchange for better relations with the West.
Before the bombs started falling on Tripoli, the intellectual and legal momentum behind such an intervention had been building for years. Through the work of academics and humanitarian advocates, the idea known as the "responsibility to protect," or R2P, has emerged as an increasingly mainstream norm among Western policymakers. R2P emphasizes the responsibility of states to protect their populations and permits international intervention if a government is unable or unwilling to prevent mass atrocities against its people.
In March, the international community did not dither when Gadhafi appeared to be preparing a massacre in Benghazi. R2P was used to justify the first U.N.-sanctioned humanitarian intervention in a sovereign country against the wishes of its government. The architects of the intervention were some of the very same countries that had convinced Gadhafi to give up his weapons of mass destruction eight years earlier: France, Britain and the United States.
Parallel to the humanitarian community's development of the R2P doctrine, another community of foreign policy thinkers, those worried about the spread of nuclear weapons, had worked to promote an idea with very different implications for sovereignty. They reached the conclusion that fear of outside intervention was among the many factors driving governments to build weapons of mass destruction. For this reason, they argued, it was necessary to assuage that fear with the offer of a security guarantee once the government could prove it had abandoned its WMD ambitions. In Libya, this security-assurance principle successfully brought the archpariah of the 1980s back into the international fold in 2003.
The contradictory doctrinal developments in humanitarian and security circles are not abstract intellectual exercises; they have practical implications. In light of the Islamic Republic's crushing of the Green Movement in 2009, it takes little imagination to see a Libya-like situation emerge in Iran. Iranian leaders weighing the pros and cons of coming clean over their country's nuclear program might look closely at what happened to Gadhafi after he surrendered his weapons program. They might also consider Saddam Hussein and his nonexistent weapons of mass destruction, while contrasting both these dictators with Kim Jong Il and his unpunished nuclear roguery and human rights violations. They might come to the conclusion that nuclear weapons are useful. In fact, we need not speculate about such a scenario, for this is essentially what Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said at the start of the Libyan campaign.
The Iranians are not the only ones learning this lesson, one that sets the stage for a future in which nuclear weapons are prized as a counterweight to the threat of international intervention represented by R2P and its inherent challenge to state sovereignty. Instead of greater openness and West-friendly behavior, the response of the rogue states would be deeper retrenchment under the cover of asymmetric WMD capabilities.
How can the West make clear that these governments do not need such weapons to protect themselves, while at the same time emphasizing that mass violence against civilians is intolerable?
After Libya, it will no longer be credible to issue security guarantees while denying the possibility of a future humanitarian intervention. Therefore, the least-bad option is to explicitly address R2P in any future bargaining to bring proliferators in from the cold. When forgoing regime change in exchange for the verified renunciation of weapons of mass destruction, the West should include a clause in any agreements negotiated with these nations that they do not have carte blanche with their populations and that mass atrocities might still provoke an intervention. Such an R2P clause might make these bargains harder to strike, but it would squarely address the elephant in the negotiating room.
While nuclear and other indiscriminately destructive weapons might seem to offer short-term protection against an interventionist West, they cannot protect abusive regimes against their own people in the long run. The Soviet Union's massive nuclear arsenal did nothing to prevent its disappearance, nor did apartheid South Africa's nuclear arms uphold its system of racial oppression.
That is not to minimize the grave threat that weapons of mass destruction pose to global security. Every available tool - including security assurances - must be used to combat them. Yet these assurances cannot be absolute, and must make it clear that mass violence against civilians will not be tolerated under any circumstances.
The views expressed in this article are solely those of Alexander K. Bollfrass.