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The Future of Nuclear (Counter-)Proliferation (Maybe)

Outgoing Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Eric Edelman says that counter-proliferation is “becoming a bipartisan consensus,” with a special urgency on countries like Iran, and that vigorous negotiations are necessary to stop emerging nuclear capabilities. He reiterates that Iran is on the rise in the Middle East — how’d that happen? — and rejects the idea that a more-nuclear Middle East would be a rebalanced and stable Middle East. (Do people really argue otherwise?) “Diplomacy is possible,” he said, but “it will require us to rivet the attention of the international community more efficiently.” Edelman nods his head toward Wendy Sherman, his co-panelist, as a likely new administration official, to what passes for laughter at big foreign-policy conferences.

Bob Joseph, the U.S. special envoy for nuclear nonproliferation: “It’s important to support the new president in his efforts to deal with historic problems and challenges facing the United States, both in regard to the economy and in regard to national security,” he says. Very generous. He talks about Russia, where he says the “fundamental” issue is Russian leadership “seeking to reestablish Russia as a great power… to exercise Russian power and prestige around the world.” That’s not necessarily problematic, but what is a problem is Russia’s “increasingly aggressive actions abroad,” and its view of American power as a zero-sum game. (It’s kind of funny how Bush administration officials can say that about *other countries.) * Joseph says that outside “direct and intrusive sanctions” imposed by the U.N. Security Council, Iran will acquire nuclear weapons, and that requires “cooperation from Russia.”

Daniel Poneman, a longtime nuclear energy and proliferation official, ties the discussion to global climate change, “a different tipping point” than the one Perry mentioned. Moots the idea of a massive expansion of nuclear energy as a part of a solution — the process of creating nuclear power produces enriched uranium and plutonium, which “increases the risk of nuclear terrorism.” Poneman fears that avoiding a climate tipping point, the world might end up bringing about a nuclear tipping point. The alternative is to “talk to the utilities”: in other words “a leasing regime” to provide fuel for reactors but than to remove the spent fuel that could be used for nuclear weapons. He’s riffing — this is really difficult — but says “you have to avoid the third rail of political discrimination,” by which he means the regime has to include the entire world. “This will not solve the Iran problem or the North Korea problem,” Poneman concedes, but it will “put a sharp light of scrutiny on the international outliers.”

Now here’s Wendy Sherman, who offers perhaps the best window into the Obama administration. (She’s a protege of Madeleine Albright and is close with Secretary of State-designee Hillary Rodham Clinton. Wow, she just said “Bill Perry is one of my heroes.”) But she says she’s done with “all transition work” for the new administration and instead talks starkly about how she was eight hours away from staying at the Islamabad Marriott that Pakistani terrorists destroyed in the fall. Sherman talks about the need for President-elect Barack Obama to renegotiate nuclear weapons reduction treaties with Russia and other countries. In 2010, the Nonproliferation Treaty’s review conference will get underway, which requires “enormous leadership” from the United States to “impose a range of penalties for withdrawal from the NPT” while “creating access to a nuclear fuel cycle for everyone,” which speaks to Poneman’s point. The nuclear-watchdog International Atomic Energy Agency should be strengthened, as should the Bush administration’s signal proliferation effort, the Proliferation Security Initiative. “No– new– states” obtaining nuclear weapons capability. She also underscores the need for North Korean disarmament and preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons. The baton “won’t become a magic wand” in an Obama administration, though, Sherman concludes, which is a pretty cringe-inducing cliche.

Sherman says “it is quite crucial to maintain our deterrent” as Obama has said, “while we move toward the goal” of a nuclear-free world. Striking the balance is the difficulty, but she says the United States has to “define the norms” for nuclear reductions.

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