Anyone watching the news over the past couple of months will have noticed a flurry of action from two of the nations in former President Bush's infamous "Axis of Evil." North Korea tested a long-range missile on April 5 and a nuclear weapon on May 25, both with mixed results. At least one, and perhaps two of the missile's three stages failed. And the yield of the warhead appears to have been only a few kilotons. Meanwhile, Iran erupted in turmoil after accusations of election fraud in favor of its hard-line president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in a situation that is still unfolding.
This news, most of which is disturbing and destabilizing, has many questioning what is going on, what to do about it, and what it should mean to those who are working for a world free of nuclear weapons. Two myths, in particular, deserve debunking.
Myth #1: There is a military-based solution to the problem
Taken together, North Korea and Iran demonstrate the fatal limitations of counter-proliferation: a strategy that accepts a two-tier system of nuclear haves and have-nots and seeks to prevent nuclear proliferation when it threatens to break out. That is, these two nations prove that we cannot simply bomb our way out of nuclear breakout.
Some, like columnist Bill Kristol, have urged air strikes against North Korea. This advice is spectacularly myopic and insanely dangerous. North Korea has a standing army of 1.2 million, making it the fifth-largest military in the world (in terms of personnel) and the largest per capita (one in five of adult men is in uniform). This force is mere hours from South Korea, where more than 25,000 U.S. troops are stationed. Moreover, it is estimated that North Korean artillery positions could drop half a million shells in the first hour of hostilities on the Southern capital of Seoul, home to more than 20 million people.
Iran also presents itself as a challenging dilemma. A nuclear Iran is unacceptable, given the existential threat it would pose to Israel, and the possibility of its igniting an arms race in the Middle East. But the consequences of unilateral, preemptive air strikes against Iran's known nuclear facilities-leaving aside the illegality of such action under international law-would be catastrophic.
First, it would be impossible to destroy Iran's nuclear capability entirely, meaning that in the wake of such action we would face an enemy still capable of acquiring a nuclear weapon, and with bolstered resolve to do so.
Second, an attack on Iran, given the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, would prompt a global backlash of violent opposition from the Muslim world, resulting in a net decrease of global and U.S. national security.
Third, such aggressive action by the West is the only force capable of radicalizing Iran's progressive, pro-Western youth, who make up the majority of the population (60 percent of Iranians are under the age of 30)-a fact demonstrated by the way in which President Ahmadinejad has used inflammatory rhetoric to bait the West and create the perception of an external enemy, in order to bolster domestic support.
In sum, solving these crises requires a commitment to engaging intractable problems with creativity and constant attention-while resisting the tempting, but ultimately catastrophic, urge to seek a military solution.
Myth #2: North Korea and Iran prove the impossibility of nuclear disarmament
The prospect of complete nuclear disarmament, dismissed as utopian even a few years ago, has emerged as a serious and credible policy goal, with champions like former Cold Warriors such as George Shultz, Sam Nunn, and Henry Kissinger. In a speech on Palm Sunday in Prague, President Obama called "for the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons," and this goal is having a demonstrable effect on American nuclear policy.
Critics of this promising development point to Iran and North Korea as examples of why they believe a world free of nuclear weapons to be impossible. Such criticism is profoundly misguided, for two reasons.
First, even supporters of disarmament recognize that the goal will be long and hard-fought. No long-term goal can be evaluated in terms of viability by immediate-term results. Every ambitious aim in human history has appeared, in its infancy, to be impossible. With audacious goals, the difference between impossibility and inevitability has always been perseverance.
Second, to cite North Korea and Iran as examples of the impossibility of disarmament is to ignore the way in which these two crises are products of their environment. In our present context, nuclear weapons are the exclusive possession of global powers-so we can hardly be surprised that other nations will want them.
When we assume that nuclear weapons are going to be around forever, it is inevitable that lesser powers will seek them to bolster their status and influence. Then, when nuclear powers respond disapprovingly, it sounds like preaching temperance from the atomic barstool.
But nuclear weapons are not particularly useful militarily; if they were, they would have been used in the more than half-century since WWII. Rather, they are status symbols-and yet other weapons of mass destruction, like bio or chemical weapons, are not. No nation seeks to achieve global legitimacy by acquiring, for example, the bubonic plague.
The status conferred by nuclear weapons, however, is a mutable condition, dependent upon common agreement-in other words, it doesn't have to be this way. This is why recent statements affirming a world free of nuclear weapons, by Presidents Obama and Medvedev (who lead countries that together possess 95 percent of all nuclear weapons on the planet) are so important.
As we move closer and closer to international agreement that weapons of mass destruction have no place in the family of nations, and represent a threat to all of us, then breakout nations like Iran and North Korea cease to be countries striving for legitimacy-they instead become threats to global peace and stability.
This context matters, as demonstrated by the increasingly desperate rhetoric coming from Iran in response to the recently renewed American commitment to multilateral disarmament.
The takeaway is this: If we continue on a course where nuclear weapons are the unique possession of elite nations, then intractable breakout crises like Iran and North Korea are inevitable. A commitment to global disarmament will not solve our current crises; they cannot be wished away, and must be dealt with prudentially, using ongoing, creative, and open-ended methods. But the pursuit of a world free of nuclear weapons will greatly enhance our credibility in dealing with such crises in the immediate term, while simultaneously helping to create a global climate that is far less conducive to nuclear breakout.
Tyler Wigg-Stevenson is Director of the Two Futures Project .