President Bush’s Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) provides the right solution, but to the wrong problem. Nuclear proliferation is merely a symptom; the real issue is the nuclear weapons themselves. And, in this sense, the PSI is no more than a Band-Aid, and a quite small one at that.

The recent scandal in Pakistan, where a corrupt scientist sold nuclear secrets for profit, only demonstrates that such traffic is much too lucrative to be stopped by increased policing. For 60 years, ever since Hiroshima, the U.S. and the world have tried to control the spread of nuclear weapons. We’ve tried treaties, economic sanctions and moral persuasion. And we’ve failed.

We could not stop the Soviets from getting nukes. We chose not to resist, and actually ignored, Israel’s nuclear program. We looked the other way when India went nuclear and, thus, could do little when Pakistan followed suit. And we merely fumed when North Korea flexed its nuclear muscles. In the meantime, we have built and maintained the world’s largest nuclear stockpile.

Can we contain Pakistan’s nuclear program? Yes, we can. But first we will need to contain India’s. To do that, however, India will need to see China’s program rolled back. How does that happen? For that, we will need to start looking at our own. As my grandmother used to say, “If you point one finger at someone, at least three will point back at you.” No one said this was easy!

Are we really surprised that the rest of the world rolls its eyes when we pontificate about the dangers of nuclear weapons or weapons of mass destruction in general — as when Bush referred to them as “the greatest threat to humanity today”? What other countries doubt is our sincerity. It is hypocritical to tell the rest of the world that nuclear weapons are good enough for us, but not for them. We can’t have a world part nuclear and part not.

Perhaps the fathers of our own atom bomb — Robert Oppenheimer and his colleagues from the Manhattan Project — were correct in believing that the only real way of dealing with nuclear proliferation is to ban nuclear weapons altogether. Everywhere.

International Atomic Energy Agency head Mohamed ElBaradei understands this reality. He recently wrote: “We must abandon the unworkable notion that it is morally reprehensible for some countries to pursue weapons of mass destruction yet morally acceptable for others to rely on them and indeed to continue to refine their capacities and postulate plans for their use.”

We must insist on a nuclear-free world. We must make a sincere commitment to it at home and demand it abroad. Rather than better mousetraps for proliferating nations, we need an approach to eliminate nuclear weapons. Some may argue this is unrealistic. But no more so than the misguided, even naive, hope that a feel-good Band-Aid called PSI will make the world a safer place.

*Adil Najam is an associate professor of international negotiation and diplomacy at the Fletcher School at Tufts University. This article was originally published by USA Today on February
18, 2004.