The threat of weapons of mass destruction is back, in this new century, as the most serious challenge to international peace and security. Current reports cite 10 to 15 countries as either having or seeking to acquire such weapons. Is Iraq unique, or is the war in Iraq the new model for solving nonproliferation concerns? Is there still hope for alternatives less unpredictable in outcome and less costly in terms of human life?

In the bipolar world of the Cold War, nuclear deterrence was used to maintain an uneasy security that covered the superpowers, their allies and their spheres of influence. The end of the Cold War was one huge step forward, but the failure to capitalize on the opportunities it offered — to fill the void with a new, inclusive scheme for international security — may have taken us two steps back. Old ethnic conflicts and cultural disputes that had lain dormant both between and within nations were reawakened. The United Nations system of collective security, paralyzed during the Cold War, has not yet been able to reinvent itself to cope with these changing times and new threats. Longstanding conflicts, such as those in the Middle East and Kashmir and on the Korean Peninsula, have continued to fester with little prospect of settlement. And new conflicts have either been mishandled, as in Rwanda and Burundi, or dealt with outside the United Nations system, as in Kosovo.

The result is to some extent a standoff: On one side is the sluggishness of the declared nuclear weapons states (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States) in moving forward on their commitments to disarm under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. This sluggishness is matched on the other side by the foot-dragging of some nonnuclear-weapons states in enacting legal instruments that would empower the International Atomic Energy Agency to verify compliance with their nuclear nonproliferation commitments. Between these two groups are several others: states that enjoy the protection of the nuclear “umbrella” of one or more of the nuclear weapon nations; states that remain outside the nonproliferation treaty — i.e., India, Israel and Pakistan; countries within the treaty that nonetheless are suspected of pursuing clandestine nuclear weapons programs; states that pursue the “poor man’s alternative” of chemical or biological weapons; and subnational terrorist groups that, in view of the events of September 2001, would not hesitate to acquire and use such weapons.

Must we conclude, therefore, that it is futile to try to control weapons of mass destruction through a collective, rule-based system of international security — and that the only available alternative is a preemptive military strike based on a premise that a country may be harboring such weapons? I believe we must reform the former rather than resorting to the latter.

This requires that the U.N. collective system of security be reinvigorated and modernized to match realities — with, for example, agreed limitations on the use of veto power and readily available U.N. forces that possess the flexibility to respond to a variety of situations. But it also requires that we understand the link between security and the underlying urge to acquire ever more potent weapons arsenals.

The greatest incentives for acquiring weapons of mass destruction exist in regions of chronic tension and longstanding dispute. It is instructive that many suspected efforts to acquire such weapons are in the Middle East, a hotbed of conflict for more than a half-century. We cannot continue to pretend that old wounds, if left unattended, will heal of themselves. Settlements for these chronic disputes must be pursued in earnest, and weapons proliferation concerns must be treated in parallel, as part of the overall settlements.

We must resolve to treat not only the symptoms but also the root causes of conflicts — foremost the divide between rich and poor, schisms between cultures and regimes in which human rights are brutally suppressed.

Finally, no collective system of security is sustainable if it is premised on continuing the asymmetry between the nuclear haves and have-nots. As the Canberra Commission stated a few years ago, “the possession of nuclear weapons by any State is a constant stimulus to other States to acquire them.” The new vision of international security must work toward eliminating this asymmetry by delegitimizing weapons of mass destruction, and it must be inclusive in nature, guaranteeing that every nation that subscribes to the new system will be covered by the security “umbrella.”

Only by eliminating the motivation to acquire weapons of mass destruction can we hope to significantly improve global security.
* Mohamed ElBaradei is director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency.