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The leader of a country that joined the alliance would have to take responsibility for the country’s doing everything technically possible, as fast as possible, to prevent nuclear terrorism. Meanwhile, member states would be required to deposit samples of nuclear materials in an international library that would be available for use in identifying the source of any weapon or material that found its way into terrorists’ hands.

Members of the alliance would together clarify the practical meaning of accountability in the event that a weapon or material was used by terrorists against another state. If nuclear weapons or materials should be stolen, states that had satisfied the requirements for assured nuclear security, met the new standards in securing their materials, and made their safeguards sufficiently transparent to the other members would be judged less negligent. States that were unwilling to participate fully in the alliance would automatically raise suspicions.

Members of the alliance would also undertake to clarify the consequences of knowingly allowing nuclear materials to fall into terrorist hands. Those consequences would not necessarily involve military retaliation; alternatives such as exacting financial reparations would certainly be explored and might prove more realistic. Consequences would also be different for different violators, since threatening nuclear retaliation against Russia would not be credible.

Currently, the only state that could plausibly choose to sell a nuclear bomb to terrorists is North Korea. Since it may have 10 weapons, the sale of one or two would make little difference to its deterrent posture. An economically desperate mafioso state, North Korea has demonstrated a willingness to sell whatever it makes to whoever will pay.

To deter Kim Jong Il from selling a nuclear weapon to terrorists, the U.S. government should act now to convince him that North Korea will be held accountable for every weapon of North Korean origin. Ideally, the United States would act in concert with Russia and China in taking a page from John F. Kennedy’s playbook during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The announced policy of nuclear accountability would warn Kim unambiguously that the explosion of any nuclear weapon of North Korean origin on the territory of alliance states or their allies would be met with a full retaliatory response ensuring that it could never happen again.

Success in the war on terrorism will require a combination of policy imagination and technological inventiveness. Visualizing the alternative–a world of nuclear anarchy–should stimulate us to rethink nuclear unthinkables.

Graham Allison is a professor of government at Harvard University and the director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Kennedy School of Government. He was dean of the Kennedy School from 1977 to 1989, special advisor to the U.S. secretary of defense from 1985 to 1989, and assistant secretary of defense for policy and plans from 1993 to 1994.

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Credit: Bettmann/Corbis

Tagged: Communications, nulcear, terrorism, detection

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