Are we winning or losing the battle against proliferation? This simple question does not have a simple answer because bad headlines mask quiet progress.

Since the 1960s, reports on the status of proliferation have almost always been pessimistic. It doesn’t pay to wear rose-colored glasses in this business, since optimistic projections can lead to broken careers. Besides, there is usually ample reason for pessimism because the hardest cases overshadow modest gains. One example: more countries are signing up to the Additional Protocol, but Iran still restricts access at suspect sites.

And yet, deeply pessimistic proliferation forecasts do not have a good track record. The long view usually turns out to be more positive than snapshots of problem cases. A recently declassified State Department cable, courtesy of the National Security Archive and the Wilson Center’s Nuclear Proliferation History Project, is illustrative. This cable, dated June 6, 1979, focuses on Pakistan’s determined, clandestine quest for the Bomb, and its likely repercussions for India and beyond. It warns that US nonproliferation policy “could collapse under the weight of two additional nuclear weapon states” – a common projection back then. The NPT regime has managed to survive negative developments on the subcontinent, thanks to the determined efforts of its protectors and positive trends on other fronts.

True to form, most assessments of the contemporary state of nuclear danger are pessimistic, with worries that the NPT regime could collapse under the weight of unchecked Iranian and North Korean nuclear programs. President Obama and Governor Romney have both said that an Iranian bomb will lead to a nuclear cascade. William Walker’s new book, A Perpetual Menace (2012) concludes with a warning that the NPT regime may be “heading for the rocks.” Francois Heisbourg, in a paper written for the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center (“Nuclear Proliferation – Looking Back, Thinking Ahead: How Bad Would the Further Spread of Nuclear Weapons Be?” dated April 4, 2012), concludes that, “There are strong and mutually reinforcing empirical and logical reasons” that explain why the future of proliferation will be more bleak than the past. He points to “a nuclear arc-of-crisis from the Mediterranean to the Sea of Japan” that would, at best, backpedal the NPT regime to the 1970s and at worst, foreshadow its breakdown. To support his analysis, Heisbourg points to illicit supply networks, technical trends simplifying enrichment, and “black swan” events.

In contrast, Jacques E.C. Hymans offers an optimistic view in “Botching the Bomb: Why Nuclear Weapons Programs Often Fail on Their Own – and Why Iran’s Might, Too” in the May/June 2012 issue of Foreign Affairs. Hymans argues that, “[T]the fact is that since the 1970s, there has been a persistent slowdown in the pace of technical progress on nuclear weapons projects and an equally dramatic decline in their ultimate success rate.” By Hymans’ calculations, the average timeline for programs to seek the Bomb prior to 1970 was around seven years. The average timeline for successful projects after 1970 was about seventeen years. In his view,

The great proliferation slowdown can be attributed in part to U.S. and international nonproliferation efforts. But it is mostly the result of the dysfunctional management tendencies of states that have sought the bomb in recent decades. Weak institutions in those states have permitted political leaders to unintentionally undermine the performance of their nuclear scientists, engineers, and technicians… [long break] The more a state has conformed to the authoritarian management culture typically found in developing states, the more time it has needed to get its first bomb and the higher its chances of failure.

The NPT regime has been important and resilient enough to withstand the demise of the Soviet Union and the nuclear weapon programs of India, Pakistan and Israel. A new, positive element in proliferation equations is state-of-the-diplomatic-art sanctions, which do not substantially figure in the assessments by Walker, Heisbourg, and Hymans. While it’s true that dysfunctional management tendencies retard proliferation, they don’t prevent it. Hymans is, however, right in emphasizing that proliferation has now become a slow-motion affair. The terminology of “cascade effects” is neither helpful nor likely, given this trend. Proliferation doesn’t cascade; hedging strategies do – and hedging strategies at present will depend primarily on what kind of nuclear program Tehran seeks.

So, who’s right – proliferation optimists or pessimists? Are the challenges ahead more severe than before? I don’t think so, but they sure do seem familiar. I’m not nearly as optimistic as Hymans, nor as pessimistic as Walker and Heisbourg. That makes me a cautious, heretical optimist.

(Update, May 13 | See the second part of this post.)

(See also Michael’s Nov. 2009 post on predicting proliferation. -Ed.)