On June 12, 1982, 1 million people assembled in Central Park in New York City to protest the reckless nuclear policies of the Reagan Administration and to call for a nuclear freeze. They never assembled in such numbers again–in part because Reagan reversed course and opened nuclear arms talks with the Soviet Union, and in part because, after Mikhail Gorbachev came to power, the cold war began to wind down. The day remains in memory as a reminder of how quickly public concern over nuclear annihilation can arise and how quickly it can evaporate. When the cold war finally did end, nuclear weapons pretty much dropped out of the conscious thoughts of most Americans. The weapons themselves, however, remain in existence–some 32,000 strong at last count. Now the policies of a new administration and the rise of fresh nuclear dangers have brought the issue back to awareness. On June 10 a coalition of groups that calls itself Project Abolition will hold an antinuclear demonstration in Lafayette Park across from the White House. It will be the first major effort of its kind in the capital since the end of the cold war. The precipitating event is the new arms race that is threatened by the Bush Administration’s embrace of National Missile Defense (NMD) and the weaponization of space. A million people are not expected. But the protesters hope to make up in staying power what they lack in numbers. Their underlying cause is the abolition of all nuclear arms, and their vow is to stick with it for the duration.
It is no simple matter to take stock of the nuclear predicament in the year 2001. Under the Bush Administration, the nuclear policies of the United States–and of the world–are in a state of greater confusion than at any time since the weapons were invented. Chaos would not be too strong a word to use. In fact, the greatest current danger may lie not in one policy or another but precisely in this confusion, which leaves the world’s nuclear actors without any reliable road map for the future. It is nevertheless essential to try to understand at least the broad outlines of the new shape of the predicament. This exercise is complex and riddled with paradox and contradiction, not to mention wishful thinking and sheer fantasy, yet it is unavoidable if either policy or protest is to make sense.
Nuclear danger today has two main sources. The first is the mountain of nuclear arms left over from the cold war. The second is the proliferation of nuclear weapons to new countries. The leftover cold war arsenals are still governed by the policy that prevailed during the cold war, the doctrine of nuclear deterrence, which holds (in its most enlightened version) that the rival great powers are safest when each has the unchallengeable power to annihilate its rival. This way, no one is supposed to try anything, because if anyone does, all will die. Today the United States has about 7,200 weapons poised to fire at Russia, and Russia has about 6,000 poised to fire at us, and the continued existence of each nation depends on the reliability of the other’s forces, which is doubtful in the extreme in the case of Russia. Deterrence’s provocative other name, of course, is mutual assured destruction, or MAD, a reference to the menace of complete annihilation on which the stability of the arrangement rests. MAD’s confusing adjunct is arms control, whose aim has been to draw down the preposterous excess of offensive weapons through the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (START) while suppressing defenses by observance of the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty of 1972, until this year called the “cornerstone of strategic stability” in NATO planning papers. Defenses had to be suppressed because if they ran free they would upset the laboriously negotiated offensive reductions.
MAD, however, is not a creature of the ABM treaty; it is an inescapable condition in a world of large nuclear arsenals, against which no defenses are available. The ABM treaty merely ratifies and codifies this underlying situation, the better to negotiate the reduction–though not the elimination–of offensive forces. Other things being equal, a world without an ABM treaty would not be a world without MAD; it would be a world with MAD but without arms control.
MAD was of course a product of the cold war. It was a desperate makeshift in a desperate situation. Today, however, the cold war has long been over. The extreme peculiarity–or downright absurdity–of continuing to rely on MAD is that the political antagonism that underlay and justified it ended ten years ago, when the Soviet Union disappeared. During the cold war, the two powers threatened each other with annihilation for a reason; now they do so without a reason. Russia and the United States have no quarrel that would justify the firing of a single conventional round, not to speak of mutual annihilation. The human beings resolved their quarrels, but the weapons, displaying their characteristic astonishing immunity to political influence, evidently did not get the news. Here is a state of affairs that seems ripe for radical surgery.