I'm sitting in a drab back room in the Gaza Strip's Deir al Bala refugee camp, discussing the latest stage of the Israel-Palestine conflict with a half-dozen or so young Palestinian men.
When George W. Bush announced from Sweden on June 14 that he planned to pull the US Navy out of the Puerto Rican island of Vieques by 2003, it struck some as odd when he referred to the people of Vieques, all US citizens, as "our friends and neighbors" who "don't want us there." It was as though he was saying Puerto Rico is a foreign country.
In reality, Puerto Rico is a colony of the United States. A consequence of this is the situation in Vieques, where the Navy has reigned over people who at another period in history were simply subjects. But the people of Puerto Rico are also human beings with a right to live and prosper that brute force cannot deny. And the fact that they are US citizens makes them more than just the President's "friends and neighbors," and connects their plight to the United States in a very direct way that the President cannot ignore.
The struggle to force the Navy out of Vieques, which goes back sixty years to when the Navy first took over most of the small island, has gathered steam since the accidental killing of a civilian Navy employee two years ago. Besides the environmental destruction and resulting health problems associated with the Navy's presence, now there was an actual victim to mourn and organize around. The people of Vieques and Puerto Rico were outraged, and the consensus that emerged was dazzling for an island nation long divided about its political status.
The pro-statehood governor at the time, Pedro Rosselló, cut a highly unpopular deal with President Clinton to hold a referendum this November to ask the people of Vieques whether they want the Navy to leave by 2003. The action cost his party the gubernatorial race last year. Buttressed by protests on Vieques in the rest of Puerto Rico and by the stateside Puerto Rican community, the new pro-Commonwealth governor, Sila María Calderón, called for an earlier referendum, to be held at the end of July, and has led the movement to have the Navy leave Vieques immediately.
In addition to such opponents of the Navy bombings as Rubén Berríos Martínez, president of the Puerto Rican Independence Party, the move to oust the Navy has gained unlikely supporters such as singer Ricky Martin, boxer Felix Trinidad, actor Benicio del Toro and the new Miss Universe, Denise Quiñones August. Backing has also come from the African-American leadership, with Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton joining the protest, and from Republican New York Governor George Pataki, whom Calderón recently endorsed for re-election even though she's a Democrat. Some of these unusual alliances result from politicians' perception of the growing clout of Latino voters and some from Puerto Rico's need for GOP support in Washington for federal funding for the island, which has no votes in Congress (it has a nonvoting resident commissioner in the House).
There were also lawsuits against the Navy by people like high-profile environmentalist Robert Kennedy Jr. and the arrests of more than 180 protesters in Vieques, including Sharpton and three New York Puerto Rican politicos. There was even a virtual protest that tied up the Navy's website for a while. The Vieques issue has gone mainstream.
Besides bringing environmental and health problems to Vieques, the Navy's presence has been an assault on democracy. The Navy has reneged on a succession of agreements it made with Puerto Rico to respect the environment and economy of Vieques and reinvest in its development. The treatment of the many protesters by Navy personnel has also brought criticism about the abuse of their rights, especially after prominent Puerto Rican officials and members of Congress were physically intimidated by the Navy, with unnecessary body searches and manhandling.
Another issue is the strong nexus between the US military and the federal judiciary in Puerto Rico, a politically unhealthy alliance that is probably more responsible than anything else for the inappropriate sentences given to many of those who practiced civil disobedience on Vieques. The federal judge meting out these harsh sentences, who is presiding over one of the major environmental and civil rights suits on Vieques, is Chief Justice Hector Laffitte, who represented the police officers who murdered Puerto Rican independentistas in the notorious Cerro Maravilla case in 1980. There has been widespread speculation about possible ties between him and the Navy, especially after his overriding of the established federal lottery system for assigning cases so that he could personally dispose of the ones concerning Vieques.
Bush's decision to stop the bombing by 2003 was an obvious concession to the fact that the people of Vieques would choose to do this anyway in the referendum. By eliminating the embarrassment of losing in a popular vote among the more than 9,000 residents of Vieques, Bush could save face and have the bonus of looking as though he was being responsive to the growing "Latino vote." The hard right in Congress and the media criticized him, however, for compromising US military readiness, while everyone else, including the odd duo of Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton and Governor Pataki, felt it was too little, too late, and called for the Navy's immediate withdrawal.
Meanwhile, the President's political expediency on this issue resulted in his undermining of the Navy's complaints about the lack of alternative training sites, which was the only compelling basis it had for arguing that it needed to remain in Vieques. Now that the Navy has resumed its bombing of the island, leading to further protests, we will soon see whether the contradictions of colonial administration in a postcolonial world will come home to roost. But whatever the outcome, it is clear that Vieques has become yet another symbol that the costs of empire may be too high even for the powerful in this new century.
The Kerrey revelations raise anew issues of morality and military power.
On a late June day that will surely have been picked by the political astrologers around him, Kofi Annan of Ghana will likely be coronated for a second five-year term as Secretary General of the United Nations. The 63-year-old Annan's first term doesn't end until December, but since there's no opposition to him, the Security Council--which decides on such things--seems inclined to formally name him in June.
The timing, of course, couldn't be better, both for Annan and the beleaguered UN system, which is hurting financially because the United States, its biggest donor, owes it more than $1.2 billion in arrears and continues to refuse to pay. A freshly crowned Annan will clearly wield re-energized clout as the General Assembly opens a special session on HIV/AIDS on June 25, a three-day conference that is expected to draw even leaders known to harbor antipathy toward the UN--such as George W. Bush.
Annan has made AIDS his special cause this year. He has established a global fund; the initial target was $7-10 billion. Bush has pledged $200 million, a sum that most AIDS activists consider inadequate. It's quite likely that Annan will coax another $300 million out of the Western Europeans. It's not at all certain that the AIDS session will end up as an exercise in effective fundraising, but its value may well lie in drawing unprecedented attention to the subject.
It's probably uncharitable to suggest that Annan's engagement with the AIDS issue flows from concern about the incipient actions of the Oslo-based Nobel Peace Prize Committee. But if Annan is honored by this body, it may well be because of the extraordinary steps he's been taking to advance public support for helping victims of HIV/AIDS. Until recently the UN's approach had been to let the issue be handled by a small, quiet unit in Geneva called UNAIDS. It is headed by a Belgian physician named Peter Piot, who has traveled the world articulating fearful statistics associated with the AIDS pandemic and gaining the reluctant cooperation of various feuding UN agencies. But Dr. Piot lacks Annan's stature and does not enjoy the benefit of his bully pulpit. Moreover, there are many competing issues within the UN system.
Whether Annan will be able to mobilize additional resources for AIDS is an open question. The world's thirty richest countries--members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development--currently give less than $40 billion annually to the poorest 135 nations. The trend has been downward for several years now, since the record foreign-aid high of $75 billion some fifteen years ago. Some suggest that the $7-10 billion target for Annan's new global fund is a conservative figure, considering that the number of AIDS-affected people worldwide may well double in the next decade from the present 33 million. Most of the victims are in poor countries--especially in Africa--where economic and social development is already faltering.
Annan's strategy has been to link AIDS to the broader issues of jump-starting economic growth and insuring environmental security. The AIDS session in New York is only one of several international meetings that Annan is convening in the next eighteen months. The idea is that these conferences will serve as a sort of continuum and fashion a body of work on development issues. The idea is also to get leaders of rich and poor countries to commit at least modest new amounts of money to tackle the widening problems of poverty. And last, the idea is to project a recharged image of the UN.
Thus, a General Assembly special session on the plight of cities was held in early June; after the AIDS conference, there will be another assembly session, on the wide misuse of small arms and light weapons, especially in poor countries, where children are often employed as soldiers and vigilantes. During the summer, there will be a climate conference in Bonn, where the Bush Administration's stance against full recognition of the harmful effects of global warming--and renunciation of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol--will surely be a major item on the agenda. Then the UN will convene in Durban, South Africa, to mobilize world support against racism and other forms of discrimination. There's a summit on issues relating to children's rights and a world food summit in Rome, both in the fall; a conference on financing for development next spring in Mexico; and a conference on the problems of aging, also in the spring, in Madrid.
All these conferences will lead up to a World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, in September 2002. Annan wants every head of state or government to attend, and he wants to review what's happened in the fields of environmental protection and poverty alleviation since the June 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. World leaders, including Bush the Elder, promised to act on the Earth Summit's Agenda 21, a sort of blueprint for global economic development, and said that the world's thirty richest nations should commit $125 billion each year in development assistance to the 135 poorest countries. Of course, no one's kept the promise.
Annan and India's Nitin Desai, his Under Secretary General for Economic and Social Affairs, aver that the decline in development assistance is unacceptable, especially at a time when globalization is leaving more and more people further behind. They cite the fact that despite worldwide improvements in such matters as infant mortality and literacy rates, some 2 billion people out of a global population of 6 billion live in poverty.
But Annan knows it's unlikely the rich nations will pony up more cash for development, particularly when public support for foreign aid is steadily losing ground in many wealthy countries. So he's trying to rally big business behind his plans. On the eve of the UN meeting on AIDS, former US ambassador to the UN Richard Holbrooke said that with Annan's encouragement, he has agreed to head the Global Business Council on HIV and AIDS, a UN initiative. Annan also recently persuaded outgoing Shell chairman and CEO Sir Mark Moody-Stuart to chair a new "business action council" for the Johannesburg 2002 summit. Moody-Stuart, a soft-spoken man who acknowledges that the energy industry's environmental record has been less than commendable, wants to devise ways whereby the business community can generate culturally and socially sensitive economic development in the poor countries; he says more economically healthy and socially stable societies are in everyone's self-interest: "Less confrontation, more cooperation--let's give it a try," he said in a London interview.
Nice sentiment. But already some nongovernmental organizations are alarmed that big business may unduly influence the UN at a time when the world body has never been more vulnerable financially. While it's unlikely that various UN organizations would rescind carefully negotiated protocols on subjects like the environment, it's not at all clear that the UN would be able to resist some sort of reciprocity for business largesse. What might such reciprocity consist of--co-branding, such as combining corporate logos with that of the UN? Or perhaps something more troublesome, such as designating UN personnel to serve as de facto commercial representatives?
No one is insinuating, however, that Kofi Annan can be bought. Indeed, the prevailing consensus in the donor community and in the corridors of the UN is that a cozier UN/big business relationship can bring another source of strength to the world body, not to mention burnish Annan's own reputation as a dynamic secretary general.
Third term, anyone?
Arriving to record a television debate at the Hoover Institution here a few months ago, I found the personnel of the preceding show still standing around and chatting. Prominent was the rather chic figure of George Shultz, former Secretary of State, who has become almost dandyish and svelte since his second marriage, to a prominent local socialite. He was reminiscing about the first time that Ballistic Missile Defense, or "Star Wars," was being marketed to the American people. It was Ronald Reagan who set up the first Strategic Defense Initiative Organization, headed by Lieut. Gen. James Abrahamson. This officer duly arrived, accompanied by a uniformed associate, at Shultz's office on the fifth floor at Foggy Bottom. The Secretary bade him welcome and said he had a number of questions about the new scheme, some of which had to do with its feasibility. Whereat the general turned to his assistant and asked, in a rather show-stopping manner, "Is the Secretary cleared for this conversation?"
Of course, Shultz ought to have turned the man out of his office right then and there. (He had, after all, refused to have anything to do with the Oliver North operation, another military usurpation of civilian authority. And while at Treasury in a previous administration, he had rejected Nixon's demand for confidential tax information on political opponents.) As it was, he was recalling the moment as one of slightly sinister absurdity. But the core of the anecdote is the clue to the utter stupidity of the press coverage of the Bush "listening tour" of Europe. It is not true that the United States wants a missile defense, while "the Europeans" remain skeptical. The Turkish military, after all, has already signaled its sympathy for the scheme. So have the yes-man regimes that owe Washington a debt for the fantasy of NATO enlargement. I would expect Tony Blair to fall into line without very much demur. (It is, after all, what he's for.) It is the people of the United States who remain substantially unpersuaded, for excellent reasons, and who have never been given an opportunity to vote for or against this gargantuan, destabilizing boondoggle.
Reagan's original speech on the subject, which purported to make nuclear weapons "impotent and obsolete," was cleverly and explicitly designed to defuse the mass appeal of the nuclear freeze movement, which nineteen years ago this June drew a million people to Central Park. By suddenly discovering that mutual assured destruction was "immoral and unstable," it spoke to the years of effort, on the part of countless physicists and activists, to point out precisely that.
The Bush propaganda scheme is typically narrower and more parochial. It may call for an empire of science-fiction hardware on earth and in heaven, but its selling point is essentially isolationist: "We" can have our very own shield against "them." (Indeed, the earlier impetus given to the project under Clinton and Gore, who could and should have stopped the demented plan but didn't, derived from poll findings showing that millions of Americans believed that the United States already had a missile-proof roof arching above its fruited plains.)
Thus, as presented and packaged, the Star Wars proposal is the apotheosis of the Bush worldview. It appeals to the provincial and the inward-looking in American culture, while simultaneously gratifying and enriching the empire-building element in the military-industrial complex. If only it could be run on oil-based products alone, it would be the picture-perfect reward for the donor-based oligarchy that underpins the regime. And, by drawing on the imagery of shields and prophylactics, it neatly conceals its only conceivable utility, which--if it worked at all--would be the development of an impregnable first-strike capacity.
Just as the MX missile, advertised as a "silo-busting" weapon, was obviously not going to be fired at empty silos, so the "shield" would be a guarantee that an aggressive launch could take place; the aggressor possessing the ability to parry any retaliatory move. There is, quite literally and obviously, no other reason for wishing to possess such a system. Once in place, it would make its own decisions, and no elected politician would ever again be cleared for any discussion of it. The militarization of the state would be complete.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once summarized the preparation for nuclear war as the willingness to commit genocide and suicide at the same time. It has never been put better. The delusion of "Star Wars" is the delusion that the "suicide" bit can be taken out of the equation. That's why we hear the absurd term "nuclear umbrella" being circulated--possibly the greatest concentration of stupidity ever packed into any two words in apposition--while the words "suicide bomber" are reserved for small-time Levantine desperadoes, of the kind who can evade any known laser or radar.
Given the Clinton/Gore sellout on this greatest of all issues, and the extent to which the commitment to "research" has already been made, the Democrats will have to move very fast to outpace the juggernaut. I'm not holding my breath. I suppose there exists one faint hope. On advice from his daddy, the President abandoned his customary unilateralism and, against the temper of his Congressional right wing, upheld the US commitment to the United Nations. A few weeks later, again after urgent paternal representations, he reversed himself on North Korea. (The conduit in this case was Donald Gregg, former ambassador to South Korea and once Bush Senior's fall guy for Iran/contra matters.) This isn't much more heartening, for those of us who would like to live in a democratic republic, than reading of Prince Charles getting a dressing-down from Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip. It's not all that encouraging to think of our first line of defense being old-style, pinstripe Republicans, from George Shultz to Donald Gregg, who survived the wreckage of previous administrations, but it may be all that we've got.
Behind closed doors at the UN and in Western capitals, government and corporate officials are arguing over the size and governance of a fund that is going to be the primary international response to the greatest public health pandemic since the Black Death.
"How would you feel if your wife and children were brutally raped before being hacked to death by soldiers during a military massacre of 800 civilians, and then two governments tried to cover up the killings?" It's a question that won't be asked of Elliott Abrams at a Senate confirmation hearing--because George W. Bush, according to press reports, may appoint Abrams to a National Security Council staff position that (conveniently!) does not require Senate approval. Moreover, this query is one of a host of rude, but warranted, questions that could be lobbed at Abrams, the Iran/contra player who was an assistant secretary of state during the Reagan years and a shaper of that Administration's controversial--and deadly--policies on Latin America and human rights. His designated spot in the new regime: NSC's senior director for democracy, human rights and international operations. (At press time, the White House and Abrams were neither confirming nor denying his return to government.)
Bush the Second has tapped a number of Reagan/Bush alums who were involved in Iran/contra business for plum jobs: Colin Powell, Richard Armitage, Otto Reich and John Negroponte. But Abrams's appointment--should it come to pass--would mark the most generous of rehabilitations. Not only did Abrams plead guilty to two misdemeanor counts of lying to Congress about the Reagan Administration's contra program, he was also one of the fiercest ideological pugilists of the 1980s, a bad-boy diplomat wildly out of sync with Bush's gonna-change-the-tone rhetoric. Abrams, a Democrat turned Republican who married into the cranky Podhoretz neocon clan, billed himself as a "gladiator" for the Reagan Doctrine in Central America--which entailed assisting thuggish regimes and militaries in order to thwart leftist movements and dismissing the human rights violations of Washington's cold war partners.
One Abrams specialty was massacre denial. During a Nightline appearance in 1985, he was asked about reports that the US-funded Salvadoran military had slaughtered civilians at two sites the previous summer. Abrams maintained that no such events had occurred. And had the US Embassy and the State Department conducted an investigation? "My memory," he said, "is that we did, but I don't want to swear to it, because I'd have to go back and look at the cables." But there had been no State Department inquiry; Abrams, in his lawyerly fashion, was being disingenuous. Three years earlier, when two American journalists reported that an elite, US-trained military unit had massacred hundreds of villagers in El Mozote, Abrams told Congress that the story was commie propaganda, as he fought for more US aid to El Salvador's military. The massacre, as has since been confirmed, was real. And in 1993 after a UN truth commission, which examined 22,000 atrocities that occurred during the twelve-year civil war in El Salvador, attributed 85 percent of the abuses to the Reagan-assisted right-wing military and its death-squad allies, Abrams declared, "The Administration's record on El Salvador is one of fabulous achievement." Tell that to the survivors of El Mozote.
But it wasn't his lies about mass murder that got Abrams into trouble. After a contra resupply plane was shot down in 1986, Abrams, one of the coordinators of Reagan's pro-contra policy (along with the NSC's Oliver North and the CIA's Alan Fiers), appeared several times before Congressional committees and withheld information on the Administration's connection to the secret and private contra-support network. He also hid from Congress the fact that he had flown to London (using the name "Mr. Kenilworth") to solicit a $10 million contribution for the contras from the Sultan of Brunei. At a subsequent closed-door hearing, Democratic Senator Thomas Eagleton blasted Abrams for having misled legislators, noting that Abrams's misrepresentations could lead to "slammer time." Abrams disagreed, saying, "You've heard my testimony." Eagleton cut in: "I've heard it, and I want to puke." On another occasion, Republican Senator Dave Durenberger complained, "I wouldn't trust Elliott any further than I could throw Ollie North." Even after Abrams copped a plea with Independent Counsel Lawrence Walsh, he refused to concede that he'd done anything untoward. Abrams's Foggy Bottom services were not retained by the First Bush, but he did include Abrams in his lame-duck pardons of several Iran/contra wrongdoers.
Abrams was as nasty a policy warrior as Washington had seen in decades. He called foes "vipers." He said that lawmakers who blocked contra aid would have "blood on their hands"--while he defended US support for a human-rights-abusing government in Guatemala. When Oliver North was campaigning for the Senate in 1994 and was accused of having ignored contra ties to drug dealers, Abrams backed North and claimed "all of us who ran that program...were absolutely dedicated to keeping it completely clean and free of any involvement by drug traffickers." Yet in 1998 the CIA's own inspector general issued a thick report noting that the Reagan Administration had collaborated with suspected drug traffickers while managing the secret contra war.
So Bush the Compassionate may hand the White House portfolio on human rights to the guy who lied and wheedled to aid and protect human-rights abusers. As Adm. William Crowe Jr. said of Abrams in 1989, "This snake's hard to kill."
George W. Bush's European trip came at a time when American policy-makers, who once dismissed the European Union for its weakness and indecision on the world stage, are worrying about Europe's more assertive foreign policy. More than once this year, Washington has found itself upstaged as Europe showed itself willing and able to defy Washington on behalf of the larger global interest--organizing international opposition to the White House's repudiation of the Kyoto accords and taking it upon itself to keep the prospects of détente alive on the Korean peninsula, not to mention the role it played in voting the United States off the United Nations Human Rights Commission and its International Narcotics Control Board.
Still, the real danger is not a European-American divide, as serious as that would be, but a Europe that reverts to its old docile self when faced with Bush Administration pressure, deferring to Washington on issues like missile defense and NATO enlargement even when it disagrees with US policy. Although more confident in the foreign policy arena than it once was, the European Union is still struggling to develop a common foreign and defense policy and is reluctant to antagonize Washington on issues central to the transatlantic relationship. But it would be a mistake for European leaders to appease this Administration in the name of good relations with Washington. For on issues like global climate change, diplomacy on the Korean peninsula, missile defense and NATO enlargement, the EU better represents American interests and moral concerns than does the current Administration.
An immediate challenge is Washington's repudiation of the Kyoto accords on global warming. Europe is currently considering whether to continue with the treaty without the formal participation of the United States, which accounts for about 25 percent of greenhouse gases. The Administration hoped that Bush's more moderate tone of late would persuade Europe to back down or that there would be a lengthy renegotiation of the accord, but his pre-departure speech flopped. Many Americans will support Europe's decision to press ahead by demanding that US companies and local governments reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. Even without full American compliance, it would keep the Kyoto accords alive.
European leaders must also stand firm on the question of missile defense. Many Americans share Europe's concerns: that Bush's missile defense will not work, that it will renuclearize great-power relations, and that it will eat up resources desperately needed to promote economic development and stability in the Balkans and other troubled regions. Only if Europe speaks with a clear and confident voice will it be possible for these American opposition voices to gain leverage in the US debate. The Administration hopes European governments will buy into the program and even cover part of the cost. But a Bush speech in Brussels to leaders of NATO countries was met with open doubts.
The Administration's plan for NATO enlargement, said to include the Baltic states, will be another test of European foreign policy. Many European leaders are skeptical about the wisdom of extending the NATO alliance up to Russia's borders. They know that what the countries in Eastern Europe need now is not a military alliance but more economic reform, more investment and more trade. They also know just how important Russia is to European security. Europe needs a constructive and reasonably strong Russia, one that can keep nuclear weapons out of the hands of criminals and terrorists, that can supply Europe and its eastern neighbors with cheap energy, that can help keep Belarus and the Ukraine from collapsing and that can help maintain order in the Caucasus and Central Asia. NATO expansion would unnecessarily put this critical relationship with Russia at risk and distract EU candidate countries from necessary economic reforms.
Europe may be reluctant to question Washington's lead on NATO issues for fear of weakening the US military commitment. But nothing should prevent Europe from staking out a contrary position on NATO that would be shared by a significant part of the US foreign policy establishment. Indeed, Europe has more leverage with Washington than at any time in the long history of the transatlantic relationship. There is now no military threat in Europe or even in the larger European zone that requires an American military presence. To be sure, Europe would prefer to have the United States shoulder part of the burden in the Balkans, particularly in Kosovo. But there is no reason it can't handle these problems without America's high-tech military, especially in light of the Pentagon's now-famous reluctance to put US soldiers at risk.
On a range of international issues, Europe brings an important perspective and experience to world affairs. It understands better than does the Bush Administration that foreign policy is more than a matter of advancing national power, and that economic development is more than imposing a free market economy without the requisite social and political institutions. Indeed, Europe's recent experience--after centuries of conflict--of pooling sovereignty, of knitting together diverse national perspectives, of encouraging democracy and economic reform and of managing more powerful neighbors is exactly what countries in Asia, Latin America and Africa might learn from. What Europe has been able to do over the past several decades and what it is trying to extend to the countries of Eastern Europe is what other regions could do to overcome decades of mutual suspicion to tackle common problems, reduce trade barriers and cooperate to stabilize currencies.
But this example will be lost if Europe remains in America's shadow, if it follows Washington's lead and makes missile defense and NATO enlargement the capstones of its international policy in the first decade of the twenty-first century. US interests and values would be better served by a Europe that acts as both a balance and a complement to American power.
The two sisters from the Our Lady of Angels convent had driven down from Pennsylvania with a message for their Congressman: Say no to Star Wars. It was proving a tough sell.
A baccalaureate should be an occasion to celebrate the present and express optimism about the future, but I must come to you today with very bad news about Russia, my subject of study, and therefore with great alarm about the future. If America's post-cold war triumphalism has led you to believe we are now safer than we were before, I recommend an adage Russians use only partly in jest: "An optimist is an uninformed pessimist."
The bad news is this: Because of what has happened in Russia since the end of the Soviet Union ten years ago, you are graduating into a world more dangerous than ever before. For the first time in history, a fully nuclearized nation is in a process of collapse. The result is potentially catastrophic.
Most of Russia's essential infrastructures--economic, social, technological--are in various stages of disintegration. The state is virtually bankrupt, unable to reinvest in those foundations or even regularly pay the wages and pensions of its own people. The country has been asset-stripped, impoverished and left on the verge of a "demographic apocalypse," as a Moscow newspaper recently termed it. Technology is breaking down everywhere, from electricity and heating to satellites.
In these and other ways, Russia has been plunging back into the nineteenth century. And, as a result, it has entered the twenty-first century with its twentieth-century systems of nuclear maintenance and control also in a state of disintegration.
What does this mean? No one knows fully because nothing like this has ever happened before in a nuclear country. But one thing is certain: Because of it, we now live in a nuclear era much less secure than was the case even during the long cold war. Indeed, there are at least four grave nuclear threats in Russia today:
§ There is, of course, the threat of proliferation, the only one generally acknowledged by our politicians and media--the danger that Russia's vast stores of nuclear material and know-how will fall into reckless hands.
§ But, second, scores of ill-maintained Russian reactors on land and on decommissioned submarines--with the destructive capacity of nuclear weapons--are explosions waiting to happen.
§ Third, also for the first time in history, there is a civil war in a nuclear land--in the Russian territory of Chechnya, where fanatics on both sides have threatened to resort to nuclear warfare.
§ And most immediate and potentially catastrophic, there is Russia's decrepit early-warning system. It is supposed to alert Moscow if US nuclear missiles have been launched at Russia, enabling the Kremlin to retaliate immediately with its own warheads, which like ours remain even today on hairtrigger alert. The leadership has perhaps ten to twenty minutes to evaluate the information and make a decision. That doomsday warning system has nearly collapsed--in May, a fire rendered inoperable four more of its already depleted satellite components--and become a form of Russian nuclear roulette, a constant danger of false alarms and accidental launches against the United States.
How serious are these threats? In the lifetime of this graduating class, the bell has already tolled at least four times. In 1983 a Soviet Russian satellite mistook the sun's reflection on a cloud for an incoming US missile. A massive retaliatory launch was only barely averted. In 1986 the worst nuclear reactor explosion in history occurred at the Soviet power station at Chernobyl. In 1995 Russia's early-warning system mistook a Norwegian research rocket for an American missile, and again a nuclear attack on the United States was narrowly averted. And just last summer, Russia's most modern nuclear submarine, the Kursk, exploded at sea.
Think of these tollings as chimes on a clock of nuclear catastrophe ticking inside Russia. We do not know what time it is. It may be only dawn or noon. But it may already be dusk or almost midnight.
The only way to stop that clock is for Washington and Moscow to acknowledge their overriding mutual security priority and cooperate fully in restoring Russia's economic and nuclear infrastructures, most urgently its early-warning system. Meanwhile, all warheads on both sides have to be taken off high-alert, providing days instead of minutes to verify false alarms. And absolutely nothing must be done to cause Moscow to rely more heavily than it already does on its fragile nuclear controls.
These solutions seem very far from today's political possibilities. US-Russian relations are worse than they have been since the mid-1980s. The Bush Administration is threatening to expand NATO to Russia's borders and to abrogate existing strategic arms agreements by creating a forbidden missile defense system. Moscow threatens to build more nuclear weapons in response.
Hope lies in recognizing that there are always alternatives in history and politics--roads taken and not taken. Little more than a decade ago, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, along with President Ronald Reagan and the first President George Bush, took a historic road toward ending the forty-year cold war and reducing the nuclear dangers it left behind. But their successors, in Washington and Moscow, have taken different roads, ones now littered with missed opportunities.
If the current generation of leaders turns out to lack the wisdom or courage, and if there is still time, it may fall to your generation to choose the right road. Such leaders, or people to inform their vision and rally public support, may even be in this graduating class.
Whatever the case, when the bell warning of impending nuclear catastrophe tolls again in Russia, as it will, know that it is tolling for you, too. And ask yourselves in the determined words attributed to Gorbachev, which remarkably echoed the Jewish philosopher Hillel, "If not now, when? If not us, who?"