The Growing Nuclear Peril

The Growing Nuclear Peril

A more virulent nuclear era has superseded the perils of the cold war.


On June 12, 1982, one million people assembled in Central Park in New York City to call for a freeze of the nuclear arms race. In the years that followed, the cold war waned and then ended, and the strategic nuclear arsenals of the United States and the Soviet Union were not only frozen but cut to about half of their peak. In the early post-cold war years, it seemed conceivable that nuclear arms might be on their way to obsolescence, and nuclear danger pretty much dropped out of the public mind.

It’s now clear that these hopes were ill founded. The nuclear dilemma was not going away; it was changing shape. Four years ago, I asked in a special issue of this magazine whether the nuclear arsenals of the cold war were “merely a monstrous leftover from a frightful era that has ended, and will soon follow it into history, or whether, on the contrary, they are the seeds of a new, more virulent nuclear era.” The seeds have now sprouted, and that new era is upon us in South Asia and elsewhere.

Today, twenty years after the June 12 demonstration, some of us who were present at the event believe that the time has come again for the public to make its voice heard in protest against the direction of nuclear policies, and we are therefore issuing the Urgent Call on the following page. As one of its signatories, I wish to explain why I think this is necessary. Passages from the Call are in bold print; the commentary is in ordinary type.

“Despite the end of the cold war, the United States plans to keep large numbers of nuclear weapons indefinitely.”

According to President George W. Bush, the recently signed Moscow Treaty, under which the United States and Russia have agreed to a limit on deployed strategic weapons of no more than 2,200 each, “liquidates the legacy of the cold war.” Rarely has more contradiction, misdirection and confusion been compacted into a single phrase. Let us count the ways.

(1) The cold war—the global ideological struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union—in fact ended definitively in 1991 with the disappearance of the Soviet Union from the face of the earth. The President at the time, Bush’s father, told us so. As one Russian wag recently commented, “I’m tired of attending funerals for the cold war.” The cold war is over. Long live the cold war.

(2) Does liquidating the legacy of the cold war then perhaps mean liquidating the nuclear arsenals that were built up in the name of that struggle? No. Not a single nuclear warhead will be dismantled under the treaty. Even the deployed weapons will, when the reductions are complete, be quite sufficient for either country to blow up the other many times over. It is better that the excess warheads will be in storage than on hair trigger alert, but the move only reduces the overkill. All the kill remains. In other words, at the treaty’s expiration, in 2012, more than two decades after the disappearance of the Soviet Union, the nuclear policies–as distinct from the active and alert force levels—of the two nations will not have changed in the slightest particular.

(3) If neither the cold war nor its nuclear arsenals are being liquidated, does the treaty at least consolidate a postwar friendship between Russia and the United States? On the contrary, the United States has introduced a fresh note of suspicion into the relationship by insisting on storing rather than dismantling the “reduced” weapons in order to “hedge” against some undefined deterioration in relations with Russia–notwithstanding the new consultative relationship of Russia with NATO. One day, the United States thus declares to Russia, 2,200 nuclear weapons may not be enough for dealing with you; we may again need 10,000. That message is reinforced by a shortening of the usual six-month withdrawal time in treaties to three months.

(4) Does the treaty liquidate anything, then? Yes–nuclear arms control. The Bush Administration, which resisted putting even the Moscow agreement in treaty form, has let it be known that it intends no further arms control treaties with Russia. On June 13, the United States will formally withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty. The world, President Bush is saying, has had all the nuclear disarmament it is going to get out of the end of the cold war. But if the twice-announced end of that conflict cannot get Russia and the United States out of the trap of “mutually assured destruction,” what can? Nothing is on the horizon. Woodrow Wilson fought the “war to end all wars.” George Bush has signed an arms control treaty to end all arms control treaties.

“The dangers posed by huge arsenals, threats of use, proliferation and terrorism are linked….”

It’s all a matter, as we’ve learned to say of the pre-September 11 intelligence failures, of connecting the dots. The failure of the end of the cold war’s political hostilities to bring with it the end of the cold war’s nuclear arsenals is a fact of prime importance for the era that is beginning. No longer justified as a remnant of the old era, they have now become the foundation stone of the new one. They relegitimize nuclear arsenals at lower levels. The plain message for the future is that in the twenty-first century, countries that want to be safe need large nuclear arsenals, even in the absence of present enemies. This of course is a formula for nuclear proliferation.

The place in the world to look today for a portrait of proliferation is South Asia, where India and Pakistan are closer to nuclear war than any two countries have been since the Cuban missile crisis, or perhaps ever. According to a recent government study, 12 million lives are at immediate risk. A multiple of that could be the eventual total. The world has scarcely begun to absorb the meaning of these figures. It is a crisis in which almost every conceivable form of violence and threat of violence is tied into a single knot. Up to a million men facing each other across an 1,800-mile border are primed for a World War I-style conventional war. Between them is a disputed territory, Kashmir. On that territory a liberation movement pits an indigenous Muslim minority against Indian repression in the part of Kashmir under its control. Extremist groups in Kashmir and supporters who cross the border from Pakistan to aid them add the incendiary ingredient of terrorism. In a deadly new combination, terrorism threatens to unbalance the balance of terror. The leaders of both countries—the dictator Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan and the head of the Hindu fundamentalist Bharatiya Janata Party, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee of India–have taken “tough” stands from which they can withdraw only at high political cost. In a groggy atmosphere of global inattention and inaction, the two nations drift toward nuclear war. Its outbreak would change history forever.

Even as the great powers’ fresh embrace of their nuclear arsenals incites proliferation, proliferation (to further connect the dots) fuels the terrorist danger. A world of multiplying nuclear powers will be a world awash in nuclear materials. To give just one instance, it is known that the Pakistani nuclear-weapon scientist and Muslim fanatic Sultan Bashiruddin Mahmood has visited Osama bin Laden to talk over nuclear matters. A few months ago, bin Laden announced—falsely, we can only hope—that he possessed nuclear arms, and it is known that the Al Qaeda network has sought them. In a May article in The New York Times Magazine, complete with washed-out, vaguely postapocalyptic photographs of New York, Bill Keller reported that forestalling such an attack is now one of the highest priorities of the federal government.

The relegitimation of nuclear weapons in the toothless Moscow Treaty, the rising danger of nuclear war in South Asia and the spreading fear of nuclear terrorism in the United States and elsewhere are only the most recent harvest of danger–three new dots on the single, terrifying emerging map of the second nuclear age.

“Safety from nuclear destruction must be our goal. We can reach it only by reducing and then eliminating nuclear arms under binding agreements.”

The Bush Administration, which is acutely aware of the dangers of both nuclear terrorism and nuclear proliferation (Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has called the use of a weapon of mass destruction on American soil “inevitable”), has consistently turned to military force as its chosen remedy. Its formula for dealing with terrorism is to overthrow states that harbor terrorists. Its program for stopping proliferation is likewise overthrowing some states—perhaps beginning with the government of Iraq—that seek to engage in it. The new strategy has been codified in a new Nuclear Posture Review, which proposes a policy of ‘offensive deterrence,’ under which the United States threatens pre-emptive attack, including possible nuclear attack, against nations that acquire or threaten to use weapons of mass destruction. Disarmament has become an occasion for war. But force is more likely to incite proliferation than to end it. In a world whose great powers were committed to nuclear disarmament, the decision by other nations to forgo these weapons would be consistent with national self-respect. But in a world in which one self-designated enforcer of a two-tier nuclear system sits atop a mountain of nuclear bombs and threatens destruction of any regime that itself seeks to acquire them, such forbearance becomes national humiliation–a continuation of the hated colonial system of the past, or “nuclear apartheid,” as the Indian government put it.

The Urgent Call, by contrast, proposes a return to the tested and proven path of negotiation, through which 182 countries have already agreed, under the terms of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, to stay out of the nuclear weapons business. The call raises the banner of a single standard: a world without nuclear weapons.

“We therefore call on the United States and Russia…to move together with the other nuclear powers, step by carefully inspected and verified step, to the abolition of nuclear weapons.”

The goal of nuclear abolition, it is true, is ambitious, and the difficulties are mountainous. Many will say, as they have throughout the nuclear age, that it is unrealistic. They would perhaps be right if we lived in a static world. But events—in South Asia, in Central Asia, in the Middle East, in New York—are moving at breakneck pace, and the avenues to disaster are multiplying. A nuclear revival is under way. A revival of nuclear protest is needed to stop it.

Dear reader,

I hope you enjoyed the article you just read. It’s just one of the many deeply reported and boundary-pushing stories we publish every day at The Nation. In a time of continued erosion of our fundamental rights and urgent global struggles for peace, independent journalism is now more vital than ever.

As a Nation reader, you are likely an engaged progressive who is passionate about bold ideas. I know I can count on you to help sustain our mission-driven journalism.

This month, we’re kicking off an ambitious Summer Fundraising Campaign with the goal of raising $15,000. With your support, we can continue to produce the hard-hitting journalism you rely on to cut through the noise of conservative, corporate media. Please, donate today.

A better world is out there—and we need your support to reach it.


Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

Ad Policy