The New Nuclear Danger

The New Nuclear Danger

Policies are more confused than at any time since the weapons were invented.


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.

The second source of nuclear danger, proliferation, is most dramatically evident in South Asia, where India and Pakistan are engaged in the first nuclear face-off entirely unrelated to the cold war. It’s difficult to predict where proliferation will occur next, but some of the main candidates are obvious: the Middle East, where Israel already possesses nuclear weapons and where Iraq and Iran are both known to be interested in acquiring them; and East Asia, where North Korea has well-developed nuclear and missile programs, and where Japan has just elected a prime minister who wishes to alter his nation’s Constitution, which now forbids the development of offensive military forces, including nuclear weapons. If unchecked, proliferation has no logical or necessary stopping point. It points to a fully nuclearized world, in which any nation seriously threatened by another will feel itself fully entitled to build nuclear arms.

Unfortunately, the two basic elements of nuclear danger do not exist in separate worlds; they fatally interact in our one world. Most important, MAD is a standing invitation to proliferation, as the nuclearization of South Asia has already demonstrated. The simple, unavoidable truth is that possession fuels proliferation. If a country that feels threatened by the nuclear arms of another accepts MAD, as the nuclear powers teach them to do, they not only are likely to develop arms, they must do so. For a government to do otherwise would be to criminally abdicate its responsibility to defend its people. (Imagine the reactions in the United States, for example, if this country somehow did not possess nuclear arms but was suddenly threatened by a country that did possess them, and some third country lectured it on the virtues of remaining nuclear-weapon-free in the name of nonproliferation.)

Enter George W. Bush. His Administration has addressed the two major elements of nuclear danger in our world. In regard to the leftover cold war arsenals, he has proposed what on the face of it appears to be the most radical shift in policy since the inauguration of the MAD system. “The cold war logic that led to the creation of massive stockpiles on both sides,” he has announced, in a refreshing acknowledgment of the new geopolitical reality, “is now outdated. Our mutual security need no longer depend on a nuclear balance of terror.” The clear promise is of a fundamentally new policy, of a “new framework,” in his words. In regard to proliferation, he has proposed to defend the United States with NMD (which was in fact embraced by President Clinton and both parties in the Senate before Bush took office). In sum, “it is time to leave the cold war behind, and defend against the new threats of the twenty-first century.” The Bush policies have the merit of acknowledging, in a way that the seemingly insensate continuation of MAD into the post-cold war world did not, the basic new realities–on the one hand, the collapse of MAD’s political underpinnings and, on the other hand, the increasing dangers of proliferation. MAD acknowledges neither. It anachronistically deals with Russia exactly as we did during the cold war (though with somewhat reduced overkill), and it fatally undercuts nonproliferation by teaching that nuclear arsenals are the key to a nation’s security. It is, indeed, the impossibility, in a MAD world, of framing effective nonproliferation policies that set the stage for NMD. If diplomacy wedded to MAD cannot stop proliferation, isn’t it time to try something else, namely defenses? In that respect, NMD is the product of MAD.

The Bush prescription, however, does not work merely because the policies it purported to replace have failed. The most notable problem with the Bush approach is that it has not provided–even in theory–policies that can make its promises a reality. Bush seeks to offer an exit from the balance of terror, but he provides no actual escape route. MAD, notwithstanding its deficiencies, is a tough old bird, and cannot be waved away with a phrase in a speech. The closest Bush has come to a concrete policy in this field has been to announce a unilateral reduction in offensive nuclear arsenals to “the lowest possible number”–a number, however, that he has not specified. But a low number of offensive warheads, however welcome in itself (press reports have suggested that the range might be between 1,500 and 2,500 warheads), gives no release from the balance of terror. It preserves it at lower levels of overkill. (Picture the United States or Russia after a thousand or so of its cities have been destroyed.) In other passages of his speeches, Bush has seemed to acknowledge that MAD will stay in effect. In a speech on May 1, he stated in a less noted passage, “Deterrence can no longer be based solely on the threat of nuclear retaliation.” The word “solely” is decisive. It means that MAD will be continued. At best, it will be supplemented by something, not replaced by it. What will that something be? Bush immediately continued, “Defenses can strengthen deterrence by reducing the incentive for proliferation.” But to add defenses to MAD is a far different proposition from substituting one for the other.

That brings us to the second problem with the Bush plan. It is the one that has led almost the entire world to reject national missile defenses. Russia fears that a resurgent United States, feeling protected by its shield, will bully it in the future, and China fears that its small nuclear arsenal will be negated. The initial goal of NMD is to protect against proliferators. But at the same time, it would upset arms control. Defenses do not enhance the existing MAD system; they undermine it. That is why the world is upset that the Bush Administration wants to jettison the ABM treaty. Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, for example, has recently written, “With the ABM treaty as its root, a system of international accords on arms control and disarmament sprang up in the past decades. Inseparable from this process is the creation of global and regional regimes of nuclear nonproliferation. These agreements, comprising the modern architecture of international security, rest on the ABM treaty. If the foundation is destroyed, this interconnected system will collapse, nullifying thirty years of efforts by the world community.” The United States’ NATO allies have just made it clear that they agree.

In the nuclear sphere, defenses and offenses are oil and water. The addition of defenses destabilizes an offensive system and vice versa. MAD is an offensive framework, depending on mutual vulnerability to make everyone cautious. A defensive framework–a so-called defense-dominated world–is imaginable. Under it, offenses would be hugely reduced or eliminated by mutual agreement, and protection from residual danger would be provided by defenses. Only when defenses could clearly overwhelm any offense would a defensive system have been achieved. At that point, and only at that point, would MAD truly be a thing of the past. This was the vision put forward, at least rhetorically, by Ronald Reagan as his ultimate goal when he first proposed strategic defenses. Like MAD, defense domination qualifies as a true framework for nuclear danger. It is one that is in fact supported by many retired civilian and military officials, including the commander of the allied air forces in the Gulf War, Charles Horner, and Reagan’s chief arms negotiator, Paul Nitze, both of whom have called for the elimination of nuclear weapons together with the creation of defenses. The only way, indeed, to make sense of antimissile defenses such as NMD is to wed them to a commitment by the nuclear powers to abolish nuclear weapons.

A further problem with NMD–certainly, the strangest one–is that so far it is a technical flop, having failed most of its tests. Aristotle said that the most important attribute of a thing is existence. NMD lacks this attribute. Or, to put it differently, it has the attribute of nonexistence. It’s been interesting to watch how this attribute has manifested itself politically. The Bush Administration announced that it means to “deploy” NMD. Deploy what, though? The Administration backed away from the Clinton plan–a limited deployment of ground-based missiles that would shoot down incoming missiles–and began to suggest even less-tested alternatives, including airborne, sea-based and space-based systems. When Bush recently sent his envoys to governments around the world to “persuade” them of the virtues of his plan, the governments learned to their surprise that nothing of a concrete character was on the table. It was one thing for Ivanov to say that “in order to hold a discussion, you have to have some subject for it, a plan, a concrete understanding of what the other side wants. For now, there are no such plans.” It was another when the American envoy Paul Wolfowitz had to confess the truth of the charge, saying, “It is much too early, I think, even for us to ask people to agree with us, because we have not come to firm conclusions yet ourselves.” The lesson may be that when you’re promising pie in the sky, you should at least have some pie.

Is it possible that the nonexistence of NMD will spare us its harmful consequences? Unfortunately, not necessarily–unless the United States either abandons the scheme or weds it to a commitment to abolish nuclear weapons. Governments make their decisions according to future expectations. The looming possibility of NMD can therefore bring many of the disadvantages of actual deployment–disruption of arms control, pressure to proliferate–without any of the advantages. NMD thus creates a political problem that it cannot technically solve. When one reflects that the more ambitious NMD programs cannot be fully deployed (if they can work at all) until 2020, it becomes obvious that this is no minor consideration.

There is, we must note, one other “framework” that is possible: the framework of American military dominance, nuclear and otherwise, of the world. As the conservative commentators William Kristol and Robert Kagan have stated, Republicans “will ask Americans to face this increasingly dangerous world without illusions. They will argue that American dominance can be sustained for many decades to come, not by arms control agreements, but by augmenting America’s power, and, therefore, its ability to lead.” If the United States does abandon all nuclear arms control (perhaps, breaking out downward, in a manner of speaking, with unilateral cuts, the better to go upward again at will) in a bid for global dominance, and if it seeks to develop not only ballistic missile defense but–what may be more serious and technically feasible–offensive, space-based weapons, then our future framework will be neither MAD nor any version of defense dominance. It will be a hellbent military competition with the other powers of the earth–not just one but many arms races, and not, in all likelihood, in the nuclear sphere alone. Some countries will likely resort to the ugly little sisters of the family of mass destruction, chemical and biological weapons.

The great nuclear powers now rely on a system–MAD–that has lost political relevance to the world we live in. The Bush Administration has promised a new framework, in keeping with the needs of the time, but this collides both with itself and reality, political as well as technical. Absent a coherent global policy that actually does address the new shape of the nuclear predicament, events are likely to be driven in the vicious circle whose operations have already landed us in a world bristling with new nuclear dangers. Continued possession will fuel proliferation; proliferation will fuel hope for missile defense; missile defense (whether it can work or not) will disrupt arms control; and the disruption of arms control will, completing the circle, fuel proliferation. A second nuclear age has dawned, and it is running out of control. No new policies now on the horizon, in Washington or elsewhere, seem likely to turn things around anytime soon.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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