Nuclear Proliferation: One Cheer for Kerry

This piece appeared the week before the November 2004 election on Progressive Democrats of America ( and The Nuclear Age Peace Foundation.

On the small nuclear questions, Kerry is far superior to Bush.
On the big nuclear question, Kerry might as well be Bush.


George Bush and John Kerry both agreed during their first debate in Miami on September 30th that nuclear proliferation is the single greatest threat to American national security. They are undoubtedly correct. The late U.S. Senator Alan Cranston liked to say that if a single nuclear warhead detonates a single time in a single city in the world, all other issues will become instantly trivial by comparison.

On the small nuclear questions Kerry is far superior to Bush. But on the big nuclear question, Kerry might as well be Bush. Because neither Bush nor Kerry have come close to challenging the single greatest stimulant to nuclear proliferation: The nuclear double standard. Our nation’s nuclear narcissism. America’s nuclear hypocrisy.

“Nuclear proliferation,” said Kerry immediately when asked by Miami debate moderator Jim Lehrer to describe the greatest security threat facing the United States. Nuclear proliferation.” “I agree with my opponent,” said Bush moments later, “that the biggest threat facing this country is weapons of mass destruction in the hands of a terrorist network.”

These declarations were accompanied by many comments about the present or potential nuclear capabilities of Pakistan, Iran, Libya, North Korea, Russia, and unspecified “terrorist enemies.” But though both candidates said a great deal about the frightful dangers stemming from nuclear weapons in the hands of others, neither said a single word about the 10,455 operational nuclear warheads currently in the hands of ourselves.


On the question of North Korea’s nascent nuclear arsenal, the candidates during the first two debates engaged in a dispute so arcane that it almost seemed like a Saturday Night Live parody. Their argument about the costs and benefits of bilateral vs. multilateral negotiations (Bush favors the latter, Kerry favors both) was undoubtedly above the heads of at least 99% of the viewers, and likely swayed not a single swing state voter. Neither candidate came close to addressing the underlying issue: the motivation behind Kim Jong-Il’s quest for a nuclear arsenal.

Consider the view from Pyongyang. America maintains a breathtaking military superiority over their country (or any country) in both the nuclear and conventional realms. George Bush announces a doctrine of launching unilateral, illegal, preventive wars against any nation his Administration subjectively determines might become a threat sometime down the road. He singles out three countries as constituting an “axis of evil,” (and gratuitously reiterated that characterization at the second debate in St. Louis.) He actually starts a war against one of the three — decapitating its regime, killing the supreme leader’s sons, and driving the leader himself into a pathetic hole in the ground.

Given this track record, is it wholly unreasonable for North Korean decisionmakers to worry that the United States intends to invade their country, decapitate their government, and drive their leaders into a spider hole of their own? And is it wholly irrational for them to seek to acquire the one tool that could conceivably deter the awesome power that America can wield over them – a couple of atomic bombs?


The basic predicament, from the perspective of other countries, cannot be expressed more simply: Why can we have them when they can’t? How come the United States and a handful of countries can have thousands of nuclear warheads, but other countries can’t have even one? What’s the principle? What’s the argument? It is never said. To the rest of the world this is sanctimonious and self-righteous, and appears based on the condescending notion that some are responsible enough to be “trusted” with these weapons, while others are not.

President Bush himself, perhaps unwittingly, has managed to expose and illuminate this conceit of cultural superiority. “We owe it to our children,” he said in August of 2002, “to free the world from weapons of mass destruction in the hands of those who hate freedom.” Well that pretty much settles it, doesn’t it? Nuclear weapons in the hands of those who “hate freedom” are impermissible; nuclear arsenals in the hands of the Lovers of Freedom are, apparently, just fine with us. And just who will determine who “hates freedom” so much they must be denied the nuclear prize? Why the Freedom Lovers, of course, in whose hands nuclear weapons already presently reside.

The trouble with that is that it’s not going to be entirely up to us. When we insist that nuclear weapons are vital to our security, other countries are bound to conclude that nuclear weapons will enhance their security as well. “There is an irrefutable truth about nuclear weapons,” says Ambassador Richard Butler of Australia, who spent much of the 1990s searching for nuclear weapons in Iraq. “As long as any one state has them, others will seek to acquire them.” Far from preventing nuclear proliferation, our nuclear arsenal is in fact the greatest provocation for it.

This is especially true when the original Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) is understood in its original context. The NPT of 1970 was not just a framework to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. It was, instead, a grand bargain — where the great many “nuclear have-nots” agreed to forever forego nuclear weapons, while the few “nuclear haves” agreed eventually to get rid of theirs. The World Court concluded unanimously in 1996 that the NPT and other international legal precedents had created “an obligation to pursue in good faith and bring to a conclusion negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament in all its aspects.” Moreover, the United States recommitted itself to the grand bargain at the 30-year NPT Review Conference in the spring of 2000, where the NPT’s nuclear signatories pledged “an unequivocal undertaking … to accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals.”

If anything seems certain about the political landscape in the decades to come, it is that the nuclear status quo cannot last. We can seriously commit ourselves to fewer nuclear weapons and fewer nuclear states, or we can resign ourselves to more and more nuclear weapons floating around the world and more and more nuclear states. Stay the course, and we’ll likely witness a presidential debate 20 or 30 years hence where candidate Lindsay Lohan argues with candidate Hilary Duff — about how to deal with a world of 20 or 30 nuclear states. Continue down the same road, and our reward will be a vice presidential debate between candidates Mary-Kate Olsen and Lil’ Romeo — where each of them lectures Brazil or South Korea or Egypt or Indonesia or Japan about going nuclear, but neither says a word – any more than did Bush and Kerry — about the United States remaining nuclear.


One thing the peace and disarmament left must begin to challenge is the notion that bean counting makes any meaningful difference on the fundamentals of nuclear security. Under the Moscow Treaty of 2002, the Bush Administration has committed to reduce our active nuclear inventory to 2200 operational warheads by the year 2012. But the Moscow Treaty is probably the emptiest disarmament agreement ever signed. It’s bad enough that the warheads and missiles we have agreed to decommission will simply be put into storage – likely available for redeployment within a matter of days. (As the Italian commentator Bruno Marolo put it: “A subtle distinction is now emerging between deployed nuclear weapons and set-aside weapons, piled up in a cellar so they can age like a good wine for the next generation.”) It’s bad enough too that the treaty allows for immediate withdrawal without cause – meaning that we could move some 8000 warheads into storage between now and 2012, and then immediately redeploy them the day after the treaty expires, as if it had never existed at all.

But suppose that we do in fact actually destroy about 80% of our present nuclear arsenal, and do indeed retain only about 2200 warheads by the year 2012. What would this do to reduce the actual dangers posed by nuclear weapons? In what way exactly would 2200 warheads instead of 10,455 diminish the possibility that some simmering international impasse will spin out of control, and result – like the Cuban missile crisis nearly did — in global thermonuclear war? What does bean counting do to eliminate the unfathomable danger of accidental atomic apocalypse (as opposed to dealerting the thousands of missiles we still incomprehensibly maintain on hair-trigger, poised to be launched with less than five minutes notice)? How does our stated intention to reduce our nuclear inventory to 2200 by 2012 make North Korea or Iran feel safer today (or, for that matter, in 2012)?

Perhaps most importantly, how does simply cutting numbers reduce the risk that some malevolent creature will someday smuggle a nuclear warhead into the heart of an American city, and commit the greatest act of mass murder in all of human history? What could 10,455, 2200, or a single American nuclear warhead have done to stop Mohammed Atta – a non-state actor with nothing to deter and nothing to lose?

Our nuclear bombers and missiles and submarines were not only irrelevant to Mohammed Atta, they make a nuclear Mohammed Atta more likely to eventually emerge. Why? Because our nuclear weapons make other nuclear weapons all around the world more likely to eventually emerge, and more likely to eventually fall into the wrong hands. And because – let’s face it – it’s not impossible to suppose that someone might steal or bribe their way into getting their hands on one of ours someday. Even an extraordinarily unlikely event, over a long enough period of time, becomes virtually inevitable.

If an American city is someday obliterated by a 15-megaton nuclear device, it will matter little to the dead whether the offending warhead came from a stockpile of 10, 455 or 2200. John Kerry, however, has said nothing to indicate that he would reopen negotiations on the basic outlines of the Moscow Treaty – even though he undoubtedly envisions 2012 as the final full year of his presidency.


There is little doubt that John Kerry would be a far better president on nuclear issues than George Bush. It’s hard to argue for any higher priority than securing nuclear materials and warheads in Russia – the remains of the USSR’s 4 ½ decades of preparations for global thermonuclear war. Kerry seems to understand this, and his pledge during the Miami debate to complete the destruction of 600 tons of fissile material in Russia before his first term is out should be unequivocally applauded. Bush, on the other hand, is spending fully 12 times as much on new nuclear weapon research than on efforts to secure and dispose of loose nuclear materials worldwide.

Kerry was a staunch supporter of the nuclear freeze movement which blossomed after Ronald Reagan’s saber-rattling and victorious presidential campaign in 1980. The freeze, in fact, was one of the central planks of Kerry’s initial and victorious run for the U.S. Senate in 1984. George Bush opposes ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, while John Kerry has consistently supported it. Kerry has promised to toughen export controls, strengthen law enforcement, and work through the United Nations to make trade in WMD technologies an international crime.

And while Kerry has not categorically rejected missile defenses, it is clear that he is much less enthusiastic about them than Bush. The Administration apparently intends to declare the first elements of its ballistic missile defense operational before the end of this year. It was Bush, of course, who unilaterally withdrew the United States from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2001, a move that Kerry declared would “welcome an arms race that will make us more vulnerable, not less.”

Perhaps most significantly, Kerry has directly challenged Bush’s plan to build a brand new nuclear weapon: the “Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator.” This bomb, a good five times the size of the Hiroshima device, is being designed to burrow deep into the earth to seek out and destroy subterranean command complexes. Unlike traditional nuclear weapons that detonate above ground, this one would likely cast hundreds of tons of radioactive rocks and dirt and dust high into the sky, likely exposing thousands to slow and agonizing deaths from radioactive fallout.

So much for Republicans calling themselves the party that is “prolife.”

“Right now the president is spending hundreds of millions of dollars to research bunker-busting nuclear weapons,” said Kerry in the Miami debate. “You talk about mixed messages. We’re telling other people, ‘You can’t have nuclear weapons,’ but we’re pursuing a new nuclear weapon that we might even contemplate using. Not this president. I’m going to shut that program down.”

This is certainly a good thing, and something the left should unapologetically applaud. But it is one thing for John Kerry to oppose the development of new types of nuclear weapons, another altogether to put the thousands we already possess on the table. Kerry needs to understand that the “mixed message” on nuclear weapons isn’t just about the new weapons that the Bush Administration has begun to pursue. For decades now, the United States has said to other countries, “We need them, but you don’t. They’re good for us, but no good for you. We can have them, but you can’t. ” What kind of message does that send?


Earlier this year IAEA chief Mohamed El-Baradei delivered a blistering speech that squarely placed the blame for his difficulties stemming nuclear proliferation on the nuclear double standard. The time has come, he said, to “abandon the unworkable notion that it is morally reprehensible for some countries to pursue nuclear weapons but morally acceptable for others to rely on them.”

Nuclear weapons pollute the psyche with the arrogance of insuperable power. They create delusions of domination. With their calculations of mass casualties, they dehumanize our adversaries … and consequently ourselves. And in the age of American hyperpower, they provide American decisionmakers with very few additional policy options or political/military benefits.

This is why Ambassador Paul H. Nitze, one of the great hard-line cold warriors who died this month at 97, concluded toward the end of his life that our atomic arsenal is “a threat mostly to ourselves,” that he “can think of no circumstances under which it would be wise for the U.S. to use nuclear weapons,” and that “the simplest and most direct answer to the problem of nuclear weapons has always been their complete elimination.”

As we stand poised, perhaps, to elect a second JFK to the presidency on November 2nd, Kerry himself would do well to recall the words of the first, spoken in his first address before the UN General Assembly in 1961: “Every man, woman, and child lives under a nuclear sword of Damocles, hanging by the slenderest of threads, capable of being cut at any moment by accident or miscalculation or madness. These weapons of war must be abolished — before they abolish us.”

As the decades of the 21st Century march forward, it will become apparent that only two nuclear options will present themselves to humanity. One choice is a world of a dozen, two dozen, five dozen nuclear weapon states – and god knows how many nuclear non-state actors (i.e., terrorists). The other choice is to figure out how we can at least begin to move toward a world of zero nuclear states and zero nuclear weapons. But the notion that a handful of states can forever maintain a nuclear oligarchy, and forever frustrate the nuclear yearnings of others, is nothing but a forlorn fantasy.

It would make an enormous difference if an American president would simply state, unambiguously, that abolition is our ultimate objective. That moving to 2200 warheads by 2012 is part of a longer-term plan, or even simply an aspiration, to eventually move to zero. That when we demand that Iran and North Korea forego their own nuclear aspirations, we assure them that the double standard is not something we expect them forever to endure.

But when’s the last time you heard any American president, Democrat or Republican, say anything like that?

“If you expect to be part of the world of nations,” said President Bush during the Miami debate, “get rid of your nuclear programs.” He directed that sentence explicitly at the mullahs who rule Iran.

But if he wants them to actually listen, it wouldn’t hurt for us to begin to direct it at ourselves.

Posted in Abolishing Nuclear Weapons, Politics