America’s Nuclear Hypocrisy

The International Herald Tribune, October 21, 2002
The Miami Herald Sunday Opinion Section, October 20, 2002

So now there are nine. And counting. The flabbergasting revelation that North Korea has pursued an active nuclear arms program vividly illustrates the precarious foundations of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) itself. The rest of the world will not forever forego nuclear weapons if we insist on forever retaining nuclear weapons.

Few Americans know that our government committed to eliminate our entire nuclear arsenal when the NPT came into effect 32 long years ago. “The NPT does not simply aim to maintain the nuclear status quo,” said Ambassador George Bunn last spring, who served on the original US negotiating team. “Article VI requires that the original five nuclear weapon states pursue effective nuclear disarmament measures.” At the heart of the NPT is a grand bargain, where the non-nuclear weapon states agreed never to develop or acquire nuclear arsenals, in exchange for the nuclear weapon states agreeing eventually to get rid of theirs.

Moreover, the nuclear weapon states – pushed hard by a group of middle powers known as the “New Agenda” countries – recommitted themselves to this destination at the 30-year NPT Review Conference in spring 2000. The conference’s final statement, signed and agreed to by Washington, pledged “an unequivocal undertaking by the nuclear weapon states to accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals.”

But the Bush Administration’s “nuclear posture review” (NPR) released earlier this year indicates a clear intent to maintain a colossal nuclear arsenal for time without end. It lays out elaborate plans for designing and developing new generations of nuclear weapons for air, sea, and land deployment in 2020, 2030, and 2040. It does not name a date for when our government intends to make any “unequivocal undertaking” toward abolition.

Indeed, the New Agenda countries expressed their astonishment over the audacity of the NPR in the joint statement they issued at the 2002 NPT PrepCom just a few months ago. “Any presumption of the indefinite possession of nuclear weapons by the nuclear weapon States,” they said, “is incompatible with the integrity and sustainability of the nuclear non-proliferation regime.”

Why does this matter? Why should we bother to keep our word? Because the longer we insist on holding on to our own nuclear arsenal, the more likely it becomes that others will acquire nuclear arsenals of their own. The NPR, said the Financial Times of London, “sends a strong message to other states that the real route to power lies in nuclear arms.” India’s Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh thunders over and over again about the inherent instability of “nuclear apartheid.” “There is an irrefutable truth about nuclear weapons,” says Ambassador Richard Butler, former head of UNSCOM. “As long as any one state has them, others will seek to acquire them.”

One of the great lessons of the atomic age is that nuclear weapons have no political or military utility whatsoever. They did not enhance U.S. prospects for victory in Vietnam. They did nothing to rescue the untenable Soviet position in Afghanistan, or to keep the Warsaw Pact from coming apart at the seams. They certainly didn’t discourage Mohammed Atta and his henchmen from their foul business on 09/11/01. They made no difference at all to the exercise of American power in the 1990s in East Timor, Bosnia, Kosovo, Chechnya, Rwanda, or Somalia. Our threat to obliterate Baghdad during the Gulf War, which arguably deterred Saddam Hussein from launching weapons of mass destruction, was just as potentially devastating – and probably more credible – with conventional capabilities alone. With regard to almost any conceivable geopolitical challenge, our bloated atomic arsenal provides us with precisely zero political options.

When we insist that nuclear weapons are vital to our own security but harmful to the security of others, we become hopelessly lacking in credibility. Can anyone seriously argue that we can retain these things for 10 or 20 or 50 more years, and never have a single warhead end up in the wrong hands at the wrong place at the wrong time? There may indeed be some risks to eliminating nuclear weapons from the face of the earth. But they are far exceeded by the risks of perpetual possession, the risks of a planet forever awash in thousands of weapons of the apocalypse.

If North Korea does in fact already possess nuclear warheads, as Secretary Rumsfeld claimed Thursday, that makes nine nuclear weapon states on Planet Earth. Can there be any greater threat to human security than the possibility of a world with 10 or 20 or 30 nuclear weapon states? If that world comes to pass, some kind of nuclear conflagration – perhaps by an accidental or unauthorized launch, perhaps at the hands of a nuclear terrorist who manages to buy or steal a single warhead, perhaps by leadership miscalculation in a hot political crisis – will become virtually inevitable.

If anything seems preordained about the political landscape of the future, it is that humanity will eventually have to choose between a world of dozens of nuclear weapon states or a world of zero nuclear weapon states. As Abraham Lincoln said about a nation half slave and half free, a world with a few “nuclear haves” and a great many “nuclear have-nots” cannot forever endure.

Posted in Abolishing Nuclear Weapons