|Source: Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Jan 2001 v57
Title: Commit to abolition.(ICBM nuclear warheads)
Full Text COPYRIGHT 2001 Educational Foundation for Nuclear Science, Inc.
DEAR MR. PRESIDENT-ELECT: THE END OF THE COLD WAR HAS brought a great paradox. The risk that a political/military confrontation between Moscow and Washington might escalate into a global thermonuclear Armageddon has virtually vanished. But the possibility of some kind of nuclear conflagration has actually increased.
The most immediate danger is that a nuclear weapon might be launched without authorization or by accident. This danger increases as Russian command and control over its arsenal declines due to political instability, lack of funds, sagging military morale, and deteriorating equipment. Consider the Soviet coup in 1991--as Bruce Blair, the president of the Center for Defense Information, observed at an international relations meeting at UCLA last September, in August 1991 command and control of the entire Soviet nuclear arsenal fell into the hands of "desperate men drinking a lot."
Or consider the "launch-on-warning" posture of U.S. and Russian intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), enabling them to be launched swiftly after detection of incoming warheads but before those warheads hit their targets (which include the missiles themselves). Launch-on-warning carries the continuous and grave possibility of omnicide by false alarm--and hundreds of false alarms have occurred over the years. More than once the world has been brought within minutes of accidental atomic apocalypse.
During the campaign, candidate George W. Bush pointed out that the "high-alert, hair-trigger status" employed by both sides is an "unnecessary vestige of Cold War confrontation" that "may create unacceptable risks of accidental or unauthorized launch."
Why not, as one of your first acts as president, bring launch-on-warning to an end, and order that all ICBM warheads be separated from their missiles and moved to distant locations? The U.S. ability to deter threats from any rational foe would still exist. The country would still have its nuclear weapons and an overwhelming conventional advantage over any conceivable combination of adversaries for decades to come.
[Graphic omitted]Mr. President-Elect, any deterrent effect that hair-trigger alert and launch-on-warning may offer is far outweighed by the risk of literally destroying the world by mistake. There is no reason to live with this risk any longer. Bring an end to this ultimate accident waiting to happen.
MANY AMERICANS MAY not realize that the U.S. government committed the nation to abolition 30 long years ago in Article VI of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1970 (NPT). The international community forged a grand bargain between the "nuclear haves" and the "nuclear have-nots" in that treaty. More than 100 non-nuclear weapon states (182 today) agreed never to acquire nuclear arsenals--on the understanding that the five states that then possessed nuclear weapons would get rid of theirs.
Since then, no non-nuclear nation that signed the treaty has acquired nuclear weapons (Pakistan, India, and Israel did not sign). Iran and North Korea, and perhaps Libya, have flirted with acquisition, and Iraq is almost surely trying to fabricate a nuclear bomb at this very moment, creating a first-class threat that you may have to deal with in the next four years.
The record is not perfect, but if multilateral negotiations were directed clearly toward abolition as a goal, these rogue states would find themselves subjected to an array of political, military, economic, diplomatic, and world public opinion pressures that would make it immensely more difficult for them to pursue nuclear weapons.
The record of the five nuclear powers suffers by comparison. They all still have their weapons. There is a broad consensus among the nuclear have-nots that the nuclear five have not made any serious attempt to comply with their Article VI obligation. "The NPT is supposed to lead to a nuclear-free world," said Ben Sanders, a member of the Dutch delegation at the recent NPT Review Conference. "The non-nuclear countries see it as a bargain which the weapon states have failed to keep." Of grave concern to the non-nuclear nations is the fact that the most recent official guidelines on the use of nuclear weapons, Presidential Decision Directive 60, issued in November 1997, directly contradicts the U.S. NPT commitment by stating that the United States will continue to rely on nuclear arms as a cornerstone of its national security for the "indefinite future."
Mr. President-Elect, the United States simply cannot indefinitely maintain that an atomic arsenal is vital to its national security while simultaneously arguing that if other nations acquire atomic weapons it will be harmful to their national security and to global security.
Growing pressures forced the U.S. government--along with the governments of the other four major nuclear states--to formally reiterate the commitment to nuclear disarmament at the NPT Review Conference in May. An increasingly influential group of middle powers known as the "New Agenda"--Ireland, Brazil, Egypt, Mexico, New Zealand, South Africa, and Sweden--acted forcibly to pressure the nuclear states to take tangible steps toward fulfilling their Article VI obligations. The group had the support of most of the 155 non-nuclear states in attendance. In the conference's final statement, the nuclear five--feeling the heat--pledged "an unequivocal undertaking to accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals."
The NPT regime reflects widespread international agreement about a fundamental truth of the nuclear age. The rest of the world will not forever forgo nuclear weapons if the five do not actually get rid of theirs. This has become a greater concern since the detonations by India and Pakistan in the spring of 1998.
[Graphic omitted]And it is why Jonathan Schell observed in the September/October 2000 Foreign Affairs that the U.S. arsenal is probably best thought of not as a deterrent but as a "proliferant." "As long as these weapons exist in the arsenals of some," says South Africa's Deputy Foreign Minister Abdul Minty, "others will aspire to possess them."
AS A CANDIDATE, GEORGE W. BUSH SUGGESTED DEEPER cuts in the U.S. arsenal than the Clinton/Gore administration ever contemplated, stating, "The premises of Cold War nuclear targeting should no longer dictate the size of our arsenal.... I will pursue the lowest possible number consistent with national security.... We should not keep weapons that our military planners do not need."
What I did not hear, and what the rest of the world needs to hear, is a conceptualization of such initiatives as steps on a journey toward worldwide abolition. Total elimination is the only way to thwart rogues or terrorists who want to smuggle a bomb in on a ship or across a border. Neither deterrence nor missile defense will suffice.
The presidential campaign talked a great deal about fiscal issues--Medicare, Social Security, prescription drugs, tax cuts, paying down the debt, and so on. But neither candidate said a single word about the $37 billion American taxpayers continue to spend annually on maintaining the nuclear arsenal--adding to the estimated $5 trillion-plus that these weapons have cost since the dawn of the nuclear age. Surely these mind-boggling sums can be better expended to serve the interests of the American people.
In October 1999, Amb. Paul H. Nitze, one of the great hardline Cold Warriors, concluded in a New York Times article that the U.S. atomic arsenal is "a threat mostly to ourselves," and that he "can think of no circumstances under which it would be wise for the United States to use nuclear weapons." Nitze therefore advocates that the United States rely on its great conventional capacities and get rid of all its nuclear weapons--simply, immediately, and even unilaterally.
I am not advocating that the United States eliminate its nuclear arsenal unilaterally. But I believe it should take the lead in moving to eliminate all nuclear arsenals universally.
Opinion polls repeatedly find that more than 80 percent of Americans would feel safer if there were no nuclear weapons altogether. Similar numbers turn up in poll after poll around the world. Mr. President-Elect, you should act in accordance with the fact that the NPT is not only about nuclear non-proliferation, but about nuclear abolition. I urge you to move forthrightly toward zero nuclear weapons by initiating an "unequivocal undertaking" toward that goal.
What kind of undertaking? How about launching international negotiations directed toward producing a universal, verifiable, and enforceable "Nuclear Weapon Elimination Convention"? Its goal would be to require the dismantling and destruction of every nuclear warhead on Earth, an inventory of all weapons-usable fissile material, a ban on its production, a reliable verification system, and an absolutely certain enforcement regime.
Schell, in his piece in Foreign Affairs, persuasively argues that stemming the "proliferant" pressures that the existence of the U.S. nuclear arsenal generates need not await the actual achievement of abolition. Designing and negotiating a nuclear weapon elimination convention will be maddeningly complex, and will require, in Schell's words, "a masterpiece of science, diplomacy, and statecraft."
The chasm between nuclear haves and have-nots cannot be bridged in a single stroke. But if you make clear that you intend to work toward such a convention, Mr. President-Elect, you will tell the world that you intend to lead the way toward abolishing nuclear weapons, and the world will follow your lead.
IN THE END, THE NUCLEAR QUESTION IS NOT A POLITICAL OR a military issue. It is a moral question. To indefinitely base U.S. national security on the threat to incinerate millions of innocent souls is a policy unworthy of a great nation, unworthy of a free and democratic society, unworthy of civilization. Nuclear deterrence, at bottom, represents a profound failure of moral principles.
Indeed, the nuclear sword of Damocles that has been poised above us all since 1945 carries the possibility not only of mass slaughter, but of extermination. Mr. President-Elect, even the barest possibility that we could obliterate it all through thoughtlessness or miscalculation is beyond toleration.
Most U.S. presidents of the nuclear age, including John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton, have advocated elimination. Richard Nixon signed the NPT; the Truman administration put forth the "Acheson-Lilienthal Plan," a proposal that advocated the outlawing of atomic weapons. No president advocated abolition more frequently and emphatically than Ronald Reagan. In their meeting in Reykjavik, President Reagan and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev actually considered the elimination of all nuclear weapons, but no president has formally initiated negotiations with other nations to fulfill the grand bargain pledged in the NPT.
Shortly after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, I met Albert Einstein. He warned me, as he warned others, that if we did not abolish this new weapon altogether, it could abolish all of us. On December 31, 1999, Time magazine named Einstein its "Person of the Century." If you lead this great nation down the road that Einstein advocated, you would immediately become the early favorite to grace Time's cover on December 31, 2099.
The abolition of nuclear weapons, after all, could literally save the world. When will we ever do it, if not now? Which president will do it, if not you?
Alan Cranston represented California in the U.S. Senate from 1969 to 1993. He is president of the Global Security Institute in San Francisco, California.