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Source: The Nation, May 29, 2000 v270 i21 p5.

Title: Nuclear Madness.

Full Text COPYRIGHT 2000 The Nation Company L.P.

One day early in the month I heard an astonishing announcement on the radio. I was on my way to get a cup of coffee before teaching a class in Middletown, Connecticut. I noticed that it was a few minutes to 9, and I decided to catch the top of the news. The station was the local NPR outlet, and the first thing I heard was the announcer saying, "At the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty conference in New York, the five major nuclear powers have announced their unequivocal commitment to eliminate nuclear weapons." No further detail was offered. Had the great turning point come? Had the United States and the other nuclear powers decided, after fifty-five years of living with the threat of nuclear annihilation, to disburden themselves and the world of this curse without limit?

Skepticism was in order. I went to the Internet, where, strangely, the news was not yet in evidence. Some phone calls revealed that the five would release a statement later in the afternoon. I permitted myself--perhaps a little willfully--a measure of hope. I pictured the five foreign ministers at a press conference announcing their historic change of heart and of policy. Even if the spectacular announcement was mainly rhetorical, I reflected, it would be a helpful benchmark in the coming fight for a world free of nuclear weapons. The news was worthy of the day around me: It was the peak of spring, the sun was shining, a cool breeze was blowing, the flowering trees were in full bloom. Was it possible that we were at last on our way to lifting the shadow that we had cast with our own human hands over all of this, over life on earth itself? And why not? Was it so implausible? Why, as the new century begins and ten years after the end of the cold war, should we endure any longer the presence among us of 32,000 nuclear weapons, in the hands of growing ranks of nuclear powers? As soon as one imagined that the decision had been made, it all seemed perfectly obvious--a matter of elementary common sense, the bare minimum of sanity and decency.

Well, it turned out, of course, that my imaginings had indeed been dreams. In actuality, the commitment was nothing more than routine lip service at the NPT conference by the five powers, in which they "reiterate" their "unequivocal commitment" to the "ultimate" goals of "a complete elimination of nuclear weapons and a treaty on general and complete disarmament...." The word "reiterate" (signaling "nothing new here"), the inclusion of the word "ultimate" (the internationally recognized code word for "never") and the coupling of nuclear abolition with the distant goal of "complete disarmament" gave the game away. There had been no change of heart, no change of policy. The nuclear powers were kicking dust in the world's eyes.

If anyone doubts this, they only have to read the language, made known to the world in the current issue of The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, of the "talking points" given US officials for negotiations with Russia on the US proposal to field a National Missile Defense. The Russians should not worry that NMD will erode their capacity to destroy the United States, the negotiator is supposed to say, because "both the United States of America and the Russian Federation now possess, and, as before, will possess under the terms of any possible future arms reduction agreements, large, diversified, viable arsenals of strategic offensive weapons consisting of various types of ICBMS, submarine-launched ballistic missiles and heavy bombers."

In other words, as far as the United States is concerned, the "unequivocal commitment" to nuclear abolition apparently is to be achieved without the help of "any possible future arms agreements." (The document did not say how the unequivocal commitment would be honored.) The actual US policy, which is in fact to keep its nuclear arsenal indefinitely, was also revealed by the US response to a Russian proposal that in a potential START III agreement the sides reduce their arsenals to 1,500 strategic warheads each. No, the United States answered, we require--even in the context of mutual reductions--an arsenal of 2,500 nuclear warheads. Two thousand five hundred, evidently, is the point at which START stops. In case these statements were not clear enough, Deputy Secretary of Defense John Hamre gave the true US position once and for all in a little-noticed statement he made at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska: "Nuclear weapons are still the foundation of a superpower. That will never change."

It would be too simple, though, merely to accuse the United States of hypocrisy. The disorder is deeper. US nuclear policy since the end of the cold war has fallen into incoherence. At the root of the problem is the severance of nuclear strategy from connection with any current political reality. The cold war produced nuclear policies that were contradictory and self-destructive (envisioning, as they did, mutual assured destruction as the lodestar of strategy) but not incoherent. Whatever one thought about the policy of nuclear deterrence, it had the virtue of providing, for a time, an agreed-upon framework within which policy-makers on both sides of the conflict could assess the meaning of events--to judge what was "destabilizing" and what was stabilizing, what was provocative and what was reassuring. This consensus was lost with the end of the cold war, which, of course, was the political context that lent deterrence whatever sense it had.

Now, Administration policies are, on the one hand, still guided by deterrence, exactly as if the cold war were continuing. That is why Administration planners say that the reliance of the United States on nuclear weapons "will never change" and refuse even to consider reducing nuclear arsenals below some thousands of weapons. Yet, on the other hand, the Administration does know that the cold war is over, and that is why, with increasing frequency, it at the same time tries to persuade the world of its "unequivocal" commitment to nuclear abolition. It knows, too, that its own half-concealed determination to preserve nuclear arsenals indefinitely is a fatal flaw in US efforts to stop nuclear proliferation, including the incipient arms race in South Asia, and that is another reason that, in public negotiations like the NPT review conference, Washington falsely asserts its readiness to live in a world without nuclear weapons.

Meanwhile, a new, third nuclear strategy, incompatible with both of the Administration's contradictory commitments, has arisen. This is the resolve of the majority of Republicans in the Senate to protect the United States from nuclear war by developing antinuclear defenses. The defenses they envision go far beyond the limited protection against "rogue" states that the Clinton Administration is trying to convince the Russians to accept by reminding them of Russia's overwhelming deterrent power. In the Republican vision, which harks back to President Reagan's hope for a space-based shield that would protect the United States against the Soviet arsenal, the goal of US policy, in the words of a recent report by the United States Space Command called Vision for 2020, should be "dominating the space dimension of military operations to protect US interests and investment" [see Karl Grossman and Judith Long, "Waging War in Space," December 27, 1999]. In such a world, plainly, nuclear deterrence would be a dead letter.

As if all this weren't chaotic enough, the Russians are pursuing a none-too-clear fourth vision. Fearful, after NATO expansion and the Kosovo war, of encroachment by the self-styled "only superpower," they have given nuclear weapons a new salience in their policy.

These four contradictory frameworks--the Administration's policy of cold war deterrence (sans cold war), into which it somehow hopes to incorporate an NMD; the world's expectation and demand for the abolition of nuclear weapons, to which the Administration pays lip service; the Republican vision of a solution to nuclear danger through antinuclear defenses, which would upend deterrence entirely; and a weakened Russia's resolve to preserve the nuclear parity won by the Soviet Union--are now on the verge of an incredibly complex multiple collision that has the potential to leave the arms-control agreements of the past forty years a shambles.

One more passage from the leaked American talking points for discussions with Russia on an NMD can serve as an illustration of the sort of unreal and senseless deliberation that is accompanying the slide toward disaster. The US negotiators, having depicted in glowing terms the capacity of Russia to annihilate the United States (but why?), are encouraged to go on to point out to the Russians the great value of a launch-on-warning posture for their forces. "Furthermore," the paper helpfully notes, "it is highly unlikely that any enemy [i.e., the United States] would ever contemplate a first strike, since it would have to assume that Russian ICBMs and submarine-launched ballistic missiles/nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines in port would be launched after tactical warning, which would neutralize the effectiveness of the assault."

A policy of tactical warning, commonly known as launch-on-warning, is the policy of responding to nuclear attack in the interval between the detection of an attack and the arrival of the bombs. Reliance upon it, by reducing decision time for Russian retaliation to less than five minutes, greatly increases the dangers of accidental attack on the United States. The deterioration of Russian command and control, including loss of some of its early-warning satellites, increases the danger of a mistaken launch. In order to fully grasp the irresponsibility of this advice to Russia, we must recall that NMD is as yet technically unproven. Yet in order to obtain this phantom protection, the Administration is willing to recommend to Russia reliance on a hairtrigger posture for missiles that decidedly do exist and have the potential today to erase the United States from the face of the earth.

The mischief does not stop there. The peculiar revelation that the United States is counting on the might of Russia's nuclear forces to nullify the threat of American NMD reveals to the nations now assembled at the NPT conference in New York that the United States' professed interest in full nuclear disarmament is hollow and therefore notably increases the pressures that since the proliferation in South Asia have been threatening to tear the whole fabric of the NPT apart.

During the cold war, the reasons for enduring nuclear peril were at least widely understood. What most characterizes the new nuclear dangers, by contrast, is a sort of cosmic pointlessness. The Clinton Administration's unbudgeable devotion to nuclear deterrence with arsenals of thousands of weapons condemns the United States to apocalyptic peril without any political justification. A policy of mutual assured destruction with our avowed friend postcommunist Russia may or may not be as dangerous as mutual assured destruction with the Soviet Union, but it certainly is crazier. The missile defenses insisted upon by the Republican Senate are a $60 billion solution that doesn't work to a problem that doesn't exist. The new Russian emphasis on nuclear forces represents the attempted substitution of the baseless and useless image of a superpower for the lost reality of being one. The diplomatic clash of these fantasies is, however, producing dangers that are immense and real--dangers of accidental nuclear war, of uncontrolled nuclear proliferation, of multiple new arms races.

The only vision that offers serious hope of heading off these gratuitous disasters is the simple, clear, sensible goal now being advocated in New York by most of the 182 countries that, under the terms of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, have renounced nuclear weapons. That is also a goal to which the nuclear powers gave mere lip service in the rhetorical commitment that briefly brightened my day in Connecticut. Until that commitment is real--but not until then--nuclear danger is destined to increase.

Jonathan Schell is The Nation's peace and disarmament correspondent and the Harold Willens Peace Fellow at the Nation Institute.

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