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Ending the Nuclear Nightmare:

A Strategy for the Bush Administration


by Jim Wurst and John Burroughs

Published in World Policy Journal, Vol. XVIII, No.1, Spring 2001, pp. 31-38
and on their website www.worldpolicy.org


In a presidential campaign scarcely distinguished by visionary language, candidate George W. Bush did utter some lofty and generally forgotten words about national security. Russia "is no longer our enemy," he declared last May, and our "mutual security need no longer depend on a nuclear balance of terror." But almost in the same breath, he restated familiar Reagan-era Republican doctrine: "It is possible to build a missile defense and defuse confrontation with Russia. America should do both." Since his Inaugural, President Bush and his national security team have continued the balancing act, mixing talk of unilaterally reducing the U.S. nuclear arsenal and of taking weapons off hair-trigger alert with pursuit of a missile defense shield that would require modifying or withdrawing from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld dismisses as "ancient history."

Yet few elsewhere agree. Russia and China oppose U.S. missile defense plans, and NATO allies are skeptical. For the past two years, Russia and China have sponsored a United Nations resolution calling for strict adherence to the ABM Treaty. The General Assembly adopted the resolution last year by a vote of 88 to 5, with 66 abstentions. Washington's allies might have sided with the United States, saying they had faith in U.S. plans to reduce the risks of nuclear attack through credible defenses. Instead, they abstained. Only Israel, Micronesia, Albania, and Honduras joined the United States in opposing the resolution. To most of the world, the ABM Treaty is not ancient history, but an integral link in the chain of agreements that have produced a sharp downturn in the stockpiles of nuclear weapons. And most nations are well aware that the ABM Treaty also stands in the way of the next likely military push by the United States-deploying systems in space usable against satellites, missiles, and even ground targets.

Secretary Rumsfeld's last act before returning to government was to chair the Commission to Assess U.S. National Security Space Management and Organization. While noting "the sensitivity that surrounds the notion of weapons in space," the commissioners warned against a "Space Pearl Harbor" and argued that the United States should pursue policies "to ensure that the President will have the option to deploy weapons in space to deter threats to and, if necessary, to defend against attacks on United States interests."1 Placing weapons in space was on the agenda even before this report was issued. The defense appropriations bill for 2001 allocates nearly $150 million for development of space-based laser systems banned by the ABM Treaty.

Should the United States proceed with the deployment of weapons in space, a qualitatively new arms race would result. Even if Russia were to agree to change the ABM Treaty to permit limited deployment of land- or sea-based missile interceptors, it is inconceivable that Moscow and Beijing would permit Washington to dominate space militarily. American claims that such a system is "defensive" would not persuade other countries looking up at lasers, micro-satellites, and targeting devices; they would seek their own space-based weaponry.

Yet none of this is written in stone, especially given emerging constraints on U.S. military spending. Popular movements committed to nuclear abolition and U.S. allies who believe in arms control need to mobilize to take advantage of the divisions in the Bush administration between the hawks, led by Rumsfeld, and the more moderate players, led by Secretary of State Colin Powell. The purpose of this essay is to suggest how President Bush can avoid a headlong rush to a new arms race and proceed down a safer and less costly path, bringing the world closer to the abolition of weapons no nation sanely wishes ever to use.

Deterrence vs. Abolition
The commitment to a missile shield, now central to Republican ideology, represents a rejection of deterrence, or more precisely that part of deterrence doctrine asserting that mutual vulnerability to nuclear attack creates stability. Although the rationale of a life-or-death struggle with communism can no longer be invoked, nuclear deterrence remains the cornerstone of the U.S. military posture. The United States has a declared policy of certain and overwhelming response to nuclear attack (with an unstated option of a preemptive strike against enemy nuclear forces on "strategic warning"); it also reserves the option of first use against an overwhelming conventional attack, or against the threat or use of biological or chemical weapons. The Pentagon views the reductions in U.S. forces contemplated in the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) process as consistent with the fulfillment of all those missions.2

At the same time, nuclear deterrence has been seriously challenged from a disarmament perspective. Disarmament proponents contend that the risks of an ongoing reliance on nuclear arms are too high, and that living with the threat of mass destruction as a central tenet of security policy is erosive of the nation's moral fiber. They have come to recognize that initiating and sustaining a process of abolishing nuclear weapons will require rejection of deterrence.3

In the early days of the nuclear age, elaboration of a balance of terror calculus as the basis for national and global security accompanied development of the atomic and hydrogen bombs, missile technology, and the computer. The advent of game theory, which analyzes human behavior in terms of instrumental calculations of self-interest, powerfully reinforced the elaboration of deterrence doctrines. One could even say that all those elements were embodied in one person, mathematician John von Neumann, a Manhattan Project consultant who in the late 1940s directed the building at Princeton of a prototype computer used in nuclear weapons design and who was a principal founder of game theory. A half-century later, there is an emerging understanding of the need to replace deterrence with a normative framework of moral and legal rules and political commitments and institutions.

In a 1996 advisory opinion, the International Court of Justice affirmed that under humanitarian law states must "never use weapons that are incapable of distinguishing between civilian and military targets" and held the use or threatened use of nuclear weapons to be "generally" contrary to international law. While a divided court failed to reach a definitive conclusion regarding the threat or use of nuclear weapons in an extreme circumstance of self-defense involving a state's survival, the overall thrust of the opinion was toward categorical illegality.4

This evolving debate has fundamental implications for the Bush administration. If the president is seriously going to press ahead with ballistic missile defense (BMD), he has to deal seriously with the reality that he will also have to pursue disarmament or face a global arms race. He has already made political statements to this effect, but he has not articulated a serious program.

A ready-made blueprint for such a program exists, and it has the benefit of being endorsed by 187 nations, including the United States. In May 2000, all the parties to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) agreed on a document containing "practical steps for the systematic and progressive efforts to implement Article VI." The article contains the promise to engage in negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament.

The 1970 Nonproliferation Treaty is the most adhered-to arms control agreement in existence (with only India, Pakistan, Israel, and Cuba outside the regime). It is also the only such treaty that permits two classes of members: those recognized as nuclear states (the United States, Russia, Britain, China, and France) and those who have renounced these weapons. The United States has consistently placed a high value on the NPT. Without it, Washington might have to keep an eye on a dozen potential proliferators. The fact that the treaty also commits the nuclear powers to eliminate their weapons has been steadfastly overlooked. Selective reading permits the focus to remain on proliferation rather than disarmament.

That is, until its last review conference. Every five years the parties assess compliance and lay out goals for the next five years. Nearly all review conferences have failed to reach a consensus, usually faltering on the nuclear powers' insistence that they are fulfilling their disarmament commitments, and with most of the non-nuclear parties refusing to go along with the charade. The conference last April and May succeeded in finding common ground. Central to the agreement was "an unequivocal undertaking by the nuclear-weapon states to accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals leading to nuclear disarmament, to which all states parties are committed under Article VI." In a subsequent resolution last fall, the U.N. General Assembly, with the support of the United States, Britain, and China, strongly reaffirmed the NPT disarmament agenda, with only India, Israel, and Pakistan in opposition, since they reject joining the NPT as non-nuclear-weapon states.

The impetus for the NPT outcome and the resolution came from a "New Agenda" group of nations-Brazil, Egypt, Ireland, Mexico, New Zealand, Sweden, and South Africa-which negotiated the disarmament provisions with the nuclear-weapon states. The group has weight since it includes states with real expertise (several of which had nuclear weapons programs before joining the NPT) and a long history of commitment to disarmament. Their resolve was fortified by the May 1998 tests conducted by India and Pakistan, a challenge to the nonproliferation regime and a warning of the potential consequences of its breakdown. Ironically, the fear that India would "go nuclear" following China's 1964 test was a major reason the United States promoted the NPT.

The Blueprint
The current NPT agenda is not a perfect blueprint. Its lack of time frames, its sometimes imprecise language, and its generous use of such phrases as "as soon as appropriate" provide a great deal of wriggle room. The "unequivocal undertaking" to eliminate nuclear arsenals undoubtedly will stand as the authoritative statement of the purpose of Article VI, reinforcing the unanimous holding of the International Court of Justice that this article requires the conclusion of negotiations on nuclear disarmament in all its aspects. Generally, the new agenda represents consensus-based political, not legal, commitments regarding the steps needed to implement Article VI. But the agenda is comprehensive, sophisticated, and specific, and demonstrates an acceptance that nuclear weapons not only should be but can be abolished. What follows is a brief look at some of the most important commitments under the new agenda.5

A diminishing role for nuclear weapons in security policies. This is a polite way of saying that it is time to abandon deterrence. In the United States, and abroad as well, there has long been too little attention paid to the strategies behind the question of numbers. The subject of quantitative reductions in nuclear arsenals mesmerized and distracted us, first as unrealized aspiration during the Cold War, then as reality in the last decade as reductions were implemented. This commitment illustrates that the lesson has been learned that abolition will require focusing on and challenging policy rationales. It will serve, as the NPT agenda states, to "minimize the risk that these weapons will ever be used and to facilitate the process of their total elimination."

The weapons laboratories have drawn the opposite conclusion: sustaining their enterprise will require new rationales. In effect, the nuclear establishment has tried to turn the widening credibility gap with respect to deterrence based on mass destruction to its advantage. For example, Stephen Younger, associate director for nuclear weapons at Los Alamos National Laboratory, has called for consideration of lower yield warheads to be combined with precision delivery systems or "tailored output" weapons that "produce enhanced radiation for the destruction of chemical or biological weapons with minimum collateral damage." Absent such options, he observes, against some adversaries "reliance on high-yield strategic weapons could lead to `self-deterrence.'"6

The congressionally mandated review of U.S. nuclear posture to be accomplished by the end of 2001 provides a ready-made process under which the Bush administration could revise America's nuclear doctrines. A revision in line with the NPT commitment to a "diminishing role for nuclear weapons" would reject the doctrine of certain massive retaliation and its historically associated posture of "launch on warning." During the campaign, candidate Bush described "preparation for quick launch within minutes after warning of an attack" as an "unnecessary vestige of Cold War confrontation."

Another such revision would eliminate qualifications to the assurances of non-use given to non-nuclear states in the context of the NPT and regional nuclear weapon-free zones. This would help to end the ideological and technical preparations for use, including preemptive use, of nuclear weapons in response to chemical and biological threats or attacks. It would recognize that continuing the practice of non-use that has been maintained for more than five decades since the U.S. attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and thus reinforcing the nonproliferation norm, is far more important than retaining a nuclear option for implausible scenarios of chemical or biological attacks to which the United States could not adequately respond with conventional means.

A more far-reaching revision in line with the NPT commitment would also encompass "no first use" in any circumstance, including against conventional attack by a nuclear power. In addition to raising further the nuclear threshold, this approach could help wean Russia from its increasing reliance on the nuclear threat to offset declining conventional strength.

Concrete agreed measures to further reduce the operational status of nuclear weapons systems. This provision is diplomatese for dealerting, and refers to a wide range of measures to decrease, from hours to days to weeks to months, readiness to use nuclear weapons. Centrally, it involves separating the warhead from the missile, or the bomb from the aircraft. Dealerting is not the same thing as detargeting, which is essentially meaningless, since retargeting can be accomplished in seconds.

President Bush himself has made the argument for dealerting. In a world where there is no danger of a massive surprise nuclear attack, there is no rationale for the United States and Russia to keep more than 2,000 nuclear weapons each on hair-trigger alert. In fact, with the deterioration of Russia's command-and-control and early-warning systems, dealerted nuclear weapons offer greater security than those ready to launch at the push of a button. Because of the Clinton administration's lack of imagination and/or nerve regarding dealerting, this is now the most promising opening for the new president to prove he is more serious than his predecessor about reducing nuclear risks. During the presidential campaign, candidate Bush said that the "United States should remove as many nuclear weapons as possible from high-alert, hair-trigger status. "The "as possible" is the hedge phrase. But if President Bush listens to the likes of Bruce Blair, a former missile control officer and now head of the Center for Defense Information, the goal should be "global zero alert."7 Britain, France, and China are already at much lower levels of alert than the United States and Russia.

Conclusion of START III as soon as possible; further efforts to reduce nuclear arsenals unilaterally; further reduction of nonategic nuclear weapons. Under START I, Russia and the United States are to have no more than 6,000 deployed strategic warheads each by the end of 2001. The United States currently has over 7,000 warheads, and Russia about 6,000. START II, not yet entered into force, sets limits of 3,000 to 3,500 warheads. START III negotiations have not yet begun, but in March 1997, Russia and the United States agreed to aim to reduce their arsenals to between 2,000 and 2,500 warheads. Russia, due to its growing inability to maintain its arsenal, has proposed going to 1,500 or lower, but the Pentagon has so far rejected the proposal, arguing that its targets in Russia require no fewer than 2,000 warheads.

The U.S. Senate and Russia's Duma have been uncooperative. The Duma approved START II in 2000, conditioned on adherence to the ABM Treaty. Meanwhile, Republicans in Congress balk at ratification because this would involve approval of agreements concerning permissible testing of anti-missile systems under the ABM Treaty. The knot can be cut with the sword of unilateralism, called for by the NPT agenda. If President Bush is looking for a role model, he need look no further than his father. The simple fact is that the elder Bush did more for nuclear disarmament in one year (1991) than Bill Clinton did in eight. And he did it unilaterally. George W. Bush made this point during the campaign when he said changes in nuclear forces "should not require years and years of detailed arms control negotiations." Pointing to 1991, when the United States and Soviet Union made reciprocal unilateral cuts in thousands of tactical (short-range) weapons and the United States de-alerted bombers and hundreds of land-based missiles, candidate Bush said, "Huge reductions were achieved in a matter of months, making the world much safer more quickly."While Congress, in a constitutionally dubious action, barred reductions below START I levels prior to completion of the nuclear posture review, Bush unlike Clinton should be able to bring Congress along.

It is little understood by the public that reducing and eliminating deployed strategic weapons is only part of the disarmament equation. Both the United States and Russia have thousands of reserve warheads, referred to as a "hedge" by the Pentagon. A related problem is that of tactical weapons. This is one area where Moscow would have to pull more of the weight. Russia has perhaps 4,000 tactical weapons, while the United States has about 1,000. These weapons are the ones experts worry about when they talk about Russian "loose nukes." The 150 or so bombs deployed by the United States in Europe under NATO auspices are a provocation to Russia, and the United States is deeply concerned about the exact number, whereabouts, and status of Russian tactical weapons.

Engagement as soon as appropriate of all the nuclear-weapon states. In the NPT context, this means bringing in Britain, France, and China. While the United States and Russia have weapons in the many thousands, the other three have them in the hundreds. The conventional view is that once U.S. and Russian numbers of deployable strategic warheads are in the 1,000 range, nuclear disarmament will become what most of the world has always insisted that it should be -a multilateral concern, rather than a game of two countries with the rest of the world as passive spectators. But much could be done now to draw all nuclear states, including India, Pakistan, and Israel, into a disarmament process, beginning with transparency, accounting, and dealerting.

Ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. So far as the world is concerned, this is the sine qua non for demonstrating a commitment to nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament. The treaty foundered in the Senate in 1999, partly due to animosity toward and mistrust of President Clinton, and partly because some Republicans doubted that a test ban would permit the United States, as the Clinton administration claimed, to maintain its nuclear superiority indefinitely. The Bush administration may reconsider its stated opposition to ratification as part of an effort to win support from allies for BMD. Disarmament campaigns must first block any move to resume testing (there has been no U.S. testing since 1992), and then seek to resuscitate the test ban treaty on different grounds, based on its historical purpose as a disarmament as well as nonproliferation measure. They should also oppose the ongoing huge expansion of laboratory computing and experimental capabilities to "replace" testing as contrary to the principle of irreversible disarmament endorsed in the NPT agenda.

Establishment of a committee to deal with nuclear disarmament in the Conference on Disarmament; negotiation of a fissile materials treaty. The Conference on Disarmament in Geneva is the only permanent multilateral disarmament negotiating forum, with the Chemical Weapons Convention and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty to its credit. The Clinton team resisted the creation of a conference committee to negotiate nuclear disarmament, proposing instead that such a committee be limited to discussions. The U.S. view has been that the priority is to negotiate a treaty banning the production of fissile materials (plutonium and highly enriched uranium) for weapons. While rhetorically resistant to a multilateral approach, the Bush team has yet to formulate a position. In principle, there is no reason why negotiations cannot begin on both fronts. The real problem is that BMD is casting a shadow over Geneva. China is pulling back from its endorsement of a fissile materials ban, apparently concerned that it may need to produce more materials for an arsenal buildup aimed at maintaining the capacity to overcome a U.S. anti-missile system. China has also insisted on the establishment of a committee to negotiate prevention of an arms race in outer space.

Further development of verification capabilities. Effective, good-faith verification has a multiplier effect. We know the missiles removed from Europe in the late 1980s were destroyed because we saw it happen. We know the Russian tanks removed from the European theater under the Agreement on Conventional Forces in Europe have not been redeployed because we can see them rusting away out in the open on the far side of the Urals. American and Russian/Soviet officials have gone to the bases of their counterparts and seen chemical weapons destroyed. Once the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty monitoring organization is fully functioning, its global array of sensors will be able-despite claims to the contrary- to detect significant cheating on the treaty. Creating new arrangements to verify steps such as dealerting missiles, ending fissile-materials production, and a test ban adds to the growing body of expertise on verification which, in turn, will aid the next arms control regime.

Indeed, development of verification capabilities makes possible the creation of a nuclear weapons-free world. The New Agenda Resolution in the General Assembly, adopted with U.S. support, states that such a world "will ultimately require the underpinnings of a universal and multilaterally negotiated legally binding instrument or a framework encompassing a mutually reinforcing set of instruments." Since 1997, a broad international coalition of grass-roots and research groups has lobbied for a nuclear weapons convention that would ban nuclear weapons in the same way chemical weapons are outlawed.8 The United States has not endorsed this approach, even as the endpoint of a process of disarmament to which it is committed in principle. But it is a key demand for disarmament campaigners, because it dramatizes and makes concrete the imperative to create a comprehensive regime eliminating nuclear weapons within the foreseeable future.

The NPT as a Victim of Star Wars
The Nonproliferation Treaty itself could be part of the collateral damage caused by "Star Wars." Absent any new treaty constraints on strategic nuclear weapons, ballistic missile defense will provoke Russia and China to maintain or acquire large numbers of nuclear weapons in order to overcome any defensive advantage of the United States. The only way in which BMD would not be such a destabilizing force would be for it to function as an element of "strategic stability" (a phrase currently favored by Russia) in a trilateral arrangement under which Russia and China would maintain a nuclear capability sufficient to deter a nuclear-armed and BMD-equipped United States. Therefore, deployment of BMD would require three of the five nuclear parties to the NPT to violate their commitment to negotiate nuclear disarmament. A newly minted "gentlemen's agreement" to keep nuclear weapons in place would be the definitive breaking of faith with the rest of the world, and could irrevocably erode the nonproliferation regime.

The destruction of the ABM Treaty is BMD's first target. Many of Star Wars' most vocal proponents have a fundamental contempt for all arms control. (We are talking about people who opposed the 1988 treaty that eliminated all medium-range U.S and Soviet nuclear missiles from Europe, the downside of which is hard to find.) For START to wither on the vine would not cause them much lost sleep. But the NPT enjoys greater support among hawks because it helps keep proliferation in check. The irony is that BMD, by eroding the nonproliferation regime, would help create the very threat it is supposed to protect against.

A Political Path
Why would a president who turned to such steel-tipped hawks as Richard Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld pursue a disarmament agenda? One possibility-which has already been alluded to as the Bush administration takes shape-is that the United States has to give up something to get BMD. For all its talk of forging ahead alone, it is hard to picture the administration abandoning the ABM Treaty, START, and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty without damaging the NATO alliance. The Bush administration will also face severe budgetary problems as it seeks to reshape the U.S. military while cutting taxes. Disarmament advocates can exploit the contradiction between Bush's arms control rhetoric and the push for BMD. While not conceding BMD deployment as inevitable (not the least because BMD does not work), they can campaign hard for unilateral cuts and dealerting. In so doing, they must remain grounded in an abolition perspective. In his confirmation testimony, Gen. Colin Powell said that he shares the "goal" that "at some point in the future, we would see a world where there were no nuclear weapons [and] no need for missile defense." That future needs to be created sooner rather than later, before global competition in high-tech militarism featuring rationalized nuclear capabilities, anti-missile systems, and space-based weapons accelerates and becomes entrenched.



1. Report of the Commission to Assess United States National Security Space Management and Organization, Executive Summary, January 11, 2001, pp. 12-13 (www.space.gov/commission/report.htm).

2. For U.S. deterrence doctrines, see, for example, William S. Cohen, Secretary of Defense, Annual Report to the President and Congress 2001, chaps. 1-2 (www.dtic.mil/execsec/adr2001).

3. Networks and campaigns committed to abolition, or at least to progressive arms control leading eventually to abolition, include the Abolition 2000 Global Network to Eliminate Nuclear Weapons (www.abolition2000.org), the Middle Powers Initiative (www.middlepowers.org), Project Abolition (www.projectabolition.org), the US Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (www.wslfweb.org/abolition/scamp.htm), and the Coalition to Reduce Nuclear Dangers (www.crnd.org).

4. See Committee on International Security and Arms Control, The Future of U.S. Nuclear Weapons Policy (Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1997), p. 87 (www.nap.edu/catalog/5796.html).

5. 2000 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, Final Document, vol. 1, NPT/CONF.2000/28 (parts I and II), pp. 13-15 (www.un.org/Depts/dda/WMD/2000FD.pdf).

6. Stephen M. Younger, "Nuclear Weapons in the Twenty-First Century," Los Alamos National Laboratory, June 27, 2000, LAUR-00-2850, pp. 13-15 (lib-www.lanl.gov/la-pubs/00393603.pdf). See also National Institute for Public Policy, Rationale and Requirements for U.S. Nuclear Forces and Arms Control, vol. 1 (January 2001), pp. 4, 7, 14 (www.nipp.org). Several of the participants in this study are now serving in the Bush administration.

7. Bruce G. Blair, "De-Alerting Strategic Nuclear Forces," in The Nuclear Turning Point: A Blueprint for Deep Cuts and De-alerting of Nuclear Weapons, ed. Harold A. Feiveson (Washington, D.C.: Brookings, 1999), pp. 101-28.

8. See Merav Datan and Alyn Ware, Security and Survival: The Case for a Nuclear Weapons Convention (Cambridge, Mass.: International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War [www.ippnw.org], 1999).

John Burroughs is the Executive Director of the Lawyers' Committee on Nuclear Policy and the author of The Legality of Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons: A Guide to the Historic Opinion of the International Court of Justice (1997).

Jim Wurst was the program director of the Lawyers' Committee on Nuclear Policy. He now works for the UN Wire, an independent news briefing at the United Nations, sponsored by the United Nations Foundation.

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