Charting a New Course for US Nuclear Policy
"Nuclear weapons give no quarter. Their effects transcend time and place, poisoning the Earth and deforming its inhabitants for generation upon generation. They leave us wholly without defense, expunge all hope for survival. They hold in their sway not just the fate of nations but of civilization."
–General George Lee Butler (USAF, ret.)
"See, free societies…don’t develop weapons of mass terror and don’t blackmail the world."
–George W. Bush, January 8, 2004
Among the countries that currently possess nuclear weapons (China, France, India, Israel, Pakistan, Russia, United Kingdom, United States and possibly North Korea), the US is the most powerful, economically and militarily. If there is to be movement toward making the world safer from nuclear devastation, the US must lead the way. The US has the power to influence each of these other countries in a way that no other country or international organization could do. US leadership has the potential to bring the threat of future nuclear holocausts under control, and without this leadership the likelihood of future nuclear catastrophes seems virtually assured.
At the 2004 meeting of the countries that are parties to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to plan for the 2005 NPT Review Conference, the US exerted its leadership not for working towards far saner and safer nuclear policies, including disarmament, but for creating obstacles to progress on achieving a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty as well as on the other 13 Practical Steps for Nuclear Disarmament agreed to at the 2000 NPT Review Conference. One analyst, Rebecca Johnson, summarized the meeting in this way: "The United States, actively abetted by France and Britain, with the other nuclear weapon states happy to go along, wanted to rewrite the NPT’s history by sidelining the 2000 Conference commitments, at which they had made an ‘unequivocal undertaking…to accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals.’ A majority of other states, by contrast, wanted the 2005 Review Conference to build on both the groundbreaking agreements from 2000 and the decisions and resolutions from the 1995 Review and Extension Conference."
Current US nuclear policy comes down on the side of an indefinite commitment to nuclear weapons, or a policy of "forever nuclear." Presumably it maintains this policy because its leaders believe that nuclear weapons give the US a military advantage. US leaders are thus placed in the position where they are pursuing policies opposing nuclear weapons for other countries while continuing to rely upon these weapons for themselves. This appears to the world as a "do as I say, not as I do" approach to policy, that is, a policy of nuclear hypocrisy. Such a policy not only makes the United States less secure, but it also undermines respect for the country throughout the world.
The United States is now engaged in researching new and more usable nuclear weapons, Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrators ("bunker busters") and low-yield nuclear weapons ("mini-nukes"). The US is developing contingency plans to use nuclear weapons against seven countries, at least four of which are non-nuclear weapons states. The US has withdrawn from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in order to pursue missile defenses and space weaponization. Its most recent treaty with Russia, the 2002 Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty, reduces the number of deployed strategic nuclear weapons to 2,200 by the year 2012, but does not require that any of the weapons taken off deployed status be dismantled. The treaty ends in the year 2012, unless extended. The US is also planning to build a new facility capable of producing some 450 plutonium pits annually for nuclear weapons, or twice that number if the plant is used on a double shift.
When these activities are combined with the vigorous opposition of the US government to commitments to achieving nuclear arms control and disarmament, this paints a picture for the world that the US is unwilling to change the direction on its policy of indefinite reliance on nuclear arms. For those who follow this issue closely, US nuclear policies are a matter of great concern and discouragement.
There are three important questions that deserve our foremost attention. First, what perspectives would underpin a new course for US nuclear policy? Second, what would be the basic contours of a new course for US nuclear policy? Third, what would be needed to achieve this change in course? While there is ample room for debate on the responses to these questions, I offer my own views below as a starting point for discussion.
What perspectives would underpin a new course for US nuclear policy?
The most basic perspective that would underpin a new course for US nuclear policy is that nuclear weapons lessen rather than increase security. The possession of nuclear weapons virtually assures that a country will be a target of nuclear weapons. Further, the more nuclear weapons that exist in the world, the more likely it is that they will proliferate to both state and non-state actors with unforeseeable consequences that only assure that the world will become more dangerous.
A second perspective is that nuclear weapons are in a class by themselves in terms of their destructive potential. It is an oversimplification to lump them together with chemical and biological weapons as weapons of mass destruction because their potential for causing widespread death and destruction is so much greater. Additionally, threatening to use nuclear weapons against chemical and biological weapons stores or perpetrators of chemical or biological attacks provides incentive for other states to develop nuclear arsenals.
A third perspective is that the strengthening of international law and institutions provides a better basis for building security in its many dimensions than the threat of nuclear retaliation. Adherence to international law includes support for: the United Nations and its Charter; the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other human rights agreements; the International Court of Justice, which adjudicates between countries; and the International Criminal Court, which holds individuals accountable for serious crimes under international law.
A fourth perspective relates to the issue of national integrity. The US has made many commitments to fulfill nuclear disarmament obligations, starting with the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and including the 13 Practical Steps agreed to at the 2000 NPT Review Conference. The US must give up the idea that it can flout, disregard and discard international agreements and commitments with impunity.
A fifth perspective is that US leadership is essential to achieve a world free of nuclear weapons, and that such a world would be more secure for all states, including the US. This perspective is based upon the understanding that there is no other country that could effectively provide this leadership, and so long as the US does not do so it is unlikely that change will occur.
A sixth perspective is that the US must stop seeking to impose double standards akin to nuclear apartheid. US leaders must take responsibility for acting themselves as they desire other countries to act. If the US and other nuclear weapons states continue to ignore their obligations for nuclear disarmament under Article VI of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, other states will undoubtedly follow their lead.
Mohamed ElBaredei, the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency has argued: "We must abandon the unworkable notion that it is morally reprehensible for some countries to pursue weapons of mass destruction yet morally acceptable for others to rely on them for security – and indeed to continue to refine their capacities and postulate plans for their use." The argument is not for more nuclear weapons states, but for none, and the US must lead in this effort.
Finally, a sense of urgency must accompany the other perspectives. There must be a sense that this issue demands priority among US security objectives and that a continuation of the status quo will undermine US non-proliferation efforts and US security.
What would be the basic contours of a new course for US nuclear policy?
There are many forms and timeframes that a new US nuclear policy could take. Most important, however, must be a commitment to achieve the multilateral phased elimination of nuclear weapons within a reasonable timeframe and the further commitment to provide leadership toward that goal. The US will have to demonstrate by its actions, not only its words, that it is committed to this goal.
The US must use its convening power to bring all nuclear weapons states together to the negotiating table to negotiate a Nuclear Weapons Convention. This would be consistent with the unanimous conclusion of the International Court of Justice in its 1996 Advisory Opinion on the Illegality of Nuclear Weapons: "There exists an obligation to pursue in good faith and bring to a conclusion negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament in all its aspects under strict and effective international control."
In terms of a timeframe, one proposal, put forward by the Mayors for Peace Emergency Campaign to Ban Nuclear Weapons, calls for starting negotiations on a treaty to ban nuclear weapons in 2005, the completion of negotiations by 2010, and the elimination of all nuclear weapons by the year 2020. The exact date of completing the process of nuclear disarmament may be less important than the demonstration of political will to achieve the goal combined with substantial steps toward the goal. It is clear that the world will become far safer from nuclear catastrophe when there are a few tens of nuclear weapons rather than tens of thousands.
The US must forego provocative policies in nuclear weapons research and development leading to new and more usable nuclear weapons ("bunker busters" and "mini-nukes"). It must also stop working toward reducing the time needed to resume nuclear testing; and cease planning to create a facility to produce plutonium pits for large numbers of new or refurbished nuclear warheads.
The US will need to reevaluate building defensive missile systems and weaponizing outer space, both projects that stimulate offensive nuclear responses.
The US will have to make its nuclear reduction commitments irreversible by dismantling the weapons taken off active deployment.
Finally, the US must give assurances to other countries that it is not relying upon its nuclear weapons for use in warfare. Such assurances could take the form of legally binding negative security assurances (the US will not use nuclear weapons against a non-nuclear weapons state) and an agreement to No First Use against other nuclear weapons states, as well as taking its arsenal off hair-trigger alert.
What would be needed to achieve this change in course in US nuclear policy?
It is unlikely that US leaders will come to the conclusion of their own accord that it is necessary to chart a new course in US nuclear policy. They need serious prompting, both from American citizens and from the rest of the world. Other countries have been trying to influence the US government on this issue throughout the post-Cold War period to little avail. While other countries should certainly continue in this pursuit, the burden of responsibility for changing the course of US nuclear policy remains primarily with US citizens. It is an awesome responsibility, one on which the future of the world depends.
A massive education and advocacy program is needed in the United States to mobilize widespread support for a new course in US nuclear policy. It will require resources, professionalism and persistence. The issue must be framed in a way that US citizens can grasp its importance and raise it to a high level in their hierarchy of policy priorities. The messages must be simple, clear and compelling. It is a challenge that demands our best thinking and organized action. It will require the wedding of old fashioned policy promotion with new technologies such as the internet. It will also require greater cooperation among advocacy groups and creativity in expanding the base of involvement by individuals and civil society groups that care not only about peace and disarmament, but also about the environment, human rights, health care and many other issue areas.
It would be tragic beyond reckoning for US leaders to arrive at an understanding of the need for a new course in US nuclear policy only after nuclear weapons are again used. The US remains the only country to have used nuclear weapons, a historical occurrence that is largely mythologized as beneficial in the context of ending the war against Japan. We must break through this mythology to realize that, as humans, we are all survivors of past atomic bombings and all potential victims of future atomic bombings.
We are challenged to do something that has never been fully done before: to eliminate a type of weapon that may appear to its possessors as providing political or military advantage. If we can help citizens and leaders alike to use their imaginations to project the likelihood and consequences of the further use of these weapons, we may be able to navigate a new course in US nuclear policy, leading to the control and elimination of these weapons. We must engage this issue as if our very future and that of our children and grandchildren depended upon it. It does.
DAVID KRIEGER is president of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation.