Not since the dawn of the nuclear age at the end of World War II has the danger of nuclear war been greater. And what is as troubling, this danger is not widely understood. Several developments account for this most disturbing situation.
The US Government has apparently adopted contingency plans that look for the use of nuclear weapons against specific countries and in a wide range of circumstances. Terrorist networks with genocidal agendas have been making strenuous efforts to acquire nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction. The spread of biological and chemical weapons increase political incentives to threaten nuclear retaliation. The American push for missile defense is likely to lead other nuclear weapons states to increase their arsenals. India and Pakistan, hostile neighbors, continue their conflict over Kashmir with their nuclear arsenals lurking in the background. And, in addition, the atmosphere created by the September 11 attacks has given rise to a good and evil worldview that seems less inhibited with respect to nuclear weaponry.
It is against such a background that the parties to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) will meet from April 8-19 to review progress on the treaty and, most important, on its Article VI commitment to nuclear disarmament. The recent revelations of the classified US Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), which was first released in partially unclassified form in January 2002, indicated contingency plans for the potential use of nuclear weapons against at least seven named states. These revelations are sure to have alarmed these governments, and hopefully awakened the international community generally to an atmosphere of mounting risk.
Any US plans to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons would be contrary to international law as well as to long-standing US assurances not to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapons states. It also constitutes a provocative threat to the named states and others as well as to international peace and security overall.
This US approach to planning nuclear weapons use, as well as other developments that increase the risk of nuclear war, will undoubtedly adversely affect the approach taken to non-proliferation by all countries. It is likely to induce further nuclear proliferation and to weaken seriously the non-proliferation regime. US policy toward nuclear weapons use, combined with its plans to develop and deploy missile defenses, is almost certain to encourage the expansion of nuclear weapons programs by Russia and China as well as the development of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction by other countries. It is also likely to give rise to destructive new arms races.
The fact that the US is developing contingency plans to use nuclear weapons is viewed by most of the world as a dangerous expression of bad faith. In the past, nuclear weapons have been reluctantly tolerated, but only as a deterrent against the use of nuclear weapons by other states. The US Nuclear Posture Review reveals that nuclear weapons are apparently being integrated into a full spectrum of potential war fighting situations.
US policy seems to make nuclear weapons no longer weapons of last resort, but rather instruments that may be used in fighting wars, even against non-nuclear weapons states. Detrimental steps have already been taken following the US lead. The UK announced that it is also prepared to use nuclear weapons against any state that may attack it with any weapon of mass destruction. Such an expanded role for nuclear weapons is bound to have other destabilizing effects.
In the post-September 11 world it is vital that the US and other nuclear weapons states assume full responsibility for assuring that nuclear weapons and weapons grade materials, particularly in the former Soviet Union, do not fall into the hands of terrorists. It is also crucial that leading nations do their utmost diplomatically and by way of the United Nations to defuse war-prone tensions in South Asia and the Middle East.
The most urgent challenge at this time involves steps that should be taken to restore the restraints on this most menacing of all weaponry. Just as it is accepted that it is essential to establish reliable regimes of prohibition for biological and chemical weapons, it is long overdue to give the highest priority to establishing a comparable regime for nuclear weapons. Non-nuclear states should insist that nuclear weapons states at least adhere to the declared Chinese position of no-first use, thereby retaining nuclear weapons only for nuclear deterrence purposes until they can be eliminated altogether.
In this vein, the US and the UK should retract their dangerous and destabilizing plans for nuclear war fighting and, in their own interests as well as those of the rest of the world, provide leadership toward eliminating nuclear weapons and ending the nuclear weapons threat to humanity and all life. The states that are parties to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty cannot afford to remain passive, but should use their leverage to remind the world that we are all facing an unprecedented and growing danger that nuclear weapons will be somehow used for the first time since 1945.
Richard Falk is professor emeritus of international law and practice at Princeton University, and visiting distinguished professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara. David Krieger is president of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation.