A Nuclear Crisis
by Jimmy Carter*, February 23, 2000
This article appeared in the
Washington Post, Editorials and Opinions Section.
Every five years, the nuclear nonproliferation
treaty (NPT) comes up for reasses sment by the countries that
have signed it. This is the treaty that provides for international
restraints (and inspections) on nuclear programs. It covers not
only the nuclear nations but 180 other countries as well, including
Iran, Iraq, North Korea and Libya. An end to the NPT could terminate
many of these inspections and open a Pandora's box of nuclear
proliferation in states that already present serious terrorist
threats to others.
Now it is time for the 30-year-old NPT to be reviewed
(in April, by an international assembly at the United Nations),
and, sad to say, the current state of affairs with regard to nuclear
proliferation is not good. In fact, I think it can be said that
the world is facing a nuclear crisis. Unfortunately, U.S. policy
has had a good deal to do with creating it.
At the last reassessment session, in 1995, a large
group of non-nuclear nations with the financial resources and
technology to develop weapons--including Egypt, Brazil and Argentina--agreed
to extend the NPT, but with the proviso that the five nuclear
powers take certain specific steps to defuse the nuclear issue:
adoption of a comprehensive test ban treaty by 1996; conclusion
of negotiations on a Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty, and "determined
pursuit" of efforts to reduce nuclear arsenals, with the
ultimate goal of eliminating them.
It is almost universally conceded that none of
these commitments has been honored. India and Pakistan have used
this failure to justify their joining Israel as nations with recognized
nuclear capability that are refusing to comply with NPT restraints.
And there has been a disturbing pattern of other provocative developments:
- For the first time I can remember, no series
of summit meetings is underway or in preparation to seek further
cuts in nuclear arsenals. The START II treaty concluded seven
years ago by presidents George Bush and Boris Yeltsin has not
been seriously considered for ratification by the Russian parliament.
- Instead of moving away from reliance on nuclear
arsenals since the end of the Cold War, both the United States
and NATO have sent disturbing signals to other nations by declaring
that these weapons are still the cornerstone of Western security
policy, and both have re-emphasized that they will not comply
with a "no first use" policy. Russia has reacted to
this U.S. and NATO policy by rejecting its previous "no
first use" commitment; strapped for funds and unable to
maintain its conventional forces of submarines, tanks, artillery,
and troops, it is now much more likely to rely on its nuclear
- The United States, NATO and others still maintain
arsenals of tactical nuclear weapons, including up to 200 nuclear
weapons in Western Europe.
- Despite the efforts of Gens. Lee Butler and
Andrew Goodpaster, Adm. Stansfield Turner and other military
experts, American and Russian nuclear missiles are still maintained
in a "hair-trigger alert" status, susceptible to being
launched in a spur-of-the-moment crisis or even by accident.
- After years of intense negotiation, recent rejection
by the U.S. Senate of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty was
a serious blow to global nuclear control efforts and to confidence
in American leadership.
- There is a notable lack of enforcement of the
excessively weak international agreements against transfer of
- The prospective adoption by the United States
of a limited "Star Wars" missile defense system has
already led Russia, China and other nations to declare that
this would abrogate the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which
has prevailed since 1972. This could destroy the fabric of existing
international agreements among the major powers.
- There is no public effort or comment in the
United States or Europe calling for Israel to comply with the
NPT or submit to any other restraints. At the same time, we
fail to acknowledge what a powerful incentive this is to Iran,
Syria, Iraq, and Egypt to join the nuclear community.
- The U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency
(ACDA) has been recently abolished, removing an often weak but
at least identifiable entity to explore arms issues.
I believe that the general public would be extremely
concerned if these facts were widely known, but so far such issues
have not been on the agenda in presidential debates.
A number of responsible non-nuclear nations, including
Brazil, Egypt, Ireland, Mexico, New Zealand, South Africa and
Sweden have expressed their disillusionment with the lack of progress
toward disarmament. The non-proliferation system may not survive
unless the major powers give convincing evidence of compliance
with previous commitments.
In April, it is imperative that the Nuclear Nonproliferation
Treaty be reconfirmed and subsequently honored by leaders who
are inspired to act wisely and courageously by an informed public.
This treaty has been a key deterrent to the proliferation of weapons,
and its unraveling would exert powerful pressures even on peace-loving
nations to develop a nuclear capability.
All nuclear states must renew efforts to achieve
worldwide reduction and ultimate elimination of nuclear weapons.
In the meantime, it requires no further negotiations for leaders
of nuclear nations to honor existing nuclear security agreements,
including the test ban and anti-ballistic missile treaties, and
to remove nuclear weapons from their present hair-trigger alert
Just as American policy is to blame for many of
the problems, so can our influence help resolve the nuclear dilemma
that faces the world.
* Former US President Jimmy Carter is chairman of the Carter
Center in Atlanta, Georgia USA.