US Nuclear Weapons
Policy After September 11th
by David Krieger*, January 2002
Shortly after the terrorist attacks of September
11, 2001, President Bush gathered together his top security advisors
to consider the implications of terrorism for US nuclear policy.
A few facts were clear. There were well-organized and suicidal
terrorists who were committed to inflicting large-scale damage
on the US. These terrorists had attempted to obtain nuclear weapons
and other weapons of mass destruction. They probably had not succeeded
yet in obtaining nuclear weapons, but would certainly keep trying
to do so. It was highly unlikely that terrorists would be able
to deliver nuclear or other weapons of mass destruction by means
of missiles, but they could potentially smuggle one or more nuclear
weapons into the United States and use them to attack US cities.
The death and destruction would be enormous, dwarfing the damage
caused on September 11th.
These facts alarmed the Bush security advisors.
They went to work immediately developing plans to protect the
American people against the possible nuclear terrorism that threatened
American cities. The first prong of their defense against nuclear
terrorism was to call for dramatically increased funding to secure
the nuclear weapons in the former Soviet Union. Encouraged by
the success that had been achieved up to this point with the Nunn-Lugar
funding, they realized that this was an area in which they could
work closely with Russia in assuring that these weapons were kept
secure and out of the hands of criminals and terrorists. The Russians
were eager to get this help and to join with the Americans in
this effort to prevent nuclear terrorism.
The second prong of the US plan was to work with
the Russians in achieving significant reductions in the nuclear
arsenals of each country in order that there would be less nuclear
weapons available to potentially fall into the hands of terrorists.
Since the end of the Cold War the US and Russia have been reducing
their nuclear arsenals, and now it was time to make even greater
progress toward the promise of the two countries "to accomplish
the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals." This meant
reaching an agreement as a next step to slash the size of their
arsenals to a few hundred nuclear warheads and to make these reductions
irreversible. The international community applauded the boldness
of this step, celebrating this major achievement in nuclear disarmament
and this important step toward realizing the promise of the nuclear
The third prong of the US plan was to give its
full support to bringing the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty into
force, giving momentum to assuring an end to nuclear testing for
all time. This step was viewed by the Bush security advisors as
having indirect consequences for nuclear terrorism by assuring
that other countries would forego the capability to improve the
sophistication of their nuclear arsenals. It would be seen as
a sign of US leadership for a world free of nuclear weapons, and
this would have a positive effect on preventing further proliferation
of nuclear weapons.
The fourth prong of the US plan was to reevaluate
the administration's commitment to developing and deploying missile
defenses. Prior to September 11th, President Bush and his security
team had been strong advocates of developing and deploying ballistic
missile defenses. President Bush had even been threatening to
withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty in order
to move forward with missile defense deployment. Following September
11th, it was clear that it made little sense to devote another
$100 billion or more to missile defenses when terrorists were
capable of attacking US cities by far simpler means. There were
more urgent needs for these resources to be used in improving
US intelligence and keeping nuclear weapons out of the hands of
terrorists. Therefore, the decision was made to put the development
of missile defenses on the back burner and instead devote major
resources to safeguarding nuclear materials throughout the world.
These actions were extremely helpful in improving our relations
with both Russia and China, which were both relieved at not having
to respond to our missile defenses by increasing their nuclear
The fifth prong of the US plan was to work intensively
with countries such as India, Pakistan and Israel to convince
them that nuclear weapons were not in their security interests
and that they would have a heavy price to pay if they did not
join us in moving rapidly toward a nuclear-weapons-free world.
The Bush advisors knew that this would be difficult, but they
were certain that the US example of curtailing its own nuclear
arsenal and foregoing missile defenses, along with support to
these countries for economic development, would convince them
to follow our lead.
The world's leaders and citizens have not heard
about these US actions to combat nuclear terrorism because they
never happened. The description above is an imaginative account
of what might have happened -- what should have happened. The
most remarkable reality about the US response to the terrorist
attacks of September 11, 2001 is how little these attacks actually
affected US nuclear policy. Although US nuclear forces will certainly
not deter terrorists, US nuclear policy remains highly dependent
on nuclear weapons and the policy of nuclear deterrence.
To set the record straight, the Bush administration
has supported cuts in the Nunn-Lugar funding for securing Russian
nuclear weapons and materials. It has called for reductions in
deployed strategic nuclear weapons over a ten-year period, although
not within the scope of a binding treaty and, in fact, has indicated
it plans to put the deactivated warheads on the shelf for potential
future use. It has come out against ratification of the Comprehensive
Test Ban Treaty, and boycotted a UN conference to bring the treaty
into force more rapidly. President Bush has announced that the
US will unilaterally withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile
Treaty, and move forward rapidly to deploy ballistic missile defenses,
a move that has drawn critical response from both Russia and China.
Finally, the Bush administration, rather than putting pressure
on India and Pakistan to disarm, has ended the sanctions imposed
on them for testing nuclear weapons in May 1998. The administration
has never put pressure on Israel to eliminate its nuclear arsenal,
although this is a major factor in motivating Arab countries to
develop their own nuclear arsenals.
While there is much the Bush administration might
have done to make nuclear terrorism less likely, the path they
have chosen increases the risks of nuclear terrorism. It also
undermines our relationship with countries we need in the fight
against terrorism in general and nuclear terrorism in particular.
Finally, the US nuclear policy after September 11th is a slap
in the face to the 187 parties to the Non-Proliferation Treaty,
and increases the possibilities of nuclear proliferation and a
breakdown of the Non-Proliferation Treaty and regime.
is president of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation.