Nuclear weapons do not make us safer. They make us less secure.
The greatest vulnerability of the United States and the rest of the industrialized world is not to terrorists who hijack planes or disperse biological agents. It is to terrorists with nuclear weapons.
September 11th was a shocking reminder of the futility of relying on nuclear weapons for security. Nuclear weapons cannot deter a suicidal terrorist, but a suicidal terrorist with nuclear weapons could destroy the United States.
US nuclear policies make it more likely that terrorists will be able to attack the United States with nuclear weapons. In general, the US has pursued a nuclear weapons policy of “Do as I say, not as I do.” We have set the wrong example for the world, continuing to rely upon nuclear weapons long after the end of the Cold War.
The US has slowed the process of nuclear disarmament, leaving many thousands of nuclear weapons potentially available to terrorists. If we want to prevent a nuclear holocaust by terrorist nuclear bombs in American cities, the US must take leadership in a global effort to bring all nuclear weapons and nuclear materials under control. This will require significant policy changes.
To gain control of nuclear weapons, the numbers of nuclear weapons in the world must be dramatically reduced. Numbers need to be brought down from the over 30,000 currently in the arsenals of the US and Russia to far more reasonable numbers capable of being effectively controlled in each of the eight nuclear weapons states, on the way to zero.
The numbers being discussed by the Bush administration of 2,000 to 2,500 strategic nuclear weapons are far too high and will send a signal to the world that the US is not serious about nuclear disarmament. The Russians have already proposed many times joint reductions to 1,500 strategic nuclear weapons. Even this number is too high. Just one of these weapons in the hands of terrorists could do immeasurable damage.
To gain control of nuclear materials, a global inventory of all nuclear weapons and materials must be established immediately. We must know what nuclear materials exist in order to establish a rational plan to guard and eliminate them.
All nuclear weapons should immediately be taken off hair-trigger alert and policies of launch on warning should be abandoned. The US and Russia still have some 4,500 nuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert. This is an accidental nuclear holocaust waiting to happen, particularly given the gaping holes in the post Cold War Russian early warning system. Smart and determined terrorists could potentially trick one of the nuclear weapons states into believing it was being attacked by another nuclear weapons state, leading to retaliatory strikes by one nuclear power against another.
The US should forego its plan to build a national missile defense system, and reallocate these funds to more immediate security risks. US deployment of a national missile defense will lead Russia and China to rely more heavily on their nuclear arsenals and to develop them further. No so-called rogue state currently has nuclear weapons or long-range missiles capable of reaching the United States. Nor could a national missile defense system protect us from terrorists.
The US should rejoin the international community in supporting a treaty framework to control and eliminate nuclear weapons. We should fulfill our treaty obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty for good faith negotiations to eliminate all nuclear weapons. We should stop threatening to withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. We should honor the Outer Space Treaty, and stop seeking to weaponize outer space. We should ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and move forward with START III negotiations. Finally, we must stop putting up obstacles to nuclear disarmament in the United Nations and its Disarmament Commission, and instead actively assist them in their efforts.
Since September 11th, the US government has made only one change in our nuclear weapons policy. It removed the sanctions on India and Pakistan that were put in place in response to their testing nuclear weapons in 1998. That change was a move in the wrong direction, away from nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation.
President Bush made campaign promises, which he has reiterated since assuming office, to move forward with unilateral reductions and de-alerting of our nuclear arsenal. But unilateral actions are not sufficient.
The US must lead the way in bringing all nuclear weapons states to act swiftly and resolutely in dramatically reducing all nuclear arsenals and assuring that no nuclear weapons or materials fall into the hands of terrorists. If the US fails to provide this leadership, efforts to achieve homeland security could fail even more spectacularly than they did on September 11th.
*David Krieger is president of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, an international organization on the roster of the United Nations Economic and Social Council.