The euphoria in the West that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union had an amazing effect. The general public came to believe that the end of the Cold War also meant the end of the nuclear peril, and that the nuclear issue can be taken off the agenda of important problems.
This is seen in a public opinion poll in the UK, in which the question was: what is the most important issue facing Britain. During the Cold War, more than 40 per cent put nuclear weapons as such an issue. Since the end of it, the percentage dropped rapidly, and nowadays it is practically zero. The situation is probably the same in the United States, and it is my opinion that this enabled the hawks to become bolder in their plans, not only to ensure, but to demonstrate to the rest of the world, the overwhelming superiority of the United States. The events of September 11th came as a convenient excuse to put these plans into action.
The year 2002 was remarkable for the formulation of new policies, starting with the Nuclear Posture Review in January, and ending with the National Strategy to Combat Weapons of Mass Destruction, released in December.
This last document starts with: ‘Weapons of mass destruction – nuclear, biological, and chemical – in the possession of hostile states and terrorists represent one of the greatest security challenges facing the United States.’
And this is the crux of the matter. According to the current counter-proliferation policy, nuclear weapons are bad, but only if in possession of some states or groups. In the possession of the United States they are good, and must be kept for the sake of world security.
The fact that as a signatory of the NPT, the USA is legally bound to their elimination, is completely ignored. Indeed, nuclear arsenals will have to be retained indefinitely, not just as a weapon of last resort, or as a deterrent against a nuclear attack, but as an ordinary tool in the military armoury, to be used in the resolution of conflicts, as has been practiced in the past, and even in pre-emptive strikes, should political contingencies demand it.
This is in essence the current US nuclear policy, and I see it as a very dangerous policy.
Towards its implementation, President Bush has already authorized the development of a new nuclear warhead of low yield, but with a shape that would give it a very high penetrating power into concrete, a ‘bunker-busting mini-nuke’, as it has been named. It is intended to destroy bunkers with thick concrete walls in which public enemies, like Saddam Hussein, may seek shelter.
To give the military authorities confidence in the performance of the new weapon it will have to be tested.
If the USA resumed testing, this would be a signal to other nuclear weapon states to do the same. China is almost certain to resume testing. After the US decision to develop ballistic missile defences, China feels vulnerable, and is likely to attempt to reduce its vulnerability by a modernization and build-up of its nuclear arsenal. Other states with nuclear weapons, such as India or Pakistan, may use the window of opportunity opened by the USA to update their arsenals. The danger of a new nuclear arms race is real.
As mentioned before, the new policy includes pre-emptive acts, and this greatly increases the danger. If the militarily mightiest country declares its readiness to carry out a pre-emptive use of nuclear weapons, others may soon follow. The Kashmir crisis, of May last year, is a stark warning of the reality of the nuclear peril.
India’s declared policy is not to be the first to use nuclear weapons. But if the United States – whose nuclear policies are largely followed by India – makes pre-emptive nuclear attacks part of its doctrine, this would give India the legitimacy to carry out a pre- emptive strike against Pakistan. Even more likely is that Pakistan would carry this out first.
Taiwan presents another potential cause for a pre- emptive nuclear strike by the United States. Should the Taiwan authorities decide to declare independence, this would inevitably result in an attempted military invasion by mainland China. The USA, which is committed to the defence of the integrity of Taiwan, may then opt for a pre-emptive strike.
Finally, we have the problem of North Korea, listed by Bush as one of the ‘axis of evil.’ The disclosure that North Korea is already in possession of two nuclear warheads, and the likelihood of its acquiring more of them if the Yongbyon facility is reactivated, are a direct challenge to current US policy. I fear that a campaign to use military force against the regime of Kim Jong Il, similar to that against Saddam Hussein, will ensue.
How can we prevent such catastrophes? The traditional method of dealing with such situations – by partial agreements, damage-limitation treaties, confidence- building measures – does not seem to work any more. In its determination to maintain world dominance, particularly on the nuclear issue, the present administration will pay no attention to reasoned and sophisticated arguments. Arms control is as good as dead.
As I see it, the only way is to go back to basics, to put the goal of total nuclear disarmament back on the agenda. The only way to compel the current decision- makers to change their minds is by pressure of public opinion. For this purpose, the public must be awakened to the danger. The general public is not sufficiently informed about the recent changes in military doctrine, and the perils arising from them. We have to convince the public that the continuation of current policies, in which security of the world is maintained by the indefinite retention of nuclear weapons, is not realistic in the long run because it is bound eventually to result in a nuclear holocaust in which the future of the human race would be at stake. We must convince public opinion that the only alternative is the total elimination of nuclear weapons.
Sir Joseph Rotblat, the 1995 Nobel Peace Laureate, is an member of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation’s Advisory Council.