In late November, when Congress refused to appropriate money to fund so-called “bunker busters” and “mini-nukes,” this action represented not only a serious blow to the Bush administration’s plan to build new nuclear weapons, but to the administration’s overall nuclear arms control and disarmament policy.
That policy has been to prevent the development of nuclear weapons by nations the Bush administration considers “evil.” The military invasion of Iraq, like the gathering confrontation with Iran and North Korea, reflects, at least in part, the administration’s obsession with preventing nations potentially hostile to the United States from acquiring a nuclear capability. This focus upon blocking nuclear weapons development in other countries has some legal justification for, in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) of 1968, non-nuclear nations agreed not to develop nuclear weapons.
But the NPT also calls for nuclear nations to rid themselves of the nuclear weapons they possess. Indeed, in the meetings that fashioned the treaty, the non-nuclear weapons states demanded a commitment to nuclear disarmament by the nuclear powers. And they received it — not only in the form of the treaty’s provisions, but in the formal pledges made by the nuclear powers at the periodic treaty review conferences that have been held since the NPT went into effect.
It is in this area that the Bush administration has revealed itself as the proponent of a double standard. At the same time that it has assailed selected nations for developing nuclear weapons, it has withdrawn the United States from the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty, effectively destroyed the START II treaty, and refused to support ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. It has also raised the U.S. nuclear weapons budget to new heights and proposed the building of new U.S. nuclear weapons, including the “bunker busters” and “mini-nukes.” As Senator Kerry pointed out during the recent presidential campaign, this is not the kind of policy that will encourage other nations to abide by their commitments under the NPT.
The surprising congressional move to block the Bush plan for new nuclear weapons is but one of numerous signs that this double standard cannot be sustained. As a special high-level U.N. panel has just warned: “We are approaching a point at which the erosion of the non-proliferation regime could become irreversible and result in a cascade of proliferation.” Nor is the breakaway from the NPT limited to the non-nuclear nations. Just the other day the Russian government announced its development of a new nuclear missile. Appropriately enough, the U.N. panel condemned the nuclear powers for failing to honor their commitments, and called upon them to restart the nuclear disarmament process.
Furthermore, of course, terrorists have been actively seeking nuclear weapons, and might well obtain them. Thousands of tactical nuclear weapons — many of them small, portable, and, therefore, ideal for terrorist use — are still maintained by the U.S. and Russian governments. No international agreements have ever been put into place to control or eliminate them. In fact, it remains unclear how many of these tactical nuclear weapons exist or where they are located. In Russia, at least, they are badly guarded and, in the disorderly circumstances of the post-Soviet economy, they seem ripe for sale or theft.
The revolt against the Bush administration’s double standard could come to a head in May 2005, when an NPT review conference opens at the United Nations, in New York City. Nuclear and non-nuclear nations are sure to exchange sharp barbs about non-compliance with NPT provisions. Furthermore, more than a hundred mayors from the Mayors for Peace Campaign, which has drawn together the top executives from 640 cities around the world, are expected to come to the U.N. to lobby for nuclear disarmament. They will be joined by United for Peace and Justice, the largest peace movement coalition in the United States, and over 2,000 organizations in 96 different countries. Together, they have launched Abolition Now, a campaign calling on heads of state to begin negotiations in 2005 on a treaty to eliminate all nuclear weapons.
Ultimately, then, the Bush administration might be forced into accepting a single standard for dealing with the threat posed by nuclear weapons — one designed to lead to a nuclear-free world. Certainly, there are plenty of signs that people and nations around the globe believe that what is sauce for the goose is also sauce for the gander.
Mr. Witnner is Professor of History at the State University of New York, Albany. His latest book is Toward Nuclear Abolition (Stanford University Press).
This article was originally published by the History News Network.