In the post 9/11 world there has been strong concern about nuclear weapons falling into the hands of terrorists or “rogue” states. The pretext for the initiation of the US war against Iraq was the concern that Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, including a suspected program to develop nuclear weapons, posed an “imminent threat” to the United States. While it turned out that Iraq had neither such weapons nor programs, the United States continues to maintain a large nuclear arsenal as a matter of long-standing national policy. Whether US nuclear weapons policies serve to promote prospects for world peace and national security, or conversely to undermine them, is a question that begs for serious public debate.
US nuclear weapons policy should be a subject of concern to every American. Yet there exists some kind of taboo that prevents the subject from being debated in public forums, in the media, or in Congress. The US presidential elections provide an important opportunity for national discussion and debate on this issue. With the US nuclear arsenal of some 10,000 nuclear weapons, along with policies to research more usable nuclear weapons while ignoring international obligations for nuclear disarmament, there are critical issues that require public attention and informed debate.
Throughout the Cold War, the US and USSR built up their nuclear forces so that each threatened massive retaliation in a standoff of mutually assured destruction. This was a high-risk strategy. In the event of an accident, miscalculation or miscommunication, the world could have been engulfed in an omnicidal conflagration. While today the US and Russia are on friendly terms, each continues to base its nuclear policy, in major part, on the potential threat posed by the other.
Despite the enormous changes in the world in the aftermath of the Cold War, there has not been a serious public debate in the United States about nuclear weapons policy that takes into account changes in the global security environment. To the extent that there has been consideration of nuclear weapons policy, it has been almost entirely about preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons to other states and to non-state actors, with virtually no consideration of how US nuclear policy affects US and global security.
Current US Nuclear Weapons Policy
US nuclear policy affects the security of every person on the planet, including, of course, every American. Current US nuclear weapons policy, under the Bush administration, sends a message to other states that the US intends to rely upon nuclear weapons for the indefinite future.
The major outlines of current US nuclear weapons policy are as follows:
- The US continues to rely upon its nuclear arsenal to threaten retaliation against a nuclear attack, and has extended this threat of nuclear retaliation to chemical and biological weapons attacks or threats of attacks on the US, as well as its troops or allies, wherever they are located in the world.
- Despite previous promises not to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapons states, the US has developed contingency plans to use nuclear weapons against five non-nuclear weapon states: Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Syria and Libya. (It is possible, but still not certain, that North Korea has now developed a small nuclear arsenal.)
- The US has withdrawn from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, in order to develop missile defenses, making way for the development of space weapons, despite promising to preserve and strengthen this treaty.
- The US has not ratified the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, despite making commitments to do so. While it still adheres to the nuclear testing moratorium, except for sub-critical tests and computer simulations, it has allocated funds to reduce the time needed to ready the Nevada Test Site to resume testing.
- The US has entered into the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT) with the Russians to reduce the deployed long-range nuclear weapons on each side to between 1,700 and 2,200 by the year 2012, but has failed to make these reductions irreversible in accord with the consensus agreement at the 2000 Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference. Additionally, the treaty terminates in 2012 unless extended. Despite this agreement, each side continues to keep some 2,250 nuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert, poised to attack the other at a moment’s notice.
- The US has ended a decade-long Congressional ban on research and development of nuclear weapons under 5 kilotons (mini-nukes), and allocated funds to perform research on the development of such weapons, increasing the likelihood of use of nuclear weapons and blurring the distinction between conventional and nuclear weapons.
- The US has allocated funds for researching more powerful Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator weapons, another way of making nuclear weapons more usable and therefore more likely to be used.
- The US has allocated funds to create a facility to produce some 450 plutonium pits annually that could only be used for new nuclear weapons. This suggests to other nations that the US is planning to further develop new nuclear weapons and to possess and rely upon nuclear weapons for the indefinite future.
- The US has not adhered to the 13 Practical Steps for Nuclear Disarmament agreed to in the year 2000 by the states that are parties to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, including the five declared nuclear weapon states.
- The US has not challenged the reliance on nuclear weapons by our allies, including Israel, UK and France, and has made no attempt to provide leadership for broad-based nuclear disarmament.
In sum, the current US approach to nuclear weapons is to rely upon them for extended deterrence, to research more usable weapons, to indicate that its reliance on these weapons is long-term, to violate treaty agreements, to unilaterally reverse previous commitments, and to fail to provide leadership toward significant and irreversible reductions in nuclear arms. In a post Cold War environment, with the United States wielding overwhelming military superiority, there is concern in many parts of the world that the United States could succumb to what has been referred to by Richard Falk, a leading international law professor, as the “Hiroshima Temptation,” to use nuclear weapons against a far weaker enemy without fear of meaningful response.
US nuclear weapons policy under the Bush administration appears to be rooted in a “do as I say, not as I do” approach. This raises two important questions: Does this policy make the US more secure? Is this a policy that the American people would support if they understood it? I believe the answer to both these questions is No.
A third question arises. Is it possible that members of the public could raise the issue of US nuclear weapons policy and stimulate a real debate on the current course of the country in this year’s presidential elections? It is of utmost importance that the American people recognize the importance of these issues and raise them with the presidential and congressional candidates, forcing these issues into the public arena.
Considerations to Guide US Nuclear Weapons Policy
In the post-Cold War and post-9/11 world there are important considerations that should guide US policy on nuclear arms. These include:
- Nuclear weapons cannot be used against another country with nuclear weapons without facing retaliation unless a country can deliver a devastating first-strike (preventive) attack that would be calculated – likely wrongly – to destroy nearly all of the other side’s retaliatory force (the remainder would be calculated – likely wrongly – to be stopped with missile defenses or to be “acceptable losses”). Such a first-strike attack would potentially kill tens of millions of innocent people, be highly immoral and unlikely to be successful.
- The use of nuclear weapons in a first-strike (preventive) attack against a country without nuclear weapons would be both immoral and illegal under international law.
- The only possible justification for nuclear weapons is their role as a deterrent. But, so long as nuclear weapons threaten other nuclear weapon states, the threatening nation will in turn be threatened, even if it possesses so-called missile defenses.
- The greater the number of nuclear weapons that exist in the world, the more likely that one or more of these weapons will fall into the hands of non-state extremists that could not be deterred from their use.
- Russia can no longer be considered an adversary of the United States, and this creates an ideal opportunity to negotiate with them far greater reductions in nuclear arms and to make these reductions irreversible.
- China can no longer be considered an adversary of the United States (in fact, it is a major trading partner), and US nuclear weapons policy should not provoke China to further develop its current minimal deterrent force. However, US development and deployment of missile defenses is causing China to increase its deterrence capability.
- By branding nations as part of an “Axis of Evil” and by demonstrating willingness to engage in preventive warfare against Iraq, the US provides incentives to other countries, such as North Korea, to develop nuclear deterrent forces.
- The greatest threat to US security arises from the possibility of extremists getting their hands on nuclear weapons and using them against a US city. The best way to prevent this possibility is to reduce nuclear weapons globally to a low number and assure that the remaining weapons are kept under strict control, preferably international control. It would also be necessary to establish a global inventory of weapons-grade fissile materials and the facilities capable of producing these materials and to place these under strict international control. The only way for this to happen is for the US to take leadership in promoting this course of action. The US would also have to provide additional funds to help assure the dismantlement and control of the aging Russian nuclear arsenal.
- India and Pakistan, relatively recent additions to the nuclear weapons club, have indicated that they are willing to eliminate their nuclear arsenals, but not unless all other countries will do so as well. They are not willing to live in a world of nuclear apartheid, further demonstrating that the effort to achieve nuclear disarmament requires US leadership.
- The widely recognized possession of nuclear weapons by Israel is provocative to other countries in the Middle East. Only the United States, due to the large amount of military aid it provides to Israel, can pressure Israel to forego its nuclear weapons and move forward with peace negotiations to resolve the ongoing conflict with the Palestinians.
- North Korea has indicated that it is willing to dismantle its nuclear arsenal and rejoin the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty if it is given security assurances by the US and economic aid. This seems like a solid basis on which to establish an agreement that would benefit both North Korea and the international community.
Given these considerations and the extent to which current US policy does not reflect them, there needs to be broad public discussion of these issues. This should include, and perhaps be led by, a debate among presidential candidates on the direction of US nuclear policy. The American people should demand that the candidates for the presidency of the United States address these most important security issues facing our country that will affect the future of all Americans.
A Responsible US Nuclear Weapons Policy
A responsible US nuclear policy should include the following:
- Removing all US nuclear weapons from hair-trigger alert, in conjunction with similar initiatives from Russia.
- Ratifying the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and supporting a Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty that would place all weapons-grade nuclear materials in all countries under strict and effective international control.
- Reinstituting US Negative Security Assurances not to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapon states.
- Pledging No First Use of nuclear weapons and making this legally binding.
- Making all reductions in nuclear armaments irreversible through treaty agreements and verified inspection procedures.
- Putting the development of missile defenses and space weaponization on hold while negotiating for the elimination of nuclear weapons under strict and effective international control.
- Fulfilling US obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty for “a cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date” by ceasing to perform research on developing new nuclear weapons.
- Fulfilling further US obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty “to pursue negotiations in good faith on … nuclear disarmament” by adhering to the agreed upon 13 Practical Steps for Nuclear Disarmament, including “an unequivocal undertaking by the nuclear weapon states to accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals.” The US should convene a meeting of all nuclear weapon states, declared and undeclared, to agree upon a treaty for the phased elimination of nuclear weapons.
Without such changes in US nuclear policy, it is likely that nuclear weapons will again be used by accident or design, including finding their way into the hands of extremists who will not hesitate to use them as a statement of rage against the US or other countries. Additionally, serious US efforts to achieve both regional and global prohibitions on weapons of mass destruction, nuclear and otherwise, will aid the country in resuming the leadership role that it has lost in recent years due to policies of unilateralism, exceptionalism and belligerence, policies reflective of double standards in both law and morality.
Each of us has a role to play in bringing these policy issues into the US presidential and congressional debates. Candidates should be asked to speak to his or her plan to reduce the security dangers that nuclear weapons continue to pose to the US and to all humanity, indeed to all life on earth.
*David Krieger is President of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation (www.wagingpeace.org). He is the co-author of Nuclear Weapons and the World Court.