Are Nuclear Weapons Out of Control?

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Mr. Wittner teaches history at the State University of New York/Albany and is a writer for the History News Service. His latest book is Toward Nuclear Abolition: A History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement, 1971 to the Present (Stanford University Press).

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Now that it's acknowledged by all but hardcore supporters of the Bush administration that weapons of mass destruction were not present in Iraq at the time of the U.S. invasion, it's time to take a look at such weapons that do exist.Lawrence Wittner's latest book

According to the authoritative Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, there are more than 30,000 nuclear weapons in the world today. Eight nations are known to possess them (the United States, Russia, Britain, France, China, India, Pakistan and Israel). And a ninth (North Korea) might have some as well.

The vast majority of these nuclear weapons are in the hands of the United States and Russia. Each of these nations maintains more than 2,000 of them on hair-trigger alert, ready at a moment's notice to create a global holocaust in which hundreds of millions of people would die horribly. Even the much smaller nuclear arsenals of the other nuclear powers have the potential to cause unimaginable destruction.

Recognizing the unprecedented dangers posed by nuclear weapons, the nations of the world have signed a number of important nuclear arms control and disarmament agreements over the past four decades. These include the Partial Test Ban Treaty in 1963, the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty in 1972 and two Strategic Arms Limitation Treaties, the first in 1972, the second in 1979.

After a short hiatus occasioned by the revival of the Cold War, they were followed by the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty in 1987, two Strategic Arms Reduction Treaties (START I, in 1991 and START II, in 1993), and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT, in 1996). These agreements limited nuclear proliferation, halted the nuclear arms race and reduced the number of nuclear weapons.

The lynchpin of these agreements is the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1968, in which the non-nuclear signatories agreed to forgo development of nuclear weapons in return for a pledge by the nuclear powers to move toward nuclear disarmament. A few non-nuclear countries, such as India, kept their options open by refusing to sign the treaty. But the overwhelming majority of nations signed the agreement, because they considered it a useful way to reverse the nuclear arms race.

As late as the year 2000, the parties to the Non-Proliferation Treaty promised an "unequivocal undertaking by the nuclear-weapon states to accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals." This included taking specific steps, such as preserving and strengthening the ABM Treaty and ratifying and putting into force the CTBT.

Although the U.S. government is a party to the Non-Proliferation Treaty -- indeed, initiated it and lobbied hard for its acceptance -- the Bush administration has decided that it will not be bound by the treaty's provisions. It has pulled out of the ABM Treaty, an action that also has the effect of scrapping the START II Treaty. The administration has also rejected the CTBT and this past fall pushed legislation through Congress to begin building new nuclear weapons. A resumption of U.S. nuclear testing, halted in 1992, seems in the offing.

How long other nations will put up with the flouting by the United States of the world's arms control agreements before they resume the nuclear arms race themselves is anybody's guess. But it probably won't be very long.

As in its other policy initiatives, the Bush administration has fallen back on the "war on terror" to justify its abandonment of nuclear arms control and disarmament treaties. But, as Mohamed ElBaradei, the director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, has noted, terrorist groups will not be affected by nuclear weapons. "A nuclear deterrent is clearly ineffective against such groups," he declared this past October. "They have no cities that can be bombed in reply, nor are they focused on self-preservation." By building additional nuclear weapons and provoking other nations to do the same thing, the Bush administration has enhanced the prospect of "loose nukes" becoming available to terrorists and other fanatics.

Wouldn't the United States be safer if there were fewer nuclear Weapons -- or none? That's what poll after poll has shown that the public thinks. And that's what both Republican and Democratic presidents have argued since the advent of the nuclear era. Even Ronald Reagan, an early nuclear enthusiast, came around to recognizing the necessity for building a nuclear-free world.

Evidently the Bush administration thinks otherwise. While talking loosely (and misleadingly) of nuclear dangers from "evil" regimes, it has jettisoned the U.S. government's long-standing commitment to nuclear arms control and disarmament. Unless this policy is reversed, the world faces disasters of vast proportions.

This piece was distributed for non-exclusive use by the History News Service, an informal syndicate of professional historians who seek to improve the public's understanding of current events by setting these events in their historical contexts. The article may be republished as long as both the author and the History News Service are clearly credited.

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Marc "Adam Moshe" Bacharach - 2/24/2004

Mr. Severance,
I appreciate your intelligent response to my points. I agree with much of what you have said, and propose to answer the questions you offered regarding my implicit assumptions:

My assumptions:
1) "First, that the U.S. and other western powers with nukes are the only countries that can be trusted to maintain their arsenals and not use them recklessly.”

I have 2 points on this subject:
One, I must confess my biases, I am a partisan of liberal democracies and the belief that liberal democracies are the least likely to use a nuclear weapons (of course, I am not blind to the fact that the United States is the only nation to ever use one, but at the risk of entering a WWII should-we-have-shouldn’t-we-have debate, I will only argue that other nations of the time would have also used the bomb under those conditions had they owned it).

Two, I am assuming that no nation that possesses nuclear weapons for protection purposes will ever give them up, and therefore they fall outside by discussion (in other words, India, Pakistan, and Israel will simply never agree to surrender them for outside pressures and thus is a moot point to try and persuade them). I should have qualified my prior post by mentioning only those nations that produce such weapons for economic reasons can really be enticed to surrender them through incentives and disincentives.

2) “There is no guarantee that Israel might not initiate a nuclear war, so why no impose sanctions on that nation?”

This is very true, but as I say above, no nation under the threat of destruction will given them up under even the most sever economic strangulation, they will only move their program underground.

Aside from the above, and allow me to take this opportunity to freely confess my biases lie in favor of Israeli security, given a careful analysis of Israeli history, culture, and constitutional system, I find it extraordinarily unlikely that any liberal democracy, including Israel, would ever arbitrarily use a nuclear weapon outside of a total war in which their national survival is at stake. Since Israel is the only developed country in the world whose enemies actually have its total destruction as a goal, Israel would seem the most justified in possessing such weapons.

Countries whose entire system of government are controlled by one man, or one group, that could be destabilized in a matter of days, on the other hand, are the real countries to worry about.

3) “Second, that any country that develops nukes in the future is a threat. Brazil is industrializing and its military might want a few nukes. Would you consider that nation insane and dangerous?”

Although I would not consider every country that wants to develop nuclear weapons a threat to the United States in the immediate future, I would still argue that we should encourage them NOT to develop one. As I say in my prior post, this can be done in a number of ways.

Ben H. Severance - 2/24/2004

Mr. Moshe,

You present a laudable list of suggestions, but you betray a number of common assumptions. First, that the U.S. and other western powers with nukes are the only countries that can be trusted to maintain their arsenals and not use them recklessly; it's only those middle and far eastern crazies we have to worry about. There is no guarantee that Israel might not initiate a nuclear war, so why no impose sanctions on that nation? Second, that any country that develops nukes in the future is a threat. Brazil is industrializing and its military might want a few nukes. Would you consider that nation insane and dangerous?

Having said this, I freely admit that I do accept the assumptions. The U.S. is responsible with its arsenal and America has an obligation to police the world and discourage other nations from pursuing nuclear programs.

My comments on your suggestions: On your first point, sanctions only hurt the people, never the government, which always feeds itself and its army first. And ostracism is irrelevant to a rogue power. Your last reprisal--military intimidation--is the right course. On your second point you are too vague about holding confederates in nuclear proliferation "accountable." If a government deliberately gives nukes to terrorists, then that government must be destroyed, much like the Taliban was for its support of Al Quaeda. Your remaing points are fine, except I would add that your fifth is again vague on "no matter the cost." If our intelligence, in conjunction with the international community, can identify and locate nuclear terrorists and their arms dealers, then our operatives must intercept, confiscate, and summarily execute such fiends. Global survival is infinitely more important than due process.

Jeffrey Davis - 2/24/2004

"one of the greatest blunders in the late 20th century was the inability to collect, dismantle, or secure the nuclear arsenal of the Soviet Union after its collapse"

I agree. It's just about the only thing I agreed with the first George Bush about: his reluctance to approve of the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Better the devil you know -- in this case a vastly weakened devil -- than the one you don't. The dissolution of the Soviet Union proceeded along the premise: let's break things and see what happens.

chris l pettit - 2/24/2004

I recommend you look at the dissenting opinion of Judge CG Weeramantry in the nuclear weapons advisory opinion that the ICJ gave in 1996. He addresses each of the suggestions posted much more eloquently than I ever could as a law or historical scholar.

Your points are quality, but seem to miss the important fact that you do not address a)the only country to use a nuclear weapon and that continuously threatens use of nuclear weapons, and b) other nuclear powers that are not looked at as "rogue states". I encourage you to especially refer to the manner in which Judge Weeramantry debunks any argument that deterrence is in any way legal or effective. Addressing the main nuclear powers as well as the smaller ones changes the tenor of a couple of the points, especially the do we sanction or impose military action on the US? how do you define "terrorist" groups? Who decides? Since there is no difference between "terrorists" and "freedom fighters" and the fact that many governments (see Israel, US, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Russia, Jordan, COlombia, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, India) qualify as terrorist in terms of the Oxford dictionary definition, is it not true that we need a truly independent international body (such as the ICC or ICJ) to determine such things?

I absolutely agree with your assessment of the weapons of the former Soviet Union...don't fail to take into consideration the "free market" influence of the sell off though...the UN Comission on Human Rights, as well as several UN economics analysts, determined that the impelmentation of the economic policies in the matter they were introduced to the former Soviet Union was "stupid and irresponsible" words i have never seen in the usually bland diplomatic language of the UN. Again...what is needed is an international organisation, not just a US organisation.

In terms of the internationalism ideology you speak of, Judge Weeramantry has just published a text "Universalising of International Law" that is a must read on just that topic. He specifically describes how international law moved from an ideology, to an accepted legal structure that is ignored by certain superpowers, and now how it must be moved to the pre-eminent place authority in the legal world. unfortunately, it took major conflicts for the other shifts in perception to take place...beginning with the Thirty Years War inspiring Grotius to write his original thesis on the topic of Humanitarian Law (which by the way was inspired by Islamic Law for all those who like to bash Muslim thought). hopefully it will not take another catastrophic war to cause this next shift.

above all the archaic nation-state sovereingty system must be abandoned in search of a truly globalised is simply impossible in our current age of globalisation to deny that we are all interconnected as a species and can draw invisible lines around supposed borders. Again, judge Weeramantry discusses this in his text and his judgments. He is the foremost jurist of our times and I encourage you all to get copies of his judgments, you can learn a great deal about law, society, culture, history, and how they are all interconnected.

If anyone is interested, I have just finished a major article that was developed out of a presentation I gave to the last IALANA (International Association of Lawyers Against Nuclear Arms) meeting. i would be happy to send it to anyone who is interested. it deals with the illegality of both low yield nuclear weapons and Depleted Uranium munitions, and expounds upon several of the legal ideas first mentioned by Judge Weeramantry in his nuclear judgment. let me know and I will be happy to post an email address where I can be reached.

Marc "Adam Moshe" Bacharach - 2/23/2004

The real issue to me is how to make the acquisition of nuclear weapons unappealing to countries. Treaties simply will not do it nor will liberal democracies dismantling their own WMD lessen the incentive. It seems to me that the best way to do this, it seems to me is a several step process:

1) punish those who try to get them through economic sanctions, international ostracism, and perhaps military retaliation (look out Iran and perhaps Syria).

2) Make it clear that if ANY use of WMD can be traced to a country that sold it to terrorist groups for profit, THAT country will be held partly accountable

3) This must also be combined with rewarding countries that dismantle them through the easing of sanctions (take note Libya) and opening up the possibility of normalization of relations (let’s swallow our pride and end this N. Korea standoff).

4) for the few countries that feel they need nuclear weapons for protection purposes (Israel, India, Pakistan), the only think that will dissuade the continuing creation would be for an international agreement that would promise the blanket of protection from an unprovoked attack. This would require an ideology of internationalism that the world currently does not have, of course, but it seems like the only way

5) I believe history might show that one of the greatest blunders in the late 20th century was the inability to collect, dismantle, or secure the nuclear arsenal of the Soviet Union after its collapse. While a great deal of these precious WMD have already been looted, stolen, or secretly sold on the black-market, there are still several sensitive sited throughout the old empire that remain insecure. Every effort must be made by the United States, no matter the cost, to ensure the protection or destruction of these weapons.

I welcome any comments and criticisms to these suggestions.

Oscar Chamberlain - 2/23/2004

The movie "Peacemaker" was mostly standard action but did have its moments. One was the nuke expert saying that she was not afraid of the guy who wants ten nukes but was desperately afriad of the person who wants one.

I agree that treaties address this only with difficulty. However, a world in which nukes are being dismantled carefully and in an inspected, treaty-mandated process is one that in the long haul will offer terrorists less chance to get that one.

David C Battle - 2/23/2004

I'm not worried about treaties and arsenals of nukes. I'm AM worried about that single nuke that falls into the hands of an islamist terrorist, something that treaties are ill-equipped to protect us from.

Oscar Chamberlain - 2/23/2004

Bush's dismantling of international aggreements in this area is particularly disheartening. Of his actions, only the move toward an ABM system could have a conceivable relationship to defense in this new environment (and even that's a stretch).

I suspect that going back to a non-nuke world is impossible, but a world in which we led the way in reducing the numbers of weapons would be much safer, particularly in the long run.