The Revolt Against the Bush Administration's Nuclear Double Standard

News Abroad

Mr. Witnner is Professor of History at the State University of New York, Albany. His latest book is Toward Nuclear Abolition (Stanford University Press).

Lawrence Wittner's latest book 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 At the same time that it has assailed selected nations for developing nuclear weapons, it has withdrawn the United States from the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty, effectively destroyed the START II treaty, and refused to support ratification of the Comprehensive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.

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Arnold Shcherban - 12/23/2004

Go to
for the reasons, strategy and tactics the CIA and the US administrations use to get support for their so-called "war against international terrorism".

Arnold Shcherban - 12/18/2004


You give lederers to much credit talking about such philosophical matters as Machiavellianism and legal positivism... The reason in their case is much simpler:
"that is the essence of" American imperialism.

John H. Lederer - 12/17/2004

You probably can ban "technologically advanced" devices -- but they end up being not very technologically advanced (at least to make) as the means of manufacture and general technological level improve.

Crude nuclear weapons are 60 years old technology. Sixty years of advance means that what was very difficult is now relatively easy -- so countries like India, North Korea and Pakistan cam make nuclear devices.

It is not hard to envision a point not too far in the future when a modest organization will be able to make a nuclear device.

A friend has a CNC (computer controlled) milling machine and lathe in his basement that would solve one of the "technology barriers" of building nuclear weapons -- precise machining of posionous materials. He could do it to more precise tolerances than were achievable in 1945. He uses the tooling to make model engines.

There were attempts to ban crossbows, firearms and keep secret damascene steel. All fell to the general advance of technology. Materials,knowledge, techniques, and tools all become more available -- so now inmates in high security prisons make zip guns.

It of course depends on one's definition of "banning effectively". I think in the case of nuclear devices, particularly outside the control of a state (which likely is deterrable), "banning effectively" means "none". "None" is probably not going to be achievable for very many more years -- barrier after barrier has fallen.

So a goal of zero nuclear weapons will eventually be no more achievable than a goal of zero firearms or zero knives. It is not a matter of resolve or politics. It is a simple matter of technology and our inability to control humans.

Lawrence S. Wittner - 12/17/2004

I don't see why it is impossible to ban technologically advanced devices, at least if they are counterproductive. All sorts of harmful chemicals, products, and -- yes -- weapons have been banned effectively. Nuclear weapons, of course, are VERY counterproductive -- indeed, they are the ultimate in destructiveness, so devastating in a war that they are suicidal. This is a key reason that, through the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the nations of the world have agreed to get rid of them. Unfortunately, there are always fools who seek to defy common sense and law. Fortunately, there are wiser people who work to restrain them. See my TOWARD NUCLEAR ABOLITION (Stanford University Press) for some examples of them.

Ben H. Severance - 12/15/2004

Dear God, I do give thanks for continuing to avoid the sniper shots of Chris Pettit.

chris l pettit - 12/15/2004

There will never be a murder free world, so lets allow murder...

There will always be those with chemical and biological weapons, and advancements will always be made, so we allow those...

Rape should be allowed as well with your all crimes...

Why have law at all? Lets just throw away our ability to reason and know right from wrong and just let those with the power dictate what we can and can't do? That is the essence of Machiavellianism and legal positivism.

Mr. Lederer, I begin to doubt your ability to be counted as a member of our species in anything other than physical features...the intelligence is certainly on par with the least of creatures in the universe...probably lower...


Ken Melvin - 12/14/2004

The problem is that someone, say an uneducated fundamentalists, might gain control of a nuclear weapon but might not understand that nukes can't be used. Imagine the surprise of Reagan's team when they found he believed they could be used. Imagine the surprise of Bush' when they find out he thinks they can be used.

John H. Lederer - 12/13/2004

" designed to lead to a nuclear-free world."

There will never be a nuclear free world. Anyone who has that as a practical intended result for the easily forseeable future is a fool.

Technology improves tools and simplifies methods of manufacture. It is not hard to imagine a few decades along the line when a high school science club would have the ability to make a nuclear device, just as they now can use the high school shop to make damascene steel or a crossbow.

The history of prohibiting technologically advanced devices is a history of failure.

John H. Lederer - 12/13/2004

" designed to lead to a nuclear-free world."

There will never be a nuclear free world. Anyone who has that as a practical intended result for the easily forseeable future is a fool.

Technology improves tools and simplifies methods of manufacture. It is not hard to imagine a few decades along the line when a high school science club would have the ability to make a nuclear device, just as they now can use the high school shop to make damascene steel or a crossbow.

The history of prohibiting technologically advanced devices is a history of failure.

Ben H. Severance - 12/13/2004

The Bush adminstration's double standard on nuclear weapons is only one of three ironic foreign policy blunders. First, Bush's reckless policy of unilateral pre-emption has alerted many nations to the threat of a neo-imperalistic U.S.A. Such nations as Iran or North Korea may be attacked simply by being "evil." Given the speed with which the U.S. military toppled the Taliban and overran Iraq, few nations in this world could hope to defend themselves by conventional means. Only nukes can deter the U.S., thus the grand irony of the Bush Doctrine is that it has inadvertently accelerated the nuclear arms race.

Second, while America has demonstrated its ability to conquer countries, it has revealed its inability to pacify them. The guerrilla insurgency in Iraq has left the Pentagon frustrated and it has exposed Rumsfeld for the fool that he is. Convinced that technology can win the day, Rumsfeld has steadfastly refused to face reality in Iraq. Consequently, the U.S. military is now on the threshold of a quagmire. The irony here is that Bush has unwittingly demonstrated that the U.S. is incapable of fighting a protracted war short of conscription and that technology is actually as much a liability as an asset. The growing strain on repair parts and maintenance is taking its toll; the more complictated the machinery, the more difficult to keep it going.

Third, the dysfunctional efforts at nation-building in Iraq hold the possibility for the cruelist irony. The most probable outcome for the elections in January is an Al-Sistani dominated Shiite majority. This in turn will likely produce a fundamentalist theocracy that will shutdown Halliburton, demand the removal of U.S. troops (or at least allow them to remain only until the Sunni Triangle is in ashes), and finally align itself with Iran. Thus, the greatest irony of the Bush doctrince will be the unintentional creation of a radical Islamic state that may acquire real WMD.

Throw in the deteriorating fiscal policy that may well usher in massive recession in 2005 and the only conclusion anyone can draw is that Bush is the worst president in U.S. history.