Making the World Safe for Nuclear Weapons

News & Politics

At first glance, the U.S.-Russian agreement to reduce deployed nuclear weapons by two-thirds over the next decade seems like good news. But upon closer inspection, President Bush's latest diplomatic "victory" is a dangerous, double-edged sword. Far from leaving the Cold War behind us, the new arms accord preserves the reality of "mutually assured destruction," even as it opens the door to what nuclear weapons analyst Richard Butler has described as a potential era of "unilateral assured destruction, American-style."

In expressing his support for the accord, Democratic Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut inadvertently cited one of the major weaknesses of the proposed accord, noting that "both countries have enough nuclear weapons to destroy each other and most of the rest of the world, even after this agreement."

That's precisely the problem with the agreement: it doesn't go nearly far enough.

By holding fast to their capabilities for massive overkill, the United States and Russia are violating their pledge under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to make an "unequivocal undertaking" to eliminate their nuclear arsenals at the earliest possible date. This "do as I say, not as I do" approach to non-proliferation by the world's two largest nuclear powers will undermine the incentives for other nations to put aside their own efforts to develop these devastating weapons.

Looked at in the context of the Bush administration's bellicose Nuclear Posture Review, which endorses the development of new, more "usable" nuclear weapons while dramatically expanding the circumstances in which the Pentagon would consider "going nuclear" in a future conflict, the Bush-Putin accord represents a reorientation of the nuclear arms race, not a step toward nuclear disarmament.

By taking 10 years to make the proposed reductions, allowing both sides to keep thousands of their withdrawn warheads in "reserve" rather than destroying them, and giving either party the right to withdraw from the agreement on just 90 days notice, the Pentagon has preserved its ability to rapidly reverse the Bush administration's proposed reductions in the U.S. arsenal whenever it wants to, even as it continues to seek new types of nuclear weapons. Add to this the Pentagon's undiminished right under the accord to pursue a costly, multi-tiered missile defense system, and the outlines of a drive for unchallenged U.S. nuclear dominance become clear.

One clear sign that the new accord isn't a step toward disarmament is the fact that spending on the Pentagon's so-called "New Triad" -- composed of long-range strike systems, ballistic missile defenses, and a revitalized nuclear arms production complex -- is slated to increase by more than $30 billion over the next five years.

No wonder weapons makers like Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and Bechtel are not complaining about the Bush-Putin agreement.

As one Bush administration official put it, "What we agreed to under the treaty is what we wanted to do anyway. That's our kind of treaty."
No doubt. But by failing to give anything up in pursuit of maximum "flexibility" for U.S. nuclear planners, President Bush is squandering a historic opportunity to obtain deep, permanent cuts in global nuclear arsenals.

Deeper, verifiable cuts on both sides -- to as low as 200 to 500 strategic warheads each rather than the 1,700 to 2,200 allowed in the current proposal -- would have given Washington and Moscow leverage to begin pressing nuclear-armed states like Britain, France, China, India, Pakistan and Israel (which is believed to have an undeclared arsenal of about 200 warheads) to eliminate their own arsenals. This move toward multilateral reductions would also make it much easier to get states with nuclear capabilities to agree not to aid nations like Iraq, Iran or North Korea to develop their own weapons of mass destruction.

Most importantly, at a time when the Bush administration claims that preventing global terrorism is its top priority, the new arms accord does nothing to reduce Russia's massive, poorly secured stockpiles of tactical nuclear weapons and nuclear materials.

In exchange for the U.S. "right" to keep weapons withdrawn from deployment on "active reserve," Russia is left to its own devices as to what to do with its own nuclear stockpile. But it is Russia's vast nuclear reserves -- not the modest nuclear programs of the so-called "axis of evil" states of Iraq, Iran and North Korea -- that pose the greatest danger of nuclear materials or a nuclear weapon falling into the hands of a terrorist group. It would have been well worth offering deeper reductions and limits on the administration's ill-considered missile defense program in exchange for an agreement to cooperate in destroying Russia's -- and America's -- excess nuclear weapons and materials as quickly as possible.

Thankfully, the proposed Bush-Putin accord need not be the last word on nuclear arms reductions. The administration has agreed to keep talking to Moscow about the issue of destroying weapons that are withdrawn from deployment. And last week the Senate Armed Services Committee moved to slash missile defense spending by more than $800 million and to eliminate funding for the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator, a low-yield weapon designed to destroy underground bunkers. These small rays of hope need to be reinforced by a strong public outcry against the doctrine of "usable nukes" and "flexibility" in nuclear buildups, and in favor of concrete steps toward the elimination of nuclear weapons.

Once he had grasped the horrifying implications of ever having to actually use nuclear weapons, President Bush's political idol, Ronald Reagan, came to embrace the elimination of nuclear weapons as the goal of U.S. policy. But Reagan's nuclear awakening came in a radically different context. Pressed by a growing anti-nuclear movement and a reformist Soviet leader who wouldn't take no for an answer when it came to nuclear reductions, Reagan was forced to reconsider the unilateralist "peace through strength" credo that he had campaigned on.

As the 20th anniversary of the June 12, 1982 disarmament rally that brought one million people to Central Park approaches, President Bush needs to hear from the American public that his plan to make the world safe for nuclear weapons just isn't good enough. The only way to protect the American people, and the people of the world, from the threat of nuclear weapons is to take determined steps to get rid of them, once and for all.

We don't need to give our government -- or any government -- the "flexibility" to re-ignite the nuclear arms race at will.

William D. Hartung is a Senior Fellow at the World Policy Institute at the New School and the author of a forthcoming report on the role of the arms lobby in shaping the Bush nuclear doctrine (to be posted soon at

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